Tate: The Transcendent Quality of Islamic Art

Both the religion of Islam and the Quran itself beckon their followers to express themselves through art. This should come as no surprise; the Quran was said to be a miracle based solely on its poetic and spiritual beauty. The first verse of Revelation commands the reader to “recite in the name of your Lord, who created man from a clinging substance. Recite, and your Lord is most generous, who taught by the pen.” Many Muslim families keep their own copy of the Quran written in an ancestor’s calligraphy.1 How, then, do these artistic foundations manifest themselves in practice?

Islamic art differs radically from the traditional art forms of every other culture, the primary reason being that depicting human forms, the prophet, or God is (for the most part) strictly prohibited. These forms are seen as entirely immutable; to render them in concrete concrete depictions would be blasphemous. Without these forms, creating narrative tableaux—which was the main focus of Greek, Roman, and Christian art—is impossible, so muslim artists turn to more abstract methods in order to depict not a particular event but to induce the viewer into a particular spiritual and mental state. Endless interconnectedness is a primary concept in Islamic art. Most pieces, in order to communicate the endless interconnectedness of all things, combine and juxtapose divine, angelic, and mundane elements. Islamic artists strive to visually capture the limitless space of the Divine, as well as a spiritual state in which the soul is completely open to the interior of the Divine.ibid

The foundation of Islamic art is Arabic calligraphy. The written Arabic language is very conducive to intricate calligraphy given that, in an Arabic word, all letters are connected to each other. When Arabic language is calligraphed, it becomes even more interconnected; words and ideas are laced together seemlessly.ibid Each letter of the Arabic alphabet is said to have its own personality based on its visual appearance and sound. Letters can be male or female, ugly or beautiful, pious or treacherous, harsh or soft. Therefore, the ways in which an artist accentuates or downplays the nuances of each letter is extremely important to the overall message of a particular piece. The desired result for all calligraphy-based Islamic art pieces, however, remains the same: to create a harmony of letters and words that is at once endlessly repeating and constantly changing.2 In more traditional Islamic art, there is usually a sacred word or phrase placed legibly in the center of the surrounding calligraphy.3 Contemporary Islamic artists, however, often focus less on the words themselves and more on the overall aesthetic of the piece. Some make their calligraphy intentionally illegible, as can be seen the piece at the top of this page, and others twist their calligraphy into the sillouhettes of animals.

Another important genre of Islamic art is Arabesque, which utilizes interlacing geometric shapes and patterns to inspire a state of transcendent spiritual contemplation; its centrifugal unfolding of geometric patterns transports and frees the viewer from corporeal and earthly attachments and allows them to focus only on the divinity of God.4

Floral motifs pervade Islamic Art, most notably that of the Humble Cypress, which is the foundation of paisely.5 The form of the Humble Cypress is meant to inspire feelings of both humility, since its “head” is always pointed towards the ground, and liberality, given the nurturing attributes of cypress trees and the pattern’s seemingly incessant repetition in most pieces that utilize the form.ibid Many pieces, such as the Iznik War Tile on display at Oberlin’s Allen Art Museum, replace the geometric patterns of Arabesque with interwoven floral and vegetal patterns. The Iznik war tile creates an amazing visual paradox wherein it seems that the plants are simultaneously blooming outward and retreating inward. The method found in the Iznik war tile is perhaps a little more concrete than other froms of floral arabesque; while the flowers of the Iznik war tile do repeat and interlace, they are still distinct forms. In other instances of floral arabesque, such as those on the Dome of the Rock, the floral and vegetal forms lose become so interlaced that they viewer cannot distinguish one flower or plant from another.6 The primary goal of this art form is the same as geometric arabesque and calligraphy: to hypnotize the viewer into momentarily shedding corporeal attachments.

The Persian miniature differs greatly from other forms of Islamic art due to the fact that the depiction of human forms was never forbidden under Persian rule. Persian artists considered the Chinese to be masterful painters, and therefore emulated the contemporary Chinese style to such a degree that the human figures that appear in Persian miniatures have mainly ethnic Chinese physical attributes. Persian miniatures attempted to capture an idealistic, Edenic perspective. The landscapes depicted were often surreal, symbolizing both earthly paradise and heaven. Each object in a miniature must be unique and discrete; no two trees, flowers, or people may look alike or be repeated, since God does not repeat creations. By combining elements of the divine and the mundane, the Persian miniature attempts to capture the entire cosmos.7 Its goal, then, remains the same as calligraphic art and geometric and floral arabesque despite the dramatic difference that it uses human forms: to transport the viewer out of their body and closer to the limitlessness of the divine.



























Works Cited


  1. Mahallati, Jafar. Lecture at Oberlin College on November 14, 2016
  2. Sulzberger, Jean. (2007) The Inner journey: Views from the Islamic tradition (Parabola anthology series). Edited by William C. Chittick. New York, NY, United States: Morning Light Press.
  3. Islamic Art Display at the Oberlin College Religion Department
  4. Saoud, Rabah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Muslim Heritage. Section 6. 2010. http://muslimheritage.com/article/introduction-islamic-art
  5. Mahallati, Jafar. Lecture at Oberlin College on November 14, 2016
  6. Saoud, Rabah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Muslim Heritage. Section 5. 2010. http://muslimheritage.com/article/introduction-islamic-art
  7. Mahallati, Jafar. Lecture at Oberlin College on November 14, 2016