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.

1 - Narrating the Safavid Past: Religion and Society in Three Iranian Cities
Sholeh A. Quinn (University of California, Merced)
Day 1 : Tabriz and Shah Isma‘il: The Sufi Who Became King
Day 2 : Qazvin and Shah Tahmasb: The Safavid State Takes Shape
Day 3 : Isfahan and Shah ‘Abbas: Narrating Half the World
6th - 8th January 2020 | Registration: INR 3000

2 - Architecture of Persuasion: Safavid cities in the 16th and 17th centuries
Sussan Babaie (The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London)
Day 1 : Tabriz and Ardabil: Inherited Traditions and Invented Empire
Day 2 : Qazvin: A New Beginning Under Shah Tahmasb
Day 3 : Isfahan: The Jewel in the Safavid Crown
9th - 11th January 2020 | Registration: INR 3000

3 - Between Word and Image: Safavid Visual Culture in the 16th and 17th century
Massumeh Farhad (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Day 1 : Tabriz and Ardabil: Production of Safavid Royal Manuscripts
Day 2 : Qazvin and Shiraz: Arrival of the Millennium
Day 3 : Isfahan and Mashhad: Towards a New Aesthetics
13th - 15th January 2020 | Registration: INR 3000

4 - Shaykh Abbasi and His Circle: Artistic Exchange between Iran and India in the 17th century
Massumeh Farhad (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Annual Deccan Heritage Foundation Lecture
16th January 2020 | Registration: INR 1000

Timing: 6:30 - 8:30 pm

For Individual seminar registration please check out the Programmes page.


06-16 Jan, 2020


Rs. 8,000
(PG Certificate)