Art and Architecture

Sacral Qualities of Form in Mosque Architecture: Transformation of the Arts of the Qur’an into the Arts of the Mosque

By the year 800 c.E., and within less than two centuries from the inception of Islam, a new religious and secular architecture materialized in a vast area: western Asia, all of North Africa, and southern Spain. The archeological and textual references for these projects have provided us with a wealth of physical and descriptive evidence of the emerging building types and forms of Islamic architecture. The mosque, for example, developed into a well-defined building type with characteristic physical features and spatial organization, among them the mihrab, the mimbar, calligraphic inscriptions, and surface Ornamentation, all of which are architectural elements whose designs and dispositions in the mosque space have taken on
various reoccurring patterns.

The theological rationalization behind the historical evolution of mosque architecture is more formidable to consolidate, however, for information is scarce and it is difficult to interpret subjective information. The Qur’an decreed emphatically the salah  (prayer) but did not describe what features a house of worship should incorporate. The Prophet taught salah to early Muslims and continued to lead the faithful in prayer in the architecturally modest mosque of Madinah. When the spatial requirements for congregational mosques became apparent, such architectural features as the mihrab appeared.

Mosque architecture began to develop under the Rightly Guided Caliphs and escalated through the succeeding Umayyad ascendancy, which witnessed the rise of architectural masterpieces in the expanding Islamic world. Mosque project officers incorporated innovations in designing the edifice in relation to its immediate environment, interior space planning, and construction techniques. But none surpassed the innovations in calligraphic inscriptions and ornamentation, which we classify as the surface arts of the mosque. The levels of productivity and quality of these surface arts defies description. What, then, was the source of motivation and poetics behind these creations?

This article suggests that the highly acclaimed Islamic surface arts are rooted in the corresponding calligraphic and illumination arts of the Qur’an and that Qur’anic arts arose to show the harmony of the theological idea of the sacredness of the Qur’an itself. This suggestion requires the clarification of two separate, but intertwined, relationships. The first is the relationship between the concept of the Qur’an’s sacredness and the artistic presentation of the Qur’an as a holy book through fine calligraphy and illumination. The second is the relationship between the sacred arts of the Qur’an (calligraphy and illumination) and the surface arts of the mosque as a holy place (calligraphic inscriptions and ornamentation). In this article, such relationships are addressed more specifically through three questions: What made the Qur’an the absolute source and manifestation of sacredness in Islamic theology? What sacred arts of the Qur’an were developed in response to the established idea of the Qur’an’s sacredness? What mosque surface arts were developed (out of Qur’anic arts) to express sacredness within the confines
of the mosque?

To maintain consistency throughout the article, “calligraphy” and “illumination” are used in association with the sacred arts of the Qur’an; “inscriptions,” “calligraphic inscriptions,” and “ornamentation” are used in association with the surface arts of the mosque.

The Qur’an as the Embodiment of Sacredness

The Qur’an is the ultimate expression of the divine in Islamic theology. Muslims assimilate the revelation in absolute seriousness,’ for it is the indisputable word of God, full of wisdom and guidance, that addresses a host of spiritual and worldly concerns from the human relationship with God to manners of social greetings. It provides axioms for interpreting every affair, reminds them of the divine throughout the day by means of various rituals, attests to the divine presence, and provides precepts for meditation? Muslims pursue the holy word with the utmost esteem, be it perceived meaning, written word, or confining book.

The idea of the revelation’s sacredness permeates numerous Qur’anic verses. Such verses reveal a variety of majestic attributes pertaining, among many respects, to the source, favors, and challenge of the Qur’an. The source of revelation is a key percept of Islamic theology. The divine nature of revelation is asserted bluntly as being from God, the exalted in power and full of wisdom (Qur’an 46:2). Receiving divine mercy is one of the innumerable favors that the sacred word engenders. But the divine reminds the community that obtaining mercy is contingent upon righteous behavior as revealed in the Qur’an (Qur’an 6: 155). Similarly, receiving the divine guidance leading to peace, safety, and light is a favor of the sacred word afforded only to those who seek God’s pleasure (Qur’an 5:16).

The challenge of the Qur’an resides in its unmatched beauty. Armed with unprecedented linguistic efficacy, it dealt a decisive blow to the pride of the Makkan community. At the time of the revelation, the Makkan community and Arabia in general spoke the language eloquently, and orators and poets derived dignity from their distinctive performances. Speech and poetry had developed into the most prominent art forms. The stature of the language prompted the Prophet’s clan (the Quraysh) to defy his call, for the clan chieftains demanded a written book from heaven that they could read. The revelation, in support of the Prophet, affirmed the divine source of the Qur’an by challenging any doubter to produce even one surah that developed those in the Qur’an: “And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a surah like thereunto” (Qur’an 2:23). Representing the highest form of rhetorical achievement in Arabic, the Qur’an was indeed unchallengeable.

Viewing the Qur’an as “the most beautiful literary composition the Arabic language has ever known” is not an outcome of zealous faith; rather, it is a “critical judgment reached through literary analysis” by discriminating intellects acquainted with the language’s literary elegance. As acquaintance with the language is clearly a prerequisite, it is no wonder that the Qur’an’s beauty did not resound in the minds of some western scholars. The assimilation of such beauty is hard to come by without familiarity with the genius of the Arabic language. The Muslim’s conception of the Qur’an’s sacredness also derives from the prescribed divine rules for listening to and reciting the revelation.

When one is in a setting where the Qur’an is read, one ought to listen to it with the utmost attention, which is a reaction that would possibly bring mercy (Qur’an 7:204). When one recites the Qur’an, one should do so in slow and measured rhythmic tones in order to ponder the words’ deep meaning (Qur’an 73:4). Probably nothing is more meticulously descriptive of the value of reciting the Qur’an than the name of the book itself “Qur’an” has the literal meaning of “recitation.” Seeking God’s blessings, Muslims show the utmost dedication to the art of Qur’anic recitation: which has persisted over time through tilawah and tajwid, the two prominent styles of recitation.

The divinely prescribed manners of listening and reciting the Qur’an transcend through several surahs into the glorification of reading and writing and the love of knowledge that such activities entail. This emphasis shows clearly from the very first revelation: “Proclaim (or Read) in the name of the Lord and Cherisher” (Qur’an 96:l). Another surah symbolized the revelation with the pen and the record: “Nun. By the pen and by the (record) which (men) write” (Qur’an 68: 1).

The divine message delivered through the Prophet in the form of a book laid the foundation for the high intellectual and emotional esteem in which the Qur’an has been held ever since. This attitude resulted in two major developments: writing the text of the Qur’an in a manner compatible with its sacred status and the love of knowledge and the propagation of books as the milieu of knowledge. Indeed, “the holiness of the Qur’an extended to lend a special aura to all forms of the written word, which thus became in essence the ‘sacred symbol.” This development, in particular, concerns us here, for it had a direct effect on applying the sacred qualities of the book to the sacred qualities of mosque surfaces.

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