Tile with Shahada, 16th century
Stonepaste; polychrome painted under a transparent glaze
10 5/8 × 10 1/2 × 7/8 in. (27 × 26.7 × 2.2 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the 2013 Art of the Islamic Worlds Gala
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Name that Tile!
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
This tile combines multiple features of Islamic art: ceramic tilework, calligraphy, and the fundamental belief of the Islamic faith. Buildings, landmarks, and mosques throughout Islamic lands were adorned with glazed ceramic tiles to achieve a distinctive and vivid polychromatic façade that shimmers in the sun. Tiles decorated interior and exterior walls, vaults, domes, and floors, and were arranged in accordance with geometric, floral, and inscribed programs.
The origins of this epigraphic tile are traced back to 16th-century Syria, Damascus. This tile is made of stone paste and decorated with polychrome paint. The calligraphy and floral decorations are painted in white with green infills inside some of the letters against a sharply contrasting cobalt blue background, maximizing the prominence and legibility of the text.
What is the significance of these prominently displayed words, and how do they convey the fundamental belief of Islam? To be considered a good, practicing member of the faith of Islam, a Muslim should continuously fulfill the foundational elements of the religion known as the ‘five-pillars of Islam’: (1) testifying that God is One and that Muhammad is His prophet (Shahada); (2) praying five times a day (Salat); (3) giving charity (Zakat); (4) fasting during the month of Ramadan (Sawm); and (5) making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (Hajj). Written on this tile is the declaration of the Muslim faith, the Shahada. The upper half of the inscription reads,‘Allah is One’, and the Shahada continues in the lower half, ‘Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.’ The word Shahada means ‘testimonial’. A formal Shahada would begin with the words ‘I testify’, which are absent from this tile. Nevertheless, the essence of the Shahada – professing the oneness of God and the belief that Muhammad is His prophet – remains the core message of this tile. This circular Ottoman tile is unique in the ‘Art of the Islamic Worlds’ permanent collection with its calligraphic inscription of the Muslim profession of faith and affirmation of the fundamental principle of the religion.
Look closely at the composition and describe the colors.
How does the artist use analogous colors? Do they suggest a sense of harmony? Explain.
Pale white lines are painted across the surface.Notice various types of lines used and describe them. Are they curved, tapered, thin, intersecting, etc.? Are some lines similar or different? How?
Observe the background color, how does it augment those lighter lines?
Would you say that the shape of this work of art resonates with the use of line?In what ways? How might these lines be used to communicate meaning?
Describe what you see in terms of a spatial separation or division within this work of art? How does that impact the overall balance or unity?
Considering the scale, dimensions, and materials of this tile, how and/or where might it have been originally displayed?
Using a transparent glaze can color, decorate, or waterproof a work of art. Hypothesize ways the application of a glaze contributes to this tile’s appearance today.
If this tile were displayed outside, what effect might the colors and the glaze work together to produce?
How are the curved white lines arranged? Explain.
Could this arrangement contribute to an expression of certain ideas? How? Compare to ways you express your ideas through printed lines. Calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing, was used in the 16th century to design parts of this tile in an expressive way to communicate the Shahada, a testimony of the Muslim declaration of faith.
Examine parts of the calligraphic script/letters carefully to uncover areas of congruence and difference. Where could some areas include the same word? Support with observations based on the work of art.
Compare the use of calligraphy on this tile to other works of art that use calligraphy. Search the collection at mfah.org.
The line used as a diameter separating the two parts of this tile, is purposeful. The upper half reads: “Allah is One”, and the lower half reads: “Muhammed is the prophet of Allah”. How do these words characterize the fundamental beliefs of Islam?
These words were written over 4 centuries ago, would you say they are still applicable to our world today? Explain.
What materials in this tile contributed to its preservation?How?
Tiles decorate interior and exterior walls and floors, and are arranged in geometric, floral, or inscribed pieces.Imagine how this tile may have been used. Hypothesize how this tile could have possibly been placed in an arrangement.What might have been painted on the tiles that surrounded it? What kind of overall design may have been produced with many tiles placed together?
What might have inspired the artist to create this?
How could this tile achieve significance in the daily life of a person observing it? In what ways could understanding its meaning affect a person’s choices?
- For an immersive experience that can further enhance understanding of the use and placement of tiles such as this, use the Google Arts and Culture App to access the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s online exhibit: ‘Art of the Islamic Worlds’. Scroll through the exhibit to locate this tile and the virtual tour of the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque. Explore the interactive web content to increase engagement and complement the observational and interpretative discussion.
- Create a circular tile from clay. Inscribe the surface of the clay tile with the student’s name written in the Islamic calligraphy style by using a calligraphy generator (such as https://arabiccalligraphygenerator.com/). Paint the tile using contrasting colors with an intentional focus on placement of specific colors. How can color be used to maximize the prominence and legibility of the name?
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider