Islamic Art & Geometry

A mosque in Casablanca, Morocco exhibits patterns typical of much Islamic art.
... Dynamic Graphics Group/Dynamic Graphics Group/Getty Images

Islamic art has relied for centuries on three main components: geometric patterns, calligraphy, and vegetal patterns or motifs found in nature. Because Islam holds that man shall worship only God and no false idols or figurative stand-ins, Islamic art is practically devoid of human figures. Artists turned to incredibly complex geometry to represent their worship of the Prophet Mohammad. Religious stories and concepts such as God's immutable laws or divine unity could be expressed in infinitely intricate and repetitive patterns and interlacing shapes.

1 Origins

Islam was not the first to infuse its art and architecture with geometry. The ancient Greeks and Romans used geometric motifs in murals and decoration, and Islamic artists enthusiastically pursued the Adriatic style. They expanded on the tradition through rigid adherence to unity and order in geometric mosaics, wall decoration and tapestries. Even the sacred calligraphic Arabic from the Koran -- the Islamic holy scripture -- was easily included in abstract patterns to enhance spiritual significance.

2 Stories Through Shapes

The Metropolitan Museum of Art cites four main shapes or "repeat units" most common in Islamic art: circles, squares, stars and multisided polygons. Shapes helped illustrate stories from the Koran and Islamic myths. The mosaic known as "God's spider web" weaves a circular pattern of complex interlinking stars that echoes the fortuitous spider's web that camouflaged the Prophet Mohammad's hiding spot in less than a day, miraculously helping him evade bloodthirsty pursuers. This is a prime example of Mohammad's story told in Islamic art without bowing to idolatry and violating the Koran.

3 Religious Significance

An architectural example represents the significance of geometry in Islamic art as it relates to religion, as many Islamic mosques were built with guiding artistic principles. The Dome of the Rock temple in Jerusalem has an octagonal base and spherical roof covering the spot where Prophet Mohammad ascended into heaven. The building adheres more rigidly to geometry than similar constructions of the period in other cultures. All features of the temple radiate from the center, emphasizing God's importance in daily life and the centrality of Mohammad's teachings.

4 Advanced Mathematics in Islamic Art

Islamic culture was responsible for many advancements in astronomy and science in the medieval period, and in geometry as well. In 2007, the BBC reported on Harvard researchers who discovered medieval Islamic mosaics reflecting "mathematics that were so sophisticated . . . we didn't figure it out until the last 20 or 30 years." While Islamic art is noted for its mesmerizing beauty, the complexity of the geometry in everything from Islamic mosaics to buildings can be just as astounding.

Taylor Echolls is an award-winning writer whose expertise includes health, environmental and LGBT journalism. He has written for the "Valley Citizen" newspaper, where his work won first- and second-place awards in sports and outdoor features from the Idaho Press Club. Echolls holds a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College.