The Circle in Islamic Culture

Ornate mosaics adorn many Muslim holy sites such as this one at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
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Ancient Muslim art focused on so-called nonfigural representations such as calligraphy, plants and geometric shapes. The Quran does not forbid figural art, which depicts humans or animals, but early Islamic societies forbade it to avoid idolatry. Islamic civilization is well-known for its grand mosaics using complete geometric shapes. The mosaics revealed Islamic civilization's fascination with and expansion of Euclid's geometry. They also featured Muslim symbols like the eight-pointed star and circle.

1 Symbolism

Muslim mosaics such as  this Turkish one often used circles and hexagons.
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In Islam, the circle represents the unity of the monotheistic God. Its center represents God, as well as the city of Mecca, considered the spiritual and geographical centers of Islam, respectively. Sometimes the circle is encompassed by an eight-pointed star, which represents the light of God spreading throughout the world. In turn, the repetition of shapes suggests God's infinite nature, as well as Islam's preoccupation with harmony and order.

2 Art and Artists

Early Islamic mosaic artists sought the glorification of God, not personal recognition.
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Islamic mosaics were a kind of folk art. Because artists were not usually given attribution, no known Islamic artistic equivalents of Michelangelo or other Christian European greats exist. Mosaics were a public endeavor, designed to make mosques beautiful for the pleasure of God. Artists did not generally seek personal attribution or attention. In any case, their knowledge was vast; they were not only artists, but experts in both geometry and Muslim theology.

3 Circles in Sufi Islam

Sufi Muslims are interested in concentric circles.
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The circle's significance is somewhat different in the Islamic mystical tradition, called Sufism. Sufi Muslims share traditional Islam's symbolism, but believe the circle has many additional meanings. Sufis believe circles acknowledge the central essences of God's many attributes, including power, desire and knowledge. Sufi Muslims also see spiritual significance in concentric circles. In Sufi philosophy, the center of the smallest circle represents close proximity to God's essence, while each outward circle suggests distance.

4 Sufi Practice

Sufi dances evoke the spiritual significance of the circle in dance.
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Sufi dancers, known in the West as whirling dervishes, twirl in circles in an effort to be close to God. Sometimes many dancers form a circle, and an individual may rotate into the center to be surrounded by the circle. In more complicated dances, the member of a Sufi order may form concentric circles. The dance is usually accompanied by a chanted prayer, meant to bring God closer in the course of ecstatic movemen.

Christina Lee began writing in 2004. Her co-authored essay is included in the edited volume, "Discipline and Punishment in Global Affairs." Lee holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and politics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Master of Arts in global affairs from American University and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Penn State University.