Elizabeth Siddiqui said “Art is the mirror of a culture and its world view. There is no case to which this statement more directly applies than to the art of the Islamic world.”
She adds “ Not only does it reflect its cultural values, but even more importantly, the way in which its adherents, the Muslims, view the spiritual realm, the universe, life, and the relationship of the parts to the whole.”
The concept of decoration in Islamic architecture has always been abstract and decorative, showing calligraphy, geometry, and floral patterns.
Calligraphy is one of the most important elements in Islamic art. It has a special role because it is bound-up to the writing of the Qur’an which is considered as sacred writing. Calligraphy is more or less equivalent to that of the icon in Christian art, “for it represents the visible body of the divine word.".
Dalu Jones notes in his informative essay that calligraphy is considered one of the most important of the Islamic arts because of its role in recording the word of God. From the 7th century, Arabic and Islamic calligraphy have existed on paper using quill pen. All the proportions of the letters are calculated with mathematical precision. The calligrapher tries to reach the absolute throughout his work. It is necessary to practice for years to be able to master this art. The calligrapher tries to represent unity, beauty, and power.
Welch wrote that “written from right to left, the Arabic script at its best can be flowing continuum of ascending verticals, descending curves, and temperate horizontals, achieving a measured balance form and paced and rhythmic movement. There is a great variability in form: words and letters can be compacted to a dense knot or drawn out to great length”.
The Arabic alphabet is a script of 28 letters and uses long but not short vowels. Short vowels are indicated by small diagonal strokes above or below letters. In addition to mathematical principles, geometric principles are present as well in Islamic calligraphy.
According to Khatibi and Sijelmassi in The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy, “the legibility of a text and the beauty of its line require rule of proportion”. The rule of proportion is based on the first letter of the alphabet, the Alef, which is a straight vertical stroke; the height of the alif, the width of the alif, and the imaginary circle. The measuring system is based on a circle with a diameter that equals the height of the letter Alef. It controls the correct proportions of the letters by comparing them to the circle, and by diagonal dots written with the calligraphy pen.
Calligraphy has six styles of writing: Riq’a, Nashk, Nastaliq, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, and Square Kufic. During the 7th century, Kufic developed as a Quranic script which is an angular script with exceedingly clear contours with an impressive symmetry. Using the calamus and trying all these different styles of script was indeed the most difficult thing to do when I have tried.
It is very difficult to design the letters beautifully, harmoniously, decoratively, and proportionally. I hope my calligraphy teacher found students who are better than me because I gave her a hard time! I was only able to produce the Riq’a. It is the simpler style of everyday writing which is very economical and easy to write. The Thuluth is a more impressive calligraphic style which is often used for titles or epigrams rather than lengthy texts. The Nashk, which means “copying”, is legible and clear and was adapted as the preferred style for typesetting and printing. It is a small script whose lines are thin and letter shapes are round. The Nastaluq has very short verticals without any serifs (small strokes added to the ends) and deep curved horizontals. It slants to the right in contrast to all the other styles which slant to the left.
Secondly, mastering geometry is an essential skill in order to be able to produce decorations in Islamic architecture. In Rasai’il Ikhwan al Safa (3), translated by S.H. Nasr, it says, “The study of sensible geometry leads to skill in all the practical arts, while the study of intelligible geometry leads to skill in intellectual arts because the science is one of the gates through which we move to the knowledge of the essence of the soul, and that is that root of knowledge”.
The work of Euclid and Pythagoras were among the first to be translated in Arabic. The intellectuals recognized in geometry the unifying intermediary between the material world and the spiritual world. The circle has always been regarded as the symbol of eternity. From the circle come the three fundamental figures in Islamic art: the triangle, the square and the hexagon. The triangle is symbolic of human consciousness and the principle of harmony, the square is the symbol of physical experience and the hexagon symbolizes Heaven. The geometrical patterns use both symmetrical and polygonal shapes to create the patterns in an indefinite way. I used to watch all these stars and polygon patterns conceived as zigzagging lines until I got dizzy. The Arabesque is an elaborate application of repeating geometric forms and it decorates the walls of mosques, hammams and houses. Arabesque means “writing as a form of art” in Arabic.
“As art, non figural Islamic art is concerned with control, balance, and regularity. The focus is on pattern rather than organic forms” described Terry Allen. The concept of decoration in Islamic architecture is based on religious aniconism which is the ban on the representation of God in any form. But the representations of humans and animals are only prohibited in religious buildings such as mosques.