Reversing How We Gaze at Islamic Art

In mathematics by Salma El-Zamel

A room display containing a variety of Islamic art designed by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, known as a pioneer for alternative architecture that challenges dominant Western architectural modern designs.

Enter any Muslim household regardless of nationality, and you are bound to come across some representation of Islamic art. Maybe Turkish biomorphic motifs inspired by flowers on a Turkish vase in a kitchen, Moorish tessellations on ceramics varied in geometric patterns and colors in a washroom, or South and Southeast Asian symmetrical wooden Jali carvings on furniture or window screens in a living room. There are also carefully beaded Syrian lamps, and metal carved Egyptian lanterns that may be hung up, reflecting interconnected psychedelic patterns through traveling light. Not to mention Kilim carpets from Persia and Central Asia on the ground, and of course, the intricate portraits of calligraphy that could be passed on generationally crafted on Nigerian and Mauritanian wooden slates or Chinese rice paper. And if you cannot find any such examples, you are bound to come across at least one prayer mat with a classical Qur’an decorated in an outer golden arabesque frame. All of which are representations of vastly diverse history and an amalgam of civilizational influences meshed into daily house usage. 

Islamic art is an essential anthropological component of a Muslim’s life. However, it is often neglected, and its spiritual essence that inspired the mathematical calculations behind its patterns has been shrouded by the materialism of its making. The craft is often taught one-sidedly, focusing on the mathematical science of its techniques and formation without much exploration of the spiritual principles behind its inspiration.

The portrayal of Islamic art, by Muslims and non-Muslims, has been, for the most part, limited to mere remnants of romanticized ancient history. Richard Ettinghausen, one of the founders of the history of Islamic art, addressed it as the sole accomplishment of the Muslim civilization through the Western gaze, stating: “Muslim art can also have a special significance for the Muslim world of today. Since this is its one cultural achievement widely accepted and admired by the West, a rededication to it can compensate the East to a certain degree for its scientific and technological retardation…”. 

The history of its making has been taken for granted; a victim of patronization holding it to an inferior orientalist comparison to Eurocentric ideals of arts. Not only harming the spirit of Islamic art, but that of art as a whole – art that tells the human story and voyages to borrow inspiration from the diversity of civilizations and the universe in all its glory. Instead, art is belittled when held to hierarchical comparisons. It also faces the degradation of the secularized disenchantment behind the philosophy and science that gave birth to such complex art, to begin with. 

And like many forms of sacred and spiritual art, it is in dire need of decolonization to shift its portrayal from the white gaze to that of its origin’s story. Rather than limiting its materialistic preservation to displays in museums and households as decorative ornaments, it requires recapturing that ‘ way of seeing ‘ that the original artists and polymers of their period hoped for the world to recognize. 

Islamic art is meant to be experienced. To be seen with not only the eyes, but with the ears, the heart, and the whole body. It talks to the ruh – the human soul. It guides to ma’na – meaning of things and existence. It is influenced by the inner dimensions of the metaphysics of the Qur’an and sunnah as weaved into the realities of the cosmos explaining why images of Islamic art are full of geometric patterns, mosaics, and biomorphic motifs, rather than human imagery. Even though there are records of portraits with animals and humans in the history of Islamic art, it is, for the most part, more interested in capturing the principles of existence instead of the outward appearances of creation, all of which starts with a circle.

The Circle of Unity – Wuhdat al Wujud:

One is all and all is one. 

Nothing in the cosmos stands on its own. Everything exists in a delicate balance in reliance on one another. It is the nature of the human’s place in the order of the universe that matters. It is their interconnectedness with all the living, the visible and invisible, with the earth and the heavens, the waters and the stars. Everything is connected within a magnificent stream that is not necessarily visible to us. That is the batin, the mysteries of the world that we live to discover. And that is why a basic geometric blueprint of Islamic art is interlocked in a circle. 

Source TedEd
A gif showcasing the making of one of the many geometrics of Islamic art; starting with a circle to its finish.

The circle signifies unity, Wuhdut al Wujud (unity of existence) or Tawheed. It connects all geometric patterns in infinite repetition because all beings serve each other, believed to orbit their Creator. From the most invisible of atoms to the largest mountains reaching to infinite galaxies, and all that breathes in between— all are in need of one another for survival. Islamic art tells the story of this interconnected eternal order, a balance maintained by carefully calculated geometrics and symmetry.
Look towards the Heavens and You Shall Know Your Place: The Story of Domes and Minarets

This balance is best resembled in Islamic architecture, especially that of mosques that are considered the hub of the community. Starting with the dome. Not all mosques have domes. In fact, Islamic domes were inspired by Christian Byzantine church and temple architectures that were distinct for their domes. A dome in Islamic architecture came to resemble a vault to heaven, seducing visitors to look upwards towards expressions of celestial reflections. Especially if magnificently carved in half-open domes at the entrance of enormous gates or in mihrabs, like in the muqarnas of the Shah Mosque in Ishfhan, Iran, or at the Palace of Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

Muqarnas is a vaulting architectural technique designed to reflect the celestial magic of night skies as displayed in the gate of the Shah Mosque (top left). Professor of Arts Shiro Takahashi provides a 2D blueprint of the geometry of the muqarnas of the gate (top right).
A 2D representation of the geometrics of the dome in the Palace of Alhambra (bottom).

The dome refers to the oneness of the Creator who created the eternal order and the interconnected unity that is believed to revolve around Him. Architecturally, the dome allows air to swiftly circulate and is often built on top of the prayer hall to amplify the sound of recitation and dhikr – devotional remembrance of God. Sometimes domes are surrounded with high ceiling windows that bathe the house of worship and its visitors with another important component in almost all religious spaces – light.

Inner dome surrounded by windows of Selimiye Mosque, Istanbul (top left). A man praying in front of a window in a mosque in Turkey (bottom left). A woman sitting in Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran (right). All portrayals of the different roles light and shade play in Islamic architecture.

There is usually a second inner circle in a dome that signifies the ruh, the spirit in all living beings who embrace this oneness, with an octagonal belt that holds the dome with sturdy pillars extending to the roots of the ground. The 8 octagonal corners symbolize the eight major angels in Islam who also resemble the various stages of life: Jibril (angel of revelation and bringer of good news), Mika’il (angel of rain and mercy), Izra’il (angel of death), Munkar, and Nakir (angels of the grave), Israfil (angel of the day of judgment; the trumpet blower), Raqib and Atid (the Noble recorders; companions of every human). 

All of this is connected by the minaret, this tall tower that stands at the exterior of mosques for the call for prayer. A minaret in Arabic means “that that lights” or “the place that lights”. The call for prayer is meant to be carried by word that travels through air to reach the community, spreading in all the spaces surrounding a mosque. The word is a sacred entity, believed by Muslims to be the first of entities to be taught to humans. And it travels freely throughout the cosmos connecting the deepest of the earth to the highest of skies as a minaret points up. This brings us to the last fundamental experience of Islamic art, the void where the eternal order floats. 

What You Seek Shall Meet You at the Void

A mosque is supposed to be a space that recapitulates the harmony, serenity, and order of nature and the cosmos. Islamic architecture was considered an extension of nature, reflecting the diversity of cultures and environments of where tribes settled and civilizations flourished. For example, The Great Mosque of Xi’an, China, and the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali. Both wonders of their time with distinct designs that tell the stories of their people and their environment. The Great Mosque of Djenné is known for its baked mud bricks and palm tree logs, while the Great Mosque of Xi’an for its Xie Shan Chinese ceilings of wooden beams and wooden infrastructure. Both mosques are known for their humility and mysticism, but they also show the significance of the emptiness of space that is fundamental in all mosques and even premodern Muslim households. The void allows for the full use of all the natural components of the structure of buildings. 

Left: By Photographer Francois Xavier Marit
A corner shot of the Mosque of Djenne, Mali.

Right: By Photographer Damon Winter
A reflection of the inner grandeur of the Mosque of Djenne with its height, magnificent simplicity, and its void that allows for light to travel freely through it despite its outer architectural closure.

Utilizing light and shade, heat and coolness, represent the aerodynamics and hydro cooling effects of the earth and create an ecological equilibrium that blinds its environment. Mosques from all regions share the void in space that integrates all aspects of a mosque’s structure to point at the center with minimal distraction. The empty space becomes full of loud silence enamored with spiritual energy and the elements of life such as air, light, and earth.

Left: By Photographer Christopher Little
The inner dome of Xie Shan roof of the fourth courtyard of Huajuexiang Mosque with lotus flowers as the center of the dome.

Right: By Blogger Lindsay Shapka
Gate to a court of Huajuexiang Mosque with the shahada carved on top.

This is particularly important for contemplation. Such spaces are structured to highlight humility, reminding humans of how fragile they are in the midst of the magnanimity of the universe. A reality that requires tremendous discipline and infinite reflection to live by. The ultimate manifestation of such humility is when Muslims curve their bodies into sujood, prostration, laying their foreheads on the ground. For humans are made of water and earth, and they shall return to that earth as taught in Islam. So, when Muslims enter a mosque to prostrate or any space in nature for that matter, they are meant to be reminded of their minuscule position in the order of the universe. They are reminded that there is life in every breath, and their role is to maintain that balance with justice–the perfection of limitations bounded by a circle. If one entity violates the rights and space of another, consequences follow. And to maintain that balance one cannot be alone. The geometric patterns of Islamic art are constantly connected, emphasizing the collectivism of unity. 

For humans are one within the all, but it is only when the one comes together, that the all can exist in balance. 

Ablution fountain at the Courtyard of the Zaouiya of Moulay Idriss in Fez, Morocco, 1993.