(The following is an extract from "The Art of Islam - Language and Meaning" by Titus Burckhardt).
"The prohibition of images in Islam applies, strictly speaking, only to the image of the divinity...... (however) in Sunni Arabic circles (any) representation of (a) living being is frowned upon, because of the respect for the divine secret contained within every creature, and if the prohibition of images is not observed with equal rigour in all (Islamic) groups, it is non the less strict for everything that falls within the liturgical framework of Islam. Aniconism ......... became somehow an inseparable concomitant of the sacred; it is even one of the foundations, if not the main foundation, of the sacred art of Islam.
"This may appear paradoxical, for the normal foundation of a sacred art is symbolism, and in a religion expressing itself in anthropomorphic symbols - the Quran speaks of God's `face', His `hands' and the throne He sits upon - the rejection of images seems to strike at the very roots of a visual art dealing with things divine. But there is a whole array of subtle compensations which need to be borne in mind, and in particular, the following: a sacred art is not necessarily made of images, even in the broadest sense of the term; it may be no more than quiet exteriorisation, as it were, of a contemplative state, and in this case ........ it reflects no ideas but transforms the surroundings qualitatively, by having them share in an equilibrium whose centre of gravity is the unseen. That such is the nature of Islamic Art is easily verified. It's object is, above all, man's environment ...... and it's quality is essentially contemplative. Aniconism does not detract from this quality; very much to the contrary, for, by precluding every image inviting man to fix his mind on something outside himself and to project his soul onto an `individualising' form, it creates a void. In this respect, the function of Islamic Art is analogous to that of virgin nature, especially the desert, which is likewise favourable to contemplation.
"The proliferation of decoration in Muslim Art does not contradict this quality of contemplative emptiness; on the contrary, ornamentation with abstract forms enhances it through its unbroken rhythm and its endless interweaving. Instead of ensnaring the mind and leading it into some imaginary world, it dissolves mental fixations, just as contemplation of a running stream, a flame or leaves quivering in the wind, can detach conciousness from its inward idols".