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The Arabesque of Script and Metaphor in Islamic Art

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 May 2023

Rita Elizabeth Risser*
United Arab Emirates University


The use of script as an aesthetic device is longstanding in Islamic art. Indeed, one of the earliest forms of Islamic art are terracotta oil lamps with text inscribed on their surface.2 These inscriptions are not merely decorative but also reference the light emitted from the lamps as a metaphor for revelation. As I will show, the use of script in Islamic art is not only meant to delight the eye; it is, moreover, a cognitively faceted aesthetic device. Following an overview of script as an aesthetic device in Islamic art, I survey its legacy in the contemporary art world of the Middle East.

Curator's Corner
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Middle East Studies Association

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Rita Elizabeth Risser (PhD McGill) writes on the history and philosophy of art. Most recently she was an assistant professor in the philosophy department at United Arab Emirates University in Abu Dhabi. She has held fellowships with The University of Edinburgh Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, the University of Cambridge's Gulf Research Meetings, and the Biennial Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her writing can be found in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, the Journal of the Philosophy of Education, and Architectural Research Quarterly, among others.


2 See, for example, the eighth-century terracotta lamps excavated at Gerasa, in Evans, Helen C. and Ratliff, Brandie, eds., Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition 7th–9th Century (New York: Yale University Press, 2012), 186-87Google Scholar.

3 On the challenges, see Blair, Shelia and Bloom, Jonathan, “The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field,” Art Bulletin lxxxv (2003): 158, 174-75Google Scholar.

4 Flood, Finbarr Barry, “Between Cult and Culture: Bamiyan, Islamic Iconoclasm, and the Museum,” The Art Bulletin 84 (2002): 643-44CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Porter, Venetia, Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East [exhibition catalogue] (The British Museum Press, 2006)Google Scholar. See also Eigner, Saeb and Hadid, Zaha (forward), Art of the Middle East: Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World and Iran (London: Merrell Publishers, 2015), 208-226Google Scholar.

6 Ibid., 15.

8 See, for example, Soames, Scott, What Is Meaning? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 See, for example, McIver-Lopes, Dominic, Understanding Pictures (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

11 Aanavi, Don, “Devotional Writing: Pseudo-inscriptions,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 27.3 (1968): 358Google Scholar. For a contemporary, spoken-word iteration of pseudo-inscription, see Arthur Danto and Shirin Neshat's discussion of her work Turbulent (1998) (Arthur Danto, “Shirin Neshat,” BOMB Magazine Oct 1 (2000):

12 As Nelson Goodman argued, even the most abstract of artworks will have some representational content – it will be about something, if only itself (Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978), 65).

13 Shelia Blair and Jonathan Bloom, eds., God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth: Light in Islamic Art and Culture (Qatar Foundation, 2013), 10.

14 Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Arab World Institute (1987):

15 Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi (2017):

16 Louvre Abu Dhabi, Abstraction and Calligraphy – Towards a Universal Language:

17 Louvre Abu Dhabi, Exhibition Press Release, February 3, 2021: See also Didier Ottinger and Marie Sarre, eds., Abstraction and Calligraphy: Towards a Universal Language [exhibition catalogue] (London: Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers Ltd, 2021).

19 Stoichita, Victor I., A Short History of the Shadow (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 1997), 11-29Google Scholar.

20 Davidson, Donald, “What Metaphors Mean,” Critical Inquiry 5.1 (1978): 31-47CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark, Metaphors We Live By [1980] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 246-47CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Kittay, Eva Feder, Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure (New York: Clarendon Press, 1987), 39Google Scholar.