Thoughts on Islamic Art and Knitting

What Do You See in a Circle? Here are some of my thoughts that didn’t make it into Stories In Stitches 4. I wanted to make this into a longer essay, but I didn’t have time to gather my thoughts in a more structured way, so I decided not to include this as an essay.

For a long time now, I’ve been thinking about Islamic art; the people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran; and the probable origins of knitting in the Middle East. Every time I hear news about new violence erupting in this part of the world—the cradle of civilization, home to many early cultural innovations and inventions and the source of so much astounding art and architecture—I am reminded how any civilization can fall prey to closed-mindedness, prejudice, and religious or political totalitarianism.

islamic mosque

Great art does not equate to a great society. The amazing Christian art of the Middle Ages, made during the times of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, also attests to this. Just like the Islamic world today, much of the Christian world of the Dark Ages was filled with fear, oppression, and ignorance. Maybe this is an oversimplification or even a third-grade view of history, but I see parallels that make me think. Do I have any answers? No. But having questions is the first step on the road to finding even the most elusive answers.

A troubled society does not equate to a lack of beauty and inspiration. Even under the worst tyrants and the strongest religious oppression, people find and create beauty. I love Islamic art—the calligraphy, the botanical arabesques, and especially the geometric designs.

gur-e-amir mosoleum

I’ve always loved math and geometry. Creating geometrical patterns using a compass and a ruler is so relaxing and meditative. I imagine the artisans who designed and laid mosaic tiles for decorating mosques and other buildings in the Islamic world felt a lot like we do when we design and make geometric colorwork, lace, and cable patterns in our knitting. There’s something soothing about repetition and the predictability of what will happen next in a geometric design. With straight lines and perfect curves, these kinds of patterns are definitely human-made, exhibiting a type of perfection that does not exist in nature. (Islamic art compensates for this by the curved botanical arabesques and calligraphy shapes, and our knitting does so by the inevitable introduction of human error).

Except for the miniatures illustrating manuscripts, there are few representational images in Islamic art. The Qur’an condemns idolatry and speaks of God as a “maker of forms,” or artist. Many interpret this as a prohibition against creating images that could be seen as idols. I see something more interesting in nonrepresentational art.

We can see a loss of mystery in Western society when art became photorealistic, and the resistance against that literalism (the same literalism that causes dogmatism and fanatical belief in religion or a cause) can be seen in surrealist art, impressionist art, cubist art, and all forms of abstract modern art. Modern art is a resistance against reason as the only important way of seeing the world. Perhaps this is the same spirit behind the nonpictorial nature of Islamic art.

The slipper socks I made for Stories In Stitches 4 include geometrical designs of lines, triangles, and diamonds. The original slippers that inspired this pattern are made of wool with bits of brightly colored acrylic added in duplicate stitch to accentuate the triangle motif. “My cousin made these,” the woman at the market stand told me in a quiet voice with a strong accent. “Where does your cousin live?” I asked. Her voice was so quiet, I had to lean in over the table to hear her. “Eee-rohn,” she whispered.

Tehran Slippers

I hope that perhaps you, too, will find yourself pondering these questions and perhaps gaining some insight into possible answers. Perhaps in the stylized calligraphy, the sinuous curves of arabesques, and the ever-repeating motifs of geometric designs, we can find peace within ourselves. Perhaps through our knitting, we can spread peace to the world.


For the slipper pattern, more information on geometric art, and more stories about knitting, religion, and spiritual practices, see Stories In Stitches 4: Knitting and Spirit.

4 Comments

  1. Yep, it’s very complicated but there’s one thing for sure, the art is gorgeous!

  2. I love Islamic art precisely for its geometric precision and its lines–a lot like knitting, you are right! However, much of this gorgeous art was created during times of calm, in which Islamic societies were something different than the conflict and difficulties we see now.

    It is also common to clump together all of Islam, when actually, there are so many cultures and ethnicities and beliefs mixed in. So, yes, some representational art does exist, particularly in Iran/Persian art. I think sometimes we feel the need to try to understand chaos/difference by generalizing things–and that may be precisely how these “black and white” conflicts within the Middle East and between the West and Middle East get their start.

    Even with some grad education on the topic, I wouldn’t know where to begin when it comes to Islamic art. It awes and overwhelms me.

  3. Author

    Agree, Connie. It’s not usually the people who screw things up, it’s a few leaders and people in power, plus a few crazies, who cause problems for the rest of us.

  4. Donna, please take in account that most of the violent conflicts which happen now in the Near East and which bring a catastrophic loss of historic and artistic heirloom as well as thousands of victims were ignited by US policy (Iran 1953, Iraq etc.)

    It’s not the DARK AGE in the Near East, it is the politics of power and war industry which destroy people and art.

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