The Complex Geometry of Islamic Art & Design: A Short Introduction

When you think of the accom­plish­ments of the Islam­ic world, what comes to mind? For most of this cen­tu­ry so far, at least in the West, the very notion has had asso­ci­a­tions in many minds with not cre­ation but destruc­tion. In 2002, math­e­mati­cian Kei­th Devlin lament­ed how “the word Islam con­jures up images of fanat­i­cal ter­ror­ists fly­ing jet air­planes full of peo­ple into build­ings full of even more peo­ple” and “the word Bagh­dad brings to mind the unscrupu­lous and decid­ed­ly evil dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein.” Iron­i­cal­ly, writes Devlin, “the cul­ture that these fanat­ics claim to rep­re­sent when they set about try­ing to destroy the mod­ern world of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy was in fact the cra­dle in which that tra­di­tion was nur­tured. As math­e­mati­cians, we are all chil­dren of Islam.”

You don’t have to dig deep into his­to­ry to dis­cov­er the con­nec­tion between Islam and math­e­mat­ics; you can sim­ply see it. “In Islam­ic cul­ture, geom­e­try is every­where,” says the nar­ra­tor of the brief TED-Ed les­son above. “You can find it in mosques, madrasas, palaces, and pri­vate homes.”

Script­ed by writer and con­sul­tant on Islam­ic design Eric Broug, the video breaks down the com­plex, abstract geo­met­ric pat­terns found every­where in Islam­ic art and design, from its “intri­cate flo­ral motifs adorn­ing car­pets and tex­tiles to pat­terns of tile­work that seem to repeat infi­nite­ly, inspir­ing won­der and con­tem­pla­tion of eter­nal order.”

And the tools used to ren­der these visions of eter­ni­ty? Noth­ing more advanced than a com­pass and a ruler, Broug explains, used to first draw a cir­cle, divide that cir­cle up, draw lines to con­struct repeat­ing shapes like petals or stars, and keep intact the grid under­ly­ing the whole pat­tern. The process of repeat­ing a geo­met­ric pat­tern on a grid, called tes­sel­la­tion, may seen famil­iar indeed to fans of the math­e­mat­i­cal­ly mind­ed artist M.C. Esch­er, who used the very same process to demon­strate what won­drous artis­tic results can emerge from the use of sim­ple basic pat­terns. In fact, Escher’s Dutch coun­try­man Broug once wrote an essay on the con­nec­tions between his art and that of the Islam­ic world for the exhib­it Esch­er Meets Islam­ic Art at Ams­ter­dam’s Tropen­mu­seum.

Esch­er first encoun­tered tes­sel­la­tions on a trip to the Islam­ic world him­self, in the “col­or­ful abstract dec­o­ra­tions in the 14th cen­tu­ry Alham­bra, the well-known palace and fortress com­plex in South­ern Spain,” writes Al.Arte’s Aya Johan­na Daniëlle Dürst Britt. “Although he vis­it­ed the Alham­bra in 1922 after his grad­u­a­tion as a graph­ic artist, he was already inter­est­ed in geom­e­try, sym­me­try and tes­sel­la­tions for some years.” His fas­ci­na­tions includ­ed “the effect of col­or on the visu­al per­spec­tive, caus­ing some motifs to seem infi­nite — an effect part­ly caused by sym­me­try.” His sec­ond vis­it to Alham­bra, in 1936, solid­i­fied his under­stand­ing of the prin­ci­ples of tes­sel­la­tion, and he would go on to base about a hun­dred of his own pieces on the pat­terns he saw there. Those who seek the door to infin­i­ty under­stand that any tra­di­tion may hold the keys.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Ara­bic Trans­la­tors Helped Pre­serve Greek Phi­los­o­phy … and the Clas­si­cal Tra­di­tion

Learn Islam­ic & Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy with 107 Episodes of the His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps Pod­cast

Ancient Maps that Changed the World: See World Maps from Ancient Greece, Baby­lon, Rome, and the Islam­ic World

Watch M.C. Esch­er Make His Final Artis­tic Cre­ation in the 1971 Doc­u­men­tary Adven­tures in Per­cep­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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