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Beauty in Belief

Kiki needed to visit an art exhibit for a class, so we went down to the BYU Museum of Art and wandered our way through the Beauty in Belief exhibit. The art was all Islamic. We saw illustrated Qur’an pages, book covers, carved prayers as pieces of architecture, prayer rugs, etc. I was fascinated by the items themselves, but even more by the textual explanations which were posted on the wall. Whoever curated that exhibit did an excellent job of pinpointing exactly the aspects of art and culture which would be most interesting to me. I found myself writing down whole sections of text to ponder upon later. I have new thoughts on the ways that words can sanctify things, how to deliberately create a sacred space, how repetition and pattern can represent the infinite, and how the deliberate inscription of thoughts can change both the inscriber and the reader.

As I looked at a prayer rug, the sign next to it helped me to understand that unrolling such a rug creates a sacred and clean place in which a person can pray. This is why so many prayer rug designs are in the shape of an arch or prayer nook. I love the idea of having a transportable sacred space.

I looked at a Qur’an board, which was used as a memorization tool. Words were written onto the board, then once memorized, they were washed off and new words were written. I could see faded layers of script underneath the fresh writing. It was as if the scripture was soaking into the board. The curator’s notes told me that the more often a board was used, the more sacred it was considered.

There were calligraphic art pieces where the arabesques of the script were arranged into large and pleasing shapes. The notes told me that they quotes scripture or blessings upon the house and its inhabitants. I looked at the calligraphy and thought about how in modern Utah it has become very popular to put up vinyl lettering on the walls with “sayings”. I’d always thought dismissively of this particular trend, but now I see how the deliberate inscription of words can be considered a benediction upon the space and the people inside it. In fact another plaque told me that much Islamic architecture has inscriptions where they can’t even be read. I am intrigued by the declaration of purpose written upon walls.

As I moved through the exhibit, I entered the realm of pattern. Infinitely repeating patterns, too detailed for a person to ever comprehend it whole. This is much as life itself and deity are incomprehensible. Suddenly instead of being too busy, these patterns become emblems of life itself. In one room a chant played softly. A curator plaque explained that sound patterns in chants were the heartbeat of Islamic culture. The chant repeated a thousand times permeates both the space in which it occurs and the people who participate.

All of the exhibit were reflections of a deliberate creation of meaning out of mere things. It was also about the power of words. I like this. I would like to take some of these thoughts and incorporate them into my spaces. I’m not sure how I will do this yet. I need to let the ideas mix with the things which are already in my mind and heart. Then I’ll be able to find the expressions which are most beautiful and meaningful to me.

4 comments to Beauty in Belief

  • I have two Islamic sisters and they have some beautiful, beautiful things from the middle east that your post perfectly defines. Words are such an inherent part of their art and sacred words more so. My sister has this beautiful Qur’an necklace that has actual tiny pages with Arabic words inscribed. She says it’s so she can carry the name of God with her always. Such a rich, beautiful culture & religion.

    • They had a couple of Qur’an necklaces. The one that truly amazed me was the Qur’an leaf. Where the words were painted on a leaf and then it was treated so that only the veins of the leaf and the words remained. It was lovely.

      I’m going to have to look into this more. I love the thoughts I gained about words.

  • Laura

    I just went to the opening of the new Islamic wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I was impressed by some of the same thoughts about the purity of space and the beauty and cleanliness of repetitive patterns. It’s not going to be the same as seeing it in person, but they have a nice online tour of it here: