The art of Islam is essentially a contemplative art, which aims to express above all, an encounter with the Divine Presence. The origin of Islamic art has often tried to be explained through tracing it back to some precedent in Byzantine, Sassanid, Coptic or other art, yet what is lost sight of, is the intrinsic and original unity of Islamic art and thus the ‘seal’ that Islam conferred on all borrowed elements.In order to understand the essence of Islamic art it is first necessary to realise the different conceptions of art itself. From the European point of view, the criterion of an artistic culture lies in its capacity to represent nature and even more in its capacity to portray man. From the Islamic point of view, on the contrary, the main scope of art is not the imitation or description of nature – the work of man will never equal the art of God – but the shaping of the human ambience. Art has to endow all the objects with which man naturally surrounds himself – a house, a fountain, a drinking vessel, a garment, a carpet – with the perfection each object can posses according to its own nature. Islamic art does not add something alien to the objects that it shapes; it merely brings out their essential qualities.
In traditional art, beauty and use go hand in hand; they are two inseparable aspects of perfection, as envisaged by the Prophetic tradition: ‘God has prescribed perfection in all things.’ It is connected with the concept of ihsan as set forth in the Hadith of Gabriel, whereby the religion rests on three fundamental principles: Islam (submission to the Divine Will), Iman (faith), and Ihsan. Ihsan may be translated as ‘spiritual virtue’ or simply virtue, and includes the ideas of beauty and perfection. More exactly it means inward beauty, beauty of the soul or of the heart, which necessarily emanates outwards, transforming every human activity into an art and every art into the remembrance of God.
If we consider inward beauty and outward beauty, we find the latter has its origin in the former. To the extent that human activities are integrated into Islam, they become a support for beauty – a beauty which in fact transcends these activities because it is the beauty of Islam itself. This is particularly true of the fine arts, as it is their role to manifest the hidden qualities of things. The art of Islam receives its beauty not from any ethnic genius but from Islam itself and just as Islamic science has its roots in the Qur’an and hadith, so the typical forms of Islamic art are rooted in the spirit of Islam.
An important lesson that Islamic art provides is in challenging the notion that works of art from earlier centuries need to be studied as historical ‘phenomena’, which belong to the past and have very little to do with the future. Against this relativistic point of view, for the Muslim, the great mosques of Kairouan, Cordoba, Cairo, Damascus, Isfahan, Herat and so on belong as much to the present as to the past, insofar as it is possible to realise the state of mind of those who created them, and thus what is timeless in the art of our spiritual ancestors is the roots in Islam itself.