By John Sabini
bstracted, symmetrical, two-dimensional, repetitive and infinitely extendable,
patterns are integral to all of the arts influenced by Islam. When natural forms are used, they are stylized to be virtual abstractions. The arabesque, for example, is based on vegetal forms, but it has a logic of its own that does not seek to reproduce the logic of growing things. Pure geometry is a strong element of design, often mixing the curvilinear with the rectilinear. Another important element is calligraphy—Arabic writing. Color is also important, although it is rarely used realistically. In the art of patterns, illusion is not an aim: Stone or wood, paint or ceramic is not intended to represent actual bodies or leaves or animal forms; rather, it suggests an ideal or an underlying principle.
All this can make it difficult for a westerner to understand and appreciate Islamic art. Until the advent of modernism, the artistic values of the West leaned toward the illusion of three-dimensional space, the direct copying of nature, the historical, mythical or religious anecdote and, above all, the human form and face, subject of many of the West’s greatest works of art. In the absence of those touchstones, the westerner tends to equate Islamic art with mere decoration and thus place it on a par with the minor or “applied” arts of the West. But this attitude betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Islamic art, which has its own hierarchy of values in which calligraphy comes first, because of its holy association with the Word of God, and the human form comes last, because of religious strictures.
Actually, the limitations of Islamic arts are strengths. Freed from the necessity of representing nature, the Muslim artist is able to devote himself with passionate intensity to the development of the two-dimensional and the abstract. As Swiss Muslim convert Titus Burckhardt put it in Art of Islam, the absence of images creates “the quite silent exteriorization, as it were, of a contemplative state.” And the proliferation of decoration, he continues, “does not contradict this quality of contemplative emptiness; on the contrary, ornamentation with abstract forms enhances it through its unbroken rhythm and its endless interweaving.”
The limitations, moreover, were deliberate. As Islam expanded, it absorbed or touched numerous cultures with quite different and sometimes sophisticated artistic traditions. And although some of those alien influences were absorbed, others—such as the portrayal of the human form, sculpture in the round and mural painting—were rejected. All the new influences were soon assimilated in an “Islamic style.”
There were reasons for this: the unifying influence of Islam itself and the spread of the Arabic language, as well as the unprecedented, transcontinental mobility within the Islamic world that ensured the spread of ideas, techniques and motifs.
There were also artistic and technical reasons for the unity of style. The artists were largely anonymous, not intent on creating original masterpieces but products of high quality within a continuing tradition. There were no distinctions between crafts and fine arts, between sacred and secular arts. Styles and techniques were freely transferred from the mosque to the palace and even to the public baths. They were also readily transferred from one medium to another, so that a pattern originating in the weaving of textiles was frequently translated into wood, metal or stone. Moreover, the artistic tradition was so strong that non-Muslim artists—Eastern Christians, Armenians, Jews—were often content to work within it.
Above all, there was the spirit of Islam itself: the emphasis on the Oneness of God, the congruence of knowledge and the ultimate unity of humanity. As Burckhardt says, Islamic art is essentially the projection into the visual order of a human interpretation of Divine Unity, one that is expressed by the harmonious patterns of calligraphy, geometry, arabesque, color and rhythm.
— adapted from “The World of Islam: Its Arts” by John Sabini,
Aramco World, May/June 1976.
By Paul Lunde
The hijri calendar
In AD 638, six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s second caliph ‘Umar recognized the necessity of a calendar to govern the affairs of the Muslims. This was first of all a practical matter. Correspondence with military and civilian officials in the newly conquered lands had to be dated. But Persia used a different calendar from Syria, where the caliphate was based; Egypt used yet another. Each of these calendars had a different starting point, or epoch. The Sasanids, the ruling dynasty of Persia, used June 16, AD 632, the date of the accession of the last Sasanid monarch, Yazdagird iii. Syria, which until the Muslim conquest was part of the Byzantine Empire, used a form of the Roman “Julian” calendar, with an epoch of October 1, 312 BC. Egypt used the Coptic calendar, with an epoch of August 29, AD 284. Although all were solar, and hence geared to the seasons and containing 365 days, each also had a different system for periodically adding days to compensate for the fact that the true length of the solar year is not 365 but 365.2422 days.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, various other systems of measuring time had been used. In South Arabia, some calendars apparently were lunar, while others were lunisolar, using months based on the phases of the moon but intercalating days outside the lunar cycle to synchronize the calendar with the seasons. On the eve of Islam, the Himyarites appear to have used a calendar based on the Julian form, but with an epoch of 110 BC. In central Arabia, the course of the year was charted by the position of the stars relative to the horizon at sunset or sunrise, dividing the ecliptic into 28 equal parts corresponding to the location of the moon on each successive night of the month. The names of the months in that calendar have continued in the Islamic calendar to this day and would seem to indicate that, before Islam, some sort of lunisolar calendar was in use, though it is not known to have had an epoch other than memorable local events.
||It is he who made the sun to be a shining glory, and the moon to be a light (of beauty), and measured out stages for her, that ye might know the number of years and the count (of time).
— The Qur’an,
Chapter 10 Verse 5 (“Yunis”)
There were two other reasons ‘Umar rejected existing solar calendars. The Qur’an, in Chapter 10 Verse 5, states that time should be reckoned by the moon. Not only that, calendars used by the Persians, Syrians and Egyptians were identified with other religions and cultures. He therefore decided to create a calendar specifically for the Muslim community. It would be lunar, and it would have 12 months, each with 29 or 30 days. This gives the lunar year 354 days, 11 days fewer than the solar year. ‘Umar chose as the epoch for the new Muslim calendar the hijrah, the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and 70 Muslims from Makkah to Madinah, where Muslims first attained religious and political autonomy. The hijrah thus occurred on 1 Muharram 1 according to the Islamic calendar, which was named “hijri” after its epoch. (This date corresponds to July 16, AD 622 on the Gregorian calendar.) Today in the West, it is customary, when writing hijri dates, to use the abbreviation AH, which stands for the Latin anno hegirae, “year of the hijrah.”
Because the Islamic lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar, it is therefore not synchronized to the seasons. Its festivals, which fall on the same days of the same lunar months each year, make the round of the seasons every 33 solar years. This 11-day difference between the lunar and the solar year accounts for the difficulty of converting dates from one system to the other.
The Gregorian calendar
The early calendar of the Roman Empire was lunisolar, containing 355 days divided into 12 months beginning on January 1. To keep it more or less in accord with the actual solar year, a month was added every two years. The system for doing so was complex, and cumulative errors gradually misaligned it with the seasons. By 46 BC, it was some three months out of alignment, and Julius Caesar oversaw its reform. Consulting Greek astronomers in Alexandria, he created a solar calendar in which one day was added to February every fourth year, effectively compensating for the solar year’s length of 365.2422 days. This Julian calendar was used throughout Europe until AD 1582.
In the Middle Ages, the Christian liturgical calendar was grafted onto the Julian one, and the computation of lunar festivals like Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, exercised some of the best minds in Christendom. The use of the epoch AD 1 dates from the sixth century, but did not become common until the 10th. Because the zero had not yet reached the West from Islamic lands, a year was lost between 1 BC and AD 1.
The Julian year was nonetheless 11 minutes and 14 seconds too long. By the early 16th century, due to the accumulated error, the spring equinox was falling on March 11 rather than where it should, on March 21. Copernicus, Christophorus Clavius and the physician Aloysius Lilius provided the calculations, and in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII ordered that Thursday, October 4, 1582 would be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. Most Catholic countries accepted the new “Gregorian” calendar, but it was not adopted in England and the Americas until the 18th century. Its use is now almost universal worldwide. The Gregorian year is nonetheless 25.96 seconds ahead of the solar year, which by the year 4909 will add up to an extra day.
|Historian Paul Lunde ([email protected]) specializes in Islamic history and literature. His most recent book is Islam: Culture, Faith and History (2001, Dorling Kindersley).