Timeless Traditions of Islamic Art

Paintings, massive and miniature; mosques, triumphant in their architectural prowess; calligraphy, the ancient mother of all Islamic art forms. These, among other forms, are the greater progenies of centuries of Islamic civilization’s quest for creative mastery. And indeed, the contributions of the Islamic world towards toward art in all its forms has been a timeless treasure. Titus Burckhardt best describes that which makes the creative machinations of the Muslim world so remarkable: “A form, though limited and consequently subject to time, may convey something timeless and in this respect escape historical conditions, not only in its own genesis… but also in its preservation, to a certain extent at least, for it is with regard to their timeless meaning that certain forms have been preserved in spite of and against all material and psychic revolutions of an epoch; tradition means just that,” (Burckhardt 1). What Burckhardt means to say here is that, to some extent, the power of Islamic art is so great that it extends far beyond form or phenomena and into the realm of tradition. This, in turn, offers it timelessness and foundation, which may then be further developed and adapted to suit the needs of the religious community. It is no small wonder then, that in the grand scope of traditional history and artistic triumph, some of these timeless pieces have made the long journey to museums, where they now rest for contemplation. Here, I detail several pieces that have found their way to the Oberlin museum, and what they mean within the broader context of Islamic history.
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One of the most notable and famous motifs in Islamic artwork is the arabesque, as shown on this Persian ewer and basin (17th century). The designs here are quite detailed and small, but a close examination reveals a swirling pattern inlayed with crosshatching. The swirling specifically forms the arabesque; a pattern referred to as ‘rhyme in visual order’, and which frequently contains circular, vegetative, and floral characteristics. Other arabesques (as pictured above) contain geometric designs; frequently these form units that, while each could stand alone, together form part of a whole interlocking design representative of greater concepts such as the cosmos or the abundancy of life in the universe. Historically, these designs have also served as a gateway between the viewer and the explosive abstraction of Islamic tradition and unearthly narratives: “Arabesque strives, not to concentrate the attention upon any definite object, to liven and quicken the appreciative faculties, but to diffuse them. It is centrifugal, and leads to a kind of abstraction, a kind of self-hypnotism even, so that the devotee kneeling towards Makkah can bemuse himself in the maze of regular patterning that confront shim, and free his mind from all connection with bodily and earthly things,” (Saoud). Like all pieces displayed in the Oberlin museum, this one does not have any description or presentation beyond a basic definition. Thus, were I to rely on my own personal interpretation of the visible design, I would say that the thickly crosshatched background is representative of the general connectivity of all things that come from God. The circular devices which stand out may characterize humanity, which emerge from the rest of the universe as special among Allah’s creations.











               Another remarkably famous art form of is calligraphy, known as the mother of Islamic art. Calligraphy is extremely common across the Islamic spectrum, as it appears in architecture, paintings, scripture, monuments, rugs, and just about every other form of artistic expression. The general need for calligraphy as a prominent form stems from the reluctance of Islamic artists to portray holy living things, as Muhammad and Allah are considered too sacred to be portrayed by the human hand. Over the course of Islamic history, many different calligraphic styles have emerged, each with its own masters and famous works. Most famous, perhaps, is the Kufic script. In this form, “one-sixth is circular and the rest is straight. Its horizontal and vertical lines look like squares and rectangles and are usually drawn with such geometric precision that the length and width and the distances separating them are equal,” (Sulzberger, 78). Kufic also developed into six distinct substyles: thuluth, naskh, muhaqqaq, rayhani, tawqi, and riqa. These styles are most frequently noted in artwork and sculpture, as their geometrically square nature lends itself well to three-dimensional design. Naskhi, a simpler form of thuluth, is generally used to write most calligraphed Qur’ans. However, a vast majority of other scripts exist across the Islamic diaspora. Pictured here are two Turkish spoons detailed with Arabic calligraphy (script unspecified); translations and/or references to the imprinted words are not provided. However, one may assume that they are likely Qur’anic verses or other important writings (possibly poetry). These spoons serve as a handy example of the necessary relationship between art and word. Depicting the Qur’an (and theoretically any writing) is not merely writing; it is an art form unto itself. By this, words find a place wherever art may find a place, even if that place is the bowl of a Turkish spoon.











               Finally, I would like to highlight a third motif in Islamic art, which is that of the vegetative and/or floral motif. Briefly mentioned above, these designs became popular because of the prohibition on art depicting sentient creatures. Depictions of flowers are typically abstract. Rather than shown as they are in nature (rooted in the earth, growing on trees, etc.), they are frequently shown suspended in space or connected in spiral formations (as seen on the plates above). The removed nature of floral design has led to some strong criticism in the international artistic community:Art critics describe the floral depictions and ornaments of the artists of Islam as conventional; lacking the effects of growth and the creation of life,” (Saoud). This is likely due to the environmental aridity of many Middle Eastern nations. The briefness of spring is thus translated to any floral or vegetative depictions and contributes to the removal of naturalistic elements from their mother ground. Some of the most famous examples of floral motifs can be seen on the Dome of the Rock, the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, on a wide variety of Persian rugs, and on ceramic tiles. Pictured above are two glazed Ottoman earthenware plates (17th century), which depict fairly classical floral motifs found throughout the Muslim world. The area of origin for these particular plates is unknown, but can likely be traced back to the Turkish, Iznik, or Kutahya regions. Note the suspension of design upon a white background as well as the verdant uses of blue and tomato red to depict life.

Ultimately, what one must understand about Islamic art is that, despite its enormous variance over space and time, some forms of ornamentation have become so entrenched within the Islamic stylistic psyche that they are more tradition than form. The arabesque, calligraphic inlay, and floral motifs are all examples of such themes that are informed in their inheritable nature by Islamic law and custom (such as the historical prohibition on depicting life). This serves to highlight the ineffable centralization of tradition within the Islamic landscape; thus, through a study of these artistic customs, one may come to understand the primary features of the religion as described by its artistic manifestations.



Saoud, Rabah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Muslim Heritage. Foundation of Science Technology and Civilization, July 2004. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

Berkhardt, Titus. “Perrenial Values in Islamic Art.” Studies in Comparative Religion 1.3 (1963): n. pag. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

Sulzberger, Jean. “Some Notes on Arab Calligraphy.” The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition. Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light, 2007. 78-81. Print.