Muslim Calligraphy (With 163 Illustrations of its Various Styles and Ornamental Designs)

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About the Book   In this book the most important aspect of Muslim art is presented that had not so far been treated with the comprehensiveness which a subject of its importance legitimately required. A detailed and comparative study of the main features of the various styles an analysis of their orthographical peculiarities are presented with scientific study.   Foreword   I owe a word of explanation to the readers ...

About the Book


In this book the most important aspect of Muslim art is presented that had not so far been treated with the comprehensiveness which a subject of its importance legitimately required. A detailed and comparative study of the main features of the various styles an analysis of their orthographical peculiarities are presented with scientific study.




I owe a word of explanation to the readers for the somewhat rambling arrangement of the matter presented in these pages. What appear as chapters in this booklet are only republished articles from the pages of the Visva-Bharuti QIj.(trt.~’1·ly, GO which I was invited to contribute on the subject. When I first ‘agreed to write, I did not realize the exact nature of the task that I had thus undertaken. For, as I proceeded with my work, I was amazed to find that this the most important aspect of Moslem art had not so far been treated with the comprehensiveness which a subject of its importance legitimately required. I found, for instance, that the influence of the Syriac and the Manaechian calligraphy on the early development of Moslem calligraphy had not received the attention that it deserved; inscriptions, both monumental and decorative, had generally been considered from epigraphical point of view and rarely from that of calligraphy; no serious attempt seemed to have been made to view the whole field of Moslem calligraphy as a unit in itself, with a clear historical background of its own, against which styles appeared and disappeared as they gave birth to newer styles and mannerisms, and which left their stamp on the decorative art of the Moslems; it also appeared to me that a detailed and comparative study of the main features of the various styles, an analysis of their orthographical peculiarities was needed without which no scientific study of the subject could be complete.


I found myself therefore in the uncomfortable position of having to decide between writing a whole treatise on the subject, covering all its sides, or merely emphasising the points to which sufficient justice had not been done by previous writers on the subject, while at the same time giving the readers of the Visva-Bharati Quarterly a general idea of the character and history of Moslem calligraphy. The nature of my engagement, however, left me only the second alternative and I had to be content with the lack of compactness and proportion which may strike the reader as he reads these pages, and of which I am only too aware.


But even in this present form as the articles appeared in the Quarterly, they were received with so much appreciation by some kind readers, qualified to pronounce on the subject, that I was encouraged to publish these as a separate booklet in their original order.


I should be ungrateful if I did not acknowledge the debt that I owe to the numerous scholars who by their researches had made the field of work comparatively so easy to traverse, and but for whose collections of original specimens and photographs I should have been unable to illustrate the subject as profusely as I have done. I have quoted them wherever necessary.




Of all the arts that Moslems cultivated, calligraphy is, without doubt, the most refined. ‘Writing as a decorative art was never practised by any people with such conscientious devotion as the Arabs gave it; nor did this art ever develop such an amazing variety of styles and expressions as it did among the people of Persia. These peoples valued written words more dearly than they did precious stones. To them the art of penmanship was superior to all other arts. Such was the lure of the line that from the monarch down to the humblest of writers, each vied with the other in writing beautifully. A calligraphist of repute was the artist whom people loved and honoured most and kings felt proud of possessing in their kingdom.


Moslems, so eager to avoid the painting and modelling of human figures, (there was no injunction of the Prophet to that effect, as it is commonly supposed), lest they relapse into their old ways of worship- ping idols, the terror of which crime had been driven deep into their hearts by the thundering warnings of the Koran, devoted all their love and artistic ingenuity to the pious work of copying the Holy Word. A few of these copies that have survived from the early centuries of the Moslem era, are in themselves such idols of perfect rhythm and beauty that they leave, the beholder inarticulate with admiration.


Islam, like some other great religions, appeared in the world as u. magic force of Art. It gave a mighty impetus to the creative faculties of those who came under its sway. It welded tribes into a nation and set the imagination of men aflame. Important centres of culture like Mekka, Medina, Kufa, Damascus, Baghdad and Basra, etc., sprang up and worked like luminous melting pots where the remnants of ancient cultures were brought together and made to cohere .into a brighter unity. The culture that later came to be distinguished as Islamic was the product of this fusion, and the language of art that was developed contained in it all the essential elements of pre-Islamic classical cultures.


Of the arts that were thus developed, the most remarkable became the decorative arts, amongst which the one that received its most characteristic development at the hands of the Moslems was the art of calligraphy. It was begun and carried on in its early stages by the Arabs, but received its highest fulfilment at the hands of the Persians. The book, with its beautifully written pages and finished cover, acquired such significance in the imagination of the artists that even architecture was stamped with its character and the wall surfaces were often finished as book covers.


The Arabs had a system of writing in pre-Islamic days. It had two styles: monumental and cursive. The cursive system was known to the Beduin poet, (at any rate by sight, since the Beduins were illiterate people), to whom it did not appeal as beautiful, for he has compared the scenes of death and desolation to words scribbled on parchment. “ ... the traces of a dwelling place which 1 saw and which filled me with sorrow,” sang Imru’ul-Qais, “resembled the handwriting of a book upon South Arabian palm-bast.” Another poet says: “I came from Ziyad like one who is bereft of reason, my legs tracing different characters, writing on the road a lam-alif:” This quick and cursive style of the old Arabic script, used on soft material, like leather, palm-bast, parchment, papyrus, etc., must have existed prior to the monumental script. This latter and more developed script, used on harder material, like camel hones, especially ribs and shoulder blades, potsherds, flat white stones, wood and metals, became a great improvement in artistic effect. The Arab sense of geometrical symmetry and mathematical precision is well displayed in the execution of inscriptions wrought in this character. This style, as for, example in the inscriptions of Yemen, has been admired as one of the most beautiful specimens of the writings of antiquity. As this style was used uniformly throughout Arabia proper, it must have been in use from very remote times.


From the point of view of adaptability to artistic use, unless 1 am biased, the Arabic script is by far the best we know of. It supplies vertical or oblique strokes and lines inclinable to any degree of angle, which, when merely repeated, would produce a linear rhythm delightful to the eye. This flexibility of line and stroke put at the disposal of the calligraphist, squares, circles, ovals, cubes, and loops, entwining and interlacing shafts, manageable to almost an infinite variety of quaint proportion and graceful curvature. During the Abba- side period, the golden age of Islamic civilization, an immense number of styles of writing had developed which are extinct now. It was in that age that all the possibilities of the artistic utility of the Arabic script were explored. The variability of the Arabic script and its extreme sensitiveness to artistic suggestion is indeed amazing. All the letters .possess a final flourish which may be turned in any becoming curve or angle, to any suitable length, to any proportion, in harmony or in contrast with the vertical shafts standing upright at their sides, marking time, as it were, to the flow of the music of composition.


Copying the Koran was deemed an extremely meritorious act. Aurangzeb, they say, lived on the money he earned by copying the holy Text Arthur Upham Pope observes: “The Koran was the sole way to life and salvation. Upon it depended the whole structure of society, the order of the day and the path to the future. Supernatural in origin, the final authority and standard of the good in life, it was deserving of every tribute that human skill could lavish upon it, and from the tenth to the twelfth century its pages were ornamented with such knowledge and such sure feeling for splendid design that these early pages remain today almost the greatest achievement in the history of Abstract art.”


The Moslems received the tradition of calligraphic art from the ancients. In Arabia itself, as I have already mentioned, a decorative style had been in use in pre-Islamic period. The Jews and the Christians had been copying their sacred literature with love and devotion. However, Islamic calligraphy owes its development more to the impetus that it received from the Manichaeans than to any other source. Although the Syrians were the first to initiate the Moslems into the art of moulding words into graceful forms, it was the Manichaean tradition that spurred it on to artistic heights.










The position of a calligraphist


Naskh and other styles


List of plates


A portrait of a Moroccan calligraphist by E. Dinet


Front page of the Gulistan by mir ‘Ali


A panel of modern Nasta’ Liq by Muhammad Ya’qub Khan


A panel of modern Nasta’Liq by ‘Ata Muhammad


A panel by ‘Imad Al-Husaini


A panel by Aqa ‘Abd ur-Rashid


A specimen of the early Naskh


A panel in decorative Naskh by ‘Abdullah Tabbakh


A panel in Naskh by Abdullah Tabbakh



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Item Code: NAJ302 Author: M. Ziauddin Cover: Hardcover Edition: 2011 Publisher: Kitab Bhavan ISBN: 9798171512385 Language: English Size: 9.5 inch X 6 inch Pages: 84 (Throughout B/W Illustrations) Other Details: Weight of the Book: 320 gms
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