Postgraduate Diploma Course in Islamic Aesthetics| Postgraduate Certificate Course in Islamic Aesthetics

Islamic Aesthetics

Say: He is God, the One and Only;
God, the Eternal, and Absolute;
He begetteth not, nor is He begotten;
And there is none like unto Him.

This sura, “Purity of Faith,” forms the touchstone of Islam’s monotheism and distinguishes it from other Abrahamic religions. The One God is both sublimely simple and endlessly complex, intimately as close as breath and, at the same time, immeasurably distant. Muhammad is Allah’s messenger and the definitive Word, the Qur’an, was given to him to teach the way of righteousness

The hadith, “God is Beauty and loves that which is beautiful,” led to the creation of a language of Islamic art that is luminescent, dancing with divine splendour. Making art is an act of devotion wherein the artist is sanctified and viewers are blessed through their experiences with the beauty of the creation.

Islamic Aesthetics addresses the endless inventiveness of the peoples who profess this faith, from lands stretching across the Atlantic to India and the borders of China and Southeast Asia today. The course privileges the tenets and themes that developed in a very short period, rather than a reduced, linear study across space and time, resulting in radically changed but synthesised forms. It examines the “language of culture” to contextualize both the form and content of Islamic aesthetics.

The Qur’an is the source of all inspiration and although it has no direct commentary on art or its processes, the rhythmic repetition of the names of an abstraction, Allah, cultivates ecstasy as the text streams in an uninterrupted flow. Evidenced in abstract ornamentation, perhaps the most important domain of Islamic aesthetics and the most characteristic artistic genre, calligraphy, plant-based arabesque, and geometric forms contain artistic references to and reminders of the Divine Being.

The course weaves these elements not only through examples of the innumerable copies of the Qur’an, painstakingly produced by masters as acts of piety, but also through religious and secular architecture, manuscripts, and objects of everyday use. Scholars discuss architectural archetypes of the mosque, oriented towards the pivot of Islam, the Ka’ba, covered “like a bride” with the kiswa or silken veil; the palace, emblem of courtly splendour, political power, and patronage; the mausoleum with its attendant mihrab, lamp and screen; and, the madrasa where orthodox Islamic sciences are taught. Manuscripts range from kingly biographies to illustrated and illuminated poetry and are understood in the context of the injunction against figural representation as well as iconoclasm. Moreover the art of everyday life, whether in the form of metal ware, ceramics, rock crystal, glass, carpets or textiles become exemplars of “otherworldliness” as well as provide the subject matter of the study of patronage, trade and marketplace.

The mystical realm of Sufism, its variants and practice, is an important corner stone in the study of Islamic Aesthetics. Tracking the histories of the “unruly friends of God” and the itinerant dervishes through poetry and painted manuscripts brings into sharp focus the reception of this unorthodox stream.

Last but not the least is the centrality of Gardens and Paradise, both called djanna in Arabic. Described in fecund images of streams, rivers, fountains and lakes with variegated and breath-taking flora, earthly gardens occupy an important place in Islamic aesthetics, reflecting the heavenly ones. These manifestations of faith and an environmental quest of radiant magnificence are examples of a sophisticated urbanism, a far cry from the nomadic beginnings of Islam.

The course thus endeavors to navigate between the two fundamental ideas of Islamic art and aesthetics – first, that all art forms provide aesthetic possibilities of referring to God’s Being as the very essence of beauty and indescribably sublime; and second, that of Paradise to come, created for the just to inhabit, a place of peace and plenitude suggested in all creativity.



Image: Hand coloured lithographed pilgrim certificate, India, late 19th C, National Museum of World Cultures, Leiden, inv. nr. RV-870-24


Lecture: 6:30 – 7:30 pm, Discussion: 7:30 - 8:00 pm IST

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Kindly note there will be no certificates issued for this lecture series. 

The Sacred Journey: An Introduction

Image : Ahmed Mater al-Ziad, Magnetism, photogravure, British Museum 2012, 6018.3 

It is the sacred duty of Muslims, wherever they may reside, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives if they are able. Now drawing millions of pilgrims annually, the Hajj is a powerful bond that brings Muslims together from around the world. In this introduction to the series, Venetia discusses the importance of the rituals, the routes taken by pilgrims in the medieval era, among them the Darb Zubeida from Kufa to Mecca, and the routes from Cairo.  The history of the sacred journey is brought to life by early travellers such as Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Battutah and also discussed are some of objects associated with Mecca and the Hajj from the keys of the Ka‘ba to contemporary art.

Dr. Venetia Porter is a senior curator at the British Museum for the collections of Islamic and Contemporary Middle East art. She studied Arabic and Persian and Islamic Art at the University of Oxford, and her PhD from the University of Durham is on the history and architecture of Medieval Yemen. She was the curator for Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam (2012), editor of the catalogue and, with Liana Saif, The Hajj: Collected Essays (2013). She was the lead curator for the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World (2018). Publications also include Arabic and Persian Seals and Amulets in the British Museum (2011), The Art of Hajj (2012), with Annabel Teh Gallop, Lasting Impressions: seals of the Islamic World (2012), contributions to The Islamic World: A history through objects (2018) and Reflections: contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa with Natasha Morris and Charles Tripp (2020).


January 13, 2021

Lecture: 6:30 – 7:30 pm, Discussion: 7:30 - 8:00 pm IST

Registrations Closed

The Hajj from Colonial India


The British Empire at its height was described by some Britons and Muslims as 'the greatest Mohammedan power'. This conception rested on the fact that the empire contained the largest number of Muslims in the world, in territories from West Africa through the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia. The largest number of Muslim British colonial subjects lived in India. Every year, tens of thousands of them made the Hajj, travelling to Arabia by land and sea, making up one of the largest contingents of pilgrims. From a stance of indifference, the British consular and colonial authorities developed a wide-ranging set of interactions with this movement of Indian pilgrims to and from Mecca - a phenomenon that this lecture will chart, drawing on sources from the colonial archives and hajj safar-namas [pilgrimage narratives].

Dr. John Slight took his BA, MPhil and PhD degrees in History at the University of Cambridge, where he was formerly a Fellow of St. John's College. He is a Lecturer in Imperial and Global History at The Open University, UK, and Director of the Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies. He is the author of The British Empire and the Hajj, 1865-1956 (Harvard University Press, 2015) which was awarded the Institute of Commonwealth Studies' triennial Trevor Reese Memorial Prize for the most innovative, wide-ranging and scholarly work of imperial history published in 2013, 2014 and 2015. 

January 20, 2021

Lecture: 6:30 – 7:30 pm, Discussion: 7:30 - 8:00 pm IST

Registrations Closed

The Hajj from Southeast Asia: A Story in Sources

Image: The seal of Shaykh Yusuf of Makassar, who brought Islam to South Africa, inscribed: Shaykh al-Haj Yusuf al-Taj and dated 1088 (1677/8).  This is the earliest known Malay seal to bear the title al-Haj. National Archives of Indonesia, Makassar 274/4 (a)

From the very earliest days of the establishment of Islam in Southeast Asia, Muslims from the Malay archipelago would have sailed westwards to perform the pilgrimage. Some stayed for many years in the Arabian peninsula, studying with renowned teachers.  Thus a Jawi community of Muslims from all parts of the Malay archipelago was established in the Hijaz, which for much of this period was under Ottoman administration. Dr. Gallop will explore Southeast Asian experiences of the Hajj through a study of original sources documenting these journeys, ranging from seals to letters and from manuscripts to maps, as well as depictions of the Holy Cities in the imagination and remembrance.

Dr. Annabel Teh Gallop is head of the Southeast Asia section and Curator for Indonesian and Malay at the British Library. Her main research interests are in Malay manuscripts, letters, documents and seals, and the art of the Qur’an across the Indian Ocean world.  Recent publications include Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia (2019), a catalogue of over 2,000 seals from Southeast Asia inscribed in Arabic script. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2019.

January 27, 2021

Lecture: 6:30 – 7:30 pm, Discussion: 7:30 - 8:00 pm IST

Registrations Closed

The Prophet, the Holy Cities and Islamic Devotional Texts

Image: Dalail_al_Khayrat_Yah_863_Kaba--h800

The talk will examine several Islamic devotional texts from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries with special focus on Muhammad Suliman al-Jazuli's (d. 1465) Dala'il al-Khayrat. Known for its depictions of the Holy Cities, the prayer cycle for the Prophet Muhammad has become one of the most popular texts in the Sunni world, from West Africa to Southeast Asia. In recent years, Dr. Burak has been studying this corpus of devotional texts and currently is one of the leaders of a research project on the Dala'il. Much of the talk will be devoted to the methodological avenues that the study of such a vast and diverse corpus opens up.

Dr. Guy Burak is the Librarian for Middle Eastern, Islamic and Jewish Studies and NYU's Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. He has written extensively on Islamic law, the history of the post-Mongol period and Islamic visual and material cultures. In recent years, he has been studying Islamic devotional objects and texts.

February 3, 2021

Lecture: 6:30 – 7:30 pm, Discussion: 7:30 - 8:00 pm IST

Registrations Closed

The Arts of Hajj: Gifts and Memorabilia

Image: Coloured lithograph of the mahmal and the pilgrim caravan, before 1916, National Museum of World Cultures, Leiden, RV-1972-14

An important consequence of the Hajj to Mecca was the circulation of objects (and consequently the exchange of global styles) to and from the Sacred Place. Pilgrims from all corners of the Islamic world sold objects along the way to cover their travel expenses and brought back memorabilia ranging from bottles with blessed Zemzem-water to artistic depictions of the Sacred Cities of Mecca and Medina. Besides that, there was a long-standing tradition of bringing gifts to the Ka’ba: the most celebrated were the intricately woven and embroidered textiles that covered the Ka’ba. These were sent yearly from Cairo by the sultans in the pilgrim caravan.

Luit Mols is founder of Sabiel (research in Islamic art) and formerly curator of South-West and Central Asia at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. She co-curated several exhibitions on the Hajj in the Leiden Museum of Ethnology and the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam in cooperation with Venetia Porter and the British Museum. She currently researches depictions of Mecca and Medina on reverse glass paintings and prints and advises museums and institutions on the arts of Hajj and Islamic art.  She holds degrees in Arabic (BA/Ma Leiden University) and Islamic material culture (MSt Oxford University and PhD Leiden University).

February 10, 2021

Lecture: 6:30 – 7:30 pm, Discussion: 7:30 - 8:00 pm IST

Registrations Closed