Voice of the Object
Natural leaf with calligraphy

In Islamic cultures, inscriptions on objects speak of a Muslim way of life and Muslim ideals. Qur'anic verses, sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, aphorisms, proverbs, and poetry are written in beautiful prose. They can appear in the most unlikely places including pen boxes, leaves, and horseshoes. Some objects address the viewer in the first person, conveying blessings, good wishes, and timeless wisdom. video

Natural leaf with calligraphy, Thuluth script, Horse chestnut leaf, Turkey, 19th century. Private collection.

Everyday Objects

Beauty and Belief includes objects made of fine materials that show high technical ability, as well as modest objects that would have been found in everyday homes and without religious function. Art of the Islamic world is integrated with the fabric of everyday life through functional objects associated with daily necessities such as light, water, food, and perfume. Figurative imagery often decorates these objects that celebrate everyday life. These forms acted as subtle references to people’s beliefs and relationship with life. Because God is believed to love beauty, the act of transforming raw materials into something beautiful—whether simple or monumental— was an act of devotion.

Bowl with Animals, earthenware with underglaze, Iran (Kashan), 13th century. Indianapolis Museum of Art, Emma Harter Sweetser Fund.

Sight to Insight

As viewers take a closer look at objects, aspects that are often not apparent at first sight are revealed. The more we look the more we see. With close examination, one can unveil layers of meaning that transform sight into insight. An individual’s way of looking also determines what is seen. Seeing the beauty of art from Islamic culture is enhanced by looking within the context of its belief system. In doing so, objects are appreciated for their material excellence as well as their conceptual beauty.

Griffin, cast bronze with engraved decoration, Spain (possibly Cordoba), 11th century. Opera della Primaziale Pisana, Pisa. Copy in exhibition.

The oneness of God

The advent of Islam was marked by a strong drive for monotheism: Tawhid, the Oneness of God. This is the conviction that God is the only eternal being encompassing everything. It is believed that everything comes from and goes back to God, including beauty. Islam places God as the central reference point; consequently, the concept of the divine in Islam shapes the way of being and thinking in Islamic cultures. The divine is considered beyond human capacity to represent, so Islamic artistic expression instead alludes to the unbounded majesty of divine beauty.

Three Finials, Each with a Name of God, steel, incised and overlaid in gold and backed with silver, Iran, probably early 18th century. Private collection. Photo © Peter Savage, Visible Time, London.

Interconnectedness of all things

Many objects within this exhibition are parts of a larger whole. Nothing is complete on its own– it is always a part of something else, connected to a bigger picture. This way of seeing reflects the Islamic way of being that positions God at the center of the universe. Science and geometry are connected to beauty and art, which are derived from the wonders of creation. Artistic styles travel, and as they do so, objects reflect a dialogue between people across time, place, and religions. Many of these objects may seem to reside within perceived boundaries of cultures or fields of study, but in reality are all interconnected through the unity of humanity. video

Detail from Calligraphic Scroll, ink, watercolor and gold on paper, Syria or India, 14th - 15th century. The al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait.


There are many patterns that can repeat endlessly and extend into infinity. Patterns have a rhythmic quality that reflects the structure of tasbeeh (chanting the praises of God). Both shape and void, silence and sound are part of the construction of this endless continuation. Repetition is fundamental to the structure of dhikr (the remembrance of God) and is believed to be a way to get closer to the divine. Patterns, visual and aural, are a rhythmical form of art. In Islamic cultures, the use of pattern and geometry is an expression of beauty that is informed by a cyclical concept of time, representing a continuum with no beginning and no end. video

VAV + HWE, Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (Iranian, b. 1937-), acrylic on canvas, France 1972. Private collection.

Diversity of Islam

Just as the Ummah, or Muslim community, is unified not by nationality but by faith and culture, so we see the objects of this exhibition reflecting a coherent visual language that reaches beyond the boundaries of geography and time. The differences in origin and styles ranging from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East through Central and East Asia to Indonesia all contribute to Islamic art. Despite the diversity of the Islamic world, certain artistic patterns seem to universally reverberate throughout the centuries of Islamic culture. video

Falnama Manuscript Painting of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, gouache on cloth, India or the Ottoman Empire, c.1600. Private collection.


A key principle in Islamic cultures is the belief in al-Dhahir and al-Batin (the Visible and the Invisible). Both of these are part of the whole. Some objects have inscriptions that add a metaphysical dimension, even though they are seemingly hidden underneath or inside. However, it is believed that underlying meanings are only hidden from man, not God. Only those who seek, study, and ponder become privy to the hidden mysteries of God's knowledge.

Tile Mosaic Fragment (Alicatado), tin glazed earthenware Spain (Granada), 1330-1400. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Didactic Narratives

Learning is regarded as an ethically required endeavor in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have said, "Seek knowledge, even as far as China." Many stories from Islamic culture weave lessons and morals throughout the narratives. Everything from fables and historical tales to scientific documents were imbued with both spiritual cautions and beautifully lavished illustrations that made learning more enjoyable.

Bear and Monkey, Illustration from the Sulwan al-Muta' of Abu 'Abdullah ibn Safar as-Siqilli',Ink, gouache and gold on paper, Egypt of Syria, second quarter 14th century. The al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait.