How to Understand Islamic Art


Seeking to understand Islam, not just on a theological level, but on multiple levels, I have developed an interest in exploring the art and aesthetics of Islam as well, considering what Christians could learn from Muslims and what Muslims could learn from Christians. Nada Shabout makes the following observations in “Understanding Islamic Aesthetics“:

What is important in Islamic painting is not that the subject be represented as it appears in nature, but rather that the autonomous cosmos created by the artist, with its own structure, language, and laws, be clear to the viewer. It was forbidden to represent a particular individual via portraiture. Animate beings and life were identified with individuality, not with form, rendering them an idea or concept rather than a concrete representation. For the Islamic artist, God creates life by giving form an individuality without which it cannot be alive. The artist can only reproduce the most characteristic general traits of a person without bestowing on the figure any individuality, and thus has no fear of competing with God’s creative act.

Both figures and animals were painted as flat and two-dimensional, mere abstractions of the ideas they embodied. Everything is brought up to the immediate foreground. The absence of a third dimension symbolises the reality of the surface and emphasises the fantasy world of the painting. Instead of the linear perspective used later in the West to organise space, Muslim artists utilised what might be termed a spiritual perspective. This perspective follows spiritual rules governed by the understanding of the relationship between God’s eternal existence and the transient existence of the world at large. Accordingly, Muslim artists can show the inside and outside of a building at once, and do not need to conform to any natural laws in their use of light and shadow. Islamic art is an intuitive art which aims at comprehending the eternal essence, by giving evidence that both Beauty, and God, exist. It is the art of contemplating God’s glories.

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