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Patterns in Islamic Architecture

Posted by
Ar. Smriti Saraswat
on December 23, 2013 at 08:58 PM

The extensive use of geometry in Islamic art and architecture is well-known. The flair with which the patterns are captured and translated on a variety of materials is particularly remarkable. However, deeper study of any topic always brings forth some fascinating facts.
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Islamic art and architecture has been swamped with various patterns. They occur in rich profusion throughout Islamic cultures on a diversity of materials – tiles, bricks, wood, brass, paper, plaster and glass. They also occur on carpets, windows, doors, screens, railings, bowls, furniture, surfaces of mosques and other space-making elements, palaces, madarsas (centres for education), tombs, and various other edifices and objects. They can be seen in abundance in Persian miniatures as well.

Many great thinkers and designers say that design is the manifestation of human intention. In Islamic design, various numbers and figures combine to form patterns. These numbers and figures exist on three levels of reality: Divine Intellect; Intermediate world of mind (Scientific) and External world (Quantitative). The modern world knows only the latter two. To discover the first aspect, we need to study them in detail. The study of these patterns has reflected on various influences on Islamic art and its abstract and geometrical nature.

These patterns are also the metaphors and manifestations of the core themes in Islamic culture: Monotheism (no other deity except the one God); Aniconism (no representation of human or animal forms); Al-twahid (unity in multiplicity) and Geometry (which constructs squares, hexagons, octagons, etc. from the circle). Islamic artists also drew upon the symbols and patterns from their early Arabic and nomadic cultures. Therefore, study of these patterns also throws light on the society and ethos. The study of these patterns has provided educational aids for the teaching of many topics in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science, Design, Cymatics, and above all, Geometry.

The complicated patterns in Islam are identical with the internal structure of various natural substances, discovered by Modern Science. So, the study of these patterns is a means where man becomes aware of the origin as well as the fundamental structure of the world.

Since, many of them, reflect the world of life forms, they can help us evolve a language to communicate with the life on the other planets.

While studying the Islamic patterns, three major categories could be identified:

Calligraphic Patterns (Arab Lettering): Writing in particular, greatly influenced decoration and patterns in Islamic art and architecture. Calligraphy spread to works other than the Quran. Writing became an integral part of the decoration of a building.

Arabesque: In such patterns, spiral forms intertwine, undulate and coalesce rhythmically to produce various patterns like stylized leaves and floral forms. It is an elaborate application of repeating geometric forms that often echo the forms of plants and animals, and is usually found decorating the walls of mosques.

"One would enquire in vain for the masters who brought this system to its flowering or those who later opened up new ways for its development. This art is totally anonymous and it would contradict the artist’s noblest charge, which was the liberation of the spirit from the transitoriness of worldly ties." (‘The Arabesque’ by Ernst Kuhnel)

Patterns employing Geometrical Interlacing and Polygons: Interlaced patterns weave like a trellis and form geometric, recurrent shapes and space filling patterns. When such patterns are rendered on a two-dimensional flat surface, a basic unit cell repeats itself over and over again. A consequence of this is that there is no natural point of focus for the eye. In three dimensions, such as interior and exterior surfaces of domes, the unit cell is skillfully scaled and deformed to fit the surface.

Islam forbids the Representational Arts. Probably, this is the reason that Islamic patterns are very geometrical. Prominence of Star signifies that Islam does not believe in idols. There is no particular shape or form to represent God, except Light (nur), which is symbolized by star.

Stars were also used by wandering nomads for navigation, and finding directions. Geometry is a door from the material world to the spiritual world. Greek philosophers have associated metaphysical qualities with geometry. Geometry is an indicative of a perfect world and ‘Perfection of Gods’. Plato also says: “God ever geometrizes” and Muslim intellectuals agreed with him. In Islamic art and architecture, the passion for tessellations and interlaced patterns could be readily seen. Geometric Patterns also draw an analogy to religious rules of behaviour. Repeating patterns represent the unchanging laws of God. The basic shapes used in these patterns are suggestive of few specific things.

Square represents Earth or Materiality. Triangle represents Human Consciousness. Hexagon (or circle) represents Heaven. Repeating of unit modules and same inherent geometry brings in a sense of unity. Derivation of innumerable patterns happens by repetition of basic geometrical shapes. There is a perfect inter-relationship between the parts and the whole of the composition. The role of geometry may be inspirational (to symbolize) at some places, and formal (order the form) at yet another places. Geometry is achieved both in the constructional (columns, windows and arches) and the decorative elements (jaalis). Islamic patterns could be identified in applied arts as well. These patterns have various associated connotations and beliefs. They are symbolic interpretations for several cosmic values. Articulation has been achieved through geometry. These patterns follow a sequential proportioning system.

Much of Islamic art and architecture is idiosyncratic of decoration, which is said to represent transformation. The aim behind this decoration is never merely to ornament, but rather to metamorphose, glorify or exalt. Inherently, this reverberates with the Islamic preoccupation with the ephemeral nature of being. Substantial structures and objects are made to appear less substantial, materials are de-materialised. The dichotomy between the grand, vast edifices of mosques, and the lightness provided by the patterns and the decoration, is very fascinating.

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