Islamic Art History: Calligraphy, the art of writing as a means of expression for Muslims

Lecture in Nov.8, discusses the development of Islamic art from its inception till modern times and its impact on world history and culture. Game and dinner offers after the lecture. (Photo by Congyang An/The Daily Campus)

On Thursday Nov. 8, the Muslim Students Association hosted their fall dinner at Wilbur Cross Reading Room. The event featured guest speaker Rasha Ahmed, a University of Connecticut alumni who is now an economics professor at Trinity College.

Ahmed focused the beginning of her talk with the idea of art being haram, or Islamically prohibited. She explained her ideas through history.

Islamic art originated in the seventh century as work produced by people who lived in Muslim lands. Before these lands were dominated by the Islamic faith, Arabs worshipped idols. After the revelation of the Quran, the ideas of Allah (God) being the only creator took over the principles of art and creation. From then on, the rules of Islamic art, which is heavily dominated by religious calligraphy and Arab-looking patterns, did not call for animate objects in art. The idea behind this was to prevent the previously idol-worshipping people from seeing other people as creators. All of this history and conflict bring up the religious validity of Islamic art. Ahmed, of course, believes art is an essential part of Islam.

“There is a hadith [quote from Prophet Mohammed] that says, ‘Allah is beautiful and loves beauty,’” Ahmed said, “There is nothing wrong in using art or using it as a means of expression.”

She then explained how changing times have helped Islamic art modernize and adapt to changes in society. Her biggest focus was the idea of cultural globalization: How the mixing of different cultures creates new experiences, allowing Islamic art to modernize and stray from the rules in the secular realm while maintaining its religious roots. This modernization began under Turkish and Mughal rule, when Islamic artists began to explore the use of bold colors and explicit representation.

“Art is beautiful and it is okay for Muslims to be influenced and for Muslims to influence others and it is okay for Islamic art to move on and take new expressions,” Ahmed said.

While there has been a variety of calligraphy styles in Islamic art (linear Kufi, cursive Diwani, etc.), contemporary Islamic art is fluid. Experiments with different colors and textures focuses more on the visual aesthetics, all while targeting different social issues in the Muslim community.

Ahmed touched on the current political climate and how Islamic art helps Muslims face stereotypes. She explained how many Muslim countries are in conflict, which can inhibit creative intuition. Ahmed focused on art as a unifying factor for Muslims and beyond, as something that Muslims should use to reach out to people.

“I think art provides a very powerful message of connecting people as human beings,” Ahmed said.

“Islam appreciates different forms of art and art unites different cultures,” Sawera Hussan, a fifth-semester political science and human rights double major, said.

After the event, during a short one-on-one, Ahmed explained how Islamic art has made an impact on her life.

“You go through stages of life where you question the meaning in the value of what you do...I wanted to do something meaningful in my life that serves the means for me to express my identity, to express things around me that I could not process and completely understand.” Ahmed said we are in, “a period of time where we cannot turn a blind eye to the refugee crisis with all the new immigrants coming into the United States into a completely foreign culture...they need a lot of help to adjust and adapt and they need help advocating for themselves as well, so that's why it was a turning point in my life.”

Students that attended the event had similar personal experiences with Islamic art, especially Anam Qureshi, a seventh-semester electrical engineering major.

“Islamic art is something that hasn’t been explored that much. It should be incorporated more. For me, it’s personal. I think it drew me closer to Islam. It was so pretty that I got interested,” Qureshi said. She explained how her mother’s interest in Islamic art impacted her as she grew up.

Art as a force of unity is one that can be appreciated across all cultures. Islamic art is stunning and takes on amazing forms, like the designs on the white marble of the Taj Mahal, to the Islamic art of modern times that helps unite the Muslim community and remind people why art heals.


Armana Islam is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at armana.islam@uconn.edu.