The depiction of soul-possessing creatures has always been a point of controversy within the teachings of Islam, the practice being frowned upon by the early Muslim generations. As only God is considered to be the Creator, a human has no right to create or replicate anything capable of existing on its own, like life-like paintings, statues or drawings of people and animals. If no Muslim should depict other soul-possessing creations, he most certainly shouldn’t draw anything beyond his given knowledge, the so-called ghayb or realm of the unknown, especially not the Creator Himself.
God says in the Quranic Chapter al-Shūrā, verse 11: “…There is nothing that resembles him, and He is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing…”. From an Islamic point of view, it’s impossible to depict God, as no single depiction of Him would do Him justice. This shouldn’t be regarded as iconoclasm, but rather aniconism. The former was a reactionary movement within the Byzantine Empire poised to actively oppose and remove the widespread use of Christian iconography, while the latter is the simple non-existence of iconography in the first place.
To balance between the visual mention of God and the absolute impossibility of depicting Him, Muslim artists developed a complete aesthetic culture of representing God‘s infinity and transcendence through non-figurative forms. As Nadirsyah Hosen writes in his Research Handbook on Islamic Law and Society (2018), “aniconism doesn’t derive from a strict legal interpretation of the religious texts, but rather as a way of visually representing the underlying principle of Islam, that is, the nature of God as the one true and unknowable being from whom Holy Law derives.” So instead of representing God in a human form, so popular in Christian religious art, Muslim artists visualized God through his written name, the Arabic word Allāh.
The origin of the word Allāh, or الله in the Arabic language is actually explained by the famous grammatician Sībawayh (760-796 AD) in his al-Kitāb vol. II. He states that الله is a contraction of the Arabic word إله (deity) and the definite article ال. He explains that the definite article was added to the word إله, as a form of reverence (taʿẓīm). As a result, the hamza of إله disappeared, and a shadda (gemination) appeared on the original letter lām, resulting in ال + إله = الله. This would mean literally THE deity, or God. What’s remarkable about this word, is that it doesn’t actually lose its definite article where other definite words would, like in the vocative case.
Of all Islamic art’s branches, architecture makes the most use of God’s written name to embellish both religious and secular buildings. This Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasavi in Southern Kazakhstan, for example, was built in the 14th century AD and has the blue brickwork spelling out the name Allāh. This was achieved through the architectural technique of bannāʾi, a decorative art in which glazed tiles are alternated with plain bricks to create geometric patterns or to spell out sacred names. The tomb of Timur is another excellent example of a monument in which the written word Allāh is incorporated.
In conclusion, I would like to quote Titus Burckhardt from his Art of Islam, Language and Meaning (2009): “A sacred art is not necessarily made of images, even in the broadest sense of the term; it may be no more than the quite silent exteriorization, as it were, of a contemplative state, and in this case – or in this respect- it reflects no ideas, but transforms the surrounding qualitatively, by having them share in an equilibrium whose center of gravity is the unseen.”
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.