The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy

by Abdelkebir Khatibi & Mohammed Sijelmassi

Published by Thames & Hudson

237 pages, 2002

Buy it online




Splendor in the Line

Reviewed by Dana De Zoysa


Any typographer can tell you that the shape and form of a letter create a mood. Just compare Times Roman with Helvetica or imagine a wedding invitation written in a script used for auto ads. But no matter how footloose and fancy-free the designer may become with decorativeness, type design is still at bottom a utilitarian thing.

When the language is sacred, as the Arabic used in the Qur'an is for Muslims, loftier conventions apply. Islamic calligraphy is not based on aesthetics or logic -- although many of its scripts certainly have that -- but on what Muslims call tawqif, language established by God. The word of God is the things of God -- if the word of God is heard in a tree, then the tree is an act of God. The human voice is an instrument for celebrating the creating eminence of God. Instead of "to articulate is to create" as found in the Greco-Roman tradition, Islam operates on the principle, "to create is to articulate," and, of course, the Creator is God.

A person's birth occurs in the context of a language articulated by God. The infant learns the ability to tune itself into the voice of the divine. As the authors of The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy put it, "Calligraphy is the plainsong of the divine." As this book so beautifully illustrates, Islamic calligraphy is also a chant, a melody, an aria, a toccata, an edification, an exaltation. The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy shows just how ignorant is the belief that Muslim culture is rigid, monolithic and anachronistic.

The Prophet never learned to read and write. As the merchant he was before the prophecies began to come, he probably used a calculational system still used in vast stretches of the world today, in which the fingers, knuckles and web between the fingers designate specific numbers; bargaining by two people who do not speak the same language can occur simply by pointing out the right sequence of fingers. Unlike tawqif, the "secular" form of the Islamic language is called istilla -- language fixed by human conventions. Istilla is the language of commerce and poetry. It is not much known outside of Islam, but poetry is considered the most profound form of beauty after the Qur'an itself, and far outshines prose as an expressive medium. Note the emphasis on the word rather than the number as the foundation stone for human interaction.

As in the West during the days of troubadours and bards, Islamic poetry was committed to memory and recited in exact or ever-so-slightly improvised forms by their creators or reciters. Long practice in the skill of memorizing had resulted in a highly developed capacity for mental retention. Poetry was the Arabs' primary aesthetic interest and weekly markets and seasonal fairs provided occasion for competitions between poets. Vying for poetic -- i.e., verbal -- supremacy generated a popular interest more passionate and widespread than soccer or football matches do in our times. Hence the Arabic language's consummate spiritual masterpiece -- the Qur'an -- was also a literary one. To this day the country of Malaysia hosts an international Qur'an-reading competition which generates a per-capita TV viewership in Muslim countries far exceeding the Superbowl in the West. The prizes are token: a nicely printed Qur'an or calligraphic epigram, but the prestige is enormous. And, for those who regard Islam as a monolith of male-mindedness, women do participate and have won.

As poetry is for the tongue, calligraphy is for the page. Muslim calligraphers were doing marvels with form and content at roughly the same time as Carolinian manuscript illuminators and T'ang Dynasty inkbrush artists were each in their own way evolving a sense of writing style unique to their language -- ideograms, letters, pictographs. The Western style went its own way by including images of humans and animals (and God depicted as a human), thereby reviving the Greek and Roman sense for imagistic art lost during the dark storms of barbarism. Muslim and Chinese calligraphers largely avoided the pictorial when they used their scripts, thereby forging the linkage between poetry as a visual art. The calligraphic line from Muslim reed pens led to geometric stylization -- best known in the arabesque -- that no other culture developed so exquisitely. Interlaced design evolved, as did the use of polychromy for diacritical marks (akin to dotting all the "i"s in red and crossing the "t"s in blue), as did outline-form scripts inside which other scripts are written -- rather like every letter in a word having its own words aside. In all of these, the complex, interlaced, concatenated, multiplex character of the Arabic mind shines clearly through regional styles and forms.

From out of innumerable experiments and primal urges, some styles proved more enduring. Up till the early seventh century C.E. (Common Era) the letters of the Arabic alphabet were written separately, like Hebrew. Gradually rules were established for linking many of the Arabic letters. A number of scripts for different styles of writing developed. One of the earliest, developed in the second half of the eighth century C.E., was an angular style named Kufi , so-named because it was devised in the city of Kufah in what is now Iraq. For several centuries Kufi was the preeminent script for copying the Qur'an. While its regulation of form was important, far more important was the adapting of it for artistic decoration on textiles, ceramics, coins, utensils, epitaphs and architectural monuments.

Kufi developed a complete and regularized writing system. To all but the diehard minimalist, it is not a very beautiful script. Early calligraphers -- who evolved out of the profession of public scribe -- soon set themselves to the task of beautifying their scripts. By the late ninth century more than 20 cursive styles were commonly used in addition to several Kufi-based angular scripts. In the 10th century, a famous calligrapher named Ibn Muqla systematized the writing of the proliferating variants of cursive Arabic calligraphy. He saw the need for rules of proportion common to any given letter in any script. Letters were given precise measurements for their vertical, horizontal, and curved strokes. The authors of The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy sum up his role eloquently:

Ibn Muqla defines the general principles of this discipline: clearly distinguish the geometric forms according to their movement, horizontal, vertical, oblique, and curved; keep the line steady but relaxed when handling the pen so that the line shows no sign of wavering.

In one of history's great ironies, there exists not a single fragment known to be from Ibn Muqla's own hand (although there were many forgeries penned by writers anxious to get their work read by the authorities). Ibn Muqla was a political activist in a time that didn't much appreciate political activism. His letter describing a plot against the caliph was shown to the caliph, who rather disapproved of the notion. He had Ibn Muqla's hand cut off. So Ibn Muqla took up the pen with his left hand and learned to write all over again, some of it, again, incriminating letters. For some reason the caliph decided not to sever Ibn Muqla's left hand, but he did take the precaution of cutting his tongue off. Ibn Muqla continued to write. He was thrown into prison and died there.

And you think your editor rules with a rough hand.

Better to remember Ibn Muqla, therefore, as the designer of the cursive, rounded script known as Naskhi. Distinguished by its clarity, simplicity, and legibility, it gained favor over Kufi for copying the Qur'an and spread to all regions of the Muslim world. It is the proto-style from which came most of the scripts one sees today. Each of the various angular and rounded scripts has a distinguishing name (Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Maghribi. Riqa'i, Rayhani and Tawqi' being just a few). To the practiced eye they can be differentiated by how the hooked heads of verticals are made, the form of letter endings, the compactness of the letters, the degree of slant of the letters, the amount of horizontal or vertical elongation and the degree of rounding of comers.

Unsurprisingly, an aesthetic philosophy emerged to set all this in the largest possible context. The calligraphic artist Rashid Korashi stated that the personality of the utterer is written inwardly before the word is spoken. Hence the spoken sound -- and its calligraphy -- is a search for pure sign. The word is a painting, filled with desire and energy. Writing a word sculpts the meaning of the word. Language is a laboratory of tongues, not a domain of fixed meanings. We do not need to know a language to be able to appreciate its script.

All this and more is set forth in a book backed up with ultra-sharp large images, so the precise character of the strokes shines through. The book's designer understood the subject well: it is not the word that conveys, it is the eminence of God embodied in the word. Hence many of the illustrations are gigantesque, seeming to invite the reader into them rather than be appreciated as a shape on a page in a lap.

The authors, being Maghribi from the Mediterranean coast of Africa, make an overly strong case for the beauty of the Maghribi script, with its strong linears, fluid curls and deep descenders. This leads to a few notable absences. There is no mention at all of the Jawi script of Southeast Asia or the Sina script of Muslim Asia. India, with its fabulous tradition of Mughal art and calligraphy, gets barely a nod. There are no images of the scripts decorating the wonderful mosques of nether Asia, for example the compressed Thuluth decorating the dome of the Grand Mosque of Shah Alam in Malaysia. Nor is there any mention of the Uzbeki calligraphic style with its marvelous use of delicate pastels and very low relief, as in the lacelike mosque at Mukah of Sarawak (Borneo). The off-white grisailles of the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca deserve more than three images and a tiny caption -- if for nothing else the mosque's complex design style that embeds geometrics into stylized floriations, inside which are Qur'anic phrases emerging like the stamens in the heart of a blossom. Also, regrettably, the book has no index.

However, this carping is a blade of dry grass in the fertile forest of the rest of the book. It is a pity that the Western infatuation for Zen minimalism in Japan, the paintbrushy quality of Chinese pen-and-ink work and the wild colors of India have veered so many eyes from an art form that combines all three. The Splendors of Islamic Calligraphy is a ... well ... splendid place to start. | February 2002


Dana De Zoysa has a passion for developing-country authors. He commutes between Bombay and his writer's paradise in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. He can be reached at