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Islamic Art Is Intended To Suggest But Not To Portray The Divine Presence

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"Islamic art is intended to suggest but not to portray the divine presence" (G.Eaton). Discuss

Islamic art is unlike the art of many other cultures. The main reason for this difference is that the subjects of Islamic art are strictly controlled by the religious beliefs held by Muslims. Any Muslim artist must work within strict guidelines, largely set out in the Qur'an, when producing any work of art. These guidelines define what is acceptable as a subject for a work of art and also the form that any work of art may take. The forms of art that are deemed acceptable and their symbolism give an indication of the intention of Islamic art. I will attempt to show through examples of different types of Islamic art that the intention of Islamic art is merely to suggest and not to portray the divine presence.

The Prophet Muhammad made several comments concerning art "God is Beautiful and Loves Beauty" (Muhammad), he also said "God likes that when you do anything, you do it excellently."(Muhammad). These Prophetic sayings (hadiths) among other things may have provided the driving force for Muslim's desire to embellish and beautify not only their places of worship, but also their homes and even objects commonly used in everyday life. The main focus of Islamic art appears to be on ornamentation rather than art for art's sake, whereas the focus of art in other religious frameworks has quite often moved away from ornamentation and towards art for art's sake.

The principles of Islam mean that certain types of art are prohibited for religious reasons. Firstly, any portrayal of God is strictly forbidden as Muslims believe that God should be the subject of worship, not his physical manifestation. Hence, any physical representation of God could be seen as worship of God's manifestation. This would be seen as a form of idolatry which is strictly forbidden by the Qur'an "God does not forgive the worship of others beside Him - though He does forgive whoever He will for lesser sins - for whoever does this has gone far, far astray" (4:116). Islam as a religion is strongly opposed to any form of idolatry as it supplanted pagan religions that were based on idolatry. One of the Prophet Muhammad's most famous acts was the casting out of the idols from the Kaaba in Mecca in the year 630AD. As Muslims attempt to follow the example of the prophet Muhammad in their lives they too cast out any form of idolatry from their lives. The practice of giving God characteristics of his creation by portraying him in any physical sense in art falls into the category of shirk in al-Asma was-Sifat (the Names and Attributes of God). Shirk is one of the greatest sins in Islam as it suggests the worship of something other than the one true God. Hence any form of art that represents a manifestation of God is inherently forbidden by Islamic beliefs. This rule also applies for representations of the prophet Muhammad. In any picture where the Prophet is portrayed either his face is veiled or he is illustrated as a cloud of flames so it can be seen that Muhammad is not a subject of worship. Were he to be portrayed in paintings etc. the focus of worship could be drawn away from God and, in the eyes of the Muslim community, wrongly focused on Muhammad and this would be another example of shirk.

Secondly, Muslims believe that artists should not try to rival the creator, therefore representations of animals, plants or humans in Islamic art are heavily stylised and realism is completely shunned. Almost all paintings in Islamic art are completely two dimensional with no attempt to include perspective to add a suggestion of depth within the painting; this is to completely avoid what could be interpreted as an imitation of real life and therefore an attempt to rival the creator. Sculpture is also extremely rare in Islamic art as the three dimensional nature of sculpture and the fact that the most common subjects of sculpture are humans or animals imply an attempt to rival God's work. This is forbidden as it suggests that the work of Man could rival that of God.

The central concept of the Islam faith is the unity and Oneness of God (Tahwid). This concept is difficult to express visually, but Islamic art suggests this concept through its use of style and form. In particular the geometric patterns in Islamic art reflect those seen in nature and this helps to highlight the presence of order and law within nature and thus the all-pervading presence of God throughout nature. In this way geometric patterns in Islamic art help to suggest the divine presence.

One of the most prevalent forms of Islamic art is calligraphy, in particular calligraphy of the verses of the Qur'an. This is because the word of the Qur'an is seen as the visible body of the divine word and hence is of the utmost importance to Muslims. Most mosques are decorated with verses from the Qur'an. Using verses of the Qur'an as decoration ensures that only the divine word of God is being worshipped, not a representation of God Himself. The fact that verses of the Qur'an are so frequently seen by Muslims as they are used as decoration also serves as a reminder that God is always close to Muslims, hence using verses of the Qur'an as decoration serves to suggest the divine presence of God, without directly portraying it.

Some copies of the Qur'an itself can be viewed as pieces of art. The calligraphy of verses of the Qur'an can be very elaborate as the Arabic language lends itself to calligraphy very well. The pages of the Qur'an are also often decorated with geometric and arabesque motifs. Geometric and arabesque design are prolific in Islamic art, these styles of design are the most common styles to be found within mosques.

The geometric designs found in Islamic art are based on simple geometric shapes, circles, triangles,

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