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Background

In the seventh century A.D. a new religion took shape. This new religion would grow into one of the world's largest, with some half-billion followers. The religion is named Islam. Islam is the Arabic word for "surrender." A follower of Islam is meant to "surrender to the will of God."

The birthplace of Islam was in the Arabian Peninsula. There in 613 A.D. wealthy merchant named Muhammad fled his birthplace, the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, headed towards Medina. He was disturbed by his fellow Arabs' practice of worshipping many different idols. During his flight, he received a revelation from a single god, now called Allah. This revelation became the foundation for a new faith centering on the words of Allah. Muhammad began preaching and he attracted many followers. People who came to share his beliefs recognized Muhammad as Allah's holy messenger. The followers of the Islamic faith are called Muslims.

Writing is very important in Islamic art. Writing is a form of communication that uses visual signs or symbols. The development of writing appeared in ancient civilizations and relates to the growth of more complex societies. The religion of Islam spread throughout western Asia, northern Africa, and parts of Europe and writing was one way this was accomplished. Many systems of writing were practiced by the diverse cultures that embraced the Islamic faith, and the word of Allah was important to all. What all of these cultures developed in common was that writing was especially valued because it represented the word of Allah revealed to Muhammad and recorded in the Koran, the book composed of these sacred writings. Islamic artists use words as a form of art. The visual expression of writing is widely used as decoration in architecture, ceramics, metalware, textiles, and painting.

The Koran does not forbid visual art, but it does oppose realistic representations of living creatures. According to a Muslim legend, people who make likenesses of humans or animals will be required to breathe life into them when the world comes to an end and all living things go to another dimension of living. In another sense, artists who represent living things are not concentrating on their own primary inner experience of faith. Even though Islam restricts artistic expression, the artists who have created art inspired by their powerful beliefs have produced remarkable results.

Almost every type of Islamic art--from the architecture of the mosque to the design of a prayer rug--is characterized by attention to the decoration of the surfaces. Except for some ornamentation that is inspired by plants and flowers, most decoration is based on writing and the use of geometric and abstract shapes. Islamic art is inspired by the devotion to the written word and the use of calligraphy, a method of beautiful handwriting, often using a brush. Letters flow with circular motions and vine-like interlacing. The letters are often accompanied by elaborate designs known as arabesques. These swirling forms are apparently based on natural shapes, including leaves, branches, and vines. Flowing letters and arabesques can be applied to any surface including the walls of buildings, tiles, miniature paintings, rugs, metalware, and other handcrafted objects.

In Islamic art we can see the artists' delight in the repetition and variation of the same basic patterns, including the scroll, the lattice, the interlace, the spiral, the vine, and the curve. We can see how Islamic artists have created art that does not represent the "real world" but Instead uses abstract forms to celebrate their faith and devotion.

About the Art

Muslims must pray daily. Devout Muslims pray five times a day while kneeling towards Mecca, the holy city for the followers of Islam. The main religious building of Islam is the mosque. A mosque is a building used for worship by Muslims. The word is derived from the word "masjid," which means "a place to kneel down." The focal wall for every mosque, with a central prayer niche or mihrab, faces in the direction of Mecca--symbolizing the location where Muhammad received the revelation. The origins of the mihrab are not clear. Some feel that it may have honored the place where Muhammad stood in Medina to lead communal prayers. The mihrab does not include representations of Muhammad or other subjects; instead, it highlights the written word and forms inspired by nature.

As Muslims pray together in the mosque, they are led by their most learned and respected leader, the Iman. Prayer includes readings from the Koran and the praising of Allah. During prayer the Iman faces the mihrab and the sound waves reverberate because of the half-circle, concave design. This allows the other worshippers behind him to hear the words.

This mirab was originally part of a mosque in eastern Iran or central Asia, built in the late fifteenth- or early sixteenth-century. It is decorated in a mosaic tile technique. This process uses individual pieces of ceramic tile that are each painstakingly cut and assembled to create an intricate pattern. The names of the artisans who made this and the person who designed it are unknown, but it is a fine example of this period in Islamic art.

The colors used in this mirab are typical of Islamic glazed ceramic tiles. Cobalt blue and turquoise are the dominant background colors. The details are accented in white, brown, and sage green. The concave central area is decorated with delicate floral patterns that are set within a framework of geometric shapes. The arch-shaped upper area is meant to suggest the vaulted structures of an architectural setting. The whole composition of the mihrab is divided by a horizontal band with a scrolling arabesque. In the banded frame that surrounds the recessed central area, elaborate calligraphy makes use of cursive Arabic. The words cite a popular verse from the Koran which refers to devotion and to charity, both important principals of Islam.

Things to Consider

* As you look at this mirab, you will note how symmetrical the design is. What does symmetry communicate to you as the viewer, and why do you think the artists who created this artwork used it?

* Almost all mosques repeat the plan of Muhammad's house being composed of an enclosed courtyard, a building at one end for prayer, and a series of arches [arcades) on each side. Discuss how this emphasis on traditional design influences the work of Islamic artists and architects.

* Using this mirab as your focus, how does the relationship of geometric shapes to elaborately decorated surfaces define the style of Islamic art?

* The first followers of Muhammad had no artistic traditions, and Islam prohibited the making of images of humans or animals and the use of precious materials such as gold. How could these restrictions be considered valuable rather than limiting for the artists?

RELATED ARTICLE: Things to do.

Elementary School

Explain to students that the way the curving letters have been used in the outside border is an inscription in Arabic. Have students use a pencil to write their names or a short saying horizontally on a piece of drawing paper, using a cursive style. Outline the text in black or dark felt marker. Using a range of other colors inspired by the mihrab, fill in the spaces around and between the letters with curvy shaped flowers, vines, and leaves. Encourage them to repeat some of the forms to create a pattern. Trim the borders of the paper with alternating colors of geometric shapes.

Middle School

Talk about the process of mosaics. Have students work in teams to create large-format pieces on white paper that are inspired by this object. Students must design a symmetrical design in a similar manner, using an arch as the central focus. Surround the arch with geometric bands. Invite the students to use their names or a popular saying in the outside border, employing an elaborate and flamboyant cursive style. Use small pieces of brightly colored paper and apply as if creating a mosaic.

High School

Have students research the floor plans of various Islamic mosques. Discuss their research findings and define the traditional components that would be found in most mosques. Once they have discovered a sense of how these buildings were designed and the placement of the mihrab within the structures, invite them to draw up a floor plan for a mosque that would include this particular mihrab. Once the floor plan is complete, invite them to create scale models, using the reproduction as the means to recreate the mihrab. Compare the students' designs with some of the mosques that they have found in their research. Discuss how the traditional designs of mosques compare with typical places of worship for other world religions.

Ted Lind, Curator of Education, Cincinnati Art Museum
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Title Annotation:All Levels: looking & learning; Learning about Islam.
Author:Lind, Ted
Publication:School Arts
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Words:1453
Previous Article:ArtEd online: environmental art.
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