Islamic Art Legacy and Contemporary Muslim Artist

My presentation at ISNA conference in Fall 2008:

My purpose in today’s presentation at ISNA is to make our community aware of the contemporary work of Islamic artists. The majority of Muslims tend to connect Islamic art only with traditional Arabic calligraphy and architecture. But due to so many changes in social, political and global life, today’s Muslim artist cannot just confine her or him to traditional calligraphy and the arabesque form. No doubt these are important legacies of Islamic art but let us face the reality. Today’s art scene has changed dramatically. The audiences are spread worldwide. It is a global marketplace. Art is done on canvas using manufactured paints and inks or otherwise is computer generated and is hung on walls in commercial galleries and museums. Gone are the times when art was confined to the palaces of the rich and powerful. Today, art is a part of everyday life and is found everywhere. Machines are introduced in each field from carpet weaving to tile making. Instead of giving value to only traditional arts, we have to value the contemporary Muslim artist’s efforts and struggles in keeping pace with what’s happening around us.

So here are some random questions. The answers would be many and so I ask you to please keep them in the back of your mind as we move forward with this presentation.

What are we painting or sculpting or how are we making art today?

Are we just copying the content of western art or are we adopting the contemporary art techniques and filling in with our own content?

Should we react to all the injustices that the Umma is suffering today and turn into mere visual journalists or should we use art to point to the greater and higher Islamic values?

Can we afford to just bask in the glories of the past and ignore the times that we live in now?

Those are important questions indeed. But it is sometimes worth our while to look back at where we are coming from to help us know where we are going to.

In order to get a good understanding of how Muslims have expressed themselves

through the ages, we have to review the journey of Muslims through the ages.

When Muslims started expanding out of Arabia, all that they had were Faith and Islamic values, horsemanship and courage, the art of assimilation and some skills in weaving, storytelling, known as the tradition of Hakawati and of course great skills in poetry and verse.

As the journey unfolded, from each new host country that embraced Islam, different Muslim artistic expressions evolved. Take for example those gorgeous decorative tiles that adorn so many buildings. First made in Iran and Turkey, they flourished and refined as the art form, spread throughout the Muslim world, till the form was perfected and became the Muslim legacy for later generations. Similar is the story of the arch and the dome taken from the Romans.

This is also true about Arabic calligraphy, decorative arts for everyday objects, glassmaking, textiles, carpets, architecture and so on. Like in many other areas of life, the influence of the Silk Road on artistic expressions is undeniable. Artistic ideas and expressions traveled back and forth becoming refined and more perfect.

We thus see the term Islamic Arts suggest an art unified in style and purpose, with certain common concepts that distinguish the arts of all Islamic lands.

Now I would talk about some important legacies and concepts of Islamic arts and later, using examples from my own work, I shall attempt to present the efforts and struggles of myself, trying to express life around me while also making an effort to maintain in a small measure the legacies and concepts of Islamic art.

I have identified six important concepts.

1. The concept of Tawheed was the central theme. Unity and the need to keep everything in its rightful place were important to Muslim artists who used it to achieve harmony, beauty and symmetry. Amazing craftsmanship was revealed as the artist’s sole purpose was to please Allah SWT and thus it had to be perfect and meticulous. Muslim Spain and the Alhambra Palace complex are great examples of a creative people expressing themselves to the best of their abilities. The same genius was displayed in the construction of the Taj Mahal. Research is showing us that the layout of the Taj complex is based on a plan sketch that is found in a work of Ibn Arabi.

2. The concept of light (“Allahu noorus samavaath wal ard”) inspired the creation of glass lamps, illumination in calligraphy, in brilliant blown colored glass which dazzled the eye, the inlaid work with semi-precious stone and glass etc.

3. The concept of Jannah, the Garden of Paradise, was another motivation. We can see the motifs of garden layouts on Persian carpets and rugs. We also see the great Islamic landscaped gardens and their reflections in miniature paintings. Consider the Chahar Bagh, Shalimar Gardens or the Court of Lions. Breath-takingly beautiful indeed.

4. The concept of presenting Allah’s word in the most beautiful form resulted in different styles of Arabic calligraphy. And this form was not only limited to the manuscripts but extended to all arts- including inscriptions on palaces, applied to metal arts, pottery, stone, glass, wood and textiles.

5. Another concept of Islamic art is the preference for covering surfaces with patterns composed of geometric or vegetal elements. Complex geometric designs as well as intricate patterns of vegetal ornament (such as arabesque) create the impression of unending repetition, which is believed by some to be an inducement to contemplate the infinite nature of Allah. These delicate filigree-like lattices with mathematical precision are carved in marble and wood dazzling the beholder both on the inside and the outside.

6. The form of storytelling started being illustrated under the influence of Indo-Persian patrons of art and we have books like the Shahnama, Akbarnama, and Persian and Mughal miniatures. Here I would like to emphasis one point. Contrary to popular belief, figural imagery is an important aspect of Islamic arts. Such images occur primarily in secular and especially courtly arts and appear in a wide variety of media in most periods and places in which Islam flourished. In Islam figuration was prohibited in Mosques and other religious places for the fear that it would foster idol worship. Scientific treatises of great importance were produced and these were also beautifully illustrated

So keeping these concepts as the central themes, Islamic arts have revived and survived through all ages and all cultures.

Today we are at a new challenging situation but surely no different than past challenges. We merge the traditional with the modern like always; create memorable artistic expressions by remaining true to the essence of our values.

Islamic values are the most important and I believe if we live islamically, it would reflect in our works of art even in the contemporary world. I have been painting for more than thirty years now. I was trained as a Fine artist and received master’s degree from M S University, Baroda India. And then I got married and Alhamdulilah embraced Islam. So my journey is slightly different than a born Muslim artist. After marriage while I was taking in the concepts and values of Islam, I was exposed to a wealth of Islamic arts and Arabic calligraphy in Iran and the Middle East, countries where we lived after marriage. I was especially taken with the lyrical line of Arabic calligraphy. I used to copy for hours the different styles and movement of the line forming meaningful and the sacred words of Allah.

At this time, as Islam was deepening within me too, I was especially touched by two major principles of the faith.

Allah is One, abstract, formless and beyond imagination and secondly He has created such diversity among humans and He commands them to live together in harmony and turn towards Him with praises to establish Tawheed, that is unity. So through calligraphy I was trying to pay my gratitude to Allah and with the same lyrical line, I started doing these connected figures as if I wanted to bring the whole world together. As if I want to spread Allah’s love by bringing people together with this single line of positive energy. Allah wants us to live together and share together and thus I recreate these visions which show people in celebrations, visiting neighbors, and family reunions, celebration of life, glow of unity and the hope of the new earth.

At the same time I was also influenced by the compositions in the miniature paintings, so I have done several paintings where I am telling stories of my journey in a very contemporary style on square boards with mixed media. Square is again borrowed from our symbolic spiritual cube-The Kaaba.

The same line has allowed me to laser cut on CAD/CAM sculptures in aluminum of happy people celebrating life.

I truly believe that art is a form of worship and through this act of worship; I always wanted to depict the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah. I always felt that it had to be different and it had to be my humble offering. In 2002, after 9/11 when the world looked at Islam and Muslims in doubt and disbelief, I felt that now I have to do something meaningful to help people understand that Allah has all the Power, all the Attributes and it is up to us humans as to how we translate these powerful energies contained in His Names into good for the world. I had to present Allah in all the Magnificence that my feeble mind could imagine.

After moving to the US from Kuwait in 1986, I had made up my mind to serve Islamic communities in the US. Using my education in Fine Arts and the wealth of Islamic arts that I was exposed to in the Middle East, I started creating Islamic greeting cards. A small woman owned business sprouted and Alhamdulillah it has been increasing continuously. This year I have added the 100th design to my line of cards. To be able to work as an artist in this way is indeed a blessing.

One Comment

  • Assalamualaikum,

    I can’t say enough how moved I am to read this post. My daughter is in the School of the Arts, Singapore and facing challenges that only students there would understand. In the pursuit of her interest in visual arts, she has to balance the requirements on other academic subjects. But reading your post (which I would gladly direct my daughter to) provides hope for her future.

    Thank you!


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