World War One in the Humber resources
World Collections Resources

From Mok the gorilla to Viking rings - fascinating objects from around the world


First World War Centenary led by IWM

Skip to main content
Accessibility Options | About us | Site Map

Responses to Islamic Art

Qu'ran and Artwork by Shirazeh Houshiary

What I tell about me I tell about you

Shirazeh Houshiary was born in 1955 in Shiraz, Iran. Her work is inspired by the Islamic mystic Sufi tradition. Sufism focuses on a quest for self knowledge and is a major branch of Islam, in which a central belief is that God’s beauty is reflected in all things, even the ugly or cruel. 

In this tradition art is seen as a journey of discovery into the imagination, as Houshiary herself put it in 1994 'An artist is someone who is capable of unveiling the invisible, not a producer of art objects.' This is seen especially in the piece in question where the viewer is required to look very closely before a seemingly black paper sheet is revealed to be a complex work of art. The picture is currently hanging in Cartwright hall, Bradford, as part of the new permanent galleries.


In a gallery this piece really stands out because at first it seems so simple. The piece looks like a plain black sheet, very dull and boring. However, on closer inspection its complexity is revealed. Like the large Qur’an copy from the Palace and Mosque exhibition it’s obvious that a great deal of care and work has gone into the piece. 

The pen and pencil markings barely show up and its fun to see people gathering round the piece in a gallery trying to make out the writing. The repeated design is of letters and numbers making up a mathematical equation, but appears hidden and makes up a larger pattern as pencil marks swirl into the centre like a whirlpool. This sense of chaos combined with logic is quite incredible to behold and on an aesthetic level, as with the post-Mongol Conquest Qur’an, the calligraphy and presentation is very beautiful.


The inspiration for a lot of Houshiary’s work comes from the Iranian Jalul-Din-Rumi (1207-1273). When the Mongols invaded central Asia his father took the family westward. On the journey they encountered the mystic poet Attar, who on seeing Rumi following his father said ‘here comes a sea followed by an ocean.’ Rumi went on to become a great Sufic mystic, poet and teacher. 

His fundamental teaching was of the unification of the mind and the heart; he argued for understanding of others, that without understanding that unbelief is a kind of religion, and that conservative religious belief a kind of disbelief, and without showing tolerance to opposite ideas, one cannot succeed. This sense of a pursuit of unity is expressed in Houshiary’s piece with the contrasting ideas, such as complexity and simplicity, coming together and mixing freely and beautifully.


Post Mongol Conquest Qu’ran:

The Qur'an has formed the basis of Islamic belief since it was received in a series of revelations by the Prophet Muhammad from 610 C.E. to 632 C.E. Seen by Muslims as the direct word of God, the Qur'an is extremely revered and for most of Islamic history was carefully transcribed by hand, often using the highest quality of materials. A set style became established around the eight century C.E. remaining largely unchanged until the tenth century C.E. when alterations in materials and format took place. This copy, an abnormally large one, is thought to date from Iran, after the Mongol conquest in the 1250s, and is similar to copies done in Shiraz in 1370s. The passage is from Surah Rome, which describes the fall of the Roman Empire. Most distinctive is the beautiful calligraphy that developed, probably in the Caliph's chancery in Baghdad, in the tenth century.


When I first saw this piece I was absolutely astounded; books of such an ornate style are uncommon in European culture. The first thing that struck me was the size of this copy of the Qur’an; I could imagine it as the focal point of an ancient Mosque in the medieval Middle East, furthermore the gold ornamentation was very striking. Though I cannot understand Arabic I, along with others I hope, can at least take pleasure in the beauty of the ornate calligraphy. When one considers Islamic art the Qur’an may not immediately spring to mind, especially for a non-Muslim, but it is possible when such works are seen, to appreciate the level of love, care and craftsmanship that must have gone into reproducing the Qur’an. The only bad point I can think of is that the names of so many scribes and artists are lost to history.


The copy of the Qur'an in question is thought to date from the thirteenth or fourteenth century C.E. After the completion of the Mongol conquest of Iran under Genghis Kahn's grandson Möngke Khan. In the 1250s copies of the Qur'an of an exceptional size, like this one began to appear. The Khans work to improve trade was possibly a factor in the refinement of production of the Qur'an, providing new and even finer materials. Iran remained Islamic under the Mongols as the Khans did not enforce a religious policy on the conquered people; hence Islam was allowed to continue to develop. After the Mongol Empire crumbled Iran dissolved into regional dynasties in 1335. It is from around this time, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that the copy of the Qur'an above is thought to have originated, being similar to work done in Shiraz in the 1370s.

Click here to locate Shiraz in Iran.»

Document icon Learning article provided by: Cartwright Hall Art Gallery | 

Comment on this page

This content is licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA
RSS SubscribeXHTML CompliantCSS 2.0 Compliant
Accessibility Statement | Terms of Use | Site Map
Copyright © My Learning 2015. All Rights Reserved
Website by: The Digital Learning Agency