Islam: Aesthetics of a Mystic Religion
The material contained in this newsletter/article is owned by ExoticIndiaArt Pvt Ltd.
Reproduction of any part of the contents of this document, by any means, needs the prior permission of the owners.
Copyright C 2000, ExoticIndiaArt
Islam: Aesthetics of a Mystic Religion
Article of the Month - October 2001
Islam is much more than a formal religion: it is an integral way of life. In many ways it is a more
determining factor in the experience of its followers than any other world religion. The Muslim
("One who submits") lives face to face with Allah at all times, and will introduce no separation
between his life and religion, his politics and his faith. With its strong emphasis on the
brotherhood of men cooperating to fulfill the will of Allah, Islam has become one of the most
influential religions in the world today.
Traditional Islamic art conveys the
spirituality and quintessential message of
Islam through a timeless language which
precisely because of its timelessness as well
as its direct symbolism, is more effective
and less problematic than most of the
theological explanations of Islam. A piece
of traditional calligraphy or an arabesque
can speak much more eloquently of the
intelligence and nobility which characterize
Islam than many an apologetic work of
Islamic modernists or so-called activists. It
is the serene, intelligible, structured and
highly spiritual character of Islamic art
which more than any other element leads to a correct understanding of the culture that is Islam.
Contrary to modern ideas, Islam does not consider art and beauty as a luxury. It considers beauty
to be a divine quality (one of god's name being al-Jamil, the beautiful) and says that god loves
beauty. The Islamic aesthetic wishes beauty to be all pervasive and hence the art that developed
made sure that a Muslim encountered the joy of beauty at all levels of his existence. He
experiences deep down in his heart the same sense of peace and joy when sitting on a traditional
carpet, viewing a piece of calligraphy, or praying within the confines of one of the masterpieces of
Islamic architecture which dot the Islamic world from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Here we will explore the spiritual dimensions of Islamic art through the following elements:
- Sacred Architecture of the Islamic Mosque
- The Islamic Art of Writing
- Aesthetic Principles and the Building of an Islamic Community
Sacred Architecture of the Islamic Mosque
The sacred architecture of Islam par excellence is the mosque which is but a recreation of the
harmony, order and peace inherent in nature. While praying in a traditional mosque, the Muslim in
a sense returns to the bosom of nature, not externally but through the inner nexus which relates
the mosque to the principles and rhythms of nature.
The word mosque derives
from the Arabic masjid,
which literally means the
place of prostration (sujud).
This is the position in Islamic
ritual prayers (namaz), in
which the forehead of the
worshipper touches the ground in the supreme act of submission and surrender before God.
Before the prostration however, at the beginning of his prayer, he stands directly as the primordial
man, himself his own priest, facing god without an intermediary. This is a unique and significant
achievement in the development of mystic thought, where man is viewed not as a fallen being but
as god's vicegerent on earth, aware of his theomorphic substance and competent and 'perfect'
enough to correspond directly with God.
It is not, however, only the space of the mosque within which the faithful pray that is important. It
is also the floor upon which they prostrate themselves that is of crucial significance. But before
attempting to grasp the symbolic significance of the floor, it is important to understand the
position of man himself in Islamic thought.
Man in Islam is considered the most perfect of god's creations. It is the forehead of this most
perfect of god's creations that touches in prayer the floor of the prayer hall, thereby sanctifying
the floor of the mosque and returning this floor to its inviolable purity as the original earth at the
dawn of creation. The first historical mosque is believed to have been the house of Prophet
Muhammad himself. The first 'official' mosque was at Medina, which architecturally was a
prototype of the house of the Prophet, and in a sense was an extension of it. The Prophet himself,
it is believed, had first prayed before the divine throne (al-'Arsh) before he prayed upon the
ground (farsh), thus sanctifying earth as the mirror and reflection of heaven. It is this
sanctification of the ground by the Prophet that bestowed a new metaphysical meaning upon the
ground and the carpet covering it. The carpet, whether of simple white color or full of geometric
and arabesque designs and patterns, is a reflection of heaven and enables one to experience the
ground upon which one sits as purifying, and to participate in the sacred character of the ground.
As for the characteristic open space in
mosques, its stillness reflects the pacifying
presence of the Divine Word, which
echoes through it. The rhythmic division of
space by means of arches and columns is
the counterpart to the rhythms of cosmic
existence which punctuate the phases of
the life of man. The space of the sacred
structures of Islam rests serenely and nobly
in a stillness which conforms to the inner
nature of things.
Architecture is of course the art par
excellence of ordering space, and all
sacred architecture achieves its basic goal
of placing man in the presence of the
divine through the sacralization of the space which it forms. In the case of Islamic architecture
this sacralization is achieved by means of polarization of space through the presence of the Ka'ba
which is believed to be the center of the earth, and towards which all Muslims turn in their daily
The Muslim world is spread out like a gigantic
wheel with Mecca as the hub, and with lines
drawn from all the mosques in the world forming
the spokes. These lines converge on a city and
within that city on a point. The city is Mecca, and
the point is the Ka'ba at its center. Mecca, the
birthplace of Prophet Muhammad, is Islam's holy
city and the goal of all pilgrimage. The Ka'ba, a
cube of stone, is the axis mundi of Islamic
cosmology. It is diagonally oriented, with its
corners facing the cardinal points of a compass.
Metaphysically it is the center of the world,
because it is the primordial symbol of the
intersection between the vertical axis of the spirit
and the horizontal plane of phenomenal existence.
During their pilgrimage to Ka'ba, pilgrims
circumambulate it seven times, and this gyration
of the great crowd round the Ka' ba, with its
curious swirling, liquid movement, when seen
from an aerial perspective resembles nothing so
much as an immense whirlpool. This rite finds its
echo in the circumambulation of the sun, or likewise the tomb of a saint, so as to achieve the
maximum exposure to the invisible psychic fluid believed to emanate from all such sacred places.
The sacred architecture of Islam is a crystallization of Islamic spirituality and a key for the
understanding of this spirituality. The spaces it has created provide a haven in which man can
savor, by grace of this very spirituality, the peace and harmony of not only uncorrupted nature but
also paradise of which such a nature is a reflection. This paradise man carries at the depth and
center of his being where the divine presence reverberates.
The Islamic Art of Writing
Handwriting is jewelry fashioned by the hand from
the pure gold of intellect.
- Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi
Calligraphy is believed to be the visual embodiment
of the sacred word. Islamic tradition states that Ali,
the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, was the first
calligrapher. The origins of Islamic calligraphy are
traced all the way back to god, who is believed to
have written the celestial archetype of the Quran.
According to Qadi Ahmed, a sixteenth century
author on the art of calligraphy and painting,
'creation itself is the divine calligraphy with which
god covered the pages of changing time with the black and white design of night becoming days
and days becoming night.'
A chapter in the Quran is entitled 'The Pen' (surat al-qalam), qalam
meaning pen in Arabic. It opens with the letter nun. The letter nun in
Arabic resembles the inkpot.
It is believed that god first created the Qalam, then the inkpot or nun.
Thus the chapter begins with nun and the Pen. According to another
Islamic text, the qalam symbolizes the tongue and nun the mouth.
Islamic calligraphy reflects through the
symbolism of its very forms the
intertwining between permanence and
change that characterize creation itself.
Hence the horizontal movement of the
script, which is a rippling movement as in
weaving, corresponds to change, whereas
the vertical movement represents the
permanent divine essence. Another point
of view views the vertical as the symbol
of the unified principle, and the
horizontal, the multiplicity of
Another important element in the appraisal of Islamic calligraphy is the
concept of a tree. A tree is but a manifestation of a seed's potential to
derive sustenance from earth and water, and produce one of the most
beautiful sights in the world, namely that of a flowering tree complete
with branches and leaves.
Man is much the same as a tree. He has been put on
earth like a seed. But he can only grow into a tree by
virtue of his own efforts. Providence, however, has
granted him innumerable sources of nourishment and
opportunities exist on earth to partake of them.
Keeping these conceptions in mind, it was but
inevitable that the unifying art of Islam eventually
combined calligraphy with stylized plant forms
(arabesques). Many Islamic monuments from
Anatolia to Agra display this intertwining of
calligraphy and arabesque forms.
In addition to arabesque forms, Islamic art also
combines geometric patterns with calligraphy. Here
the calligraphy, related directly to the divine word
(believed to be the Quran), is said to symbolize the
unified principle of creation, while the geometric
element with its immutable patterns is said to
represent the masculine principle.
In a similar vein, the arabesques, related to life and
growth, reveal the maternal aspect of creation.
Seen in this light, calligraphy can be contemplated
as the principle from which the other two elements
of Islamic patterns, the geometric and the
arabesque (male and female respectively),
originate, and into which they became integrated as
all cosmic dualities become integrated into the
ultimate unified Principle.
In a further development of metaphysical interpretation, each letter is
given a personality of its own, and ultimately linked with Allah, or the
supreme god. For example the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, alif, by
its verticality symbolizes a divine majesty.
This divinity is why all alphabet is believed to have originated from the
alif, and it is also the first letter of word Allah.
The second letter of the alphabet is ba. Its very horizontality
symbolizes the receptivity of the maternal and passive principles
as well as the dimension of beauty which complements majesty.
The intersection of the two letters alif and ba constitutes the
point which is visualized as the supreme, non dual center from which everything issues and to
which everything returns.
The esoteric doctrines enveloping the nature of calligraphy, combined with the beauty of its
immediate presence, provide the key for understanding its privileged position in the hierarchy of
Islamic art as well as its important role in Islamic spirituality itself. For centuries Muslims have
practiced calligraphy as a means of disciplining the soul. In contrast to the general pattern in
various scripts of the world which move from left to the right, Arabic script (the language of the
Quran) moves from right to left. Hereby a Muslim calligrapher believes that in drawing a line from
right to the left, man is moving from the periphery to the heart which is also located in the left
side of the body, and that by concentrating upon writing words in beautiful forms, man is bringing
back the dispersed elements of his soul to their center.
The heart and soul of a Muslim is constantly made aware
of the majesty, harmony, rhythm and flow of calligraphic
forms, which surround all spheres of his existence,
unveiling their beauty upon the pages of the Quran, on
walls of mosques and other forms of architecture, on
carpets and curtains, and even upon objects of daily use
from dress to plates and bowls in which food is taken.
Aesthetic Principles and the Building of an Islamic Community
Islam is pre-eminently the religion of unity on all levels: ontological, social, and political. The
term used to describe that unity is 'umma', which is not susceptible of translation by a single word.
Socially it denotes the Muslim community, while politically the 'umma Muhammadiya' denotes
'Muhammad's nation', a revolutionary concept whereby, for the first time in history, the criterion
of belief replaces the genetic accident of birth as the criterion of nationality.
Islamic art is more than just a spectacle of domes and minarets, dazzling illuminated manuscripts
and exotic carpets; it is a true expression of a rich culture that has unified countries as far apart as
Spain and Java, Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, over some thousand years and more.
Islamic art expresses the religious beliefs, social and economic structure, political motivation and
visual sensibility of a pervasive and unified tradition. Underlying the variations from century to
century and from region to region, a cohesive unity of aesthetic conception testifies to the power
and breadth of Islam.
Whether in the great courtyard of the Delhi mosque or the Qarawiyyin in Fez, one feels oneself
within the same artistic and spiritual universe despite all the local variations in material, structural
techniques, and the like. The creation of this artistic universe with its particular genius, distinct
characteristics, and formal homogeneity underlying distinctions of a cultural, geographical or
temporal nature requires a cause, for no effect of such immense dimensions can be considered as
simply a result of chance or the agglomeration of accidental historical factors.
Community is a delicate but durable bond that grows among people who discover that their core
identities intersect with those of others. People find community and support, for example, in
groups of individuals who cope with similar problems, who send their children to the same school,
or who teach in the same department at a university. Shared experience, ethnic background, social
purpose, citizenship, religious faith, and various combinations of these are among the more
obvious bases for human community. The formation thus of such a community, unified by an
adherence to common spiritual percepts and ideals, is the higher aim of Islamic aesthetics. Islamic
art was the means whereby the spirit of Islam penetrated into all types and modes of activity, into
all the moments of man's life reminding him wherever he was of his Islamic identity. A whole
civilization and culture deeply impregnated by the spiritual values of Islam surrounds the Muslim,
and aids him in living Islamically.
Some principles of Islamic Aesthetics that strengthen the development of a communal unity are:
1. Islamic 'Hidden Architecture' and the Principle of Wholeness
One of the most striking features of all Islamic
architectural monuments is their focus on the enclosed
space, on the inside as opposed to the outside, the
façade or exterior articulation of a building.
This disregard for the outside appearance of a structure
is often developed to an extreme whereby even a
monumental structure, such as congregational mosque,
is completely hidden by being totally surrounded by
secondary adjacent buildings (for instance a bazaar).
This 'hiding' of major monuments goes hand in hand
with a total lack of exterior indications of the shape,
size, function or meaning of a building. Even if a
structure has a visible façade or a portal, these features
tell us little, if anything, about the building that lies
behind it. In other words, rarely does a façade give any
indication of the inner organization or purpose of the
building in question, and it is rare that an Islamic
building can be understood, or even its principal
features identified, by its exterior.
To give but one example: a dome looms over the mass of a building, it is generally visible from
afar but sinks into the maze of small cupolas and roofs of surrounding structures as we approach.
The dome may indicate a mosque, a palace, a school or a tomb. It may be the principal feature of
a structure designed around it; alternatively, it may be only a minor element in a vast structure that
surrounds the domed area; it may also be only one of several domes hidden, or half hidden, by
other structures - parapets or inner portal frames. Instead of defining a specific kind of
architecture, or a special building with a particular function, the dome appears to be a general
symbol, signifying power, the royal city, the focal point of assembly; it can therefore serve both
religious and secular purposes.
At all times and in all regions of the Muslim world we can find 'hidden architecture' - that is,
architecture that truly exists, not when seen as monument or symbol visible to all and from all
sides, but only when entered, penetrated and experienced from within.
This indistinguishibility between buildings
serving different functions is an important
effort in furthering the development of a
community. By making the various
architecture serving the cause of religion,
domesticity, education, funerary etc.,
indistinguishable, or by making the
religious and secular inseparable, the
Muslim aesthete was but driving at the
unity of these two principles. The final
aim of all Islamic aesthetic is thus to
create a unified wholeness. The mosque
in a traditional Islamic city is not only the
center of religious activity but of all
community life, embracing the cultural,
social and political as well as, to a certain
extent, economic activities. It is therefore related organically to the bazaar or center of economic
life, the palace or seat of political power, schools where intellectual activity takes place etc.
Private homes are always nearby and in the same way that work, leisure, prayer and care of the
family are integrated and not totally separate in the traditional Islamic pattern of life, the
architectural spaces related to these activities are also intertwined. Even within the home, a single
room is often used for several functions including eating, sleeping, socializing and praying, while
prayers can take place in shops in the bazaar, transactions in the mosque, and teaching in both the
mosque and home.
When one looks at the traditional Islamic city, one observes that this unity and inter-relatedness
are reflected directly in the architecture. At the center there is always a mosque or tomb of a saint
with the city growing in an organic manner around it. Moreover, the city seems to be covered by a
single roof emanating from the sacred center. In a profound sense therefore, the sacred
architecture of Islam casts its light and influences the formation of an Islamic city, bestowing upon
it the character of reflecting sacred presence. In the same way that the floor of the mosque,
sacralized by the Prophet himself, stretches into the floor of every home, every roof of the city
emanates from and is an extension of the roof of the sacred structure at its heart. The space of the
whole city is enveloped by the periodic chanting from the minarets of the mosque, calling for a
collective prayer, and the regular voicing of Quranic verses from the mosque itself; are all
extremely effective and strategical towards building of a deep-rooted Islamic community bound
fundamentally at the core.
2. Concept of Unity and Islamic Decorative Arts
The role of decoration is central to any analysis of Islamic art. It is one of the unifying factors
that, for thirteen centuries, have linked together buildings and objects across the enormous
geographic span that makes up the Islamic world.
There is never any one type of decoration for one type of
building or object; on the contrary, there are decorative
principles which are pan-Islamic and applicable to all types
of buildings and objects at all times (whence comes the
intimate relationship in Islam between all the applied arts
and architecture). Islamic art must therefore be considered
in its entirety because each building and each object
embodies identical principles. Though objects and buildings
differ in quality of execution and style, the same ideas, forms
and designs constantly recur. These patterns clearly
demonstrate the fascination of Islamic artists with the visual
principles of repetition, symmetry, and continuous
generation of pattern. Thus the objects and their decoration
seem to reflect only a fleeting impression, being but a
portion of a design which seems capable of extending itself
beyond the form it decorates and by implication beyond the
world of reality. And if a definite spatial limit is reached,
such as a terminal wall in a piece of architecture, which
stops the progress of anyone moving through the building, it
will be decorated with patterns that repeat themselves, leading on visually beyond the given limit
of the wall surface. This is symbolic of an endless, infinite extension beyond ordinary, mundane
reality into a higher invisible realm.
It is also significant that these infinitely extensible
designs are themselves made up of individual, self-
replicating units. In the Islamic context these have
been interpreted as visual demonstrations of the
singleness of god and his presence everywhere.
They represent 'unity in multiplicity' and
'multiplicity in unity'.