Islamic Calligraphy

Article excerpt

SHEILA S. BLAIR Islamic Calligraphy Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. 718 pp.; 178 color and b/w ills. $150.00

This most recent book written by Sheila Blair represents a scholarly synthesis long awaited by specialists. It is quite the first comprehensive presentation of Islamic calligraphy directed toward students of the history of art or a general educated public. As such, it answers a real need. The expansive bibliography (pp. 628-58) gives an idea of the abundant references in a field that is related to the history of art, the history of Islam, and the Qur'an and religious sciences, as well as to sociology and craftsmanship. The place of calligraphy in Islamic art tradition is quite unique. Many civilizations that valued their written literature and the literate milieu in society had paid some attention to calligraphic art; the Chinese or Japanese traditional culture, or the Hebrew tradition and its strong links to the Holy Bible come to mind. In the Islamic lands, from the very beginning, writing and the Arabic language played a central role (the written text of the Qur'an was given by God himself and has to be revered and carefully kept): it is for that reason that the development of calligraphic art has remained current until modern times. The art of calligraphy finds its primary home in books, of course, but it was also used for the decoration of nearly every kind of object. Learning calligraphy constitutes the most common mode of artistic training; at the same time, it represents an act of merit. Blair's study is focused around calligraphy's principal expression: the arts of the book.

Blair's synthetic tome offers a fantastic tool for students and advanced scholars in the field of Islamic art. In previous studies, the emphasis lay in presenting a general view of Islamic calligraphy, and these were mostly linked to the history of the book (the development of the art of the book was framed around developments in script, and the respect accorded to calligraphy in Islamic culture and its practice as a form of devotion were frequently invoked categories). The only limit to Blair's investigation is the script, and she includes the main languages that use the letters of the Arabic alphabet, namely, Persian and the Turkic languages (such as Chaghatay and Ottoman). In the first chapter, she considers the origins of the Arabic script and gives an account of the contradictory theories about it (whether it was of Syriac or Nabatean origin) such that she seems to resolve the contradictions that are sometimes only complementary aspects of an imbricated question. The development of this new script and the establishment of the Qur'anic text were of great importance for Islamic civilization. Blair's book provides a thorough introduction to the current state of research. Here she also shows great pedagogical talent: she makes it easy for any reader to understand the various evolutions in scripts and at the same time attend to the historical environments of these developments. To effectively study Islamic calligraphy it is necessary to consider artistic principles and theories, religious veneration for writing, philological evidence, and cultural or political history.

The second chapter, titled "Materials," sets out useful information about parchment, papyrus, paper, inks, and pens in a manner that will be welcomed by codicologists. However, the artistic aspect of these "materials" is never absent from this section. The pages about paper and paper-making are interesting because one learns that the quality of the paper contributes to the decorum necessary for the glorification of writing. Blair does not mention that some early printed examples are made on sheets of colored paper. In Iran blue paper was in use during the nineteenth century, and in the Ottoman Empire some of the earliest printed works by Ibrahim Müteferrika (1674-1742) were on papers of various colors. The aesthetic tradition remained well established even as the new technology of movable Arabic type in printing was introduced. …