Medieval Islamic architectural geometry predates western mastery of Mathematics

Art 19 Apr 2021 Contributor
Reading Corner
medieval Islamic
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The medieval Islamic golden age had blessed civilization with geniuses like Al-Biruni, Jabir Ibn Hayyan, Ibn Zuhr, etc. Be it science or arts or new innovations, they were at their best. Now in a study researchers found some decorative tilework of the medieval Islamic world that depicts what is known as the decagonal quasicrystal geometry. Western mathematicians and physicists only knew this advanced concept in the 1970s and 1980s. The study was conducted by Peter J. Lu of Harvard University and Paul J. Steinhardt of Princeton University and got published in the reputed journal Science.

Medieval Islamic world and geometric tiling

Geometric tiling has been a distinctive feature of medieval Islamic architecture throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. The simple patterns could be understood to be created with basic tools.  Art historians could not explain the advanced geometrical patterns. It is possible to produce those tiles and patterns on a small scale and individually using basic tools. But to replicate those on a large scale is tremendously difficult. These kinds of patterns have been found abundantly on major buildings from that period including mosques in Isfahan, Iran, Bursa, and madrasas in Baghdad as well as on the shrines in Herat and Agra. As Lu says, “Straightedges and compasses could do for the recurring symmetries of the simplest patterns. But it is obvious that more efficient and advanced machinery is required for the elaborate tilings with decagonal symmetry.”

What has been found through this study?

The researchers found that many medieval Islamic edifices have unmistakably complex tile patterns and that too with very little distortions. They have tagged these tiles as the ‘girih tiles’ which consist of sets of five contiguous polygons (a group consisting of a decagon, pentagon, diamond, bowtie, and hexagon). It is almost unexplainable how the medieval Islamic artisans created the huge numbers of distinctive tile patterns without the lengthy, painstaking, and often flawed process of creating each line segment individually.

According to Lu, “It could be the proof of the major role of mathematics in medieval Islamic art.” This unique pattern with decagonal symmetry that never repeats, known as quasicrystalline tiling, was first introduced by British mathematician Sir Roger Penrose in the 1970s and elaborately explained by Steinhardt and Dov Levine over the past 30-40 years. Lu added, “We’re finding evidence for the same approach used for 500 years across the Islamic world.”