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date: 14 July 2024

Islam and Art: An Overviewfree

Islam and Art: An Overviewfree

  • Wendy ShawWendy ShawProfessor, Art History of Islamic cultures, Free University Berlin


Modern terms like “religion” and “art” offer limited access to the ways in which nonverbal human creativity in the Islamic world engages the “way of life” indicated by the Arabic word din, often translated as religion. Islam emerged within existing paradigms of creativity and perception in the late antique world. Part of this inheritance was a Platonic and Judaic concern with the potentially misleading power to make images, often misinterpreted in the modern world as an “image prohibition.” Rather, the image function extended beyond replication of visual reality, including direct recognition of the Divine as manifest in the material and cultural world. Music, geometry, writing, poetry, painting, devotional space, gardens and intermedial practices engage people with the “way of life” imbued with awareness of the Divine. Rather than externally representing religious ideas, creativity fosters the subjective capacity to recognize the Divine. Flexible enough to transcend the conventions of time and place over the millennium and a half since the inception of Islam, these modes of engagement persist in forms that also communicate through the expressive practices of contemporary art. To consider religion and art in Islam means to think about how each of these categories perpetually embodies, resists, and recreates the others.


  • Religion and Art


The relationship between religion and art in Islam invites some basic questions: How to define Islam? What is art? How does the relationship between Islam and art inform the many ethnic and religious cultures of the regions where Islam has played a prominent role.

This article considers Islam as a way of life (din), distinct from the modern concept of “religion.”1 Islam emerges as the accumulation, variety, and mutual interaction of practices, texts, and discourses accruing over time and space with reference to foundational texts.2 These texts are the Qurʾan, understood as the sacred word of the Divine, miraculously passed to the Prophet Muhammad (571–632 ce) at the inception of Islam; and the Hadith, the record of the prophet’s words and deeds, transmitted through his companions (as-sahaba) and compiled in the 9th century.3 The word Islam derives from the root consonants “s-l-m,” with associations including peace, greeting (familiar from salam in Arabic and shalom in Hebrew), and willing submission of the self to the Divine. One who engages in this practice is Muslim.

Far from natural or universal, “art” is a modern European concept distinguishing objects created with intellectual ambitions from crafts, appealing primarily to sensory pleasure over utility, preferring vision to other senses, and ultimately enabling fetishized commodification.4 While premodern sources do not address art as such, Islamic cultures have encountered and incorporated the concept as part of global modernity. This article also recognizes that in the predominantly multilingual and multireligious regions under Islamic rule, premodern or modern practitioners nor all subjects engaged with these arts. Rather, much as European Christianity informed the modern label of the “West,” Islam informed a mode of apprehending and creating worldly forms exceeding the boundaries of faith. Acknowledging these anachronisms, this article considers how practices that modern subjects conceive as “art” function through Islamic thought rooted in premodern eras.

Seven sections frame this endeavor. The section “Mimetic Practices” outlines the emergence of Islam against the backdrop of existing practices of perception in the late antique world. “Permissibility of the Image in Islam” addresses the supposedly universal image prohibition in Islam. “Impressions of the Divine” explores music and geometry as representational invocations of the Divine. “Spatial Invocations of the Sacred” examines the fixtures of devotional spaces and gardens in Islam. “Writing and Intermediality in Islamic Discourses” examines the intermediality enabled by inscription. “Representational Painting of Religious Subjects” examines visual modes of religious representation. Finally, “Islam in Contemporary Art” looks at continuities of Islamic expression in modern-day art.

Mimetic Practices

The Qurʾan imparts a mode of engagement with the Divine informing human understanding of creation, including what modern subjects call art. This practice of perception emerged within a broader understanding of mimesis comparable with that of late antiquity, comprising both the visual representation of an absent object and the direct internalization of external stimuli.

Muslims recount that in 610 ce, God informed a humble merchant named Muhammad that he was chosen as the final prophet to renew monotheism in the lineage of Abrahamic prophets, including Moses and Jesus. He received this message during a long meditation in which a voice instructed him to recite/read. Some traditions interpret the description of him as “ummi” in the Qurʾan as indicating his illiteracy, rendering his capacity to read as miraculous proof of the text’s Divine origin.5 The voice conveying this extraordinary enunciation was that of an angel, identified as Gabriel in early biographies of the prophet. Over time, the Prophet Muhammad conveyed numerous revelations to a growing group of monotheists.6 Believing writing would render them vulnerable to desecration, many memorized the verses, while his wives may have written and protected early codices.7 The fourth political successor (Caliph) of the prophet, ‘Uthman (r. 644–656), ordered a definitive compilation around 653 CE. This book is the Qurʾan, meaning “the recitation.”

This legacy of inspiration makes the Qurʾan more than a text to be interpreted: its recitation rearticulates the Divine word. For this reason, it is frequently considered untranslatable, although its meanings can be elucidated through any language.8 While the Qurʾan mentions the eyes and the ears, in numerous passages the heart serves as the primary sensory organ.

The Qurʾan conveys the Divine through this human linguistic vehicle while enjoining the believer to also recognize nonlinguistic signs throughout creation, as expressed in Sura 2:164, which concludes a description of the world and cosmos with the phrase “there are signs in all these for those who use their minds.”9 The influential Sufi ontology of the sheikh ibn al-Arabi (1165–1240) constructs no duality corresponding to the European distinction between nature and art, as all is part of the same Divine desire for self-disclosure (tajalli), expressed in the Hadith: “I was a hidden treasure and wished to be known.”10 Also recognizing the Divine (Q17:44), animals enact Divine grace through creativity (such as spiders making webs in Q29:41 or bees building honeycombs in Q16), are affected by music, and often sheltered in purposely built architecture, such as eighteenth-century Ottoman bird houses.11

Ninety-nine Divine names (asma al-husna) elucidate the concept of the Divine. One of these is “the creator,” al-khaliq. As the attribution of a name of Divine characteristics to humans can be understood through the sin of shirk (associating companions to the Divine), human creativity is often interpreted as bestowed through Divine grace in order to honor Divine creation.12 This is not to say that Muslims necessarily encounter all experience spiritually, but many scholars suggest that the performance of prayer (sal’at) through ritual recitation and bowing (sujud in Arabic or namaz in Turco-Persianate languages, related to the Hindi namaste) is enhanced through the recognition of and gratitude for the Divine as encountered in the everyday. For example, Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058–1111), honored as the “renewer of the religion,” wrote that initiated Sufis gained the capacity to penetrate hidden beauties “with the eye of the heart and the light of insight,” and, through analogy, recognize the wonders of Divine creation.13 Similarly, the Persian poet Hafez (1315–1390) wrote:

In the meadow, every petal is the book of a different state:What a pity should you remain ignorant of them all!14

Likewise, according to the artist Dust Muhammad (d. 1564), human creativity was part of the “workshop of prayer,” enhancing the recognition of Divine grace as enabling the production of the beautiful.15

Not unique to Islam, emphasis on internal recognition over outward representation characterized a broader understanding of mimesis in late antique Mediterranean cultures. The Arabian Peninsula nourished a multiethnic society embedded in multiple trading networks. The prophet belonged to the Quraish, one of the leading tribes of the region, worshipping local gods related to those of Mesopotamian and Hellenic antiquity. Many narratives of local Christians and Jews—including the stories of Adam, Abraham, Jonas, and the annunciation and virgin maternity of Mary—are in the Qurʾan, proof for Muslims that the texts of the “peoples of the book” are earlier versions of the same revelation. Such stories were often later depicted in manuscript paintings associated with non-Qurʾanic texts.

Through trade, peoples of the Arabian Peninsula encountered cultures of both the Sassanian Empire in Persia and the Roman Empire as ruled from the city renamed Constantinopolis (modern Istanbul) in 330 ce. At the time of Muhammad’s prophecy, the dominance of Christianity in the Roman Empire (mandated in 529 ce) was barely a century old. Iconoclastic discussions circulated among eastern Mediterranean Christians, Zoroastrians, and Buddhists.16 This environment recognized multiple types of mimesis. Outward mimesis resembles our modern understanding of representation: an image that brings forth that which is absent, taking its place through a cognitive deception. Inward mimesis recognizes an aesthetic vehicle that enters the prepared soul of the recipient directly, without intermediary.17 While modern subjects share this experience, for example in musical affect, it is rarely considered representation. In contrast, like late antique philosophers, early Islamic scholars recognized the outward mimesis of images, but they preferred the direct imprint on the soul. The Islamic philosopher al-Farabi (c. 872–950) indicates such an understanding by saying, “Many people believe that the imitation of something in the most indirect form is preferable to direct imitation, and they hold the creator of those expressions to be the author of a more genuine form of imitation, as well as more skilled and experienced in the art.”18 Likewise, Ottoman and Safavid texts concerning the arts root the gaze in “the enticement and wonderment of the eye, the embodiment of vision through emotional states and desire,” and articulate the subsequent movement from physical sight to insight.19

The contrast between the dominance of outward mimesis in modern culture and that of inward mimesis in the premodern Islamic world has encouraged an emphasis on “image prohibition” in the Islamic world, limiting the recognition of the diverse modes of mimetic expression in Islamic culture, including music, space, inscription, and painting.

Permissibility of the Image in Islam

Is there a universal image prohibition in Islam? The simple answer is no. While there have been localized restrictions on the use of images, most commonly in spaces of prayer, figural representation has been part of Islamic cultural production from the earliest sites of archaeological excavation to the contemporary era. Wall painting and sculpture dominated early periods, while manuscript painting became more common later.

In contrast to biblical passages (Leviticus 26:1 and Exodus 20:4–6) explicitly prohibiting image making, the Qurʾan forbids idolatry without mentioning images. The Hadith indicate that images existed in early Islamic society, and that the prophet found them inappropriate in prayer spaces but acceptable if debased through use as carpets or cushions. Islamic ritual uses no votive imagery, relying instead on the direction (qibla) of the Kaaba in Mecca, believed to mark the altar God gave to the prophets Adam and Abraham, as the focal point of prayer. Although the prophet is said to have destroyed the idols of the Kaaba (except for a probable icon of Mary and Jesus) during the conquest of Mecca, this never became precedent for the destruction of votive objects in Islamic law.20

The Hadith most commonly cited to restrict representational images warns that on the day of judgment, makers of images will be enjoined to breathe life into their creations and will be condemned following their inevitable failure.21 While the utterance is attributed to the prophet, its cultural emphasis articulates political tensions during the early decades of Islam.22

Modern texts have often grouped Hadith pertaining to images together, constructing an overarching image prohibition and equating images with irreligiosity.23 However, Hadith alone do not constitute the legal path (sharia), often referred to as Islamic law. Rather, noncanonical precedent emerges through jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) interpreting the Qurʾan and the Hadith. While some Islamic scholars have issued nonbinding legal opinions (fatwa) prohibiting the use of images (variously defined), uneven implementation of such injunctions results in no normative ban on images. While the rubbing out of figural images on some manuscripts can indicate localized iconoclasm, it can also indicate wear through worship by touching and kissing the image. Another periodic popular response to images has been to sever the head from the body with a drawn line, rendering the image visibly unable to breathe.24

Early debates about the arts in Islam focused less on visual images than on poetry and music, intertwined as in the antique tradition. The cantillation (taghbir) of Qu’ranic verses was not to be understood as song or entertainment, which are strongly associated with the forbidden practices of drinking wine, gambling, and fornication (Q5:90). The Qurʾan also decries the poets (Q26:221–227), but this may have referred to pretenders who claimed false verses of the Qurʾan, akin to sophists and soothsayers in the Platonic tradition.25 Regardless of their legality, board games like chess and backgammon remained common. Similarly, poetry and music flourished both as entertainment and as part of burgeoning mystical approaches to Islamic spirituality, which often used wine as an embodied metaphor for spiritual transcendence.

Often called Sufism and traced to the inspired nature of Muhammad’s prophecy, such practices aim toward spiritual union with the Divine.26 As soon as early groups of mystics tried to achieve transcendence of self in ecstasy through ritual music, poetry, and movement, theologians debated the permissibility of their practices, conceiving music as image. Some found all poetry unlawful as it ran the risk of shirk in competing with the Qurʾan, while others considered it as distraction from the Divine articulated in the Qurʾan. Others allowed for spiritual music but banned pleasurable music. Others favored pleasurable music as an enticement to the spiritual. Still others found spiritual music appropriate for novices but irrelevant for sages. For many thinkers, the transgressive similarity of music with alcoholic or sexual intoxication was precisely what enabled its potential as a vehicle for transcendence, a frequent theme in poetry about the beloved.

As in every society, not everybody followed theological mandates. Wine, song, and unsanctioned sexuality persisted—with both spiritual and bodily implications central to poetry in which materiality often functions through transgressions leading to transcendence.27 Often labeling it as “heterodox,” and opposed to normative “orthodox” positions, contemporary academic and theological scholarship varies concerning the centrality of Sufi interpretations of Islam.28 Yet Sufism is particularly salient in relation to the arts, as people involved in creative and mercantile fields often worked through guilds associated with Sufi orders.29

In these early centuries of Islam, representational images existed with differing degrees of access according to region and social class. In the palaces of Muslim rulers, wall paintings and sculptures were common, evident in sites dating to the era of the Umayyad Caliphate (690–750 ce) known as Qusayr Amra (in modern Jordan) and the Khirbat al-Mafjar (in the West Bank of Palestine). In 13th century Anatolia and Iran, branches of the Seljuk Dynasty used figural representation on luxury ceramics, and incorporated figural sculpture in public settings. Conservative scholar ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) reviled grave visitation, the worship of relics at shrines, and the practice of displaying images of the prophet and other saints in places of worship in Damascus, indicating that images did at times function votively, probably overlapping with Christian practices.30

Correlating with the political and cultural tensions following the Mongol invasions, the most famous injunction against images emerges in the 13th century, when Abu Zakariya Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Nawawi (1234–1278), a scholar of the Shafi’i school of law, wrote:

The authorities of our school and others hold that the making of a picture of any living thing is strictly forbidden and that it is one of the great sins because it is specifically threatened with the grievous punishment mentioned in the Hadith . . . the crafting of it is forbidden under every circumstance, because it imitates the creative activity of God.31

Yet any fatwa lacks universal mandate. Manuscript painting flourished after the 13th century under the rule of the post-Mongol dynasties who established courtly practices of patronage of theologians and the arts, which proved inspirational for later dynasties throughout the Islamic world. As explored in section VI, this tradition of manuscript painting not only depicted worldly portraits, legends, and histories but also religious narratives, figures, and spiritual themes. Still, the intimacy between religion and creative expression was often most profound in nonfigural arts, explored in the next two sections.

Impressions of the Divine

The modern tendency to address the perceptual world of Islam through the visual and temporal paradigms of “art” and “history” has reduced the recognition of many evocations of the Divine beyond the outward, figural representation presumed normative from a European Christian tradition. Instead, inward mimesis impresses Divine manifestations on the prepared soul through a multitude of perceptual agents.

Several sources inform inward mimesis in the Islamic tradition. The most important is internalization of reception of the Divine word, articulated in the Qurʾanic recitation that constitutes prayer. The Qurʾan asserts its providential origins by repeatedly declaring its inimicability. Resembling the inward mimesis valorized in late antiquity, this miraculous quality, understood as an affective response experienced as tingling or spontaneous weeping, has been extensively theorized as i’jaz.32

Such internalization reflects the Platonic tradition integrated into Islamic thought through the translation and extensive discussion of ancient texts in the 8th and 9th centuries, the period when Islam quickly grew into a new faith and inspired an enormous political and hegemonic power. The 6th-century consolidation of Christianity led to the rejection of philosophical schools. Philosophers found patronage under the Sassanian ruler Khosrau II (r. 590–628), who viewed the wealth of knowledge enabled through a massive project of translation as restitution of the sacred wisdom given to Zoroaster and stolen from his descendants. Institutionalized translation continued under Islamic rulers after their conquest two centuries later. Translating from intermediate languages, including Pahlavi (Old Persian) and Syriac, as well as Greek, Islamic scholars engaged with a wealth of ancient thought from Greece as well as from India (particularly famous in the wisdom fables known as Kalila and Dimna).33

Engagement with ancient legacies contributed to the development of complex mathematics, notably the “reunion of broken parts” (al-jabr, or algebra) developed by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (780–850). Soon after, mathematically based music and geometry, which would pervade much of Islamic culture, entered both praxis and discourse. Already in the early 9th century, al-Kindi (801–866) discussed music through Pythagorean and Platonic ideas of celestial harmonies and similitudes. In his Great Book of Music, al-Farabi (c. 872–950) developed these ideas further through analogy with geometric forms, like the square and the circle, forming an iconography of emotions evoked by notes through comparison with sculptures deified by ancient peoples captivated by outward mimesis. Similarly, the Brethren of Purity, an anonymous group of scholars based in 10th-century Basra and Baghdad, who preserved Platonism through widely disseminated epistles about living in the world Islamically, describe music through comparison with the proportions of oud strings, poetic rhythms, writing, the human body, and planetary movements. During the same period, the scribes ibn Muqla (d. 940) and ibn al-Bawwab (961–1022) developed scripts that followed a geometric model based on predictable proportions of the pen nib. Ibn al-Bawwab enabled the transmission of his method through a didactic poem describing the techniques of making pen and ink, advocating patient imitation, and assuring the joy of achievement to those who write in accordance with Divine guidance.34

The Brethren described music and geometry alike in terms evoking aniconic representation. The musical image remains imprinted on the soul, much like memorized text, obviating the need for an outward, physical image mediating between the individual and the Divine. Similar transcendent effects were attributed to the interlocking, potentially infinite isometric geometric pattern developing in the 10th to 11th centuries. This was soon recognized as providing easy access to arithmetic and algebra, as well as informing everyday practices such as design and construction. Geometry informed the experimental proof of intromission expressed in the Optics of ibn al-Haytham (965–1040, known as Alhazan in Latin). Engaging contemporary philosophical and theological discussions of atomism and the soul, his thought reflects an atomistic model of perception where sensory organs take in bits of information that are compiled in the soul, which functions as a world-reflecting mirror through the act of contemplation. By imposing a secondary pattern over structural geometries that establish the form of objects, surface geometry has the capacity to invoke the transitory nature of the physical world.35 The Brethren describe a similar model of perception, suggesting that engagement with the sensory world through physical expressions of mathematics, like music and geometry, cultivate the imagination with a capacity for abstraction. The transmedial metaphors dominating discourses of both music and geometry underscore the importance of this abstract realm, where the categories of the physical world have the capacity to morph from form to form and transcend temporal limits, emphasizing the reminding of the believer of the liminal world between materiality and the Divine.

When understood as agents of inward mimesis, geometry and music function to engage the subject with an awareness of the Divine without requiring subjective agency. Lacking a semiotic system of sign and signified, music and geometry do not represent so much as make the real present. This prepared the subject for internalized engagement of the Divine, whether mystically or through the study of theology. If anything can be considered analogous to outward Christian representations of God, these aural and visual geometries would come closest as they provide a worldly model for a pervasive Divine cosmology even without an intermediary theorization.36

This system of mathematical pattern, in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms called muqarnas (stalactite vaulting), quickly became a dominant visual idiom in manuscripts, surfaces, and architecture of the Islamic world from Andalusia to Afghanistan and India, peaking in the 13th and 14th centuries.37 It persists into the modern period, increasingly as a sign of “heritage” that provides an Islamic “look,” commonly evoked in institutions such as museums and airports. Disassociating it from culture and religion, architect Michael Hansmeyer uses it for algorhythmic architectural explorations. Nonetheless, informed by a believer’s informed subjectivity, pattern can evoke spirituality.

Spatial Invocations of the Sacred

Architectural elements and the objects surrounding prayer invoke various aspects of devotional recognition of the Divine. What is this Divine? The Qurʾan, which speaks in the first person and addresses its reader in the second, offers a few clues. While the Qurʾan suggests some anthropomorphic aspects of the Divine (mentioning a face, hands, and feet), understood by some literally and others metaphorically, the Divine is also theorized as transcending human comprehension, alluded to through metaphors of light (Q24:35) and as close as the jugular vein (Q50:16). The ninety-nine Divine names articulate attributes, including the creator, the omnipotent, the omniscient, the peace bringer, the merciful, and the noble. The passage most frequently quoted as describing the Islamic understanding of the Divine is the Light Verse (Surat al-Nur).

God is the Light of the heavens and earth. His Light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star, fueled from a blessed olive tree from neither east nor west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it––light upon light—God guides whoever He will to his Light; God draws such comparisons for people; God has full knowledge of everything––shining out in houses of worship. (Q24: 35–36)38

With the development of architecture specific to the Islamic realm in the late 7th century, a niche called a mihrab became the conventional form through which to indicate the direction of prayer (qibla) in a space set aside for the purpose of bowing (s-j-d) to the Divine called a masjid (corrupted as mosque in English).39 As the niche in late antiquity generally framed the figure of a deity or ruler, the empty niche, also used at the 3rd-century ce Dura-Europos synagogue, aptly signified articulation of the Divine through recitation. Prayer spaces memorialize the prophet in the form of a staircase beside the mihrab leading to a platform for speaking, representing the stool that the prophet stood or sat on while reciting. The final steps of this minbar are left empty, and the leader (imam) of the congregation speaks from the middle of the stairs, below the empty place of the prophet at the top, metaphorically leading the entire Islamic community (umma).40 Mihrabs are often decorated with oil lamps made of glass, ceramic, or rock crystal, which evoke the Light Verse through form, inscription, and the effects of a flickering flame filtering through water.41Flat mihrabs, including some on grave markers, often include the image of an oil lamp.

The Kaaba is not only the focal point of all prayer but also of the annual pilgrimage (Hajj) enjoined on all Muslims (Q22:27). Although composed of a simple architectural cube, and therefore often omitted from architectural histories of the Islamic world, it has a rich symbolism and is covered with brocaded textiles adorned with golden inscriptions.42 A similarly ornate ceremonial palanquin (mahmal) representing the authority of the sultan over the Holy Places was carried by camel every year preceding the Hajj. Pilgrims might anticipate the spiritual journey through texts such as the Description of the Holy Cities (Futuh al-Haramayn, 1505–1506) by the Indian scholar Muhi al-Din Lari, translated and popular as well in Ottoman Turkish and Persian. They would often receive illustrated and talismanic documents confirming their completion of the Hajj.

Aside from pointing in the direction (qibla) of prayer toward the Kaaba, a mosque has no fixed form. Believers are enjoined to pray three to five times a day anywhere clean, preferably facing the qibla. The need to determine the direction of the qibla and the correct times of prayer has increased the importance of astronomy and related sciences in the Islamic world. The custom of prayer carpets (sejjadah [sing.], like masjid, also from the root s-j-d) developed so that people could establish a clean, sacral space around themselves during the act of prayer outside of a designated space. The ritual of bowing to the Divine during prayer valorized such carpets, often made with exquisite detail and materials, such as silk. Although not requiring iconography, prayer carpets are often small, like a modern yoga mat. They can mimic the pointed frame of a mihrab, often decorated with the outline of a lamp or sandals of the prophet. Often bequeathed to religious foundations, the layering of carpets in prayer spaces inadvertently served to preserve older carpets, which became a gold mine for 19th-century European collectors. Believers also often use other objects of prayer, such as prayer beads and, among Shi’ites, prayer stones, which do not fit the rubric of “art.”

Believers are enjoined to congregate on Fridays, rendering a congregational space advisable. Built to hold maximal adherents as equal devotees before the Divine, mosques developed as the largest structures in most settled areas. Early mosques often used a basilica form laterally, situating a mihrab on the long wall. Decorative elements reflected regional practices, as in the extensive use of mosaic at the earliest surviving congregational mosque, the Great Mosque of Damascus (715 ce). Multiple faith groups could share sacral spaces. For example, the Great Mosque of Damascus included a shrine dedicated to Nabi Yahya (St. John the Baptist), appealing to Christians as well as Muslims. The first monumental architecture of the Islamic world, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (692 ce) was built in the form of a Christian martyrium over the ruins of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Romans in 70 ce. This memorialization coincided with the invitation of Jews, banned from the city under Roman rule, to return to the city, suggesting a shared memorial function for the structure.43

Over time, the dome, already common in Christian churches in the region, developed as an optimal way to cover a large expanse of space without interruption, allowing for undivided, theoretically egalitarian, communal congregation. Muqarnas became a common structural element supporting domes and delineating portals and niches after the 12th century. The potential evocation of Divine order thus circulated in a multitude of forms that built on the same basic elements of geometry, often also producing sonic resonance that enhanced the circulation of recitation that brings the sacred into architecture and is reinforced by frequent use of Qurʾanic quotations on the walls, often surrounding the mihrab and/or as a band around the prayer space.44

The Qurʾan enjoins the call to prayer to be issued through the human voice before each time of prayer but indicates no architecture for this purpose. According to biographies of the prophet, the first muezzin—the one who calls to prayer—was a man of Ethiopian descent named Bilal ibn Rabah enslaved in Mecca. One of the first converts to Islam, he was tortured by his master,then rescued and manumitted under orders of the Prophet Muhammad, who, recognizing his strong voice, called upon him to lead the ritual call to prayer (adhan). Often considered one of the most important signifiers of Islam in the contemporary world, minaret developed after the 8th century as mosques became central to settlements large enough that the call to prayer, initially issued from a roof, could no longer be heard by the congregation. Over time, minarets came to signify power through the number associated with each mosque, their height, and decoration and varying conventional forms associated with different dynasties.

Mosques can take many forms, often reflecting local architectural materials. Earthen mosques, such as the Larabanga Mosque in Ghana (1421), have encountered modernization under colonialism enabling monumentality, such as at the Djenne Mosque (1907) in Mali.45 Hypostyle mosques, such as the Damascus Great Mosque, the al-Azhar Mosque-University in Cairo (972), or the Great Mosque of Cordoba, use small domes in front of the mihrab amid a sea of columns holding up a transverse prayer hall. Conversely, mosques in the northern provinces of the former Ottoman Empire, such as the Selimiye Mosque of Edirne (1574), and in Iran, such as the Shah Mosque in Isfahan (1629), use vast domes, often illuminated with delicate inlaid tile or painting, to evoke Divine grandeur in both the scale of the edifice and the delicacy of its adornment. Echoing these traditions, mosques in South Asia frequently use a wide hypostyle format adorned with multiple domes and tapering minarets, such as the Jama Masjid (1656) in Delhi or the Badshahi Mosque (1673) in Lahore.

Generally established through foundations (waqf), mosques were essential to the premodern economic and social system of the Islamic world. Before inflation, waqfs enabled the circulation of wealth between classes and between rural and urban regions. A person would establish a foundation by donating in perpetuity the profits from rural lands and caravanserais along with those from urban services like baths and shops (often grouped together in open and covered markets) to a complex of charitable institutions surrounding a mosque, which could include schools, universities, hospitals, and public kitchens, as well as often the tomb of the founder or sheikh of a Sufi collective. Waqfs dedicated to spiritual leaders would often also include smaller prayer spaces and spaces of lodging, libraries, rituals, and the teaching of Sufi orders, often associated with guilds. Together, the profit-making and charitable institutions surrounding a mosque would form the center of a settlement, with multiple centers emerging as cities expanded. The mosque served not only as the center of communal life religiously but also economically and politically, as communal Friday prayers would regularly reinforce the ruler’s dominion. While foundations can be conceived in secular terms, as architectural complexes or urban planning units, they functioned as important elements in socioreligious practice by fostering community, enabling instruction, harboring the sick, and feeding the poor. The dissolution of waqfs under late 19th-century modernizing bureaucratization provided an important source for objects that would be recategorized as “Islamic art.”46

Contemporary mosque architecture tends to emphasize broad sanctuary spaces through myriad forms enabled by contemporary materials. Some, like the Cologne Central Mosque (2017), which slices a neotraditional domed design with glass panes, or the Mosque of Light (2018) by the Mumbai-based architecture firm NUDES for Dubai’s Creek Harbor Development, emphasize the play of light as an iconic Islamic form. Others, like the Vali-e-Asr Mosque (2017) by Fluid Motion Architects in Tehran, emphasize plain monumental surfaces while eschewing traditional forms such as minarets, domes, or isometric geometries—a move proving controversial to the conservative regime at the time of its completion. Similarly, the Sancaklar Mosque (2018) by EAA-Emre Arolat Architecture uses stark, partly underground modernism to oppose neo-Ottoman monumentalization characteristic of early 21st-century state patronage in Turkey, as at the Çamlıca Mosque (2019) in Istanbul.

Just as the Qu’ran is not the only mode of semiotic engagement with the Divine, architecture is not the only spatial engagement with it. Early Islamic buildings, such as the Dome of the Rock and the Great Mosque of Damascus (715 ce), included mosaic revetments designed to evoke Qurʾanic descriptions of paradisical gardens and rivers (Q6:99, 9:72). Such semiotic representations of gardens informed floriate decoration in the expansions of the Mosque of Cordoba, particularly around the mihrab. Although initially only representations of gardens seem to have been understood symbolically, by the 13th century, physical gardens in Spain and India also could evoke spiritual associations. By the 15th century, gardens flanking Ottoman mosques often housed cemeteries, evoking the gardens of paradise.47 Similarly, Persianate poetry describing the chaharbagh, a garden divided into four parts, often ascribes paradisiac qualities to it while evoking the division of the cosmos. The garden could also serve as a metaphor for wisdom, as in poetry compilations conceived as gardens. As with geometry or music, the capacity of vegetal forms on surfaces, including on carpets, metalwork, and tile to evoke the Divine often resides less in direct symbolism than in the habitus of the subject. Thus such effects could also function in Christian spaces of worship, such as the Armenian Vank Cathedral in Isfahan.

Writing and Intermediality in Islamic Discourses

Religiosity was not experienced solely in prayer spaces but also through everyday special elements and objects inscribed with Qurʾanic and poetic texts invoking the Divine. The adaptation of the 18th-century neologism “calligraphy,” emphasizing the visual beauty (calli-) of text (graphy), not only minimizes the semantic importance of writing but also the affective properties associated with the Arabic word denoting scripted writing, khatt. Discourses about khatt emphasize text as trace, left both by the Divine inscriber of the world and the manifestation of providential grace in the scribe. The quality of such writing came to be described less through visual terms as through the virtue of the scribe as expressed in the pure line that meditatively mediated between the oral and visual characteristics of text.

The root of the inscriptional tradition in the Islamic world emerges in what are generally understood as the first revealed verses of the Qurʾan.

Read [iqra]! In the name of your Lord who created: He created insan [humanity] from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by the pen [q-l-m], who taught man what he did not know.48 (Q96:1–5; see also Q68:1)

Reflections of this association between the pen and creation are manifold. Often considered the first scribe (khattat) among the believers, the Hundred Sayings of ’Ali ibn Abi Talib recommends the beauty/grace (husn) of writing as trace (khatt) as the keys to sustenance, referring not simply to visuality but also to the sustenance conveyed through scripture.49 To him is also attributed the aphorism, “Whoever writes ‘In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful,’ in beautiful writing will enter Paradise without account.”50 Both poetic manuals on the inscriptional arts and biographies of illustrious scribes (khattat) often emphasize the perseverance and virtuous nature of practitioners more than describing the visual properties that lend quality to the inscription.51 Thus the formal performance of the trace understood as “calligraphy” and recognized through proportioned writing gains beauty by manifesting the virtue of the scribe. A practitioner is enjoined to learn through the physical repetition that imbues the hand with the learning of the masters, ultimately liberating the scribe to spontaneously embody praxis within his or her own nature.52 The meditative aspect of this practice manifests in the lyrical rhythms of practice sheets turned in multiple directions, resulting in apparently abstract forms of letters and letter combinations. The word for such practices, mashq, coincides with the word for the improvisational aspect of musical performance, which likewise builds on a set of temporal and tonal constants to enable an infinity of informed innovation.

As the prophet hears rather than sees the sacred voice, the pen of the Qurʾan is not simply a physical pen. The creation of the pen from the reed invites comparison with the flute (nay), and its voice becomes a metaphor for the human body. Thus the epic Mathnavi of the sheikh Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273), commonly called “the Qurʾan in Persian,” begins with the following lines:

Listen to the reed flute as it tells it talesComplaining of separations as it wails.“Since they cut my stalk away from the reed bed,My outcry has made men and women lamentI seek a breast that is torn to shreds by lossSo that I may explicate the pain of want” . . .What has struck the reed-stalk is the fire of loveWhat has struck the wine is deep passion of loveAnyone who’s lost a friend, the reed’s with himIts wails tear apart the veils that keep us inWho has seen a poison or cure like the reed?Who has seen a lover or mate like the reed?. . . Only to those without sense is such sense knownYet the ear has no customer but the tongue.53

Referencing the separation of the reed from the reed bed, the human from the maker, and the text from the creation of which it partakes and represents, the poem frames itself as song and as succor against the separation from the Divine. As in Platonic thought, rhetoric functions as a salve, even as the transgressive property of song also potentially poisons.54

Also comparing the reed to the lover separated from the beloved, the Mathnavi echoes the mystical association between the forms of letters and human bodies. Developed by Fadallah of Astarabad (1340–1394), the practice of hurufism interpreted the unexplained “mystical” letters that appear at the beginning of some passages of the Qurʾan. Just as the round letter nun—corresponding with the Latin N and looking like ن‎—can correspond with a mole or a dimple in the chin of the beloved, in poetry about inscription, it could be an inkwell. Although hurufism never became a dominant practice—Fadallah was probably executed for heresy under Prince Timur (r. 1370–1405)— its influence pervaded poetry about writing, where metaphors of the text, bodies, sexuality, and sacrality readily intertwine. Thus The Bounty of Lovers (1454), a book about the spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of inscription, relates a story about the calligrapher ibn Muqla (886–940), who was inspired to redesign lettering from square to round forms so that the following verse articulated by the son of the caliph would make sense.

My lover’s teeth are in the form of the [letter] sin [س‎],And his mouth’s shape is like a rounded mim [م‎].Together they spell poison [samm سم‎]; amazing, by my life!After I tasted it, there was no doubt.55

Likewise, the theologian-poet Jami (1410–1492) describes the passion of Zuleikha (the biblical wife of Potiphar) and the prophet Joseph through architectural and calligraphic metaphors of the body that gloss the direct descriptions of sexuality in theological interpretations of the Qurʾan and simultaneously allude to the credal testimony (the shahada, which states that there is no God but God) at the heart of Islam.56 Hurufism exemplifies a practice bridging the gap between picture and text, framing familiar Qurʾanic and spiritual passages in representational forms such as birds, lions, and the “complete man” (al-insan al-kamil), understood as the prophet Muhammad. The cartoon How Did the Ship Amentu Move? (1969) by Tonguç Yaşar (1932–2019) and Sezer Tansuğ (1930–1998) interprets this tradition through religious poetry envisioned as rowers (shaped as the letter waw) finding salvation in the tears of ’Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Just as discourses about writing merge with discourses about music, poetry, and the human form, architecture is often articulated through poetry. Not only are Qurʾanic and poetic inscription ubiquitous in architecture, often the use of the first person enables objects to articulate themselves as though speaking to the viewer. Thus at the Alhambra Palace, built in the 14th to 15th centuries under the Nasrid Dynasty in Granada, many objects and walls are inscribed with poetry referring simultaneously to secular power and Qurʾanic meaning. One inscription describes the tower where it is located in poetic terminology:

Her beauties are evenly distributed among her four walls, her ceiling, and her floor. Marvels and wonders she holds in stucco and tile; more astonishing still is her beautiful wooden dome. . . . Just as in badi’ [poetics/metaphor], there is paranomasia [variety], classifications, caesura, and interlace.57

Another inscription describes the stucco ceilings of a room as a “raiment of embroidered stuff [that] makes one forget the tulle of Yemen,” in a context where the building is compared so frequently to a garden that it becomes, in effect, a garden of words that constructs the world, which the theorist of poetry Ibn al-Khatib (d. 1375) associates with the creation of poetry.58 The floral forms on carpets can transform a space of prayer into a metaphorical garden of paradise, particularly meaningful in interpretations of prayer as enacting a transition from the mundane world into the liminal barrier (barzakh) buffering the realms of the Divine. In collected albums, juxtaposed image and text evoke similitude between seemingly disparate forms, such as Sufi devotion, flowers, and poetry, to become apparent.

Poetry abounds with transformational allusions. Buildings are described as covered with tendrils, alluding to the shared structure of architecture and surface geometry, as well as to the arts of limning. Wine intoxicates, providing a metaphor for the sweetness as well as the dangers of unprepared witnessing of the Divine. Not simply references to paradise, as often described, poetic and tile gardens provide a means of understanding physical gardens through symbolic tropes of desire, longing, vanity, astonishment, deception, and testaments to the eternal.59 Far from merely poetic, the destabilization of materiality encountered through verse resembles the destabilization of form enabled through surface geometry, reminding the believer to recognize that all forms of matter ultimately function as Divine manifestation. Likewise, objects that allude to other states of being, such as vessels that take on the forms of animals or buildings, may function not simply representationally but as a means of confusing categories.60 Like love and the image, materiality itself could serve as a transitional object toward transcendence, as indicated in the Canon of Forms by Sadiqi Beg Afshar (1533–1610), who said:

I take the chattels of my ambition to the alleyway of the Figure;I aspire to Meaning from the face of the Figure.My heart, which had known the Art of the Figure,Brought itself, now, the high-road of Meaning . . .So far have I come in portraying the FigureThat I have traversed “Figure” and arrived at “Meaning.”61

The discursive manifestation of religious thought through all aspects of human creativity did not, however, preclude the forms of outward representation readily understood today as religious art. While the Qurʾan is never illustrated, the text is often honored with the highest skills of the book arts, including binding, fine papers, flawless writing, and detailed floral and/or geometric limning (teshib) that differs in form in various times and places but generally serves as an interface between the everyday world and imagination accessed through the word.

Veneration of the sacred word has led to manifold modes of adornment for folios and volumes of the Qurʾan. The famous Blue Qurʾan, probably made in 9th-century Andalusia, uses a large format, probably designed for ceremonial use, to frame golden letters in Maghrebi script that shimmer against an indigo-dyed parchment. On the opposite end of the size spectrum, Qurʾans written in small text often are cased in ornate boxes or fabrics, particularly useful among semi-nomadic peoples as well as people on military expeditions. Structured to enhance the sonic rhythm intrinsic to the text as well as to compliment the beauty of the voice with the page, ornate, often multicolor Qurʾans emerged throughout the Islamic world, with differing forms in different eras and places.

The Qurʾan can be used talismanically, with verses displayed on banners or cenotaph covers or hidden on amulets or shirts, which might be worn under armor. Such inscriptions include Qurʾanic verses as well as the Divine names, set as magic squares based in the numerology associated with letters. Objects designed to hold and cover the Qurʾan are often worked with a high degree of craftsmanship, frequently incorporating pattern, talismanic text, Qurʾanic inscriptions, and/or symbolic representation of architectural elements such as mihrabs or mosque lamps. Folding Qurʾan stands (rahle) are often made of ornately carved wood. Qurʾanic inscriptions on delicate materials, such as a leaf, demonstrate humble meditative devotion. In Africa, the water used to wash writing boards used to learn reading and writing can be drank as a means of imbibing the healing properties of the Qurʾan.

Sufi devotion, ritualized in accordance with the teachings of various sages, included modes of remembrance (dhikr), often through repeated evocation of the Divine, music, and meditative action (such as the turning of the Mevlevi dervishes in Turkey, Qawalli music of the Chisti order in India, or Gnawa music of the Maghreb). Asceticism, often mixing with adjacent Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist practices of renunciation, was also central to the Sufi transcendence of self toward Divine union. Seemingly miraculously washing up on the shores of the Red Sea from its native Seychelle Islands, the shell of the coco de mer palm became the emblematic begging bowl (kashkul) in which renouncing dervishes would collect whatever foods donors gave them, boiling the resulting meal at the end of the day. A dish traditionally made on the tenth day of the month of Muharram, the Turkish desert porridge ashure commemorates the meals collected from this begging by incorporating a wide variety of fruits, nuts, and grains and by being distributed among a community. Either made from such shells or in their form, devotion was often demonstrated by carving the hard shell with ornate Qurʾanic inscriptions or mother-of-pearl or precious metal inlay. Ornate kashkul probably exceeded their original function as indicators of pious poverty, owned instead by revered sheikhs.

Representational Painting of Religious Subjects

Although the Qurʾan is never figuratively illustrated, its stories have often been represented. Such images can accompany prose and poetic commentaries glossing the sacred text or nonreligious texts such as dream and prognostication manuals. For example, a mid-16th century Book of Omens includes an image of the Sleepers of the Cave, a variant on a Syriac Christian liturgy narrated in Q18. Far less recognizable to European conventions of representation, a galleon can also represent the same narrative by including the names of the Seven Sleepers and their Dog, as represented on an 18th-century inscribed panel. Illustrations of Abrahamic prophets, such as Jonah and the Whale, as well as Islamic mystical figures, such as the “servant of God” often associated with Khidr (Q18:65–82) or Idris (Enoch/Hermes Trismegistus), were often also part of popular texts engaging Qurʾanic themes. As in the story of Joseph, described as the most beautiful of stories in the Qurʾan (Q12), poetic elaborations often correlate more with Jewish exegesis of Genesis from approximately the 3rd-5th century CE than with those in the European Christian Bible. Thus, the most frequent illustration of the prophet Joseph, both in manuscript paintings and independently from text on tile panels, involves a scene in which love of Joseph is revealed as inevitable because of his intrinsic reflection of Divine grace. In dual frontispieces of the Firdausi’s epic Book of Kings (Shahnameh, 977), King Solomon and Bilqis (the Queen of Sheba) are often portrayed enthroned in recognition of her conversion (Q27). The narrative plays a central role in royal architectural symbolism, such as at the throne of Shah Jahan in Delhi and at the Court of the Lions at the Alhambra Palace, as well as underlying the central themes in Attar’s epic poem, The Conference of the Birds (1177).62

Representations of the Prophet Muhammad include paintings, descriptive texts, relics, and ritual objects of affective veneration. Many early manuscript paintings from the 13th century depicting the Prophet Muhammad show his face as fully visible, often enthroned as a ruler. The richly illustrated Compendium of Chronicles (1305–1306), written by the vizier Rashid al-Din (1247–1318) and patronized and disseminated under the Mongol Ilkhanate (1256–1353), outlines the history of the world from creation, through the Abrahamic prophets, the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, and the spread of Islam to naturalize the leadership of the recently converted Mongol conquerors. At times depicted with a flaming halo, over time, concerns that depictions of the prophet’s face might lead to excessive iconic veneration, later manuscript paintings took on the convention of veiling the face of the prophet, as well as, at times, other holy figures such as his mother, Aminah, or his son-in-law’Ali ibn Abi Talib. Many illuminated texts, particularly of poetry, included images of the Prophet Muhammad on the winged riding beast Buraq, believed to have taken the prophet on a miraculous journey. Although only mentioned in the Qurʾan (Q17) as leading to the farthest place of worship (‘isra) and to heaven (mir’aj), the extensive description of the miraculous journey in biographies and inspired visions became a hallmark of witnessing the prophecy of Muhammad and led to the widespread interpretation of Jerusalem as the site of the “farthest place of worship.”63 Illustrated books describing these journeys (mi’rajnama) functioned as devotional texts.

Enjoying widespread devotional use throughout the Islamic world, the prayer book Waymarks of Benefitsand the Brilliant Burst of Lights in the Remembrance of Blessings on the Chosen People (Delail al-Khayrat) by the Moroccan sheikh Muhammad al-Jazuli ash-Shadhili (d. 1465) often included diagrammatic illustrations of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Both these works and hilye panels combined textual descriptions of the Prophet Muhammad with the image of roses as the distillation of the “sweat of the Prophet’s grace.”64 Such images informed the poetic trope of the rose, the meaning of roses in gardens, and the extensive use of rose oil and rose water as a personal scent as well as in sweets.

While representational paintings of the prophet proliferated in manuscripts, nonpictorial representations of the prophet flourished in many media. In the Ottoman Empire, images of the prophet eventually fully eschewed representational form as wall panels of written descriptions of the prophet (hilye) became common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Prayer books and tiles often represented him through images of his relics, such as his sandals, rosary, and sword. Like images of his sandals, his footprint (related to the Buddhapada)—often miraculously embedded in materials such as stone—indicate a Divine absence revered through practices of rubbing to seek physical contact with prophetic blessings.65

Independent written panels (levha), either to be hung on a wall or assembled in albums called muraqqa, enabled a public presence and the private admiration of the Word. Among the largest of such panels were six roundels that frequently surrounded the domes of Ottoman mosques with the names of Allah, Muhammad, the four rightly guided caliphs (who took leadership after the death of the prophet), and sometimes Hasan and Huseyin, martyred sons of ʾAli ibn Abi Talib. Panels often use mirrored writing (muthanna) to merge text with form.66In this example, two intertwined letters “waw,” indicating Divine unity, inhabit a vessel that can pour the wine of devotion. Blessings can also be simpler, such as basmala, “in the name of God,” marking the beginning of each Qurʾan chapter and uttered upon embarking in any activity.

Representations of other saintly figures also proliferate. The double-bladed sword of ʾAli ibn Abi Talib, the duh al-fiqar, has graced many flags in the Islamic world and often indicates Shia affinities when worn as jewelry or used decoratively. Also used apotropaically in ancient Mesopotamia and by modern Jews, the form of an open right hand called the hamsa (five) has long been reconceived through Islamic identification with the hand of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

Islam in Contemporary Art

Twentieth-century emphasis on secularism, nationalism, and universal modernism has often presumed divergence between Islamic meanings and contemporary artforms. Nonetheless, many artists extend the legacies of Islam into modern works. While framing all contemporary art of the Middle East as “Islamic” mistakenly contravenes many artists’ secular engagement with global practices, many artworks straddle both expressive languages.67

Often conflated as a modernist Hurufiyya movement, art using letters as forms often bridges the gap between modern and spiritual references.68 Synthesizing European artistic movements with traditional Islamic forms, the Khartoum School, led by Ibrahim El Salahi (Sudan, b. 1930), transforms forms inspired by text, the cloak (jibba) of the messianic Mahdi, and trees into paintings that bridge the gap between modernism and modern visualizations of mystical thought. The work of Charles Hussein Zenderoudi (Iran, b. 1937) ranges makes reference to several legacies: the abstraction of hurufism, echoing the Romanian-French movement of letterism; figural references to traditional forms of reverence through talismanic objects left at shrines; and to the passion play commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein, reconceived through modernist styles. Erol Akyavaş (Turkey, 1932–1999) engaged with his discovery of Sufism working in New York, creating paintings and prints that incorporate modern styles with traditional illustrative sequences, as in the Mirajnama (1987). Superimposing two video recordings of the Bosporus through a stencil composed of a 19th-century Ottoman calligraphic panel of the shahada, Mesopotamian Dramaturgies/Water (2009) by Kutluğ Ataman (Turkey, b. 1961) references both the boundary between Europe and Asia, West and East, indicated by the waters and the coming together of the two seas indicated in the Qurʾan. The stamped series Twenty-one Stones by Idris Khan (UK, b. 1978) evoke the ritual of stoning the devil during the Hajj. Walid Siti (Iraq, b. 1954) combines inscription with circumambulation of the Kaaba evoked in his drawing White Cube.

Not all interpreters of Islam hail from Islamic origins. Incorporating a basmala panel into the illusionistic Calligraphy with Box and Glasses (1982), Richard de Menocal (US, 1919–1995) used an upright and an empty glass, suggestive of the cone shape of a dervish hat, to evoke the processes of birth and return honored in Mevlevi turning as well as the memento-mori tradition of European still-life painting. Videos by Bill Viola (US, b. 1951), such as The Veiling (1995), The Messenger (1996), and The Night Journey (2005), directly evoke Islamic paradigms within transcultural mysticism.69 Recognizing Islam as a dynamic contemporary force and spiritual presence in the contemporary world that is disturbed by common ignorance about Islam, Sandow Birk (US, b. 1962) used extensive travel in the Middle East to inform his ornate rendition of the American Qurʾan (2015).

Contemporary artworks frequently use references to Islam to address issues of violence surrounding contemporary Islam. The Christian-Palestinian Mona Khatoum (Lebanon, b. 1952) evokes the drama of devotionalism and violence pervading the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990) in her Prayer Mat (1995), consisting of pins and a compass. Likewise, His Lantern (2006) by Afruz Amighi (Iran, b. 1974) reconceives the form of a prayer carpet through symbols of the Iran–Iraq War and materials associated with refugee camps. A portable mosque out of steel and chain-link, the form of Paradise Has Many Gates, by Ajlan Gharem (Saudi Arabia, b. 1985) at the 2018–2020 Vancouver Biennial suggests the pencil-minaret and dome characteristic of the Ottoman Empire, while its materials recall those of the controversial US military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Islamic legacies can subvert conservative religious interpretations. Mixing figural Arabic writing with representational drawing, the series O Loss of Forbidden Love by Murat Morova (b. 1954) draws on the Hurufi tradition as a means of reconsidering the imposition of modern sexuality over historical realities. Similarly, in works like The Book of Pleasure (2007) and Exemplary (2009), Canan Şenol (b. 1970) draws on manuscript painting and the shadow puppet tradition to reconsider lost histories of female gender and sexuality.

Sculptural forms often enable new calligraphic meanings. Meaning “nothing” in Persian, Parviz Tanavoli’s (b. 1937) sculptures of the word Heech, can be understood as punning on the contrast between form and meaning and can also be understood as a reflection on the transitory nature of materiality central to Sufi thought. Whoever Obeys Allah, He Will Make for Him a Way Out by Nasser Al Saleem (Saudi Arabia, b. 1984) depicts a Qurʾanic quotation (Q65:2) as an experimental maze for mice, playfully suggesting Islam as an escape from the so-called rat race of modernity. Bani Abidi’s sound installation, Mataam (2020) condenses the act of Shi’ite mourning to the rhythmic beat of the hand slapping flesh.

Sculptures bridging Islam and modernism often play on the overlap between the modernist grid and isometric pattern. Thus the cut mirror sculptures of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (Iran, 1922–2019) adopt the traditional aina-kari technique, often used to adorn palaces and mosques since the 17th century, within modern frames of reference. Yet as the mirror panel work entitled Resist Resisting God (2009) by the collective Slavs and Tatars suggests the reuse of forms in Islamic culture have difficulty fully segregating the worldly from the spiritual.

All understanding depends on the models of knowledge informing our experience. To consider religion and art in Islam means to think about how each of these categories perpetually embodies, resists, and recreates the others.

Review of the Literature

Most interpretations of Islamic art have focused on formal political and cultural meanings.70 Louis Massignon (1883–1962) wrote the first work to conceive of the arts in relation to Islamic precepts.71 In contrast, many works normalized the premise of an “Islamic image prohibition” by analyzing early Islamic texts outside of systematized practices of Islamic thought.72 The World of Islam Festival (1976) in London attempted to approach Islamic arts through religion, yet many scholars of Islamic art dismissed its exhibitions and publications as generalizing.73

Emphasizing Neoplatonism over theology, Gülru Necipoğlu’s Topkapi Scroll (1995) innovatively interprets Islamic art through Islamic thought.74 José Miguel Puerta Vílchez’s History of Arab Aesthetics (1997/2017) provides a monumental critical compendium of early Islamic thought on the arts.75 Doris Behrens-Abouseif’s Beauty in Arab Culture (1998) emphasizes secular aspects of thought. Oliver Leaman Islamic Aesthetics (2004) provides a conversational overview of issues pertaining to the arts in Islam.76

Recognition of intellectual history beyond secular frameworks has grown in the 2000s. Critical translations and accompanying essays complicated the spectrum of analytical materials available to engage with Islamic art through Islamic thought. These include Esra Akın-Kıvanç’s Mustafa ‘Ali’s Epic Deeds of Artists (2011); David Roxburgh’s Prefacing the Image (2001); and Wheeler Thackston’s Album Prefaces (2000).

Analytical volumes have also proliferated. Samer Akkach’s Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam (2005) focuses on the thought of Sheikh ibn al-Arabi. His articles offer radically divergent epistemic frameworks through which to comprehend works generally categorized as architecture.77 Jamal J. Elias’s Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam (2012) explains how perception functions in diverse yet intertwined Islamic religious, philosophical, scientific, and mystical discourses. Stephennie Mulder’s The Shrines of the ‘Alids in Medieval Syria (2014) examines inter-sectarian devotions through architectural and textual evidence. The work of Christiane Gruber, particularly The Praiseworthy One (2018), critically examines the nature of figural representation in Islamic thought and practice.78 Margaret Graves’s Arts of Allusion (2018) implicates praxis within Islamic intellectual frameworks.79 Wendy Shaw’s What Is “Islamic” Art (2019) elucidates the interpretive framework expressed in the Islamic theological and literary corpus, critiquing conventional art historical epistemes.

Recent compilations fruitfully complicate disciplinary boundaries delimiting Islam and the arts. These include Kishwar Rizvi’s Affect, Emotion, and Subjectivity in Early Modern Muslim Empires (2017); Michael Frishkopf and Federico Spinetti’s Music, Sound, and Architecture in Islam (2018); Birgit Meyer and Terje Stordalen’s Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (2019); and Christiane Gruber’s The Image of the Prophet between Ideal and Ideology (2014) and The Image Debate: Figural Representation in Islam and Across the World (2019).80

Further Reading

  • Ahmed, Shahab. What Is Islam: The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
  • Akkach, Samer. Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam: An Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
  • Elias, Jamal J. Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.
  • Graves, Margaret. Arts of Allusion: Object, Ornament, and Architecture in Medieval Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Gruber, Christiane. The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.
  • Necipoğlu, Gülru, and Barry Flood, eds. The Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.
  • Shaw, Wendy. What Is “Islamic” Art: Between Religion and Perception. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  • Vílchez, José Miguel Puerta, and Consuelo Lopez-Morillas, trans. Aesthetics in Arabic Thought: From Pre-Islamic Arabia through al-Andalus. Leiden: Brill, 2017.


  • 1. Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 187–188; and Daniel Debuisson, “Critical Thinking and Comparative Analysis in Religious Studies,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 28, no. 1 (2016): 26–30.

  • 2. Ahmed, What Is Islam?, 80–82.

  • 3. Considering itself as renewing Abrahamic monotheism, Islam conceives of a unique God worshipped alike by Muslims, Christians, and Jews, all of whom use the word Allah. Yet retaining “Allah in English resembles saying the French believe in Dieu, while implicitly exotifying Islam. As Christian anthropomorphic connotations of “God” fit poorly with Islamic paradigms, I use the more neutral term “the Divine.”

  • 4. Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

  • 5. The root letters, q-r-’a indicate both reading and reciting in Arabic. Within a rich tradition of memorized oral literature, literacy in the 7th century differed from the modern vocalization translation of visual signs. Rather, it consisted primarily of the cultivated skill of recitation and spontaneous composition. Gregor Schoeler, The Genesis of Literature in Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 16–24; and Sebastian Günther, “Muhammad, the Illiterate Prophet: An Islamic Creed in the Qurʾan and Qurʾanic Exegesis,” Journal of Qurʾanic Studies 4, no. 1 (2002): 1–26.

  • 6. Fred Donner, Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

  • 7. Ruqayya Y. Khan, “Did a Woman Edit the Qurʾan? Hafsa and Her Famed ‘Codex,’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 82, no. 1 (2014): 174–216.

  • 8. Fazlur Rahman, “Translating the Qurʾan,” Religion & Literature 20, no. 1 (1988): 23–30.

  • 9. Muhammad Abdel-Haleem, The Qurʾan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 223.

  • 10. Samer Akkach, Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam: An Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 113–116; and Michael Barry, Figurative Art in Medieval Islam and the Riddle of Bihzad of Herat (Paris: Flammarion, 2004), 18.

  • 11. Fadlou Shehadi, Philosophies of Music in Medieval Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 26.

  • 12. Jamal J. Elias, Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 87; and Oliver Leaman, Islamic Aesthetics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 47.

  • 13. Gülru Necipoğlu, “The Scrutinizing Gaze in the Aesthetics of Islamic Visual Cultures: Sight, Insight, and Desire,” Muquarnas 32 (2015): 23–61; and Elias, Aisha’s Cushion, 222.

  • 14. Julie Scott Meisami, “Allegorical Gardens in the Persian Poetic Tradition: Nezami, Rumi, Hafez,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17, no. 2 (1985): 229–260.

  • 15. David Roxburgh, Prefacing the Image: The Writing of Art History in Sixteenth-Century Iran (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 191; and Wheeler Thackston, Album Prefaces and Other Documents on the History of Calligraphers and Painters (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 4.

  • 16. Elias, Aisha’s Cushion, 63; Michael Shenkar, “Rethinking Sasanian Iconoclasm,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 135, no. 3 (2015): 471–498.

  • 17. Stephen Halliwell, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

  • 18. José Miguel Puerta Vílchez and Consuelo Lopez-Morillas, trans., Aesthetics in Arabic Thought: From Pre-Islamic Arabia through al-Andalus (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 282.

  • 19. Necipoğlu, “The Scrutinizing Gaze,” 23.

  • 20. Wendy Shaw, What Is “Islamic” Art: Between Religion and Perception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 51–52.

  • 21. Elias Aisha’s Cushion, 9–13; Ahmed, What Is Islam, 48.

  • 22. Mika Natif, “‘Painters Will Be Punished’—The Politics of Figural Representation amongst the Umayyads,” in The Image Debate: Figural Representation in Islam and Across the World, ed. Christiane Gruber (London: Ginko, 2019), 32–45.

  • 23. Shaw, What Is “Islamic” Art, 44–51.

  • 24. Finbarr Barry Flood, “Between Cult and Cultures: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum,” The Art Bulletin 84, no. 3 (2002): 641–659. Christiane Gruber, “In Defense and Devotion: Affective Practices in Early Modern Turco-Persian Manuscript Paintings,” in Affect, Emotion, and Subjectivity in Early Modern Muslim Empires: New Studies in Ottoman Safavid, and Mughal Art and Culture, ed. Kishvar Rizvi (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 95–123.

  • 25. Irfan Shahid, “The ‘Sūra’ of the Poets, Qurʾān XXVI: Final Conclusions,” Journal of Arabic Literature 34, no. 2 (2004): 175–220.

  • 26. Akkach, Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam, 18–23.

  • 27. Shaw, What Is “Islamic” Art, 69–76, 211–222.

  • 28. Alexander Knysh, Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 35–61; Frederick de Jong and Bernd Radke, eds., Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999); and Ahmed, What Is Islam, 94–96.

  • 29. Gülru Necipoğlu, The Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture (Santa Monica, CA: Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities, 1995), 353. Ahmed, What Is Islam, 78, 96.

  • 30. Christiane Gruber, The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018), 15–16; and Ondrej Beranek and Pavel Tupek, The Temptation of Graves in Salafi Islam: Iconoclasm, Destruction and Idolatry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

  • 31. Ahmed, What Is Islam, 49–50.

  • 32. Yusuf Rahman, “The Miraculous Nature of Muslim Scripture: A Study of ‘Abd al-Jabbar’s ijaz al-Quran,” Islamic Studies 34, no. 4 (1996): 409–424.

  • 33. Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbasid Society (London and New York: Routledge, 1998).

  • 34. Sheila Blair, Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 161–162.

  • 35. The interpretation of geometry as a spiritual form remains a point of contention in Islamic art history. See Akkach, Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam, 14–16; Wendy Shaw, “The Islam in Islamic Art History: Secularism and Public Discourse,” Journal of Art Historiography 6 (2012).

  • 36. Nader el-Bizri, Epistles of the Brethren of Purity: On Arithmetic and Geometry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 144.

  • 37. Necipoğlu, “The Scrutinizing Gaze,” 28.

  • 38. Abdel-Haleem, The Qurʾan, 223.

  • 39. Estelle Whelan, “The Origins of the Mihrab Mujawwaf: A Reinterpretation,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 18, no. 2 (1986): 205–223.

  • 40. The norm of male theologians or imams is not universal. See Sa’diyya Shaikh, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ‘Arabi, Gender, and Sexuality (Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); and Zainab Alwani, Muslima Theology: The Voices of Muslim Women Theologians (Berlin: Peter Lang Verlag, 2013).

  • 41. Avinoam Shalem, “Fountains of Light: The Meaning of Medieval Islamic Rock Crystal Lamps,” Muqarnas 14 (1994): 1–11.

  • 42. Simon O’Meara, The Ka’ba Orientations: Readings in Islam’s Ancient House (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020).

  • 43. Rabbat, Nasser, “The Dome of the Rock Revisited: Some Remarks on Al-Wasiti's Accounts,” Muqarnas 10 (1993): 67–75.

  • 44. Akkach, Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam.

  • 45. Christiane Gruber, “The Missiri of Fréjus as Healing Memorial: Mosque Metaphors and the French Colonial Army (1928–1964),” International Journal of Islamic Architecture 1, no. 1 (2012): 25–60.

  • 46. Wendy Shaw, “Islamic Art in the Islamic World: Museums and Architectural Revivalism,” in The Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, ed. Gülru Necipoğlu and Barry Flood (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017), 1150–1171.

  • 47. Fairchild Ruggles, Islamic Gardens and Landscapes (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 89–101.

  • 48. Abdel-Haleem, The Qurʾan, 428.

  • 49. Shi’ite Muslims consider ʾAli ibn Abi Talib and his descendants the divinely inspired successors of the prophet.

  • 50. David J. Roxburgh, “‘The Eye Is Favored for Seeing the Writing’s Form’: On the Sensual and the Sensuous in Islamic Calligraphy,” Muqarnas 25 (2008): 275–298.

  • 51. Esra Akın-Kıvanç, Mustafa ‘Ali’s Epic Deeds of Artists: A Critical Edition of the Earliest Ottoman Text about the Calligraphers and Painters of the Islamic World (Leiden: Brill; 2011); V. Minorsky, trans., Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise by Qādī Ahmad, Son of Mīr Munshī (circa AH 1015/ad 1606) (Washington, DC: Freer Gallery, 1959); and Thackston, Album Prefaces and Other Documents.

  • 52. Carl W. Ernst, “The Spirit of Islamic Calligraphy: Bābā Shāh Iṣfahānī's Ādāb Al-Mashq,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 112, no. 2 (1992): 279–286.

  • 53. Kenan Rifai and Victoria Holbrook, trans., Listen: Commentary on the Spiritual Couplets of Mevlana Rumi (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2011), 11.

  • 54. Shaw, What Is “Islamic” Art, 80–81.

  • 55. Carl W. Ernst, “Sufism and the Aesthetics of Penmanship in Sirāj Al-Shīrāzī's ‘Tuḥfat Al-Muḥibbīn’ (1454),” Journal of the American Oriental Society 129, no. 3 (2009): 431–442.

  • 56. Shaw, What Is “Islamic” Art, 242–243.

  • 57. Cynthia Robinson, “Marginal Ornament: Poetics, Mimesis, and Devotion in the Palace of the Lions,” Muqarnas 25 (2008): 185–214, 192; and Olga Bush, Reframing the Alhambra (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

  • 58. Robinson, “Marginal Ornament,” 196.

  • 59. Meisami, “Allegorical Gardens.”

  • 60. Margaret Graves, Arts of Allusion: Object, Ornament, and Architecture in Medieval Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

  • 61. Ahmed, What Is Islam, 53.

  • 62. Ebba Koch, “The Mughal Emperor as Solomon, Majnun, and Orpheus, or the Album as a Think Tank for Allegory,” Muqarnas 27 (2010): 277–311; and Olga Bush, “‘When My Beholder Ponders:’ Poetic Epigraphy in the Alhambra,” Artibus Asiae 66 (2006): 22.

  • 63. Gruber, The Praiseworthy One.

  • 64. Meisami, “Allegorical Gardens,” 243; Gruber, The Praiseworthy One, 297; Finbarr Barry Flood, “Lost Histories of a Licit Figural Art,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 45, no. 3 (2013): 566–569.

  • 65. Hasan Perween, “The Footprint of the Prophet,” Muqarnas 10 (1993): 335–343.

  • 66. Esra Akin-Kivanc, Muthanna/Mirror Writing in Islamic Calligraphy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020).

  • 67. Sussan Babaie, “Voices of Authority: Locating the ‘Modern’ in ‘Islamic’ Arts,” Getty Research Journal 3 (2011): 133–149.

  • 68. Blair, Islamic Calligraphy, 589–627.

  • 69. Ziad Elmarsafy, “Adapting Sufism to Video Art: Bill Viola and the Sacred,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 28 (2008): 127–149.

  • 70. Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom, “The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field,” The Art Bulletin 85, no. 1 (2003): 15–184; and Shaw, “The Islam in Islamic Art History.”

  • 71. Louis Massignon, “Les Méthodes de réalisation artistique des peuples de l’Islam,” Syria 2, no. 2 (1921): 50.

  • 72. Thomas Arnold, Painting in Islam: A Study of the Place of Pictorial Art in Muslim Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press; Creswell, K. A. C., 1928). Keppel Archibald Cameron Creswell, “The Lawfulness of Painting in Early Islam,” Ars Islamica 11/12 (1946): 159–166; Silvia Naef, Y a-t-il une ‘question de l’image’ en Islam? (Paris: Téraèdre, 2003); and Silvia Naef, Islamisches Bilderverbot vom Mittel- bis ins Digital Zeitalter (Vienna: LIT Verlag GmbH, 2006).

  • 73. Anneka Lenssen, “‘Muslims Take Over Institute for Contemporary Art’: The 1976 World of Islam Festival,” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 42, nos. 1/2 (2008): 40–47.

  • 74. Gülru, The Topkapi Scroll.

  • 75. Jose Maria Puerta Vilchez, trans. Consuelo López-morillas, Aesthetics in Arabic Thought: From Pre-Islamic Arabia through to al-Andalus (Leiden: Brill, 2017).

  • 76. Leaman, Islamic Aesthetics; Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Beauty in Arab Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998).

  • 77. Samer Akkach, “The World of Imagination in Ibn ‘Arabi’s Ontology,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 2, no. 1 (1993): 97–113; and Samer Akkach, “The Poetics of Concealment: Al-Nabulusi’s Encounter with the Dome of the Rock,” Muqarnas 22 (2005): 110–127.

  • 78. Christiane Gruber, The Praiseworthy One. “Between Logos (Kalima) and Light (Nur): Representations of Muhammad in Islamic Painting,” Muqarnas 26 (2017): 229–262.

  • 79. Graves, The Arts of Allusion.

  • 80. Kishwar Rizvi, ed., Affect, Emotion, and Subjectivity in Early Modern Muslim Empires: New Studies in Ottoman Safavid, and Mughal Art and Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2017); Michael Frishkopf and Federico Spinetti, eds., Music, Sound, and Architecture in Islam (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018); Birgit Meyer and Terje Stordalen, eds., Figurations and Sensations of the Unseen in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019); Christiane Gruber and Avinoam Shalem, eds., The Image of the Prophet between Ideal and Ideology: A Scholarly Investigation (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2014); and Christiane Gruber, The Image Debate: Figural Representation in Islam and Across the World (London: Ginko Library Art Series, 2019).