Islamic Art and Architecture

Principles of a Sacred Tradition

Khaled ‘Azzam

Islamic art is synonymous with sacred art. It is an art, which transmits a Divine message and transcends time and place. It draws its roots from the Spirit and manifests itself in our physical world.

However, our contemporary perception of this message has been somewhat distorted. The qualitative nature of Islamic art has been relegated to the periphery and its quantitative character has become the sole means of understanding this art.

In general, western art historians have based their studies of Islamic art and architecture on an historical and archaeological analysis, entirely ignoring its spiritual content. The research into the formation and principles of this art has mainly concentrated on finding its roots in preexisting elements of Byzantine, Greek, Roman and Hindu origins. This historical assessment explains a series of facts and events but in no way does it represent the full meaning of Islamic art.

The rational approach reduces all spiritual values to the human plane, explaining only the historical context of Islamic art with no reference to its most important aspect, its spiritual content.

The unity, which is evident in the art and architecture of the diverse regions of the Islamic world has its roots in the religion of Islam. However, its inspiration cannot be simply prescribed to the religious law (shari‘ah), since this law does not set any framework for artistic creation, it merely sets the boundaries of its expression. These restrictions cannot be the basis of creativity. Furthermore, one cannot simply attribute this expression of unity to ‘religious feeling’, since however intense an emotion may be;

“it is unable to fashion a whole world of forms into a harmony that is both rich and sober, both overwhelming and precise”.(Titus Burkhardt, Mirror of the Intellect, pp219)

Burkhardt explains that the root of this unity transcends the realm of emotion which is `necessarily vague and always fluctuating’. It is a much deeper `intellectual vision’ that is the basis of Islamic art. The term Intellect must be used in its original sense; the Intellect is the faculty in man that gives intuitive knowledge of the Absolute and timeless realities, it is thus on a much higher plane than reason. Intellect, or `al-‘aql’ in Arabic, is the capacity to perceive the concept of Divine unity, and it is from this wisdom that Islamic art derives its sense of beauty.

The modern historians ‘and art critics’, lack of understanding of the true meaning of Islamic art lies in the fact that their judgment of art is clouded by a preoccupation with its degree of originality or its revolutionary character, as well as being primarily interested in the individuality of the artist instead of concentrating on the spiritual truth which an art may convey. This concern with the individual artist and the psychological state of his times has very little to do with the spirit of Islamic art which transcended the human experience.

The Muslim artist, by his very Islam, his `surrender’ to the Divine law, is always aware of the fact that it is not he who produces or invents beauty, but that a work of art is beautiful to the degree that it obeys the cosmic order and therefore reflects universal beauty (Mirror of the Intellect p211)

It must be made clear that Islam considers beauty to be independent of the psychological state of the artist. The beauty of Islamic art does not rely on a subjective individualistic expression but remains impersonal like that of nature.

‘For the Muslim mind, art reminds man of God when it is as impersonal as the laws that govern the movement of the heavenly spheres’:     (Mirror of the Intellect, p 211)

Art in general is perceived to be the visual representation of the outer aspect of things; sacred art reveals the inward dimension of reality.

‘The essence of art is beauty, and beauty by its very nature is an outward as well as an inward reality’(Mirror of the Intellect, p 216)

The hadith ‘God is beautiful and loves beauty’ is central to any discussion on Islamic art. This hadith clarifies that ultimately, beauty is a Divine quality, which is the source of all beautiful things on earth. Furthermore, the åadīth ‘I was a secret treasure and wished to be known so I created the world’ explains that beauty on earth is a reflection of a Divine archetype and cannot exist outside the realm of this Divine quality. Each Divine quality in essence contains within itself all the other Divine qualities, since their root comes from the same Source. The reflection of these qualities and their relationship to each other in Islamic art makes obvious the relationship between the Truth and beauty.

Sacred Art in general is an expression of man’s relationship with God, its function is to express the primordial Truth, to transform the invisible into visible form, to transmit the perennial Truth into the realm of manifestation and represent, through the language of symbolism, the primordial images. The spiritual roots of Islamic art can be expressed in the three metaphysical concepts of fear, love and knowledge, which form the basis of man’s worship of his Creator. These concepts are represented respectively in Islamic art in the domains of geometry, arabesque, and calligraphy.

The fear of God is the first step of man towards his maker and imposes the Divine discipline on man’s existence. This is reflected in the order, symmetry and vigour of the construction and patterns of geometry.

The love of God is the rhythm of faith which beasts in the heart of man and the source of his dhikr (remembrance), this is expressed in the elegance and serenity of the biomorphic and arabesque forms.

The knowledge of God is the knowledge of the supreme Name, which is the Essence of all things. (God taught Adam the names of all things and therefore Adam knew their essence; the name of something represents its inherent qualities). The Truth in Islam is expressed through the word, the Qur’an, and the art of calligraphy is the visualization of the revealed word.

Without fear (awe, respect) there can be no true love and without discipline there can be no flowering of the spirit which leads to true/essential knowledge. This is most evident in the relationship between the fundamental aspects of Islamic art.

Geometry is an objective manifestation of the principles of creation and forms the underlying framework for the visual expression of the path which leads from unity to multiplicity; arabesque or biomorphic forms, which symbolize virgin nature, and which interlace with and balance the geometric patterns would be meaningless and formless without the structure of the underlying geometry. Furthermore, both these art forms are the setting for the word of God and the calligraphy of the Qur’an.

The decoration of Islamic architecture with calligraphy, geometric patterns and arabesque forms must not be perceived simply as surface decoration. Decoration is a manifestation of an underlying order and harmony; it is cosmetic in the true sense of the word-`to make cosmic like’.

The relevance of the application of each of these domains of Islamic art (or the combination of the three as is commonly the case) can be analyzed or recognized by the main criteria which define sacred art.

Firstly, the nobility of content. Sacred art has to have its roots in a spiritual condition, apart from which it cannot be considered as sacred. The content of the art has to directly relate to a spiritual context, which must be represented according to a clear canonical model.

Secondly, a purity of form which in traditional art is not simply related to material shape but is deeply related to the essence or soul of the physical form. The true meaning of form relates to the inspiration which is in the artists mind/intellect which he transmits through his art. This is expressed through the harmony of composition and the clarity of line and color, which make up a language and technique that follow a clear hierarchy of expression.

Thirdly, a correct symbolism, which must transmit and express certain messages that are inherent in the spiritual nature of the image that is represented.

Our examples of traditional Islamic art today are mainly drawn from ancient works that are exhibited in museums. These works are not in their original context nor do they perform their true function. Islamic art was never made simply for exhibition, but to fulfill a certain function and convey a certain message within a particular context. There was never any distinction between the fine and applied arts in Islam.

To a greater or lesser degree all the arts of the Islamic world conveyed the highest principles and values; at the same time they remained central elements in the everyday life of the Muslim. However, one must not relegate all traditional Islamic art forms to the museum; it remains a living art, which is still practiced, in spite of overwhelming obstacles, by craftsmen throughout the Islamic world.

The work of contemporary craftsmen, which can be seen as a continuation in the same spirit of the ancient works exhibited in museums, represents more than just an education for our eyes, hands and mind; it has an impact on our soul. It not only inspires us by acting as a model for contemporary works of art, but also gives an insight into the perennial principles which the artist applied to make this art, values which still form a basis for a valid contemporary artistic expression. This kind of education requires a totally different appreciation from that of viewing modern art, one that is not centered on the art as the work of an individual artist, but on the artist’s particular expression of a universal principle.

Art and architecture have always held a central role in the civilization of Islam; a role  which encompasses the wide range of values which make up this civilization, from spiritual principles to technical aspects. On the one hand they express the spiritual truth which permeates every aspect of Islamic life and on the other it contributes to the flourishing of a certain social order which is the field of craftsmanship.

Art cannot exist without craftsmanship; in fact, as we have just mentioned, no real distinction is made between the two in the traditional Islamic world where technique and beauty have always been closely linked. Yet it is at this central feature that the industrial age has struck. The relentless fragmentation and elimination of the crafts by the product of the machine has in turn meant the fragmentation of Islamic art and the diminution of its spiritual impact on society. Thus the destruction of craftsmanship does not only have a negative impact on the arts of a civilization but also on its spiritual well being.

The breakdown of the crafts also means a decline in the drawing of inspiration from a living tradition and a resulting predominance of sterile repetition and meaningless improvisation. This is most obvious in `modern Islamic art’, where the balance of the central themes of traditional art based on form, content and symbolism are replaced by an individualistic pursuit of originality which on the one hand is ignorant of the meaning of the word `originality’ (to return to the origin) and on the other is bound to be overwhelmed by the ethos of mass standardization of the machine age.

Due to its material nature, art cannot be separated from technique or craft, or from science which if not only limited to the realm of reason can aspire to wisdom-åikmah-and the understanding of universal principles. This is most evident in Islamic architecture, where the crafts of the masons deal with the material aspect of its nature and the science of geometry with its spiritual principles. Geometry is both quantitative and qualitative. Its quantitative dimension regulates form and construction, while its qualitative nature sets the proportions, which underlie the architecture and express the timeless values of the tradition. The proportions of sacred geometry derive from the division of a circle (which is a symbol of the unity of being) by inscribed regular figures and therefore the proportions of sacred architecture have their root in the source, which contains all the possibilities of existence.

Although calligraphy is always considered to be the highest form of art in Islam, since it expresses the Divine name which is the essence of the Qur’an. It is architecture which encompasses the full range of disciplines and crafts such as masonary, carpentry, mosaic work, stained glass, gypsum carving and calligraphy, these by extension are manifestations of the principles which underlie the tradition of Islam. Architecture is central to Islam because it represents a formalization of virgin nature; it is symbolic of the highest place of worship created by God. Architecture is seen as the art of ordering space not only on a physical level but also on the metaphysical plane-placing man in the presence of God through the sacralization of space.

The sacred architecture of Islam is undoubtedly the architecture of the mosque. However, by extension this sacred aspect permeates through the whole environment of the Muslim’s world. In general, Islam does not divide the life of its community into sacred and profane domains. Thus although the architecture of the house is different from that of the mosque in terms of planning, it is similar in terms of style. The same rites that are performed in the mosque are also performed at home. This being the reason why the floor of a house is considered sacred and shoes are removed when entering, and why the rooms in the traditional Islamic house remain devoid of any fixed furniture.

The range of architectural styles that can be found in the Islamic world is as varied as the extensive environments, which make up the Muslim community (ummah). This variety in the expression of a common principle is mainly due to local building methods and materials as well as differences in the environment and cultural heritage of the people. This is most obvious in mosque architecture, which fully represents the wide range of regional variations.

However, this wide variety of mosques all have their origin in one prototype-that is the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. This original mosque was in fact the courtyard of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him and his progeny) house, which was used by the early Muslims for prayer. This was a simple enclosure with the wall nearest the direction of Mecca covered by a flat roof made of palm leaves supported on palm trunks.

However, it is important to stress that the variety of architectural forms that are found throughout the Islamic world should not be analyzed in terms of quantitative geometry, but should extend to the realm of sacred geometry which illustrates the perennial principles that make up a common base for the multiplicity of expression. Sacred geometry is primarily symbolic; it is the visual expression of the primordial and immutable principles that underlie the existence of man and the universe.

The language of sacred geometry and symbolism are only truly relevant within the context of a sacred tradition since then they are set within a spiritual context. There is a general impression amongst contemporary Muslim artists that the `abstraction’ of their modern art is related to and even inspired by the symbolic nature of traditional Islamic art.

To clarify this point one has to indicate that modern abstraction is merely an artistic mannerism or a technique of expression in which the technique overrides the real meaning of the art. Islamic art is truly abstract because on the one hand it conveys concepts, which cannot be expressed through mere physical form, and on the other it understands and fulfills the meaning of the symbolism of form. Form, which exists on the physical level has limits which are constricted by time and space.

However, physical form also has an aspect of conveying the metaphysical and it is this aspect which imbues certain forms with a timeless quality. This `abstract’ interpretation of form, as seen in Islamic art, raises the perception of reality from the physical realm. It encourages a contemplative state of mind and a perception, through the language of symbolism, of ‘ unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in unity’. The language of symbolism is the threshold between the physical and the metaphysical. An understanding of the symbolism of form overwhelms the individuality of the artist without suppressing his creative instinct; it stretches his mode of expression to the realm of metaphysics.

Although the content of Islamic art aspires to express the highest principles, the actual means of representation are quite defined. One of the most commonly discussed features of Islamic art has always been the prohibition of the portrayal of human figures. This needs to be explained further. In western art, through the influence of the Greek and Christian civilizations, iconography or the portrayal of the image of man occupies a central position (Jesus is the word made flesh; icons are central to Christian art). Islamic art takes quite a different view;

let us not forget that the image of man is always the image that man conceives of himself. The image bears back on its author, who thus never quite frees himself from the spell it casts upon him. The whole course of European art, with its increasingly accelerated phases of action and reaction, is mainly a dialogue between man and his image. Islam banished all this ambiguous play of psychological mirrors at an early stage, thus preserving the primordial dignity of man himself. (Mirror of the Intellect, pp 212 & 213)

Burkhardt further clarifies this position by explaining that although man remains the central figure to which all the arts refer, he is not the theme of the visual arts. The Prophet forbade the depiction of human forms as being a copy of the creation of God. He said that the artists undertaking such work will be asked in the afterlife to breathe life into their images, they will then suffer the consequences of such futile activities.

However, this must not be interpreted as a total ban on the depiction of the human figure. Firstly, Islam forbids the visual representation of God since the nature of God goes beyond any visual or liturgical interpretation.

Secondly, Islam does tolerate the depiction of human form as long as it is not an attempt to create the illusion of living beings. These two principles are seen in the art of Islamic miniature painting which reached peaks of beauty and refinement, but which always remained on the periphery of the world of Islamic art and away from the liturgical domain which was dominated by the arts of architecture and calligraphy.

There might be a suggestion that the prohibition of images in Islamic art has created a void which had to be filled, and thus lead to the development of a more abstract aspect of this art, in particular geometrical patterns and arabesque forms. However, a true understanding of Islamic art would make it obvious that these art forms are not a compensation for the lack of images, but a positive contribution towards a perception of a higher reality than material form.

By transforming a surface into a tissue of colors or into a vibration of light and shadows, the ornament prevents the mind from fixing itself on any form that says ‘I’, as an image says ‘I’. The center of an arabesque is everywhere and nowhere, each ‘affirmation’ being followed by its ‘negation’, and vice versa. (Mirror of the Intellect, p 226)

Traditional art is a reminder of a higher state of being; it is a support for contemplation. All traditional art forms are representations of higher models. They are symbols on earth of the essence of the archetype, which is in heaven. It is this contemplative nature of traditional Islamic art, which removes it from the constraints of time and place. It is through the understanding of this fact that the contemporary artist can draw not only physical but also spiritual inspiration to form a basis for his art. These timeless values will truly provide the freedom from social constraints and psychological pre-occupation, which every artist searches for in his work.

If one has to define the essence of Islamic art it will be the religion of Islam itself, which derives its identity from the concept of unity (tawhid). Although the religion of Islam does not set out a mode of artistic expression, every aspect of it contains within itself the possibility of visual and symbolic representation. The main influence on this artistic expression is the Qur’an, in fact the Qur’an through inscriptions, recitation and prayer permeates every aspect of a Muslim’s life.

Burkhardt stresses the depth of this influence by saying;

If one may call the influence emanating from the Qur’an a spiritual vibration-and we can find no better word for it, since the influence in question is of both a spiritual and an auditive nature – we may well say that all Islamic art must needs bear the imprint of this vibration.

Thus, visual Islamic art is but the visual reflection of the Qur’anic word; it cannot be otherwise. (Mirror of the Intellect, pp 229).

However, Burkhardt also illustrates an important paradox in that the Qur’an does not set a specific model for the form of Islamic art. Nor does Islamic art, as in the case of Christian art, depict episodes from the lives of the prophets, or as in Hinduism where there is a cosmology which is directly interpreted in Hindu architecture. There is no principle of composition, which can be found in the Qur’an which can form the framework of an artistic expression.

Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier Islamic art cannot draw its inspiration from the religious law (sharī‘ah), which simply regulates the daily life of the Muslim community by setting limits and guidelines, it cannot be the source of artistic creativity.

Burkhardt goes on the explain that the relationship between the Qur’an and Islamic art; ‘must not be sought on the level of formal expression’ (Mirror of the Intellect, pp 229). He stresses that Islam does not derive its inspiration from the literal meaning or form of the Qur’an but from its ‘formless essence’; primarily from the concept of unity (tawhid)

The essence of at-tawhid is beyond words; it reveals itself in the Qur’an by sudden and discontinuous flashes. Striking the plane of the visual imagination, these flashes congeal into crystalline forms, and it is these forms in their turn that constitute the essence of Islamic art. (Mirror of the Intellect, pp 230)0

Finally, one can only conclude this lecture by stressing that Islamic art is not concerned with models of representation but with a mode of contemplation of Divine unity.


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