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Islamic Calligraphy

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  • Jill Littlewood
    Written for the glory of God Detail from Dr Ahmed Moustafa s dynamic work, Frolicking Horses. Calligraphy makes up the horses forms. VERONICA SHUNMUGAM shares
    Message 1 of 2 , Jun 29, 2004
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      Written for the glory of God

      Detail from Dr Ahmed Moustafa's dynamic work, Frolicking Horses. Calligraphy makes up the horses' forms. VERONICA SHUNMUGAM shares insights into the connections between Muslim life and art gathered from a fascinating exhibition of calligraphy at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

      IMAGINE a life immersed in art. Everywhere you turn, there is art. It might not seem obvious, but that's what the Islamic life can offer.

      Mightier than the Sword - Arabic Script: Beauty and Meaning, a joint exhibition organised by the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia and The British Museum, shows just how closely art fits into Islamic life. It is full of exquisite everyday items that underline this fact: for Muslims, prayer, daily life and art are all rolled into one.


      Detail from Dr Ahmed Moustafa's dynamic work, Frolicking Horses. Calligraphy makes up the horses' forms.
      To begin with, Islam assigns a major role to calligraphy, a decorative type of writing that is used to record (Arabic) verses of the Quran (see story on The Quran-Calligraphy Connection). Islamic calligraphy is thus one of the few art forms that was developed specifically to be enjoyed by the man in the street - Muslim children are exposed to it in Quran classes, passers-by behold it on (religious) buildings, household items are decorated with it and, nowadays, you can even glimpse it on car stickers.

      The British Museum's Department of Oriental Antiquities curator Dr Venetia Porter said that the presence of Arabic calligraphy is significant in all cultures touched by Islam and the Quranic text. Whether displayed on a building or on the face of a coin, such flourishes of calligraphy serve as reminders of the holy book. The thirtysomething Porter spoke of this in detail in her talk on The Function of Writing In Artistic and Cultural Traditions; the talk was held recently in conjunction with the exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum.

      The Arabs, said Porter, had already been recording "the memories of men" in graffiti on rocks in the desert, and writings on palm leaves and camel bones 150 years before Islam. However, the coming of Islam was to forever change Arabic script.

      "The phrase 'The pen is mightier than the sword', has become a universal expression of the power of the written word," pointed out Porter. "In Islamic culture, the importance attached to writing stems from the fact that Arabic is the language in which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad early in the 7th century, and it was the script in which it was subsequently written down. This has given the Arabic script a unique significance in Islam and, as a result, it has also become one of the defining features of Islamic art.

      "The strong association between writing and God is emphasised several times in the Quran. It was God who gave writing to man: 'He who taught by the pen taught man that which he knew not' (96:4-5). 'And if all the trees on earth were pens and the ocean were ink with seven oceans behind it to add to its supply, yet would not the words of Allah be exhausted in the writing' (31:27).

      "Thus, it became incumbent on the person writing the words of God to use the most beautiful script possible. This led to strict rules being laid down at different times about the shapes of letters and their relation to each other, rules which are still followed by traditional calligraphers today," explained Porter.

      Yet calligraphers are also encouraged to experiment, and outdo each other, in creating even more beautiful styles. Egyptian-born London-based artist-scholar Dr Ahmed Moustafa, 61, is of the opinion that the artist's responsibility is to develop a form that is worthy of Quranic texts. He spoke on Art As a Catalyst for Spiritual Consciousness at the same event as Porter at the Islamic Arts Museum here. Ahmed, who trained as a figurative artist in the neo-classical tradition, contributed a work entitled Frolicking Horses to the contemporary art section of the exhibition.

      Letters are not the only aspect of writing that is tied to Islam and art. Numbers, too, play their part - an important part, according to Ahmed's presentation of his theory on squared numbers and cube shapes in Islamic art.

      The use of geometry (the development of which is largely credited to Muslim mathematicians) in Islamic art and architecture, explained Ahmed, produces literature, objects and buildings that are practical as well as devotional. Islam, he feels, thus tackles the age-old challenge of creating artwork that is practical.

      Both he and Porter intrigued listeners when they mentioned, in connection with the "popular side of Islam", amulets containing numbers. Numbers, explained Ahmed, refer to the letters of the abjad (alphabet); the number one is equivalent to the first letter of the abjad, alif, the number two is equivalent to ba, the second letter, and so on. Using this system, one can use numbers to construct the name of Allah for use in an amulet made to protect its wearer. The earliest example of this is a set of numbers developed by Jabber ibn Hayan I (CE* 8 or 9) that is believed to be particularly efficient for childbirth and dealing with stomach ailments. Ahmed added that Quranic texts are sometimes written around numbers.


      Even the humble box that carried a calligrapher's tools was highly decorated; this is from 14th century Syria.
      (*Increasingly, the abbreviation CE, or Common Era, is used instead of the Christian-centric AD - Anno Domini, Latin for "in the year of the Lord" - that refers to the period beginning after the birth of Christ. BCE, or Before Common Era, now replaces BC, or Before Christ.)

      Going on to cube numbers, Ahmed explained that cubes such as the Kaabah and cube shapes such as the area of the dot are vital to Islamic design. The dot - considered to be the initiation of any line and subsequent drawing - is important in Islam because it is contained in the letter ba. Ba begins the word "Bismi", which, in turn, begins the phrase "Bismi Laahi Rahmanir Raahim" - the first verse in Al-Fatihah, the opening chapter of the Quran. This is a particularly important phrase as it's used by Muslims to ask for God's blessing and is found at the start of almost every surah (chapter) of the Quran.

      The website islamic.org.uk proffers how the Quran was written with numerical connections in mind; for example, yawm, the Arabic word for "day" appears 365 times in the Quran while shahr, the word for "month", appears 12 times.

      Besides visual art, numbers and geometry, Porter observed that reading the Quran encourages a heightened musical skill because readers use vocal inflections. She pointed out some exhibits of scripts that were marked with red dots to indicate the vocal inflections required and gold dots to mark the end of a verse. In this way, the Muslim holy book is almost a music score.

      Indeed, Porter's assembly of exhibits shows how Muslims surround themselves with calligraphic art even as they go about their daily grind. Visitors will see holy writings in Quran manuscripts, on coins, tombstones, bowls, textiles and even on calligraphic tools.


      a.. 'Mightier than the Sword - Arabic and Script: Beauty and Meaning' is on at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (Jalan Lembah Perdana, Kuala Lumpur) until July 20. Museum hours are 10am to 6pm Tuesdays to Sundays and public holidays (closed on Mondays). Details: (tel) 03-2274 2020; (fax) 03-2274 0529; (e-mail) info@...; (website) www.iamm.org.my.






      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • Linda Snook
      Most interesting, Jill! Thank you so much for the posting. All the best, Linda
      Message 2 of 2 , Jun 30, 2004
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        Most interesting, Jill! Thank you so much for the posting.

        All the best,
        Linda

        At 10:38 PM 6/29/2004 -0700, you wrote:
        >Written for the glory of God
        >
        >Detail from Dr Ahmed Moustafa's dynamic work, Frolicking Horses.
        >Calligraphy makes up the horses' forms. VERONICA SHUNMUGAM shares insights
        >into the connections between Muslim life and art gathered from a
        >fascinating exhibition of calligraphy at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.
        >
        >IMAGINE a life immersed in art. Everywhere you turn, there is art. It
        >might not seem obvious, but that's what the Islamic life can offer.
        >
        >Mightier than the Sword - Arabic Script: Beauty and Meaning, a joint
        >exhibition organised by the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia and The British
        >Museum, shows just how closely art fits into Islamic life. It is full of
        >exquisite everyday items that underline this fact: for Muslims, prayer,
        >daily life and art are all rolled into one.
        >
        >
        > Detail from Dr Ahmed Moustafa's dynamic work, Frolicking Horses.
        > Calligraphy makes up the horses' forms.
        >To begin with, Islam assigns a major role to calligraphy, a decorative
        >type of writing that is used to record (Arabic) verses of the Quran (see
        >story on The Quran-Calligraphy Connection). Islamic calligraphy is thus
        >one of the few art forms that was developed specifically to be enjoyed by
        >the man in the street - Muslim children are exposed to it in Quran
        >classes, passers-by behold it on (religious) buildings, household items
        >are decorated with it and, nowadays, you can even glimpse it on car stickers.
        >
        >The British Museum's Department of Oriental Antiquities curator Dr Venetia
        >Porter said that the presence of Arabic calligraphy is significant in all
        >cultures touched by Islam and the Quranic text. Whether displayed on a
        >building or on the face of a coin, such flourishes of calligraphy serve as
        >reminders of the holy book. The thirtysomething Porter spoke of this in
        >detail in her talk on The Function of Writing In Artistic and Cultural
        >Traditions; the talk was held recently in conjunction with the exhibition
        >at the Islamic Arts Museum.
        >
        >The Arabs, said Porter, had already been recording "the memories of men"
        >in graffiti on rocks in the desert, and writings on palm leaves and camel
        >bones 150 years before Islam. However, the coming of Islam was to forever
        >change Arabic script.
        >
        >"The phrase 'The pen is mightier than the sword', has become a universal
        >expression of the power of the written word," pointed out Porter. "In
        >Islamic culture, the importance attached to writing stems from the fact
        >that Arabic is the language in which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet
        >Muhammad early in the 7th century, and it was the script in which it was
        >subsequently written down. This has given the Arabic script a unique
        >significance in Islam and, as a result, it has also become one of the
        >defining features of Islamic art.
        >
        >"The strong association between writing and God is emphasised several
        >times in the Quran. It was God who gave writing to man: 'He who taught by
        >the pen taught man that which he knew not' (96:4-5). 'And if all the trees
        >on earth were pens and the ocean were ink with seven oceans behind it to
        >add to its supply, yet would not the words of Allah be exhausted in the
        >writing' (31:27).
        >
        >"Thus, it became incumbent on the person writing the words of God to use
        >the most beautiful script possible. This led to strict rules being laid
        >down at different times about the shapes of letters and their relation to
        >each other, rules which are still followed by traditional calligraphers
        >today," explained Porter.
        >
        >Yet calligraphers are also encouraged to experiment, and outdo each other,
        >in creating even more beautiful styles. Egyptian-born London-based
        >artist-scholar Dr Ahmed Moustafa, 61, is of the opinion that the artist's
        >responsibility is to develop a form that is worthy of Quranic texts. He
        >spoke on Art As a Catalyst for Spiritual Consciousness at the same event
        >as Porter at the Islamic Arts Museum here. Ahmed, who trained as a
        >figurative artist in the neo-classical tradition, contributed a work
        >entitled Frolicking Horses to the contemporary art section of the
        >exhibition.
        >
        >Letters are not the only aspect of writing that is tied to Islam and art.
        >Numbers, too, play their part - an important part, according to Ahmed's
        >presentation of his theory on squared numbers and cube shapes in Islamic art.
        >
        >The use of geometry (the development of which is largely credited to
        >Muslim mathematicians) in Islamic art and architecture, explained Ahmed,
        >produces literature, objects and buildings that are practical as well as
        >devotional. Islam, he feels, thus tackles the age-old challenge of
        >creating artwork that is practical.
        >
        >Both he and Porter intrigued listeners when they mentioned, in connection
        >with the "popular side of Islam", amulets containing numbers. Numbers,
        >explained Ahmed, refer to the letters of the abjad (alphabet); the number
        >one is equivalent to the first letter of the abjad, alif, the number two
        >is equivalent to ba, the second letter, and so on. Using this system, one
        >can use numbers to construct the name of Allah for use in an amulet made
        >to protect its wearer. The earliest example of this is a set of numbers
        >developed by Jabber ibn Hayan I (CE* 8 or 9) that is believed to be
        >particularly efficient for childbirth and dealing with stomach ailments.
        >Ahmed added that Quranic texts are sometimes written around numbers.
        >
        >
        > Even the humble box that carried a calligrapher's tools was highly
        > decorated; this is from 14th century Syria.
        >(*Increasingly, the abbreviation CE, or Common Era, is used instead of the
        >Christian-centric AD - Anno Domini, Latin for "in the year of the Lord" -
        >that refers to the period beginning after the birth of Christ. BCE, or
        >Before Common Era, now replaces BC, or Before Christ.)
        >
        >Going on to cube numbers, Ahmed explained that cubes such as the Kaabah
        >and cube shapes such as the area of the dot are vital to Islamic design.
        >The dot - considered to be the initiation of any line and subsequent
        >drawing - is important in Islam because it is contained in the letter ba.
        >Ba begins the word "Bismi", which, in turn, begins the phrase "Bismi Laahi
        >Rahmanir Raahim" - the first verse in Al-Fatihah, the opening chapter of
        >the Quran. This is a particularly important phrase as it's used by Muslims
        >to ask for God's blessing and is found at the start of almost every surah
        >(chapter) of the Quran.
        >
        >The website islamic.org.uk proffers how the Quran was written with
        >numerical connections in mind; for example, yawm, the Arabic word for
        >"day" appears 365 times in the Quran while shahr, the word for "month",
        >appears 12 times.
        >
        >Besides visual art, numbers and geometry, Porter observed that reading the
        >Quran encourages a heightened musical skill because readers use vocal
        >inflections. She pointed out some exhibits of scripts that were marked
        >with red dots to indicate the vocal inflections required and gold dots to
        >mark the end of a verse. In this way, the Muslim holy book is almost a
        >music score.
        >
        >Indeed, Porter's assembly of exhibits shows how Muslims surround
        >themselves with calligraphic art even as they go about their daily grind.
        >Visitors will see holy writings in Quran manuscripts, on coins,
        >tombstones, bowls, textiles and even on calligraphic tools.
        >
        >
        >a.. 'Mightier than the Sword - Arabic and Script: Beauty and Meaning' is
        >on at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (Jalan Lembah Perdana, Kuala
        >Lumpur) until July 20. Museum hours are 10am to 6pm Tuesdays to Sundays
        >and public holidays (closed on Mondays). Details: (tel) 03-2274 2020;
        >(fax) 03-2274 0529; (e-mail) info@...; (website) www.iamm.org.my.
        >
        >
        >
        >
        >
        >
        >[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
        >
        >
        >
        >
        >
        >Yahoo! Groups Links
        >
        >
        >
        >
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