Jesse Potts: Islamic Art

Islamic art plays an instrumental role in one’s understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture. Though beautiful in it’s own right, the deeper meaning and purpose of Islamic art can be understood through its worship of Allah and its connection to the divine and other vital Islamic principles.

Islamic art can take many forms, although all pieces share one commonality in their careful craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty. These forms of Islamic artwork on display at the Allen Memorial Art Museum and Rice Hall (Religion department) include rings, plates, bowls, prayer beads, calligraphy, and painting. Calligraphy is considered to be the most highly regarded and fundamental form of Islamic art. The development of calligraphy is closely linked to the Qur’an.   Excerpts and chapters of the Qur’an are often featured in calligraphy to the deep religious relationship that they share. Calligraphy is principally a method of transmitting Arabic text, but is artful and aesthetically pleasing in its decorative and ornamental form. In Islamic thought, Calligraphy is considered to be the visual expression of the art of the spoken word.

In addition to calligraphy, another important patterns that is often featured in Islamic artwork is that of Arabesque. Arabesque (a decoration of flowing linear patterns) is commonly found on mosaics, pottery, buildings and tiles. Through its repeating geometric forms, Arabesque is thought to be symbolic of the Islamic worldview and united faith under Allah. It is seemingly impossible to locate the beginning or end of Arabesque patterns, an element that is thought to be representative of the infinite nature of both Allah and the universe.

Though all Islamic art is alluring in its beauty, some artwork serves a functional purpose within the practice of religion as well. An example of functional Islamic artwork is the prayer beads on display, often worn by Muslims during daily prayer (salat). Decorative and aesthetically pleasing, Islamic art serves an essential function in Islamic culture.  Interestingly, God, prophets, people, and animals are never depicted in Islamic art.  Instead, Islamic art relies on interpretive elements such as calligraphy, floral, and geometric patterns to express its message.  Though God cannot be represented through artwork, it can be used as a method worship Allah, evoke the divine, and express the concept of divine unity (tawhid).