Reading visual cues in Islamic art

Islam is a faith revealed to the Prophet Mohamed on the Arabian Peninsula in the early 7th century, whose motivation was to heal the spiritual rift between Judaism and Christianity.  All these three faith traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, use the Old Testament of the Bible and trace their spiritual heritage to Abraham—Jews and Christians through Abraham’s son Isaac, and Muslims through Abraham’s son Ishmael.  While Mohamed fasted and prayed for the answer to his spiritual dilemma, the Angel Gabriel came and recited the Qur’an; Mohamed in turn taught the Qur’an through recitation, and those who heard it wrote it down.  “Islam” means “Path of Submission (to God)”, “Path of Peace”, or “Path of Integrity,” and “Muslim” means “One Who Submits (to God)”, or “One Who Walks the Path of Peace (or Integrity).”  Islamic art reflects the history of this faith tradition, and teaches through its elements, using number, shape, complexity of design, and color.

Two numbers prevalent in Islamic art are five and eight; these are also used in multiples (ten representing five, or sixteen representing eight).  Five reflects the Five Pillars of Islam, five elements of behavior which mark the Muslim as a follower of Islam:  The Declaration of Faith (“There is no God but God, and Mohamed is His prophet”), praying five times a day, fasting, paying tithing, and going on Hajj once in a lifetime (Hajj is the spiritual journey to Mecca, which includes observances at the Qa’aba and Mt. Ararat).  Eight refers to the number of angels which, in Islamic tradition, will carry the Throne of God at the Last Judgment—it is a reminder that everyone is responsible for their own actions, and will be held accountable for all they do.  In general, number is also used along with shape as a metaphor.

Shapes in Islamic art reflect information (pentagon and octagon, for example), heritage (the six pointed star and Seal of Melchizadek are used to remind viewers of their spiritual history), and are used as a metaphor for knowledge.  Islam teaches that all truth, regardless of the language of transmission, comes from the same Divine Source; geometry and mathematics used in art construction reflect this.  Many documents used by this nation’s founders had their genesis with Greek intellectuals; and many of those writings were held in trust in Muslim libraries throughout the Middle Ages.  Many point to the Taj Mahal, for example, as being designed to reflect Paul’s description of the City of Heaven from a Muslim library’s copy of the New Testament.

Complexity of design is closely connected with Islamic art traditions, both with geometric lacings and organic, or “vegetal,” patterns.  This comes from the awareness that an Infinite Creator constructed the universe we share so everything is interconnected; there is also an element of the idea of “freedom within limits.”  For Muslims, the commandments and spiritual rules of conduct are viewed as bounds of behavior and not inconvenient restrictions—similar to a kite string, which allows a kite to fly as high as the sky because it works with the string, but if the string is cut the kite crashes.  Looking closely at incredibly complicated Islamic designs, we can see smaller segments which are repeated and reflected, as well as the play of the designer with the shapes holding in the designs; underlying principles of structure and order are necessary to support the complicated interlacing.

Colors play a strong role in how we see the world; when a plant is tan or brown we think it’s dying, and when milk is anything other than white or chocolate brown it can be unnerving (gray milk, for example, is particularly unappetizing).  In the Arabic Peninsula there are no natural bodies of water which remain all year; because of this and the desert environment, blue and green are very important in Islamic art tradition.  Blue represents life-giving water, and green represents the vibrancy of growth.  Just as early pioneers looked on a grove of cottonwoods as a blessing from God because it marked a source of water, early Muslims saw oases and acanthus plants as signs of God’s benevolence, and we can see the use of those elements throughout Islamic art.

Rarely is any figurative art seen in Islamic tradition associated with holy structures, and this is for a couple reasons.  Although plant life designs are common, it is generally considered inappropriate to represent the human form in a religious setting because it can be distracting and lead to idolatry; however, art of the human form can be found in other environments.  Because God is beyond human conception, Islamic art rarely if ever depicts the Divine as a human form—this is viewed as far too restrictive and disrespectful.  Specific individuals in Islamic tradition are also generally avoided; Mohamed for example refused to let anyone draw his face, because he felt there would be a tendency to turn his image into an icon.

In constructing the sculptures in the 99 Names series, I have tried to use this information and coupled it with some observances of Muslim history.  The sculptures reflect three elements of what I have seen:  architecture, geometry, and book arts.  Those who follow Islam feel that it is the responsibility of the faithful to build a better world, to actively work towards the ideal of a Kingdom of Heaven.  This is reflected in the dream of a kingdom of conscience, but all positive construction can be viewed as a metaphor for this dream.  Early Muslim settlements built mosques from the rubble of past ages, again as a metaphor for this dream—and the architectural elements in the sculptures are intended to reflect this.

The geometry used is an acknowledgement of the Muslim awareness that all truth comes from the same source; we may not understand exactly how truth is interrelated, but all truth deserves respect and appreciation.  Finally, the Qur’an, the book recited by Gabriel to Mohamed, is inseparable from a Muslim’s faith.  The Qur’an is a physical symbol of God’s interest in and love of Man, and learning it is at the heart of Islam.  Because of this, all books are respected (they all represent the ability to transmit knowledge, which is a Divine gift itself), and the arts that are tied to books have been revered in Muslim culture through the ages.  Learning book binding techniques from a rare and medieval books curator, that awareness is expressed through the knots and materials used in the sculpture construction.

Muslim artists have, for fourteen hundred years, expressed their faith through their work; every element and every tool is intended specifically for building something that will direct the viewer’s heart towards the ultimate Source of creativity.   Through the use of number, shape, design, and color, the Muslim craftsman hopes to share his or her personal belief, and make the world as a whole a richer, more beautiful space.

Andrew Kosorok

Colors and numbers

Islamic art is as wide and varied in its expression as the myriad of cultures which has embraced the faith.  The use of specific elements in art, then, also reflect the uniqueness of the specific culture in question.  The following general meanings are gleaned from conversations with Muslim clerics and laity from many sects, as well as Muslim artists and art critics from around the world.

Colors and their meaning

  • Red–Typically, this references blood in its many meanings.  Blood is the life force–the Divine gift given us by the Creator:  to generate life, live to produce and create, and finally surrender our life to the One Who gave it.  It represents the blood of the martyr, and not in the way popularly thought by Westerners.  In Islam, Jihad means Divine or Holy struggle, and there is both a Greater and a Lesser.  The Lesser applies when a person must resort to violence to protect those who are innocent, family members, the rights of sovereignty, and the freedoms of worship–under no circumstances whatsoever are the innocent (women, children, non-combatants) to be harmed.  The Greater applies to the struggle to overcome base desires and to live a life so the Holy Spirit becomes a constant companion.  These martyrs are those who live to a ripe old age, raising and teaching others to live so they can be worthy of Paradise (teaching is one of the most revered occupations in Islam) and continuing in good works; those who “endure to the end.”
  • Orange/Yellow/Gold–The enlightenment which accompanies Divine inspiration is commonly likened to the learning which accompanies study by the light of a scholar’s lamp.  Flame imagery evokes the Divine lamp leading to knowledge of the spiritual truths which prepare one for entry into Paradise or Heaven.  In areas where saffron was available (consistently the single most expensive spice in the ancient world, worth more than its weight in gold), this was also a symbol of royalty, nobility, or bounty.
  • Green–Many of the lands under early Islamic influence shared much with the desert areas of the Arabian peninsula and oases were life-saving havens of nourishment and cool shelter.  The endless gardens of Paradise, lush with succulent growth, were a particularly immediate and meaningful symbol of the blessings of Eternity.  Green symbolized not just the boundless bounty of Heaven, but also the blessings promised by a loving Creator and His limitless power to give and nourish life itself.  Traditionally, Mohamed wore a green robe.
  • Blue–Life giving/sustaining water is proof of God’s desires to bless His creations, and has been an important symbol of Divine Benevolence from the very beginning of Islam.  Blue also represents both the sky and the realms of stars, reminding us of the endlessness of creation.
  • Purple–This can be a symbol of the unending, star-filled night sky, represent the blood of the faithful, or royalty (traditionally, purple has been one of the most expensive textile dyes and only royalty could afford its use in any meaningful quantities).
  • Black–Many times this is a symbol of either the night sky (like blue or purple) or the period before manifest creation (for example, the period preceding the Big Bang, when all creation was equally potential).  For Muslim alchemists, this also represents rich, loamy soil, out of which anything can grow.
  • White–Represents purity beyond materiality, or the realm of all potential (similar to black).  Also references the clouds in the heavens, which can point the way to Paradise or hold life-giving rain.

Numbers and their meaning

  • Multiples–Sometimes numbers are shown by their multiples, for example five could be shown by ten, or four by twelve.  Artists would use complex interweaving designs with multiples of important numbers to remind the viewers of our mortal capacity and to signify the incomprehensible complexity of God’s infinite creations.  This was also done to help the viewer “let go” of material considerations, lose the self in the pattern and open a door to allow the Holy Spirit entry.
  • One–All action begins with a moment of decision; the dot symbolizes both the point when God “began” His creation and the point when an individual begins the rest of his or her life.  This could refer not just to the moment of personal conversion, but also to the moment of accepting responsibility for future actions.  In some cases, this also refers to the individual being created for a unique purpose, as well as the concept that our uniqueness is for God’s work and not our own egos–left to our own devices, each of us is less than a spec in the grand scheme of things.
  • Three–There are three worlds of being:  the material realm, the generative soulful realm, and the higher spiritual realm.  There are also three stages of interaction between God and man:  God blesses us or gives us a hardship, we react with faith or anger, and grow or diminish as a result of our reaction.  In turn, we are blessed or given a further hardship, and the cycle continues, all with the intent to guide us to becoming the individual God desires us to be.
  • Five–There are the five pillars of Islam:  the Declaration of Faith (“There is no God but God, and Mohamed is His prophet”), the five daily prayers, fasting during the month of Ramadan, the paying of tithes, and the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca.  Five is indicative of the Golden Ratio, a proportion of growth and movement common throughout God’s creation.  From ancient times, the five-pointed star was also a symbol of Divine concourse and inspiration:  a star pointing up represented a person praying and a star pointing down represented the answer.
  • Seven–Important also to Christians (for slightly different reasons), the seven points represent the seven alchemical planets; the planets were placed in heaven as one of the many means for God to communicate His will to people.  Alchemy was a way to understand Divine creation through experimentation, and Muslim alchemists sought diligently to discover a Universal Medicine which could heal all ills, while their Christian contemporaries in Europe sought for ways to transmute base metals into gold.
  • Eight–In the Qur’an, it states that at the Judgment Day, God’s throne will be carried by eight angels (Qur’an 69:17).  This is not meant as a literal image, but an allegory.  However, this verse is an admonition for personal responsibility; the number eight serves as a reminder we will all be held to account for our every deed.  An octagon (eight sided figure) is the architectural structure linking the supporting cube of the building (the material realm) with the circular dome symbolizing the heavens; eight also, then, represents the necessary bridge between the physical and imperfect self and the perfection of heaven.
  • Twelve–An expansion of three, or four, or six, and important not just for these numbers, but also for the resulting expansion of complexity in design.  Additionally, twelve is a number of balance.

In areas of the world where different branches of Islam prevail, numbers have been used in design to underscore points of doctrine (for example, patterns in areas where Shi’ism is dominant contain numbers referring to beliefs regarding the inspired Imams descending from Mohamed).