Arabic Calligraphy: The Art of Literacy. (Mosaic)

By Highet, Juliet | The Middle East, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

Arabic Calligraphy: The Art of Literacy. (Mosaic)


Highet, Juliet, The Middle East


And if all the trees were pens and the oceans were ink, with seven oceans behind it to add to its supply, yet would not the words of Allah be exhausted in the writing.

Koran, sura 31 v. 27.

"Beautiful writing" is the Greek origin of the word `calligraphy', and for anyone from anywhere, with eyes to see, Arabic calligraphy is heart-stoppingly beautiful. But there's another dimension to it, that inspiring, elevating lift to the psyche one experiences in the presence of great art, art with meaning. The exquisite sura above gives the clue--Arabic calligraphy is art embued with spiritual dimension.

Though initially a means of expression, an efficient tool to convey language, in all its richness of flowing arabesque form and crisp geometric design, it became "spiritual pattern formed by worldly tools", as Islamic sources define it. And what has become a supreme art form is not dead--contemporary calligraphic artists are continuing to push every creative and symbolic boundary forward, way beyond the confines of the Arab world, Tunisian-born Nja Mahdaoui creating recently, for example, Performance Action in Barcelona, in which four Spanish dancers were painted with writing protesting against the rape of Muslim women in Yugoslavia.

From the beginning of the Islamic era (A.D. 622), calligraphy was considered the most revered medium of artistic expression because it was used to transcribe the word of God. The stylised letter forms evolved as an art medium in order to give visual emphasis to the verses of the Koran, the "revealed Word of Allah". To this day, after arduous training, Arabic calligraphers strive to attain aesthetic perfection, a balance between beauty and meaning.

Calligraphers were held in higher esteem than painters or even architects, their exalted status originating from their role in copying the Koran, the word of God. Indeed, it was not until the 16th century that painters and illuminators attained a status on a par with skilled scribes, (though all were considered craftspeople). With the principal focus of all these artisans' creativity on the invention of splendid scripts and the embellishment of abstract illumination for Korans, the holy book came to symbolise an aspect of Jihad--the triumphant spread of Islam.

The art of calligraphy wielded pertinent political power as the Arabic language evolved from a regional idiom to a lingua franca, the `glue' that stuck varied people and an ever-expanding empire together. During the lifetime of the Prophet, Arabic had been spoken by only a relatively small number of people to the east and southeast of the Mediterranean Sea. Within three centuries, it had replaced older languages such as Greek, Latin, Persian and Syriac, becoming the lingua franca for trade, government, law, scholarly research and dissertation, as well as literature and science.

This `glue', the visible presence of the Arabic language, diffused throughout the Muslim world, stretching from the Iberian peninsula in the west, across the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, through Iraq and Iran to western Central Asia. Eventually, of course, Islamic influence and the study of the Koran, spread to India and as far eastwards as Indonesia through trade, as well as through north Africa, and as far south in that continent as Nigeria. …

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