Islamic Art for a New World

Image“Geometry is a spiritual and timeless art” Zarah Hussain

For many people in the international art community, Islamic art is an anomaly, an ancient relic of a crumbled civilization, the art form that should be relegated to the museums, ancient archaeological sites and mosques. Many specialists argue that it simply can not relate to the modern artist or even attempt to represent the citizens of an increasingly globalized world.

Yet, there is an increasing number of modern artists who are finding inspiration in the age-old artistic expressions of the Islamic era and are utilizing sacred geometric patterns and calligraphy to express a unity of faith and depict the twentieth- century living. One such artists is Zarah Hussain, a UK-based painter who argues that Islamic art’s “strong aesthetic appeal transcends time and space, as well as differences in language and culture.”

Hussain’s first exhibition, ‘Handasah’, which means geometry in Arabic, explored the sacred tradition of geometric patterns through elaborate paintings on hand-made paper. For Hussain, the search for unity in Islamic geometric art reflects a search for unity between the Islamic faith and a twenty-first century lifestyle. “Geometry is a spiritual and timeless art and when we contemplate this art we are being drawn inwards to a deeper self-reflection and centeredness.”

Hussain’s latest exhibition ‘Beauty of Abstraction’ went even further towards harmonizing the modern world with Islamic art through animated light-installations. These installations of changing kaleidoscopic geometric art are projected onto a dark gallery walls alongside more traditional paintings to represent a harmony of faith and technology.

Metaphors for Creation

The geometric patterns which Hussain embraces have always been popular motifs of Islamic art decorating walls, floors, lamps, book covers and textiles across the centuries. Some of the greatest examples of Islamic architecture such as the Dome of the Rock, the walled city Alhambra and the Taj Mahal also display some of the most exquisite examples of geometric designs combined with mosaics, glass window panels and carpets.

Geometric art flourished across the Islamic civilization due to the passion for abstraction as the use of images, such as those which proliferate in the Christian tradition, are discouraged on the basis that they could lead to idolatry. Islamic scholars were also fascinated with Greek philosophy, mathematics and astronomy which are based on abstraction as a means to reaching greater truths.

Zarah Hussain states that her geometric artwork stems from an interest in symmetry, balance and order present in the universe we live, “A universe that has an incredibly reliable set of rhythms of day and night, and of the years together with the circumambulations of the sun moon and planets. I believe that geometric patterns reflect a natural order and are metaphors for creation.” Thus, the artist, the mathematician and astronomer integrate into one to explore the subtle symmetries of the very world we inhabit and the inherent harmony of the material and spiritual world.

Hussain has not always worked with her Islamic heritage; in fact her earlier artwork was inspired by the Optical Art movement and Bridget Riley who was popular in the 1960’s. “I soon found this work to be clinical and cold,” explains Hussain, “searching for a mode of expression that I could understand more fully, I started to rediscover my artistic cultural heritage and this led me to taking a path toward traditional Islamic geometry.”

Zarah at work.


Islamic art serves a very different function in comparison to the arts in the Western World. Western artists tend to focus on the direct reflection or personal interpretation of the physical forms which surround us. In contrast, the Muslim artist realizes that to be dazzled by god’s creations misses something vital: the uniting aspect beneath the artificial surface. As Hussain elaborates, this is why Islamic artists do not replicate nature, as they could never do justice to Allah’s creations. Instead they attempt to convey what they represent as their divine essence. This is essentially done by attaching meaning to the shapes and patterns through symbolism.

Individual geometric shapes are not simply used for their aesthetic beauty. They are rather symbols which represent certain aspects of the Islamic faith. For example, circles which usually form the centre of a design or contain a wider geometric pattern represent eternity and the infinite bounty of Allah. Triangles are applied as symbols of human consciousness, the square as the physical existence and form of beings and hexagons are representative of heaven.

In Islamic iconography, the star in its various forms also represents unity and the spread of Islam with the points emulating a growth from a central point. Ultimately, the seamless combination of these individual shapes and patterns within large geometric patterns reaffirms the perfect harmonization of all of god’s divine creations.

Whilst some specialists have criticized Islamic art as artistically restrictive, Islamic artists who embrace abstraction and geometry actually free their imagination from the constraints of material representation towards the diverse world of symbolic representation.

In recognition of the diverse interaction between Islamic art traditions and the modern artists, the Jameel Prize has been this year launched by the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is a £25,000 international award that intends to raise awareness of the often ignored interaction between rich Islamic traditions and the modern artist.

Aimed at contemporary artists from all over the world, the Jameel Prize will hopefully contribute to a broader debate about Islamic culture. Although some artists are happy to dismiss the contribution that Islamic art has made, it cannot be a coincidence that artists from early Islamic civilization to the twentieth century have recognized Islamic art as a lucid form of expression and exploration.

Check out Zarah Hussain’s work
For more information on the Jameel Prize Click Here

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