Aniconism & Abstract Imagery

Symmetrical Abstract Photograph #27
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Titus Burckhardt:  Art of Islam, Language and Meaning 
The prohibition of images in Islam applies, strictly speaking, only to the image of the Divinity. . . . portraiture of the divine messengers, prophets, and saints is avoided, not only because their images could become the object of idolatrous worship, but also because of the respect inspired by their inimitability; they are the vice-regents of God on earth . . .
In Sunni Arab circles, the representation of any living being is frowned upon, because of respect for the divine secret contained within every creature. . . 

Aniconism became somehow an inseparable concomitant of the sacred; it is even one of the foundations, if not the main foundation, of the sacred art of Islam.

This may appear paradoxical, for the normal foundation of a sacred art is symbolism, and in a religion expressing itself in anthropomorphic symbols--the Koran speaks of God's "face", His "hands", and the throne He sits upon--the rejection of images seems to strike at the very roots of a visual art dealing with things divine.

But there is a whole array of subtle compensations which need to be born in mind, and in particular the following: a sacred art is not necessarily made of images, even in the broadest sense of the terms; it may be no more than the quite silent  exteriorization, as it were, of a contemplative state, and in this case--or in this respect--it reflects no ideas, but transforms the surroundings qualitatively, by having them share in an equilibrium whose center of gravity is the unseen.  That such is the nature of Islamic art is easily verified.  Its object is, above all, man's environment--hence the dominant role of architecture--and its quality is essentially contemplative. 

Aniconism does not detract from this quality; very much to the contrary, for by precluding every image inviting man to fix his mind on something outside himself and to project his soul onto an "individualizing" form, it creates a void.  In this respect, the function of Islamic art is analogous to that of virgin nature, especially the desert, which is likewise favorable to contemplation, although in another respect the order created by art opposes the chaos of desert landscape.

The proliferation of decoration in Muslim art does not contradict this quality of contemplative emptiness; on the contrary, ornamentation with abstract forms enhances it through its unbroken rhythm and its endless interweaving.   Instead of ensnaring the mind and leading it into some imaginary world, it dissolves mental "fixations", just as contemplation of a running stream, a flame, or leaves quivering in the wind, can detach consciousness from its inward "idols". 

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The Seen and the Unseen
Samer Akkach: Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam An Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas  (2005)
Religious world views hinge on an axiomatic premise that the world is made up of physical and spiritual realities, of visible and invisible entities.  This premise underlies the fundamental beliefs in God, prophets, and holy scriptures that presuppose a kind of unseen, supranatural presence.   The Quran stresses this polarity, describing God as "the Knower of the unseen and the seen" (13:9) and to him "belongs the unseen of the heavens and the earth" (16:77).  Yet aspects of the unseen can be revealed.  The Quran demands that Muslims believe in the unseen and strive to gain knowledge of it my means of the seen . . . the world of the outward that is readily accessible to everyone.  

Ephemeral, transient, and perishable, the seen derives meaning and subsistence from the unseen, and its real value lies in being the necessary pathway to the unseen.  The unseen can only be grasped by the imagination.  To help human imagination gain insight into the unseen, religious teachings have resorted to analogy and metaphor.  The efficacy of analogy hinges on the ontological link between the the embodied and the abstract.  By means of analogies human imagination is given access to the abstract throught the mediation of the embodied.

Ibn 'Arabi says God alludes to his symbolic presences in all created things.  These symbols are available to humans in their daily experience of sensible things, be they "within themselves" or  "on the horizons," that is, in the outside world.  Their function is to give clues to direct the mind toward that which lies beyond the immediate attractions of the sensible and the visible.

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Geometric Patterns
Keith Critchlow: Islamic Patterns
Islam’s concentration on geometric patterns [which are based upon mathematical laws of repetition] draws attention away from the representational world to one of pure forms, poised tensions and dynamic equilibrium, giving structural insight into the workings of the inner self and their reflection in the universe.  

Islamic art is predominately a balance between pure geometric form and what can be called fundamental biomorphic form: a polarization that has associative values with the four philosophical and experiential qualities of cold and dry--representing the crystallization in geometric form--and hot and moist--representing the formative forces behind vegetative and vascular form.  The one aspect reflects the facets of a jewel, the purity of the snowflake and the frozen flowers of radial symmetry; the other the glistening flank of a perspiring horse, the silent motion of a fish winding its way through the water, the unfolding and unfurling of the leaves of the vine and rose.  

The Islamic art of geometric form can be considered the crystallization stage, both of the intelligence inherent in manifest form and as a moment of suspended animation of the effusion of content through form.  This book is primarily concerned with geometrical form as it relates to the circle -- as the circle is the symbol par excellence of the 'origin' and 'end' of both geometric and biomorphic form.  

The circle is the archetypal governing basis for all the geometric shapes that unfold within it . . . reflecting the unity of its original source, the point, the simple, self-evident origin of geometry and a subject grounded in mystery.  

The circle has always been regarded as a symbol of eternity, without beginning and without end, just being.  

In the effort to trace origins in creation, the direction is not backwards but inwards.  


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