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Geometric motifs were popular with Islamic artists and designers in all parts of the world, for decorating almost every surface, whether walls or floors, pots or lamps, book covers or textiles. As Islam spread from nation to nation and region to region, Islamic artists combined their penchant for geometry with existing traditions, creating a new and distinctive Islamic art. This art expressed the logic and order inherent in the Islamic vision of the universe.
The wide spectrum of intellectual treasures allowed Islamic scholars to quickly embrace Greek philosophy and mathematics, translating and disseminating this knowledge for posterity. The works of Euclid and Pythagoras were among the first to be translated into Arabic. The study of geometry also fed an ardent preoccupation with the stars and astronomy. All this in turn nourished the Arabic passion for creating infinite, decorative patterns. The cultivation of mathematical analysis, in particular, had a harmonising effect. Driven by the religious passion for abstraction and the related doctrine of unity -- al-tawhid, the Muslim intellectuals recognized in geometry the unifying intermediary between the material and the spiritual world.
The development of this new distinctive art, in part may have been due to the discouragement of images in Islam on basis that it could lead to idolatry. For the Muslim, in recognising the reality of the fundamental formula of Islam: "There is no divinity other than God". He sees in figurative art, a fundamental error or illusion in projecting the nature of the absolute into the relative, by attributing to the relative an autonomy that does not belong to it. (See Aniconism) In this way, Islamic artists did not seek to express themselves as such, but rather aimed to ennoble matter.Whilst this tradition may have frustrated some Islamic artists, others took up the challenge and became the greatest pattern makers of their time. Instead of covering buildings and other surfaces with human figures, they developed complex geometric decorative designs, as well as intricate patterns of vegetal ornament (such as the arabesque), with which to adorn palaces and mosques and other public places.
Alternatively, the development of infinitely repeating patterns can represent the unchanging laws of God. Muslims are expected to observe certain rules as were originally set forth by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), characterised by the "Pillars of Faith". In this way the rules of construction of geometric patterns provide a visual analogy to religious rules of behavior.
"... as the soul of an individual seeks sources and reasons
for its existence it is led inward and away from the three-dimensional world
towards fewer and more comprehensive ideas and principles"
Both the contemplation of and the creative skill in making patterns lead in their own way to an understanding of the perfections of Universal Nature as it moves the elements. Islamic pattern, unique as an art form, is also unitary in its aim and function. Symbols can exhaust verbal explanation but verbal explanation can in no way exhaust symbols -and the symbols inherent in Islamic pattern and geometry are directed towards that undifferentiated unity.
Thus, the circle, and its centre, are the point at which all Islamic patterns begin and is an apt symbol of a religion that emphasizes one God, symbolising also, the role of Mecca, the center of Islam, toward which all Moslems face in prayer. The circle has always been regarded as a symbol of eternity, without being and without end, and is not only the perfect expression of justice-equality in all directions in a finite domain--but also the most beautiful parent of all polygons, both containing and underlying them.
From the circle comes three fundamental figures in Islamic art, the triangle, square and hexagon. The triangle by tradition is symbolic of human consciousness and the principle of harmony. The square, the symbol of physical experience and the physical world-or materiality-and the hexagon, of Heaven. Another symbol prevalent in Islamic art is the star and has been the chosen motif for many Islamic decorations. In Islamic iconography the star is a regular geometric shape that symbolizes equal radiation in all directions from a central point. All regular stars -- whether they have 6, 8, 10, 12, or 16 points -- are created by a division of a circle into equal parts. The center of the star is center of the circle from which it came, and its points touch the circumference of the circle. The rays of a star reach out in all directions, making the star a fitting symbol for the spread of Islam.
One such use of the of the star in mosaics is in 'God's spider web', the very name of which evokes the 'miracle of the spider': When the Prophet (pbuh), to escape his persecutors, fled from Mecca, he and his companion Abu Bakr hid for three days and three nights in a cave. The hostile Meccans rode out in search of them, and on the first morning they reached the entrance to the cave. But a spider had spun its net across it, a dove had laid its eggs on the threshold, and a wild rose-bush had stretched out its blossoming branches, so that the pursuers thought that no one could possibly have recently entered the cave. The mosaic spider's web, however, resembles its model only remotely. It is in fact a geometrical rosette, which begins as a star and then extends outwards in interlacing bands, that follow a rigorous plan, and form a rich extensive network. Several such complete designs can intertwine with one another on one surface, and then they form, especially when they originate in stars with varying numbers of rays, a shimmering planetarium, in which each line starts from a centre and leads to a centre, a motif that once again strongly evokes the Islamic idea of omnipresent unity.
Even though the geometric patterns, consisted of, or were generated from, such simple forms as the circle and the square, they were combined, duplicated, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations, becoming one of the most distinguishing features of Islamic art. However, these complex patterns seem to embody a refusal to adhere strictly to the rules of geometry. As a matter of fact, geometric ornamentation in Islamic art suggests a remarkable amount of freedom; in its repetition and complexity, it offers the possibility of infinite growth and can accommodate the incorporation of other types of ornamentation as well. In terms of their abstractness, repetitive motifs, and symmetry, geometric patterns have much in common with the so-called arabesque style seen in many vegetal designs. Calligraphic ornamentation also appears in conjunction with geometric patterns.
Many of the patterns used in Islamic art look similar, even though they decorate different objects. They are are two dimensional both in form and intent and are made up of a small number of repeated geometric elements that create a complex whole by repeating a few elements and. This practical and useful level of operation of archetypal expressions in no way diminishes or reduces their effectiveness as symbols, on the contrary it merely reinforces the fact that what we take to be simple and 'in the nature of things' has become profound to the point of us becoming oblivious to it, in much the same way that we find ourselves in an environment with a great deal of noise for any appreciable length of time we cut out our awareness of that noise.
Critchlow, Keith. Islamic Pattern: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach. Schocken books, New, York, NY. 1976