Friday, April 23, 2010

Mosque Architecture

Mosque Al-Azhar, Cairo, Egypt

The Mosque of al-Azhar was founded by Jawhar al-Siqilly, the Fatimid conqueror of Egypt, in 970 as the congregational mosque for the new city of al-Qahira.

The first khutba was delivered from its minbar in 972 and a university was established there in 988.

Mamluk madrasas were established in the ziyada (outer enclosure): Taybarsiyya in 1309 and Aqbughawiyya in 1340. The Taybarsiyya has two iwans, one for the Shafi'ites and the other for the Malikites.

This mosque served as a model for the Mosque of the Qarafa, a congregational mosque built by al-Sayyida al-Mu'izziyya in 976. 

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Chinese Muslim Wedding Tradition

Wang Daiyu,

It is however safe to say that just like other Muslim communities they are a blend of local cultures and Islamic religious requirements just as Arab Muslim wedding traditions are a blend of Arab culture and Islamic requirements, Malaysian wedding traditions are a blend of Malaysian culture and Islamic requirements etc.

A Chinese Muslim wedding is very complex, but it avoids all superstitions such as the reading of the horoscopes of the betrothed persons. Some ask the Ahund to read the Arabic wedding rite on the wedding day or the day before. If one of the parties is not a Muslim, the Ahund admits that one into Islam one or two days before the wedding so both may be of the same faith.
The new type [of Chinese wedding] follows the teaching of Islam and gains the consent of both parties. Islamic wedding customs are rational and at the same time are timeless, for they follow rules laid down more than thirteen hundred years ago. Emphasis on agreement between both parties, especially the consent of the girl, shows the Islamic stress on the rights of men and the protection of the rights of womanhood.
The ceremonies of engagement and marriage are quite similar for Chinese Muslims and non-Muslims except that the Muslims celebrate the event with a religious and a general ceremony, and they do not use old Chinese music or gongs or fire crackers since they consider them to be superstitious.
The religious ceremony is held a day before or just preceding the general ceremony. At present Muslims hold the marriage ceremony in the mosque. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Artistic Expression Fostered by Islam Itself

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

"Although this [Islamic Art] is a highly dynamic art, which is often marked by strong regional characteristics as well as by significant influences from other cultures, it retains an overall coherence that is remarkable given its vast geographic and temporal boundaries. Of paramount concern to the development of this singular art is Islam itself, which fostered the creation of a distinctive visual culture with its own unique artistic language.

In Islamic cultures the so-called decorative arts provide the primary means of artistic expression, in contrast to Western art, in which painting and sculpture are preeminent. Illuminated manuscripts, woven textiles and carpets, inlaid metalwork, blown glass, glazed ceramics, and carved wood and stone all absorbed the creative energies of artists, becoming highly developed art forms. These works include small-scale objects of daily use, such as delicate glass beakers, as well as more monumental architectural decoration, for example, glazed tile panels from building fa├žades. Such objects were meticulously fabricated and carefully embellished, often with rare and costly materials, suggesting that the people for whom they were made sought to surround themselves with beauty.

Whether produced in a courtly or an urban setting or for a religious context, Islamic art is generally the work of anonymous artists. A notable exception is in the sphere of the arts of the book. The names of certain calligraphers are well known, which is not surprising given the primacy of the written word in Islam, as are those of a number of painters, most of whom were attached to a particular court. The identification of these artists has been based on signed or attributed examples of their works and on textual references. Given the great number of extant examples, comparatively few signatures are found on metalwork, pottery, carved wood and stone, and textiles. Those signatures that do occur, combined with rare evidence from contemporary textual sources, suggest that families of artists, often over several generations, specialized in a particular medium or technique."

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art houses one of the most significant collections of Islamic art in the world. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Enduring Forms of Islamic Art: Calligraphy – An Islamic Heritage

Siddiqua Shahnawaz

Any architectural work has both a functional and an artistic dimension, which are :
1) An immediate physical context that determines the style, and 
2) A wider social, cultural and economic frame of reference that gives it meaning. 

For example, in the case of a Masjid, the prayer hall must be suitable for its purpose in accordance with the liturgy of Islam, but the building itself must also 'speak' to the local community, providing both spiritual upliftment and an anchor for the community's identity.

Calligraphy, known as 'khatt' in Arabic, is an outstanding example of such blending of form and function. From the grandest of Masjids with their expertly carved stuccos to the simplest of rural Masjids with few Qur'anic verses painted on their walls, one can see the strong influence of Qur'anic calligraphy that has attached itself to the expression of Islamic art.

A passion for the written script constitutes one of the fundamental traits of Islamic culture. For Islam, the Arabic script is not merely a tool invented by human beings, but a gift of God. As Allah says in the Qur'an: 

"Recite, and thy Lord is the Most Honourable! Who taught (to write) with the Pen, taught man what he knew not" 
(Surah al-Alaq, verses 3-5). 

Innumerable Hadeeth of the Prophet [pbuh] and his Ahlul Bayt [A.S] distinctly convey the importance of gaining knowledge and emphasize the value of the written word. For example, the Prophet has said "The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr". 

In general, Qur'anic texts are selected for inscriptions in Masjids, but quotations from the Hadeeth and other pious phrases are also found. Thus, calligraphy serves as an ornamental purpose along with conveying the word of God and sayings of the Holy Prophet [pbuh]. 

Origin of Islamic Calligraphy 

In the words of Dost Muhammad of Gawashwan, a sixteenth century writer, "It is etched on the minds of the masters of the arcane that the garden of painting and illumination is an orchard of perfect adornment; and the arrangement and embellishment of the Qur'an, which bespeak the glorification of the word of the Exalted, are connected to the pen and bound to the design and drawing of the masters of this noble craft".

It has been recorded that the first person to adorn with painting and illumination the writing of the word that is necessarily welcomed was Ali Ibn Abi Talib [A.S], and the gates of this commodity were opened to this group by the key of that Majesty's pen. A few leaves (barg), known in the parlance of painters as Islami, were invented by him." (translated by Thackston in 'A Century of Princes').

Furthermore, Mir Sayyid Ahmad Mashhadi, in the preface to the Bahram Mirza Album says, "Guided by the inscription of the register of the city of knowledge, of which Ali is the gate..."everyone is commanded to strive to attain this noble and honourable craft (calligraphy) when he said, "Have beautiful writing, for it is among the keys to sustenance." Thus, calligraphy has always enjoyed a special status in Islam. 

Enduring Forms of Islamic Art: Canons of Decorative Art

Early in the 11th century there began a Sunni revival, which had both religious and cultural aspects. This movement, which saw itself as a restoration of traditionalism, was accompanied by an artistic revival that established many of the enduring forms of Islamic art and architecture – in particular, its canon of decorative art. The three elements of the Islamic decorative canon began to appear as early as the Umayyad period, but they crystallised into their classic forms during the ‘Sunni Revival’.

Calligraphy gives a visible form to the revealed word of the Qur’an and is therefore considered the most noble of the arts. It manages to combine a geometric discipline with a dynamic rhythm. Interestingly, none of its many styles, created in different places at different periods, has ever completely fallen into disuse. In the Islamic world it takes the place of iconography, being widely used in the decorative schemes of buildings.

Geometric patterns have always had a particular appeal to Muslim designers and craftsmen. They convey a certain aura of spirituality, or at least otherworldliness, without relating to any specific doctrine. In an Islamic context they are also quite free of any symbolic meaning. Above all they provide craftsmen with the opportunity to demonstrate his skill and subtlety of workmanship, and often to dazzle and intrigue with its sheer complexity.

Vegetal ‘Arabesque’ compositions are as ubiquitous in Islamic decoration as geometric patterns. It is difficult, without other indications, to determine where or when a particular composition of this genre might have originated. Like geometrical designs, these too are found across the entire range of mediums from book illustration to plasterwork; in ceramics, woodwork, metalwork and ivory-carving, even in carpets and textiles.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Motifs of Taj Mahal

Flowers are often seen as a reference to Paradise, their blooms and color a testament to the abundant waters and fruitful nature of the gardens of Eden

In much Timurid architecture, which the Mughals greatly admired, geometric patterns and well proportioned designs were also seen as an indication of divine harmony and peace. This idea may have inspired the balanced and harmonious abstract designs that ornament the Taj Mahal.

A combination of the three types of motif - calligraphic, floral and geometric - creates a decorative scheme that forms part of an earthly representation of a heavenly paradise.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Silence Reigns in the Miniatures Room at NCA

Louis Werner
In the Miniature Painting Department of Pakistan’s National College of Arts (NCA), here, in a two-year intensive program that is a kind of modern karkhana, or Mughal painting workshop, students learn meticulous techniques, including ultra fine figure drawing and brushwork, tea staining of page borders and burnishing of paper surfaces—as well as how to work with such centuries-old materials as brushes made of squirrel-tail hair; handmade, multi-layered paper called wasli; and mussel-shell paint pots. Later, they give their imagination free rein to create new possibilities and new meanings for this highly disciplined tradition, in the context of a contemporary art world where few rules still seem to apply.
The NCA is now Pakistan’s premier institution granting Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees, and annually some 20,000 applicants seek one of its 150 admission slots; of these, only a dozen or so are chosen for the miniature-painting major.
Qureshi explains that it takes a special sort of student to major in miniatures, as opposed to, say, studio painting or printmaking. First of all, miniature painters sit on the floor all day, holding their paper up close to their eyes, bracing their painting arm against the body. “The hand becomes the palette, shells the mixing bowls. The floor replaces the stool, and the lap becomes the easel,” he says.
Minute, repetitive brush strokes render delicate figures in a painstaking technique called pardakht, a kind of linear pointillisme. It’s a far cry from the drips and splashes tossed about by the easel painters in the studio next door. Except for a faint bleeding of sound from students’ iPods, silence reigns in the miniatures room. Miniaturists choose their genre for reasons that derive from their personalities. 
As Shahzia Sikander said at her 2001 Asia Society show in New York, a time when she was working in a more traditional vein, “the entire notion of ‘copying’ needs to be clarified.” Is it, she continued, “understanding the process, or is it understanding the lineage of the medium, or is it mere appropriation? Copying can also mean understanding history. One has to look at someone else’s work very carefully before relating to it in a personal way, in the same sense as claiming a historical past.”
Only in Pakistan does one find radical innovators like Qureshi painting oversize “miniatures” directly onto the walls of museums, or works like Rubaba Haider’s 2008 senior thesis, a piece she calls mader-e-gul (“My mother, the flower”): an installation of 35 paintings in small, round frames hung from the ceiling waist-high in a walk-through maze, each painting an image conjured from her own emotional responses to her mother’s stomach surgery.
As wildly creative as NCA miniaturists are invited to become by the time they graduate, their first full year of study is dedicated to the mastery of technique. 
Teachers Waseem Ahmed and Naheed Fakhruddin, both NCA graduates themselves, oversee their 13 students’ progress not only in pardakht, but also in tappiai, or background color application; layee, or flour-glue paper surfacing and burnishing; and siah qalam, or black-brush work. However, they add with relief, catching one’s own squirrel in Lahore’s Shalimar Garden for brushmaking is no longer required, as it was in the early days.
Video-game design may not be what ustad Bashir has in mind for the pardakht technique that he insists students must master before graduation, but Sardar’s teacher Hasnat Mehmood is all in favor of experimenting with anything at hand. He teaches fine graphite-pencil drawing in miniature style, and tries above all to keep his students from developing a “copyist” mentality. He puts new students through autobiographical exercises, asking them to draw a self-portrait beside a copied classic Mughal figure as a diptych in an invented architectural setting. 
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