Islamic Art is best taught through themes

Don’t teach Islamic Art as a stand alone subject! I have always felt that teaching Islamic Art through a theme is a really fun way to get students engaged. Moreover, a cross-curricular approach is a more natural mode of teaching Islamic Art. This could be because Islamic Art in the Muslim world is an interplay of mathematics, religion, spirituality, language, technology, sound, citizenship, feelings and science.

Islamic Art is best understood through various subjects, each adding to the overall picture.

In the past I have done projects that explore Islamic Art through different subjects. As each discipline adds something to pupil experience, the final response of the child can be quite astonishing in terms of the creative result. And nothing ever exists in a vacuum anyway. The other great thing about this approach, is that the teaching gets to become quite authentic, as teachers and pupils can really home in on the different strands of a theme. They get time to consider their own responses and not get overwhelmed by trying to fit in over 1400 years of Islamic Art in one go!

Teachers can always find an angle they will enjoy covering this way too.

It can also make planning easier as you can fit thematic Islamic Art into what you are doing. For example exploring African Islamic Art as part of a project on Africa, or Islamic Art of the Taj Mahal when your topic is India. I have also had fun incorporating Arabic Calligraphy whilst teaching Impressionism and gone further by linking art responses in media and philosophy. And all the while it’s enjoyable to engage with subjects through the prism of Art. Pupils all too often are faced with a narrow curriculum. So their response to a poem for example, is to write a poem. But working with teachers, we have together delivered workshops where pupils are free to express their interpretation of a poem through visual Art. And here is the crunchy bit: we saw that pupils then began to verbalise and textual their feelings at a later stage!

Teachers, get your students to research different forms of Islamic Art.

Cross-curricular methods can also give a boost to other subjects, as pupils can see mathematics working, in symmetries of Islamic patterns, or science through exploring molecular patterns. We can really get pupils to be energetic and active by getting them to think outside the box. In school workshops, teachers often do point out to me pupils who normally don’t engage getting all excited with fresh new ways of playing with Art. I think we’re all creative and just need to find that zesty button to press inside our minds.

a quick Islamic sci-fi & fantasy history tour

Islamic sci-fi may seem comparatively new but there have actually been many explorations of this sort of genre throughout Muslim history. Whilst we are on the topic of genre, I don’t subscribe to time-consuming dialectics of questions such as:

“…is this really sci-fi?”


“…how do I make it sci-fi?”

It is what it is. My own work has been described variously as “magic realism” as “sci-fi” and yet also as “fantasy.” So let’s get to the flavour of the biscuit.

And the flavour begins thousands of years back. Myths, legends and narrative has always been part of shared human history. But trotting back to the few hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad upon whom be peace, what very few seem to have noticed, is traditional Muslims had a real fascination with merging narratives around scientific, religious and philosophical concepts. I think this was because the cosmology of the Qur’an is not a terrestrial one. And as the Muslims, like many of the ancients, were polymaths, they were just at home writing fictional stories as they were making scientific breakthroughs. In my book, “Sultan vs Dracula” I wrote of one such Muslim polymath, Ibn Nafis. He died in 1288 CE. He was a theologian but also a scientist. He made important contributions to medical sciences, such as discovering pulmonary circulation, correcting many Greek ideas. He also wrote an early Science Fiction Novel entitled “Risalat Fad il ibn Natiq.”

What inspired Ibn Nafis to write in a new genre? Was he the first author of science fiction as some suggest?

I don’t think that is terribly important in this discussion, and anyway people will argue about it forever.

So let’s look at why he wrote it.

He wanted to explore and assert the temporary nature of this world and Islamic conceptualisations through fictional narratives and science. Towards the end of his novel, the Muslim concepts of Resurrection and the Afterlife are treated through a scientific lens. And he adds scientific explanations for processes along with fictional narratives. In this sense, it is an extraordinary offering.

Ibn Nafis built this treatise on the back of pioneering writings by Muslim thinkers that went before him. In paricular, mention should be made of the Muslim Scientist Ibn Sina (d 1037 C.E.) who wrote an allegorical thought-story entitled “Hayy, ibn Yaqzdan” which was the influence for the first ever Arabic novel of the same title, written by the Theologian Scientist, Ibn Tufayl (d 1185 C.E.). Both of these works were primarily concerned with advocating Islamic religious and complex spiritual ideas with a fictional narrative that had a scientific underpinning. Unlike today’s science-fiction, early Muslim sci-fi was not intended for amusement of the masses. Consequently there was more “science”, “philosophy”, “spirituality” and “religion” than “characterisation”, “plot”, or “dialogue.”

I did not intend to write in a specific genre, whether Islamic sci-fi or Islamic fantasy, and I don’t think many of the early Muslims did either. It just so happens that we tend to write what we do naturally. You see the Qur’an mentions many worlds, non-human beings, and there is a rich corpus of material out there that has sprung from the imaginal.

My own books are steeped in Islamic conceptualisations. And readers of differing backgrounds and religions tell me how much they enjoyed reading something different. I really do think that people love reading stuff that presents a worldview other than the mainstream. It adds to our shared human experience.

Islamic Minimalism unravelled (un-baffled)

A totally baffled visitor at a recent workshop questioned me about Islamic Minimalism.

Well, I use the term Islamic Minimalism to refer to a specific approach of Islamic Calligraphic Art. I don’t quite view my minimalism with the eyes of the modern minimalist avant-garde of the early to middle twentieth century. My work is a contrast to the nihilist minimalist movement and differs from modernism as it attempts harmony in seeking the Divine. An Islamic minimalist approach gathers momentum through spirituality and religious metaphor.

So why use contemporary language?

The conceptual Art movement on a certain level shares a parallel with early Muslim approach to life, in that the surge of thought takes precedence over form, whether visual or sonoral. The conceptual art scene had a point; Indeed, history records the moving away of human communities from the spiritual when both Christian Renaissance Art and Muslim Osmanli Calligraphy sought for absolute mathematic perfection. Perhaps the Art became too concerned with becoming absolute in itself. Consequently the Art-forms, though becoming standards by which to judge Art itself, melted in the background on the wall. Thus leaving the spiritual freedom of non-rational, non-linear unbounded ocean of the soul to drown in waters of a new avant-garde. Yet, the harmonics laid by the Arab, Persian and Osmanli Calligraphers have such a powerful resonance, the serious calligrapher can leap into a different zone through enobling the craft by their helping hand. Every tradition is full of hidden gems. The journey all too often however, ends in people getting attracted to the beauty of this ocean. Submerged and drowned in blue so to speak.

The surface or the line? The face or the smile?

In opposition to mainstream minimalism, I do not see the surface plane as an existent but as an accident, very much in line with classical Ashari point-of-views on reality. Whilst many common American minimalist movements seek to do away with meaning of metaphor, my work re-establishes the metaphoric expressionism at the heart of minimalism. Clear crisp calligraphy is inspired from Osmanli Calligraphy and sense of proportion developed by Muslim calligraphers of the Holy Qur’an after Ibn Muqlah. However, whilst building on harmonic mathematics, I feel one ought to conceptualise the meaning and the philosophy of meaning. The techniques of harmony are essential, yet they do not take the central axis of my calligraphy: the concept, the meaning and the message are the essential ingredients. And beyond the mathematic as in one sudden movement of sweeping expressionism in Chinese calligraphy. Whilst embodying black as a primary vehicle for the construction of the word, through the pen, increasingly, the brush and colour has become an ally in the quest to ignite a more virtual body to the letter form. The great thing about colour is that it indicates its own temporary nature. The paradox of solid bold black calligraphy, resonating as it does with mathematical harmony, with the temporal illusory nature of writing, lingers on.

Minimalism lies at the heart of Islamic living.

Islamic minimalism has its inception in the empty Kaba. Islam is clear on form: There is none worthy of adulation but the Divine. From this sacred formula, namely, La ilaha il Allah, the spring of meaning gushes forth. The desert around Makka is spartan, and just like the beauty of the Japanese aesthetic, the openness of space provides the perfect backdrop for the elaboration of concepts. Minimalism then, returns the Art to the star filled Arabian night, where there is no distracting golden frame but just the flourish of the Divine Word. Unfettered. And unhindered. There is no frenzy of redundant form here. Simply the evocation. And the hushed touch. Stone and rock frame the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace. And on my first visit to Makka, I reflected upon this unreal reality. This is fundamental to a return to the minimalist method.

Less is more? More is often less.

When the superficial is super-adorned, it becomes something it is not.
Minimalism isn’t just about “less is more.” Neither is it about smallness. Of itself it should not become the moving force behind the Art. But the scaffolding that aids the construction of capturing the breathing soul.