Jonathan Jue-Wong: The Word Expressed – Islamic Art & its Theological Underpinnings

In addition to its prodigious aesthetic beauty, Islamic artwork is distinguished by several unique features.

A major characteristic of Islamic art is the importance of calligraphy. Arabic calligraphy is a fine art itself, but is also interwoven into virtually all forms of Islamic arts. Many consider calligraphy to be the foundation of Islamic art itself (Mahallati lecture, 11/21). Its use in art—from plates and tiles to jewelry and ritual clothing (such as the Ottoman sultan’s undershirt, a miniature model of which is featured in Prof. Mahallati’s religious art collection that we viewed)—carries theological significance. The first verse of the Quran commands the faithful to “Read in the name of your Lord…” (Mahallati lecture, 11/21), underscoring the paramount importance of the sacred written word.

Much of the calligraphy featured in Islamic artwork is drawn from the Quran, which occupies a fundamental role. In his essay “The Spirituality of Islamic Art,” religion scholar Titus Burckhardt explains that, “The language of the Quran is omnipresent in the world of Islam. The entire life of a Muslim is filled with Quranic formulas, prayers, litanies, and invocations in Arabic, the elements of which are drawn from the Sacred Book; innumerable inscriptions bear witness to this.” (Burckhardt, 516) This preponderance of Quranic references is on full display in the art collection we viewed. So many of the art pieces featured verses drawn from the Quran; objects like plates, prayer beads, jars, jewelry, and decorative boxes, among others. Some of my favorite pieces in the collection were the lapidary rings, inscribed with Quranic verses. For Muslims, to wear such rings is to wear the word of God on one’s own hand; I am struck by the poetic and symbolic power of this practice. Burckhardt describes the ubiquity of the Quran in Islamic art as “a spiritual vibration” because “there is no better term to describe an influence that is both spiritual and sonorous—and this vibration necessarily determines the modes and measures of Islamic art. The plastic art of Islam is, therefore, in a certain way, the reflection of the word of the Quran” (Burckhardt, 516).

A third distinguishing feature of Islamic art is the rejection of the ‘image’ and the avoidance of literal illustration. Burckhardt explains that, “Islam rejects portraiture for theological reasons” (Burckhardt, 514). Attempts to imitate nature are seen as blasphemous, for Muslims believe that God is the divine creator and to imitate God’s creations in human artwork is not right. Furthermore, God and his prophet Muhammad are considered so profoundly sacred that to depict them through illustration would also be blasphemous. Because of these theological underpinnings, Islamic art developed without an iconographic tradition—unlike virtually all other major religions, including Christianity, ancient Judaism, Buddhism, the Hellenistic religion of the Greeks and Romans, Hinduism, etc. Rejecting pictures and images of nature and God, Islamic artists developed other modes of expression, pioneering the Arabesque, geometric patterns, and interlacement that Islamic art is so famed for.

Great civilizations are lauded for the Arts they produced, and Islamic civilization—with its exquisite and utterly unique artistic tradition—truly is no exception.