Sarah J. Williams: The Omnipresence of the Divine in Islamic Art

Islamic art, insofar as it can be defined, is defined by the presence of a religious intention in the product created by the artist. With this definition, it might seem redundant to say that the presence of the divine is another signifier of the body of Islamic art, and, while not inaccurate, such a statement fails to capture the full complexity of the truth which it is meant to represent. Islamic art is not religious simply in the sense of dealing with religious themes, or even attempting to inspire religious thoughts and feelings in both creator and viewer. It also acts as a window into a vision of the world where God is present in all things, natural and man-made, sacred and secular. The world of Islamic art is a reflection of the Heavens themselves, where the presence of the divine can be detected—whether by nature or by design—even in things as commonly practiced and innocuous as how letters are written and the way that courtship is conducted (1). In many different forms of artistic expression, there can be found a sort of paradisiacal ideation, a way in which heaven, if not existent on earth, at least serves as an inspiration both for the glory of nature and the finest of human behaviors and impulses, including the act of artistic creation itself.

Some have argued that the fundamental act of Islam is that of writing, as the first word that the angel Gabriel said to Mohammad was “Recite!” (2). From this perspective, it makes sense that the written word would be imbued with a special divine significance. However, the extent of that significance is both broad and deep. Every aspect of words, writing, and text can be given a special connection to God. The profession of calligraphy itself is regarded as “highly sacred”, and an oft-quoted hadith says that “he who writes the basmala beautifully obtains innumerable blessings” (3). However, the sacred nature of the basmala extends beyond the meaning of the words and into the construction of the sentences—and even the letters—themselves. The idea of an early Sufi that “there is no letter which does not worship God in a language” (4) was expanded to incorporate all sorts of texts, until God’s deliberate presence could be discerned in innumerable aspects of innumerable pieces of writing. The basmala and the Qur’an were particularly apt candidates for deep analysis. The eighteen letters of the basmala contain, among other things, an allusion to the eighteen thousand worlds, and the bah of bism points to the baha’Allah (God’s splendor) its sin to sana’Allah (God’s sublimity) and its mim to mamlakat Allah (God’s kingdom) (5). The Qur’an as well is full of hidden significance: Rumi described the first letters of 29 suras as “signs of divine activity” (6) and the letters a-l-m at the beginning of suras 2 and 29-32 have been interpreted to mean Allah, Gabriel, and Muhammad, or the three modes of prayer, or three aspects of the form of an earthly beloved (7). Even these explicitly holy texts can be interpreted on a second level, that of form, rather than meaning, and in that form, God’s hand can be seen as well.

A slightly more earthly and straightforward example of the inherently divine nature of art can be found in the complex design of the Islamic garden. Although every garden, Islamic or not, is obviously different, there are some common design elements of Islamic gardens which are meant to echo the design of the gardens of Paradise, as described in the Qur’an (8). This includes the repeated emphasis on the number four, including division into four parts using four channels of water; “the fourfold design of the Islamic garden is not just a whim of design but a reflection of a higher reality” (9). Traditionally, there is a fountain in the center of the garden, which represents the Spirit, a spiritual concept which is frequently aligned with water in the Qur’an. When the fountain is connected with the four dividing channels of water, as in the Court of Lions in the Alhambra, it echoes the four rivers of Paradise returning to their source, as described in the Qur’an, making the garden itself a miniature version of Paradise (10). As Frithjof Schuon says, “Exiled on earth as we are, unless we are able to content ourselves with that shadow of Paradise that is Virgin Nature, we must create for ourselves surroundings which, by their truth and their beauty recall our heavenly origin and thereby also awaken our hope” (11).

Even music, an art form which is controversial to say the least in Islamic theology (12) is a reflection of the ways in which all creation echoes the higher reality of the divine.The Ikwhan al-Safa, or Brethren of Purity, in their fourteenth-century encyclopedia of philosophy, science, and art, “recognized in terrestrial music the echo of the music of the spheres…By reason to the law of harmony, which rules over all the levels of existence, linking them according to an order at once hierarchical and analogical, “the beings produced by secondary reaction imitate in modalities the first beings which are their causes…from which it must be deduced that the notes of terrestrial music necessarily imitate those of celestial music”” (13). The Sufi Duh’l-Nun said that “listening is a divine experience which stirs the heart to see Allah; those who listen spiritually attain to Allah” (14)

Religious art the world over has been designed with the intent of elevating the spirit and encouraging contemplation of the divine, and much Islamic art certainly shares these aims as well. However, the other shared defining trait of Islamic art as opposed to other forms of religious art is the consciousness of every art form as reflective of a holy implicate order in all things. Every variety of artistic beauty is simply the echo of a fundamental beauty which exists on a scale too vast and marvelous for human eyes to perceive. Although our bodies separate us from this ultimate perfection, the beauty of human creation is as close as we will ever get, and that’s a blessing in and of itself.

  1. Anthony Welch. “Worldly and Otherworldly Love in Sufi Painting” in Persian Painting from the Mongols to the Qajars: Studies in Honor of Basil W. Robinson, edited by Robert Hillenbrand (London: IB Tauris Publishers, 2001). 303
  2. Annemarie Schimmel, Calligraphy and Islamic Culture (New York: New York University Press, 1984), 80
  3. Schimmel, 81.
  4. Schimmel, 81.
  5. Schimmel, 84.
  6. Schimmel, 90
  7. Schimmel, 92.
  8. Emma Clark. “Underneath Which Rivers Flow”, Parabola, v. 213, 82.
  9. Clark, 83.
  10. Clark, 85.
  11. Clark, 86.
  12. Jean-Louis Michon, “Sacred Music and Dance in Islam” in Sufism: Love and Wisdom, ed. Jean-Louis Michon and Roger Gaetani (World Wisdom, 2006), 469
  13. Michon, 470.
  14. Michon, 471.

Bibliography

Welch, Anthony. “World and Otherworldly Love in Safavid Painting” in Persian Painting from the Mongols to the Qajars: Studies in Honor of Basil W. Robinson, ed. Robert Hillenbrand. London: IB Tauris, 2001. Blackboard. Accessed November 19, 2016. https://blackboard.oberlin.edu/webapps/blackboard/execute/content/file cmd=view&content_id=_581115_1&course_id=_33426_1

Schimmel, Annemarie. Calligraphy and Islamic Culture. New York: New York University Press, 1984. Blackboard. Accessed November 23, 2016. https://blackboard.oberlin.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-581106-dt-content-rid-1557747_1/courses/201609-RELG-270-01/schimmelc%5B1%5D.pdf

Clark, Emma. “Underneath Which Rivers Flow”. Parabola, vol. 213, 82-86. Blackboard. Accessed November 21, 2016. https://blackboard.oberlin.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-581103-dt-content-rid-1557741_1/courses/201609-RELG-270-01/Emma%20Clark%20article.pdf

Michon, Jean-Louis. “Sacred Music and Dance in Islam” in Sufism: Love and Wisdom, ed. Jean-Louis Michon and Roger Gaetani, 153-178. Canada: World Wisdom, 2006. Blackboard. Accessed November 23, 2016. https://blackboard.oberlin.edu/webapps/blackboard/execute/content/file?cmd=view&content_id=_582050_1&course_id=_33426_1