Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Islamic Art and the LDS Faith

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Islamic Art and the LDS Faith

Article excerpt

My first encounter with Islamic art was a photograph of the Alhambra: architecture transfigured by light, into light. It expressed a spiritual reality in a way I had not seen before.

As I began researching this and other jewels of architecture and craftsmanship, I became interested in how the art and architecture of Islam acted as a direct extension of the faith. There seemed to be no separation between the life of belief and the life of action. Both sacred and secular buildings were inscribed with words of scripture, something that recalled a time in LDS history when our community buildings-not just the temples-carried the inscription "Holiness to the Lord."

Eventually, I found myself at The Prince's School of Traditional Arts in London, where I began to study principles of design as viewed from a traditional perspective. Several of my courses were taught with reference to the Islamic world, where many of the traditional crafts are still being practiced by living artisans.

The arts of the Islamic world are frequently demoted and dismissed as "merely decorative" or as somehow lesser than the fine art traditions of the West. This dismissal is based on a profound misunderstanding of the purposes and application of art in Islamic culture.

Islamic art is founded on three visual languages: the calligraphic, the biomorphic, and the geometric. The knowledge of how to apply these languages within the crafts is handed down within an apprenticeship system. Each of these disciplines requires decades to master.

Calligraphy is the art form considered to have the most direct connection to revelation: the scribe works directly with the word of God as revealed to the prophet Mohammed. There are many different scripts, each requiring adherence to specific laws of proportion. The ink is ideally made from the soot gathered from mosque lamps, which are perpetually surrounded by the prayers of the faithful as the oil burns. The mastery of calligraphy requires not only consummate skill and discipline within a tradition, but a profound knowledge of scripture and hadith (sayings of the prophet Mohammed).

In the biomorphic language, floral and foliate elements are highly stylized. A "realistic" depiction of a rose shows only the essence of a particular bloom seen from a specific vantage point at a fixed point in time, whereas a stylized bloom reveals something regarding the essence of all roses in their most divine manifestation. Biomorphic adornment also alludes to the beauties of paradise and specifically to the Tree of Life. The floral language adapts to the constraints of the medium, but certain principles always govern its forms. The composition always has an origin or focal point, such as a vase, seed, roots, or cloud from which the rest emanates. All growth moves outward from this point, unfurling and spiralling in a symphony of leaves, buds, and blossoms. This acknowledgement of an origin for a foliate composition is an acknowledgement of the Source, of the Origin, of the Divine.

The biomorphic and geometric languages are complementary and inseparable. They echo the organic and crystalline aspects of Creation. Their proportions and forms are intended to reflect the Divine ordering of the cosmos. In The Need for a Sacred Science, Dr. S. H. Nasr writes, "This order is, moreover, related to an incredible harmony which in the technically musical sense pervades all the realms of nature from the stars to subatomic particles. The proportions of the parts of animals and plants, of crystal structures or of the planetary movements, when studied mathematically from the point of view of traditional or Pythagorean mathematics, reveal the presence of a harmony pervading all orders of the universe. It is as if the whole cosmos were music congealed into the very substance of things, which not only have their existence according to the laws of harmony but also move and live according to the rhythm of that cosmic dance. …

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