Lucy Hall: Islamic Art and Spirituality

Art is one of the primary modes of expression of devotion to Allah and Islam. Thus, there are many forms of Islamic art, as there are many forms of personal religious expression. Two forms of art that I will discuss and compare include calligraphy and Persian painting. I will conclude by discussing themes common between these two art forms.

As the pen is considered a symbol of knowledge and teaching, calligraphy can be seen as the worship of knowledge, especially knowledge of the Quran. Because of this, calligraphy is believed to be one of the holiest forms of visual art. Calligraphy makes use not only of the Arabic script itself but also is shown in conjunction with arabesque, with its flourishing and infinite strands of leaves and vines. These seemingly endless clusters of foliage represent the abundance with which God has blessed humanity. It serves as an indication of His greatness and benevolence, as well as a reminder that humanity must be grateful and aware of a power much greater than themselves. It is also continuous and has no beginning or end, which represents the eternality of God. Arabesque is also used in many other forms of Islamic art that I will discuss later. A feature that is specific to calligraphy as an art form is the presence of “two dimensions” (517) as Burckhardt calls them.  These two dimensions of calligraphy refer to the horizontal and vertical aspects that are used in creating the Arabic characters. The vertical characters are producers and creators, while the horizontal characters, that connect the vertical characters, are receivers and continuers.

The Persian miniature, “indisputably the most perfect art on the soil of Islam” (Burckhard 521), combines the older calligraphy with newer Chinese illustrative influences. Persian miniatures typically display a paradisal yet simplistic landscape, which thematically is similar to the use of arabesque in the sense that it shows the bounty given by God, but the simplicity reminds the viewer that this bounty is earth-bound and not just achievable through the afterlife. Although they may not portray earth in a way that looks familiar to the human eye, miniatures serve as representation of a ubiquitous abundance on earth that is often taken for granted.

In general, Islamic art makes use of extravagant detail, in the form of arabesque or otherwise, in order to demonstrate devotion to God. Calligraphy is an extremely complex and rigorous art that must be learned, and requires a knowledge of certain markings to denote additional meanings or give appropriate decoration. A calligrapher must also be gifted in the ways of verbal arabesque, or the ability to create rhyme in a visual order. Persian miniatures, employing characteristics of calligraphy and serving as some of the first Islamic works of art to integrate drawing with writing, are equally overflowing with detail and color, displaying immense talent and concentration that overall serve to demonstrate the level of dedication to God.