"In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful!"
These are some of the most frequently used words in the Arabic language. The Holy Koran—the word of God as revealed to Muhammad—begins with them, and so does every Surah, or chapter, but one. Muslims say these words before beginning any undertaking, before eating, before opening a book and, of course, before beginning to pray. They write them at the heads of letters, inscribe them on coins and print them at the beginning of chapters in books. The Prophet Muhammad said, "He who writes Bismillah ('In the name of God') beautifully obtains innumerable blessings."
These words are so important—not only to every Arabic speaker but to Muslims everywhere—that it is hardly surprising that over the centuries they have come to be written in very special ways. Calligraphy—literally "beautiful writing"—is an Arab art, and in writing the Bismillah and a few other phrases, particularly those invoking the name of God, calligraphers surpassed themselves: such phrases, for example, as In sha'Allah, "God willing;" Ma sha' Allah, "As God wills;" Huwa Allah, "He is God;" and Al-hamdu li-llah, "God be praised." Perhaps as important as the Bismillah in calligraphy is the Profession of Faith, or the Shahada: La ilaha ilia Allah, Muhammad Rasul Allah: "There is no God but God, Muhammad is His Messenger."
Calligraphers also devoted great efforts to writing and elaborately decorating the name of God when it stood alone. Others concentrated on the name of the Prophet or sometimes simply his title, Rasul, "Messenger," which can be seen carved on one of the columns of the very ancient mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia (Aramco World, Jan-Feb., 1967).
How did decorative writing come to achieve such importance in religion and art? As is generally known in the West today, figurative art—especially sculpture with its connotation of idolatry—was forbidden to Muslims, and so in compensation the Islamic world raised architecture and the applied arts to a very high level of perfection. Ceramics, glass, metal-work, wood and stone carving, carpets, textiles and embroideries were all elaborately developed. But the art of arts was undoubtedly calligraphy (Aramco World, May-June, 1976).
There were many reasons for this. First, of course, calligraphy was inextricably bound up with the Koran, which many pious Muslims did—and still do—copy by hand at least once in their lives. It was also a skill available to anyone, and since many people, including women, could and did write, interest in penmanship was high and it was much cultivated. Many great men of the Muslim world, as well as professional calligraphers, were famous for the beauty of their handwriting. Lastly, calligraphy was also intimately involved with all the other arts. Look carefully and you will frequently see an inscription on a sword blade or a mosque lamp, painted on a bowl, woven into a prayer carpet or, in relief, around a door or minaret. And here again, one of the favourite phrases is Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim.
At the time of the Prophet, Arabic writing was predominantly of a square formal type which later developed into what is known as Kufic. Soon, however, as it became necessary to have a quicker cursive script, nashki evolved, and the older Kufic came more and more to be used only for copying the Koran and for monumental decoration, except in the conservative lands of North Africa, where it was retained for general uses.
As Islam spread, so too did calligraphy. Soon it could be found everywhere, not just in terms of geography, but in new and imaginative forms in art and architecture. Not content with leaving their favorite words running along the line of a page, artists of the Muslim world began to twist them into circles or squares—small to fit a plate or large to decorate a mosque wall. From Kufa in Iraq and from the great pottery centers of Iran came 9th- and 10th-century dishes with the Bismillah shaped like a bird or drawn with one splendid swirl of a brush—so that even to eyes familiar with Arabic script it seems almost illegible. In one particularly beautiful example of the art a bird, whose body is composed of the word baraka, "blessing," holds the word hamd, or "praise," in its beak.
The mosque architecture of Iran and Central Asia also gave calligraphy a new dimension—literally. There, architects wrapped vast raised inscriptions many feet high around the domes of mosques and up the minarets, and on the walls and at the gates they made what looked like labyrinths in turquoise, blue, yellow, black and white tiles.
Once again, these inscriptions might be made up of the name of God, the name of the Prophet, the Shahada, or even a Surah of the Koran repeated over and over again in an infinitely elaborate pattern.
Versions of these can be seen today outside many mosques in Iran, including modern ones. For those who know Arabic, part of the pleasure of gazing upon them undoubtedly comes from the "crossword puzzle" element—staring at an apparently abstract arrangement of colors until the words suddenly leap out, or slowly tracing the inscription letter by letter until the sense becomes clear. Small maze-like inscriptions carved in stone or wood are found everywhere in the Muslim world.
The best place for trying calligraphic innovations, however, was on paper. There are marvelous examples from all over the Muslim world, but the Bismillah, elaborately written in countless different shapes, was especially popular in Iraq, Syria, North Africa and Turkey. The sacred words were given a wide variety of forms. Vases, ewers, mosque lamps and candelabra were thought especially suitable and they are represented over and over again in calligraphy, sometimes using one phrase, sometimes another. Kufic compositions shaped like mosques, or even the outline of one of the holy Cities—Mecca or Medina—were particularly popular.
Another favorite form was an apple or pear with its leaves. This was sometimes used for a holy text, sometimes for genealogical trees, of which a particularly fine example is the family tree of the Sa'ud dynasty, which can be seen today framed in homes, offices and schools all over Saudi Arabia. In this design the male issue of the line is represented by an apple containing the appropriate name, and the female issue by a pear.
From fruit it was a relatively short step to animals. As mentioned earlier, birds were particular favorites. Cranes or storks were the most common, but in Tunisia there are also examples of peacocks and parrots painted on glass and in Iraq pheasants or perhaps quail. Lions were not unknown and occasionally an exceptionally imaginative calligrapher would produce al-Buraq, the winged horse on which, according to tradition, Muhammad made the Mi'raj, or Night Journey from Medina to Jerusalem, and thence to Heaven.
Of course these are by no means the only shapes. Sometimes a Surah of the Koran or other pious phrases would be woven into the form of a boat with the waw's—the conjunction "and" in Arabic—elongated into the oars. Yet another design was the star and crescent of Islam. In one example the star is the Bismillah and the crescent moon the Shahada.
One style was particularly Turkish and derived from the Tughra, or signature of an Ottoman sultan, which was made extremely elaborate to avoid forgeries. The same manner was adopted for the Bismillah, sometimes against a background of flowers.
But these elaborate decorative compositions were not always used exclusively for sacred texts. In Turkey, where calligraphy was particularly popular, a favorite form was a poem of unrequited love written in the shape of an eye weeping tears. All kinds of visual puns of this kind were possible.
Although intricate calligraphy is not practiced as widely in today's Muslim world as it has been during other periods over the last 1,000 years, it is by no means dead as an art form. It was not uncommon as an educated amusement until early in this century, when it declined with the adyent of printing. Now, happily, it is being revived by a number of young artists who are interested in traditional calligraphy. Undoubtedly, as the Middle East resumes its important role on the world stage, the interest will continue to grow. Perhaps the situation can best be summed up by a modernistic piece of calligraphy in the shape of the Hand of Fatimah, which was designed as a greeting card by Lebanese artist Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui a few years ago. It reads Ma sha' Allah, "As God wills."
Caroline Stone specialized in medieval languages at Cambridge and is currently preparing an English version of al-Mas'udi's "The Meadows of Gold."