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Art and Architecture >
The Notion of Willful Ambiguity

The changing and variable interpretations given to any particular color at any particular time or place exemplify a final characteristic of much Islamic art: its willful ambiguity. Because there is no clergy in Islam to prescribe or maintain any given meaning for any particular symbol or theme, there was much more latitude for the viewer to interpret it at will. One example is found on a lusterware dish discovered in the course of the 1911–13 German excavations at the Abbasid capital of Samarra. The design is caught somewhere between abstraction and representation. At first glance the design seems to be abstract, but on closer observation it can be interpreted as a plant or a bird. A circle in the middle of the dish is transformed into the body of a bird by adding palmettes at the sides to form wings and at the top to form the bird's head holding another sprig in its mouth.

Similar ambiguity marks much of the stucco decoration of the contemporary Abbasid palaces at Samarra. Scholars have distinguished three styles of stucco carving there. The first style is a carved technique derived from the geometricized vegetal decoration used in the Umayyad period. The second style is characterized by the use of crosshatching for details. Subjects are somewhat simplified but are still distinguished from the background. The third style, known also as the beveled style, is a molded technique suitable for covering large wall surfaces. It uses a distinctive slanted cut which allows the plaster to be released easily from the mold. Decoration in the beveled style is distinguished by rhythmic and symmetrical repetitions of curved lines ending in spirals that form abstract patterns in which the traditional distinction between subject and background has been dissolved. The beveled style was undoubtedly developed for stucco, but was soon applied to wood and other carved media such as rock crystal, not only in the major cities of Iraq but also in provincial centers.

The transfer of techniques and designs from one medium to another is another hallmark of Islamic art. By contrast, in pre-Islamic times specific designs had been used for different materials—one design was appropriate for textiles, another for metalwares, still others for architectural decoration or for glassware. This division does not hold in Islamic art, where a textile design might reappear on metalware or ceramics and an architectural motif on glassware, despite the enormous differences in scale. For example, the same design of roundels with pearl borders enclosing mythical lion-headed birds, called simurghs, is known on textiles, metalwares, and wall paintings made in early Islamic times over a wide region from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.

The Notion of Willful Ambiguity

Ambiguity characterizes many of the designs decorating works of Islamic art. The figure on this ninth-century luster-painted dish might be interpreted as as an abstract design, a plant, or a bird.

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The beveled style clearly derived from plant motifs, but contemporary viewers, like modern ones, must have seen that these repeated motifs could also be interpreted as human faces or other animate motifs. A wooden panel from Egypt, for example, is carved in a pure abstract beveled style, but the vegetal motifs have been arranged in such a way that they can also be seen as representing a bird. Although it clearly is not a bird, it is more than some abstract leaves. This willed sense of ambiguity is an essential part of the object's artistic content.

The Notion of Willful Ambiguity

The interior walls of many residences at the Abbasid capital at Samarra were decorated with molded decoration, characterized by a distinctive slanted cut that allowed the panels to be released easily from the mold.

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Writing, too, could deliberately be made ambiguous, as on the Bobrinski Bucket. The body of the bucket is decorated with five horizontal bands. The top, middle, and bottom bands contain Arabic inscriptions bestowing good wishes on an (anonymous) owner. The two bands in between contain figural scenes. The second band from the top shows scenes of entertainment, including drinking, music making, and game playing such as backgammon, which was known in the medieval Islamic lands as nard. The second band from the bottom contains scenes of horsemen hunting and fighting. Unlike the dedicatory inscription written clearly around the rim and handle in Persian, the Arabic inscriptions on the body of the bucket are extremely difficult to read. In the top and bottom bands, the upper parts of the letters are formed from human figures and some of the lower parts are formed from animals. In the middle band the stems of the letters are elaborately knotted. The text in the anthropomorphic and knotted scripts is so banal—“glory and prosperity and power and tranquility and happiness . . . to its owner”—that any viewer could immediately guess its content. These inscriptions were probably not meant to be deciphered and read literally but rather taken metaphorically as representing the same good life depicted in the accompanying figural scenes.

Even architecture could be made ambiguous. Designers and builders juxtaposed and played with the concepts of interior and exterior. This is seen readily in the Alhambra, the medieval palace complex built on the hills overlooking the city of Granada in southern Spain. One of its most distinctive and attractive features is the commingling of the outside and the inside. A courtyard is open to the sky but is inside a building; a porch is covered on three sides but opens to the courtyard. This ambiguity was enhanced by the use of water to connect the exterior with the interior. Water, carried by aqueducts from the surrounding hills, was piped into buildings, where it flowed from fountains through an elaborate system of channels in the floor. The ubiquitous sound of flowing water further blurred the distinction between inside and outside. Vistas also brought outside and inside together. Many rooms had windows or loggias (roofed open galleries) designed to command an extensive outlook and from which one could gaze on gardens or the city below.

Similar ambiguity can be seen in muqarnas, the distinctive stalactite-like motif used in Islamic buildings from Spain to Central Asia. The playful ambiguity inherent in the form often makes it difficult to determine its load-bearing capability in individual cases. Just as its visual and structural roles were often ambiguous, so were its symbolic implications, and it may well have had different implications at different times. Some scholars have suggested, for example, that the fragmentation and ephemerality inherent in muqarnas were suitable metaphors for the atomistic theology of Abbasid apologists. In Iran and neighboring areas muqarnas vaults were often used over the tombs of saints and mystics, probably to enhance the sanctity of the specific site. At the shrine of Ahmad Yasavi, for example, stunning muqarnas vaults cover the tomb room and the mosque.

The Notion of Willful Ambiguity

This detail of a silk caftan worn by a prince in the Caucasus mountains in the eighth century shows the same design of a simurgh as seen on the octagonal silver plate.

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The Notion of Willful Ambiguity

Writing could be ambiguous. The Bobrinski Bucket, for example, is decorated with an inscription band in which the letters end in human heads. They contrast with the figural scene of a game of backgammon below.

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The muqarnas motif was also exploited as a metaphor for the dome of heaven. This is clear at the Alhambra palace, where writing drives home the message suggested by the form. Two magnificent muqarnas vaults are suspended over the rooms in the center of the long sides of the Court of the Lions. To the north is the so-called Hall of the Two Sisters, a romantic name applied in memory of two captive sisters who are said to have perished from love at the sight of the amorous happenings they could witness in the gardens below but in which they could not participate. The muqarnas vault is set over an octagonal drum with eight paired windows, itself supported by muqarnas squinches over the square room. On the opposite side of the court is the so-called Hall of the Abencerrajes, whose apocryphal name derives from the famous family brutally murdered at the end of Muslim rule in Spain. In this case the muqarnas vault is set over an eight-pointed star. The walls of both rooms are inscribed with verses taken from a longer poem by the fourteenth-century court poet Ibn Zamrak. The verses describe the movement of the celestial bodies through their orbits in the heavens and reinforce the metaphor of the rotating dome of heaven. As sunlight passed from window to window in the drum of the muqarnas vaults in these two rooms, the movement of shadows would create the effect of a rotating starry sky.

The Notion of Willful Ambiguity

Muqarnas vaults were often used to sanctify the space underneath, as at the late fourteenth-century shrine of Ahmad Yasavi at Turkestan City.

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The Notion of Willful Ambiguity

Muqarnas vaults could also be exploited as a metaphor for the dome of heaven. This one soars over the fourteenth-century Hall of the Two Sisters at the Alhambra, the palace-city of the Nasrid rulers of Granada.

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Paradoxically, the ambiguity inherent in many forms and motifs used in Islamic buildings may have contributed to their survival, as they were reinterpreted to suit the needs and aspirations of later users. This hypothesis of variable meaning and changing interpretation may in part explain why the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, especially its interior mosaics, has survived so well. Scholars are still at somewhat of a loss to explain why the caliph Abd al-Malik ordered its construction, although several different and even contradictory explanations were put forward for its presence. One early explanation, known since the eighth century, was that Abd al-Malik had the Dome of the Rock erected as a substitute focus of pilgrimage to replace the Kaaba in Mecca, which at that time was in the hands of his rival Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr. This heretical idea is discounted by many today, but it certainly carried currency for a long time. A second interpretation, still held by many today, connects the Dome of the Rock to Muhammad's miraculous night journey (isra) from Mecca to Jerusalem and his ascension (miraj) into heaven. This event is mentioned in the Quran (17:1). According to the text, Muhammad traveled from the sacred mosque (masjid al-haram) to the farthest mosque (masjid al-aqsa). The sacred mosque is commonly taken to refer to the mosque in Mecca, and by the mid-eighth century the farthest mosque was taken to refer to some location in Jerusalem. Gradually, each of the events in the journey was related to a specific site in the city, but only from the twelfth or thirteenth century can a direct association between the Dome of the Rock and the Prophet's journey be documented. Regardless of the ultimate truth of either explanation, what is important is that variable explanations could be and were accepted by different audiences.

The same is true of the mosaic program in the interior of the Dome of the Rock. Some scholars have related the iconographical program of trees and other vegetation to medieval stories about Solomon's temple, particularly his palace, and associated the mosaic decoration with the garden paradise that is promised to believers. Similar eschatalogical explanations have been proposed for the contemporary mosaics in the Great Mosque of Damascus, and such an explanation fits Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam. A second interpretation focuses on the jewelry depicted in the mosaics, particularly the crowns and other regalia. These are interpreted as trophies from conquered enemies that were arranged as offerings in a sanctuary or memorial monument. However, none of these explanations—pilgrimage, night journey, ascension, paradise, or victory—are mentioned in the contemporary inscriptions, which speak about Islam and Christianity.

Patrons, artists, and consumers in the Islamic lands seem to have delighted in such ambiguity. Just as the Arabic language encourages plays on words, so too was Islamic art open to multiple and even contradictory interpretations. Writing could impart information, but it was also decorative. Geometry formed the architectural module of construction, but it was also used as a major theme of decoration not only for buldings but also on objects. Color was attractive and enlivening to the eye, but it also had symbolic overtones. The multiple meanings and willed ambiguities are part of the appeal of Islamic art, which can be both unchanging and variable to the modern eye.

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