Articles of faith

Art 1 byZiauddin Sardar

In Islam, the idea of beauty is firmly tied to the practice of praise, or invocation of God. Nature in all its glorious diversity is one vast song of praise. A radiant woman, a good-looking man, a loving family, a harmonious neighbourhood, a just society - all are things of beauty and everlasting testimony to the Most Beautiful. Islam seeks aesthetic proof of God, and Islamic art is essentially the art of praise. All art in Islam is sacred art, an echo of the written word, the revelation. Its goal is to attest, through the multiplicity and plurality of the world, the permanence of God.

Traditional Islamic art has tried to achieve this end by dematerialising the visible world and substituting synthetic principles of composition for natural forms. It seeks to demonstrate that everything can be made beautiful and exciting; and that almost infinite number of transformations can be attached to any one motif. In seeking to transform everyday objects - prayer mats, plates, bowls, tiles, lamps - into objects of real beauty, traditional Islamic art infused egalitarian ideals with civic values. The aim was not just to integrate life and art but to bring beauty into ordinary lives; there is a deeply democratic spirit to creativity in Islamic art.

The "Traditional Islamic Art" exhibition at the Soni Gallery amply displays this spirit. The accent at this small but judiciously curated show is on both the variety and forms of Islamic art as well as its aesthetic essence, emphasising the "beauty of the permanent through the world of the transient". There are two underlying themes of Islamic art that bring an unconscious measure of coherence and unity to the exhibition. Geometric patterns are a major presence in Islamic art - both classical Muslim scientists and artists have been fascinated by numbers and proportions and have sometimes interpreted geometry in mystical terms. All the artists exhibiting carry a strong aura of the "sacred geometry" school of Islamic mysticism. The other unifying factor is the skill and ability, vividly on show, to transfer readily techniques and patterns from one medium to another.

The influence of mystical geometry is quite evident in Farid Ali Turki's woodwork, David Apthorp's tiles, Helen Whittaker's stained glass and Andrew Sutton's sculptures. Ali Turki weaves geometric patterns that transform craft into a higher, contemplative level of beauty. He has freely adopted the visual geometry that one finds in the painted ceilings of the Alhambra in Granada.

Apthorp's art is inspired by the work of the great Turkish architect Sinan, who built the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. He uses geometry to explore the principles of harmony and proportions, with an accent on the rhythm of Muslim prayer and the meditation on the infinite that is the essence of worship in a mosque. Whittaker's stained-glass designs are inspired by geometric patterns of Islamic monuments in Andalusia and attempt to combine meaning and material to extend the possibilities of colour and design. And Sutton's sculptures, as well as calligraphic paintings, resonate the mystical tendencies of "sacred geometry" by stressing the unity inherent in diversity, and the diversity that flows from unity.

In contrast, Khairat Al-Saleh uses arabesque, the favourite motif in Islamic art, in her ceramics, etchings and paintings to stunning effect. Arabesque designs can be analysed and described more easily in abstract terms - dark or light, full or void, symmetrical or repetitive - than in terms of their concrete details. In Al-Saleh's work, they become a vehicle for light and colour. Her etching Emanations combines calligraphy with the techniques of gilding to produce a stained-glass effect in blue and lustre. Her ceramics are neat little essays in synthesis and convergence, the classical quest of arabesque.

Finally, there are the exquisite embroideries of Nighat Yusuf. Her hand-woven prayer mats, in subtle and earthy Punjabi colours, are illuminated with geometric patterns, calligraphy and highly stylised vegetal forms. Yusuf uses traditional Indian embroidery techniques to demonstrate that the process of creating art can itself be a form of meditation and worship.

The images of beauty on display here openly invite the viewer to seek the symbolic meaning inherent within the art and sing the praise of the ultimate creator. In its own modest way, the exhibition demonstrates that Islamic art, with all its multiple traditional techniques and skills, is alive and reinventing itself for a whole new generation.

"Traditional Islamic Art" continues until 6 February at the Soni Gallery, 25 Connaught Street, London W2 (0171-262 9101)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.