THE SYMBOLISM OF QURANIC ILLUMINATION
SYED TAJAMMUL HUSSAIN
Third Seminar: Art of Islam
Sunday, 2nd September 2007
Aiwan-e-Iqbal Complex, Lahore
1. Is Islamic Art aniconic?
There is a common belief that Islamic art is aniconic and non figurative and that the imagery or iconography is prohibited. This erroneous belief is due to the confusion between Sacred and non-Sacred or secular art. Unlike the art of the West where the split between Sacred and Secular traditions took place in the 15th century AD with the commencement of the Renaissance, this split took place in the world of Islam within its very first century. If the art was secular not only do we find paintings of living beings but indeed statues some of which date from the Ummayad period. Throughout the Islamic world, across the geographical space and time, iconography has been alive and well, be it Abbasid period paintings, Mamluk, Saffavid, Ottoman, Mughal or Qajar.
2. Sacred Art of Islam is aniconic.
However where the Sacred Art of Islam is concerned and this applies to the Art of the Holy Quran and indeed the Mosque then the art is indeed aniconic, vegetal and abstract being also based on geometry.
The reasoning for this is that unlike Western Christian art which concerned itself with images of Christ and his life and where the Divine Concept is Word made Flesh, in Islamic Sacred Art the Divine concept is Word made BOOK. Thus it can be seen why there is so much emphasis on the art of the book.
Furthermore there are extensive references in the Quran on Reading and indeed Writing. For example the very first Revelation stated Iqra or Read and the Prophet was commanded to Read three times. Another of the earliest Revelations refers to Nun and the Pen by which they write ( Surah Nun ). So it is with such extensive references that the people of the Islamic world developed a civilization which has never been equaled in the art of reading and writing.
3. Art of the Quran.
Now generally the Western scholars give very detailed descriptions of the art of the Quran without explaining what is the underlying structure or perhaps language and alphabet of this visual language.
This lecture contrasted the prevalent attitudes and approach of this art with the views prevailing on the language of the Pharoahs which appeared at first sight to be Egyptian wall paintings. These were supposed to represent the life of Ancient Egypt. While this was partially true however until the discovery of the Rosetta stone, this view was misleading and could lead the onlooker to the wrong track. With the help of Greek and Demotic which is also inscribed on the Rosetta stone it was possible to translate and indeed understand the so called Egyptian wall paintings which turned out to be a written language and herein referred as hieroglyphics. Similarly the view that since Islamic art supposedly frowns on iconography hence it throws in a few flowers and geometry is reductionist in the extreme. 3.2 A sacred visual language
The lecturer suggested that this was a sacred visual language and which owed its origins and indeed early development to not one but two of the Khulafa-i-Rashideen, both of whom also were the revered sons in law of the Holy Prophet. For indeed with the evidence so far unearthed it is clear that the earliest Art of the Quran started with the first son in law, the 3rd Khalifa Uthman bin Affan and then was developed by the 4th Khalifa Imam Ali. Subsequent developments took place in the ensuing centuries with the involvement of BOTH temporal and indeed spiritual authorities of the time. Hence any symbol that was frowned upon or considered heretic was destroyed. Over time rules and regulations developed for both the visual language and on the art of calligraphy.
3.2.1 The Shamsa
The lecture discussed the development of the main symbols known as alphabets in this visual language of the Holy Quran. The earliest symbol used is the Shamsa which came to be used in the time of the 3rd Khalifa. This is the symbol of the radiant sun was used to indicate a certain number of verse counts and suggested that the Verses of the Quran were like radiant with light. Since radiance was being depicted, the symbol of the sun was thus used in the Quran in the very early period and still continues to be used even in these dark times for Verse endings.
3.2.2. The Palmette
The second symbol of alphabet which makes its appearance towards the end of the 4th Khalifa and continues to develop in the Ummayad times is the Palmette ( or tree of life ) which is used for Surah headings and always points outside the page. This pointing outwards indicates the heavenly origins of the Quran and is also inspired by verses 24 and 25 of Surah Ibrahim which state as follows:
"A good word is like a good tree, its root firm, its branches in heaven....
3.2.3 The Hexagram
The 3rd symbol is the hexagram which starts being used in the Ummayad times and is known in the Islamic tradition as the Khatemi Sulaiman. The downward movement of the triangle represents the Descent of the Revelation while the upward movement represents the Ascent of the Soul on Receiving the Divine Revelation. Thus this is the archetype of the man as a mediator between the heavens and earth and is the sign of the Insaan Al Kamil or Perfect Man which by its very definition can ONLY be a Prophet. The hexagram was inspired from the Roman mosaics found in Tunisia as demonstrated by the mosaics found in Roman ruins. It then passed to the Christian magical traditions during the crusader invasions from the Islamic world and very late in the 19th century passed on to the Zionist movement and only in the 2oth century came to symbolize the Star of David or Magen David. According to the Jewish enclyopedia it had no religious or cultural significance before this time in Judaism.
3.2.4. The 8 Pointed Star
The 4th Symbol is the 8 pointed star which is also inspired from Roman tile mosaics. This came to represent the Divine Throne which is carried by 8 angels as specifically mentioned in Surah Haqqah. The diagram appears in the Ftuthat al Makiya of the great Sheikh Al Akbar and his books had a very wide influence so much so that it can be argued that the Taj Mahal is based on the symbol of the Throne and is an esoteric prayer in stone which states that may the soul of my wife be taken to YOUR Throne. This symbol of the 8 pointed star also appears extensively in the Quran manuscripts.
The next lot of alphabets of illumination to use the correct term come under the generic term arabesques. However, in order to understand these alphabets it would be necessary to read and indeed understand the Kashf ul Mahjoub by Syeddina Ali Uthman Hajweri for these are none other than spiritual states given a visual manifestation in the shape of floral designs.
3.2.6 Other Alphabets
Other alphabets are the : The stylized lamp drawn with reference to the Verse 35 of Surah Nur. The yin yang symbol which represents the male and female principles and found in the Mamluk Quran manuscripts as well as the extensive usage of Lotus the very symbol of the reawakened soul. Yet other symbols are the stylized double swastika which symbolizes the Quran and its archetype in Heaven being the Lahow al Mahfouz ( the Guarded Tablet) and others like the cloud band motif which are from the Mongol world and originally also Chinese.
Finally the lecture dwelt on the colours which are always blue and gold being the colour of heavens and radiance. The usage of green is a modern construct and is inspired from the Prophet's Mosque whose dome was painted in green ONLY in 1813 AD. Prior to this the Dome was always blue such is the evidence which goes back to the 15th century. Hence the notion that Green is the colour of Islam is a modern tradition and hence has nothing to do with historical facts.
c. This material is copyrighted and subject of a forthcoming book by the lecturer Syed Tajammul Hussain.