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Art & Islam

The arts of Islam are among its greatest legacies. Yet the legitimacy of the arts is today a matter of controversy in contemporary Muslim societies. The modernist rejects the religious basis of any art, and therefore the very notion of “Islamic” art, while the Islamist zealot brackets “art” with all that he sees as corrupting and satanic about “modernity” and therefore as “un-Islamic”.

Both need to be reminded that the modern definition and criteria of art, which they presume to be universal and timeless, are of relatively recent origin, a product of the Euro-centric modernity project; that there is indeed an intimate relationship between art and the traditional perspective of Islam; and that this traditional perspective is not related to time, space or material form, but to a world-view that is more than ever relevant to “our time”;

The Problematic

1. The Problem of Art

When the smearing of excrement on a Madona icon, and other weird antics are presented as “art”, the definition of art question

 What is “art”?

– skill and dexterity

– beauty and aesthetics

– subjective expression


2. The Problem of the Art Historian

The art-historic method catalogues and categorizes art under distinct “styles”, defined in terms of formal characteristic, and explains the “evolution” or “development” of each style, by tracing each form to its origin, source or precursor or to its social, economic and other environmental determinants. Thus “Islamic Art” is treated as a style characterized by such elements as geometry, non-figurative or abstract forms that are supposed to have “evolved” to circumvent the prohibition against representation of animate forms, or the “horror vaccui” of desert nomads. Alternatively, “Islamic Art” is either denied recognition as “Art” on the grounds that it does not meet the criteria of originality, and creative expression of the individual artist, and is classified as “crafts” or the lesser, applied, industrial or “useful arts”, or is denied as a single category since there is little in common between the widely varied productions in time and space, and because all the elements of each regional style can be traced to non-Islamic sources.

The argument regarding the proscription of figurative art in Islam is not supported by any Qur’anic injunction, and ignores the multitude of examples of paintings and other arts depicting not only human and animal forms including prophets, birds, horses etc., but also angels, demons, dragons and other mythical beings.


3. The problem of Exclusivist

Rejection of … materialist basis of modernism and hedonist nature modern art, the fundamentalist seeks to preserve the purity of his faith by excluding art altogether from the … of Islam.


4. The problem of the Contemporary Practitioner

Given the modern definition of “Art”, the contemporary “craftsman” seeks acceptance and recognition by “modernizing Islamic art”, distorting the traditional forms and incorporating new forms to demonstrate his originality, novelty, creative expression, whereas the modern “artist” seeks legitimacy by “Islamicising modern art”, by incorporating some traditional motifs, such as geometric patterns and calligraphy.


Historical Perspective

Art, economy, science and philosophy

A common determinant of the economy, science and ideology in any human collectivity is its shared perception of the “real”. Art is the representation of that shared perception.

Archaeological investigations show that some half million years ago the Pothowar Plateau was inhabited by a hunting and gathering people who used rough stone tools, but did not as yet live in settled communities. They obtained all their needs of food, shelter and medicines directly from the natural environment. In this state all natural forms and phenomena were seen as the manifestation of a higher reality, or effects whose cause was a higher metaphysical Reality. There was no need to represent what was a manifest and omni-present reality. “Art”, at this stage, including the art of building, was conspicuous by its absence. The performance of ritual dances, incantations and paintings are of course well documented in hunting and gathering communities. But rituals place the performer, the subject, in the presence of the real, whereas art, as representation, places the artifice between the subject and the represented reality.

The first major change was the separation of phenomenon, as “effect”, from the higher reality as “cause”. The physical world was seen to comprise of four elements: earth, water, air and fire that manifested essential qualities. But the qualities themselves belonged to the higher cause. This “science” enabled man to engage in agriculture, animal husbandry, transportation, the production of commodities and to establish settled urban communities. In this process man saw himself as mediator between “cause” and “effect”. As “agent”, civilized man sought to reflect the qualities of the “principal” in everything he did and everything he made. Thus, in addition to utility, every object and every act reflected the qualities of beauty. Everything was “art”. As early as the third millennium BC, the layout of the Indus Valley cities and buildings in Moenjodaro and Harrappa was governed by rectangular grids and cardinal orientations. The design of major buildings, such as baths and granaries was based on axial symmetries and geometric proportions reflecting the cosmic order. Buddhist and Hindu art and architecture, including stupas and monastries of the Gandhara period at Taxila, Swat and Takht Bahi, and Hindu Shahiya Period temples on the Salt Range, expanded the vocabulary of symbolic forms, with mandalas, yantras, floral and anthropomorphic forms as representations of divine attributes. This vocabulary was assimilated into Muslim art and architecture of the Sultanate and Mughal periods in Sindh and Punjab, and charged with new meanings to communicate the Islamic concepts of unity and the qualities of the Divine as represented by “the most beautiful names”.

The second significant change that began some 500 years ago was the separation of the physical from the non-physical reality. Industrial production relied on the manipulation of the physical and chemical properties of matter. In this process all phenomena were seen to be the result of the action and reaction of matter. Thus cause and effect were seen as inherent in the properties of matter, and the laws of nature were seen to be absolute and inviolable. Nature appeared to require no external cause. However, knowledge of these laws empowered man to control nature itself. Thus Man replaced God as the center of the universe by virtue of his reason, rationality and superior intellect. In this construct, the primary “reality” was perceived as physical and material, while ideas were seen as reflections of that reality in the human mind. But reason and rationality required useful objects and acts only to fulfill physical and material criteria of utility and efficiency. Abstract aesthetic values of beauty, proportion, harmony, rhythm etc., as much as human sentiments and emotions of joy and sorrow, love and hate, had no place in the practical spheres of commerce, industry and science, which dealt with the “real” world of concrete material and physical entities. The expression of abstract ideas, values and concepts now required a new vehicle. This new vehicle was Art, “the fine Arts”, which were to be distinguished from the “useful arts” or “industrial arts” or simply the crafts. The only function of the higher or “fine” arts was the creation of Art. Art writing now emerged as a new field of academic and intellectual pursuit to document, analyze and describe this field of activity.

The third significant change that took place about sixty years ago was the awareness of a “sub-atomic” reality, a reality beyond the physical, but in the downward direction. This radically transformed our perceptions of “the Real”. Relativity had blurred the distinction between matter and energy and shown that measurements of time and space were not universal but variable relative to the observer; now quantum physics introduced another aspect of ambiguity and uncertainty; and “chaos” emerged as a natural principle. Suddenly, nature was no longer “predictable”. The “laws of nature” were now seen to be less than absolute and inviolable. These new concepts shook our confidence and certainties in our ability to know the truth. The “truth”, which was now seen as relative rather than absolute, admitted the possibility of “alternate” and multiple realities. “Pluralism”, and “ambiguity”, became the catch-phrases of post-modernism, whose favorite pastime became the “subversion of elitist icons”, and the debunking of sacred cows. Nature was found to be playing roulette. Nothing was as it appeared. Life was a game of chance. Reality was entirely subjective, in the mind. So we could “invent” and “re-invent” ourselves. This was reflected in the arts as “magic realism”, and other flights of fantasy, hedonism and extreme subjectivism.

Thus we see that Man’s awareness of the “real” has moved from the highest, metaphysical or spiritual plane, from the plane of archetypes to the plane of forms, and from this “ideal” or “imaginal” plane, to the physical, material or terrestrial plane, to the sub-physical or sub-terrestrial plane.

So long as all of creation was seen as the manifestation of the Real, there was no call for art or art writing. So long as man saw himself as agent, in the image of the Creator, he sought to reflect His qualities, the “ideal” forms, in every act. It was only when man replaced God as the measure of all things that he began to “create” art. And when reality was seen to be relative and subjective, the artist set out to invent his own “reality”. But this was the reality of the lower depths of the mind, the psyche.

“Post-colonial cultural discontinuity”

From its inception in post-renaissance Europe to the present phase of post-modernism and post-structuralism, art and art writing has been part and parcel of the modernity project. Along with “humanism” and rationalism of the renaissance, art had risen to challenge the authority of the church. The “age of reason” enlisted art in the service of the imperialist cause, with evolutionism, of carrying the white man’s burden, bringing civilization to the primitive races, who were represented as so “backward” that their culture had not yet “evolved” to the level of producing “art”.

In the resulting encounter between modernity and tradition in colonial and post-colonial societies, art was identified with the west, with modernity, progress, and development, while the crafts and tradition were associated with the past, the orient, primitiveness and backwardness.

Art and art writing were used to justify and give a moral gloss to the civilizing mission of colonialism, and continue to serve global capital’s neo-imperialist mission of bringing civilization, freedom and liberalism, to the people living under the tyranny of cruel, suffocating, barbaric traditions. This mission was adopted by the post-colonial state, for whom modernization was the route to economic prosperity, and by the ruling elites who were quick to align themselves with the colonial masters.


The Traditional Perspective

Traditional View of Art

Most of us probably understand tradition in terms of the past, conventions, rituals, custom, specific to a particular place, or people, i.e. in terms of Time, Space, ethnicity and Physical form. However, in this seminar, and in this paper, we shall use the term “tradition” in the sense of a universal perspective, a “World View”, a cosmology, which transcends time, space and ethnicity as such.

Any worldview is a conceptual construct of Reality, in which we locate our selves in relation to a larger, cosmic scheme of things, and find a purpose and direction for all our actions. It is a construct of reality that gives meaning to our lives, our “raison d’etre”.

At the center of any worldview are the really big questions of Truth, Being and Existence.

Existence is “being” in time and space. But Being itself is beyond and independent of time or space. And the Truth, Reality, is beyond and independent of Being.

But since Being and the Truth are beyond “existence” in time and space, they cannot be encompassed by rational thinking or logical definitions. This problem with “being” had always worried the philosophers until the modernists declared the discussion out of bounds and decided that existence was its own sufficient cause. Thus the modernist worldview is centered on “existence”, while the “traditional” worldview is centered on “Being”.

In the traditional construct Reality, the Truth, is universal, absolute. The reflection of this truth, the ways it is perceived and described, varies from person to person, and between different cultures, in time and space. Thus the same universal truths are variously expressed in Taoism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Table 1: Traditional Cosmology

a). Beyond Being

The Absolute  HahutAl Dhaat  BrahmaBrahma NirgunaPara-Brahma TaoWu Chi


b). The World of the Spirit ;World of Ideas; World of Archetypes; World of Essences

Olam Haberiyah World of Domination 

Godhead(the Father)

Being, Person

Relative Being


Logos(the Son)

Spirit(Holy Ghost)

Lahut‘Alam al-Ruh‘Alam al-Jabrut




Al Aqlul awwal


Ruh ul Quddus


Brahma Siguna






T’ai IT’ai Chi 


c). The World of the Soul; World of Formation; the Subtle world; Psychic World; Macrocosm

Olam Hayetsirah World of the DominionHeaven 




‘Alam al-MalakutAalam e MithalQalam

Loh e Mahfuz

Aalam e Khayal












d). The World of the Body; Physical Universe; the Corporeal World

Olam Ha’asiyah Earth 




‘Alam al-Mulk wal-ShahadahDuniyah BhuMaya Ti 


In this construct, the macrocosm comprises of a hierarchical series of layers which can be broadly grouped into three worlds, planes or dimensions: the earthly world of matter, bound by space and time, this is the world of quantity, which we experience here below; above this is the intermediate world of the heavens, the “imaginal”[1] plane or the world of forms; and above that the “ideal” plane, the spiritual or angelic world, the world of the archetypes, of the essences or qualities and of pure Being. These levels correspond in the human microcosm to the body, the soul and the spirit.

Two essential components of the traditional design method and design theories are proportioning and the use of “ideal forms”. The system of proportional sub-division, as a method for determining size and shape rather than relying on an absolute or fixed measure such as a foot or a yard, has been documented by several scholars[2]. But proportions alone do not determine form. All spatial relationships are proportionate, and several systems of proportions have been found to have been used for the same type, category or genre of objects. Indeed, a particular set of proportions may apply equally to a man, an animal or a tree. Proportions apply to specific forms. Every traditional artifact has a predetermined essential typology, a prototype, a generic or “ideal” form. Needless to say, no two objects of the same type or genre are in fact identical. A single form may be “manifested” in an infinite variety of scales, proportions, and details of construction and decorations while “being” essentially a mandalayantra, or hashtbihisht. This diversity is due to the specific materials, user requirements, climate and other conditions. Nevertheless, the work of the designer, the architect, master or apprentice, begins with copying from a pre-existing model.

To understand the importance of copying, both as a method of design, and as a method of instruction, it is necessary to understand the central place of “ideal forms” in the traditional theory of aesthetics, and the creative process within the traditional world-view and cosmology, which is centered on the relationship between Man, Being and Manifestation.

Traditionally the term “art” includes all the arts and crafts. In fact it is applied to making or doing anything that meets the dual criteria of utility and beauty. Now utility – appropriateness to function and purpose – relates to quantity and the more obvious practical and physical aspects of material and form. But beauty relates to quality, and is traditionally understood as a quality of the Divine. In the traditional cosmology, all creation, everything in the created universe, is a manifestation of the Divine. In the creative process, the attributes and qualities of the Divine are reflected first as archetypes on the plane of the Spirit or the ideal plane, then as pure forms on the imaginal plane, and finally as natural and man-made objects and acts on the earthly plane. However, some objects and acts are more “transparent”, that is, the ideal forms are more readily recognized in them than in others which are more “opaque”. For example, qualities such as proportion, harmony, balance, symmetry etc. are more readily recognized in certain mathematical relationships, in music and other works of art. Similarly, a human form, or a tree or a sunset, may strike us as “perfect” because it corresponds with our idea of a “perfect” man, or woman or tree etc. Indeed every earthly object, artifice or act, takes on a symbolic meaning to the extent that it reflects its heavenly archetype[4].

The “perfected Man” / Insan e Kamil, the fully realized man, is a mirror that reflects all of the qualities, that is, absolute Being; This is his essential nature, his true self, and the potential within every human. But we are veiled from the knowledge of the Real by the phenomenal world, and we are veiled from our true Self by our animal desires[5]. To realize his potential man must recover his lost nature, his primordial nature made in the image of God but which he lost at the fall. It is when his human nature recovers its original wholeness that access to the Spirit, the Eye of the Heart becomes possible.[6] He must undertake an inward journey from the body, through the soul to the heart. For it is the “heart” that is the seat of the Spirit. Only when the “eye of the heart” is opened can it contemplate “the Real” and “gain sight of the light of God”.

Traditional man measured human “development” in terms of the “progress” made on this journey towards “enlightenment”. The role of art, in traditional societies, has been to act as support in this spiritual quest or journey, by reminding us of our role and function in this life, by pointing to our true goal and by illuminating the way to that goal.

Within this framework the artist or craftsman cannot presume to be “original” (except in the sense of returning to the origin), or to “create” beauty. Beauty already exists, out there, as an objective reality. He can only aspire to reflect it in his work. But how can he reflect a heavenly archetype that by definition lies beyond this sensible world, the phenomenal world of matter, space and time?

To begin with, every artist or craftsman acquires his art or craft skill from a recognized master. The master in turn, invariably traces the source of his art through a chain of masters, to a divinely inspired source – a prophet, a saint, a sage or a great master who was both skilled in his art and spiritually enlightened. But none of these sources claim to be the originators or creators of the art in question, only to have been the vehicles or recipients of these gifts from the Divine Spirit. This is why the great classical forms in every traditional art and craft are held in such veneration and esteem. They are handed down from master to apprentice, from generation to generation. These forms are copied by students, not only as a means of perfecting their technical skills, but also as a means of purifying the spirit or acquiring a special blessing. They are used by professionals as exemplars, points of reference, guiding framework or grounds for their own work.

The ideal forms, in themselves, their components and embellishments, can be read as a language of symbols whose meanings may be implicit, as in architectonic elements, in geometric patterns, floral or other natural motifs, or explicit as in the case of iconographic sculpture and painting but, in Islamic art and architecture, more often in calligraphy.

The Islamic Perspective

Man, Being and manifestation

The relationship between Man, Being and manifestation in Islam is best illustrated by the hadith qudsi, a related tradition in which God speaks on the tongue of the Prophet:

“Kunto kanzan makhfiyyan fa-ahbabto an u‘rifa fa-khalaqtul khalq le-u‘rifa.” (I was a Hidden Treasure and I loved to be known, and so I created the world that I might be known).

“I was a hidden treasure”, that is, non-manifest, Absolute Being, or All Possibility;

“I loved to be known”, that is, to be manifest;

“I created the world”, that is, manifestation, or the physical, material cosmos;

“So that I might be known”.

In other words, the purpose of the creation of the cosmos is to manifest the qualities, the attributes of the Creator.

Now the Qur’anic account of the creation of Man tells us that God made his body of clay, then blew into him of His own Spirit, and taught him the names of every thing. That is, Man is both earthly body and Divine Spirit. He has both a lower, animal self and a higher angelic Self. And while everything in the created universe manifests or reflects some quality of the Creator, only Man “knows” the names of every thing. That is, only Man, potentially, knows the cosmos, manifests or reflects all of the qualities.

Thus the function of Man in the created universe is to know, to reflect the qualities of the Divine, the Creator, who is none other than the higher Self.


Ihsan: doing what is beautiful

The central place of beauty in Islam is illustrated by the hadith of Gabriel according to which the archangel appeared in the presence of the Companions in the form of a man and asks the Prophet about Islam, Iman and Ihsan,

“Now tell me about doing what is beautiful (ihsan)”

He replied, “Doing what is beautiful means that you should worship God as if you see Him, for even if you do not see Him, He sees you.”

When he had gone, the Prophet informed his companions that the man was Gabriel, and that “he had come to teach you your religion.”

How can we worship God as if we see Him?

The borrowings from local non-Islamic sources, together with adaptations and modifications necessitated by the specifics of climate, materials and cultural norms, certainly result in the characteristics that distinguish each regional expression. Yet there is a unifying thread, a subtle quality that infuses the diversity of Islamic arts and architectures. This quality derives largely from the treatment of the form or object as signifier, in relation to the content or concept as the thing signified. Thus where other traditions may treat the object as allegory or metaphor, and “realize” or concretize the metaphysical content in the form of anthropomorphic and naturalistic representations, Islamic art and architecture treats the object as sign or symbol, and “idealizes”[7]or abstracts the floral and other natural forms.

Geometry plays an integral part in the design of Sufi shrines, not only in determining the proportions of the building in plan, section and elevation, but also in decorative details such as the curvilinear arabesques and polygonal girah patterns. The geometric patterns, called girah or knots, are made up of lines interwoven into nets or webs of constantly changing forms. The spaces between the lines appear now as pattern and now as ground, adding another layer ambiguity and paradox in the relationship between the apparent, zahir, and the hidden, batin, between simplicity and complexity. This unveiling or unfolding of the same truth at each level is experienced as one moves towards and through the structures.

Thus every form, proportion and decorative scheme becomes a ground for contemplation of higher realities. Each design is contained by a frame that establishes a finite universe, reflecting a cosmos created in perfect balance, in perfect harmony, made up of a diversity of elements governed by symmetry and proportion, with a unique center, the origin, to which everything must return. On closer examination, each element turns out to be a microcosmic representation of the larger scheme, with its own frame containing a symmetrical arrangement of elements and a unique centre. This is not merely a mechanical tool for setting out buildings and decorating surfaces, but is profoundly connected with the metaphysics of the ‘sacred’ sciences of number and geometry.[8]

The Akhwan al-Safa, or the Brotherhood of Purity was a group of “anonymous scholars in the fourth/tenth century who produced a compendium of the arts and sciences in fifty-two epistles. This they published for all to read and it contained a virtual condensation of all knowledge of the time. They placed the science of numbers at the root of all the sciences, ‘…the foundation of wisdom, the source of knowledge and pillar of meaning.’[9]

“Know, brother, that the Creator, most exalted, created as the first thing from His light of unity the simple substance [al-jawhar al basit] called the Active Intellect [‘aql] – as 2 is generated from one by repetition. Then the Universal Soul was generated from the light of the Intellect as 3 is generated by adding unity to 2. Then the hyle was generated by the motion of the Soul as 4 is generated by adding unity to 3.”[10]

“Know, oh brother … that the study of sensible geometry leads to skill in all the practical arts, while the study of intelligible geometry leads to skill in the intellectual arts because this science is one of the gates through which we move to the knowledge of the essence of the soul, and that is the root of all knowledge …”[11]

But the most efficient vehicle for the communication of this knowledge is the word, spoken, as in the recitation of the Qur’an, or written, as in calligraphy. The superiority of calligraphy over representational art is discussed in some detail by Abul Fazal, the court historian of Akbar the Great, in the section on the painting studios in the A’een e Akbari[12].

An impression of the possessor of the form is found in the image. And an assessment of reality is gained from this impression. The letters and words are known through the shape of the line, and meaning is discerned from the letter and the word.

Although the likeness of the body is drawn in the picture, which is well known, and the European artists enable the spectators to roam the cloisters of reality, by bringing forth strange and wondrous forms in innumerable creative manners and styles, so that the eye is deceived into taking the likeness for the real. But writing has a far loftier and superior status because it informs us of the experiences of ancient masters, and the intellect and understanding is developed by this intimacy…

The best form of illustration is calligraphy. …Those who are attracted by outer appearances only, regard the written word as a black form, but those who can discern the truth understand it as a lamp of discernment.

It is true that it is darkness, but hidden and radiant in this darkness are thousands of luminous torches. In fact it is absolutely correct to say that near the mole of the immature eye is a brilliant chandelier.

It is an imprint of the Divine handiwork, a product from the domain of truth and spirituality. It is a night in which the sun is radiant and manifest. It is a dark cloud from which are raining radiant and brilliant pearls. It is the treasure of sight and the secret chamber of reality. It is a strange and wonderful talisman that speaks in a world of silence

It is static, but has the power of motion. It is an untilled field, but is a seeker on the path of heavenward flight.

Its reality is that of a beam from the divine torch of knowledge that falls on the articulate soul. The heart conveys this beam to the imaginal world, which is intermediate between the abstract and the material worlds, so that the abstract may establish a relationship with the material, and an absolute entity may become accustomed to the bonds of confinement.

After this stage the beam descends from the celestial imaginal world to the heart, and comes from the heart to the tongue, and from the tongue enters the ear through the air, and after this, freeing itself from material ties one after the other, returns to its real center.

Sometimes it so happens that this celestial traveler is aided by the fingertips to tour the land and sea of pen and ink, and having completed its excursion, is brought down to the parlor of the page of white paper.

This celestial guest flies off to the higher world by way of the eyes, leaving its footprint on the sheets of paper.


[1] For a detailed description of this term see Chittick, William.C., “Imaginal Worlds, Ibn al-‘Arabi, and the Problem of Religious Diversity”, Sohail Academy, Lahore,2001

[2] Bulatov, Begly, Wall et al.

[3] The mandala and yantra are cosmic diagrams in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions respectively, used in ritual and sacred art and architecture. The hashtbihisht is a three by three “magic square” with eight squares around the central one. Literally, it means eight paradises, and forms the basis of the plans for many Islamic buildings, including tombs.

[4] Cf Introduction to Dr. Martin Lings, Book of Poems, where he maintains that true artistic creativity requires an action of the Spirit. In the Greek tradition this function was called Apollo the god of light and the muses were then further aspects of the same function. In this context it is truer to say that Apollo is not the god of light but the light of God.

[5] Our misplaced passions and desires which are not bad in themselves but bad when the attachment to anything is for ‘the thing in itself’ through blindness to its archetype or the passion or desire itself becomes a ‘god’ i.e. a vice.

[6] See Martin Lings, ‘The Seven Deadly Sins in the Light of the Symbolism of Number’, in Needleman, ed., “Sword of Gnosis – Metaphysics, Cosmology, tradition, Symbolism”, ARKANA, London, 1986

[7] To reflect the “essential” form, as distinct from “stylized” to conform to some canonical form or grammar, or “simplified” due to technical incompetence and the lack of refinement of skills.

[8] See Critchlow, Keith, “Islamic Patterns”, Schocken Books, New York, 1976.

[9] Ibid, p 42

[10] Ibid, p 104

[11] Ibid, p 7

[12] Abul Fazal, A’een e Akbari, Volume One, A’een 35 – tasveerkhana, Urdu translation by Maulvi Muhammad Fida Ali, Sang e Meel Publications, Lahore, 1988.

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About the Author
As practicing architect, educator, author, and pioneer in the movement for conservation of architectural heritage Kamil Khan Mumtaz, has been a leading influence in raising standards of architectural design in general and in the search for a contemporary, appropriate architecture for Pakistan responsive to climate, economy and materials yet rooted in the indigenous culture. He has been a practicing professional architect in Lahore for the past forty three years. From 1966 to 1975 he was in private practice; was a partner in the firm BKM Associates from 1975 to 1985; and ran his own practice from 1985 to present.
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