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ICONOGRAPHY. A discussion of the iconography of Islamic art must begin by defining the essential components or elements of this art and their application. Next, it is important to address the question of whether traditional iconography has changed in the modern Islamic world, or remained the same since the late seventh century (with the building of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in 691). This will entail an investigation of both traditional Islamic iconography and its modern manifestations, dividing the art of each period into two main categories: surface decoration and structural form. The first category is comprised of calligraphy, geometric patterns, and the arabesque; the second includes the dome, mihrab, minaret, and arch.

Calligraphy. The art of calligraphy originated with the copying of the Qur’an. When the Qur’an was first completely edited, collated, and copied under the third caliph, `Uthman (r. 644-656), the need for a script worthy of divine revelation gave impetus to the development of Arabic calligraphy. Only the most artistically gifted, perfectly (hence arduously) trained, and spiritually pure calligrapher would be worthy of copying down the living word of God. Because of its association with the Qur’an, calligraphy became the highest form of art in the Islamic world. Not only was Arabic calligraphy the mainspring of works of art on paper, but it was used extensively in inscriptions on architecture and virtually every medium of the decorative arts-ceramics, metalwork, woodwork, stone, ivory, glass, and textiles among them.

The most widely used early Qur’anic script, which also adorned architecture and the decorative arts, was called Kufic, after the city of Kufa in Iraq. It is an angular script with extended horizontal and stately vertical letters, arranged on the page with clarity and harmony and lending itself to all sorts of decorative embellishments. After the thirteenth century, the use of Kufic became limited, but its design potential was never forgotten and it forms the basis of the work of a number of contemporary artists.

The many cursive scripts were first standardized in the tenth century and again in the thirteenth when the celebrated master Yaqut laid down the rules for the most prevalent styles-Thuluth, Naskh, Muhaqqaq, Rayhanli, Riq’ah, and Tawq-i`. The first three were used widely for copying the Qur’an and for epigraphic pro


Contemporary Calligraphy. Silkscreened work “God, the Unique, the Noble, the Finder, the Loving,” employing Kufic script, by Palestinian-born artist Kamal Boullata. The design is in shades of blue.

grams, particularly Thuluth. Naskh became the model for Arabic print. Nasta’liq, an elegant, flowing style in which the letters slant downward to the left, was developed in Iran in the late fourteenth century. It was ideally suited for Persian poetry and was widely used in Turkey and India as well.

Calligraphic devices such as birds and animals formed by Arabic letters, as well as epigraphic designs repeated in mirror image, already popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, remained so during the nineteenth and even into the twentieth century. Some of the later works exhibit a tour de force quality not found before the nineteenth century, for example, an Indian prayer scroll with a text minutely written in the letters of a full-scale inscription, or a Persian prayer scroll on gazelle skin with text incorporated into figures of imams, or (a practice popular in Turkey) writing in gold on leaf skeletons.

Calligraphic designs and calligrams, in cursive scripts far more often than in rectilinear ones, frequently form the basis of the compositions of contemporary Muslim painters, who incorporate elements based on Arabic script into both abstract and realistic compositions. For example, there are two calligraphic paintings in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, by the revered Indian painter Sadiqain and the highly regarded Pakistani painter Muhammad Aslam Kamal.

Islamic calligraphy, then, has both remained traditional and been incorporated into a contemporary idiom in a variety of ways. However, in the Muslim world, the practice of calligraphy has been and still is regarded, not only as the creation of a work of art, but as an act of grace.

Geometry. “Calligraphy is the geometry of the spirit.” This Arabic.proverb testifies to the relationship in Muslim culture between the two fundamental categories of Islamic iconography: the inherent unity, harmony, and immutability of geometric patterns reflects the attributes of God. Geometric patterns, based primarily on the circle, the triangle, the hexagon, and the square, ranging from the very simple to the infinitely complex, are found everywhere in the Islamic world, from the earliest periods to the present. Nowhere outside of Muslim societies have geometric patterns been used to such effect. Parallel to the impetus of the Qur’an on the development of calligraphy, geometric designs were inspired by the desire to embellish the mosque, mihrdb, minaret, and other religious edifices (later spreading to secular buildings), with a vocabulary suitable to Islam. Together with its epigraphic program, geometric (and arabesque) decorations provide another dimension of aesthetic and spiritual experience associated with a particular physical space or form.

In contemporary architecture in the geographically diverse lands of Muslim culture, the traditional vocabulary of the past is constantly being re-created for a present-day society. Take, as an unlikely example, the Arab World Institute (AWI), recently built in Paris by the French architect Jean Nouvel, inspired, as he claimed, by Arab architectural traditions. The southern facade of this daring and original building is made up of twenty-five thousand metal diaphragms-in their geometric shapes and function, reminiscent of traditional wooden mashrabiyah screens-with computer-controlled irises that regulate the flow of light to create varying geometric patterns on the interior floors.

Geometric patterns are also found on virtually all the decorative arts, again, as in architecture, often in combination with epigraphical and arabesque designs. It is frequently asked whether these decorative programs, when reinvented and reapplied by artists today, have lost either their creative spark or their spiritual content. Judging by their endurance to the present in highly diverse cultures, it is clear that, as with calligraphy, artists continue to find the form and content of traditional geometric designs relevant to their own production. Some artists credit this endurance to the process itself, in which the act of creating aesthetic unity through geometric patterning or calligraphic forms generates a sense of spiritual harmony and well being.

The Arabesque. An Islamic art form ideally suited for areas of all-over decoration, the arabesque has been orated into the artistic vocabulary of non-Islamic stern cultures, which have had the grace to endow it with a name that acknowledges its origins. The arabesque is formed by a split palmette leaf on a scrolling vine, with a stem growing inorganically out of the tip of the leaf to continue the pattern in aesthetically pleasing, unbroken rhythms. Paralleling the formal, angular patterns of geometry are the curvilinear dynamics of the arabesque, both modes expressing and reinforcing the all-embracing unity of the Islamic world vision. The arabesque reached pinnacles of delicacy, balance, and intricacy, as well as perfection of execution, particularly in highly sophisticated Muslim societies (such as alAndalusian Spain, Timurid and Safavid Iran, Ottoman Turkey, and Mughal and Deccani India), where the lyricism of its sometimes sensual internal cadences brings the arabesque closest, of all the visual arts, to poetry. Always an integral part of Islamic iconography, the arabesque has held its own, throughout history, with calligraphic and geometric design.

Structural Forms. Forms and structures, borrowed from neighboring cultures (the Byzantine and Sassanian empires) in the early years of Islamic expansion outside the borders of Saudi Arabia, developed specifically Islamic features as the need arose. Among those that in later periods have remained significant in Islamic iconographical terms are the dome, minaret, mihrab, and arch. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is Islam’s first great architectural achievement, built in 691 as a commemorative and victory monument. A single dome over a generally square or octagonal structure became widely used for tomb architecture, culminating in the Taj Mahal. The dome became a prominent feature of mosque architecture, used among other functions to emphasize the mihrab, the niche in the qiblah wall indicating the direction of prayer, facing Mecca, or to emphasize the entrance portal and the central axis to the mihrab. The most far-reaching exploitation of the dome occurred in the great Ottoman mosques, enabling the dramatic opening and lighting of interior space.

In contemporary mosque architecture, the dome has often been a dominating feature, employed with great verve and imagination, as in the Taubah Mosque in Karachi, Pakistan, the state mosque of Selangor in Malaysia, and the mosque of the Islamic Cultural Center in Rome (see figure 2). The dome’s symbolism is multilayered. At its most basic level the dome represents the Heavens, hence the frequent use of sky-colored turquoise in its decoration. The dome and the minaret together, however, whatever the infinite variety of their shapes, symbolize the presence of Islam and serve as the focal point of the Muslim community. In early Islam, the faithful were called to prayer by the voice of the muezzin from the top of the minaret. While the minaret has no practical function today, it is so much a component of mosque iconography that it usually plays an integral part in the overall architectural scheme, for example, the 142-meter (455-foot) minarets of the Malaysian Selangor mosque mentioned above. Occasionally a minaret is a necessary but anomalous iconographic addendum, as in the classical Central Asian-style minaret o the Huaisheng mosque in China, built in a local styl Iconographically the mih, rab is an essential com of any Islamic religious building. From an art perspective, it is of immense importance


Taubah Mosque, Karachi, Pakistan. Recasting a dome, arches, and reflecting pools in a contemporary building.

point of the building (mosque, madrasah, shrine) to which the most innovative and creative decoration and advanced techniques were applied (for example, in the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia, the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Al-Andalus, and the mihrab of the Mongol Oljeitu in the Masjid-i Jami`, Isfahan). However, in contemporary architecture, while the mihrab continues to be an essential iconographical and structural element, it tends to be understated, harmonizing with the overall architectural arrangement.

It may seem odd to think of an arch as a feature of Islamic iconography, but in fact it is such an integral part of most Islamic buildings as to be an identifying factor. The horseshoe arches of Islamic Spain and North Africa are dramatic examples. The early mosques were hypostyle halls with rows of arches resting on columns. The rhythmic repetition of forms provided a sense of community and unity. Arches, usually in combination with columns, but occasionally with piers, are found in almost all contemporary mosque architecture, used in facades, windows, doors, interior spaces, and, of course, mihrabs.

All facets of Islamic iconography cannot be covered in this limited space, for example, the iconography of miniature painting, an enormous subject in itself. However, it should be clear that there is an identifiable Islamic iconography, apparent in Islamic decoration and in Islamic architectural forms. In spite of the tremendous historical, regional, and ethnic diversity within areas of Islamic dominance, there is still evident a cultural and aesthetic unity produced by a shared vision of the world. Arabic calligraphy, geometric patterns, the arabesque, the dome, minaret, mihrab, and arch, are all visual manifestations of the universal spirit of the Muslim community.

[See also Aesthetic Theory; Architecture; Calligraphy.]


The general reader will find Barbara Brend’s work, Islamic Art (Cambridge, Mass., 1991) a useful and well-illustrated survey. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Research Center for Islamic History, Art, and Culture publishes a newsletter three times yearly in Istanbul, which features information about exhibitions and competitions of the works of contemporary calligraphers. For geometric design, consult Keith Critchlow, Islamic Patterns (New York, 1976).

For additional illustrations of some of the iconographical elements and aesthetic materials discussed here, please consult the following: Aramco World (September-October 1989): 24, for eighteenth- to nineteenth-century examples of calligraphic design in India; Aramco World (July-August 199o): 14-15, for another work by the contemporary Palestinian artist Kemal Boullata incorporating Kufic calligraphy; Aramco World (November-December 1991): 55, for the mosque at Selangor; Connaissance des Arts (May 1992), for the mosque of the Islamic Cultural Center in Rome; Aramco World (November-Decemher 1991): 50-51, 54, for the mosques at Sumatra and Sri Lanka; Aramco World (November-December 1989): 28-33, for a prayer hall designed by contemporary architect Abdel Wahid el-Wakil.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/iconography/

  • writerPosted On: April 15, 2014
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