Reading List: 'Islamic Culture and the Expression of Faith Through the Arts' by Danielle Povey

Reading List: 'Islamic Culture and the Expression of Faith Through the Arts' by Danielle Povey

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This is a Reading List comprising books I found within the House of Wisdom or the Islamic Reading Room while I was on Work Experience at Gladstone’s Library.

It explores different texts which study in depth the Islamic culture and the expression of faith and religion through the arts.

I have also included some quotes from each book which I find particularly interesting, and a simple overview of each of them.

  • Name: Islamic Calligraphy
  • Author: Sheila S. Blair
  • Location: House of Wisdom
  • Class mark: 745. 610 917 67 BLA 

This book is what it says on the tin. Sheila Blair explores all aspects of the art form from language, to the evolution of Arabic, to the way in which it is written. 

I find that the introduction to this book really intrigues me as it highlights a key difference between the artistic culture of Islam and perhaps the more recognisable art of Western society; it is more writing that dominates the decorative world than images, such as in Britain and the most common art.

Blair manages to write the book in a fashion which allows even the most uneducated reader to grasp its concept by adding tables and pictures to demonstrate what she is talking about. As a rather undereducated individual in the Arabic language and the overall artistic culture of Islam, I find these examples shed huge amounts of light on different aspects of this particular art form. 

“What is different about Islamic art is that writing became the main – and sometimes only – element of decoration.” 

Another thing which makes this book worth a read is the number of pictures of calligraphy and its different forms. My personal favourite is an image on p.455 of a large calligraphic composition set against a very finely-detailed setting of a mosque in nature. As a Christian, I have always admired the traditional art forms of stained glass windows and statues depicting the main figures of Christianity, however this particular image surprised me with its beauty and bold cursive lines against a very fine and elaborate backing. Blair manages to find the most beautiful examples to put in this book and it has really opened my eyes to the elegance of calligraphy.

 “Calligraphy conveys information through both its semantic content and its formal appearance.”

 Overall this book is definitely worth reading for a deeper understanding of calligraphy, what it represents and its history.

  • Name: Islamic Art
  • Author: David Talbot Rice
  • Location: House of Wisdom
  • Class mark: 709. 176 71 RIC 

This book is particularly good at exploring Islamic pottery including items like plates. It interests me because of its spectacular detailing of different time periods within Islamic art culture. As someone with little to no foreknowledge on Islamic culture in the arts, I think that being able to compare Islamic art from one time period to, say, Christian art from the same time period helps to inform about the key differences between the two cultures. 

Rice has taken more of a chronological order in this book, starting as early as 622AD to show the reader how art has changed over time. He also explains general features of that time period for Islamic art and architecture. 

“Islamic art is, in this respect, quite distinct from Christian, where diversity rather that uniformity was the characteristic.”

What I find really interesting about the book is that it gives a lot of contextual information about how particular events influenced the art of the time and the materials used to make it. Rice is very detailed about every picture included in the book. This makes it a good visual guide as well and allows readers who simply wish to observe the images and perhaps compare them to more well-known pieces of art to flick through the book and have a look, with the option to read about them also available. 

Rice has used various objects and buildings to demonstrate his understanding of Islamic art, such as pictures of the interior design of buildings, pots and bowls, paintings and many more. This allows the reader to access a variety of art forms while understanding it through its time period and materials it was made with. 

“May the reproductions that appear in this book serve to bring them before a wider circle, and show that the great concern with self and self-expression which so much obsesses the artists of today in the West is not necessarily to be regarded as an essential in the production of good art.”

Overall, I would recommend this book to people who wish to use a very visual guide to Islamic art through time, but who also have an interest as to how the Islamic art of the past was incorporated into the present day. 

  • Name: Islamic Architecture
  • Author: Robert Hillenbrand
  • Location: House of Wisdom
  • Class mark: 720. 91767 HIL 

This book concentrates on a few types of traditional Islamic buildings like Mosques, madrasas, and minarets. 

What I find brilliant about this book is the way it explains each structure and how it was made/ what it represented. For example, before reading the book I had absolutely no clue that a ‘madrasa’ even existed, never mind what happened inside the building and what it represented (it’s a higher education facility for those wishing to study the more traditional Islamic sciences like hadith, tafsir and fiqh), however the explanation this book offers gave me a much larger insight into what each of these buildings were. 

Hillenbrand goes into a lot of detail on each building, giving not only information on how they are built and where but also the representation of different parts of the inside layout and parts within. He also talks about the aim of each building within the Islamic community and therefore is good at explaining all of this to people who are not of the Islamic faith and don’t have an in-depth knowledge into the way Muslims use these buildings. 

Education was perhaps the principal secondary function of the mosque, especially in the first four centuries of Islam.”

In this quote we can see how Hillenbrand attempts to give a deeper and more historical insight into the mosque. This book is suited to people of all ages attempting to gain an insight into how the use of Islamic buildings. 

“What makes a mosque a mosque? The answer is forbiddingly simple: a wall correctly orientated towards the qibla, namely the Ka’ba within the Masjid al-Haram, Mecca. No roof no minimum size, no enclosing walls, no liturgical accessories are required. Indeed, it might very properly be argued that even the single was is unnecessary”

Overall, I like this book and would say it is definitely worth a read for a deeper understanding of the Islamic faith and how buildings and architecture helps people of the religion to express it.

  • Name: The Essential Rumi
  • Author: Coleman Barks
  • Location: House of Wisdom
  • Class mark: 891. 551 1 BAR 

This is a book of poetry by a man called Jelaluddin Rumi (1207 – 1273) who was a scholar and teacher and towards the end of his life wrote a lot of poetry. I chose this book as poetry and literature is a form of art and a way for people to express themselves and their faith. 

I really like this poetry as it is unlike anything I have read before. I feel like most, if not all, of the poems have morals behind them. It is also simply beautiful in its own right, in its descriptions of things and events and the reader really sees clearly the images that Rumi wishes to show us.

"Don't let your throat tighten

with fear. Take sips of breath

all day and night, before death

closes your mouth."

- My Worst Habit

In the above extract from a short poem, we can see how Rumi uses the language to convey meaning. It is a very elegant way, I think, of referring to the things we do every day and how not to let these emotions, like fear, stop us from living our lives. I think that Rumi has a talent for allowing the reader to infer large meaning from small passages. I find this method of writing especially powerful in poems because along with the steady rhythm it really makes the poem feel beautiful and almost haunting.

"Who makes these changes?

I shoot an arrow right.

It lands left.

I ride a deer and find myself

Chased by a hog.

I plot to get what I want

and end up in prison.

I dig pits to trap others

and fall in.

I should be suspicious

of what I want."

- Who Makes These Changes?

The short poem on the right illustrates the way in which all of these poems make the reader really think. This makes me think of how you should be careful what you wish for and be very careful when you want something. 

I think that poetry has allowed Rumi to successfully convey the meaning of Islam for him and what to do in life to succeed at being a person.

  • Name: The Art of the Islamic Garden
  • Author: Emma Clark
  • Location: House of Wisdom
  • Class mark: 712. 609 176 7 CLA 

This book is about Islamic gardens and what traditional Islamic gardens incorporate. It is illustrated and is meant to be a good introduction to the design, symbolism and creating of an Islamic garden. It gives a historic, cultural and spiritual background to the traditional Islamic garden and gives examples and pictures of this. 

What is really great about this book is that although it is about gardening (and there may be some dispute as to whether this is an ‘art’), it involves a lot of visual creativity and therefore just about makes it onto my list. This book is about how to arrange things in the garden, like a fountain or a path and what types of these features to put in. 

“Obviously it is not necessary to be a Muslim to make an Islamic garden, just as it is not necessary to be a Buddhist to make a Japanese Zen garden or a Christian to make a medieval-knot garden.”

What I find fantastic about this book is that it doesn’t give any strict guidelines on what the ‘traditional Islamic garden’ must look like, but more gives ideas as to the meaning of different features within the garden to allow the reader to really construct their own garden which means something to them. I like the way that it gives freedom of choice to the reader on what features to add and not to add, where to put things and really how they want to express themselves. 

“The tulip is probably the flower most associated with the Islamic garden after the rose – no self-respecting Islamic garden could possibly be without one.”

This book covers all possible aspects of gardening in an Islamic style, from the types of flowers to put in to fountains to how the traditional Islamic garden is mainly focuses on shade and water. 

Overall this book is brilliant if you wanted to design an Islamic garden of your own because that is its primary audience. However I also think that it is great for if you wanted to explore creative ways in which Muslims express themselves through art.

  • Name: Islamic Patterns
  • Author: Keith Critchlow
  • Location: House of Wisdom
  • Class mark: 745. 449 176 71 CRI

This book is about patterns associated with Islam. I like it because it gives a great overview to these types of designs and the uses for them - the patterns given in the book could be used for anything: on paintings; on wallpaper; on jewellery; even on the stones in your garden! 

What is really quite interesting about this book is the way in which it is laid out – it is mainly images with a few short sentences of writing underneath explaining why this pattern is generally seen as Islamic and what it represents. 

“In order to understand the mathematical basis of Islamic pattern one must consider most carefully those primary moves of geometry which are all too frequently passed over lightly, or simply taken for granted.”

The book gives examples of how to draw each design and explains what each one symbolises. For example, it may show a 10-sided shape and then underneath or by the side of the shape tell us why the fact that this shape is 10-sided is meaningful to Islam. 

Another good thing about this book is that it talks through the development of the patterns stage by stage. This means that although the patterns become very intricate, they are explained and thus able to be replicated.

 “Here we explore more closely the supra- and sub-themes which are the feature of many Islamic patterns.”

I therefore, think that this book is very good for those wishing to investigate further the meaning of Islamic patterns and shapes which reoccur so frequently within the culture.

Danielle Povey