The Global Congress World's Religions Proceedings 1980-1982 Edited by Henry O. Thompson

VI. God in Visual Aesthetic Expression -- A Comparative Study in Transcendence Symbolization by Lois Ibsen al Faruqi

An initial version of this paper was presented at the conference sponsored by New ERA, entitled "God: The Contemporary Discussion," Maui, Hawaii, December, 1981.

Humans, regardless of race, geographic and climatic environment, or source of economic wealth, have been fascinated by the questions dealing with their existence and its purpose in the on-going stream of life in the universe. Every people, in striving to understand the human situation and how it arose, have sought an explanation for human life. They have attempted to determine an overall structure and direction for life's processes and an understanding of its determining force or forces. They have asked such questions as: Is there an Ultimate Reality which created an and nature? If so, what is the nature of that Ultimate Reality or God? What is the divine plan or will for creation?1

There are many ways in which a culture may set down or transmit its religious message. It may do so conceptually through its religious and philosophical treatises, and even through its oral or written literature -- its myths, drama, poetry and prose. It may also transmit its religious message cultically i.e., through its religious rites and practices. The transmission may also be societal, i.e. through the creation of customs and institutions governing the political, social and economic lives of the people. A fourth way of translating a culture's god-view is through an aesthetic dimension, i.e., by the art works its people produce. It is to that aesthetic translation of the message that we direct ourselves in this paper.

Every culture's description of the Transcendent or God is special and unique, and it is matched to the space and time environment in which it grew. Ideas regarding the world and mankind, which derive as spin-offs from the central notion of Ultimate Reality, present additional facets of a particular and detailed notion of the culture's conception of reality. It is because of the uniqueness of the complex of these basic premises that all aspects of a civilization take on a special hue which is unique in relation to that of any other culture of people. Its religion, its philosophy; its political, social and economic institutions; its arts, and even its natural sciences and mathematical contributions are determined by that religious and ideational complex.2

In an artistic presentation of a religiously significant message, content is expressed through sensory means rather than through conceptual, cultic or social data. This artistic reinforcement of the message has come to be known as "symbolic expression," since it is a sensory representation of something not immediately evidenced to the senses. But this is not the only meaning of "symbolism." The term is also used in a much more limited and specific way, i.e., implying the utilization of a sensory image or figure to arouse in the mind of the spectator a remembrance or an intuition of another object, living creature, event or idea which is conventionally associated in the relevant culture with that particular image. Symbolism is under this second definition, a substitution of an abbreviated statement or "clue" for the wider and deeper meaning behind the visual symbol. Thus the term carries both a general meaning which seems to include all art as in some way expressive of deep meanings, and a narrower meaning which designated it as only one aspect of the iconography of art, that pertaining to the identification of particular figures.

This double meaning of the term "symbolism" has caused a good deal of confusion and requires clarification. For this purpose, we will attempt to describe three levels of message carrying or symbolism which pertain to the arts in their role of expressing ideas about God or Ultimate Reality. One of the three levels of symbolic expression is that which is found in the subject matter or "surface content" of the work. This includes the particular person, object or scene portrayed which has significance in the traditions of the culture in question, e.g., the Nativity or Crucifixion scene in Christianity or the Enlightenment of the Buddha in Buddhist culture. This we shall call the explicit content of a work of art. Secondly, we would posit another content level, one which is synonymous with symbolism in the narrower sense. Included in this category are all those literal symbols or signs used in the art works of various cultures which are loaded with meanings for the initiated viewer -- e.g., the stupa, the mandala, the cross, the menorah. This we shall call symbolic content since it fulfills the more conventional meaning of the term "symbolism." There is still another level of expression which lies behind the subject matter or explicit content and behind the literal symbolism or symbolic content. We will label this third category of expression implicit content. This level includes all those aesthetically significant means for combining the materials of the first and second levels. It involves features of both structure and style which help reveal in much more subtle ways the deep premises of world-view and god-view of the culture.

Our next task is to try to discover how these three levels or kinds of "symbolic" statement (here the term is used in its wider sense) apply by investigating how artists of specific belief systems have translated their ideologies into aesthetic products. Examples will be drawn from the art traditions of Hinduism and Islam. These are only two out of a great number of religious cultures which could be investigated for analogous materials, but they will clarify and test the hypothesis that art reveals various levels of content or symbolic statement.

Transcendence Symbolization in Hindu Art

The God-View

Probably the leading motif of religious thought in Hindu culture is the idea that Ultimate Reality partakes of an inseparable unity with all existence. The Brahman Atman, as the Hindus refer to the Absolute, is the unknowable, indescribable, unlimited divine Power which pervades and is Cause of all creation and action, whether divine, demonic or human. This Absolute is above all gods, as well as above animate and inanimate creation; yet everything from top to bottom of the hierarchy of existence partakes of and is related integrally to this Brahman Atman or World Soul. Therefore every aspect of nature, beautiful or ugly, is a manifestation of the Absolute.

God, for the Hindu, encompasses all. He is considered to include both good and evil, to have both abstract and incarnate forms. Since life in this world is but an extension of the Absolute, existence also evidences a plethora of often conflicting characteristics, of dual tensions and forces: good and evil, light and darkness, night and day, male and female, pleasure and pain, birth and death, active and passive, subject and object, body and soul. The most crucial dichotomy is of course that of the transient created world of maya and the eternal spiritual world of the Brahman Atman.

There is also an individual soul or atman which longs for union with World Soul, from which it was created. It is only with the return to its Source that the individual soul can achieve release from the otherwise endless human miseries, deaths and rebirths. Only in this way can the individual overcome the karma ("action"), or earned destiny from previous lives, which holds it captive.

The escape from the power of karma and the endless rebirths through which the human soul, as well as all creation suffers, is known as moksha (lit., "set free"). According to the Hindus, it can be achieved through ritual observance, good works, right thinking and contemplation.3 Members of the faith have regarded art as an important and legitimate aid for the right thinking and contemplation that led to moksha. For the Hindu, therefore, art is not mere entertainment, but a way of helping him/her understand the nature of reality and of his true relationship to that reality.

The Artistic Expression of the God-View

A. Explicit Content

Since the Hindus believe that Ultimate Reality imparts its essence into every, even the lowest strata and manifestations of existence, all earthly creatures and objects have been considered proper motifs or subject matter for the art of Hindu culture. Vegetation, animals, humans, demons, gods and goddesses have all been represented. Three categories of subject matter, however, are outstanding for their frequency and importance in Hindu aesthetic expression.

The first category includes all those supernatural beings which have played a role in the religious and cultural life of the Hindus, These include the three aspects of the Brahman Atman -- that is, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, as well as a host of deities of popular Hinduism -- e.g., Ganesha (the elephant god, son of Shiva), Kali (goddess of destruction, and consort of Shiva), and Krishna (the tenth avatar or incarnation of Vishnu), to name but a few. The supreme God of the Hindus, the Brahman Atman, is strictly speaking abstract and neuter; but it is believed that He can be conceived of in such form only by the spiritually gifted or those particularly capable of abstract thought. The masses, it has been felt, need more personal, recognizable deities with known forms and sentiments.4 All supernatural beings are regarded as representations of incarnations (avatars) of the ultimate Deity of Hinduism. Practically every important aspect of the Supreme Being therefore has been personified and given a form from nature which the Hindu associates with it. And practically every phenomenon in nature has in a sense been apotheosized. There are three river goddesses for the major waterways of the Indian subcontinent. There are yakshas, genii representing the forces of the soil as well as jewels and precious metals. There are nagas, serpent kings and queens associated with the lakes, ponds, rivers and oceans. The second category of explicit content in Hindu art comprises all those personages and events of the epic literature -- particularly the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These works were written and rewritten an unknown number of times between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D. and have been influential on religion and art since that time. These myths depicting the deeds of humans and gods are frequently drawn upon for religiously significant artistic subject matter.

A third type of explicit content is the mithuna or erotic art which is so prevalent in Hindu aesthetic production. This includes all those figures, usually as couples in human form, which represent the longing of the human soul for union with the World Soul. Sexual union between human or divine couples became the subject matter of a vast number of statues and reliefs in Hindu art.5 Hindus regard the act of love as representing the combination of opposites in existence. Since it implies, as well, the mystical union with divinity, it has been regarded by the Hindus as a legitimate subject matter for religious art.

B. Symbolic Content

Used in its limited or literal sense, symbolism is a particularly rich content level in Hindu culture. Figurizations of earthly beings and objects used by the Hindu artists are exhaustive in their variety. These are never mere representation of particular creatures or objects. They are at the same time symbols of other entities farther up on the hierarchical scale of existence, or even of the abstract powers, emotions and ideas related to the underlying belief system. As must already be apparent, the gods and goddesses, the characters of the epic stories and the erotic figures are not only significant as subject matter for Hindu art (i.e., as explicit content); but they also play an important role as literal symbols of other ideas and/or figures rooted deeply in the culture and religious traditions (i.e., as examples of symbolic content). Other important examples of literal symbols expressive of Hinduism are described below.

1. Symbols Associated with the Representation of Gods and Goddesses

a. Anthropomorphic Figures

Each god or goddess has a particular and recognizable anthropomorphic form as well as attributes, clothing, weapons, vehicles, etc. that are associated with him/her. Vishnu, for example, has been represented with four arms bearing the conch shell (an iconography which ties him ideologically with the primeval aqueous situation and the act of creation), a sun disk (Vishnu being originally a sun god), the lotus (the floral symbol of creation and rejuvenation), and a mace (for power). He has also been commonly represented by his avatar Krishna, the blue-skinned, playful god of popular Hinduism. Shiva, too, is represented in many ways -- for example, as God of Dread and Terror (in his Bhairava aspect), as the Destroyer, as the half-male, half-female god, as the Lord of the Dance. In each of his manifestations, he is associated with a particular set of attributes and objects which identify his different roles. In statues of him as Lord of the Dance, Shiva's movements are regarded as symbolic of all movement within the universe, of both creation and destruction. Represented in these works in anthropomorphic form, he possesses four arms to show his diverse capabilities and powers. An arch of fire symbolizing the whole of creation circles the figure of the god.

Shiva's upper right hand beats a drum, thus symbolizing the rhythm of time, or the first beat of creation. A flame in his upper left hand represents the holy sacrificial fire or sometimes the fire of destruction. The lower right hand presents the abhaya mudra or gesture promising protection, while the lower left hand points downward to draw attention to the god's uplifted foot. Lifted in a circular movement around the body, the position of this foot is itself, in its uplifting buoyancy, a symbolization of the soul's longing for moksha. Under the other foot, the demon of darkness and ignorance is crushed. Thus every part of the body, every movement and every accompanying object, carries a literally symbolic content, in addition to the figure's explicit content as representation of the god.

Kali, one of the consorts of Shiva, is symbolized as a destructive power. A black anthropomorphic figure of terrifying aspect, she carries weapons in her four arms. A garland of skulls hangs ominously around her neck. Though these and other Hindu deities have generally been represented anthropomorphically combination figures are not uncommon (e.g., a god who is half-elephant and half-child, a god with four heads).

b. Animal Figures

Snakes are probably the most frequently used symbolic animal in the arts of the Hindus. This is not to be explained simply by their physical prevalence in the Indian subcontinent, but rather by the regeneration and recreation ideas which the cyclical sloughing of their skin symbolizes. They present in Indian art and mythology a representation of endless time as well as of continual rebirth, and are therefore prominent in the representations of both Vishnu and Shiva, many other animals accompany or serve as symbolic stand-ins for particular gods or goddesses, e.g., the nandin or bull for Shiva, the wild goose for Brahma, the boar for Vishnu, the alligator for Parvati, and the peacock for Kumara.

c. Objects

The erect phallus or linga ("sign") has been an important symbol in Hinduism and has been associated particularly with Shiva worship. It is frequently found in the art works of the Hindus. In one sense, it symbolizes the god himself. Secondly, it provides visual representation of that ever re-creating world process which is a premise of the Hindu religion. With still another interpretation and significance, it represents the abstract and neuter core or axis (the Brahman Atman) around which everything in existence gravitates -- of which the god Shiva is itself a symbol.

2. Other Symbols

a. Lotus

Since the lotus has a strong capacity for beauty, despite its growth in an environment of mud and dirty water, it is considered a fitting symbol for the pain and suffering of human existence as described by the Hindus. Another interpretation of the lotus motif is that it stands for creation and rejuvenation of life. Both symbolic messages make this flower a fitting motif in Hindu culture.

b. Shells

The conch shell, with its characteristic sound, symbolizes for the Hindu the watery state out of which all creation was born. It is thought to represent the primeval sound of that act of creation, and therefore is religiously and artistically associated with Vishnu, the god of creation. It like many other symbols in Hindu art carries a multiple content -- one which is linked to a particular deity, another which relates to a much wider concept in the religious tradition.

c. Kalasha

This object, which so often tops the pinnacle of a Hindu temple, has the shape of a waterpot. It is symbolic of the never-ending outpouring of the World Soul or Brahman Atman in the creative act, and is therefore an abbreviated sign for the monistic ideology of the Hindus.

d. Amalaka

The amalaka ("stainless") is a round stone disk or ribbed cushion which often tops the pinnacle of a Hindu temple. This form is placed horizontally to emphasize the distinction between the spiritual world and that of material existence. Symbolically represented in the amalaka, the spiritual world hovers over the various states of life represented in the decoration of the temple below.

e. World Mountain

The Hindu temple is itself a symbolic representation of the basic premises of Hindu belief. Not only is the structure decorated with numerous statues and reliefs which portray its gods and goddesses (i.e., explicit content); the building also represents literal symbolism of Hindu religious beliefs. The temple is related to the idea of the world mountain known in the Hindu religious tradition. Like the mountain, it has no front or back and little sense of specific orientation. All four sides usually have either real or imitation entrances which give the whole a sense of outpouring from the central core, just as the God, the Source of all creation, pours out in an unceasing creative flow. It is often pierced by a central shaft or core which provides another visual emphasis to this symbolism. The temple is thus not only a center for the religion of the Hindu devotee in a physical and cultic sense, but that centrality is also emphasized in a literally symbolic way.

f. Dual Forces

The iconography of the Hindu arts reveals constant use of symbols for the dual forces which exist in nature and are also attributed to the Brahman Atman Who comprises and exhausts all being. The tension and interplay of opposites can be found in the statue of a god or goddess which portrays the deity as holding the powers or instruments of both creation and destruction. Another instance of aesthetic representation of opposing forces appears in those depictions of Shiva in which the god appears divided, from top to bottom, into two halves, the one completely male in physical features and dress, the other unmistakably female. The sexual opposition of the mithuna art, which was treated above as a category of explicit content or subject matter, is another important way in which the arts have symbolized this Hindu idea of dual forces.

C. Implicit Content

Probably the two most central ideas of Hinduism are 1) that of the Unity or Centrality of all existence; and 2) the illusionary realm of Maya, the Manifold Existence. Characteristics of the arts which provide aesthetic implicit translation of these ideas will be pointed out in the following pages.

As was evident in the foregoing sections, it was difficult to separate the examples of explicit content (subject matter) from symbolic content (or literal symbolism) in Hindu art, since the whole aesthetic vocabulary and message concerning the religious beliefs is so tightly bound to symbolism in its literal sense, implicit content is no less difficult to isolate. In defining the ways in which message-carrying is achieved through purely aesthetic means, therefore, reference will frequently be made to examples of symbolic content, with which implicit content of Hindu art is integrally related. The reader should take this as a further indication of the nature of things in Hindu culture, rather than as a hindrance to a clarification of the materials. Here the emphasis will be on the more subtle ways in which their religious ideas have been determining of the arts of the Hindus.

1. Unity or Centrality

Given the importance of the idea of the unity of all existence and of the Brahman Atman as source of creation in all its ugly as well as beautiful manifestations, we should expect that the Hindus would have expressed this idea in many ways. Of course, it is explicitly referred to in the subject matter of much Hindu art. In addition, we have cited examples of its literally symbolic expression: e.g., in the phallic symbol, in the kalasha waterpot, and in the temple as world mountain. These are specific visual figures which have been culturally designated as representative of the idea that Brahman Atman is the source and core of all existence. Now let us consider the more subtle means of style and structure through which the Hindu aesthetic elements have given representation of this religious idea. These provide evidence of the implicit content of the art.

a. In Architecture

The temple is itself a subtle portrayal of this Hindu belief about the nature of divinity. Both in structure and program for decoration, both aesthetically and functionally, it is stabilized by a central core. At the top of the temple, a protruding finial often provides a visual impression of the core passing through the body of the building, just as the prevailing essence of Brahman Atman permeates all existence. At the center of the main temple building there is a chamber known as the womb chamber or garbha griha, where the statue or symbol of the main deity of the temple resides. From this central holy of holies, the spiritual power of the deity radiates in all directions just as the Brahman Atman spreads out to all existence. Floor plans as well as decoration of the temples convey a sense of outward spread. Reliefs closet to the garbha griha are those of the higher ranking deities, while those near the outside are the more earthly figures. The pilgrim makes physical progress on the road to reunion with his god, and relief from the cycle of transmigrations, as he moves toward the central image where he experiences the supreme religious experience in viewing and paying homage to his god.

b. In Sculpture

Whether created as free standing or relief work, much of the sculpture of Hindu culture is as implicitly expressive of Hindu religious ideas as it is explicitly and symbolically representative of them. In fact, sculpture has been regarded as the "supreme" medium for recording transcendent values.5A The image or relief is an instrument or tool to remind the devotee of the god, to help him reach moksha. In pursuance of this goal, bodies depicted in Hindu sculpture appear to predicate a center or inner point (bindu) around which they revolve. This spiral or rotary movement is found in the embracing bodies of mithuna couples, in male or female figures entwined with vegetal (notably tree and vine) or animal (especially snake)figures. It is even seen in many individual human figures of free standing or relief carving which seem to twist around an inner vertical axis. We have mentioned earlier that the statues of Shiva as Lord of the Dance are perhaps the quintessence of the visual arts of the Hindus. Their conformance to this impression of spiral movement adds implicit content to their explicit and symbolic modes of expression.

The implicit expression of the Hindu idea of unity concerns not only the centripetal movement arising from the longing for reunion with the World Soul; it is equally the centrifugal or outpouring creation from the One. In many pieces of sculpture, therefore, figures seem to emerge from the stone of their background as though they were thrust forward along the swirls of a cornucopia. Using another analogy, they appear as bubbles rising out of the depths of a pool of water. In both cases, they give to the viewer an impression that they are temporary ephemeral emanations from an abiding mater to which they will return. Figures often look as though they were being drawn or pulled out from the stone, or from the background of a painting, just as maya existence was drawn out in the creation process from the World Soul.

2. Maya, the Manifold Existence

Life or Existence, with all its lower and higher strata, is thought by the Hindu to be the illusionary realm of maya ("illusion"). It is unimportant and ephemeral in comparison to the reality of the Brahman Atman. Only when humans learn the unreal nature of maya and the truth of its opposite, the World Soul, can they be released from their instinctive appetites and desires. It is only then that they can escape the false gods of worldly cares. It is only then that they achieve perfect peace and fulfillment in moksha..

This idea is reinforced in the implicit content of Hindu art by at least four stylistic and structural characteristics: a) seething movement and life; b) stylization; c) stratification; and d) buoyancy or flight.

a. Seething Movement and Life

The exterior of a Hindu temple reveals a maze of sculpture and decorative detail. Figures of plants, animals, humans and supernatural beings cover the sides of these structures, giving implicit expression to the idea of the manifoldness of existence. The temple facades, in fact, seem to throb with life and activity. This aesthetic expression of maya quality is more apparent on the exterior of the building, in contrast to the inner shrine and "home" of the god at the core of the building. With each movement inward toward the central or core chamber in which the image of the god resides, the program of decoration recedes from its earthly iconography to a progressively more spiritual one, leaving behind illusory and ever-changing life in order to concentrate instead on the unifying Principle or Force behind all existence.

Relief sculpture and individual statues are no less indicative of this implicit content of the notion of maya, or manifold existence. Individual figures give the impression that all life and all creation are in a constant flow of relentless evolution and involution. They convey a feeling of bodily action, of mobility, of "throbbing" and even violent motion. Zimmer speaks of a "growing or expanding form" in the artistic figures of the Hindus.6 Nothing is static, nothing abiding. Only the relentless flow of the process of birth, growth, decay and death remains. This is true for the individual as well as for the universe.7 Reliefs therefore even depict events in process of happening (e.g., the colossal Shiva from Parel, near Bombay, in which many figures grow out of the central lowest one; "The Descent of the Ganges," a seventh century rock-cut relief at Mamallapuram.)

b. Stylization

The visual arts of Hindu culture have also sought to implicitly express the idea of maya through stylization. Since this life has only a pseudo-reality, naturalism is of little importance in Hindu art. For the Hindu, reality resides not in the earthly shape or form of the object or creature itself, but in its relation to some aspect of the Transcendent. Sheer imitation of nature, therefore, has held little attraction for the Hindu artist or the Hindu viewer. Stylization of the characters, objects and events of this illusory and ever-changing life de-emphasizes the importance in order that the viewer may concentrate instead on that unifying principle behind all existence. Natural objects are bent and molded and even distorted in order to convey this religio-cultural message. Scenes and figures are important for their implicit message rather than for their depiction of nature. One might say that the Hindu views events and creatures of this world as mere puppetry which he or she looks down upon from all angles as a giant surveying a Lilliputian world. As artist or viewer, he/she sees through it, recognizes its transient quality and its pretence of actuality. Multiple perspective and a lack of concern for naturalistic depth are apt ways by which to imply the content of the Hindu religious beliefs.

Composition or arrangement of sculptured figures has also carried this demand for focus on the spiritual rather than the material, for stylization rather than naturalism. Sometimes with color, sometimes with vegetation, sometimes with architectural compartments, the artist encloses his figures in receptacles which set them apart from the ordinary world. The iconographic message rather than naturalistic representation is the goal of the sculptor or painter. Human bodies are disjunctly conceived, each part seeming to perform its symbolic function, rather than contributing to a naturalistic whole.

Since humans are part of this maya pseudo-reality, since each person is but one instance of the myriad manifestations of the Absolute in this illusory existence, individuality is of little import. Each player in the scenes of Hindu art therefore plays his role behind a mask and relies upon the viewers to understand the deeper truths conveyed in the art work.8

c. Stratification

Life presents to the Hindu a series of strata. Each soul starts its round of existence in a given station. The inexorable law of karma dictates that each man's thoughts, words and deeds -- his "actions" -- will determine his future in this life. It also determines his fate in future lives as he seeks to come closer to his goal of reunion of his individual soul with the World Soul. The Hindu devotee is constantly striving to move upward through this hierarchy, as he/she becomes perfected in the perception of Ultimate Reality.

This stratified progress toward moksha is implicitly expressed in a number of ways in Hindu art. It is implied in the tier upon tier of decorative sculpture and porticos as the eyes are drawn toward the crown of a temple structure. Inside the building there is a similar aesthetic portrayal of movement toward a goal. We have already mentioned the progressive stages of the floor plan and iconography leading from the maya-like exterior to the central image chamber. Even a single sculptured relief will often be composed of a number of horizontal bands, stratifying the figures within the scenes as all creatures are stratified within the world of maya. Some of the creatures in the lower strata seem almost crushed beneath the burdens above them, a reflection of the situation of the lower strata in real existence.

d. Buoyancy or Flight

There is a lightness or buoyancy depicted in many of the figures of Hindu art which is too common to be accidental or meaningless. Perhaps it too should be interpreted as an example of implicit content in the arts, in this case expressing that basic religio-cultural belief in the leap to moksha. Figures seem to float or fly. Gods and goddesses are generally less weighty in appearance than earthly creatures, but even the latter often convey a feeling of lightness. Dancelike images soar, as though caught by the artist inflight. Their feet fail to touch ground. Seated figures seem suspended in air rather than resting solidly on their mounts or chairs.9

Transcendence Symbolization in Islamic Art

The God-View

Now let us turn to another of the world's religions and see how it has expressed its basic ideas about God through aesthetic means. The religious theme that has dominated Islamic being and thinking is that God is One and that He is an utterly transcendent Being, a Deity Who is completely other than anything in the world of nature. God or Allah is the Creator of all that lives or exists in the universe; yet He is never to be equated with anything in His creation, lest His transcendence and oneness be mitigated. He is thus a Being Who is all powerful, omniscient and utterly transcendent. Who participates in neither incarnation nor immanence. On the contrary, God, for the Muslim, remains forever the abstract, the unknowable, the all encompassing Power, dispensing His benevolence and justice in this life and the next to all peoples, in all places. His communication with man has taken the form of revelations sent to His prophets (e.g., Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad). In fact, God says in the Qur'an that He has sent messengers to all peoples of the world.10 But the uniform message of monotheism revealed to all the prophets was altered and distorted over the centuries. Subsequent purifying revelations were therefore necessary. The last of these, the revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century of the Christian era, came in the form of a "book" to be recorded verbatim. Islam teaches that this precise revelation in the very words of the Almighty -- the Quran -- obviated the need for future revelations of the mono theistic doctrine.

The monotheistic doctrine revealed by Allah to the Prophet Muhammad is known as tawhid (i.e., "the act or action of making one"). It is this religious theme which is the core of the religion of Islam and the cornerstone of Islamic culture. This notion of the utter transcendence of the one and only God has permeated and determined every aspect of Islamic life. It has certainly been a powerful factor in determining the nature of the Islamic arts.

The Artistic Expression of the God-View

A. Explicit Content -- An Abstract Art

Since God for the Muslim is an utterly and unfailingly transcendent and abstract deity, no being or object in nature is proper representative or descriptive symbol for Him.11 In consequence, Muslim art has never depicted Allah in anthropomorphic or zoomorphic form, and in fact, fosters a distaste for the association for the Divine with any figure from nature. All forms of religious image are emphatically rejected. The closest thing to a visual representation of God in Islamic art is His name, "Allah," rendered in beautiful calligraphy, or His words, i.e., lines from the Qur'an, carefully executed.

The Islamic doctrine of tawhid did not only deny the figural representation of God. It also affected the subject matter, i.e., the explicit content, of the Islamic arts in general. When the artist sought to create a work of beauty, he rejected figural representation. This tended to draw the attention of the viewer away from nature in order to contemplate and derive an intuition of the completely-other-than-this-world Ultimate Reality. This negative reaction to figural representation had its positive corollary It caused Muslim artists to explore the infinite possibilities for other subject materials which would be suitable in an abstract art. In this pursuit they developed a rich calligraphic art (probably the most important art form in Islamic culture), and a vast vocabulary of motifs. This motif vocabulary includes both abstract figures (calligraphy, as well as geometric and non-geometric shapes), as well as shapes from nature. The latter comprise denaturalized vegetal motifs (leaves, vines, flowers, fruits), lifeless objects from nature (cloud bands, water and waves, vases and pitchers, shields and emblems), and architectural components (arches, niches, pillars, etc.).12 The representation of living creatures (human or animal) plays but a minor role in the motif vocabulary of Islamic art. Figural representation of living creatures is never used in religiously significant objects or structures. Instead, it is found primarily in works for private use. These have not been given the popular support and esteem that a communal aesthetic conscience accords to that art which is unreservedly accepted.13

The neglect of figural representation cannot be explained as the result of a lack of artistic ability or inferior training, as some art historians have supposed. Nor is it a sign of primitiveness, or simply the result of prohibitions in the Qur'an, the hadith (anecdotes from the life of the Prophet Muhammad) or the shari'ah (Islamic law). In fact, there are no Quranic prohibitions against figural art. Those in the hadith and shari'th are themselves the result of a deeper religio-cultural aesthetic goal, rather than the cause of such a predilection in the arts. Much more determining of all these facts is the view of Ultimate Reality which the Muslims hold. Abstraction in the arts of the Islamic World is an indication through explicit content of the message of the peoples who produced that art. Instead of an accentuation of those characteristics of a God-immanent nature by which the Hindu sought to express Ultimate Reality, the Muslim chose his motifs and de-naturalized his subject matter beyond description, and that, as Creator God, He is completely other than His creation.

B. Symbolic Content

While the practice of investing visual symbols with specific meanings or associations is one of the most important features of Hindu art, it plays almost no role in Islamic artistic expression. Some scholars have suggested that this rejection of the use of the abbreviated, culturally significant conventions known as symbols is due to an abhorrence of idolatry which was inherited by the early Muslims from their Semitic forerunners. This argument might be applicable to the art used to produce a religiously significant item, but the truth is that the lack of symbolic expression (in the limited and literal sense of the term) extends to all aspects of art production in Islamic culture. Certainly, an additional explanation is necessary. This explanation can be derived from the Islamic doctrine of tawhid.

Since God is transcendent and not in any sense immanent in nature, no natural object can be "stand-in" for Him. No shape or body from nature can represent any aspect or characteristic nor any value of the Divine. In consequence, no symbol is suitable for representing value or ideas. Even the crescent, which is sometimes associated with Islam, plays no significant role as a symbol in Islamic art. It may be used as a shape for design purposes, but it carries no symbolic meaning for the Muslim viewer. It was only assigned such a role in the minds of the non-Muslims of Europe because of its association with the Ottoman Turks.

C. Implicit Content

Implicit content is the level of aesthetic translation of ideas which has been most affected by the religious idea of tawhid. Here we find the most significant and determinative characteristics of Islamic art. It is true that subject matter or what we have called explicit content has been crucially determined by the Islamic view of Ultimate Reality. But even there, the possibility is open for the use of motifs and subject matter of various kinds, so long as they are presented with an Islamically congruous treatment, so long as they are presented with an Islamic style and structure.

It is therefore not so much the subject matter or the motifs used which make a work of art Islamic rather than non-Islamic -- i.e., determined by tawhid rather than merely the creation of an artist who is a statistical Muslim. An understanding of this deeper and more subtle level of aesthetic symbolization is actually synonymous with an understanding of the structural and stylistic principles which govern the two-dimensional surface patterns on a building, fabric or plate, the three-dimensional architectural, the musical,14 and even the dance15 creations of the Muslim peoples. An understanding of the "Islamic" in art is not merely one of solving the question of what iconography, what motifs (i.e., what explicit and symbolic content) are used or favored. In addition -- and even more important -- is the need to discover in what ways the abstract and denaturalized motifs favored by the Muslims have been used, in what ways the explicit content materials are put together. It is the characteristics exemplifying these more subtle aspects of symbolic expression which in particular distinguish Islamic art from the art of any other tradition.

1. The Infinite Pattern

Islamic art involves the creation of "infinite patterns." Whether done in metal, in wood, in textiles, in bricks, in words, in sounds, in movements, or in three-dimensional architectural monuments, these works exhibit organizations which have no beginning or end. Just as name after name was created to describe the one and only God (Qur'an 59:22-24), so the artist painted, carved, wrote or sang one pattern, then another, and still another. Even the boundaries imposed on him by the edge of the design seem to be arbitrary interruptions of the pattern and never imply a finality of the succession of design elements. The very inconclusiveness of the design emphasizes the implicit aesthetic expression of the nature of Ultimate Reality which the Islamic art work suggests.

This should not lead us to imagine that the individual pattern itself or the complex of patterns to which it belongs, is a symbol, in the literal sense, of Divinity or of any aspect of Divinity. It is instead an aesthetic means to help the viewer intuit infinity, and thus elicit a deep and awe-inspiring notion of the transcendence of God. For this reason, the pattern is never given the status of holiness; it never becomes an idol or object of worship. Nothing in nature, not even the infinite pattern, can be equated with the Transcendent by the person possessed by the doctrine of tawhid. Islamic art thus allows the Muslim to remain true to the belief that God is the completely abstract, transcendent and infinite Being.

a. Divisions Rather than Overall Unity

The infinite patterns of Islamic art have further characteristics which reveal their relationship to the God-view and exemplify implicit content in their at. In order to achieve the impression of infinity, Islamic designs are structured to comprise a series of separable components. Each of these units or "modules," is independent and satisfying in itself, yet loosely combined with other units in some form of larger organization. The eye or ear can experience one. then another, and another in a series which has no more confining limits than the available time of the performer and listener, the ingenuity of the artist, or the boundaries of the design space.

The constituent parts of an Islamic work of art are not evolved, one after the other, in a seemingly inexorable chain simulating a growth-like, organic development. There is no single focal point to which all minor elements of the design draw attention and subordinate themselves. Instead of a single climax and decisive conclusion, an Islamic work of art utilizes divisions, symmetry and repetition to produce a series of aesthetic units. Islamic art, therefore, might be described as revealing a succession of mini-climaxes of comparable emphasis and importance rather than evidencing one major climax. Even the Islamic miniature painting has no central figure around which other elements of the picture are grouped. The architectural floor plan of an Islamic palace such as Alhambra in Spain or the Fatihpur Sikri in India reveals no single unity for attention or aesthetic focus. The viewer or participant therefore can begin to experience a work of Islamic art at any point in a two-dimensional design, at any verse of poetry or song, at any point within a building or architectural complex.

In its endeavor to express this open-ended structure, the Islamic work of art carries the participant viewer beyond the limits of the art work as the pattern is interrupted, before its completion, at the outer limits of the picture, carpet or wall. Not only is the imagination called upon to complete the shape of the medallion, of which only a quarter is shown at the corner of a rug; but the crenellations on the top of a building facade and the outward projections on the page of an illuminated Quranic manuscript demand that the imagination of the viewer continue beyond the physical limits of the work of art. Even rigid borders of a picture dome or minaret. These elements of the picture break through its borders in their effort to provide another hint of the implicit content of Islamic art. The art work thereby imparts to the viewer an intuition, though not a literal symbol, of that which is beyond sense, beyond knowledge -- in other words, God.

b. Successive Combination

The infinite patterns of Islamic art are not only implicitly expressive of the linear infinity which has been described above. They also evidence a kind of geometric infinity in the successive combinations of their many parts. The Islamic design is created, first of all, from a combination of abstract or stylized motifs, involving symmetry and repetitions, in order to form design modules or units. Any one of these modules evidences an autonomy and aesthetic satisfaction which allows the viewer to contemplate it as a separate and satisfying unit. If we analyze a work of Islamic art, we find that the module, as an entity, is also subjected to symmetrical and repetitive combination with other modules in order to create a still larger organization or "modular complex." Even this modular complex can be seen as basic unit for further successive combinations with other like or different unity. These result in larger, more elaborate multi-unit structures which continue until the edge of the plate, the frame of a picture, the sky above the facade or the outside extremities of a building physically arrest the pattern's successive combinations. Any "view" or portion taken from an imaginative Islamic design will be just one of the possible successive combinations of constituent elements which make up its pattern. Even that overall design itself gives the impression of being a "cut out" from a larger master design.

c. Intricate Movement

The designs of Islamic art move the eye, the ear, the mind with a proliferation of minute details. The tiny flowers traced with a single -- or double -- haired brush by the miniaturist, the intricate geometric designs of an inlaid table, the complicated floral patterns of a carved stucco facade, the melodic intricacies of a tasqasim musical performance -- all achieve their aesthetic results with small and intricate movements. These miniscule patterns catch the trained viewer or listener at any one of their many centers or points of aesthetic departure and draw him persistently to new areas. Up or down, in or out, to right or to left, or perhaps in several directions at once, the eye, the ear, or mind is caught up in the aesthetic movement of the infinite patterns.

d. Dafqah

As each infinite pattern is completed or understood, the spectator feels a launch of his spirit with this success, and he moves to a new division or successive combination of the pattern. The term dafqah has never to my knowledge been associated with the nonliterary arts, but its fittingness warrants it's being adopted to designate the mini-climaxes which punctuate any Islamic aesthetic organization or pattern.

Movement seems to increase as the spectator is caught up in the aesthetic activity and the many elements, units and combinations which make up the design are encountered. This increased momentum is produced in part through technical means. For example, the artist can increase the proximity, the complexity, the interrelation, as well as the actual number of his pattern components. Equally, the movement may be increased within the spectator himself. The eye and mind grasp the first module or unity of the design and experience its dafqah release. Then the spectator moves to another similar unity, or to a larger, more inclusive complex of modules and motifs. With each step in this process of moving from division to division, from combination to combination, the viewer becomes more proficient at design unity discovery in that work of art, thus enabling the rate of discovery and comprehension to increase in tempo. Even when the artist and viewer reach the extremity of the work of art, the imagination takes over to continue the creation of infinite patterns beyond the borders. The Muslim artist, of course, stops the execution of his pattern where the physical limits demand; but he always constructs that design and ends it in a way which hints of a continuation beyond.

No pattern is complete, no dafqah release overwhelming of all others. Thus the pattern, without being considered a symbol of the one God, or Allah, presents an implicit content which is unmistakably linked to the Islamic view of Ultimate Reality. It never represents God, for God is unrepresentable. Instead, it arouses an aesthetic activity within the spectator or listener which moves him through a series of beautiful visual or aural patterns until his imagination breaks down in the attempt to continue the design beyond its physical limits. In this incapacitation, an intuition of the infinity of the Absolute, of the indescribable nonnature-ness of God is grasped; and the infinite pattern of Islamic art has fulfilled its goal.

2. Denaturalization

Stylization, or the disguise of naturalism, is another aspect of the implicit content carried by the Islamic arts in their aesthetic expression of the notion of tawhid. This de-emphasis of naturalism is of three types: a) the stylization of figures; b) the transubstantiation of materials; and c) the "camouflage" of forms.

a. Stylization of Figures

Even when figures from nature were conscripted from the representational subject matter to serve as motifs for the abstract art of the Muslims, they were fitted into an aesthetic scheme consistent with the Muslim's religious convictions regarding transcendence. Whether dealing with human figures or those from the plant and animal world, artists felt no scruples about disturbing the naturalistic identity of a creature or object. Since the conscious or unconscious goal was to help members of the community achieve an intuition of the utterly non-nature, transcendent God, there was no need to be scientifically accurate in depicting a plant or rendering a leaf or flower in a way which reminds of its actual appearance in nature. An animal need not be portrayed as a living creature; instead, the body might be stylized, even distorted or used in a composite figure, in the creation of an infinite pattern.

Likewise, human figures, whether done in wood, ceramics, paint or metal, give little impression of representing real persons. Garments, revealing a wealth of decorative patterning, hide all evidence of the bodies underneath. There is a lack of articulation of body parts, and the gestures are for the most part stiff and unlifelike. These stylized figures seem to display an immobility even though their garments may be covered with the eye-catching movement of infinite patterns. Emotion in the faces of the human figures is rarely evident.16 Human attributes and emotions are not what the artist seeks to disclose, even when dealing with this atypical Islamic subject matter. Instead, the viewer is asked to turn his attention away from the mundane to contemplate a higher reality suggested by the tau>hid-determined infinite patterns. Depth and perspective further de-emphasize naturalism in the subject matter of explicit content of the Islamic arts. Figures may be placed higher on the page to show their greater distance from the viewer, but they rarely elicit an impression of naturalistic depth. Some elements in an illustration may be seen from one viewing point, others from another. A pool, with its swimming fishes, for example, may appear as seen from directly overhead, while the figures near it are drawn from the side. Such devices of denaturalization of depth and perspective in Islamic art may seem similar to those utilized by Hindu artists, but they stem from quite different religious commitments. In Islamic art they represent an attempt to aesthetically represent the idea of transcendence, the nonnature of Allah. In the Hindu tradition, they point to the illusionary quality of maya, into which Brahaman Atman pours his Being through creation, but which is only a vale of tears to be overcome by the release of moksha and reunion with the Brahman Atman.

The "Stylization" or "disguise of nature" suited to the Islamic arts goes beyond the denaturalization of figures from the human, animal and plant worlds. It also affects the aesthetic values of materials as part of the implicit content determined by the God-view of the Muslims.

b. Transubstantiation of Materials

In Islamic art there is no concern for creating an aesthetic impact by emphasizing the natural materials out of which the art object is made. For example, no attempt is made to impress the viewer of an architectural monument with the innate qualities of the building materials. We are never aesthetically confronted in Islamic architecture with "stoniness," "brickness," "woodness," or the properties of raw concrete. The preoccupation of the viewer is drawn to the intricacy of patterns to which the materials have been subjected rather than to the substances themselves. Materials are treated in ways that denaturalize or disguise their inherent, natural qualities. Marble panels, rather than emphasizing the innate characteristics of that hard stone, are so pierced in the execution of a pattern that they present a screen-like or lacey impression. The hardness of the marble is thus visually dissipated in an elaborate openwork design. Bricks are cut in such intricate shapes and sizes in order to create decorative veneers that they look more like mesh or weaving than bricks.

Decorative overlays of wood, ceramic, brick, carved stone and stucco have been widely used to transfigure the base construction material of buildings as well as that of many smaller pieces of Islamic art. This camouflaging ornamentation aesthetically negates the significance of the basic materials and thus assists in revealing the implicit content of Islamic art. Instead of impressing the viewer with nature, the infinite patterns created by the artist lead to an intuition of non-nature Transcendence.

As a corollary to this regard for pattern rather than material which is a hallmark of the Islamic arts, we find much less interest in the use of precious materials for artistic creation than in other traditions. Some of the most successful of Islamic art works have been created from quite humble materials. The base materials used in a building or in a small object are often of little value; yet they are treated to decorations of such intricacy and interest that the humble base is transfigured into a work of rare beauty. For the Muslim, the lowly cooking pot is just as suitable a medium for carrying an Islamic pattern as the golden urn. Every article in one's possession, every act of daily life, should remind of divine infinity and of the duties for which each individual is responsible as vicegerent of God.

c. "Camouflage of Forms"

Structural facts are also de-emphasized in an Islamic work of art as a result of the Muslim's rejection of nature as vehicle for the expression of tawhid. This Islamic form of denaturalization has been noted by numerous art historians, but it has not generally been related to the implicit representation of transcendence, as we wish to claim here. Whether in the creation of architectural monuments or of small religious and secular objects of beauty and utility, the Muslim has not been concerned with evidencing the structure of the art object. Instead, an overlay of decorative patterns disguises the mechanics of construction. This subordination of structural facts is another way of aesthetically negating the dominance of nature and instead giving expression to a preoccupation with a transcendent realm which is utterly nonnature.

This denaturalization device expressing implicit content is especially noticeable in architectural works, where the basics of structure are so crucial to the creation of the art work. Mass, gravity, apprehension of space or enclosure, awareness of overall structure -- these are all aspects of architectural aesthetics which are down-played or negated by the Muslim builder. Of course the architect of a building or complex understands the forces of mass and gravity and erects his mausoleum, mosque or palace in conformance with sound engineering principles and precise size restrictions. But the aesthetic goal is always to draw the attention of the viewer to contemplation of the abstract God rather than to an over-awe or over-concern with His creation.

The cut-out filigree of stone and plaster dematerializes the mass of a dome or vault and gives it the appearance of being suspended, weightless, on its supports. There are walls whose mass has been so dissipated with intricate designs that they seem to rest effortlessly on slender pillars, denying any impression of their weight or the forces of gravity inherent in them. Architectural stress points are never emphasized in the Islamic building. Neither are structural members given a feeling of aesthetic isolation. Decorative openings and veneers camouflage those construction facts so that the attention of the viewer can be focused on the intricacy of the infinite patterns rather than on the nature-based art of the engineer. Honeycomb-like decorations, rounded exterior corners, arched or filled-in interior wall junctures, and crenellated roof lines are other devices utilized or devised by the Muslim builders to soften and disguise the junctures of a building.

In furtherance of this "camouflage of forms," as it has been called.17 architectural space in an Islamic building never emphasizes the bounds of the enclosure. Of course, the Muslim architect is confined by his site and the functional needs of the building constructed; but within these limitations he seeks to create an aesthetic impression that space, like the Islamic two-dimensional design, is limitless. In an aisled hall a plan used so often for mosque architecture from the time of the Prophet Muhammad until today, the countless arches, pillars and aisles give the person standing in their midst a feeling of continuity in all directions -- a continuity which seems to have no bounds of enclosure, no limits to its three-dimensional aesthetic pattern. In the domed structure, another plan used frequently by Muslim builders, the central dome, the semi-domes, bubbling smaller exedrae and the proliferation of windows combine to aesthetically negate the physical limits of the enclosure. Courtyards, arcades and porticos ease the transitions between the enclosed rooms and the outside living spaces in what amounts to a virtual interpenetration of inner and outer space in Islamic buildings.

This camouflage of forms, which acts as an instance of Islamic implicit content, is evidenced also in those Islamic buildings with facades of such tremendous heights that they hide any notion of the volume or outline of the buildings behind. Even when inside a room of an Islamic building, there is little aesthetic awareness of the structure as a whole. Instead, one room is the object of perception, to the followed by that of another and another, as the visitor moves from chamber to chamber, or from one group of rooms to another within the structure. Only after experiencing each portion is there an after-the-fact, recollected awareness of the entirety of the architectural design. The aesthetic effect of experiencing a building is thus similar to that achieved in experiencing a two-dimensional pattern of abstract or stylized motifs arranged in design modules.

The external limits of the structure are likewise de-emphasized in an Islamic building as another means for dematerialrzing structures. Rather than being set off on a mountain or in a vast open space. Islamic buildings are so enmeshed with the surrounding structures that it is sometimes difficult to know where one building leaves off and another begins. This interpenetration results from an aesthetic demand in Islamic culture dictated by the doctrine of tawhid. It fulfills also the religiously determined goal of integration of the sacred and the secular in Islamic social life. No effort is made to set the mosque apart, for example, from the shops around it. Instead of an isolating separation, the goal of the town planners of Muslim cities has been one of integration and interpenetration of the various facets of community life.


The insights gained from a study of art works as revelatory of the religious beliefs of a culture are manifold. First of all, it is obvious that such a study provides a much deeper understanding of the art products than a mere description of the archaeological and historical data which can be learned about them, or the superficial detailing of their visual or sound characteristics.

Second, such a study provides a key to understanding the people and the culture which produced that art. Countless histories have been written about peoples of the past or of our own century. Each of these historical records carries not only information about the designated people, but also much that can be read between-the-lines -- and even in-the-lines -- about the interpreting author. The historian often distorts the picture he "paints" for us, but the art work of any people can never lie. The artistic "translation" is a more difficult message to penetrate, but is a considerably more reliable document for those who can "read" its message.

The third benefit of the interdisciplinary study of religions and the arts is probably the most important one. It is the contribution it makes to our understanding of ourselves. Having penetrated, on a foreign and neutral ground, the relationship between an art tradition and the beliefs that determine it, students of such studies are able to look at the art of their own traditions with "new eyes." They would have conditioned themselves to understanding art, not as an entertaining and expendable aspect of culture, but as an important message carrier and reinforcer of the dominant ideas of their own society. An aesthetic awareness would thus be created which would obviate such statements as -- "I don't know why I like (or dislike) this art." "I don't know what I like in art." "Art appreciation is all a matter of individual taste." A realization would result of the important changes in ideology that have spawned innovations in artistic style and content in the past, and that are just as surely occurring in our contemporary world. It is only with such awareness that an aesthetically conscious audience can evolve. Only then can our societies, or religious communities, our nations, our fellow humans effect a beneficial influence on the future direction of the arts. Given the educative and value-imparting functions of art, this cannot fail to be an important mission for the religiously, the socially and the politically conscious citizen of any part of our globe -- in our time, as well as in any future age.


1 "The structure of the human being is such that man cannot live his life or understand himself without some ultimate concern that he takes as the that-beyond-which-there-is-nothing of this world. This is indeed his god and the articulation of this life in terms of it is his religion" (W Herberg, "God and the Theologians", Encounter, November, 1963, quoted in David W Blam and James L. Henderson, Art and Belief (New York: Schocken Books, 1969, p. 137.

2 "For quite early, before he has begun to think abstractly, primitive man forms for himself a religious world-picture, and this is the object upon which the understanding begins to operate critically. Always science has grown up on a religion and under all the spiritual prepossessions of that religion..." (Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, tr. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Alfred Al Knopf, 1946, Vol. II., p. 13). See also Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. II. pp. 59, 383-384.

3 The for values to be pursued by Hindus are Ddharma, or the ritual conduct and virtues which have been assigned for each of the four different stages in the life of the devotee and for each class within society; 2) artha, or the acquisition of wealth and possessions; 3) kama, which includes all the emotional gratifications; and moksha (the highest value), which is the release from human cares and desires carrying spiritual and physical salvation from the birth/death cycle.

4 A Brahmanical text reads: "For the support of the devotee, Brahman is embodied in manifold murtis (images, icons)" (quoted in Radhakamal Mukerjee, The Cosmic Art of India: Symbol (Murti), Sentiment (Rasa) and Silence (Yoga) (Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Ltd., 1965), p.94).

5 The Hindu temple at Khajuraho is a striking example of a temple incorporating a proliferation of mithuna art. See Stella Kramriseh, The Hindu Temple (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1946), Vol. II, plates I-XXXV: Mulk Raj Anand and Stella Kramriseh. Homage to Khajuraho (Bombay: Marg Publications, 1960).

5A Mukerjee. The Cosmic Art of India, p. 3.

6 Heinrich Zimmer. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, ed. Joseph Campbell (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), p. 130.

7 Zimmer, Myths and Symbols, p. 131.

8 Stylization is not a characteristic unique to Hindu art. Just as there are instances of explicit content (for example, birth scenes and death scenes) and symbolic content (e.g., the halo, the lotus, the snake) which are used in different cultural contexts, elements of implicit content can be found to pertain to more than one culture. This does not negate the importance of their relevance in any one tradition. The interpretation of that characteristic, its emphasis and its combination with other aesthetic elements give it entirely different significance within different cultural complexes. It is not then the mere existence of an iconographic, stylistic or structural element that conveys unique information about the religious views of a particular people. Instead, it is the interpretation of that inclusion within a whole complex of contentual and formal period within any art tradition.

9 See, for example, the Flying Gandharva Couple on the Durga temple, Aihole, 6th century A.C.; the statue of Shiva Nataraja, Cave No. 21, Ellora, 7th century A.C.; The Descent of the Ganges, a rock-cut relief at Mamallapuram near Madras, mid-7th century A.C.

10 "To every people (was sent) an Apostle" (Qur'an 10:47). "For We assuredly sent amongst every People an apostle" (Qur'an 16:36).

11 "There is nothing whatever like unto Him" (Qur'an 42:11). "No senses can perceive Him" (Qur'an 6:103). "Praised be He. the Transcendent Who greatly transcends all claims and reports about him" (Qur'an 17:43).

12 See "Arabesque Decoration: The Motif Vocabulary," Chap. V in Lois L. al Faruqi, Islam and Art. manuscript currently being published.

13 Examples of figural representation are to be found in the 8th century desert palaces constructed for the Umawi rulers. They play a statistically minor role in architectural decoration of Islamic buildings, and an even lesser role when considered in relation to the Islamic arts as a whole. Another type of figural art found in Islamic culture is miniature painting. These book illustrations do not appear until six centuries after the birth of Islam. They have been appreciated more by Westerners than by the Muslims themselves.

14 See Lois Ibsen al Faruqi, "The Nature of the Musical Art of Islamic Culture: A Theoretical and Empirical Study of Arabian Music," Ph.D. dissertation (Syracuse University, 1974); "Muwashshah: A Vocal Form in Islamic Culture," Ethnomusicology, Vol. XIX, No. 1 (1975):l-29; "Ornamentation in Arabian Improvisational Music: A Study of Interrelatedness in the Arts," The World of Music, Vol. XX, No. 1 (1978):17-32.

15 See Lois Ibsen al Faruqi, "Dances of the Muslim Peoples," Dance Scope, Vol. XI, No. 1 (1976-77):43-51; "Dance as an Aesthetic Expression in Islamic Culture," Dance Research Journal. Vol. X, No. 2 (1978):6-13.

16 See Thomas W Arnold, Painting in Islam (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), p. 134, for that author's description of the battle scene depicted in an Islamic miniature painting.

17 Richard Ettinghausen, "The Character of Islamic Art," The Arab Heritage, ed. Nabih Amin Faris (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 260. 

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