Heavenly Notes #3

Heavenly Notes #3

Chapter 1: Dr. Mohammad Sadegh Mahfouzi

Divinity and Religiosity in Iranian Culture and Art

One of the most significant impacts of monotheistic thought on Iranian-Islamic art is the consistency and continuity of this art form. Since monotheistic thought is accepted as the fundamental principle of Islam by all Muslim believers without any doubt, the stability of this thought over time and geographical differences has influenced Iranian art in every time and place.

The vast and immense scope of Islamic art itself stems from monotheistic thought. Since in monotheistic thought, the oneness of the Creator cannot be fully conceived or represented in any form or appearance, there is therefore no end point for art. None of the forms and phenomena fully express the spiritual ideal of Islam, and this provides an inexhaustible treasure trove for Islamic art.

The impact of monotheistic thought “La ilaha illallah” can even be seen in Muslim urban planning. According to Bourqhart, there is no specific area designated for the residence of the upper social classes in Islamic cities, and it is not possible to distinguish the houses of the wealthy from the poor based on the appearance of the houses. (Bourqhart, 199, 1365)

Since the dawn of creation, humans have chosen and employed symbols to fulfill their material and spiritual needs throughout the course of time. These symbols represent purity, honesty, courage, freedom, and, in a word, divinity. They are, in fact, allusions to the incomparable existence of the Most Holy Divine Essence and a sign for the inhabitants of the earth. They are signs from the higher realm to humanity, for the purpose of their evolution and ascension to a superior and more magnificent world. Among these symbols are those that stem from the religious beliefs and convictions of humans. A religion that God has bestowed upon humanity for their guidance and perfection.

The Iranian artist, in order to reflect his religious beliefs and convictions, has resorted to depicting stories, narratives, and the lives of leaders and great figures of science and religion in his works. Through this means, he has not only satisfied his own spiritual needs but has also conveyed to his fellow human beings the spiritual reflections arising from his religious imagery in a symbolic language. (Shayestefar, 133, 1382)

In many historical periods, particularly after the Timurids, artistic production has been closely linked to religious, cultural, and historical events. One of the major challenges faced by some rulers of historical periods in Iran, especially the Timurids, was the need to establish themselves as legitimate rulers in the Iranian lands.

According to Lambton and Woods, the Yasa (Mongolian law), which created a link between the Mongolian aristocracy and Iranian culture, had lost its value. Therefore, the best tradition of Islamic law, namely the call for public piety and sincere support for the constitution, was established as the official policy of the government. (Lambton, 1978, 9-1; Woods, 1987, 105-99)

The commissioning of high-quality manuscripts and the coherent planning in support of architectural designs sponsored by Timurid rulers such as Timur, Shah Rukh, and his wife Goharshad (died 880 AH) are testaments to these policies. These policies themselves reflected the Timurids’ commitment to religion, which was manifested in the construction of numerous mosques, schools, and shrines. The Gur-e Amir, the tomb of Timur (807-803 AH), the Shah Zendeh which includes a group of sixteen tombs around the tomb of Imam Kazem bin Abbas, the cousin of the Prophet (PBUH), the Timurid Friday Mosque (all in Samarkand), and the Goharshad Mosque built by Goharshad, Shah Rukh’s wife, and finally the shrine of Imam Reza (AS), the eighth Imam of the Shi’ites of the world (both in Mashhad), are all examples of the magnificent and majestic architecture of the Timurid period.

In addition to the existence of some influences of Islamic culture that are evident in the themes chosen for the illustration of manuscripts of the Timurid and Safavid periods, such as funeral ceremonies, burials, women with veils and hijab, mosques and their minarets, people praying, and Quranic inscriptions, some signs of religious elements – especially Shi’a – can be seen in the illustrations.

While Shi’ism was not officially recognized as the religion of Iran until the Safavids came to power, there was a significant Shi’a population in Timurid Iran, even in its capital, Herat. Evidence from inscriptions and paintings suggests that Shi’ism was fully tolerated by both the Timurid and Safavid dynasties. They supported religious works and their Shi’a leanings helped to increase their popularity.

The rules of religious artistic styles, especially painting and illustration, which had developed under the Ilkhanids in the 8th century AH, were merged with Shi’a elements under the Timurids and absorbed into them. The observance of religious elements in the arts of book decoration is abundantly evident in the surviving examples from this period. Iranian patrons commissioned manuscripts that were illustrated by different artists. In addition to poetic works, illustrated manuscripts also included historical books. Among the images in these manuscripts, religious subjects, particularly those with Shi’a leanings, were chosen as the background for artistic developments in different historical periods, especially after the Ilkhanids.

The tendency towards religious themes runs through all historical periods of Iran, both before and after Islam. The loving attention to the foundations of religious thought and the inherent religiosity of this art or all its branches is the most important factor in the flourishing and permanence of Iranian culture and art, which has been able to continuously appear in the most beautiful forms, figures, and colors throughout history. It has also been the center of attention of the Islamic lands in the development of Islamic culture and art. The true religion of Islam is a comprehensive religion that oversees all aspects and dimensions of human life and existence, and seeks nothing but the health of religion and the world, the happiness of humanity, and its guidance on the path to perfection. In its guidance, it has always taken this matter into account. Islam has shaped all human activities and desires in the form of drawing closer to God, and has also given a guided authenticity to his worldly needs, considering anything else to be misguidance. Art and architecture are no exception to this rule.

Muslim Iranian architects, after accepting Islam outwardly by reciting the Shahadah, began their levels of faith with the mention of the Shahadah, and eventually the generalization of the state of faith in all their states and actions penetrated and manifested itself in most of their works. Faith gave direction and insight to the heart of the pious Iranian architect and thus gave his art credibility. The Iranian architect used his architectural work as a means of drawing closer to God, and thus worshiped and fulfilled his duty.

Various factors were effective in creating the architectural works of Muslim Iranians, and the success of the architectural works of Iranians also stems from the faith and commitment of the architect. After the advent of Islam, Muslim architects, like other artists, gradually opened new windows of insight to themselves according to their faith. In this sense, they tried to reconsider all the intellectual and artistic manifestations of their predecessors. Iranian architects have realized that the degree of acceptance and value of deeds in the sight of God is religiosity, and this religiosity must be proven and turned into faith so that in addition to the intellectual and ideological aspect, it is manifested in all their actions. And finally, all deeds and works find a way to divine proximity.

Just as the school of Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula to the entire Middle East and then to all of Asia, North Africa and Europe with unprecedented speed in the first decades, and united different nationalities under the rule of Islam, Iranian architecture, like other arts and industries, with an Islamic color and hue in the culture and civilization of the lands that have accepted Islam and understood faith, it has penetrated and under the influence of this architecture, a monotonous melody of unity has emerged in the architecture of the lands under the influence of Islam.

It is worth noting that among the arts and industries, architecture was the first art to develop throughout Islamic societies and played the main role among the arts, and other arts were somehow related to architecture. In this way, a form of architectural unity can be seen in newly converted Muslim countries.

The Muslim Iranian architect, with the development of his faith, considered himself obliged to follow specific rituals when creating his work, and had learned that he must prepare his soul for work, be present at work with purity, start work in the name of God Almighty, remember God constantly during work, his heart is full of love for God during work, and forget his own objectivity in relation to God in order to manifest the complete levels of his faith and thus display his faith in his work.

The Iranian believer architect throughout the various periods before and after Islam saw everything in the direction of his movement towards God Almighty and considered himself a pilgrim to his court.

Dr. Mohammad Sadegh Mahfouzi

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