Illustration: Silk brocade design, 13th or 14th century.
Arabic script seems to lend itself perfectly to a decorative format, more so than perhaps other world scripts. It has been used very effectively as an integral part of a decorative framework, but also as a singular motif, an abstracted form of decoration whereby the script is used in its entirety without any other partner, such as pattern or architectural detail. Although other cultures have used their own form of script within a decorative format, they perhaps have not been as successful as that of Arabic and certainly not as clearly identified with the culture as has this particular script with Islam.
One of the common misrepresentations of Islamic culture and through that its decoration, is the one whereby it is said that Islam forbids human specifically, or indeed representation in any form. While this is true in a religious format, iconography being firmly frowned on, representation outside of a religious context has often been used, whether that be in architecture, painting, textiles, wood, metal, glass or ceramic. It was a common mistake of the Victorians who firmly believed that pattern and script were commonly used in both religious and non-religious work because of the strict rule regarding non-representation. Therefore, many of those who produced publications dealing with Islamic culture were keen to stress the tight restraints that Islamic designers had to work under. Owen Jones often stressed that Islamic designers and decorators had had to find a specific route towards decoration because of the restraints of Islam.
Illustration: Decoration from Mohammad ben Qalaoun Mosque.
Although decoration within the Islamic culture has much more variety and depth than perhaps we are often led to believe, the religious aspect of life always has a tendency to bleed into the secular and therefore there has been a tendency in Islamic decoration to at least limit the amount of representational figurative work portrayed, particularly when concerned with human imagery. It could easily be assumed that in many respects these rules, whether strictly or lightly enforced, would hamper the decorative life of the Islamic culture, but in many respects it has both broadened and invigorated the decorative arts, taking abstract pattern and calligraphy to new heights of sophistication.
The few examples shown in this article give a broad spectrum of the way that calligraphy for example was used in decoration. Architectural examples are shown in the main whereby Arabic calligraphy has been integrated, mainly through panels, into architectural details. In many respects the calligraphy examples sit within the context of surrounding panels of geometrically sourced pattern work, or they balance the pattern work by forming borders for example. The same is true of the textile example which is the first illustration shown. In fact there seems very little obvious differences between the architectural and textile examples giving an indication that decoration in the Islamic world tends towards, if not a universality then at least an element of integrated diversity and creative adaptability that is at home across most disciplines.
Illustration: Various Arabic script decorative panels from Sicily.
Although to some extent Arabic calligraphy in the context of decoration has been stylised, sometimes to such an extent that perhaps it is not immediately recognisable, this does not deny the fact that the script itself lends itself to be seen as a decorative format in its own right. The flowing curved lines that are so much a part of written Arabic have none of the severe angularity of the Latin script for example, on which most modern European alphabets are based. Although the Latin alphabet has been used extensively within a decorative format, particularly in architecture, it very often has to stand alone and is rarely integrated into pattern as effectively as Arabic.
Illustrtation: Decorative panel from a Cairo Mosque.
Interestingly, and perhaps unintentionally tying in with the idea of Arabic script as a natural decorative format, when Islamic decoration was commonly copied and reused by largely Christian populations in medieval Europe, the integrated Arabic script was also reused and reinterpreted. Many in Europe could not speak or read Arabic; this became more so the further north you travelled from North Africa, Spain and the Mediterranean. Where Arabic was not a common language there was no real incentive to interpret panels of Arabic calligraphy as literal. Therefore, many interesting decorative developments of Arabic were used in Europe, interpreting the script as either nonsensical squiggles, or more cunningly as another form of Islamic abstract pattern work. This was used fairly extensively within a textile format as Islamic textiles were particularly sought after in medieval Europe and were often a form of status and wealth. Where originals could not be procured, copies were used instead, and this is often where the Arabic script either got confused, misinterpreted or creatively re-imagined.
Whether Arabic script was used as in a religious format, a secular one, part of a decorative partnership with pattern, or on its own, it served the real purpose of integrating a written language into decoration. This has never been a particularly easy format to master and many cultures have found difficulty in producing an effective working structure that can be used as universally as Arabic script has. That Islam makes it appear deceptively easy is perhaps part of the charm of the script itself and certainly of the many generations of decorative artists that have worked in stone, metal, glass, ceramic, wood and textiles to produce this lasting and easily identified cultural format that works right across the Islamic world and in many ways acts as a unifying identity for the entire culture.
Illustration: Decorative panel.
This is not to say that if Arabic script had had an entirely different format it would not still, because of some of the religious strictures of Islam, have been used just as widely in decoration as the present form of Arabic. However, the unique form of Arabic script has lent itself to a decorative interpretation that has been influenced by its often organic-seeming structure and this must surely have influenced its intentional integration into Islamic decoration and allowed it to flourish as an easy and harmonious partner to pattern and decoration.
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