The University Record, October 29, 2001

Imagery of Islam: Visual reflections of culture

By Lesley Harding

(Photo by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services)
Brilliant colors. Carefully penned calligraphy. Vegetal, floral and geometric designs are beauty in the eyes of the Muslim beholder. Islamic art is the visual reflection of a unique culture deeply steeped in the teachings of the Koran.

Sussan Babaie, assistant professor of art history, is educating her students on the beauty of Islamic art. “Many of my art students come to my course with very little knowledge of the geography and history of the Islamic world,” says Babaie. What these students do know is often skewed by the media’s focus on the negative images of Islam and Muslims. Babaie explains to her students that the world of Islam is more vast and more diversified than is commonly known and that it is a cultured land rich in splendor and magnificent art.

“What you find—first and foremost—is the art of writing,” says Babaie. Hand-written texts and calligraphy sheets are often treasured far more than a painting or statue. To the people of Islam, the Koran is the most beautiful work of art, both in words and physical adornment. “The Koran is copied all over the world with the greatest investment of materials and talents,” says Babaie. “It is always written in the most elegant script and decorated with illuminations in gold and colors on paper.” Passages from this Arabic text, the Koran, also adorn mosques and holy sites. These inscriptions are painted with embellishments on glazed tiles, glass Mosque lamps, colorful textiles or directly on walls. The profound significance of the Koranic text for Muslims also has stimulated the proliferation of art books.

Similar to the West, religion is the inspiration for many great works of art. With the exception of certain writings as revealed to the prophet Muhammad, Islam does not use imagery to teach the lessons of the faith. A passage in the Koran, for example, forbids the creation of an image that could become an object of worship—this is why it is rather rare in Islamic art to find portrayals of people or animals. Babaie points out that the Islamic aversion to figural representations did not preclude literary illustrations with narrative themes.

In Islamic art, objects of utility take precedence over panel painting or statuary as a means of artistic expression. Dishes, bowls, basins, candlesticks, lamps, pen boxes and incense burners made of pottery clay, metal and glass are just a few of the vessels in which Babaie says the surfaces are transformed through ornamentation into masterpieces of ingenious designs and superb craftsmanship. From such creative engagement of Muslim artists and craftsmen, for example, emerged the technique of lustre painting on pottery.

Anonymous Iranian piece. Ardshir Papakan sits upon the throne in Baghdad, from the manuscript of Firdawsi, ca. 1460. (Courtesy of the Museum of Art)
In the early centuries of Islam, Muslim glass makers and ceramicists developed this laborious technique of painting with multiple colors on glazed surfaces, which produced an iridescent or shiny effect. The expanded possibilities presented by this method of decorating pottery transformed European ceramic techniques and is still used worldwide today.

Babaie also notes that the narrative content of Islamic art focuses primarily on love, courtship, the hunt, music making, the arts of war and the sciences. These themes are often juxtaposed as examples of chivalrous conduct or spiritual quest, deriving their inspiration from poetic literary texts such as the Persian epic of the kings or the didactic, mystical and romance genres, as well as from scientific texts such as those involving astrology and medicine.

The aspirations, inspirations and beliefs of Islam are conveyed through art in these manuscript paintings, luxury objects of utility and buildings—mosques and shrines. The Koran and Islam encourage the idea of delight and contemplation in the created world. Babaie hopes the world—especially that of her students—will delight in the beauty and promise of Islamic art.