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Exploring the world of Islamic art

Majid Al Yousef thoughtfully contemplates his next stroke before the pen glides down the piece of paper one final time to complete his masterpiece. He carefully takes one last look and as he studies his own work of art, he says: “To me, calligraphy has always been a form of meditation and exploration. Back in the day, it was the only medium for preserving sacred texts and communication and so it was nurtured and developed through the centuries. Today, the art form holds immense value. It possesses this mystical quality that makes it so compelling and appealing.”

Unlike in Western civilisation, where paintings and sculptures are often considered the two most important art forms, Islamic art has always followed a different form of hierarchy. The most revered of them all is written art, as this can be attributed to its use in the pages of the Qur’an as well as other important religious texts.

During its prime in the Middle Ages, calligraphers were hailed as the most important artists and rewarded handsomely for their craft, which included everything from penning fine manuscripts to creating artistic inscriptions that would adorn the walls of mosques.

Ibraheem Khamayseh, a local calligraphy artist who also exhibits with art organisation Tashkeel as does Al Yousef, tells us: “In the days of the Ottoman Empire, Arabic calligraphy enjoyed a golden era and the art form could be found everywhere you looked. You could see it gracing mosques, libraries and cultural clubs. Also, as one of the main forms of self-expression, the style played a significant role in Arabic poetry. In fact, poems that were beautifully presented using calligraphy had more weight, were more appealing and easier for the common people to connect with than those simply written.”

But Khamayseh believes that the art is currently enjoying a revival with Middle East nations like the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reinforcing calligraphy as part of the local culture. This treasured form can today be found masterfully inscribed on coins, paintings, sacred sites, architectural monuments and artistic works that have been preserved for centuries. “Sometimes, all you have to do is walk down the street and you’ll find a calligraphic piece of art or something inspired by it,” he says.

Venturing beyond the realm of calligraphy, Islamic art also encompasses other expressions of creativity, which weave a fascinating tale of human civilisation through the ages. Al Yousef says: “Floral patterns, geometric designs and miniature art take pride of place in Islamic art with Arabic architecture being one of the most significant pillars.”

In this part of the world, there is no shortage of enchanting examples of Arabic architecture. From classic representations found in Dubai’s historic neighbourhoods, such as those on prominent wind tower structures, to more contemporary examples found in modern buildings and five-star resorts, almost every architectural marvel across the nation pays tribute to Arabic design in some form.

Khamayseh adds: “Figurative paintings depicting religious themes, poetry books, the covers of Qur’ans, glass lamps as well as mosque fittings such as tiles and woodwork all have a special place in local culture.”

Among other significant Islamic symbols, the star is a common motif in the Middle East. It is one of many shapes that recur in various works by Muslim artists, featuring prominently in art and architecture.

The eight-point star, known to Muslims as the khatem, encapsulates many of the underlying principles that form the Islamic understanding of the universe. The symmetrical design represents the order and harmony of creation.

Examples can be found on the walls, floors and ceilings of buildings, etched into traditional ornaments, intertwined through carpet designs and celebrated in paintings. As such, the star reappears often, woven into the very fabric of the country, visible everywhere once you start to look for it.

Alongside the khatem are various other motifs that recur in Islamic designs. The pentagon, octagon and circle crop up time and time again, piled into complex patterns that pay tribute to the infinite nature of Allah.

Traditionally, the representation of Allah in figurative form, depictions of Prophet Mohammed and his family and the portrayal of all living beings is frowned upon as per Islamic teachings. Because of this, animals and people feature a lot less prominently in comparison to Western art. Instead, Islamic artists have focused on celebrating the gracious nature of Allah and his creations through Arabesque shapes and geometric patterns. Many works combine the two styles to create beautiful and complex designs that are very distinctive to Islamic art and hence instantly recognisable.

Patterns like these are acceptable because they honour, rather than imitate, the almighty and show no attempt at direct representation.

This does not, however, extend to the portrayal of plant life. In fact, floral forms are widely represented in Islamic art. Arabesque, a style widely associated with the art of the Islamic world, is characterised by flowing depictions of leafy plants and flowers.

One of the most beautiful modern-day examples is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, where the outstanding décor is characterised by flamboyant flowers covering the vast central courtyard and columns surrounding it.

The theme is continued inside the building on the walls of the prayer halls and in the beautiful stained-glass doors and windows. The mosque is also home to the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet featuring an intricate Islamic medallion design.

Offering a unique insight into some of the finest artistic creations by Muslim artists through the centuries, several galleries across the UAE present an array of ancient and modern works. Some collections include artefacts in all shapes and forms, paintings and texts.

Browse a range of engraved pots (some made from semi-precious metals), handcrafted chess sets, astrolabes, woodcarvings, ceramics, tea sets, glass lamps, carpets and rugs that have been sourced from across the region and pay tribute to the contributions of Muslim artists through the centuries.

Art enthusiast keen to further delve into the world of Arabic calligraphy can enrol in workshops undertaken by Tashkeel.  For more information, visit tashkeel.org.

Upcoming Workshops by Majid Al Yousef:

What: Introduction to Arabic Calligraphy When: September 22 and 29, 2018 from 10am to 5pm Where: Taskheel, Nad Al Sheba

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