The light of Allah
Many people would recognise this enamelled glass lamp from the British Museum (OA+521) as an object from the Islamic world for two reasons. First, it is decorated with Arabic calligraphy, which has been an important and established element of Islamic art since the origins of Islam and retains its primacy today. Second, its shape shows it is a mosque lamp, a form which has remained unchanged for centuries and has been used throughout the Muslim world.
Let us look at the calligraphy first. The reason for the importance of Arabic calligraphy lies with the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam which was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed in the early 7th century AD. The language in which the Qur'an (literally Recitation) was revealed to the prophet and in which it was written down was Arabic. Therefore, the script attained an extremely high (almost sacred) status and efforts were made to beautify it as much as possible. As a result, calligraphy became the highest of all art forms, with calligraphers the craftsmen held in highest regard, and Arabic script became one of the most prevalent forms of decoration.
But calligraphy is not only common on mosque lamps for its general appeal. These artifacts can be made in glass, pierced metal or ceramic. As you can imagine, ceramic ones give out very little light and this provides a clue to the fact that mosque lamps are symbolic as well as functional. The symbolism originates from a Surah (or chapter) of the Qur'an, known as the Chapter of Light (24.35), which contains the only metaphor for Allah in the whole Qur'an.
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
the likeness of His Light is as a
niche wherein is a lamp
(the lamp in a glass,
the glass as it were a glittering star)
kindled from a Blessed Tree,
an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
whose oil well nigh would shine,
even if no fire touched it.
(Arberry, 1955, pp50-51)
Many mosque lamps are decorated with this inscription. The craftsman has allowed the calligraphy to mould itself to the form of the lamp - the long uprights of the letters compliment the flaring sides and neck and part to make space for the handles on the body and the round heraldic device positioned on the neck.
The lamp would have been one of many hanging from the ceiling of the mosque, suspended on chains or cords, and it must have been a splendid and awe-inspiring sight to see them all, with their gilding (now worn) catching the light streaming in from the courtyard. The enamel colours, so bright in the daylight, would appear in silhouette when the mosque was dark and the lamp was lit in the evening, creating a solemn atmosphere.
So, the craftsman, in producing this lamp, was creating an object with several levels of interpretation. It is at once functional, symbolic and decorative and shows a masterful understanding of the use of light and shade and the power of the calligraphic message. The lettering, with the name of the patron, is picked out in enamel on the neck, and would appear dark when the lamp is lit. The calligraphy on the body - that is, the inscription from the Qur'an - is formed only by the surrounding pattern, so the transparent glass would allow the words to glow when lit. He is contrasting the dark words of earthly power with the shining words of Allah.
For pupils learning about the Islamic faith, this object has much to offer at all key stages. In practical terms, it is an example of how the Arabic script, because of the Qur'an, was beautified and formalised (the script here is thuluth, one of the most popular Arabic hands) and became the most important Islamic decorative device, appearing on many different kinds of objects and in many architectural contexts.
The fact that the lamp is inscribed with the Surah of Light is also useful as a teaching tool, not only as a metaphor for Allah, but also because of the mention of the lamp being in a niche. This is a reference to the mihrab, the niche in the wall of the mosque which indicates the direction towards Mecca, to which Muslims should direct their prayers five times a day in accordance with the Five Pillars of Islam. Prayer carpets often show this niche with a mosque lamp hanging up in it and this "directionality" is also a key aspect of Islamic design.
The mosque lamp also fits into a fascinating period of history in Egypt. The Mamluks ruled in Egypt and Syria from 1250-1517 AD and amassed great wealth by controlling trade passing through Egypt and the pilgrimage or Hajj route. Their dynasty was based on a rigid hierarchical administration and this is reflected in the decorative arts. Titles and position at court were everything and sycophancy was rife. This, combined with the importance of calligraphy, led to inscriptions on objects becoming larger and often featuring as the only decorative device, displacing almost entirely the geometric patterns so favoured by earlier (and later) Muslim artists and craftsmen. The inscriptions list the titles of the commissioner of the work and often heap lavish praises on the sultan. Heraldic blazons also appear, apparently introduced from those seen on the arms of the invading crusaders. The pieces are fascinating glimpses of social history as well as beautiful objects in their own right and this mosque lamp is an excellent example.
Carolyn Perry is head of programmes at the MBI Foundation, a UK charity which promotes links between the Middle East and Europe.