Allah In My Art: Illumination

by Farida Haji

 The Series Allah In My Art is a humble effort to explore elements of the Islamic Arts through a perspective of faith and understanding of Allah through the eyes of an artist.

The Inspiration

ٱللَّهُ نُورُ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضِ ۚ مَثَلُ نُورِهِۦ كَمِشْكَوٰةٍ فِيهَا مِصْبَاحٌ ۖ ٱلْمِصْبَاحُ فِى زُجَاجَةٍ ۖ ٱلزُّجَاجَةُ كَأَنَّهَا كَوْكَبٌ دُرِّىٌّ يُوقَدُ مِن شَجَرَةٍ مُّبَـٰرَكَةٍ زَيْتُونَةٍ لَّا شَرْقِيَّةٍ وَلَا غَرْبِيَّةٍ يَكَادُ زَيْتُهَا يُضِىٓءُ وَلَوْ لَمْ تَمْسَسْهُ نَارٌ ۚ نُّورٌ عَلَىٰ نُورٍ ۗ يَهْدِى ٱللَّهُ لِنُورِهِۦ مَن يَشَآءُ ۚ وَيَضْرِبُ ٱللَّهُ ٱلْأَمْثَـٰلَ لِلنَّاسِ ۗ وَٱللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَىْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp; the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things.

[Surah An-Nur 24:35]

Illumination is defined as spiritual or intellectual enlightenment. Allah is An-Noor. His bounties and blessings are infinite. His guidance is clarity for the heart that He provides time and again.  

Artworks with illumination contain gold metal, gold leaf, shell gold paint, or are brushed with gold specks for beautification.

This article shall follow an influential facet of beautification, the art of tezhip / tazhib that gave the words of the Divine the stature it deserves and promoted the wealth of patrons who commissioned illuminated artworks. Read about Quran manuscripts and artists who painstakingly and laboriously create stunning artworks, all in the name of Allah, the ultimate guiding light.

Works of Art

1. Gold on Tobacco Leaf 

Calligraphic Composition

Calligraphic Composition
(Source, Khalili Collections)

From 19th century Ottoman, Turkey, this calligraphic composition with the text of bismillah (‘In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful’) in gold is made to fit inside the natural shape of the leaf. The vertical strokes of the letters follow the line of the stem of the leaf, a vital element in determining the composition of an inscription.

2. Single-volume Qur’an, Iraq

312 qur 0284 1a Allah In My Art: Illumination

Single Volume Qur’an
(Source, Khalili Collections)

The surviving left-hand folio of the double-page frontispiece (folio 1a) dates to 1000-1050 AD, Iraq. Designed as two overlapping circles in a braided frame, each containing part of the verse, letter, and diacritical count. This derives from the illumination of early Qur’ans in oblong format and indicates that the transition to vertical format did not immediately bring a radical new layout.

The surah headings are in gold Kufic script, with a marginal gold palmette which occasionally contains the name of the place where the surah was revealed. Individual verses are not marked, but groups of five and ten are, the latter also with a marginal medallion bearing the number of verses. The manuscript ends with an illuminated double finispiece.

3. Illuminated Miniature Octagonal Qur’an

Illumation Image Allah In My Art: Illumination

Illuminated Miniature Octagonal Quran
(Source, Sotheby’s)

This illuminated miniature octagonal Qur’an from the 16th century Ottoman era, Turkey, Istanbul, copied by Da’ud ibn Abdullah is an Arabic manuscript on gold-sprinkled paper, 189 leaves plus 2 flyleaves and 12 lines to the page. It is written in minute ghubari script in black ink with surah headings in black on gold illuminated panels, margins ruled in gold, black and blue, with folio numbers in red above the text panels; the opening double-page frontispiece and the finispiece illuminated in polychrome and gold comprising elegant floral and foliate scrolls surrounding the text panels; the gilt-stamped leather binding with scrolling arabesques, in nielloed silver fitted case.

4. Asma Ul Husna Manuscript

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Asma Ul Husna Manuscript

The Asma Ul Husna manuscript by Pakistani artist Alefiya Abas Ali has the names of Allah in 24k pure shell gold. Placed in lapis blue colored eight-pointed star, the corners have a tree of life, symbolizing divinity. The artwork is inspired by Qur’anic Manuscripts from the Mamluk and Safavid dynasty of the 16th to 18th century.

The ‘Breath of the Compassionate’ or ‘al-nafas al-rahman’ is an eight-point star pattern. Number 8 has deep meaning in Islam. Eight symbolizes eternity and absolute perfection.

This artwork has been created using centuries-old traditional techniques of illumination painting.

“The process and creation felt like meditation. It helped me connect with the names of Allah and the painting became a way dhikr. I experienced moments of ecstasy. The Asma ul Husna manuscript is prepared entirely with natural pigments from scratch and took over 3 months to complete. I feel extremely proud to have used my art to praise Almighty most beautifully,” shares Alefiya.

The paper is dyed with natural dye, i.e., dried pomegranate skin stained, sized, and burnished with agate stone. Pigments are derived from natural sources like lapis blue, bone black, and 24ct pure shell gold.

5. Maktub

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Maryam Souza, a Brazilian Muslim convert and plastic artist shares her fascinating tryst with art and illumination. 

“What fascinates me about the Islamic Illumination are its details and the delicacy of strokes. The biform patterns that intertwine and show an infinity of possibilities, the golden glow that makes the work appear to be alive, the symmetry and complexity of the patterns that hypnotize; show how small we are, close to the greatness of the Creator.

My main ideas come from reading the Qur’an or other Islamic texts, which makes Islam the main source of my inspiration. My work speaks a lot about my faith, about what I’m feeling, the more I study, the more I connect with Allah, and the more pleasurable my creative process becomes; making it a constant reminder of Him, which always keeps me on the lookout for whatever I bring to my works, will please Him. The light of gold in my works represents the light of Islam in my life.”

6. Tasneem Afaneh

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Painting of Mural, Yazd Mosque

Tasneem Afaneh is a Palestinian artist based in Jerusalem. She shares her heartwarming story, “My creative journey began with a simple drawing, sewing, embroidery, handicrafts, and Arabic calligraphy, but in the past years I discovered the passion for Islamic decorative arts in particular.

I realized the importance of these arts in our lives as Muslims. I found that learning these arts connects us to our rich and beautiful history. Islamic arts are closely linked to the mosque, which is the place of worship and communication with God. The importance of large mosques as a place of worship and a center for gathering. Therefore, it can be said that the first place in which Islamic art was manifested is the mosque.”

Talking about her artwork, she writes, “One of the most beautiful paintings and the one closest to my heart is a mural in the mosque of Yazd Mosque in Iran. I was fascinated with it and with the beauty of its details and colors. I never imagined that I would paint it, so it holds a special place for me. I used gold in this painting because I felt it lit a part of my soul and opened my eyes to this wonderful art.

Gilding or illumination is often used to decorate the margins of the Qur’an, books of poetry, and books featuring miniatures. It is greatly inspired by nature, but the rules of the drawings are based on Islamic geometry, which is hidden in the botanical details known in this art.”

Through her work, she looks forward to documenting and analyzing the patterns on the Islamic monuments in the city of Jerusalem to preserve them in the face of many natural and political factors in particular in this difficult stage that Palestine and the city of Jerusalem, in particular, are going through.

Understanding Art

Islamic art is a modern concept created by art historians to categorize and study the style and art that emerged from Arabia since the 7th century. Islamic art over the centuries has been influenced by Greek, Roman, early Christian, Byzantine, Sassanians, and Chinese art styles.

Exploring elements of the Islamic arts has made it evident that it is not an art specific to a religion, time, place, or type. Instead, it is the art form that flourished with the spread of Islam and Islamic rulers who at some point ruled over non-Muslim masses.

The art form covered lands and populations through manuscripts, paintings, pottery, glass, stones, tiles, ceramics, carvings, metalworks, textiles, and the most visually evident — architecture!

Let us take a moment to appreciate what Allah inspires in us every single day. Let us illuminate in His teachings and live our best lives.

And so, we come to the end of the series Allah In My Art!

Thank you for your interest and support.