In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Islamic Aesthetics

  • Introduction
  • Islamic Aesthetics in Contemporary Art

Islamic Studies Islamic Aesthetics
Valerie Gonzalez
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0228


The broad subject of Islamic aesthetics covers several subtopics that correspond to the multiple intellectual fields and media variably concerned with artistic thought and creation, and with the conception, expression, and experience of beauty in Islam. However, if the concept of beauty may be part of aesthetics, it does not necessarily define it. In Islam, as in any other context, aesthetics presents a twofold aspect, conceptual-theoretical and material-practical. In the applied domain of art, aesthetics refers to the philosophical-metaphysical underpinnings of a work’s conceptualization as well as its phenomenological-physical attributes. In the domain of pure thought, aesthetics elaborates about sensory perception and cognition, and about the capacity of both cultural and natural things’ perceptual qualities to prompt phenomena of consciousness and psychic experience. In Islam, traditionally, both theoretical and artistic aesthetics were informed in one way or another by concepts related to the faith-based metaphysics or mode of world-apprehension (a unique incommensurable God, his final aural revelation to humankind, his signs, ayat, perceptible in the phenomenal world). These concepts and the processes by which they constituted and instituted aesthetics form the complex material to delve in for its study. However, the historians of the arts in Islam contest or question these very notions of “Islamic aesthetics” or “Islamic art,” as in Hamdouni Alami 2011, Grabar 2006, and Leaman 2004 (all cited under Islamic Visual Aesthetics); and in Flood 2007, Daftari 2006, and Ernst 2005 (all under Islamic Aesthetics in Contemporary Art), and. Not all the different subfields forming the broad domain of Islamic aesthetics studies have advanced at the same pace. While the scholarship has been massively productive in the area of verbal and textual expression, visual and artistic aesthetics has, in comparison, received less attention. Within the discipline called “Islamic art history” of which it is in principle a branch, aesthetics appears characteristically understudied. This epistemic asymmetry is addressed in Leaman 2004 and Gonzalez 2015 (both cited under Islamic Visual Aesthetics), although both authors expose the problem with sensibly different arguments. Three main subcategories structure this bibliography: religious aesthetics based on the Qurʾan (Qurʾanic Aesthetics); Theoretical Aesthetics in Islamic philosophy, literature, poetry and sciences; and aesthetics in Islamic artistic creation, or what one might call “Artistic Aesthetics.” A short section deals with Islamic Aesthetics in Contemporary Art, although this topic constitutes a separate episteme requiring different parameters of knowledge. By no means complete, this section is only meant to acknowledge an emerging scholarship that crosses the border between Islamic art history and contemporary art criticism. Students and scholars interested this complex topic of the Islamic dimensions in global art today ought to seek additional resources in this distinct domain of contemporary art criticism where, as general rule, the denominations “Islamic” or “Islam” are replaced by geocultural or national appellations such as “the Middle East” or “North Africa,” “Pakistan,” or “Arab world,” as in Naef 2003 and Shabout 2007 (both under Islamic Aesthetics in Contemporary Art). About the academic literature on Islamic aesthetics in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian languages, only one quarterly in Persian, Kimiya-ye-Honar: The Quarterly Periodical of the Advanced Research Institute of the Arts, is cited in the section Theoretical Aesthetics in Islamic Philosophy. However, some authors here mentioned have explored this scholarly production and can constitute an alternative resource, such as Doris Behrens-Abouseif (see Behrens-Abouseif 1999, under Aesthetics in the Qurʾan).

Qurʾanic Aesthetics

As textual construction of divine origin according to Islam, the Qurʾan possesses unique aesthetic qualities. The subject of the Qurʾanic literary aesthetic overlaps that of the linguistic styles employed in the Islamic scripture belonging to the consummate and prolific field of Arabic and religious studies. Here a limited selection of citations suffices to cover this well-known aspect of Qurʾanic aesthetics, also denominated “the beauty of the Qurʾan.” But the holy book also conveys an aesthetic content about art and visuality that is, however, much less studied. This content does not appear under the form of an explanatory commentary or doctrine. Mixed with the religious semantic and often expressed by means of metaphors and parables, to be unraveled it requires a specialized investigation on the threefold front of the exegetical analysis of primary sources, the hermeneutic of Islamic visuality, and aesthetic theory (mainly modern and contemporary Western theory). A last aspect of Qurʾanic aesthetics concerns the Qurʾan as physical object, a book that went through processes of embellishment so as to provide it with the high status of an enjoyable perceptual aesthetic entity. While Qurʾanic book art belongs more specifically to the category of artistic aesthetics, for the purpose of clarity it is placed in the section dedicated to the Qurʾan.

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