Islamic Art as an Educational Tool about the Teaching of Islam

Article excerpt

Islamic art can effectively convey messages about Islamic culture, the peaceful teaching of Islam, and the contribution of the Islamic civilization to the world. Nasr (1987) notes that "Traditional Islamic art conveys the spirituality and quintessential message of Islam through a timeless language which, precisely because of its timelessness as well as its direct symbolism, is more effective and less problematic than most of the theological explanations of Islam" (p. 195).

The term "Islamic" refers not just to a religion, but also to a culture and a civilization. Most of the current literature in the West and the media, especially after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, has depicted Islam as a violent, irrational, and fanatical force. Islamic art speaks a universal language of aesthetics and functions that illustrates the spiritual and peaceful message of Islam. This article introduces Islamic art and discusses workshops conducted at middle schools in the San Francisco Bay Area as part of my doctoral internship.

Islam: Faith and a Way of life

To fully understand the richness of Islamic art, an introduction to Islam as a faith and a way of life is necessary, as it underscores the values and the expressions round in Islamic art. The whole story starts in a cave outside the city of Mecca, in Arabia, in the year 610 C.E., where a 40-year-old man is meditating and looking for answers to questions about life and the universe. A voice comes from nowhere, telling him to "recite [read] in the name of your Lord." The voice was from the archangel Gabriel, the man was Muhammad, and the words were God's words that later became what we know as the Qur'an.

The Arabic word "Islam" means to achieve peace-peace with God, peace within oneself, and peace with the creations of God through submission to the will of God and commitment to His guidance. Prophet Muhammad did not consider this a new religion, but a continuation and fulfillment of the same basic message that was revealed by God (Allah, in Arabic) to other prophets before him (Abraham, Moses, Noah, Jesus).

Development and Historical Information

During the life of Prophet Muhammad, the first mosque was the house of the Prophet himself, in Medina, the city where he settled after the hijra or hegira (emigration from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 C.E.). This date marked the beginning of the Muslim calendar and era. The Prophet's mosque, its elements and functions, became a model and archetype for later mosques. When the Prophet returned to Mecca taking over the holy sanctuary and declaring his devotion to Islam, he destroyed the idols that were placed in or around the sacred Kaaba (the cubic house built by Abraham and his son Ishmael), because people were worshiping these stone statues. This event marked a tradition regarding the representation of living beings and figurative images in Islam that continues to be interpreted in many different ways.

Defining Islamic Art

What is Islamic art? Is it the art of people who belong to Islam, or is it art that serves Islam as a religion? Is it art produced during the Islamic civilization? Grabar (1987) defines Islamic art as the art produced by "a culture or civilization in which the majority of the population, or at least the ruling element, profess the faith of Islam" (p. 2). Many scholars have also noted that the artist who actually produced a work of Islamic art may or may not be a Muslim. Islamic art "not only describes the art created specifically in the service of Islam, but it also characterizes secular art produced in lands under Islamic rule or influence, whatever the artist's or the patron's religious affiliation" (Komaroff, 1999).

Nasr (1987) suggests that "without the two fountains and sources of the Qur'an and the Prophetic barakah [blessing] there would be no Islamic art" (p. 7). He defines Islamic art as "the result of the manifestation of Unity upon the plane of multiplicity" (p. …