Materials: glazed ceramic with stencil printing
Dimensions: 23 centimeters high
Place acquired: Islamic bookshop, Shepherds Bush, London
Place of manufacture: Turkey
This object is a ceramic square, but it’s not a tile or a plaque. It’s a freestanding shallow relief picture showing the inside of a mosque. It looks like an ornament, but possibly it has a practical purpose to orientate a worshiper towards Mecca when praying at home, because behind the open Qu’ran in the middle is the traditional empty niche which in a real mosque indicates the direction of Mecca. The picture uses a false perspective to give an illusion of depth, a bit like a stage set or a diorama model. To one side is the minbar, the Imam’s pulpit, and around the edges of the picture, ‘outside’ the mosque in effect, is a formal plant and flower motif set against what could be a starry sky. It’s actually quite a lovely little thing. In true Islamic tradition it avoids depicting people or living creatures, and it strikes a fine balance between pure pattern and a simple representation of real objects in a recognisable space.
Unlike many other religions that create their sacred spaces within many separate temples, churches or shrines, Islam really has only one, the Kaaba in Mecca, the holy shrine built by Abraham as the first house for the worship of Allah. Wherever in the world a Muslim prays it will be done facing the direction of Mecca. A mosque then, in essence, is just the gathering place, and the compass that directs prayer towards the one holy place.
Clearly this object is not a shrine in any real sense, but it does have a resemblance to a shrine or an altar. It feels like a mini threshold to the sacred, linked just like the mosque it is depicting, to Mecca and the Kaaba, and thus to Allah.
But it also has something of an ornament about it, designed to be attractive, inspirational and beautiful and like all ornaments it will say something about the person or family who display it.