Of all the Muslim art forms, calligraphy holds pride of place as the foremost and perhaps most characteristic of the modes of visual expression in Islam. From China to Canada and from Russia to South Africa, the widespread use of calligraphy still unites Muslims and visibly differentiates them from the adepts of other religions.
This tradition started with the earliest written versions of the Qur’an in the mid-seventh century, gained speed between the ninth and tenth centuries when Arabic calligraphy entered a more codified form, knew a slight decline with the spread of printing through the Muslim world, but basically enjoyed ten centuries of uninterrupted growth and splendour. It is a tradition which still endures today among Muslims scattered across the far reaches of the globe.
Of all the Muslim art forms, calligraphy holds pride of place as the foremost and perhaps most characteristic of the modes of visual expression in Islam.
Just as the Qur’an and its message pervade every aspect of a Muslim’s life, secular or religious, material or philosophic and abstract, almost any physical object can bear calligraphy, whether sacred or secular, whatever its size and use.
Calligraphy is indeed ubiquitous in the arts of Islam. It is perhaps most visible in architecture, and particularly in places of worship, but it is present on all forms of decorative arts — from coins to jewellery, textiles, weapons and armour and even household utensils, painting and, of course, on all manner of written documents such as manuscripts, scientific documents, political acts, and so forth.
For Muslims, calligraphy has never had the Greek connotations of simply “Beautiful Writing.” It goes far beyond such a definition and has an importance both deeper and broader. Beautiful writing existed in the West in the Middle Ages, but largely in monasteries and generally playing little role in purely secular circles, and it virtually disappeared with the birth of printing.
In Islam, the Divine message was passed through the Prophet, first orally and subsequently written down as the Qur’an. Muhammad (pbuh) is Allah’s Prophet, a Messenger who transmits faithfully to humanity Allah’s words addressed directly to him. Muhammad being a Messenger, it is his message, the Word of Allah, that is all-important and the Qur’an is the direct visual embodiment of Allah’s Message.
Since the words of the Qur’an are of Divine origin, both in form and content, it is natural that the word should become the sacred symbol of Islam.
The written form of the Qur’an is the visible reflection of the Eternal and for mankind the perpetual ability to glimpse the Divine. Where most other Faiths make use of, or turn around, figural images to express their essential beliefs, the figural imagery of Islam is largely the written word, which is held up in opposition to the image. Since the words of the Qur’an are of Divine origin, both in form and content, it is natural that the word should become the sacred symbol of Islam.
The written word thus has from the outset a symbolic content for Muslims which underlines and inspires the aesthetic significance that it developed as calligraphy grew to become a genuine art form. The written word as a symbol, with both religious and aesthetic significance, is pervasive and is as important today as it was several thousand years ago. Contemplation of the written verses of the Qur’an, or of the names of Allah and holy persons, becomes an aesthetic path to a spiritual, a religious experience.
In this sense, the Word becomes epigraph, a visible manifestation of the Intangible, the Eternal and Divine. By extension, the Word or name can become monogram — all the more so as the monogram is a natural bearer of symbolic meaning and content. This tradition endured right through the nineteenth century, for instance in the Turkish tughras.
The written word as a symbol, with both religious and aesthetic significance, is pervasive and is as important today as it was several thousand years ago.
Letters themselves, which convey both the text of the Qur’an as well as the ninety-nine names of Allah, tend thus to become also imbued with a special aura. They were studied with the greatest care by scribes, scholars, mystics and even lay people, in many periods of Muslim culture, and the symbolism inherent in the Word is extended to include the individual letter, individual letters thus becoming imbued with esoteric meanings.
This tendency was perhaps reinforced by the famous Alif Lam Mim letters which occur in the Qur’an and whose exact significance has been much debated, as also, for instance, by the fact that the word Allah begins with an Alif which is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, the numerical equivalent of one and the symbol of Divine unity, and that the Prophet’s name begins with Mim.
It was thus not unnatural that in the Muslim world the Word should have come frequently to be considered to possess talismanic properties, or that individual letters should have been thought by some to have cabalistic and mystical qualities as well as pictorial associations.
Script is the binding visual medium not only of Muslims through the Qur’an, but also between the various peoples and minorities forming the Muslim Ummah. It thus becomes the formal expression of Islam’s universality and of its universal aspirations. The visible testimony of Islam on buildings, objects and elsewhere, was an affirmation of religious and cultural belonging and it was this affirmation which held a vital social function. The role of calligraphy in uniting believers in Islam and in strengthening their feeling of having their own religious identity cannot be overstated.
The role of calligraphy in uniting believers in Islam and in strengthening their feeling of having their own religious identity cannot be overstated.
The Arabic script lends itself by its very nature to a decorative treatment, with its diacritics that can be used purely or largely as embellishment, and its mixture of ascending verticals, descending curves, discreet horizontals and isolated letters which give it a measured visual balance, in the static perfection of the individual forms of different isolated letters, as well as visual rhythm of upward and downward movement, straight and circular forms.
The range of possibilities with the Arabic script is almost limitless: words and individual letters can be compacted or drawn out, curved into almost any shape and embellished in almost any way. Perhaps only the scripts of China and of the civilisations of regions under Chinese influence present such possibilities and I wonder whether even they have the flexibility of the Arabic script and its consequent aesthetic power. It is meant to be both read and admired. Islamic calligraphy blends content and design which, whether legible or not, conveys, when used on religious text, the central symbol of Faith.
The calligrapher is an artist who copies, and the text which he has to copy is given in advance. As the meaning of what he writes unfolds and simultaneously images appear, logic and imagination are combined and calligraphy becomes enchantment, writing itself tends to become an absolute, the Absolute. As I have indicated, although Islamic calligraphy assumes to some extent the Greek attitude that writing is a fine garment clothing meaning (as Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi put it, “Hand-writing is jewellery fashioned by the hand from the pure gold of the intellect. It is also a brocade woven by the pen with the thread of discernment”), in part Islamic calligraphy also assumes the status of a fundamentally sacred character.
The Qur’an makes several references to the pen and to writing, in particular pointing out that Allah teaches by the pen (and teaches man) that which he does not know.
The Qur’an makes several references to the pen and to writing, in particular pointing out that Allah teaches by the pen (and teaches man) that which he does not know. As the Qur’an is eternal, both in content and form, the Word of God embodied in physical form in the process of Divine emanation, so the pen becomes an actual agent of creation.
Legibility, in fact, becomes of minor importance, since calligraphy always conveys and constitutes by its very essence the central symbol of Faith. The attitude that the intrinsic meaning or content is secondary to the beauty, i.e. to the form and the abstraction of the letters considered as artistic composition, can lead one to positions not far distant from the “art for art’s sake” school of the West, so many centuries later. Abu’l Fazl, author of the Akbar-nama in the late sixteenth century, says that “the written letter is spiritual geometry emanating from the pen of invention.” A closeness to Plato’s view that writing is the geometry of the soul is evident.
Monumental architectural inscriptions, like those in tiny household objects, were more often observed and admired than read. If religious in content — that is, if extracted from the Qur’an — for most Muslims the recognition and the understanding of part of the inscription sufficed for him or her to know what the rest of the inscription said and for the viewer to recognise that he found himself before a building or an object emanating from his own culture and tying him to his religious brethren. Such inscriptions, however, if unread or even illegible to the mass of believers, served a symbolic function confirming the power and rectitude of Islam simply by their presence.
Such inscriptions, however, if unread or even illegible to the mass of believers, served a symbolic function confirming the power and rectitude of Islam simply by their presence.
Every human in Islam is invited to copy the text of the Qur’an and to do so in the most beautiful manner possible. Calligraphy appears in religion as it does in political and cultural life. It is not an art reserved to any particular group or minority. It is intended to produce a beautiful work of art and simultaneously to constitute a pious act of faith, to be practised by any man, whether a professional scribe or a common believer. Throughout Muslim literature and philosophy one finds connections between moral rectitude and calligraphic excellence.
Civilisation and sedentary culture developed rapidly throughout the expanding Muslim empire in the early years. Books were copied and recopied, they were written and bound. Libraries were created and filled with them, and the libraries vied with each other and rivalled each other in their collections. These copies covered everything from biographies to scientific treatises, works of literature, poetry, letters, devotional literature, works of philosophy and many other subjects and they not only preserved culture but they enabled (and indeed were essential to) the dissemination of knowledge throughout the Islamic world.
Most skilled calligraphers were also scholars and many were also poets and prose writers. Indeed, the later master calligraphers came to be respected both as scholars and artists, just as Renaissance painters gained greater respect among intellectuals following the invention of one point perspective. It strikes me though, that the “Renaissance man” of the Islamic world, well-versed in astronomy and medicine, botany and the arts, philosophy and mathematics, preceded his erudite Italian counterpart by several hundred years. There is a link, both historic and essential, between the development of calligraphy and the development of scientific and philosophical thought.
There is a link, both historic and essential, between the development of calligraphy and the development of scientific and philosophical thought.
The pervasiveness of this one single art form in Islamic culture did not have a stultifying effect, partly because the development and the use of different scripts and partly because of the inventive way in which Islamic calligraphy is treated, yielding simultaneously fascination and variety. The invention of distinctive calligraphic styles went very fast and largely endured even after the tenth century. From the outset, calligraphy has played a role in bringing simultaneously unity and diversity to the arts of Islam.
This ethnic variety and historical debt still vitalises Islamic culture. Traditional motifs and styles can be traced in contemporary Muslim art even as modern Muslim artists explore new techniques such as mixed media or collage, and adopt new formats. There is a continuing tradition that has maintained its full diversity from spectacular monuments to infinitely refined, if modest, amulets, garments and household wares.
For the time being, the collection of the future Aga Khan Museum, planned to open in Toronto in 2013, is composed of the classical arts of the Islamic world, from the eighth to the eighteenth century. It incorporates the important collection of works on paper collected by my uncle, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan — essentially calligraphies and manuscripts, miniatures, illustrations and paintings — as well as several hundred objects acquired by my brother over the last twenty years with a view to the creation of this museum. Many of these objects are adorned with calligraphy — and in all imaginable styles of writing. In the exhibition presented at the Sabanci Museum, they are the counterpoint to works on paper.
My hope is that visitors to the exhibition, and people who peruse this catalogue, will understand more fully the depth and vitality of an essential tradition of Islam.
Image: Portrait, akdn.org (Fair use/dealing) (Bill C-11, Section 29.21 http://bit.ly/1yRu6UZ)