Last night the Utah Community Cultural Center hosted the UPF film Islamic Art: Mirror of the Unseen World, and I was invited to give the introduction:
God is Beautiful and Loves Beauty:
An Informal Introduction to Art in the Islamic World
A man, consumed with the desire to find the right church to join, fasts and prays with all his heart because he learned that the Bible teaches we must ask our questions of God, and He will answer. While he is alone one night, an angel dressed all in white appears – this angel recites a message meant for this man, then returns two more times repeating the exact same words. In the morning the man stumbles home and falls into a ditch, the angel appears again and fills his field of view. The message he heard three times the previous night is repeated, and the angel commands him to return to his family and share this important message.
Of course, I’m speaking of Gabriel’s visit to Mohammed in the opening of autumn, 610 AD. All of Gabriel’s visits were accompanied by a command to recite and remember his words, because although Mohammed started a religion which is known as the single most literary faith movement in the history of the world, he himself never learned to read or write.
Mohammed brought a level of stability to life in the Arabic peninsula that had not been seen before. As one example, women in this culture were less important than livestock, and up to her teenage years she could be buried alive in the sand if her family thought she was a burden or too big of a nuisance. Her hair was a symbol of her health and breeding ability. Mohammed put a stop to the practice of burying children in the sand, and invited women to wear a hair covering so men would be forced to look them in the eyes and acknowledge their humanity. Mohammed was also invited to come to Medina and broker a peace between the many different religions there. What resulted, and this was in spite of Mohammed’s inability to read or write, was one of the very earliest constitutions calling for a representational government, including provisions for the legal constraints of many different faiths to work together. He acknowledged all the holy prophets from Adam, and expressed surprise when Jews or Christians could not see that all three faiths were fellow “Children of the Book” meaning the Bible.
Islam now, 1400 years after Mohammed, is celebrated by an amazingly diverse rainbow of hues, by families all around the world. Family traditions and understanding are fused with the faith, and there are as many variations of observance as there are in any other world religion. One tradition I found that helped me learn was the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God. Reading the Qur’an, visiting with Muslim leaders, scholars, and laity, and reflecting on my own beliefs, the sculptures I build of the 99 Names are celebrations of these many facets of Divinity – although the tradition is distinctly Muslim, the 99 Names are like the Beatitudes or Eight-fold Path of Buddha, and can be appreciated by anyone.
There are some points of departure between my Christian background and Islamic art tradition. For Christians the Word of God was made flesh and lived among ordinary people in the body of Christ. This goes a long way in explaining the rich history of figurative art in the West – depictions of God as Jesus were widely sponsored and sought after, and on some level every image of the human form is a reaction to that history. In Islam, however, the Word of God was made legible as the Qur’an. Rather than a human form symbolizing the Bridge between mankind and heaven, the written word became the Bridge. So writing and the book arts become most important, for parallel reasons.
One common misunderstanding among Westerners is that figurative work has been forbidden Muslim artists. Although it is considered inappropriate to limit God to physical form, depictions of people including Mohammed and Jesus were created. In fact, when Mohammed cleaned out the Qa’aba in Mecca which had been filled with centuries of idols and pagan religious symbols, the only piece of art he left inside was a portrait of Mary and the baby Jesus.
There are a few other things to look for, that may help us appreciate Islamic art: geometry, organic forms, the use of empty space, and color.
In Islam capital-T Truth is Divine knowledge. Since God is infinite, this kind of Truth can never be adequately articulated by human beings, only alluded to; as a result of this perception, math and geometry became vitally important to the Muslim artist. Using math the artist would develop a pattern with significance (using numbers like five and eight, for example – five being the number of the Pillars of Faith, and eight being the number of angels carrying God’s throne at the Last Judgment). A tiling sequence would be distilled to a repeatable section, but an incredible effort was made so it was easy for a viewer to get lost in the expanding pattern. As a person contemplates the intricate geometry, it became easier for him or her to become open to the spiritual meditation which should happen in a sacred setting.
Closely related to this fascination with geometry and math is the use of intricate organic forms and interlacing. Although geometric “tiles” were also used in organic designs, the flowers and vines meant something a little different. First, they serve to remind us of the promise of Heaven – bountiful, vital richness of growth and abundance. Keep in mind that Islam started on the Arabian peninsula, one of the largest inhabited areas on the planet with no natural bodies of water which last all year around. So displaying a rich network of plant forms is a great way to celebrate Paradise. Second, the organic forms recall to mind the rich variety of Creation; God is bountiful and promises to provide the faithful with bounty in their obedience, and the universe is filled with richness and diversity far beyond our ability to comprehend. And third, most of the organic patterns, as wildly complicate as they may grow, usually point back to a stylized vessel or starting point for the viney growths, whereas the geometric designs rarely have a strongly defined origin.
Have you ever heard the Buddhist phrase, “The sound of one hand clapping”? Although this has been used many times to give an annoying student something to contemplate, it points to an important idea in Islamic art. If there is no silence, we can’t appreciate music – without pauses, conversation would be very difficult to follow. Without a moment to listen, we couldn’t hear anything truly important. In art, we also use the term “negative space” to express the importance of the space around what we’re making, which helps to define the thing being made. If we combine these two ideas we approach the purpose of the void (or emptiness) in Islamic art. When looking at Islamic designs, also look at the space between or around shapes – often the artist is using this negative space to purposely accentuate what he is building. This serves as a reminder that, although we cannot always witness the Divine Presence, It is still there, all the time. And in the midst of the chaos of our living, the Divine is heard in the still small voice. That silence, that presence, is what makes the experienced possible.
As we look at Islamic art there is also a strong presence, many times, of color. Although artists always express themselves with a certain level of freedom, generally blue, green, and red have meaning in Islamic art. For Christians blue is associated with God the Father and Mary, green with the presence of God as Spirit, and red associates with the Blood of Christ. For Muslims blue usually symbolizes the eternal life-giving qualities of the Water of Heaven, or in Christian terms, the Living Water. We partake of eternal truth and our souls live forever. Green accompanies the richness of abundant growth, both of our spirits as we submit to Divine Will and the infinite abundance promised the faithful in heaven. And red is the color of the blood of martyrs – and NOT what you think. The real martyr in Islam is the parent, teacher, or builder who gives their whole life in service to others around them, not to die horribly but to die peaceably after a good, long life; a long life well and truly lived, filled with expressions of love to family, friends, and strangers, is the true meaning of Jihad. Teaching, not terrorism, is the highest calling in Islam.
In the movie we’ll be watching, look for these aspects of Islamic art. The importance of the Word, the intricacy of geometric and organic design, the presence of space or the void, and the use of color. But rather than making a checklist, keep in mind the single most important aspect of Islamic art.
This art is made by people with a belief, a belief and hope for a better and beautiful world. God made us to help take care of the earth, the Qur’an teaches, and when we in turn make something we are emulating our own Great Creator. Objects of Islamic art are not just beautiful things, but are also objects of worship. And heartfelt testimonies of the hopes, dreams, and faith of those who made them. Muslims all around the world believe they have a responsibility to build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, by building strong and responsible families, by teaching their children how to behave and make friends, and by bringing more beauty into the world. Mohammed said, “God is Beautiful and loves Beauty.” I believe regardless of our differences, this is something all of us can agree to.
–Andrew Kosorok, 2014