Designs, Symbols, Colors and Patterns in Islamic Art

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Allah written in Arabic calligraphy

Islam forbids the depiction of living things. As a result, the art that grew out of it is more abstract. Efforts are made to depict the meaning or spirit of things rather than their physical forms. Geometric patterns, crafts, and calligraphy are among the forms of popular Islamic art. Calligraphy is a stylized form of writing, often done with a brush and ink. [Source:]

Islamic art features abstract geometric designs that can be repeated over and over in seeming infinity. Many seemingly abstract geometric designs have the name of Allah and Qur’an prayers worked into them. Because of the ban on idolatry and animal and human figures, designs and decorations became highly developed and a key elements of what makes Islamic art distinct, unique and so enjoyable. Influenced by art from Persia, China and the Near East, the arabesque style of Islamic art features repetitive flowing or geometric patterns with intricate details and bold colors.

In an article on Mughal Islamic art, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Pattern—floral and geometric—is distinctive feature of court art, whether spread across a wall, on a book cover or border of an album leaf, around a dagger hilt, or on a carpet. With straight edge and compass, artists created geometric patterns of intersecting circles upon which they drew grids of equilateral triangles and squares . These in turn could be elaborated into polygons and stars. Vines, leaves, and blossoms grew out of each other in continuous curving patterns. In the Mughal period, these floral designs became more and more realistic, so that many flowers could be identified.

“The same formal elements—rich geometric and vegetal patterns, rich colors, and rich materials— were applied to architecture, textiles, ceramics, metal- work, and stone, stucco, and wood carvings. No distinction existed between what is called fine art in Western cultures and the decorative arts.”

Websites and Resources: Islamic Art and Architecture: Islamic Arts & Architecture / ; British Museum Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers ; Architecture of Islam ; Images of mosques all over the world, from the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT ; Islamic Images ; Victoria & Albert Museum ; Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar ; CalligraphyIslamic, lots of Islamic calligraphy

Types of Islamic Designs and Patterns

The four elements of Islamic decoration are: 1) calligraphy, 2) geometric designs, 3) floral and plant designs, and 4) sometimes human and animal figures. On the first three Tim Stanley, curator the Middle Eastern collection a the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, told the Times of London, “Islamic art used geometry to create a structured sense of an ordered world...Plant-like forms , grapes and the like, all these thing signify prosperity, happiness, felicity.”

Plant motifs or decorations, called arabesques, are also commonly featured in Islamic art. According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Because figures are generally not used in Islamic art, a form of decoration that came to be known in the West as arabesque—the use of natural forms such as stems, leaves, vines, flowers, or fruits to create designs of infinite geometric patterns—developed as a major artistic technique. Arabesque designs are used to decorate such objects as interior and exterior walls, mosque furniture like the minbar (pulpit), and fine Qur’an manuscripts. Some designs combine calligraphy with colorful geometric and floral or vegetal ornamentation. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Mosques are often decorated with geometric art, which also can be found in paintings, books, pottery, jewelry, and textiles. Crafts have been decorated with designs in part to make everyday life beautiful. Circular patterns in Islamic geometric art are illustrations that Allah is endless. The circle is without beginning or end and continues on forever, as does Allah. The repetition of a design also is a reminder of the infinite, or never-ending. [Source:]

Jane Norman of the Asia Society wrote: “Many of the patterns used in Islamic art look similar, even though they decorate different objects. Artists did not seek to express themselves, but rather, to create beautiful objects for everyone to enjoy. It takes considerable experience in analyzing Islamic patterns before discovering that seldom are two designs exactly alike. That is worrisome to Westerners because of the premium placed in the West on originality in evaluating an artist. Not so in Islam; there the artist sees himself as a humble servant of the community, using his skills and imagination to express awe of Allah, the one God, eternal and all-powerful.” [Source: Jane Norman, Asia Society /*]

Colors in Islamic Art

John L. Esposito wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Designs in Islamic art are often enhanced by exuberant colors, for example, in the glittering golden or azure domes and multicolored tiles of buildings or in the colors of pottery, textiles, and manuscripts. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Colors are used symbolically in Islamic literature, although their meanings and associations are determined by context. For example, black can be associated with the black stone in the Kaaba in Mecca or with vengeance, violence, or hell. White is less ambiguous, usually representing faithfulness (as in the cloths worn by pilgrims on hajj), lightness, royalty, or death (as in its use as a burial shroud). Blue is the color of magical qualities, which can be used to protect a person from evil spirits or, in contrast, to dispense evil. Green was the color of the Prophet and of turbans worn by descendants of the Prophet, and it was also the color of the cloak of Ali, for Shias the first imam. As the color of living plants, green is also symbolic of youth and fertility.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In the royal art of many cultures, colors are strong and bold. In India, surfaces both large and small—architecture, clothing, and personal art—were enriched with bright color, especially reds and brilliant blues. There was also an appreciation of the softer, subtler colors of jade. Colors in patterns were combined to create the rich floral and geometric designs found in Mughal textiles and carpets. Color in miniature painting was at first fanciful and jewel-like—blue rocks, for instance, and lavender horses—as in the Persian court style. “Muslim and Hindu patrons delighted in sumptuous polished surfaces: the glisten of gold, silver, and other metals, the reflective qualities of polished gems and stones such as jade and rock crystal, and the sheen of silks and ivory. Another favored way to enrich surfaces was the technique of inlay, in which materials such as ivory and shell were set into wood, and gold and silver into darker metal surfaces. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Symbols in Islam and Islamic Art

Islam doesn’t have so much in the way of symbols and the symbols that do appear often have an abstract meaning. Islam forbids any kind of worship of physical representations and the religion was founded as a reaction against idol worship. According to The primary symbols in Islam are behaviors rather than objects. For example, when Muslims pray, they turn in the direction of Mecca and the Kaʾaba, a cube-shaped shrine in the city that the prophet Abraham is believed to have built. This act of turning toward Mecca symbolizes the unity of Muslims throughout the world.

The Crescent Moon and Star are symbols commonly associated with Islam. The sighting of the crescent moon signals the beginning and end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. The symbol is often found on the flag of some Muslim nations. However, the use of star and crescent did not originate in Islam. Rather, the tradition started lie with the Ottoman Empire, which used the star and crescent on its flag.[Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Another major symbol is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It is a mosque built in the 7th century over the rock on the Temple Mount, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad departed on his Night Journey to heaven. The simple nad beautiful octagonal shaped shrine has golden dome that dominates the Jerusalem skyline and is decorated inside and out with some 230 meters of calligraphic designs consisting of Qur’anic inscriptions.

Jane Norman of the Asia Society wrote: The star was the chosen motif for many Islamic decorations. In Islamic iconography the star is a regular geometric shape that symbolizes equal radiation in all directions from a central point. All regular stars—whether they have 6, 8, 10, 12, or 16 points—are created by a division of a circle into equal parts. The center of the star is center of the circle from which it came, and its points touch the circumference of the circle. The center of a circle is an apt symbol of a religon that emphasizes one God, and symbol of the role of Mecca, the center of Islam, toward which all Muslims face in prayer. The rays of a star reach out in all directions, making the star a fitting symbol for the spread of Islam. [Source: Jane Norman, Asia Society /*]

Vegetal Patterns in Islamic Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Vegetal patterns employed alone or in combination with the other major types of ornament—calligraphy, geometric pattern, and figural representation—adorn a vast number of buildings, manuscripts, objects, and textiles, produced throughout the Islamic world. Unlike calligraphy, whose increasingly popular use as ornament in the early Islamic Arab lands represented a new development, vegetal patterns and the motifs they incorporate were drawn from existing traditions of Byzantine culture in the eastern Mediterranean and Sasanian Iran. [Source:Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

tree made with Blue Turkish tiles

“The early centuries of the Islamic era saw the initial adoption of seminaturalistic pre-Islamic motifs and patterns, followed by widespread and highly diverse experimentation adapting these forms to suit the aesthetic interests and tastes of the new Muslim patrons. It was not until the medieval period (tenth–twelfth centuries) that a highly abstract and fully developed Islamic style emerged, featuring that most original and ubiquitous pattern often known as "arabesque." This term was coined in the early nineteenth century following Napoleon's famed expedition in Egypt, which contributed so much to the phenomenon of Orientalism in Europe and later in the United States. Arabesque simply means "in the Arab fashion" in French, and few scholars of Islamic art use it today.\^/

“With the Mongol invasion of western Asia in the thirteenth century and the establishment of a Mongol court in Iran in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, numerous Chinese motifs and patterns were adopted, though sometimes in markedly revised form. This period saw many transformations in the decorative language of Islamic art that would endure for centuries. In sixteenth-century Europe, first in Italy and then in the north, Islamic-style vegetal patterns were developed. In the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (present-day Turkey, Iran, and India), complicated versions of established patterns were utilized, sometimes incorporating a new interest in naturalistic-looking flowers or blossoms. With the exception of the garden and its usual reference to paradise, vegetal motifs and patterns in Islamic art are largely devoid of symbolic meaning.” \^/

Geometric Shapes in Islamic Art

Islamic art features abstract geometric designs that can be repeated over and over in seeming infinity. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “While geometric ornamentation may have reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world, the sources for both the shapes and the intricate patterns already existed in late antiquity among the Greeks, Romans, and Sasanians in Iran. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“Geometric patterns make up one of the three nonfigural types of decoration in Islamic art, which also include calligraphy and vegetal patterns. Whether isolated or used in combination with nonfigural ornamentation or figural representation, geometric patterns are popularly associated with Islamic art, largely due to their aniconic quality. These abstract designs not only adorn the surfaces of monumental Islamic architecture but also function as the major decorative element on a vast array of objects of all types. While geometric ornamentation may have reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world, the sources for both the shapes and the intricate patterns already existed in late antiquity among the Greeks, Romans, and Sasanians in Iran. Islamic artists appropriated key elements from the classical tradition, then complicated and elaborated upon them in order to invent a new form of decoration that stressed the importance of unity and order. The significant intellectual contributions of Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists were essential to the creation of this unique new style.\^/

from Islamic Spain

“Consisting of, or generated from, such simple forms as the circle and the square, geometric patterns were combined, duplicated, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations, thus becoming one of the most distinguishing features of Islamic art. However, these complex patterns seem to embody a refusal to adhere strictly to the rules of geometry. As a matter of fact, geometric ornamentation in Islamic art suggests a remarkable amount of freedom; in its repetition and complexity, it offers the possibility of infinite growth and can accommodate the incorporation of other types of ornamentation as well. In terms of their abstractness, repetitive motifs, and symmetry, geometric patterns have much in common with the so-called arabesque style seen in many vegetal designs. Calligraphic ornamentation also appears in conjunction with geometric patterns.\^/

“The four basic shapes, or "repeat units," from which the more complicated patterns are constructed are: circles and interlaced circles; squares or four-sided polygons; the ubiquitous star pattern, ultimately derived from squares and triangles inscribed in a circle; and multisided polygons. It is clear, however, that the complex patterns found on many objects include a number of different shapes and arrangements, allowing them to fit into more than one category.”\^/

Meaning of Geometry in Islamic Art

Zarah Hussain wrote for the BBC: The “use of geometry is thought to reflect the language of the universe and help the believer to reflect on life and the greatness of creation. So how is geometry seen to be spiritual? 1) Because circles have no end they are infinite - and so they remind Muslims that Allah is infinite. 2) Complex geometric designs create the impression of unending repetition, and this also helps a person get an idea of the infinite nature of Allah. 3) The repeating patterns also demonstrate that in the small you can find the infinite ... a single element of the pattern implies the infinite total. “The use of patterns is part of the way that Islamic art represents nature and objects by their spiritual qualities, not their physical and material qualities. The repeated geometric patterns often make use of plant motifs, and these are called arabesques. Stylised arabic lettering is also common. [Source: Zarah Hussain, BBC, June 30, 2009 |::|]

from Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Jane Norman of the Asia Society wrote: “Geometric motifs were popular with Muslim artists and designers in all parts of the world, at all times, and for decorating every surface, whether walls or floors, pots or lamps, book covers or textiles. As Islam spread from nation to nation and region to region, artists combined their penchant for geometry with pre-existing traditions, creating a new and distinctive Islamic art. This art expressed the logic and order inherent in the Islamic vision of the universe. [Source: Jane Norman, Asia Society /*]

“Although the shapes and structures are based on the geometry of Euclid and other Greek mathematicians, Islamic artists used them to create visual statements about religious ideas. One explanation of this practice was that Mohammad had warned against the worship of idols; this prohibition was understood as a commandment against representation of human or animal forms. Geometric forms were an acceptable substitute for the proscribed forms. /*\

“An even more important reason is that geometric systems and Islamic religious values, though expressed in different forms, say similar things about universal values. In Islamic art, infinitely repeating patterns represent the unchanging laws of God. Muslims are expected to observe strict rules of behavior exactly as they were orginally set forth by Mohammad in the seventh century. These rules are known as the "Pillars of Faith": 1) pronouncing the creed (chanting an affirmation of the existence of one God and that God is Allah); 2) praying, in a precisely defined ritual of words and motions, five times a day; 3) giving alms; 4) fasting during the month of Ramadan (time varies according to lunar calendar); 5) making, during a lifetime, at least one pilgramage to Mecca. /*\

“The strict rules for construction of geometric patterns provide a visual analogy to religious rules of behavior. The geometric patterns used in Islamic art are aggressively two-dimensional. Artists did not want to represent the three-dimensional physical world. They preferred to create an art that represents an ideal, spiritual truth. Ideals are better represented as two-dimensional than three-dimensional.” /*\

Sophisticated Math Behind Islamic Geometric Designs

Medieval Islamic mosaic makers and designers made sophisticated decorative patterns 500 years ago using geometrical techniques that Western mathematicians are only beginning to understand now. Mark Henderson wrote in The Times: “The combinations of ornate stars and polygons that have adorned mosques and palaces since the 15th century were created using a set of just five template tiles, which could generate patterns with a kind of symmetry that eluded formal mathematical description for another 500 years. [Source: Mark Henderson, Science Editor, The Times, February 23 2007]

“The discovery, by Peter Lu, of Harvard University, published in the journal Science, suggests that the Islamic artisans who created these typical girih designs had an intuitive understanding of highly complex mathematical concepts, even if they had not worked out the underlying theory. “We can’t say for sure what it means,” said Mr Lu, who is studying for a PhD in physics. “It could be proof of a major role of mathematics in medieval Islamic art or it could have been just a way for artisans to construct their art more easily. “It would be incredible if it were all coincidence. At the very least, it shows us a culture that we often don’t credit enough was far more advanced than we thought.”

“Girih designs feature arrays of tessellating polygons of multiple shapes, and are often overlaid with a zigzag network of lines. It had been assumed that straightedge rulers and compasses were used to create them an exceptionally difficult process as each shape must be precisely drawn.

“From the 15th century, however, some of these designs are symmetrical in a way known today as “quasicrystalline”. Such forms have either fivefold or tenfold rotational symmetry meaning they can be rotated to either five or ten positions that look the same and their patterns can be infinitely extended without repetition. The principles behind quasicrystalline symmetry were calculated by the mathemetician Roger Penrose in the 1970s, but it is now clear that Islamic artists were creating them more than 500 years earlier.

“Mr Lu, who designs physics experiments for the International Space Station, began wondering whether there were quasicrystalline forms in Islamic art after seeing decagonal artworks in Uzbekistan, which he visited after a trip to a space facility in Turkmenistan. On returning to Harvard, he started searching the university’s vast library of Islamic art for quasicrystalline designs. He found several, as well as architectural scrolls that contained the outlines of five polygon templates a ten-sided decagon, a hexagon, a pentagon, a rhombus and a bow-tie shape that can be combined and overlaid to create such patterns. There is no evidence that the template tiles were themselves attached to surfaces to create mosaics. Artists probably used holes in the templates to trace a design on to a surface, which would be made into a mosaic.

Figural Representation in Islamic Art

Sassanid prince Anoshazad in the Shahnameh

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “With the spread of Islam outward from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, the figurative artistic traditions of the newly conquered lands profoundly influenced the development of Islamic art. Ornamentation in Islamic art came to include figural representations in its decorative vocabulary, drawn from a variety of sources. Although the often cited opposition in Islam to the depiction of human and animal forms holds true for religious art and architecture, in the secular sphere, such representations have flourished in nearly all Islamic cultures. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

As with other forms of Islamic ornamentation, artists freely adapted and stylized basic human and animal forms, giving rise to a great variety of figural-based designs. Figural motifs are found on the surface decoration of objects or architecture, as part of the woven or applied patterns of textiles, and, most rarely, in sculptural form. In some cases, decorative images are closely related to the narrative painting tradition, where text illustrations provided sources for ornamental themes and motifs. As for manuscript illustration, miniature paintings were integral parts of these works of art as visual aids to the text, therefore no restrictions were imposed. A further category of fantastic figures, from which ornamental patterns were generated, also existed. Some fantastic motifs, such as harpies (female-headed birds) and griffins (winged felines), were drawn from pre-Islamic mythological sources, whereas others were created through the visual manipulation of figural forms by artists.\^/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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