Updated: Apr 21
As someone who has lived and worked in Sudan, Mali, and Yemen, I have had the incredible opportunity to experience the vibrant Islamic art and culture in these countries. With Eid Al-Fitr on the horizon, I want to share my encounters with art, Islam, and humanitarian work in these striking places.
Sudan was my first humanitarian mission, and its rich history and deep cultural roots continue to captivate me. Sudan, which unfortunately makes headlines due to ongoing fighting for power, is a land of intricate geometric patterns that decorate its mosques and buildings, alongside the unique tradition of calligraphy used to adorn the walls of mosques and other public places. What I cherish most about my time in Sudan was the sense of camaraderie during my celebration of Eid with Sudanese colleagues in Darfur. We shared meals, drinks, and laughter, which was such a stark contrast to the daily reality of displaced persons living in Nertiti camps.
Mali is another country with a rich Islamic heritage, alongside pre-Islamic roots that never ceases to amaze me. The Great Mosque of Djenné, built entirely of mud bricks, is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a testimony to the skill and artistry of the Malian people. My visits to Timbuktu were a glimpse into the incredible history and culture of this part of the world, with its ancient mosque, and libraries which contained manuscripts dating back to the 13th century. Memories of celebrating Eid with colleagues through Malian music and storytelling about “cousinage,” conflict, family, and work remain cherished experiences that always make me smile.
Yemen, my most intense field mission, holds a special place in my heart and, despite recent positive developments -including a major prisoner swap, it saddens me to know that the conflict continues in this country that I love. Yemen's Old City of Sana'a showcases the creativity and ingenuity of its people, with unique architecture and intricate designs. The city has more than 100 mosques and thousands of buildings that date back to the 11th century, and the Jambiya, the traditional Yemeni knife, is a reminder of the stunning art skills of Yemeni people. But what struck me there was how street art became a form of resistance and expression after war broke out in 2015. Despite the challenges posed by the conflict, artists and activists came together to use the walls of buildings as canvases, turning the city's bright walls into a political and cultural arena with social commentary, political messages, and slogans of hope. Their artworks have ranged from creative murals and graffiti to calligraphic messages, denouncing the devastating impacts of war and highlighting the vibrant history and culture of Yemen. The work of Murad Subay is a striking example of this movement.
Islamic art spans centuries, highlighted by intricate designs, stunning calligraphy, and the extensive use of geometric shapes and patterns. Because of the prohibition of creating images of God or the Prophet Muhammad, the emphasis is placed on abstract art and non-representational forms of expression that have given rise to distinctive and innovative forms of Islamic art.
Recently, Muslim artists have explored themes relating to their identity and pushed the boundaries of traditional Islamic art by exploring new forms of representation, challenging stereotypes, and promoting positive representations of Muslims and Islam. I personally love “calligraffiti”, this art form is a blend of traditional Islamic calligraphy and modern graffiti art. This artistic movement has emerged around the world. eL Seed, a French-Tunisian artist, has gained international recognition for this style.
As we celebrate the arrival of Eid Al-Fitr, let us remember the beauty and diversity of Islamic art and culture in countries such as Sudan, Mali, and Yemen. It is also essential to remember the significant humanitarian and human rights challenges these countries are facing, including displacement, lack of access to basic social services, insecurity, and conflict.
If you have a favorite piece of Islamic art, share it with us in the comments below! And if you're in New York City, don't miss the opportunity to visit the Islamic Art collection at the MET, a beautiful curation of pieces from across the Islamic world.