The Religious Influence in Islamic Decoration and Architecture.
On the introduction of Islam and the Quran the prophet Muhammad was not only the founder of Islam, but was also the founder of Islamic decoration and unique Islamic architecture. The manifestation of religious beliefs is recognized in the recitation of the Quran, ‘Gods Word’, or the Ninety-Nine Names of God, which gave birth to the first house of God, the Ka’ba. It was believed to have been originally built by Abraham (Ibrahim) and his son Ishmael (Ismail). The Ka’ba houses the original ‘Black Stone’ to which thousands flock every year, in order to for fill ritual obligations to ‘Allah’. The Mu’Tazila movement introduced the Kiswa which covers and honours the Ka’ba ritually every year. It is decorated with gold Arabic calligraphy, reciting ‘Gods Word’, which one may meditate upon to endow themselves with Gods qualities that could lead to ma’rifa (knowledge).
Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570ce at a time of prosperity; he was secured by the positioning of the trade route from the eastern Mediterranean and the ports to India and Sri Lanka for his family were merchants in the great Arabian caravan trade. He was a critic of the polytheistic religion and was forced into exile around 622, marking the date of the beginning of Islam. In 630 Muhammad returned to Mecca and converted the population to Islam destroying all idols, but preserved the Ka’ba making it the symbolic centre for Islam (Kleiner, 2011).
The Quran is the records of Muhammad’s revelations, believed to be bestowed on him by God, which the Muslim ruler Uthman ‘codified’ in Arabic between 644 and 656 (Kleiner, 2011). The belief was in ‘One God’, and ‘submission’ to that God, and as the Quran explains the ‘Seven Rational Attributes of God are; life, power, will, knowledge, hearing, seeing and speech’ and are the most basic attributes of the ‘Ninety-Nine Names of God’, the names of God being the attributes (Dickie, Yaqub Zaki 1978).
One of the Ninety-Nine names of God is ‘Outwardly Manifest’ as stated by Muhammad. ‘God created man in His form’, though ‘Outwardly Manifest’ does not reference what is physically outward, but gives reference to outward attributes. The name ‘Inwardly Hidden’ is the interior of Gods form, meaning the inner workings or Gods knowledge (Dickie, Yaqub Zaki 1978), and the word Quran means ‘recitation’ of this knowledge. Muhammad states that the Quran is Gods speech, ‘In the name of God; the compassionate, and the merciful’. The Quran is regarded as an act of mercy, and a revelation, so it is in these words the laws of Islam manifest. Gods speech, Kalām Allah (the word of Allah), as written in the Quran, became the most important fundamental in the creation of Islamic architecture and decoration. A scribe was expected to have ‘exceptional spiritual refinement’ as an ancient Arabic proverb proclaims “Purity of writing is purity of soul” (Kleiner, pp351,2). ‘God’s Word’ was made visible with Arabic calligraphy, and calligraphy, as written in the Quran, became the hierarchy of Islamic decoration, and architecture became the portal for Gods speech (Dickie, Yaqub Zaki 1978).
The Ka’ba is the first Islamic house of God and is the hub of all other Muslim mosques. It pronounces a commitment to Islamic faith and an individual is subject to ritual obligations to that faith, with the law and the observance of the ‘Five Pillars’. The first pillar is the ‘Shaháda (the teaching of Islam) at the center then the other four; salát is prayer which must take place five times a day facing Mecca, siyám is fasting during the month of Ramadan, zakat is payment of tax for the poor and hajj is the pilgrimage to the Ka’ba which one is expected to take at least once in one’s life time. It is a cube shape building situated in the heart of Mecca in central Saudi Arabia, Muhammad’s birth place (see fig.1). The Quran states that it was originally built by Abraham (Ibrahim) and his son Ishmael (Ismail). It houses the sacred ‘Black Stone’ thought to be a meteor that was allegedly found by Abraham (Ibrahim) and Ishmael (Ismail) when looking for stones to build the Ka’ba. The ‘baraka’ is the spiritual force that emulates from any sacred object and the object being in the Ka’ba’s case, the ‘Black Stone’ (Smart, 1992).
Figure .2 Author unknown,2008. The House of Allah ! Ka’ba, Structure Picture. Size unknown Islam the Most Greatest Religion. Reproduced by King Slave of Allah. (accessed April 7th 2014) http://islamgreatreligion.wordpress.com/2008/08/09/structure-of-kaaba/
Mu’Tazila was a great Islamic movement between 700ce and 900ce which began to develop a new rational world view (Kleiner). The ‘axis mundi’ was the astrophysical study of the origin, evolution and structure of the universe, (the Islamic cosmology) and determined the diagonal orientation of the Ka’ba to the primary points of the compass (see fig.2). The intersection of the vertical axis is symbolic of the spirit pointing to heaven and the horizontal plane of the mosque is the existence on earth. During the hajj ceremony the pilgrims circumambulate the Ka’ba seven times, and the gradation of the crowd creates a swirling movement like a whirlpool, which rotates against the sun believing it to give maximum exposer to the ‘baraka’ (Dickie, Yaqub Zaki 1978).
The Kiswa is a black silk cloth embroidered with gold calligraphy that expresses the shahada
(the teaching of Islam). The cloth is comprised of eight curtains which cover the Ka’ba and
is changed every year, it is considered to be the most important sign of respect and veneration for the first house of God, and the golden calligraphy is repetition to ‘Gods word’, ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah’(Hayes, 2009).
Every year the Kiswa is removed and replaced, and it is said that in early years Umar bin al-attab (radiyallahuanhu) would cut the Kiswa into small pieces and give them to pilgrims to use for shelter, ultimately spreading the words of Allah and expressing Allah the ‘merciful’ (Dickie, Yaqub Zaki 1978). In more recent times pieces were cut to give to foreign dignitaries and organizations as souvenirs (Islaah, 2014).
The Mu’tazila movement was against anthropomorphism (the representation of God having human form), so the use of calligraphy in design was important in replacing the use of motifs in describing metaphors stated in the Quran, and ‘Gods Word’ can never be translated in other languages for fear of misrepresentation (Smart, 1998). There for calligraphy became one of the main elements that dominated the decoration of the Ka’ba its Kiswa and other Mosques and palaces (El-said, 1993).
The ‘Outwardly Manifest’, the recitation of the Quran, is written on the walls of the Ka’ba and other Mosques and palaces. ‘Knowledge’, the ‘Inwardly Hidden’, is written within the recitations, the interior of Gods form, so it is important to note that ‘Gods form’ is manifest in ‘Gods words’ and not in his image, so on meditating upon Gods attributes, or Ninety Nine Names of God that are written in the recitations on the Ka’ba and its Kiswa, one may endow themselves with Gods qualities, which is expected to lead to ma’rifa, meaning knowledge, so Islamic decoration and its architecture became the vehicle for spreading ‘Gods Word.’
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