Rebecca Posner: Infinity and the Written Word in Islamic Art

Islamic art has several distinctive characteristics that set it apart from traditional Western or European art.  Some of these characteristics include a focus on abstract, curving patterns (such as arabesques and elaborately intertwining foliage of plants), the incorporation of lines of calligraphy (which are often lines from poems or the Qur’an), and a lessened focus on the human form (although this is not true in all contexts; Persian and Mughal miniatures often contained depictions of human figures).  In general, one could say that one of the most important goals of Islamic art is to illustrate the limitless nature of the cosmos, which in turn draws the viewer’s attention to the infinite forms that the divine can take.  This connection between art and religious belief is supported in part by various verses both from the Qur’an and the Hadiths that are concerned with the contemplation of divinity.  One of the easiest to understand of these verses (attributed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Hadiths) simply states, “Allah is beautiful and loves beauty.”  In other words, God is both interested by and made up of things that are filled with beauty, and by extension, art can potentially be used to illustrate and honor this beauty.  However, it is important to note that in Islamic art, the human form is not “the source of artistic creativity…[or] nature’s most magnificent and most beautiful creature” in the same way that it often is seen to be in Western works of art.  Rather, human beings are simply “an instrument of divinity” among an endless number of living entities, all of which are part of God’s creation.[1]  This attention to the infinite is incorporated into much of Islamic architecture; the highly complex decorations on the walls of many mosques and madrasas, as well as the structural layout of the buildings, are meant to draw people’s attention to the elevated, endlessly intricate nature of the divine.  The message of universality that Muslim artists and architects are attempting to convey takes visual form in a number of ways.

One of the more common visual motifs in Islamic art relates to the natural world.  Stylized images of plants and flowers frequently occur as a way both of paying tribute to nature and of referring to the Islamic idea of paradise.  According to various traditions, life after death for virtuous individuals is said to take place in a beautiful garden.  The text of the Qur’an refers to this concept of a garden of paradise over one hundred and twenty times, and in some sections, it describes the layout of this garden in a fair amount of detail. [2]  Even the word “paradise” itself is related to this idea, because it comes from an old Persian word for “walled garden.”[3]  It is clear that the idea of gardens as centers of peace, harmony, and religious fulfillment is well established in Islamic culture.  As a result, the production of imagery relating to gardens is a natural impulse if an artist wishes to remind the viewer of what waits for them if they lead a properly moral life.  One example of this can be found in the design of a prayer rug in the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin.  The rug is of Persian origin and was made during the late nineteenth century.  The designs on its surface appear to be somewhat abstract, but on closer examination one can see a tree, many floral patterns, and water vases, all of which are underneath an arch.[4] The connection between garden motifs and religious devotion is further emphasized by the fact that this rug would ordinarily be used for daily prayers, and so the nature imagery seems explicitly designed to remind the worshipper of their celestial future.

In many cases, the abstract plant designs and arabesques exist side by side with lines of calligraphy.  Calligraphy, and more generally the act of writing, is highly valued not just in Islamic art but throughout the entirety of the Islamic faith.  The very first verses of the Qur’an that were revealed to Muhammad refer to the sacred nature of writing and reading when they say, “Recite [or read] in the name of thy Lord who created, created man from a blood clot.  Recite, and thy Lord is the most bountiful, who taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know.”[5]  Special attention is paid to the fact that God taught humans the ways of religious and virtuous behavior “by the pen” (meaning through writing) specifically.  Although the Qur’an was transmitted orally during the first years of the existence of Islam, it was soon written down.  Since then, writing has been an integral part of Islamic culture, whether it takes the form of writing out the Qur’an, composing poetry, or creating new commentaries and interpretations of important religious texts.  Thus, the integration of calligraphy (especially when it contains more explicit references to religious teachings) into works of art can be seen as a way to increase the connection between art and religion.  One can even draw a connection between the plant motifs and the literary tradition of Islam when one views the branches and leaf patterns as parts of “the tree of the world; the leaves of this tree correspond to the words of the Sacred Book.”[6]  In other words, one could potentially say that the intricate patterns, in addition to being visually pleasing and reminiscent of the scenery of paradise, remind the Muslim viewer of the infinite ways in which words can be used and combined (like the many leaves and branches of a tree) to describe and pay tribute to God’s infinitely many virtues.

 

 

[1] Saoud, Rabah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Muslim Heritage. 2004. Accessed November 27, 2016. http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/introduction-islamic-art.

[2] Emma Clark “Underneath Which Rivers Flow,” in William Chittick ed. The Inner Journey, Views from the Islamic Tradition, pp. 82-86. Page 85.

[3] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 11/16/2016.

[4] Prayer Rug with Garden Imagery. Ca. 1875. Charles Martin Hall Bequest, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, OH.

[5] Al-Munajjid, Salah Al-Din. “Women’s Roles in the Art of Arabic Calligraphy.” In The Book in the Islamic World: The Written Word and Communication in the Middle East, edited by George N. Atiyeh, 141-47. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

[6] Burckhardt, Titus. “The Spirituality of Islamic Art.”  Translated by Katherine O’Brien. Pp. 506-527.  Page 517.