Patterns crawl up the walls of the Blue Mosque. Painted vines spring from ceramic tiles in endless loops, flowers blooming between them. Intricate spirals originate at the bottom of the wall and repeat over and over until they reach the arching dome high above, where blue, red, and gold swirl together in stunning symmetry. A fleeting glance across the holy space makes the patterns ripple and dance, brimming with vibrant motion as if the shapes were alive.
I was roaming around Istanbul, husband at my side and scarf wrapped firmly around my hair. Carpet vendors lined the streets, vying for our attention as they held brightly colored tapestries into the air. The scents of slow-roasted shish kebabs and fried bread filled the air, and every few hours, the loudspeakers on the high towers of the nearby mosques clicked on, broadcasting their songful readings of sacred prayers across the entire plaza. The ancient city is covered in patterns, from the careful, calculated strokes of the Sultan’s royal signature on the gate of the Topkapi Palace to the souvenir-packed arches of the Grand Bazaar and the sparkling stained glass windows high above.
At the end of our trip, I returned to the United States only to be welcomed by bland, white-painted classroom walls and overused, yellowing wallpapers. After the lush, rich patterns of Turkey, the modern decorations of Utah seemed depressingly simple and uninspired.
Patterns fill the world around us. Jewel-like dew drops hang suspended in perfect spider webs. Delicate snowflakes press cold symmetry against our lips. Music cascades across our eardrums, one measure at a time. The tide roars in and slips out. We spin in constant orbit around the sun, forming patterns of days, weeks, seasons, and years. From the tiniest atom in our bodies to the expanding universe itself, we find beautiful and deliberate repetition.
My mother tells us a story of an experience she had as a young student attending college. Each week, her astrology class brought her endless grief and frustration. Though she struggled to grasp the difficult physics concepts taught, a moment during the semester stood out to her. One particular morning, the professor wrote a long and complex mathematical equation onto the board and informed the class that everything in the universe could fit into that equation.
My mother doesn’t remember the specific equation (though after a bit of research I think it could have been the Standard Model Langrangian), nor does she care nowadays about whether the equation has been proved untrue. What she does remember is the powerful spiritual prompting she received in that moment, testifying to her that God is a God of order, and that he works using beautiful and logical patterns.
The Islamic scholars of ancient times understood this concept long before it was proposed to my mother. Yasser Tabbaa, a revered scholar in Islamic art and architecture, reports that Muslim theorists combined their religious beliefs with the scientific discoveries of their time (72). They claimed that God ruled over the atomic view of matter, space, and time, and considered the discovered existence of atoms and other building blocks of life as an argument for the existence of God. For them, the organization of the world indicated that there must have been an initial creator, and that the patterns of the earth would require constant upkeep and management. Because of these combined beliefs of religion and science, they believed that God could be represented through organization, hence the focus on patterns and geometric forms in their artwork.
This theology reminds me of a particular scripture in Alma 30:44: “…all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” As Alma and ancient Islamic artists both expressed, the patterns of the natural world are powerful testaments of God’s existence.
Unfortunately, God is not the only one to utilize patterns in this world. In the 1700s, piracy was a serious crime, punishable by painful public execution. To avoid speedy discovery by government navies, pirate crews imitated innocent merchants and privateers, copying their flag patterns and sailing techniques. Flying under these false flags also allowed them to close the distance between potential prey before hauling up the Jolly Roger and launching their assault, armed to the teeth and eager to scuttle the enemy ship (Grant).
Patterns can be deceptive. The same routines that define our lives can become twisted, leading to bad habits or addictions that cling to us doggedly, digging in with sharp claws and refusing to let go. Mindlessly trusting in repetition without looking ahead to see where it leads can guide us right off the edge of a cliff into ruts that might be difficult or painful to extract ourselves from.
However, not all deception is designed to be destructive. Others are simply used to hide. The harmless milk snake imitates the color pattern of the venomous coral snake in a technique known as batesian mimicry. Predators, upon seeing bands of red, yellow, and black, will avoid the milk snake just as much as they avoid the deadly coral snake. This stolen pattern provides the milk snake with a much-needed defense against creatures that could easily turn it into a tasty snack otherwise, and gives a heart-stopping scare to trailblazers hoping to enjoy a peaceful hike (“Mimicry in the Wild”).
These additional examples demonstrate the clever duality of patterns. Repetition can just as easily enlighten as it can mislead. Practicing a particular passage on the violin multiple times can help a violinist learn quickly and with exactness, but if the performer accidentally learns one note incorrectly, breaking the learned pattern can become a tedious and time consuming process.
Beneficial and detrimental patterns both have tremendous sway in our daily activities. A large part of our lives is dedicated to identifying which patterns will aid us and which are intelligently designed to trick us. False flags fly all around us. Our friends, family members, or even ourselves might fall back to a defensive mimicry, hiding our true natures in an attempt to protect ourselves. And in the midst of it all, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints calls for us to follow Christ, the perfect model, to keep us safe from Satan’s ploys.
It comes as no surprise that Satan, like the pirates of old, has hijacked a godly tool in an effort to confuse us. Aware of the dual nature of patterns, he seeks to fool us into repetition-born complacency, convincing us to bumble blindly towards pleasures that can only temporarily imitate the joys of God’s true plan. Sinking into the wrong routines, even inadvertently, can bring ruin and sorrow into our lives.
By remaining aware of the ambivalent nature of patterns, both as a testament of godly power and as a cunning pretense, we can better understand where our daily routines are leading us, and enact the necessary changes to keep us following the correct models. As we do this, our positive habits will slowly grow until they become a part of us, as constant, beautiful, and fundamental to our beings as the exquisite symmetry is to the spectacular Blue Mosque.
This post was written by Kaitlyn Thiriot, Humanities Center Student Fellow.
Yasser Tabbaa, “The Muqarnas Dome: Its Origin and Meaning.” Muqarnas 3 (1985): 61–74. https://doi.org/10.2307/1523084, 72.
“Mimicry in the Wild.” Mimicry in the Wild | North Dakota Game and Fish, 2019, https://gf.nd.gov/wildlife-notes/mimicry-wild#:~:text=Batesian%20mimicry%20is%20when%20a,undesirable%20to%20their%20shared%20predator.
Piper, Grant. “Wouldn’t Flying the Jolly Roger Be Counterproductive to Piracy?” Medium, Medium, 28 June 2022, https://grantpiperwriting.medium.com/wouldnt-flying-the-jolly-roger-be-counterproductive-to-piracy-5ab149a2dc50.