Why is Islamic Art and Architecture So Psychedelic?

The psychedelic nature of Islamic art and architecture

Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran

Islamic art and architecture is often called psychedelic in nature – and rightly so. Both feature vibrant colours and intricate, geometric patterns; much like the kaleidoscopic patterns one can see during a psychedelic experience, either with eyes opened or closed. During psychedelic experiences, people may report seeing arabesques, which are a fundamental aspect of Islamic art and consist of rhythmic linear patterns of interlacing foliage and spiralling stems. An arabesque is usually a single design, featuring plant motifs, that is tessellated (or tiled). Tessellation is when a surface is covered with geometric shapes that fit together in a pattern with no overlaps or gaps.

Some users of DMT have said that the ceilings of world-renowned mosques (such as the Jalil Khayat Mosque in Iraq) bear a striking resemblance to their DMT visions. But why is there this correspondence between Islamic art and architecture and psychedelia?

Jalil Khayat Mosque

There are different ways we could answer this question, ranging from the reasonable to the highly speculative. It will be illuminating, however, to examine the religious reasons why artists and architects in the Islamic world use ornamentation that we regard as being very psychedelic.

The Meaning Behind Islamic Art and Architecture

Islamic art and architecture reflect how Muslims relate to the universe. It is a spiritual representation of nature, not a replication of it. This is intended to allow the artist – and practitioners who view the ornamentation – to feel closer to Allah. In Islam, beauty has always been closely tied to the divine. One of the hadiths (traditions or sayings) of the Prophet Muhammad reads, “Allah is beautiful and he loves beauty.” And this really comes through in Islamic architecture, with certain mosques regarded as some of the most magnificent and awe-inspiring buildings in the world.

One reason that arabesques, geometric patterns, and Arabic calligraphy epitomise Islamic art and architecture is that Islam prohibits representational depictions. This proscription, called aniconism, explains why we don’t see the creation of images of sentient beings in Islamic art. This includes God, Muhammad (and his relatives), the prophets, as well as humans and animals in general. Depicting God in a visual manner is forbidden because it could lead to idolatry. Furthermore, Muslims believe it is impossible, in any case, to represent God in a two- or three-dimensional way since God is incorporeal. There are examples of depictional art in Muslim societies, although it is not very common in the Muslim world.

Islamic art is also abstract because it’s meant to symbolise the transcendent and infinite nature of God. And the arabesque encapsulates this aim; after all, the tessellation can be repeated ad infinitum. Indeed, geometry has an important spiritual significance in Islam. It is meant to mirror the language of the universe and the greatness of Allah. Circles are widely used because they have no end, meaning that they are infinite – and this serves as a reminder of the infinite nature of Allah.

It’s interesting to note that many of the patterns in Islamic art look like the mandalas we find in Buddhist art, which, similarly, serve to represent the universe. Sacred geometry is the notion that certain shapes and patterns (such as spirals) have a spiritual meaning behind them. And this is why we find geometry used in the construction of many types of religious architecture. In a very real sense, Islamic art and architecture do represent the universe. After all, we can find examples of Fibonacci spiral patterns in the domed ceilings of mosques, the same pattern found throughout the natural world.

Is There a Connection Between Islam and Psychedelic Experiences? 

A common DMT experience is finding oneself in a vaulted dome structure. In DMT lexicon, The Chrysthanemum is a gigantic, rotating, fractal flower that has a dome-like appearance. Terence McKenna said you could either pass through The Chrysthanemum and enter hyperspace or stay put (if you didn’t take enough DMT). However, many DMT users also say the vaulted dome space is a revered destination and it’s where you go during a ‘breakthrough’ dose of DMT. McKenna himself called this post-Chrysthanemum place “the dome”, adding:

It’s softly lit, indirectly lit, and the walls—if such they be—are crawling with geometric hallucinations: very brightly colored, very iridescent with deep sheens and very high reflective surfaces. Everything is machine-like and polished and throbbing with energy.

One of the volunteers in Dr Rick Strassman’s experiments with DMT was injected with a high dose of the substance. She then found herself in “a beautiful domed structure, a virtual Taj Mahal… I don’t know what happened. All of a sudden, BAM! there I was. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” This vaulted space can be a combination of the sacred, alien, and technological, as well as have a carnival or circus vibe to it. While this space may be ineffable, users have still compared the patterns, colours, and architecture the DMT realm to mosques; like the interior of the Sheikh Loftollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran, for example.

DMT-inspired artwork by SalviaDroid. Very mosque-like space, with mosques in the background.

But why are people entering mosque-like spaces under the influence of DMT? It is perplexing that this particular substance would regularly generate a mosque-like experience. Is it possible that artists and architects in the Islamic world were themselves influenced by psychedelic experiences and designed ornamentation based on those experiences? Well, evidence of psychedelic use in the Islamic world is tenuous; certainly not as palpable as in other religions, such as Mayan and Native American religions (which feature the ritual use of psilocybin mushrooms and mescaline-containing cacti, respectively). Nonetheless, some have speculated that psychedelic experiences may have played a role in Islam, as they possibly did in Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism.

More DMT-inspired artwork by SalviaDroid. Note the domed arching ceiling.

Mystical experiences are an aspect of Islam. In Sufism, the mystical form of the religion, the focus is on achieving a direct, first-hand experience of God. This is known as dhawq or “tasting”. Tariqah (which translates as “path”) is a school of Sufism where adherents follow mystical teachings and practices in order to seek Haqiqa (“ultimate truth”). Dhawq and tariqah can involve a kind of spiritual ecstasy, a state of intoxication that occurs when the self is annihilated. This self-annihilation is known as fana) in Sufism. It means to die before one dies and entails the intimate realisation of God’s unity with the universe and the individual self. In psychedelic parlance, this would be referred to as ego death.

However, it is not clear whether these ecstatic states of consciousness in Islam are a result of psychedelic drugs, let alone DMT. The Sufi mystic al-Ghazali argued that solitude, sleep deprivation, silence, and fasting are methods for bringing Sufis closer to God. And these practices can certainly induce visionary experiences and hallucinations. Other methods for entering trances or ecstatic states include ritual and repetitive prayer (or dhikr), playing music, reciting poetry, and Sufi whirling (practised by the Whirling Dervishes or Mevlevi, an order of Sufism).

Some have pointed out that many mystics and artists in the Islamic world may have used Peganum harmala, otherwise known as Syrian rue. This is a psychoactive plant that grows in the Middle East and contains high amounts of harmala alkaloids. These chemicals function as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), which means they block the activity of monoamine oxidase enzymes in the body. MAOIs are necessary for the preparation of ayahuasca as it allows a DMT-containing plant to become psychoactive when ingested (without an MAOI-containing plant in the mix, the DMT would be broken down by the enzyme MAO in the body).

The ceiling of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque

Syrian rue by itself, however, has psychoactive effects. When taken in both low or large doses, the drug can cause hallucinations, although, at higher doses, there may be many unpleasant effects, including, nausea, stomach cramps, dizziness, confusion, tremors, vomiting, delirium, loss of coordination, and paralysis. High doses can also be life-threatening. These unpleasant effects and risks make Syrian rue an unlikely candidate to be deeply embedded in Islamic culture, as peyote is for Native Americans.

Also, can Syrian rue by itself produce the patterns that we see both in Islamic art and the DMT experience? It may be possible that mystics combined Syrian rue with other psychoactive plants, such as certain species of the Acacia tree whose leaves contain DMT – and which are found throughout the Middle East. Although, there isn’t a shred of evidence about the use of an ayahuasca-like concoction by Islamic mystics or artists.

Nonetheless, there is still evidence of Syrian rue use in the Islamic world. Avicenna (ca. 980 to 1037 AD), the Persian philosopher and physician, was aware of its psychoactive properties. And it does have a reputation as a sacred plant in the Middle East. It is difficult to verify, though, if this plant was used by Sufis and artists, and what influence this may have had in the culture.

A more reliable candidate for a visionary drug is hashish, as we know that cannabis has played an important role in the traditions of some Sufi sects. The 13th-century botanist Ibn Baitar noted that Sufis would eat hashish as part of their religious devotions, as a way of bringing them closer to God. Since eating cannabis, especially in a high enough dose, can result in a psychedelic experience, it’s possible that hash inspired Islamic art and architecture. The likelihood of this connection, however, is anyone’s guess.

The Manifesting Mind

The connection between psychedelic experiences and Islamic art and architecture (as well as other religious varieties) can be clarified by the very term psychedelic, which literally means “mind-manifesting”. Psychedelics manifest our mind – they can bring unconscious material to the surface, amplify our other mental contents, and alter our sensory perceptions. But the geometric aspect of the experience may also be related to our minds on a very deep level.

It has been suggested that geometric hallucinations are a projection of the structure of our brain, stimulated in a variety of ways (e.g. drugs, conditions like migraine and epilepsy, near-death experiences, sensory deprivation, fasting, hypnagogia, and so on). The psychiatrist Oliver Sacks wrote in his book Hallucinations:

Perhaps such experiences are at the root of our human obsession with pattern and the fact that geometrical patterns find their way into our decorative arts.

He added:

Do the arabesques and hexagons in our own minds, built into our brain organisation, provide us with our first intimations of formal beauty?

We know that expressions of beauty are central to Islam. Of course, this raises the deeper question of why arabesques and geometric patterns are considered beautiful. But, as Sacks indicates, it could be because of the close affinity we have with these patterns. Islamic art and architecture may hold such high aesthetic value because it expresses the patterns found in our very own brain organisation. Indeed, this could help explain why geometric patterns are universally expressed and appreciated.

Islamic art and architecture are some of the finest traditional examples of this kind of aesthetic expression. They may not have necessarily been inspired by altered states, but their resemblance to psychedelic experiences certainly provides a lot of food for thought.

1 Comment

  1. tao
    October 7, 2018 / 11:02 pm

    So Glad to finally read about this subject!
    I m from Turkey, a painter musician involved with Anatolian Sufism and Plant-Shamanism.
    Some Dervishes have used and still use sacraments in their spirituality. Yet these meetings have always been held in small groups and so also most of the Sufi meetings in these region. Many of the Sufis were not liked by most of islamic scholars and politicians because of their practices and their message. Many had a need to ‘seal’ their communities because of these issues and that let the mystics to developed a wider vocabulary of terminologies that expresses stages of consciousness, attributes of the Divine, spiritual passages and all that is in connection to the nature of the Sufi cosmology. So many of the Sufis went underground so to say specially those who use sacraments. Some of the Sufi teachers today are not recommending the use of psychedelic plants and some do recommend and have used themselves, yet these teachers and dervishes do only talk about it when asked and do not bring these plants to communities. The use of sacraments is not common in the Islamic world including in Sufism in general, only small groups and still are only small groups. Poets, artists, writers, musicians and architects have been part of these groups and had also access to plants and sacraments through either the mystic school they were part of or through an eccentric Sultan possibly.
    Thank You so much for your article! Amazing!

Leave a Reply