Islamic Geometric Pattern: Merely Decoration or Advance Visual Communication?

More than half a century before the modern mathematical theory called quasicrystal geometry was discovered in the West, Muslim artists were using it to create intricate, non-repeating tile patterns in buildings. The great masters of this art were certainly motivated by and versed in spiritual disciplines that gave both content and meaning to their work and placed it in the tradition of aiding the viewer to raise his or her spiritual understanding. Keith Critchlow’s observation resulted in the finding of this latter quality in the great Japanese paintings of Southern Sung and later Zen respectively, in the Yantras and Mandalas of Hindu, Tibetan, and Buddhist Art, and in the sand paintings of the indigenous North American Indians (K. Critchlow, 1976). It can also be found to underlie the Malay traditional art. The influence of Sufi cosmology is deeply embodied in the various forms of traditional Malay folk art including calligraphy, palace decorations, mosques and houses, kite-making (Wau), wood-carving, metal sculpting, etc. All these arts served as visual aids to an individual’s spiritual wholeness through active or passive involvement (Esa, 1993). It is obviously a form of visual communication, as it held the function to communicate the essence of monotheism in Islam.

The visual structure of Islamic art has two key aspects: calligraphy using Arabic script and abstract ornamentation using a varied but remarkably integrated visual language. One part of the abstract ornamentation which is the geometric interlaced pattern, in general, was often misunderstood and perpetually have been reduced to merely decoration and utilitarian function, devoid of its true meaning and function.


If one views the Islamic geometric pattern from the myopic view of platonic art and design education, one could only discern them as not more than mere philosophical decoration due to the limited preconceived sectarian idea that perpetually segregates art from design, content from function. For instance, O. Grabar biased interpretation of the arabesque. Citing an example of the use of the arabesque found in a mosque in Damascus, Grabar asserts “… almost all the designs found in mosques can be interpreted simply as an ornament” (O.Grabar, 1987). Just like O. Grabar perceive the Islamic geometric pattern, today we see the art of the past as nobody saw it before. We actually perceive it in a different way. When the art of the past ceases to be viewed nostalgically, the works will cease to be holy relics — although they will never re-become what they were before the age of reproduction (J. Berger, 1972). Another misconception of Islamic art or mystification of the interlaced pattern is that it is characterized by a Horror Vacui or fear of emptiness. The expression of Horror Vacui is used widely in artistic discourse. It is often used as if it were an established technical term, but its applicability is so wide and its interpretation so loose that it really does not denote anything more than filling up something. Thus, Islamic art, medieval manuscripts, suburban sprawl, Where’s Waldo, or some forms of Outsider art can be coupled together as expressions of something unifying, a “maximalist” aesthetic, a dislike of blank spaces et cetera. (Lähde, 2001)

The main component of Islamic art is the ubiquitous Islamic geometric pattern, which held the doctrine of unity and philosophy of mathematics akin to the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition of antiquity but in a totally sacred universe free of nationalism and rationalism which finally stifled and destroyed the esoteric dimensions of Greek intellectuality. It is also this element innate within the structure of Islam which enabled the creation of sacred art of an essentially geometric nature, and sciences of nature which sought to penetrate into the very structure of physical existence not by splitting the molecule and the atom but by ascending to the archetypal world of mathematics to discover the principal structures which are reflected within the very heart of the matter. Therefore, it is evident that Islamic geometric pattern held a major role in communicating the universal teaching of Islam, as the claims of Daud Sutton:

Traditional Islamic ornament is eminently functional — but its function is not utilitarian. It seeks to compensate for the spiritual losses of civilization by re-establishing something of the primordial beauty of virgin nature and to transport the viewer from immersion in the mundane to serene contemplation. (Sutton, 2007)

The study of Islamic geometric pattern as a form of visual communication is an imperative tool for communication designers as their stepping stone from their common utilization of cultural semiotics and witty visual pun to the universal language of human spirituality by stripping the difference (cultural semiotics) to arrive at the core point of our kinship as a human being. The study could also become inception for the construction of a new visual dialect that is colloquial to every human being despite their culture, school of thoughts, and socioeconomic differences, using the rudiment structures of visual communication which is geometry, the universal language that gives proportion, structure, and form to the cycle of growth in all aspects of life. It is a practical blueprint for design and subsequently a way of appreciating spiritual values, archetypes, and patterns that govern the order of the cosmos. The geometric expression also happens to be one of the simplest expressions of unity in the cosmos but has the latent potential to disseminate information beyond language, aesthetic experience, or tease one supreme consciousness. It's not to look at and interpreted in the way semiology used to interpret art but to just immerse in the whole ensemble and contemplate the experience. It is not so much the individual motif such as a flower, arabesque, geometrical design, or hunting scene which asks for our attention and possible interpretation, but rather the whole ensemble, the Gestalt, which impresses itself on our sensibilities and represents our aesthetic experience. (Ettinghausen, 1977)

Islamic geometric pattern is not just a one-way communication to the believers or Muslims per se, but it reaches beyond the framework of religion.

Furthermore, one cannot simply attribute this expression of unity to ‘religious feeling’, since however intense emotion maybe it is not enough to inspire the overwhelming range and depth of this art. The root of this unity transcends the realm of emotion which is ‘necessarily vague and always fluctuating’. It is a much deeper ‘intellectual vision’ that is the basis of Islamic art. The term Intellect must be used in its original sense; the Intellect is the faculty in man that gives intuitive knowledge of the Absolute and timeless realities — it is thus on a much higher plane than reason. Intellect, or ‘al-’aql’ in Arabic, is the capacity to perceive the concept of Divine unity. The Islamic tradition teaches that man’s fundamental quality is being endowed with an Intellect capable of metaphysical knowledge and hence the expression of an Absolute Reality. This faculty of the Intellect is not only expressed through the gift of speech but also through artistic creation. It is this vertical axis that gives the process of work in craftsmanship a sacred dimension and a direct link with the higher levels of reality and the creative rhythms in nature. It is from this wisdom that Islamic art derives its sense of beauty. (Oxford Centres for Islamic Studies, 2012)

I proposed to assume that Islamic geometric pattern is an attempt of visual communication to communicate perplexing ideas such as metaphysics and cosmology, rather than just an aesthetic message. The language of Islamic art should not be perceived as solely transmitting an aesthetic message. It is a fact, however, that our contemporary perception of this art has been somewhat distorted. The qualitative nature of Islamic art has been relegated to the periphery and its quantitative character has become the sole means of understanding this art. The rational approach reduces all spiritual values to the human plane, explaining only the historical context of Islamic art with no reference to its most important aspect; its spiritual content. (Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, 2012)

It is also an attempt to form a visual aid in raising viewers' spiritual awareness of the concept of unity in diversity. This gives a further basis to consider Islamic geometric patterns as a model for contemporary means of intercultural communication. It is evident from the analysis of a geometric pattern that it was an arduous effort to push the boundary of visual communication and to answer these questions:

Does good design encourage good, even righteous behavior? Can manmade patterns of point, line, plane, and solid-based upon nature’s own seed, stem, leaf, and fruit — nourish an organic and just society? Do geometries of form condition the geometry of society? (Sandy Isenstadt, Article entitled “Crystal And Arabesque” Posted on 09.16.09


1. Berger, John. (1972) Ways Of Seeing. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

2. Critchlow, Keith. (1976) Islamic Patterns: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach. London: Thames & Hudson

3. Esa, Sulaiman. (1993) Form & Soul Exhibition Catalogue. Kuala Lumpur: Balai Seni Lukis Negara

4. Ettinghausen, Richard. (1977) The Taming Of The Horror Vacui In Islamic Art. New York :

Proceedings Of The American Philosophical Society vol. 123

5. Grabar, Oleg. (1987) The Formation Of Islamic Art. Connecticut: Yale University Press

6. Isenstadt, Sandy. (2009 )“Crystal And Arabesque.” Design Observer. Retrieved on November 16, 2014, from

7. Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. (2002) The Universal Principles of Islamic Art. London: Oxford Press

8. Sutton, Daud. (2007) Islamic Design: A Genius For Geometry. New York: Walker Publishing Company