FOR MUSLIMS, the Qur'an is revered as God's own art. Islam is essentially an aural religion; God's word came to the Prophet Muhammad as a voice, instructing him to iqra', "Recite!" In fact, iqra' is the word from which we get qur'an, the "reciting." Reciting or chanting the Qur'an is the highest human art form for Muslims, and over the centuries lusciously melodious chanting styles have developed. But the beautiful writing of God's word followed close behind.
While iqra' is usually translated "Recite!" it can also be translated "Read!" Take the Qur'an's sura 96 (verses 1-8), in which God the Creator and Sustainer is linked with God as Teacher:
Read in the name of your cherisher and sustainer who creates
Who creates humankind from a leech-like clot of blood
Read in the name of your cherisher and sustainer, the Most
Who instructs with a pen
Instructs humankind in what it does not know
For indeed humankind goes beyond bounds
Thinking themselves their own masters,
But to God is their return ...
The word for "pen" in line four is the same word used by calligraphers to refer to their own precisely sharpened tool for inscribing the sacred words. The visual act of reading leads to the visual response of writing. Calligraphers take their inspiration from God's divine example. God's use of the divine pen encourages calligraphers' use of their own pen, fashioned from a simple reed.
Calligraphy differs from ordinary written Arabic, which today is a bare-bones version of the commercial and legal script that began to develop around the time of the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. Islamic calligraphy dates from that same period, but it turned plain Arabic script into a sacred art enshrining the words first of the Qur'an, then of the hadith (stories about and sayings of the Prophet) and then of spiritual poetry. Islamic calligraphy quickly developed a variety of special styles and schools. Exacting conditions governed the production of pen, ink and paper, as well as the formation of individual letters and the planning of the entire composition. Yet this labor and the art resulting from it were seen never as ends in themselves but as encouragement to a more ardent faith.
While the ear in Muslim tradition is the first means of apprehending God's word, the eye follows in short order. Hastening this development historically was the need the Muslim community felt, after the Prophet's death, to correct divergent oral versions of the "Reciting" and to stabilize the text. Having the Qur'an in written form achieved those goals. The written text also made the Qur'an easier to study. But since the Qur'an was the word of God, its written expression needed to enhance worship as well, to be worthy of the God whose 99 names are called collectively the Beautiful Names. Already by the end of the seventh century (that is, within the lifetimes of those who might have met the Prophet as children), those beautiful, highly stylized calligraphic inscriptions from the Qur'an adorned the upper walls of the Dome of the Rock.
Calligraphy has thus played a key role in the encouragement and expression of faith almost from Islam's inception, and continues to do so to the present day. Ear and eye are supremely conducive to the one thing necessary, worshipful attention. No competition exists between Qur'anic chanters and calligraphers in Muslim tradition because both recognize their arts as contributing complementary responses to the divine communication. Indeed, Muslim calligraphers often describe their visual work in terms of sound, but a sound that reverberates within the spirit and imagination, not the ear.
Take the way that the famed contemporary American calligraphic master, Mohamed Zakariya, talks about the tradition of his chosen art form. Zakariya is the designer of the U.S. Postal Service's Eid stamp (seen below), commemorating Islam's holy month of Ramadan. …