Symbolic Meaning

May 2022

As indicated in the previous passage, it is tempting to ascribe symbolic meaning to the traditional repertoire of forms that we have characterized as the “Islamic decorative canon,” i.e., the repertoire of calligraphic, arabesque, and geometric elements 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 associations. 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 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 drawings, has found no reference whatsoever to any mystical, astrological, or religious symbolism in them (Chorbachi, 1989). In fact, the more recent misattributions of symbolic meaning to this genre seem to have arisen precisely because it has no real equivalent in Western European (or any other) art. In fact the modes of Islamic decorative art are quite unique to that culture.

As for doctrinal associations, according to Jonathan Bloom, the taste for pure arabesque and geometry reigned supreme by the later Fatimid (Shi’ite) period, as it did everywhere else in the Islamic lands. He expresses a confidence that these motifs and modes of decoration had no doctrinal associations (Bloom, 2007). Similarly, Terry Allen writes that there is no evidence to support the claim that geometric designs were somehow understood to be “emblematic” of the Abbasid Caliphate and Sunnism (Allen, 2004). And Sheila Blair has declared that in her view, the canonization of round scripts and geometry had nothing to do with religious sectarianism in the tenth century (Blair, 2006).

The fact is that by the 10th century (A.H. 300), geometric patterns, floriated arabesques and calligraphy were already established features of the repertoire of Islamic art and that this decorative canon had developed and persisted through all the fractious differences in the formulation of Islamic doctrine. “Sunni Revival” or not, these forms were well into the process of becoming an international Islamic style. The particular art-historical problems concerning the mapping of the development of this style are complicated to an impossible degree by the lack of archaeological evidence of this period resulting from the disaster of the Mongol invasions, during which enormous swathes of Abbasid art and architecture were destroyed. But there will always be more general difficulties in entering the mindset of the artist/craftsmen and architects that actually produced the work of centuries past. Styles that resonate with cultural attitudes or weltanschauung invariably spring into being from below rather than as a calculated imposition from above and the “intentionality” of those who produced these designs throughout the Islamic world are bound to remain largely inaccessible. Who knows what any individual craftsman actually had in mind? In the final analysis, it is the work itself that counts. The many geometrical, arabesque, and calligraphic variations in Islamic decoration are as unique as the Islamic ethos itself and have an overarching cultural resonance and meaning of their own.