The Significance of Colors and Light as Decorative Media in Islamic Art and Architecture

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
spahico@yahoo.com

Colors

The overall character of Islamic decorative arts is enhanced by the creative use of colors. Colors play an important role because of their remarkable qualities that can easily have an effect on people. Effects that colors can have on people are psychological, intellectual and spiritual. For instance, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali wrote that of the four things that give power of eye-sight is to look at the color green.[1]

It is generally accepted that green color creates a feeling of harmony, peace, balance, sympathy and self-esteem. It relieves nervous tension.[2] Even the Holy Qur’an highlights that the green color is the color of some articles in Paradise (Jannah), such as pillows (Al-Rahman 76) and garments of fine silk (Al-Insan 21; Al-Kahf 31). Abdullah Yusuf Ali said that the color green is mentioned as the color of the clothes the residents of Jannah will wear because “it is the most refreshing to the eye, and fits in well with the Garden.”[3]

Of the pleasures in Paradise (Jannah) that the Holy Qur’an draws attention to is this: “…there will be there all that the souls could desire, all that the eyes could delight in” (Al-Zukhruf 71). It stands to reason, therefore, that if the color green is the color of many articles in Paradise (Jannah), and if the eyes will delight in the appearance of things in Paradise (Jannah), than the color green must have some special significance for man’s psychological and spiritual well-being.

According to experts in the psychology of colors, currently the most popular decorating color is green. It symbolizes nature. “It is the easiest color on the eye and can improve vision. It is a calming, refreshing color. People waiting to appear on TV sit in “green rooms” to relax. Hospitals often use green because it relaxes patients.”[4]

However, it is not only green color that dominates Islamic decorative arts. Other colors, such as blue, red and brown, all of which present different psychological qualities and advantages of their own,[5] are also well represented.

Furthermore, creatively manipulating the power of colors can add to the prospect of transforming buildings into man-made “signs” revealing the presence and greatness of God. In fact, using colors in decoration in order that some spiritual initiatives are accomplished, for painting an object or a piece of a surface or for becoming a segment of a spectrum of an arabesque or a piece of a calligraphic writing — all this signifies an imitation of the ubiquitous spiritual paradigms in the natural kingdom. Man did not invent colors: their functions and impact on human psyche. Such is readily available everywhere around us on every plane of God’s creation. Colors are life’s integral part. There is no escaping the presence and functions of colors.

On this there are several verses in the Qur’an wherein the Almighty Creator highlights the significance of colors which are woven into His magnificent creation. The importance of the phenomenon of colors is dual: it adds to the corporeal enjoyment of men as well as of other living creatures, and it also serves some spiritual purposes. It is because of this that in some verses the Qur’an mentions colors as one of life’s foremost realities alongside the notion of the “sign” (ayah) or “message” (dhikra), whereby the people of a high spiritual discernment are invited never to stop reflecting upon the book of creation so that their spirituality can grow even higher. In one Qur’anic verse, for instance, having cited the phenomenon of multiple things on earth that exist in various colors, Allah concludes the verse by saying: “…Verily in this is a sign for men who are mindful (or who remember)” (Al-Nahl 13).

Another verse that highlights, among other things, nature’s multicolored goods, ends by these words: “…Truly, in this, is a Message of remembrance to men of understanding.” (Al-Zumar 21).

Yet another verse, wherein the variety of colors in all aspects of creation has been brought to light, ends in this manner: “…Those truly fear Allah, among His Servants who have knowledge. For Allah is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving” (Fatir 28). In the last verse, a close relationship between reading nature’s signs (ayat) — a variety of colors being a part of it — and knowledge that leads to the recognition and fear of Allah, is clearly implied.

It follows that since colors are singled out as an important aspect of God’s artistry in creation, likewise colors are a very important aspect of decoration in the Islamic built environment. Nonetheless, this, not at all, connotes an imitation of nature, much less its glorification. Rather, this signifies a recognition and endorsement of the spiritual paradigms on which the physical aspects of existence rest. The quintessence of the same paradigms is then extended on the forms and functions of Muslim buildings because such buildings, in fact, are the facets of nature that have been utilized, processed or manipulated so that a framework for the implementation of man’s heavenly mission on earth is created. This way, nature and the Islamic built environment become unified serving similar ideological purposes.

In the Islamic built environment, decorative colors are employed in order that the effects of men’s involvement in creating buildings are denied, at most, and obscured, at least, thus validating the humility and submissiveness of men, the created, mortal and dependent servant, and the supremacy and greatness of God, the Creator, Sustainer and Lord. Colors are also made use of for creating conducive and favorable environments in which people live and work. It is a common truth that in Islamic decoration different contexts necessitated different approaches and perceptions. Decoration in mosques is not exactly like that in houses or in other public buildings, and decoration in houses is not exactly like that in tombs and mausoleums, and so forth. This precept reflected itself on the issue of colors as well, for they are virtually indispensable in decorative arts.

Just like in nature’s realm, decorative colors in the Islamic built environment also have a significant spiritual bearing.[6] They are revealing, captivating, inspiring, stimulating and soothing.  They act as agents that help one transcend the boundaries of this world and plunge his self into exploring the secrets of the otherworldliness of things and events. Just like the colors featured in all the tiers of the terrestrial existence, the otherworldliness of colors in Islamic decorative arts, likewise, cannot be perceived except by those who possess a strong insight into the spiritual dominion of life’s realities as expounded by the message of Islam. After all, signs (ayat), be they the signs in revelation, or in nature, or in buildings, are to be read, comprehended and, as a rule, acted upon. Otherwise, the roles of signs are bound to be limited, to arouse a shallow appreciation of their mere outer aspects, thus inflicting injustice to them and to those who established them. Ignorance and illiteracy have a number of modes. Without doubt, the spiritual ones are most detrimental.



[1] Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din, translated into English by Al-Haj Maulana Fazul-ul-Karim, (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1982), vol. 2 p. 18.

[2] Karima Burns, The Healing Colors of Friday Prayer, www.islamonline.net/English/Science

[3] The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary; see the commentary of the verse 31 from the al-Kahf chapter.

[4]David Johnson, Psychology of Color, http://www.infoplease.com/spot/colors1.html.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See: Nader Ardalan & Laleh Bakhtiar, The Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 47. 

 

One thought on “The Significance of Colors and Light as Decorative Media in Islamic Art and Architecture”

  1. Beautiful pictures!Our house is msotly surrounded by pines, so we don’t get such great color. I miss it. But I also like having the green of the pines through the long winters.

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