Zachary Crockford: Islamic Art

In his article Philosophy of Muslim Art, Titus Burckhart points out that beauty is often expressed in Islamic art as the plentitude of God’s being, “It attaches itself to the appearances of things and at the same time rejoins in its qualitative limitlessness the Divine Being Itself, since it penetrates beyond all duality, such as that of creator and creature, unfathomable plenitude in unity and unity in diversity” (506). This plentitude is expressed geometrically and even three dimensionally in Islamic art; he Islamic Worldview that the Divine Being is omnipresence and expresses itself as a “fullness” in the world is given shape in Islamic art.

A quick look at mosque architecture shows an example. The stalactite-like plaster forms, which seem to drip down from the ceiling like dense honeycomb, are meant to fill the space above worshippers’ heads; they jut out in every direction and permeate the air. Just as God is abundantly plentiful in our world so do these shapes represent plentitude in space to the physical, mortal eye. In Tehran, the Imam Mosque in Khomeini Square is a high-profile example of this plentitude-imagery. It displays this kind of geometrical expression of fullness in its immense archway, presented to passersby.

The tendency to represent God’s plentitude geometrically is also present in Islamic Art’s best know trait, the arabesque.  Complex arabesques often mimic plants, winding in and out of themselves like impossibly intricate vines. This baroque style is exhaustive and represents the totalized nature of the divine, but we also see the “plentitude” theme when we look at the edges of these arabesques. For instance, the Agra Fort in the Mughal Empire shows the arabesque patter apparently disappearing underneath the border around its edges. As if slipping under a carpet, the arabesque slides into another plane; it doesn’t disappear at the edge of its frame. Like God, the arabesque permeates our world, it cannot be confined to one wall, or even one mosque, and so Islamic artists use geometry like the arabesque to show the infinite through finite expression.

As Burckhart writes, Islamic art manages to avoid the “trap of individualism” that renders so many pieces of western art relics of a specific socio-political era or location. This can, in large part, be attributed to the Islamic Artist’s understanding that Beauty is simply the recognition of God’s abundance in the world. God’s plentitude is beauty, therefore to mimic “beauty” in the figure of one woman, or the movement of one warrior, is to miss the point. Glorifying such a specific piece of the Infinite is like only painting one tree when you’re looking at an enormous forest. By using the arabesque and other geometrical representations Islamic artists manage to engage in a conversation about something larger than their patron, the landscape the live in, the provincial arguments of their time: instead, they speak of totality, of unity, of Allah’s infinite nature expressed through the finite.