Problems of Definition


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Problems of Definition

  • Problems of Definition

  • The case of calligraphy



Where does the term “Islamic art” come from?

  • Where does the term “Islamic art” come from?

  • Possible meanings based on use and interpretation:

    • Beautiful objects used for sacred purposes (Qur’ans, mosques) -> “sacred art”
    • Forms of design (“arabesque” floral designs, geometry, calligraphy) that some people consider symbolic of religious themes


Major collections (Smithsonian/Sackler, Metropolitan) include everything made or used by Muslims as “Islamic art,” but there is no equivalent category of “Christian art”

  • Major collections (Smithsonian/Sackler, Metropolitan) include everything made or used by Muslims as “Islamic art,” but there is no equivalent category of “Christian art”

  • Why would Europeans/Americans consider religion as the basis for everything among Muslims?



Unusual example of Sura 106 on the divine unity, inscribed over geometric tile (Granada, Tower of the Captive): “He, God is One; God is eternal, neither born nor begotten…”

  • Unusual example of Sura 106 on the divine unity, inscribed over geometric tile (Granada, Tower of the Captive): “He, God is One; God is eternal, neither born nor begotten…”



“We only sent you [Muhammad] as a mercy for creation” (Qur'an 21:107)

  • “We only sent you [Muhammad] as a mercy for creation” (Qur'an 21:107)





Created for elite patrons by skilled craftsmen

  • Created for elite patrons by skilled craftsmen

  • Used as diplomatic gifts

  • Possible use in religious instruction?



Art created for Muslim patrons (often by non-Muslim artisans): Dome of the Rock

  • Art created for Muslim patrons (often by non-Muslim artisans): Dome of the Rock

  • Art created by Muslim artisans (frequently for non-Muslim patrons: Mudejar art in Spain

  • 19th-century European Orientalist Art depicting an imaginary Middle East (based on 1001 Nights, etc.)

  • International modern art created by Muslims



harem fantasies and romantic depictions of heroic Arab horsemen

  • harem fantasies and romantic depictions of heroic Arab horsemen

  • Comparable to nostalgic art of the American West



Shirin Neshat, 1996 (text on hand is from a Persian poem)

  • Shirin Neshat, 1996 (text on hand is from a Persian poem)



“Islamic”  related to central religious texts and authorities

  • “Islamic”  related to central religious texts and authorities

  • “Islamicate” [double adjective like “Italianate”]  larger cultural framework related to society where Islam is a major factor; participated in by Muslims and non-Muslims (includes literature, art, etc.)



The Jannat al-Baqi` cemetery in Medina, before 1925 destruction

  • The Jannat al-Baqi` cemetery in Medina, before 1925 destruction

  • As it looks today



Bamiyan, Afghanistan: Buddhas destroyed by Taliban

  • Bamiyan, Afghanistan: Buddhas destroyed by Taliban





The Qur’an and the word of God

  • The Qur’an and the word of God

  • An aesthetic of inner knowledge

  • Geometric reform of the Arabic script on the basis of the dot produced by the reed pen

  • Multiple scripts for secular and religious purposes



"His alifs (ا) were like the tall sapling-figures that give peace to the soul, and the eye of his sad (ص) was like the eye of the youthful sweethearts. His dal (د) and lam (ل) were like the tresses of heart-ravishing beloveds, and the circles of the nun (ن) were like the eyebrows of devastating beauties. Every one of his dots was like the pupil of the dark-eyed, and every one of his strokes was like the water of life in the darkness of running ink.”

  • "His alifs (ا) were like the tall sapling-figures that give peace to the soul, and the eye of his sad (ص) was like the eye of the youthful sweethearts. His dal (د) and lam (ل) were like the tresses of heart-ravishing beloveds, and the circles of the nun (ن) were like the eyebrows of devastating beauties. Every one of his dots was like the pupil of the dark-eyed, and every one of his strokes was like the water of life in the darkness of running ink.”

  • --Baba Shah Isfahani



"Authority" is that condition in which the scribe becomes enraptured from its display when it is found in writing, and he has done with egotism. When the scribe's pen possesses "authority," heedless of the pleasures of the world, he turns his heart toward practice (mashq), and the luminous sparks of the real beloved's beauty appear in his vision.

  • "Authority" is that condition in which the scribe becomes enraptured from its display when it is found in writing, and he has done with egotism. When the scribe's pen possesses "authority," heedless of the pleasures of the world, he turns his heart toward practice (mashq), and the luminous sparks of the real beloved's beauty appear in his vision.

    • (Verse:) Everywhere the sparks of the beloved's face are found.
  • And it is fitting, when such a scribe sets his hand to a white page and writes a letter on it in his practice, that he reddens that paper with bloody tears from the extremity of his love for that letter. This characteristic, with the aid of the praiseworthy attributes, becomes the face (`ariz) of the human soul (nafs), and by the power of the pen its form is drawn on the paper page. Not everyone can comprehend this quality in writing, although he may be looking at it. Likewise, even if everyone saw Layla, Majnun saw something that others did not see.



“The word of your face is gazing at the sacred mosque”

  • “The word of your face is gazing at the sacred mosque”



“Do not disfigure the face, for God created man [Adam, humanity] in His form” (hadith)

  • “Do not disfigure the face, for God created man [Adam, humanity] in His form” (hadith)




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