In the Islamic tradition, the duality of light and shadow forms the basis on which colour is seen. In this primarily metaphysical view of the phenomenon of colour, light and shadow represent the latent possibilities of heavenly archetypes. In light, God is manifest as the source of all being, and the gifts which light brings are beauty, purity, brilliance, greatness, power and benefit — «rang», the Arabic word for colour, is the equivalent of all these meanings.
Two creative areas are open to mankind: alchemy, as the «Science of Transformation of the Human Spirit» (of which the knowledge of colours forms a part), and the traditional crafts (mosaics and miniatures, cloth, carpets and glass). Both alchemy and the traditional crafts represent the two methods available to human beings in their contemplation of the processes of nature. These art forms, with their symbolic value in both the religious life of Islam and everyday life, also exist on the mystical plane. The mosaicist takes part in a process of alchemy both physically and spiritually, and the selection of colours symbolises a certain state of knowledge. The arts, to be understood as the union of the human self with divine reality, strive in their different forms for a state of purity, which is then made spiritual. Mysticism has the same goal — it, too, strives for the transformation of its soul. But mysticism exists beyond the temporal, where the world of colours serves as its sole guarantee of direction and orientation.
The Islamic system of colours is arranged on three levels: on the first level, the
White is the light of the sun, received as a manifestation of divine power which allows the colours to flow forth.
In black, the colours remain concealed from their own brightness. Black is part of the divine emanation (the origin of all things out of the unchanging completeness of divine unity), a part of a divine quality which withdraws and hides itself (God hides in his own radiance). Black thus symbolises the destruction of the self as the prerequisite for reintegration. (In the Islamic tradition, colour is an instrument bestowed upon the initiated on the way to regaining a part of the divine.)
The third colour is sandalwood, the colourless earth and the neutral basis on which nature (the system is explained below in the system of four colours) and the polar properties of white and black take effect. In the subdivision representing the material world, the yellowish green to golden brown of the sandal tree is characterised by sandalwood — hard and aromatic, suited to carpentry and the extraction of essences.
The small illustration combines the three colours into a triangle to reflect the three fundamental Islamic concepts of body, mind and soul. As already seen with
If both these systems are combined, the
In the large illustration representing the system of 28 colours, the circle is divided into four quadrants. The solstices and equinoxes or the four points of the compass are assigned to the diagonals, and around the circle the seven colours are inscribed four times, together with their corresponding planetary signs.
An identical layout to the system of four colours (or the elements assigned to them) results from this subdivision, and this clearly explains that microcosm and macrocosm both conform to the same structures. In this illustration, the actual sequence of the colours is characteristic: white and black follow each other at the transition to the next quadrant, although black, seen in the clockwise direction, is located at the beginning of the series, and white is at the end. These two colours, which point to the original duality, lie to each side of the transition from one quadrant to the next, and thus mark beginning and end. Additionally, a secondary system of axes is formed by the diagonal centerlines of the four whites, which thus introduce a dynamic acceleration into the model of the 28 colours (seven times four).
Bibliography: N. Ardalan und L. Bakhtiar, «The Sense of Unity, The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture», London 1973; John Gage, «Colour and Culture, Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction», Thames and Hudson, 1993, pp. 61-64.