Exploring the Intricacy of Islamic Decoration

Islamic art has a history that dates back to the Middle Ages, with origins stretching back to the seventh century in the Arabian Peninsula.

It has progressed to become an art that has heavily influenced other forms of artistic expression and has produced one of the most intricate, decorative pieces in the art world. Islamic nations such as Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh have decorated their sacred spaces, texts and daily objects with shapes and patterns that have categorized Islamic art as heavily reliant on geometry to create symmetrical balance and unity. There is also immense precision to this craft in order to create the highly regarded, fundamental element of calligraphy. 

This historic, intricate art form was discussed during Arabic studies adjunct professor Amera Abdalrahim’s lecture on Saturday, April 29 at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art. Along with her lecture, Abdalrahim led a hands-on worship dedicated to Islamic decoration.

“We organized this event in conjunction with our exhibition ‘Text/ures of Iraq: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Oded Halahmy,’” said Zachary Bowman, manager of education and visitor experience at the Dorsky. “We hope that attendees will take away an understanding of the types of non-figural decoration in Islamic art and an appreciation of the skill involved in transforming letters and words into decorative motifs through calligraphy.”

Abdalrahim touched upon the main aspects of Islamic decoration, such as the many forms in which it can take place — pottery, embroidery, architecture, carpets, calligraphy and gilded, painted and enamelled glass being major mediums. 

The patterns that take place within these forms can be placed into two categories: vegetal and geometric. Vegetal patterns are patterns inspired by nature, such as flowers and plants. Because Islam denounces icons, Islamic art focuses on the spiritual representation of objects and beings, rather than their physical qualities. Therefore, the goal is not to replicate nature, but to convey what it represents. To Muslims, Abdalrahim pointed out, beauty is a divine quality, referencing the Prophet Muhammad: “Allah is beautiful and he loves beauty.” Hence, the intricate designs that make up Islamic art are used to please him and cause an aesthetically pleasing feeling to the eye. 

New Paltz resident Kristen Crawford said she attended simply because she has always adored the intricacy of Islamic decoration. Crawford has been to India and finds the many aspects of Islamic art to be “exquisitely beautiful.” 

“I find it particularly interesting that initially, Islamic art did not incorporate human or animal form, but as time passed, that became less threatening and other cultures affected by Islam chose to use representations,” Crawford said. 

After the lecture, it was time for a hands-on experience making Islamic art. With a wide array of different patterns to choose from, attendees could outline them onto paper and later paint them with the different colors. 

Abdalrahim explained that for her, the importance of Islamic decoration is that it expresses a different side of the religion. 

“When most people think about Islam, they tend to think about things like attacks, war and violence, but Islam has an important history,” she said. “It is a religion that has created beautiful art. I want people to see the other side of the faith — its beauty, and for people to understand how faith has directly affected art.”