BBC – Religions

Meaning and design

Meaning and beauty

Detail from a 12th/13th century Persian ewer ©

Art is the mirror of a culture and its world view.

The art of the Islamic world reflects its cultural values, and reveals the way Muslims view the spiritual realm and the universe.

For the Muslim, reality begins with and centers on Allah.

Allah is at the heart of worship and aspirations for Muslims, and is the focus of their lives.

So Islamic art focuses on the spiritual representation of objects and beings, and not their physical qualities.

Geometric decoration in the Grand Mosque, Kuwait ©

The Muslim artist does not attempt to replicate nature as it is, but tries to convey what it represents.

This lets the artist, and those who experience the art, get closer to Allah.

For Muslims, beauty has always been and will always be a quality of the divine. There is a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad that says: “Allah is beautiful and he loves beauty.”

Detail of an Ottoman velvet floor covering ©


A common feature of Islamic art is the covering of surfaces covered with geometric patterns.

This 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?

  • Because circles have no end they are infinite – and so they remind Muslims that Allah is infinite.
  • Complex geometric designs create the impression of unending repetition, and this also helps a person get an idea of the infinite nature of Allah.
  • The repeating patterns also demonstrate that in the small you can find the infinite … a single element of the pattern implies the infinite total.

Fatamid gold bracelet: Syria or Egypt, 11th century CE ©

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.

Islamic arts and crafts

The integration of arts and crafts into everyday life was very much the norm in the traditional Islamic world.

The idea is that as Islam is integral to every part of a Muslim’s life and makes it beautiful, so Islamic art should be used to make the things of everyday life beautiful.

Lajvardine bowl ©

The emphasis in Islamic art is on ornamentation rather than on art for art’s sake.

An example is this lajvardine bowl, from 13th century Iran, decorated in gold and cobalt blue (lajvard is Persian for cobalt).

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