The Quran and art
THE Holy Quran has been approached from many perspectives: linguistic, liturgical, historical, exegetical, sociological, psychological, anthropological, aesthetic etc.
The more perspectives one brings to the study of the sacred text, the better and richer our understanding of it becomes. People approach sacred texts from their own perspectives, their reading fed by their needs, interests and experiences. This article aims to highlight the artistic approach towards appreciating the Quran. This may enable the readers to see how Muslims have explored and experienced the Quran through art.
Art is a powerful tool for communication and the expression of feelings and thoughts. It is an integral part of any religion to beautify and create a sacred environment for the followers. For example, artistic expression based on beliefs can be observed in Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, among other world faiths.
Art has always been part of Islamic societies, expressing faith and belief through different mediums.
Muslim artists have perceived and used art forms to appreciate the Divine words in their own unique ways. The most obvious expression of art forms in Islam probably started with the Muslims trying to write the Quranic text in the original Arabic, which lends itself so beautifully to different art forms such as calligraphy.
A craftsperson in Persia and a carpet weaver in Afghanistan used artistic expressions from the same source of inspiration, but their expressions were different. Though both artists are from different contexts, yet they are focused on the same key concepts of the Divine word, producing their artworks according to their contextual inspiration.
Moreover, the intention of producing an artwork may also vary; some might have economic and financial need in mind, while for others it might be the appreciation of the text, passion and love towards art. Yet both are producing something that has to do with the central images of Islam.
Also, artistic expression may be a tool for spiritual elevation for some artists, while for others there may be a political reason, like inscribing sacred text on coins and official flags artistically.
Quranic expressions/words or verses have been extensively used for different purposes using different materials. Today, most shops selling decorative items are full of a spectrum of artistic pieces which feature various Quranic words or verses. Similarly, the Quranic text itself has been decorated, for example with fantastic floral decorations, geometrical designs, etc, on the margins of the holy book, all reflecting the artist’s desire to employ art to decorate the Word of God.
Muslim artists have also used Quranic inscriptions to draw images of animals, such as lions, or other representations such as natural scenes.
There are many renowned artists who have worked passionately and offered new perspectives regarding understanding the Quran through art. In Pakistan, Sadequain and Gulgee are two prominent artists who extensively used the Word of God to express many concepts through their art. Their works can be seen in Karachi’s Frere Hall and Islamabad’s Shah Faisal Mosque, apart from other specimens of their painting found in different contexts and places.
Many artists have attempted to beautify small or large objects, ranging from a grain of rice to the huge walls or minarets of mosques or other public buildings, like universities or even hospitals, by inscribing on them the Quranic text in a beautiful manner.
Yet another art form with regard to the Quran, very popular in Muslim societies, is the melodious recitation (tilawat) of the Holy Book. The knowledge/art of reciting the Quran in beautiful ways is called ilm al-qira’at wa’l-tajweed. Often, in many Muslim countries there are recitation competitions among different reciters and it is culturally a very powerful means to celebrate the Quran.
Going beyond the traditional pedantic pedagogical methods, schools, colleges and universities can use art forms to teach their students the way the Quran has been approached in Muslim societies.
Art is used to beautify things. There are special art forms that professional artists may appreciate more than common people, but there are art forms that even common people can appreciate. Due to public appreciation and demand, decorative art — with regard to the beautification of the Quranic words or verses or even the entire text — has now become a huge industry in the world through commercial production of art pieces, in various markets in practically all Muslim countries.
These pieces are bought for various purposes including to show people’s personal spiritual attachment with the Word of God, to decorate public buildings, educational institutions, commercial places, shops, vehicles, factories and, last but not the least, homes, for blessings (baraka).
While interpreters of the Quran have mostly relied on intellectual discourse to disentangle its meanings, artists have tried to do this through their brush, colours and canvases. Both ways enrich human experience of the Divine; one through reason and the other through the eyes because beauty is supposed to lie in the eye of the beholder.
Both approaches lead us to the enlightenment of the heart and that of the eyes, through which we experience the beauty of all that is beautiful.