Sacred Geometry

In a special interdisciplinary lesson, students discover the hidden symbolism in Islamic art.

The 8th graders taking history with Burt Nadler are surprised but excited to see Andrew Callard, one of the Middle School’s math teachers, when they walk into class after lunch. His presence means that today’s lesson will be an interdisciplinary one, where teachers from different departments collaborate to show students that disciplinary boundaries frequently overlap, sometimes in astonishing ways. In this case, Andrew is here to teach students about the connections between Islamic art and geometry—two subjects that are unexpectedly intertwined.

“What makes Islamic art different from other kinds of religious art?” Andrew asks the 8th graders, who have each received a packet containing pictures of a specific kind of geometric pattern. “What do you see?”

“You can’t have pictures of Allah,” one of the students chimes in. “And aren’t there also not many pictures of humans in general?”

“Right,” says Burt. “When you go to Europe or China or the Philippines or other parts of the world, you’ll see massive amounts of art representing spiritual figures. So without depicting people, how do you think Muslims reach that spirituality that we’ve been talking about? How are we going to find that reverence in their art?”

Seeking the answers to those questions is the students’ task for today. They figure out that the images they’re looking at are tessellations—repeating patterns that continually fit together—and that the photos spread out on each table show examples of tessellations in art. Burt and Andrew instruct them to write down what they see, and the students get to work.

“There’s an arc with ridges on the side and writing on the border in Arabic,” explains one student. “Rafters on the roof and on the surface of the arc. There are curled shapes that are symmetrical, and the wall is white.”

But there’s more to it than that. Andrew encourages students to point out the “geometric principles going on”—which, they quickly realize, all involve symmetry. In Islamic art, shapes and patterns all have symbolic significance. “Why do you think symmetry is being used in a mosque?” he asks. “Why would they use symmetrical designs rather than asymmetrical designs? What does symmetry symbolize?”

“Perfection,” students suggest. “Balance. Equality.”

“Exactly,” says Andrew. “Most of these shapes are regular; you can draw a circle around them pretty easily, because they’re equally spaced. And what does a circle imply? Infinity! It has no beginning, and no end—it lasts forever—so that’s something you could use to represent Allah.”

The students spend the rest of the class using their historical knowledge to figure out where the pictures were taken, which turns out to be Granada, Spain. By the end, they have a basic understanding of Islamic art—so that the next time they walk past the Islamic Center on Embassy Row, they’ll know more about what makes Muslim culture rich and unique.

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