• Current Edition
Culture

The Art of Literacy

The beginning of chapter eighty of the Holy Qur'an—'Abasa (he frowned)—rendered in calligraphy
The beginning of chapter eighty of the Holy Qur'an—'Abasa (he frowned)—rendered in calligraphy
The beginning of chapter eighty of the Holy Qur'an—'Abasa (he frowned)—rendered in calligraphy

“Beautiful writing” is the Greek origin of the word ‘calligraphy’, and for anyone from anywhere, with eyes to see, Arabic calligraphy is heart-stoppingly beautiful. But there’s another dimension to it, that inspiring, elevating lift to the psyche one experiences in the presence of great art, art with meaning—Arabic calligraphy is art imbued with a spiritual dimension.

Though initially a means of expression, an efficient tool to convey language, in all its richness of flowing arabesque form and crisp geometric design, it became a “spiritual pattern formed by worldly tools,” as Islamic sources define it. And what has become a supreme art form is not dead—contemporary calligraphic artists are continuing to push every creative and symbolic boundary forward, way beyond the confines of the Arab world, Tunisian-born Nja Mahdaoui creating recently, for example, Performance Action in Barcelona, in which four Spanish dancers were painted with writing protesting against the rape of Muslim women in Yugoslavia.

From the beginning of the Islamic era (A.D. 622), calligraphy was considered to be the most revered medium of artistic expression, because it was used to transcribe the word of God. The stylized letter-forms evolved as an art medium in order to give visual emphasis to the verses of the Qur’an, the “revealed Word of Allah.” The reason why even non-Muslims find Arabic calligraphy so inspiring and uplifting is that they are consciously or unconsciously responding to a numinous appeal.

The art of calligraphy wielded pertinent political power as the Arabic language evolved from a regional idiom to a lingua franca, the ‘glue’ that stuck varied people and an ever-expanding empire together. During the lifetime of the Prophet, Arabic had been spoken by only a relatively small number of people to the east and southeast of the Mediterranean Sea. Within three centuries, it had replaced such older languages as Greek, Latin, Persian and Syriac, becoming the lingua franca for trade, government, law, scholarly research and dissertation, as well as literature and science.
As early as the tenth century, the use of words on objects as diverse as textiles, jewelry, steel and tile work, as well as buildings, ensured that the Word of Allah was inseparable from everyday life
This ‘glue’, the visible presence of the Arabic language, diffused throughout the Muslim world, stretching from the Iberian Peninsula in the west, across the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, through Iraq and Iran to western Central Asia. Eventually, of course, Islamic influence, and by definition therefore, study of the Qur’an, spread to India and as far eastwards as Indonesia through trade, as well as through North Africa, and as far south in that continent as Nigeria. In mediaeval Europe less people were literate than their contemporaries of the Islamic faith, since studying the Qur’an was a prerequisite of being a Muslim.

As early as the tenth century, the use of words on objects as diverse as textiles, jewelry, steel and tile work, as well as buildings, ensured that the Word of Allah was inseparable from everyday life. From Qur’ans to the most functional utensils—phrases, texts, salutations and praise were considered so important that inscriptions might be carved into nooks and crannies so inaccessible that only God and the birds could read them.

Originally written on papyrus and parchment, the Arabic word began to appear on all important buildings of the Islamic world, principally on mosques, of course; and was woven into domestic textiles and decorated ceramics and glass. Imagine the pleasure of a bride, hanging her embroidered textiles on cold walls, placing carpets on stone floors, and cutting window drafts with woven lengths, all of them incorporating Arabic texts in more or less exquisite calligraphy.

“Who taught by the pen,” these were the first words God revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, and certainly underscore the role of writing, and by extension language and indeed calligraphy in Islamic culture. It was realized that communal memory through the rich oral tradition could not be totally entrusted with the sacred task of relaying the details of the Divine Revelations. Since Mecca was a commercial center, where writing was in common use, it is probable that many of the revelations were written down in Mohammed’s lifetime. It seems that his secretaries in Medina wrote down some of them, yet still, the Qur’an was not compiled into a book, one book.

By the late sixteenth century the arts of the book had reached unprecedented heights of refinement and splendor, with illumination taking an equal position with calligraphy. This flowering, especially in Persia, was the inspiration for the arts of the book in the Mughal and Ottoman empires.

The introduction of moveable type in Europe in the mid fifteenth century brought about the democratization of the book there, as books became cheaper and more accessible. But in Islamic lands the high status of calligraphy as the premier medium of Islamic art, ensured that it would be centuries before printed books would be acceptable in the Muslim world—although interestingly, block printing had traditionally been used on textiles and leather there.

Although Arabic calligraphic designs may seem to the uninitiated like an abstract carpet or, in the later Ottoman evolution—a flurry of extravagant loops, they do in fact follow an inspired system, a symbolic interpretation of the order of the universe, in which the factor of change inevitably repeats its cycles. Continuity of life is represented by meandering lines; eternity by the circle; birth and maturity by rosettes and palmettes. For the goal of this unique art of literacy is to achieve a perfect balance between beauty and meaning, decoration and spirituality.

Previous ArticleNext Article
Juliet Highet
Juliet Highet is a writer, photographer, editor and curator who specializes in Middle Eastern heritage and contemporary culture. She is currently working on her second book, Design Oman, having published her first book, FRANKINCENSE: Oman’s Gift to the World, in 2006.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *