Calligraphy: the Unifying Characteristic of
the Islamic Art
In order to examine the unifying characteristics of the Islamic arts which the Qur'anic message of tawhid produced, as well as the tremendous versatility and ingenuity in achieving ever new and creative forms of those characteristics, it is necessary to view products of wide geographic provenance and produced over many centuries of Islamic history. Only in this way can the unique qualities of overall unity within the Islamic arts be revealed and the special achievements of the various regions and periods be flavored.
The geographic scope of any exposition of Islamic art is tremendous. This makes difficult any attempt to be comprehensive, for the artistic examples are found in places as far removed as Spain and the southern Philippines, Central Asia and Tanzania.
Equally wide is the time span of their creation. The study of Islamic art deals with materials from the seventh century all the way to the present day-over fourteen centuries of artistic expression with all the different materials, motifs, and techniques of production known during that long span of time.
To simplify our task, we will divide the Muslim world into seven subregions or artistic areas for our treatment of the visual arts in Islamic culture. Although there are historical as well as aesthetic grounds for the demarkation of these areas, the artistic areas are not easily limited by precise boundaries.
Interaction between areas has resulted in frequent overlapping of regional charateristics, and the styles of one area may carry many similarities with those of another area because of reciprocal influences and common underlying characteristics.
The reader should be aware that stylistic traits interpenetrate areas rather than originate or desist in a sharply definable manner. Structural characteristics are generally found to have the widest significance, while particular motifs, techniques of execution, or materials reveal a tendency for greater variability.
The numbering of the areas proceeds from West to East. It implies no hierarchical status. Area I comprises the Maghrib or "Western" region, that is, the countries of Mauritania, the Western Sahrara, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, as well as Moorish Spain, Area II includes the regions of Middle Africa with a predominantly Muslim population and obvious aesthetic influences from Islamic culture, We prefer the expression "Middle Africa" to "Sub--Saharan Africa" for the area including those non-Arab parts of Africa that show strong Islamic influence. It includes major portions of at least twenty-five nations.
Area III is that of the Mashriq, or "Easters" region of the Arab world. It corresponds approximately to the countries of Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Gulf region. Turkey will be treated as a separate Area IV because of the regional variations that distinguish it from its geographic neighbors. Area B, Iran-Central Asia, includes the countries of presentday Iran and Afghanistan, as well as major portions of the southern former Soviet Union. Area VI corresponds to the predominantly Muslim regions of the Indian subcontinent-Pakistan, Bangladesh, and parts of India.
The portions of East Asia with major Muslim population-Malaysia, Indonesia the southern Philippines, and parts of China-are included in Area VII. Although other regions within the medieval Mediterranean world (for example, Sicily, southern Italy, and certain regions of southern France and southeastern Europe) have also evidenced Islamic artistic influences, they will not be included in the present discussion nor accorded representation on the artistic areas map.
This should be regarded not as a denial of the significance of those regions in the total picture of Islamic art but as an omission dictated by the generalized nature of this discussion.
All of the above-mentioned areas provide ample evidence of a determination of their artistic creations by the Islamic aesthetic core charateristics. Although it will be our main task to exemplify that unity in the aesthetic production, we will also endeavor to clarify how that unity has been embodied creatively in regionally significant variations.
History and Development
Qur'anic influence made of calligraphy the most important art form of Islam culture. Its effect and importance are found in every area of the Muslim world, in every century of Islamic history, in every branch of aesthetic production or media, and in every type of art object imaginable. Of all the categories of Islamic art, calligraphy is the most prevalent, the most significant, the most widely appreciated, and the most revered by Muslims.
By the early seventh century C.E., little development of writing had taken place among the peoples of the Arabian peninsula. Rudimentary scripts existed, as is evidenced by archeological finding (inscriptions on stones, pillars, and so on) in the Peninsula. In addition, certain paleographic remains (writings on such perishable materials as parchment and papyrus) give proof that the Arabs of the time possessed a knowledge of the art of writing.
It was not, however, a skill widely practiced by the contemporaries of the Holy Prophet Muhammad(S.A.W.). Though some of his companions and relatives were able to read and write, the Holy Prophet of Islam(S.A.W.) himself never learned these skills, Poetry and prose, in large part, were committed to memory and recited in exact or improvised forms by their creators or other local bards.
Long practice in the skill of memorizing had resulted in a highly developed capacity for verbal retention among the members of Arab society. Poetry was the Arab's primary aesthetic interest, and seasonal fairs in Makkah and other centers provided occasion for competitions between the poets of the region. This vying for poetic-verbal supremacy generated in the citizenry an interest more passionate and more widespread than that aroused by the soccer of football matches of modern times in Western society.
The revelations to Holy Prophet Muhammad(S.A.W.) which were to be compiled as the Holy Qur'an were immediately committed to memory by the Holy Prophet Muhammad(S.A.W.) and his companions. In addition, those among the Holy Prophet Muhammad's(S.A.W.) associates who were able to write transcribed the suwar (chapters) on bits of clay, stone, bones papyrus, or any other material that could be found.
Some of the Qur'anic fragments were stored in the mosque of the Holy Prophet Muhammad(S.A.W.), some in his home, and some in the homes of friends
With the death of the Holy Prophet Muhammad(S.A.W.) in 10/632, and the death in the subsequent battles of many of his followers who had memorized the entire Qur'an, the community felt a strong need to record the revelation in more permanent form.
At the urging of Umar ibn al Kahttab, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, ordered the Holy Prophet Muhammad's (S.A.W.) secretary, Zayd ibn Thabit, to collect and write down all its passages in the order indicated by the Holy Prophet Muhammad(S.A.W.).
Later, as the religion spread to ever wider horizons, a concern developed that the revelation would be lost or distorted unless a standard text could be sent to each politico-religious center of the Islamic state. As the message of the Holy Qur'an was appropriated by the new converts, many of whom were not Arabic-speaking, it was imperative that a single edition be made available for the teaching and propagation of the faith. The copy of Zayd ibn Thabit and all the Qur'anic excerpts and fragments were again collected and checked in 21/651 on the orders of the caliph "Uthman, and a number of exact copies of the full text were produced.
This process of preservation and instruction of new converts also brought new demands for improvement of the script and refinement of its rendering. The letters of the Arabic alphabet had until the early seventh century C.E. been executed separately, as is still common in Hebrew and certain other Semitic scripts. Gradually rules were established for linking many of the Arabic letters.
Pointing was added to distinguish between those letters that were rendered by a single shape. Short-vowel markings above and below the letters (the fathah for short "a" sound, dammah for short "u" kasrah for short "i") were developed to complement the consonants and long vowels. Precise methods for indicating the diphthongs, the hamzah (glottal stop), the maddah (vowel prolongation), shaddah (double consonent), and sukun (vowelless consonant) were also subsequently added.
The interest in writing grew commensurately with the newly awakened interest in the Qur'anic text as guide to all thought and activity, and the desire to preserve it and render it accurately. As the orthographic improvements of written Arabic were being made, a number of scripts or styles of writing were also being developed.
One of the early scripts, thought to have been developed in Iraq by the second half of the eighth century C.E., was angular in form. Its name, Kufi, linked its origin to the new Islamic city of kufah and its popularity in the region around Basrah and Kufah. It is thought to have developed from Aramaic and Syriac predecessors. Other styles of a more rounded and cursive quality were also in use for official and personal writings from the earliest decades.
These rounded scripts developed from the earlier neo-Sinaitic and Nabataean writing. Varieties of rounded scripts were sepecially popular in and around Makkah and Madinah in the first centuries of the Islamic period. They were not however, commonly used for Qur'anic manuscripts in those times. For several centuries Kufi was the preeminent script for copying the Holy Qur'an as well as for artistic inclusion on textiles, ceramics, coins, utensils, epitaphs, and architectural monuments.
In early copies of the Holy Qur'an, the horizontal lines of Kufi script were often elongated to produce a squat and compact script. This variety is most often designated as "Early Kufi." In the late tenth century C.E., vertical lines were elongated in a new style developed by the people of Iran. This form is commonly known as "Eastern Kufi" because examples of it are most prevalent in copies of the Holy Qur'an made in the East. It was also called "Bent Kufi" because of the inclination to the left of its short certical, strokes. Elaborate flourishes of its letters were often included below the lines of writing. On the Whole, it was a much more delicate script than the other forms of Kufi of the time.
After the initial problems of developing a complete and accurate writing system had been solved, the early Muslims set for themselves the task of beautifying their scripts. In addition to the variations of style produced by the horizontally or vertically elongated Kufi scripts, Muslim calligraphers developed new variants of the basically angular form. The three most widely known variants of Kufi script all resulted from an elongation of the letters themselves into various noncalligraphic motifs.
One of these styles, in which the verticals of the script are extended into leaf and flower shapes, is known as "floriated Kufi". A second, in which the verticals form decorative plaitings, is called "interlaced' or "plaited Kufi". A third style has been designated as "animated Kufi", for the letters end in stylized animal or human figures. The last of these styles was used chiefly in Iran, where examples of stylized figural art (for example, the miniature paintings) were also more prominent than in other regions of the Muslim world.
Many other styles evolved from the basic angular and rounded scripts. Some derivatives included features from both categories. Each new script was given a special name and precise rules for its execution. In many cases, however, variant styles were little more than individual or regional variations of a general type. By the late ninth century C.E. more than twenty cursive styled were commonly used in addition to the angular scripts.
In the tenth century, the famous calligrapher and vizier Ibn Muqlah (d. 329/940) brought reform and systematization to the writing of the proliferating variants of cursive Arabic calligraphy. He devised rules of proportion for all the letters based on the rhombic dot. According to his rules, the alif was to be a vertical equivalent in length to seven of these dots. Other letters were similarly given precise measurements for their vertical, horizontal, and curved strokes. In this manner Ibn Muqlah standardized each of the major cursive styles known at the time.
From the elevent century, though kufi script continued in use for ornamental bands for manuscript, architectural, and small objects decoration, a more cursive and rounded script called Naskhi came into prominent use (Illus. 20.5). Distinguished by its clarity, simplicity, and legibility, it is thought to have been developed by Ibn Muqlah, who introduced it at the court in Baghdad. Though it may have been used much earlier, Ibn Muqlah no doubt played a major role in developing and popularizing this variety of the rounded scripts.
Another vizier. Ibn al Bawwab (d. 423/1032), is the second of a trio of famous Muslim calligraphers. He followed the rules set down by his predecessor, Ibn Muqlah, but produced still more graceful versions of the six best known styles of cursive script of his time. Ibn al Bawwab is thought to have initiated use of the rounded script for Qur'anic copies. The oldest extant Holy Qur'an in Naskhi script is one done by Ibn al Bawwab himself. It is held today in the Chester Beatty Library of the University of Dublin, Ireland. Because of its legibility, the Naskhi script gradually gained favor over Kufi for copying the Holy Qur'an. Like the kufi script, Naskhi spread to all regions of the Muslim world.
The rounded and cursive scripts were further elaborated and refined by a third celebrated calligrapher, Yaqut ibn "Abd Allah al Musta'simi (d. 698/1298). Although he is sometimes said to have originated the Sittah, "the six" popular forms of cursive script of his time, they were probably known much earlier. He did, however refine them further by inventing a new system for trimming the reed pen and preparing its nib for writing.
While the major traditaions of the rounded Arabic scripts had been established, perfected, and refined by the time of Yaqut al Musta'simi, later generations were to make use of these materials in the productions of larger, more decorative, and more extravagant copies of the Holy Qur'an, as well as of books of poetry and prose. The elegance in writing and its decoration found in copies of the Holy Qur'an executed in the following centuries is unexcelled. Each ruler, each dynasty, each wealthy patron competed in commissioning or writing the most beautiful Holy Qur'an of the day.
Calligraphers were a prized addition to any court, and every learned person strove to attain the greatest possible mastery of the art. The interest in calligraphy spread from the execution of Holy Qur'ans to its use in the decoration of objects made of metal, glass, ivory, textiles, wood, stone, stuccom and ceramics. Every possible material and object was ornamented with bands, medallions, motifs, or overall designs based on the art of writing.
Each of the various angular and rounded scripts evidenced a particular style and carried a distinguishing name (Thuluth, Naskhi, Muhaqqaq, Riqa'i Rayhani, Tawqi, etcetera). Features of style that produced a different script include the way in which the hooked heads of verticals were 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, the degree of rounding of corners, and so on.
One of the most important rounded scripts to be developed, used in all regions of the Muslim world, is that known as Thuluthi. Thuluth is decorative script used for architectural and small object decoration, as well as for decorative lines or titles and colophons for Qur'anic and other manuscript . It is a very old script, having been popularized in the early decades of the "Abbasid period, that is, in the late eighth century C.E. It was regarded as one of the six major scripts (the Sittah). In use in various forms until the present day, Thuluth evidences a pronounced plasticity which allows letters to be extended or compressed to fit any given space or shape. Superimposed lines and elongated verticals are other common features of this script.
Though varieties of Kufi, Naskhi, and Thuluth were used in all regions of the Muslim world, evidence of regionally significant script is also found. One of these is a script known as Maghribi. Used in Moorish Spain and Western North Africa, this script was used for Holy Qur'an copies, other manuscripts, and small object decoration. Even in the Maghrib, it never gained prominence in the field of epigraphy, where the pan-Islamic scripts held sway.
Maghribi script, which seems to have been flourishing around 400/1000, has been characterized as a cross between the angular qualities of Kufi and the rounded forms of Naskhi. It has the distinguishing feature of exaggerated loop extensions below the lines of the final forms of certain letters. The system of diacritical marks used in the Maghrib did not differ greatly from that used in the Mashriq. The proportioned (mansub) system of writing devised by Ibn Muqlah, however, was never widely adopted in the western regions of Islam.
Despite their conformity to certain general characteristics, four substyles of Maghribi script have been distinguished in history. The earliest of these is called Qayrawani, after the center of its importance, the city of Qayrawan. This variant of Maghribi script is distingquished by very short verticals. The script called Andulusi or Qurtubi ("of Andalusia" or "of Cordoba") has finer lines and is more compact than the other related scripts and evidences considerable elongation of horizontal and under-line strokes.
It became the most important style of Muslim Spain and from there spread to North Africa with the expulsion of the Muslims, from the Iberian Peninsula. Fasi, the third variety of Maghribi script, was larger, heavier, and more elaborate. In the early seventeenth century, it combined with the Andalusi. This amalgamation has been known simply as Maghribi. It became an important script in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and, to a lesser extent, Libya.
Sudani is a regional variety of Maghribi script developed and favored by the Muslim peoples of Middle Africa. It has the common Maghribi script characteristics but the lines are heavier and the texture is denser. Today Sudani is the only one of the Maghribi styles to retain its separate name.
Three other regional scripts which achieved wide influence are attributed to Iranian innovators of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries C.E. These are the Ta'liq, the Nasta'liq, and the Shikastah scripts. The latter two of these are considered variants of the parent Ta'liq script. Of these rounded and cursive scripts, Ta'liq can be recognized by a slanting form which gave rise to its name, "hanging".
Rarely used for Qur'anic copies, it has been primarily a script for the copying of other literary works and decorative additions to small objects. Probably originated sometime in the ninth century C.E. Ta'liq did not achieve widespread use until the time of the famous artist and calligrapher Mir Ali of Tabriz (late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries C.E.).
A later elaboration of Ta'liq resulted in the Nasta'liq script. This was a lighter and more elegant system of writing. Among its distinguishing characteristics are the extravagantly elongated and flowing horizontal curves of many of its letters, the filling in of small circles, very thin and pointed letter endings, emphasis on horizontal rather than vertical movements, and great contrast in width of lines. In the sixteenth century, Nasta'liq practically replaced Naskhi as a script for copying Persian literary works.
The name, Nasta'liq, is thought to be a contraction of naskh and taliq. Since the development of the script in the late fifteenth century C.E., it has been the national script of Iran. Nasta'liq has been used primarily for secular literary works or calligraphy pages (muraqqa') created for album collections. It has almost never been used as a Qur'anic script, though after about 900/1500 it became popular in Iran and Central Asia for epitaphs and inscriptions on architectural monuments. The style spread rapidly in those eastern regions where the Persian language and Iranian-Islamic influence was strong. Little or no influence of the Persian scripts can be discerned beyond these areas.
The Shikastah ("broken form") script was developed in Herat about the middle of the eleventh/seventeenth century. It is a complicated and difficult to read variation of Ta'liq. This extremely dense script is written with tiny letters having very low and inclined verticals. It has no vowel markings. Lines are placed at various angles on the page. Shikastah has been used primarily for personal, business, or official correspondence in Persain and Urdu.
One other script that had wide significance and usage in the Muslim world is the Diwani script, which was popularized by the scribes of the Ottoman sultanate in the late ninth/fifteenth century (Illus. 20.19). It is also considered to be a variant of Taliq, although the relation to the earlier Persian script is not as clear as with Nastaliq and Shikastah.
Diwani has been used particularly for official documents, proclamations, and the official signature seals (sing. tughra) which were created for each of the Ottoman sultans. Diwani never enjoyed popularity for execution of Holy Qur'an copies or for epigraphic inscriptions. It is a rounded script which can be recognized by its extravagantly flowing movements and its gradual elevation and extension of letters at the ends of lines. It features a marked tendency to superpositioning and unconventional joining of letters. Vowel marks are usually not included.
Contemporary Calligraphy in the Muslim World
As the rise of Islamic awarness is felt among contemporary Muslim peoples and a new sense of ethnic, national, and religious identity moves the people of the Third World, Muslim calligraphers are again exploring and experimenting with their art. An increased interest in calligraphy is evident today among Muslim patrons as well as artists in all parts of the Muslim world.
Although certain features of these new examples of calligraphy differ from region to region, it is not possible to discern distinct regional or national styles in the new efforts to practice an old Islamic art. This does not mean that contemporary efforts by calligraphers reveal no variety. Just the poopsite is the case! But that variety is based more on variant adaptations of influences from the non-Islamic world than on national or regional particularisms, If one were to make and attempt to categorize the trends in the contemporary calligraphy of the Muslim world, most examples of that art would fit into one of the following categories:
(5) "Pure Abstractionist."
Examples of "Traditional" calligraphy are being produced by contemporary Muslim calligraphers in many of the styles and scripts known to earlier generations. We chose the term Traditional for the examples of this category because it signifies a conformance to long-established customs as well as to the more standard elements in the Islamic tradition. Traditional, therefore, implies not only correspondence with the past but also general conformance to the mainstream, or the dominant aspects, of the total calligraphic output of the Muslims. The other types of contemporary calligraphy show a relationship to less traditional aspects of the heritage, and to influences borrowed from alien traditions.
The contemporary Traditional calligraphers are usually trained in an apprentice system by one of the leading calligraphers of their locality. Some Muslim nations have had schools for the training of calligraphers, but these institutions have fallen on hard times in recent decades as the effects of colonialism, Westernization, and cultural/economic depression have made themselves felt. The kuttab religious schools, which used to train Muslim children, contributed significantly to the survival of the interest in and capability for beautiful Arabic penmanship in all parts of the Muslim world.
These strongholds of the calligraphic tradition have been severely weakened, however, by the presence of colonialist and missionary educational institutions. Even many of the schools of the Muslim nations which are operated by natives of the area have been so anxious to imitate their foreign competitors that the cultivation and refinement of Arabic calligraphy has fallen a hapless victim.
Despite these advese conditions, exponents of Traditional calligraphy still survive. Probably the most important reason for this persistence of the tradition is the unique compatability of this art with the aesthetic demands of the Muslim peoples.
The Traditional calligraphers of this century remain true to the demand for abstract quality through their choice of an abstract subject matter for their art. They emphasize the discursive message and the beautiful arrangement of the letters rather than the repersentation of figures from nature. Stylized leaf or flower motifs and geometric patterns are found in combination with the calligraphic figures, but the overall effect in the contemporary works of the Traditional calligraphers is abstract.
Another exampled of modular quality uses a longer unit and combines it with not one but three additional repetitions which complete a circular design. Here not only modular quality but also the third and fourth core characteristic- successive combination and repetition - are clearly represented.
Any of these examples must be experienced with the successive investigation of the constituent modules. The movement and dynamism that this entails is the fifth of the core characteristics of any work of Islamic art. Each discursive-aesthetic segment is comprehended as an entity, after which the eye and the mind of the spectator move to the next unit within the pattern. The experience of the work of Traditional calligraphic art can thus be both discursively and aesthetically viewed as a dynamic continuum.
The sixth core characteristic, intricate detail, is also found in the Traditional calligraphy of contemporary Muslim artists.Adil as Saghir,Muhammad Said al Saggar, Muhammad "ali Shakir, and Isam al Said the contemporary artists who represent this Traditional category.
The second category of contemporary calligraphy could be designated as "Figural" motifs with the calligraphic elements in various ways. Some are combinations of addition, that is, the calligraphic and figural motifs are merely juxtaposed within the work of art.This manner of combination has been used in the past, but the fugural elements were generally restricted to leaf or flower motifs that were stylized or denaturalized to better suit the abstract quality of Islamic art. Zoomorphic and human figures were not included in Qur'nic copies, in the decoration of mosques, madrasahs, or thier furnishings, though they are found on vessels and utensils for domestic use.
A second form of combination of figural motifs with calligraphy in the art of the Muslims of both the past and the present in that which could be designated as molded. In such designs the letters are elongated and shortened, spread out and squeezed, or elaborated with extensions, swirls, loops, or additional marks and fillers to make them conform to the shape of a noncalligraphic, geometric, vegetal, zoomorphic, or human figure.
The basmalah ("In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate"), which opens every written or recited Qur'anic passage as well as any book or shorter work written by a Muslim, is a favorite motto for such calligraphy designs. Sayyid Naqib al Attas is one of the many contemporary Muslims who has created molded examples of Figural calligraphy. In the works of Sadiqayn, a well-known Pakistani calligrapher, molding of the letters to achieve a Figural depiction is a prominent technique.
Contemporary Islamic Calligraphy features a third form of combination with figural motifs which could be designated as a design of integration. In these, the letters themselves are extended into plant, animal, or human motifs. As the word implies, integration involves the impossibility of separating the constituent elements of design - the calligraphic and the figural. The letters of these examples have become constitutive of the figural element. The removal of either would destory the design.
"Expressionist" calligraphy is a third type of contemoprary calligraphic art of the Muslim world. This style, like other recent calligraphy creations, is related to comparable Western aesthetic movements. They are the result of the acculturation of Muslim art and artists with Western art in recent times. Although Expressionist calligraphers use the "vocabulary" of the Islamic artistic heritage, they are far removed from exemplifying its "grammar."
The term Expressionist has been used to categorize that calligraphy in which emotion or emotive elements. usually expressed through violent distortion and exaggeration, are prominent. As a modern movement in the Western world of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is exemplified by the works of artists who sought to convey to the viewer their own sugjective emotions.
They also wished to depict a personal, visual, and emotional response to objects, persons. or events represented. They certainly did not aim at realistic portrayal. Such an art movement embodies the representational and the individualistic. It features a striking lack of rapport with - even a sharp antagonism to - the abstract and universal qualities of Islamic art. The Muslim artist has sought to draw the spectator away from the personal and the creaturely toward a concentration on transcendence.
Expressoinist art, in contrast, emphasizes human emotion, mood portrayal, subjective feelings, and individualistic concerns. It presents a "dive" into nature, and often into its least uplifting and ideal aspects, rather than an elevation to contemplation of a higher order of existence.
Despite the sharply alien premises of Expressionist art, a number of contemporary Muslim calligraphers have tried to adapt these aesthetic characteristics to Islamic calligraphy. They seem to be so imbibed with an alien tradition, rather than with the basic premises of the Islamic tradition and ideology, that they do not realize the incongruity of their efforts to produce calligraphy in this strange and un-Islamic way. The works of Qutaiba Shaikh Nouri represent such an orientation. Buland al Haidari has accurately described his works as an attempt to employ the letter "in the expression of his [the artist's] most intimate feelings and ideas, and its form is therefore affected by what is alive in his own consciousnes."
Though they may utilize motifs from an Islamic heritage-such works are part and parcel of a Western art tradition. They have little to offer a Muslim artistic revival or a Muslim audience. To judge them as Islamic art is little different from dressing a Western Christian in a turban and calling him a Muslim.
A fourth category of contemporary Muslim calligraphy includes examples of what we shall call "symbolic" calligraphy. Despite the peculiar inapplicability of literal symbolism for the Islamic arts, some contemporary Muslim calligraphers have followed this direction. In such calligraphy, Westernization has again intruded on the artistic orientation and process.
Evidence of such acculturation can be seen in the designs of contemporary calligraphers who use a particular letter or word to serve as a symbol of an idea or a complex of ideas. Also included are works in which a chosen Arabic letter is associated with objects, the names of which begin with its sound, for example, with sayf ("sword") or sikkin ("knife").
The symbolic letter or letters are juxtaposed in such compositions with representations of the objects of association in order to convey a specific message. The ideas thus expressed pertain to the objects rather than to a discursive message carried by the writing. The meaning behind the objects is often accentuated by the very shape or manner of execution of the letter or letters.
Such combinations hold significance only as revelations of the artist's choice and feelings. By being forced into association with such an artificial combination of meanings, the letters are denied their role as conveyors of a discursive message. In this associative and symbolic guise, they are usually found in compositions expressing a message of protest or social reform. Such a motivation for artistic creation is not one that has played an imprtant role in the history of Islamic art.
One wonders if such close connections with the day-to-day life of mankind can possibly gain validity for the Islamic art of our time or of the future. this would be a sharp departure from the orientation toward transcendence of the Islamic aesthetic tradition.
Some art historians who have accomplished outstanding achievements in their study of the historical, linguistic, and archeological data pertaining to Islamic calligraphy have fallen into particularly un-Islamic symbolic interpretation of the Islamic calligraphic art products. One such claim is that, when written, the vertical letters of the shahadah (the confession of faith) are "calligraphic evidence for both the divine origins of the script and the truth of the faith." The same author continues: "Almost all the letters could be employed metaphorically."
In fact, the epigraph is claimed to function "as a manifestation of the intangible and eternal divine. To the Muslim, there can be no such manifestation of Divinity. To ascribe divine representation to any figure or object would be regarded by most members of the community to be not just erroneous but even blasphemous.
Pursuing a similar symbolic and un-Islamic line, certain art historians have even dug up the "old bones" of those medieval conceits that attributed to the letters themselves a numerical value and magical significance. The resemblance of the Arabic form of the Prophet's name to the worshipper bowed in prayer, which was mentioned in the writings of some early authors of the Islamic period, has been cited as evidence of this symbolic significance of the word in Islamic art and its widespread acceptance by Muslims. The argument, based on a limited acceptance of such an idea and in a limited period of time, is mistakenly suggests as a universal within Islamic history.
Pseudo-Calligraphy or Pure Abstaction
There is a fifth type of contemporary use of calligraphy by Muslim artists. It might be designated as "Pseudo-Calligraphy" or "Pure Abstraction". Pseudo-Calligraphy, of course, indicates that the motifs of this type of art resemble letters and / or words, but the forms do not carry any of the conventional meanings associated with them.
Pure Abstraction is another label drawn from a twentieth-century Western art movement to label an aesthetic type within Muslim aesthetic production. Although the term abstraction has been used in Western art circles to categorize a number of quite different art movements, its combination with the adjective, "pure" has generally specified a particular movment within abstractionism. Piet Mondrian, a Dutch painter who specialized in geometrically pure abstraction, was one of the most important contributors to this movement. He is described as producing art in which "shapes, lines and colours have their own absolute, autonomous values and relationships, divorced from any associative role whatsoever.
The fifth group of Muslim calligraphers take direction from such views.Letters, geomtric shapes, or any other motif are used by the Muslim Pure Abstraction artists as pure form, divorced of any of their traditional meanings or significance. Stripped of their linguistic meaning, the letters are used as sheer elements of design. If the calligraphic motifs retain any meaning, it comes from the Expressionist qualities of their rendering or ascribed literary symbolic implications.
Some artists of the Muslim world who use calligraphy in this way have tried to establish a new school of art which they call the "One Dimension Group". Their goal is to make use of the Arabic script as if it were no different from a geometric of figural motif. Exploiting the plastic potentialities of the alphabet, these Pure Abstraction calligraphers deal with the letters as shapes to be manipulated rather than as elements of a discursive message. With these artists, the letters are no longer the motifs of doubly-rich meaning that they were in the Islamic calligraphy of eariler times.
In fact, for Muhammad Ghani, a sculptor, the form of the letters is so modified and mingled with the space surrounding it, that its very identity is jeopardized. Naja Mahdawi, a contemporary Tunisian artist, produces compositions of inscriptions that are studies in pure form rather than something to be read. These works sometimes lean toward Expressionism; others are completely free of any attempt to convey meaning. Thus they deny the very essence and function of Islamic Calligraphy-to present a discursive message in the beautiful visual forms of the infinite pattern.
The works of the Pure Abstraction calligraphers can generally be regarded as outside the pale of Islamic art. They may be considered "Muslim" art only in the sense that their creators are statistical Muslims. But their denial of the integrity of the letters and words associated with the Arabic language, and there fore their denial of a relationship between their art and the Qur'anic message, is antagonistic to that element of aristic creativity which has been held by Muslims throughout the centuries to be its most noble content.
In additaion, examples of psedudo Calligraphy or Pure Abstraction that lean toward Expressionism, that is, try to visualize the artist's emotions and feelings, are inimical to Islamic abstract goals, The experiments in Pure Abstraction that are examples of "art for art's sake," that is, simply exercises in color and form, are equally un-Islamic. Islam and the doctrine of tawhid, which emphasize so strongly the telic nature ot human existence and of every aspect of nature and human activity, cannot foster of support an art that exists selfishly and incongruously "for its own sake."
In fact, such an art, Islam would maintain, is an impossibility. For if it is nor expressive and reinforcing of one truth, it must necessarily be expressive and reinforcing of another truth or set of truths. Even the expression and reinforcement of the denial of truth is a claim of truth for nihilism. In any case, that art which expresses other than Islamic principles could never warrant the regard or commendation of Islamic culture and the Muslim peoples.
Though some examples of contemporary calligraphy in the Muslim world seem more related to Western than to Islamic art, the very srtong interest and concern with abstract motifs-the Arabic letters and word - is itself and indication of the importance and survival of the Islamic aesthetic core characteristics and the significance for future aesthetic activity.
Rather than making use of the figural motifs emphasized so srtongly in other cultures, and even practiced by recent sculptors and painters of noncalligraphic art in the Muslim world, many Muslim calligraphers have remained close to the tradition in choosing their absrtact iconographic materials.
In addition to their use of abstract motifs, even the nontraditional contemporary calligraphers often give evidence of the relation of their work to the core characteristics of Islamic art.
In the acrylic by "Adil al Saghir, the Islamic characteristics of both modular units and successice combintions are strikingly evident and excitingly achieved. Flowing lines of yellow, blue, green, and bronze varying in width carry the calligraphic lines and discursive content of the composition. Each segment or shape is module within the whole.
These colored bands are combined to achieve a second level of organization; and on a third level, the composition reveals a highly stylized figural representation of a human figure. The work, therefore, like any successful Islamic work of art, must be viewed successively in parts and combinations of parts, as a series of "views" rather than as a single unity. Such additive structures demand the use of repetition, times viewing, and intricacy, which are the other core characteristics of the Islamic arts.
Given the considerable production of the Traditional calligraphers, and despite certain incongruous borrowings by a limited number of non-Traditional calligraphers, it is clear that there is a strong tendency in the contemporary Muslim world to retain the features that have informed Islamic art and created a recognisable traditon throughout the centuries and in every region of the Muslim world.
The lively renewal of interest, on the part of both artists and viewers, in calligraphy, as well as the refreshing experimentation to discover new ways of expressing the Islamic spirit through beautiful writing, are hopeful signs for the future of this most respected of the Islamic arts.