Symbolism in Islamic Art

The very idea that an image or a sculpture represents something other than itself has often been interpreted by orthodox Muslims as irreconcilable with the central message in Islam: “There is no god but God.” For this reason, one could say that all art made in the Islamic world must be considered devoid of symbolism. But if we look at actual works, we can see that several motifs in Islamic art can easily be related to symbols of both recent and earlier date.

Muslim rulers in Islam’s first centuries inherited a rich imagery with a large number of symbolic motifs. Paradisiacal and princely motifs, signs of the zodiac, mythical creatures, and religious images could be found in virtually all parts of the new empire, especially in the west. Reused in an Islamic context, however, the question is whether most of these symbols did not in fact quickly lose their original significance. Lions, gazelles, griffins, harpies, and sphinxes appear haphazardly on all manner of objects. Dragons and phoenixes are sometimes good, sometimes evil, sometimes purely decorative.

Princely symbolism, in particular, seems to have undergone a transformation from being highly significant to being primarily decorative. A classical princely symbol like the lion or the falcon attacking a weaker animal (signifying the prince’s right to rule) can be found both on costly objects and on quite commonplace everyday ware.

In recent times, the crescent moon has taken on a special status as a kind of unifying symbol for everything Islamic. But one should not consider the crescent moon as a proper symbol comparable to the Christian cross. In reality, what has most often been used in the Muslim world as a symbol of Islam is the Arabic script.

The Arabic script has always been viewed as exalted and holy. This is undoubtedly due to the close association between the words of the Koran and the script used for writing them, but it might also be due to a direct linkage between the abstract forms of the letters and the qualities that are attributed to the Divine. In keeping with this interpretation, arabesque decorations and geometrical patterns have been interpreted from time to time as metaphors for God. Because they can be extended infinitely, both vegetal ornamentation and geometrical forms can be seen as a reminder of the infiniteness of God.

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Symbolism in Islamic Art

Item no. 4 of 8

Fritware drinking bowl in the shape of a harpy

Kashan, Iran; c. 1200
H: 16.5; L: 15 cm

The harpy, which is a bird with a humanoid head, is known from Antique Greece, the ancient Middle East, and India. Like other mythical creatures in Islamic art, its development and decorative use were influenced by different traditions. In Islamic times, the harpy has been associated both with the Greek harpy, which was threatening and demonic, and with an enormous Indian bird called Garuda. The hadith literature mentions a divine mythical bird called al-Anka (the griffin), which was perfect when it was created, but in time became so bothersome that God had it banished to the ends of the Earth.

We do not know why the drinking bowl was given this shape, but the harpy often appears as a kind of guardian figure in Islamic art.

Inv. no. 6/1962