Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Enduring Forms of Islamic Art: Calligraphy – An Islamic Heritage

Siddiqua Shahnawaz

Any architectural work has both a functional and an artistic dimension, which are :
1) An immediate physical context that determines the style, and 
2) A wider social, cultural and economic frame of reference that gives it meaning. 

For example, in the case of a Masjid, the prayer hall must be suitable for its purpose in accordance with the liturgy of Islam, but the building itself must also 'speak' to the local community, providing both spiritual upliftment and an anchor for the community's identity.

Calligraphy, known as 'khatt' in Arabic, is an outstanding example of such blending of form and function. From the grandest of Masjids with their expertly carved stuccos to the simplest of rural Masjids with few Qur'anic verses painted on their walls, one can see the strong influence of Qur'anic calligraphy that has attached itself to the expression of Islamic art.

A passion for the written script constitutes one of the fundamental traits of Islamic culture. For Islam, the Arabic script is not merely a tool invented by human beings, but a gift of God. As Allah says in the Qur'an: 

"Recite, and thy Lord is the Most Honourable! Who taught (to write) with the Pen, taught man what he knew not" 
(Surah al-Alaq, verses 3-5). 

Innumerable Hadeeth of the Prophet [pbuh] and his Ahlul Bayt [A.S] distinctly convey the importance of gaining knowledge and emphasize the value of the written word. For example, the Prophet has said "The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr". 

In general, Qur'anic texts are selected for inscriptions in Masjids, but quotations from the Hadeeth and other pious phrases are also found. Thus, calligraphy serves as an ornamental purpose along with conveying the word of God and sayings of the Holy Prophet [pbuh]. 

Origin of Islamic Calligraphy 

In the words of Dost Muhammad of Gawashwan, a sixteenth century writer, "It is etched on the minds of the masters of the arcane that the garden of painting and illumination is an orchard of perfect adornment; and the arrangement and embellishment of the Qur'an, which bespeak the glorification of the word of the Exalted, are connected to the pen and bound to the design and drawing of the masters of this noble craft".

It has been recorded that the first person to adorn with painting and illumination the writing of the word that is necessarily welcomed was Ali Ibn Abi Talib [A.S], and the gates of this commodity were opened to this group by the key of that Majesty's pen. A few leaves (barg), known in the parlance of painters as Islami, were invented by him." (translated by Thackston in 'A Century of Princes').

Furthermore, Mir Sayyid Ahmad Mashhadi, in the preface to the Bahram Mirza Album says, "Guided by the inscription of the register of the city of knowledge, of which Ali is the gate..."everyone is commanded to strive to attain this noble and honourable craft (calligraphy) when he said, "Have beautiful writing, for it is among the keys to sustenance." Thus, calligraphy has always enjoyed a special status in Islam. 

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