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Volume 30, Number 5September/October 1979

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It Is Written

"The pen is the beacon of Islam, and a necklace of honor with princes, kings and chiefs."

Written by Robert Arndt and Katrina Thomas
Additional photographs courtesy of Asia House Gallery
Additional photographs by Katrina Thomas

In the United States, recently, Middle East exhibits have been packing them in at museums from coast to coast. In New York, for example, an exhibit of King Tut's treasures, after being displayed in Louisiana, California and Washington, D.C., had New Yorkers lined up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for four months (See Aramco World, May-June 1977). About the same time an exhibit of The Sudan's Nubian art, after opening in Brooklyn, toured the U.S. and drew fine crowds too (See Aramco World, July-August 1979). Coupled with the popularity of the Metropolitan's new Egyptian wing - with its handsome Temple of Dendur - those exhibits reflect a new awareness of and interest in the cultures of the Middle East.

Because of the publicity accorded them, however, a smaller exhibit that opened in New York almost simultaneously was somewhat overshadowed. This exhibit, in some ways more striking than the other two, was "It Is Written: Calligraphy in the Arts of the Muslim World." It opened in New York in Asia House, and from there went to Cincinnati, Seattle and St. Louis where, for six weeks this fall, it drew high praise and large crowds.

Assembled for New York's Asia House Gallery by Anthony Welch, a Canadian Islamic scholar, "It Is Written" ranges through time, geography and style. Although calligraphy means simply "beautiful writing," the Islamic world used it in many different ways in many different places - as the exhibit makes clear. From Kairouan, south of today's Tunis, there is a page from a Koran that was written more than 1,000 years ago. From a road outside Jerusalem there is a milestone carved about A.D. 700. And from Iran there is a 16th-century ceremonial iron anchor. In the space of hardly more than 100 carefully chosen objects, the exhibit encapsulates the full sweep of calligraphy in Islamic art and suggests what the written word meant – and means – in Islam and its visual arts.

The importance of the written word to Islam has no parallel. Christianity, for example, is primarily expressed, according to its adherents, in a divine incarnation and Buddhism in the teachings of an enlightened individual. But Islam began with an order to the Prophet to "read" a scroll - on which were written what are now the first five verses of the 96th Sura of the Koran. Muslims believe those verses, as well as the rest of the Koran, existed – had always existed – in heaven, in written form, and in Arabic. Thus, when the revelations were written down by man and collated to become the Koran, the reverence due a heavenly original was also accorded to the earthly copy, and extended as well to the Arabic language itself.

To Muslims, therefore, the act of writing is freighted with an emotion and a significance unknown in the West since printing in the 15th and 16th centuries superseded monastic copyists. Even today, on the streets of Mecca, Cairo, Damascus or Jerusalem, old men will pick up a scrap of paper on the street, roll it up and tuck it into a crevice of a wall – because any scrap might have the divine name inscribed on it and so should not be left where it could be ignominiously trodden underfoot.

Stressing this in the excellent catalogue he prepared for the exhibit, Dr. Welch points out that since writing was the vehicle of divine revelation, it carried its own authority quite apart from the importance of what it said or signified – and quite apart from whether the person who saw it could read it or not. According to Islamic tradition, when the Prophet wrote to the Byzantines and needed a seal to lend authority to his letter, he had a seal-ring made that carried no drawing or figure, but only his name and title in Arabic: Muhammad the Messenger of God. And from about A.D. 700 onward, the coins of the expanding Islamic empire bore no portraits or emblems – as those of the Byzantine, Persian and Roman empires had – but only the written word.

Inevitably, therefore, the very act of writing in Arabic took on personal importance for Muslims. To write a copy of the Koran, or of a part of it, to write the 99 most beautiful names of God, or to write Bismillah ("In the name of God") beautifully was an act of piety (See Aramco World, July-August 1977). As Welch quotes, "The pen is the beacon of Islam, and a necklace of honor with princes, kings and chiefs."

Eventually calligraphy – the art of writing – became part of the general culture of the Islamic world. It was codified, written about and elaborated into styles and schools; there were even biographies of its great practitioners. The Arab author al-Tawhidi called it jewelry fashioned by the hand from the pure gold of the intellect," and, with figurative painting discouraged or forbidden, calligraphy became Islam's most important visual art.

Over the years the original pre-Islamic script (See Aramco World, March-April 1976, September-October 1965) evolved. At first there were but two forms: one angular – dignified, regular and somewhat monumental – and one cursive – fluent, limber and much easier to write. But by the eighth century a considerable variety of different styles in the two classes had developed. One particular variant of the angular class – developed in the city of Kufa, on the Euphrates – was called Kufic, and that term has since come to include all the various styles of the angular class.

In the Asia House exhibit the Kufic inscriptions tend to be among the older ones, partly because Kufic was more commonly used than other scripts for monumental inscriptions on durable substances. Thus the 22-inch-wide Jerusalem milestone is engraved in a squared-off, plain script, unadorned and as easy to read as a highway marker should be. It names the Caliph Abd-al-Malik (A.D. 685-705), the builder of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, the ruler who first had the empire's administrative documents written in Arabic instead of other languages, and who was responsible for shifting coinage designs from portraits to Arabic script.

For all the plainness of the lettering, however, the milestone's base bears a modest flourish of arabesque tracery – "the beginnings," writes Welch, "of what is to be a vital and continuing connection between script and ornament."

Ornament, however, is conspicuously lacking on another Kufic piece, possibly the most beautiful item in the whole exhibit thanks to its very simplicity. It is the page from a Kairouan Koran, written on a piece of deep blue vellum about 11 by 14 inches large, in gold ink.

Only three or four Korans on colored vellum still exist, says Welch, and the use of gold or silver for decoration was rare when the volume from which this page came was written in the late ninth or early tenth century. According to one source quoted in the exhibit catalogue, the volume was written at the orders of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun for the tomb of his father Harun al-Rashid; if so, work on it must have begun before A.D. 833, when al-Ma'mun died. In any case, says Welch, it is "one of the wonders of Islamic calligraphy", and the climax of a tradition of vellum Kufic Korans.

Welch points out that the 15 lines of Kufic script on this beautiful page are drawn in a very severe style, "hugging the horizontal ... sparing only the basic letter forms and eschewing all distractions... This script is designed for beauty more than legibility" and while it would have given a professional reciter of the Koran no trouble, the average ninth-century reader would have found the script as hard to puzzle out as today's readers of Arabic do.

At the time that the vellum Koran was probably being written, one of the greatest of the ancient calligraphers was beginning to introduce certain principals of order. This was Ibn Muqla of Baghdad. Often called the inventor of the six basic styles of Arabic calligraphy, Ibn Muqla, in fact, put a foundation of geometry under various styles of writing that already existed, and wrote rules for calligraphy that guided practitioners of the art for the next 100 years.

What Ibn Muqla actually did was to establish the diamond-shaped dot left by the reed pen as the basic measure for all Arabic letters. A calligrapher, for example, could set the height of his letter alifa vertical line – as being three or five or seven dots high and then write other letters in proportion to either the diamond shaped dot or the alif. The result was what Ibn Muqla called "proportioned script," and although no examples of his own work survive, his methods are basically the same ones used by Western typographers and Arab calligraphers even today. His influence, at least indirectly, is an unseen element throughout the Asia House exhibit.

The exhibit touches too on a technological event of great importance in the development of calligraphy: the introduction of paper. Until the ninth century, vellum, parchment and papyrus (See Aramco World, July-August 1973) had been the usual writing materials. Each, however, had disadvantages. Papyrus was expensive and brittle, and both vellum and parchment, although durable, required skilled preparation. The supply was relatively small, the thickness of the sheet varied and the two sides of the sheet absorbed ink and color unpredictably.

When paper was introduced in the ninth century, therefore, it was revolutionary. It was flexible, and of more uniform quality. It could be cut, pasted and erased, it could be manufactured in larger quantities, and above all, it was cheaper.

To the scribes and calligraphers, that was important: it meant they could practice to perfect their art. In the exhibit, for example, is a practice sheet from early 17th-century Iran – a page from a calligrapher's sketch-book – which is no more than a blur of repeated individual letters and a few recognizable words. But it is a beautiful blur.

In the development of calligraphy, says Welch, grace and elegance became the ultimate criteria for judging. But, he says, "there was a certain etiquette of script as well." Certain styles were suitable for certain purposes, and inappropriate otherwise. Because the stately Kufic demanded almost as much skill to read as it did to write, it was gradually replaced by the simpler, more legible naskhi script for the texts of Korans. One example is a Koran written about 1500 by the greatest of Ottoman calligraphers: Hamd Allah Mustafa.

Another script – thuluth – was more often used for sonorous titles and honorifics. In the exhibit, one lovely example appears on a 30-inch bronze tray made in Egypt in the middle of the 14th century for the Yemeni ruler al-Malik al-Mujahid. The inscription is inlaid in silver, and it reads, "Glory to our lord, our king, the ruler of our age and our time, the sultan al-Malik al-Mujahid... endowed with the glory of the two masteries, of the sword and of the pen." For all the magniloquence – and the full inscription includes more names and a little genealogy as well – the visual effect of the calligraphy is stunning: Welch points out that thuluth verticals cluster to form a spoke-like, wheeling pattern, and each group of them looks like a mass of spears surrounding and protecting the central five-petaled flower, emblem of the dynasty.

Some scripts developed regionally. Conservative northern Africa, for example, which did not adopt the principles of lbn Muqla or the refinements of the 10th-century calligrapher lbn al-Bawwab, developed its own Maghribi cursive scripts directly from Kufic. These could be enormously bold, strong and evocative (See Aramco World, July-August 1977), or as deliberate, open and rhythmic as a page of the Koran written in 12th-century Spain and included in the exhibit. Probably from the court of the Almohad dynasty in Seville, this example, says Welch, shows what was a characteristic of North African calligraphy: "virtuosity of word or line of text [which] is esteemed more highly than virtuosity of letter."

For other purposes, or in other places, there were other scripts that might be used. Ta'liq script was commonly used for literature and nasta'liq often for poetry, in Persia, and diwani for official documents in the Ottoman empire especially. And in Muslim India – as shown by a flowery Koran in the exhibit – there was a script called Bihari; this Koran has an interlinear Persian translation.

In some cases, varied scripts were used together, but again only certain combinations were deemed suitable. In the exhibit, for example, a pair of wooden doors from late 16th-century Iran contrasts a blocky Kufic script with large panels of tall, elegant and sweeping thuluth text – and with the woodcarver's signature, an unobtrusive small panel of dignified naskhi.

Calligraphy was not merely technique and taste; the calligrapher's soul, everyone agreed, was as important as the way he trimmed his reed pen – and whole volumes of instruction were written about both topics. Welch, for example, tells the story of the governor of Khorasan who refused a petitioner because his petition was badly written. "If you had been truthful in stating your case, the movement of your hand would have aided you," he said. Nevertheless skill was vital, and young calligraphers who were adept at the art could expect, at the very least, steady employment in government office or workshop. At best, they might receive honors and rewards beyond those of almost any other profession in the Muslim world.

Calligraphic skill, in fact, could even add to the luster of a king's name. The exhibit includes a beautiful page of nasta'liq calligraphy written by Fath Ali Shah Qajar, ruler of Iran from 1797 to 1834 – and written, Vhat is more, as a demonstration of his skill. The four lines all repeat the same "quick brown fox" text ("My reed pen shames Birjis and Tir."), traditionally a test of skill and steadiness of hand, and between two of them is the proud statement, "Fath Ali Shah Qajar drew this." Also in the exhibit are two majestic lines from a huge, nearly six-foot high Koran written about 1425 by Prince Baisungur, Tamerlane's grandson and, clearly, a very skilled calligrapher. He is known to have written the inscriptions for the mosque and madrasa of his mother, Gawhar Shad, in Mashhad, among other works. (See Aramco World, September-October 1977.)

Calligraphy, then, as a part of Muslim culture, and as the center of Muslim art, was a vital element in the Islamic world – and beyond. For, quite apart from its cultural connections, its value as pure design was appreciated in Europe too. There, Christian artisans used Arabic calligraphy in their work – often unknowingly – simply because it was beautiful, as the exhibit shows. There is, for example, a priest’s chasuble embroidered with imitation thuluth lettering from 14th-century Italy, and, from Limoges, France, a 13th-century 10-inch gilt and blue-enamel copper plaque bearing the figure of Mary Magdalen. The plaque, once, was nailed or screwed onto the left end of a large altar cross, and all around its edge is an exotic, rhythmic pattern of "pseudo-Kufic" letters. They mean nothing, and they probably meant nothing to the medieval French artisan who used them – but they were clearly adapted, as Welch points out, "from decorative treatment of the single most important and repeated word in Muslim inscriptions – Allah."

Robert Arndt is Assistant Editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 28-32 of the September/October 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1979 images.