What is sacred art? Who determines what art is sacred? And what reasons do they decide upon? Many questions surface when it comes to distinguishing the difference between sacred art, religious art, and traditional art. The three are different from one another in some way.
Sacred art includes depictions encouraging humans into spirituality. It is the result of divine inspiration. It is basically something specifically made for the purpose of worship and can range from a prayer carpet to the prayer itself. Due to the fact that in the Islamic civilization, the depiction of figural representation is forbidden, Islamic art primarily focuses on spiritual geometric forms, calligraphy and biomorphic designs. From the Middle-Ages, Islamic art has always had this theme of balance, unity and harmony in its patterns; which in Arabic is called ‘el tawhid’. It uses repetition of designs to come across with crucial concepts such as Gods creation of the universe. In comparison, “religious art is that type of non-traditional art devoted to religious themes and functions even if its method of execution and language are no longer traditional” (Sophia 1996). It consists of illustrations of themes or events depicted in holly books. This type of art can only be appreciated by its followers. For an example, to a Muslim a painting of Saint Mary and Jesus may not seem as appealing as it would to Christianity followers. Finally, traditional art; is dissimilar from both the previously stated arts as it is the art that deals with a culture or a specific group of people. Due to all its principles and techniques of symbolism it “assists the viewer to become aware of the Divine; which is in Islam God but for an example in Christianity Jesus Christ. Egypt with all its mosques, churches and even Jewish temples, is a proper example of where many traditional arts appear since there is many arts however they suit all the religions perfectly.
“The Islamic work of art is a symbolic statement, as is all art; for it attempts to make a sensory representation of an important idea not evidenced to the senses” (Al Faruqi). However, the Islamic civilization tends to spread religious architecture rather than sacred architecture. It focuses primarily on representing the theme of ‘tawhid’ through its architecture, calligraphy, and forms. However, it is impossible to for a non-follower to understand this type of art. In reverse, it is also impossible for one to understand Islam and its message without being exposed to its art; which carries a true and deep meaning to it. This can all be understood by looking back at what Henry David Thoreau once said “it’s not what you look at but what you see”; where symbolism is explained; that what the art means or reflects varies from one person to another.
As Islamic art focuses on patterns and symmetry to demonstrate unity it uses many styles to accomplish its mission. One of the famous styles used in Islamic civilization is the “smallness of the elements of the compositional motifs” which is how forms are fixed to the smallest details. This is concluded to drive the viewer to concentrate on every little detail. A second style used in Islamic art is the “complication of the motifs” which generates the viewer to look at the design from different perspectives. The third style seen in Islamic art uses repetition of patterns; to symbolize infinity. Islamic art also contains many forms such as divisions and symmetry. Such divisions embody organization and infinity. Most of the previously stated styles and forms can be found in the famous design called the ‘Breath of the Compassionate’.
The ‘Breath of the Compassionate’, or ‘al-nafas al-rahman’, is an eight-point star, is a famous design to many cultures and religions. It can be found in many religious iconographies; just like the form of a niche can be found in churches, synagogues and mosques. However, it holds a different meaning to every religion it is illustrated in. I believe this widely-known design of symmetry and balance has great significance to the Islamic idea of ‘el tawhid’ demonstrating harmony and unity. One of the major reasons, I believe so is because it uses all of the forms and styles I have previously stated above such as symmetry, repetition and geometry.
One major aspect that needs to be explained in many of the Islamic designs is the use of the number eight; in the number of sides, points of a star and so forth. This number is used in many of the Islamic designs especially where octagons can be found. The ‘Breath of the Compassionate’ is a great example to look at while discussing the deep meaning behind the number eight. The number eight holds different meanings to many cultures as well as to diverse religions. First and foremost, eight symbolizes “eternity and absolute perfection” (Schimmel). It is also the number of how many gates Paradise has unlike Hell which has seven only. This shows that “God’s mercy is greater than His wrath” (Schimmel).
The word ‘Compassionate’ in the phrase the ‘Breath of the Compassionate’ is derived from the ninety-nine names of God. Compassionate resembles infinity therefore; Islamic designs tend to be repetitive. As a result, I believe that the indirect message behind the phrase the ‘Breath of the Compassionate’ is God’s creation of the universe. Moreover, it represents His endless compassion towards Muslim followers; which in Arabic is ‘rahma’.
In conclusion, as Islamic art displays no figural representations and entirely focuses on symmetrical and unified geometrical patterns it carries a deep meaning to it that mostly only Muslims can comprehend. All Islamic art follows the transcendent theory of el ‘tawhid’; to inspire Islam followers into believing in the concept of ‘La-illah ila-Allah”; meaning one God. To sum up all my points, I believe the unity and balance created in Islamic iconographies demonstrates the creative will of God.