Islam and Symbolism

By Rodrigues, António | Military Review, May/June 2008 | Go to article overview

Islam and Symbolism


Rodrigues, António, Military Review


ISLAMIC CULTURE is resplendent with symbols containing historical, religious, and mystical elements. Persons working in the Middle East are advised to become familiar with them.

Symbols resonate throughout Islamic cultures, from high art and literature to popular culture. They can be found everywhere in everyday social life. It is fair to say that an understanding of Islamic culture is incomplete without an appreciation for the rich panoply of symbols that tie ancient history and tradition to modern cultures and societies that have embraced or largely embraced Islam.

Islamic symbols come from diverse sources. Most share a common nexus with the life and mission of the Prophet Mohammed and the genesis of Islam, but others are legacies of ancient sources that date from before the emergence of Islam.

Angels

Among the more purely religious symbols are heavenly messengers or angels (al-'ilm al-malaika) associated with the Prophet Mohammed's life and mission. Angels are staples of Islamic literature and artistic expression. Especially prominent are the guardian angels-Jibrail (Gabriel, the angel of life), Mika'il (the angel of rain and nature), Israfil (who will blow the trumpet on Judgment Day), 'Isra'il, 'Azrail, or 'Ozrin (the angel who announces death, cited only once in the Qur'an, and a rival of Gabriel).

Other religious and mystical characters associated with Mohammed, his followers (al-muhagirun), and the covered figure of Mohammed himself (Muslims refuse to give a face to the Prophet) have great symbolic importance. Muslims use such symbols with care to avoid offending religious authorities and popular sentiment.

Geometric Figures

Geometric figures and calligraphy taken from Islamic sacred texts have become mainstays of Islamic art. They substitute for human figures, which Islamic religious teachings believe encourage idolatry. Fortuitously, Arabic script lends itself to incorporation into physical art. Certain numerals and passages from the Qur'an have acquired special significance through repetitive use as decoration. Especially prominent are the following scripts:

* The "ninety-nine sublime attributes and beautiful names of God" (AlAsma Allah al-Husna).

* The affirmation of the Muslim faith (ash-shahada): "La Hah illallah Muhammad-ur Rasulul Allah"-"There is no God but God and Mohammed is his messenger."

* The summary of the Muslim faith: "Bismlllah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim"-"In the name of God, the Charitable, the Merciful."

Nature

In large measure because of exhortations in the Qur'an, many prominent symbols come from nature. An evocative poetic verse exemplifies this: "If you wish to see the glory of God, contemplate a red rose." So, too, does an exalted Muslim proverb: "Allah jamil yhibu al-jamar-"God is beautiful, and He loves beauty." Such natural phenomena as light, water, plants, animals, and heavenly bodies are popular symbols in Islamic imagery. Some of the more noteworthy of these symbols are discussed below.

Light. A symbol of the Islamic faith's splendor, light (an-nur; ad-dau ") appears numerous times in the Qur'an as a metaphor for the revelation that gave the world Islam and that continues to "enlighten" believers. Muslim architectural stratagems emphasize luminosity in sacred buildings and mosques. Builders have used a plentitude of arches (rauq), arcades (riuaqs), and ornamental stalactite-like prisms under domes and on prominent surfaces (muqarnd) to reflect and refract light. Tiles and mirrors amplify this effect.

Water. Water is a significant symbol with multiple meanings, most of them derived from the experiences and traditions of the Arab peoples of the desert. Not unexpectedly, they highlight its scarcity and its importance for sustaining life. The Qur'an and lifetime accounts of the Prophet Mohammed state that everyone has the right to use water as long as they do not monopolize, usurp, or waste it. …

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