Transparency for Merciful (Ar-Rahim)

Transparency for Merciful (Ar-Rahim)

99 Names Project Introduction (Part 3)

The rules for construction are governed by three considerations:  geometry, the book arts, and architectural detail.  In Islam there is an awareness that all truth comes from the same Ultimate Source, even if we may not understand the language of transmission or how different truths may mesh together.  In the New Testament, God decrees, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7)–this leads to the awareness that, regardless of who or where in the world the earnest seeker for truth may be, the Creator will answer heartfelt, honest questions to the best understanding of the seeker.  Math and physical principles are the same regardless of the language of transmission, so geometry became the symbol for this relationship with truth.  The sculptures are designed using principles of hermetic construction, and drawn with a straight-edge and a set of compasses.  Muslims translated many works of ancient scholars and preserved them in their libraries regardless of differences in personal philosophy; Greek and Roman principles of proportion and symmetry, reflected through the use of Platonic and Archimedean solids and the Golden Section in the 99 Names sculptures, have historically informed the tremendous volume of work produced by Muslim artists and designers.

The book arts are an important consideration for the construction of the sculptures in the series because of the vitality of the written word in Islam.  In my own Christian tradition, the Word or Logos of God “was made flesh, and dwelt among us (John 1:14)” in the Divine Body of Christ.  In Muslim theology, the Qur’an is literally the Word of God; Christ for Christians is the bridge between humans and heaven, and in Islam this bridge is the Holy Qur’an.  As in the West all figurative art is respected and on some level is a symbol of the Divine Body of Christ, in Islam all books arts are respected and on some level are a symbol for the Holy Qur’an.  An Imam shared with me that all books should be treated reverently and with respect for two reasons:  first, all books represent intelligent transmission of knowledge, which is in itself a Divine gift; second, all books recall to mind the most sacred of books, the Qur’an.  Being unfamiliar with the high points of calligraphy, the sculptures reflect my experience with book construction and bookbinding from my training by a medieval and rare books conservator.  The physical construction uses book forms and hemp thread, consistent with traditional binding techniques.

The third consideration is an awareness of architectural form.  Each sculpture is built while picturing it in a sacred space, keeping images of shelter constantly in my mind.  The Abrahamic traditions share an undercurrent of the need to physically construct the Kingdom of Heaven–Jews with Zion, Christians with the Community of Christ–and Muslims also have a history of building significant spiritual structures for universal use.  The Dome of the Rock was built for all the Abrahamic traditions to use, and the earliest mosques in Medina were built to be a shared worship structure for Jews, Christians, and Zoastrians alike.  In visiting with many Muslim families, I have been told over and over that a Muslim‘s responsibility is to build in their own lives a reflection of what they think Heaven will be–a happy home life and a positive legacy of lasting constructive impact.  This drive to not passively wait for perfection, but to take a hand in building it is shared among many faiths, with a common refrain being, “be the change you wish to see.”

Initially, the size of the sculptures was going to reflect the personal exploration taking place by being the height of the traditional ideal form–six feet.  Immediately I felt this was impractical at best, so although the consideration remains in the back of my mind while building (I would love to transpose the sculptures into a larger format some day), the height of the works are much more intimate and personal.  In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant is built based on the cubit–a very personal measurement described as the distance between the point of the elbow and the tip of the middle finger.  Among other things, this unique and intimate standard of measure was referenced in the Apostle John’s later use of the word logos, and reflects the deeply personal nature of an individual’s relationship with the Divine.  In Islam the numbers five (the Five Pillars of Islam) and eight (eight angels will carry God’s throne at the Last Judgment) are particularly significant, so I used a measurement of five-eighths of my own cubit for the consistent height of the sculptures in the 99 Names series, which is about eleven and a quarter inches.  This also corresponds closely to the height of my personal copy of the Qur’an, which seemed appropriate.

The pattern of construction has remained fairly consistent.  The Names are divided into four groups of twenty five, using the Mevlevi Sufi list of Names as translated by The Threshold Sufi Society, found at  This was the first organization that responded to my outreach, and which gave me a blessing for the endeavor.  Many other organizations and individuals have since responded in a similar and very supportive manner, but The Threshold Society was the first.  As I begin, I meditate on the Names, read in the Qur’an and from Muslim scholars regarding what the Names mean, and research parallel examples of the Names in Christian literature.  I invite the Spirit to direct my efforts, and begin sketches of the images that come into my thoughts.  Then I try to do nothing about them for a time, and let my subconscious work on correlating images, shapes, and concepts.  After a time, different for each sculpture, more concrete images and ideas emerge regarding each Name, and as these coalesce, the designs for the sculptures begin to emerge.

This sounds rather prosaic and predictable, but is completely organic.  I use at least four different sketchbooks, with a few pages devoted to each Name.  Sometimes everything will gel together quickly for one Name while it will take months to resolve some of the most basic elements for another; multiple ideas bubble about each other all the time, and as one sculpture is being built it informs and changes dozens of others still being imagined.  Through it all I try to maintain an openness to inspiration, which does not always happen.  Occasionally, hints are “whispered” to my heart which I choose to ignore, and the realization comes only hours and hours of wasted effort later that I should have followed the “still small voice.”  With this frustration comes a determination to listen next time, but my desire is not always reflected in my actions.  (Continued…)