Symbolic Meaning

David Wade

As indicated previously, in Theories, Problems and Evidence, it is tempting to ascribe symbolic meaning to the traditional repertoire of forms that I have characterized as the ‘Islamic decorative canon’, i.e. the repertoire of calligraphic, arabesque and geometric elements that that can be found in one form or another throughout the art and architecture of the Islamic world. Tempting, but misconceived. Despite various assertions to the contrary, these forms have rarely carried any symbolic or doctrinal associations1, 2. In fact there is a consistent avoidance of symbolism throughout Islamic art – but reluctance to accept this fact has led to various recent misinterpretations of the genre, particularly in regard to its geometric aspects. These include - mystical/religious interpretations, including kitsch ‘New Age’ explanations involving cryptic ‘cosmological’ and astrological symbolism; the unlikely use of magic squares in geometrical constructions; and of the assignation of specific doctrinal associations – all of which are attributions for which there is no real evidence. Wasma’a K. Chorbachi, an Arabic speaker, having examined hundreds of original workshop folios, has found no reference whatsoever to any mystical, astrological or religious symbolism in them3.The more recent misattributions of symbolic meaning to this genre are largely due to the fact that it has no real equivalent in Western European (or any other) art. Geometrical design in the Islamic sphere is as unique as the Islamic ethos itself, and has an overarching cultural resonance of its own. In short, there is no simple formulaic ‘Key to Islamic Geometric Pattern’ and no magic formula that will unlock and explain its enormous range of productions. All of which makes the continuing use of geometric forms in this tradition all the more intriguing.

  1. Oleg Grabar speaks of a ‘concerted avoidance of symbols’ in his ‘The Formation of Islamic Art’, 1973 (pg.209); and that ‘There does not exist, to my knowledge, a single instance justifying the views that that the Muslim community… Understood mathematical forms as symbolising or illustrating a Muslim cosmology’, ‘The Mediation of Ornament’, 1992, (pg.151)

  2. Robert Hillenbrand points out that ‘The particular Shi’i nature of the Fatimid regime found no corresponding echo in the art that they produced.’ He also speaks of ‘the curious relief to be able to appreciate this art … without having the picture muddled by cryptic, tendentious, half-baked ideas and unsubstantiated references to religious symbolism’, in his Forward to Arts of the City Victorious, Jonathan M. Bloom, Yale, 2007

  3. Other than conventional pious comments. See page 771, ‘In the Tower of Babel: Beyond symmetry in Islamic Design’. Computers Math. Applic. Vol17, No 4-6, pp. 751-789, 1989