The Written Word in Islamic Art
Islamic art and culture is heavily influenced by both the meaning and
form of the written word. Prior to the advent of Islam, the written word
was significant. However, with the rise of Islam and the holy book of
, the written word became a symbol of both Islamic faith
and civilisation. Arabic writing, expressed through the fine art of
calligraphy, has pervaded the visual arts. The universal custom
among the faithful, of reading the Qur’an
in Arabic has resulted in the
spread of calligraphic arts throughout the Islamic world, beyond
Arabic speaking nations. It is believed that Arabic calligraphy should
be a whole subject by itself in modern Arabic schools.1 Given the
position of the written word and the Islamic aversion to figural images,
calligraphy proliferated in Islamic art. As a visual art, the skill of
calligraphy relies on the use and knowledge of Arabic. The belief that
must be read in Arabic in order to ascertain its proper
meaning has created an environment in which the religious and
aesthetic aspects of the word have come to dominate the arts. Thus,
the divine importance given to the Arabic language has transformed
the word into a symbol of the faith from Africa to Indonesia. The
ideographic properties of the word have lead to a tradition of poetry
that relies on a blending of meaning derived from the physical
appearance of the letters in a poem as well as from the literal
meaning of the verse. The elevation of the written word in Islamic
culture has made a great contribution to the Islamic arts more
‘Islamic art’ is a term given by Western art historians to the artistic
styles that have existed throughout the regions of the world that have
been influenced by Islamic faith and civilisation. This Western
approach to Islamic art has traditionally concentrated on the unity and
commonalities that have been found in art throughout the countries of
the Islamic world, mainly in Egypt, the Middle East, Central Asia and
Northern India.2 Recent in-depth studies have shown the peculiarity
1 J. Michon, (or A A al-Khaliq): ‘Education in the Traditional Arts and Crafts and the
Cultural Heritage of Islam’ In S H Nasr, editor, Philosophy, Literature and Fine Arts
Jeddah, 1982, 58.
2 P L Baker: Islam and the Religious Arts
, London, 2004, 9.
Buddha of Suburbia
of the art of each particular locality. However, while regional
influences of particular Islamic communities exist, Arabic calligraphy
provides a unifying theme in Islamic art. While art from individual
regions can readily be seen as having an authentic style, the strong
influence of Islamic belief that informs each style brings them all
under the umbrella of Islamic art. It is also important to consider what
is meant by the ‘arts’ in Islam. This will be restricted to the visual arts
and poetry. The distinction between craft and art must also be
examined because in Islamic culture the artist and the craftsman are
not clearly differentiated.3 All crafts are intended to be beautiful and
thus, artistic. Therefore, the decorative aspects of craft represent
legitimate artistic expression and shall be included in the discussion
of the written word in Islamic art.
Historically, Western art history has looked at Islamic art primarily in
terms of its figural art.4 However, art involving the depiction of the
written word is more central to Islamic culture.5 The written word
holds an important place in Islamic art and, more generally, in Islamic
culture. Moreover, the written word was of importance even before
the advent of Islamic culture in these regions at a time when writing
was used mainly for administration and commercial purposes.6 It also
predated Islamic culture in Arabic art as captions to pictures and in
sculpture, as seen on the 2100 BCE statue of Prince Gudea of
Lagash, the skirt of which was ornamented with cuneiform script.7
Through the prophet Muhammad, Allah’s revelation was manifest in
the form of the spoken word. Thus, the word became important
because of the manner in which Allah had chosen to reveal himself.
In Christianity, Jesus Christ was viewed as a physical manifestation
of God and so it was his actions that were important. However,
Muhammad was merely the messenger of Allah and so the Qur’an
which contained the word of Allah, became the essential element of
the Islamic faith. The Qur’an
elevates the written word to the centre of
human culture: ‘Thy Lord is the Most Bounteous, Who teacheth by
the pen, Teacheth man that which he knew not.’8 Furthermore, Allah
3 Ibid, 17.
4 A Welch: Calligraphy in the Arts of the Muslim World
, Austin, 1979, 19.
5 B Brend: Islamic Art
, London, 1991, 33.
6 Welch, op cit, 24.
7 L L al-Faruqi: Islam and Art
, Islamabad, 1985, 35.
8 The Koran
, translated by N J Dawood: surah 96:3-5; al-‘Alaq, London, 1978, 26.
The Written Word in Islamic Art
chose the language of Arabic in which to reveal his divine message
and so Arabic was viewed by believers to be a divine language in
itself. The Qur’an
advocates the spreading of the word using the
Arabic language.9 The Arabic script came to be viewed as having
divine authority and was used in all Islamic countries, from Spain to
India, regardless of the native languages spoken. The domination of
the Islamic culture frequently meant that, while the spoken language
of a conquered region was retained, that language came to be written
in Arabic script, demonstrating the primacy of the written word in
Islam.10 Subsequently, the prevalence of Arabic script helped to
spread the appreciation of the written word as art11 and, therefore,
calligraphy developed into an acclaimed form of art. Whereas the
beautiful script of Christian monks in the Middle Ages became largely
obsolete with the development of the printing press,12 beautiful script
in Islamic culture still remains important and a major art form. For all
believers, writing retains its sacred nature and is potentially a spiritual
Calligraphy, which comes from the Greek for ‘beautiful writing,’14 is a
suitable name for the artistic act of writing found in the Islamic world.
It became a highly regarded form of art in Islamic culture from the
very first years of the religion. Ali, the fourth caliph, is credited with
being the first Islamic calligrapher.15 Through him, as a relative of the
prophet Muhammad, the Kufic
script gained religious legitimacy.
Some Islamic people even trace the art of calligraphy back to Allah
himself, who wrote the original celestial Qur’an
.16 The beauty of
calligraphy is seen to enhance the religious appreciation of a text. Of
course, the importance of writing has not been solely religious. For
example, writing was an essential skill for anyone wishing to achieve
a position in administration.17 In the legal sphere, handwriting was
used as verification of a legal document, such as a will.18 Calligraphy
9 See for example, Ibid, 46:12; surah al-Ahqaf, 128; and 207 26:195; surah The Poets.
10 Welch, op cit, 23. Cash claims that the spoken language of almost all conquered
Islamic regions is now Arabic, in W W Cash: The Expansion of Islam
, London, 1928,
11 F Rosenthal: Four Essays on Art and Literature in Islam
, Leiden, 1971, 53.
12 Welch, op cit, 17.
13 Rosenthal, op cit, 54.
14 Welch, op cit, 17.
15 E Atil: Art of the Arab World
, Washington DC, 1975, 11.
16 J Renard: ‘Aesthetics’ In Seven Doors to Islam
, Berkeley, 1996, 126.
17 Rosenthal, op cit, 54-55.
18 Ibid, 61.
Buddha of Suburbia
became the principal art form in Islamic culture,19 developing into a
variety of styles and following historical trends. These trends include
variations in the use of diacritical marks and in the shapes of the
letters. For example, the earlier Kufic
script is angular compared to
the slightly more rounded Maghribi
script of North Africa and Spain.20
The physical beauty of calligraphy provided an aesthetic dimension to
the written language beyond its literal meaning.21 Great calligraphers
are held in reverence for their contribution to the art. Ibn Muqla (886-
940CE) incorporated the medieval Islamic passion for mathematical
and musical harmony with his geometric principles for calligraphy.
Then Ibn al-Bawwab (d 1022 CE) brought elegance and grace to the
rules set out by Muqla, further beautifying calligraphy. The third great
calligrapher, Yaqut al-Musta‘simi (d 1289CE) made innovations to
calligraphy by cutting the qalam
(calligraphy reed) nib at an angle,
thus achieving more fineness and beauty in the writing.22 These
people are recognised for their creative role in the development of the
written word as a fine art.
Transcribing the word of Allah was an important task, as there was a
constant demand for the Qur’an
which encouraged the continual
development of the art form. For instance, it was traditional for a
person to be buried with a Qur’an
behind their left shoulder.23 This
meant that every individual required a copy. The acquisition of the
holy book usually cost a lower-middle family the equivalent of their
living expenses for a fortnight,24 illustrating the value that was placed
on owning the written word of god. However, the outright purchase of
was discouraged and transactions were often disguised as a
monetary donation to the calligrapher.25 The Qur’an
had a highly responsible job as a reproducer of the holy book. There
was an expectation that medieval calligraphers would be ascetic,
similar to the religious class.26 It was assumed that Islamic
calligraphers shared a special affiliation with words and letters and
this relationship was even viewed by some as devotional love. The
practise by most Islamic cultures of writing in Arabic script has
19 Baker, op cit, 52.
20 Atil, op cit, 24-27.
21 Rosenthal, op cit, 56.
22 Welch, op cit, 29-30.
23 Baker, op cit, 54.
24 Baker, op cit, 76.
25 Ibid, 53.
26 Renard, op cit, 126.
The Written Word in Islamic Art
assisted the development of the art of calligraphy and has resulted in
calligraphy being a universal Islamic art form. Although, historically
has been translated and commentaries written in Chinese,
Indonesian and other languages27 as late as 1980, Islamic
theologians have declared that the printing of the Qur’an
other than Arabic was against Allah’s revealed will.28 It could be
argued that if Arabic had not become the universal script of Islamic
culture, then the art of the written word would not have risen to such
prominence, especially outside the Arabian Peninsula.
The art of calligraphy was complimented by illustration and
illumination of the page, as well as by the way in which the book was
bound. These became art forms in their own right and gained
legitimacy through their association with the written word.
Illuminations became elaborate and illustrations in texts other than
sometimes bore human figures under the guise of
enhancing the text.29 Historically, the representation of the human
form was censured and many painters referred to themselves as
calligraphers. Human representations were stylised to help the artist
avoid condemnation to hell when, upon their death, they found
themselves incapable of fulfilling the request of Allah that they
breathe life into their paintings. Illustrations often flourished outside
the borders of the text, showing the overpowering and boundless will
of Allah. In this way, the unacceptable became accepted because of
the elevated position of the written word. The importance of book
production was reflected in the prevalence of the guilds of
bookbinders and paper makers.30 The art of bibliopegy became highly
developed. Intricate bindings of leather, wood and paper maché
reflected temporal and regional fashions. However, bookbinding was
not always practiced, as in Egypt, before the nineteenth century, it
was seen as advantageous that a volume of free pages could be read
by more than one person at one time.31
Calligraphy is ubiquitous in Islamic culture. Every Islamic visual art
has incorporated writing into its representations. Perhaps the most
prominent example can be seen in Islamic architecture. As the public
27 Baker, op cit, 72.
29 Brend, op cit, 17.
30 Baker, op cit, 53.
31 Ibid, 61.
Buddha of Suburbia
face of the Islamic culture, buildings were often decorated with
inscriptions, in order to affirm the faith32. Both secular and religious
inscriptions were used in Islamic architecture. Even the earliest
known Islamic building, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, displays
extensive inscriptions. Some of these inscriptions were religious but
some also denounced the religion of the defeated Christian
population of Jerusalem and celebrated the victory of the Muslims.33
There is a 240 metre long inscription at the Dome of the Rock,34
which is not merely informative but also has artistic merit. On the
Quwwat al-Islam Mosque near Delhi, inscriptions denounce
polytheism and deprecate people who worship idols.35 Not only
mosques, but also palaces and other secular buildings were inscribed
with quotes from the Qur’an
, the Hadith and other prose, as well as
the names of the people in charge of the building, the date of
completion and the ruler of the time.36
These were carved in prominent places, such as just below the dome
or framing the entrance gate, so as to show the commitment of the
patrons and builders to Islam. The calligraphy for these inscriptions
was initially drafted on paper by professional calligraphers, who took
into account the angle and distance from which the inscriptions would
be viewed. It was then the job of a stonemason to take the draft and
create the art on the building. The fact that the mason was not the
calligraphic artist did not demean his task, as it was viewed that the
work of rendering the planned inscription onto a building was as
religiously significant as the designing of the original inscription.37
Words incorporated into textiles were also common. In 1351, Taqī-as-
din as-Subkī, a Shafi-ite jurist and author, strongly disapproved of
stepping on a carpet in which there were letters making up words
such as ‘blessing’ and ‘enduring strength.’38 He believed that Allah
had made each thing with a given purpose and so while a carpet was
32 Welch, op cit, 35.
33 Atil, op cit, 10.
34 This inscription is from the Qur’an, 36:1-6; surah Ya Sin:
http://www.noblesanctuary.com/DOME.html, accessed 26 May 2004.
35 Welch, op cit, 35-38.
36 R Ettinghausen: ‘The Man-Made Setting: Islamic Art and Architecture’ in The World
, edited by B Lewis, 1976, 60.
37 Welch, op cit, 39.
38 Rosenthal, op cit, 50. Note that ‘enduring strength’ was not a marketing claim by the
The Written Word in Islamic Art
intended for walking on, this was not true for sacred words and so he
disapproved of walking on such letters in carpets. This illustrates the
importance of the word in that, once written, it became a religious
symbol in its own right. The written word was also woven into robes,
which were given to distinguished people as a mark of governmental
appreciation. These inscriptions included the name of the caliph, the
date and, somewhat surprisingly, the workshop, its location and the
name of its director. These robes were highly prized despite the fact
that the inscriptions were in Kufic
script and were hard to decipher.39
In fourteenth century Cairo, inscribed textiles were also used to
protect the newborn in birth rituals. A seven-day-old baby traditionally
had its head wrapped in fabric that had a Qur’an
ic verse painted on it
to encourage good health.40 This demonstrates the powers with
which words and letters were imbued.
The importance of being able to read the Qur’an
and the subsequent
emphasis on the written word contributed to the academic tradition in
Islamic culture. Although some Muslim sultans41 and many common
people were not literate in Arabic, theologians promoted the ideal that
every boy should be able to read the Qur’an
in Arabic. This emphasis
on literacy meant that the reading of Arabic in medieval times was far
more widespread in Islamic countries than the reading of comparable
languages in medieval Europe.42 Distinct literary and poetic styles
were developed based on Islamic principles. Poetry, mainly a Sufi
tradition, is an art that has benefited from the importance placed on
the written word in Islamic culture. Individual Arabic letters developed
their own mystical powers, numerical importance and symbolism.43
Arabic calligraphy has an ideographic aspect. This visual imagery of
the letters was exploited in Islamic poetry. One popular poetic device
involves the coupling of the two letters ‘lām’ (ل
) and ‘alif’ (ا
look like two young lovers entwined. However, when combined, these
same letters form the word ‘no’, alluding to forbidden love.44 Whereas
Western masters of poetry, such as Shakespeare, utilised the
39 Ettinghausen, op cit, 61.
40 Baker, op cit, 224.
41 For example, the Mamluk sultans Qaitbay and Inal in the fifteenth century. Baker, op
42 Ibid, 72.
43 Welch, op cit, 25. There was much lore surrounding the properties of letters and the
Hurufis, an Islamic group, even wrote a systematised ‘Science of Letters’ in the
44 Rosenthal, op cit, 56-57.
Buddha of Suburbia
ambiguity of word meanings, or ‘plays on words,’ Arabic poets made
‘plays on letters,’ the meaning and symbolism of which were widely
known. Arabic is a language that lends itself to these letter plays, as
many letters are similar and words are ambiguous if they are not
annotated with diacritical marks, the use of which only became
popular in the eighth century.45 While in copies of the Qur’an
diacritical marks were added to the original to promote a precise
understanding of the sacred text, in poetry, diacritical marks were
often omitted, so as to allow extra meanings to be derived from the
text of the poem.
Calligraphy in Islamic culture can move beyond the representation of
the word itself. That is, writing, as an art form, developed such that it
was not readily decipherable by many skilled epigraphers, let alone
by the general Islamic population. As mentioned above, this trend is
seen in the use of Kufic
script to adorn textiles. This calligraphic
development was also incorporated into arabesque, along with
images such as flowers, vases, foliage, fruits and geometrical
patterns.46 Letters and words can often be recognised within the
symmetrical patterns. This calligraphy in arabesque was intended to
be deciphered by Allah alone. The elements of arabesque form no
simple pattern and it is the frustrated attempts of viewers to discern a
pattern, which leads them to an appreciation of the infinite and,
hence, the absolute nature of Allah.47 Thus, the art of calligraphy,
which was promoted by the elevated position of the word, eventually
transcended the literal meaning of the word and became an abstract
art form pointing to infinity and ultimately the divine.
The significance of the word in Islamic art is largely derived from the
role of the Qur’an
in the revelation of Islamic faith. The disapproval of
figurative art reinforced this significance. Moreover, the insistence
that the word of Allah be written only in Arabic provided a bond
between diverse Islamic regions across the world. Written Arabic
developed over time into a rich tradition of calligraphic art. This
calligraphy came to have its own intrinsic beauty and transcended the
need for legibility inherent in the written word. This development was
promoted by the continual need to produce the Qur’an
. Related crafts
45 Baker, op cit, 52.
46 A Delbridge: editor, The Macquarie Dictionary
(Third Edition), Sydney, 2001, 99.
47 I A Faruqi: ‘Islam as Culture and Civilisation’ in Islam and Contemporary Society
London, 1982, 172.
The Written Word in Islamic Art
such as illumination, illustration and book production also flourished.
Writing came to be linked with various crafts and professions, which
often gained respectability through their association with the word.
Some artists made a point of utilising calligraphy because calligraphy
form of artistic expression. The ideographic nature of
letters came to be incorporated into the meaning of some poetry and
non-scriptural texts. However, calligraphy was not confined to books
but became a ubiquitous theme throughout the Islamic world in fields
including architecture, textiles and rug design. Calligraphy became
incorporated into the arabesque style, which was seen as pointing to
the infinite and, hence, the divine.
Contemporary Islamic art continues to give significance to the written
word. For example, calligraphy is an important component of modern
Islamic jewellery, which protects and strengthens the wearer through
the power of the word.49 Calligraphy is commonly used on calendars,
wall posters and compact disc covers, showing the appropriation of
traditional styles of art into contemporary art forms. In the present day
world of nation states, the word has continued to develop in its
significance and has become part of the symbolism of the modern
Islamic state, as evidenced in contemporary flag design.
The Auburn Gallipoli Mosque in Sydney was completed in 1999.
Calligraphy is prominently displayed both inside and outside the
mosque. Guides at the mosque readily describe the importance of the
word in Islamic culture. It is explained that the prophet Mohammad
lived at a time when the need for literacy and knowledge was of
critical importance and so these values became central tenets of
Islam. The illiterate Mohammad was commanded to read by Allah
and thus, the written word became of central importance. As
mentioned before, Arabic is valued above all other languages
because the true religious meaning of the Qur’an
can only be
grasped in the original Arabic.
Although the art of the Gallipoli mosque is calligraphic and geometric,
the mosque holds western art classes in its women’s madrasa
art is non-figurative and still life, which, in its representation of nature,
is seen to be spiritually fulfilling and representative of the divine.
While Islamic art in contemporary Sydney can embrace aspects of
means ‘legal’ in Islamic law.
49 D Morris: Bodyguards: Protective Amulets and Charms
, Shaftsbury, 1999, 148-149.
Buddha of Suburbia
western art, many art shows in Sydney that seek contributions by
Islamic artists continue to look for works of calligraphy.50
The prominence of the word can be seen in the work of the well-
known contemporary Indonesian artist A D Pirous. His work
combines Western abstraction with traditional Islamic forms,
calligraphy, in his attempts to highlight the political
situation in his homeland of Aceh.51
Dr Nihad Dukhan is a Palestinian engineer who grew up in Gaza. He
was also trained extensively in classical Arabic calligraphy. His
modern interpretations of calligraphy are regularly exhibited
throughout the USA. Dukhan has developed a style of calligraphy that
he feels is both contemporary and legible.52
Thus it can be seen that, from the earliest days of Islam, the written
word was highly significant. Suras
of the Qur’an
were written down
during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, and were collected into
the authoritative text of the Qur’an
by the third Caliph, Uthman. Since
that time, the written word has dominated Islamic art forms, and it
continues to do so in the twenty-first century.
50 Personal observations of the author.
51 http://www.artgallery.org.my/html/words_of_faith: accessed 26 December 2004.
52 http://www.ndukhan.com, accessed 26 December 2004.