Islamic calligraphy is without doubt the most original contribution of Islam to the visual arts, yet it is only recently that it has come to be appreciated in the West. Even among lovers of Islamic art, calligraphy has been the interest of a minority rather than the majority. But in past years exhibitions of Islamic art have included more and more examples of calligraphy, and there have been successful exhibitions devoted entirely to calligraphy, such as that at Asia House, New York, in 1979 and the exhibition of the Musée d'Art in Geneva, which toured Europe in 1988 and 1989 and is now on display in Amman.
For Muslim calligraphers, the act of writing - particularly the act of writing the Qur'an or any portion of it - was primarily a religious experience rather than an esthetic one. Most Westerners, on the other hand, can appreciate only the line, form, flow and shape of the words that appear before them. Nevertheless, many recognize that what they see is more than a display of skill with a reed dipped in ink: Calligraphy is the geometry of the spirit.
The Arabian Peninsula has been closely linked with spices throughout its history. Spices were appreciated everywhere in the Middle East for their fragrances and their medicinal properties, as well as for their enhancement of flavor in food. Herodotus, "the father of history," wrote in the fifth century BC of the spices of Arabia that "the whole country is scented with them, and exhales an odor marvelously sweet." For centuries the Roman Empire, with its insatiable demand for Eastern spices, kept caravans crisscrossing the Peninsula, bringing such important spices as pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, spikenard, nutmeg and cloves to the West. Muhammad himself, as a young man before the Koran was revealed to him, accompanied caravans across the Peninsula to Syria, carrying goods which very likely included spices. After Islam was established believers came to Makkah from all over the world to make the Hajj, or pilgrimage, and enriched the Peninsula with an enormously varied culinary acquaintance. Arabian cooks developed a mastery of flavoring, using a multitude of spices in each dish to create a taste which is rich and subtle, never overpowering but magnificently enhancing the food.
One who praises you for qualities you lack, will next be found blaming you for faults not yours. – Ali Ibn Abi Talib (r.a.)
The true saint goes in and out amongst the people and eats and sleeps with them and buys and sells in the market and marries and takes part in social intercourse, and never forgets God for a single moment. – Abu Sa’id ibn Abi I-Khayr
Actions will be judged according to intentions. – Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)
Stumbling is the fruit of haste. – Ali Ibn Abi Talib (r.a.)
The images featured in this article were taken by Ali Omar Ermes showing fine examples of Malaysian and Indian Silk.
Silk, a material which conjures up elegance; to see sensitive hands at work on it is to witness an act of sheer beauty. When minds and hands work together in a seemingly effortless way as they do during the transformative stages silk undergoes – from its raw state when it is taken from the cocoon of the mulberry leaf fed silkworm through the stages of carding, spinning, weaving and dyeing – until it is finally a piece of cloth, the effect is stunning. The end result of this co-operative endeavour is a material at once strong while remaining lustrous and delicate.
Upon asking about this craft in Benares, I was told that its production has rested from time immemorial with the Muslims, being produced not by a sole individual but rather as a joyous communal expression of diverse skills blending together.
Since the time of the Prophet, Muslim gardeners have attempted to create an earthly paradise to praise God and please man’s senses. The Quran presents some wonderful images of gardens with beautiful trees and running streams to celebrate the magnificence of the Creator. In the afterlife, one of the rewards of the faithful is to rest in these gardens of Paradise, so it is hardly surprising that gardens have long been a favourite occupation throughout the Muslim world.
The art of the garden has developed over the centuries. The basis form of the garden in Muslim Middle East evolved in remote antiquity and was largely dictated by the land and climate. Heat, difficult soil and a scarcity of water ruled out gardens of the kind later favoured by the English, while the formal continental style would have been unbearably hot.
As the Festival of Islam proves, the arts of Islam show a surprising unity through the ages and across the wide vistas of the Islamic world. Although there are certainly individual differences, and even exceptions, it is easy to recognize the common elements.
Essentially, Islamic art is abstract—an art of patterns, symmetrical, two-dimensional, repetitive and infinitely extendable. Even when natural forms are used they are so stylized as to be virtual abstractions. The arabesque, for example, is based on vegetal forms but has a logic of its own and does not seek to reproduce the logic of growing things. Pure geometry is a strong element of design, mixing the curvilinear with the rectilinear. Another important element is calligraphy—Arabic writing—usually a quotation from the Koran and often drawn or carved in such complex ways as to be almost illegible. Color is also important, although rarely used realistically. Illusion is not an aim; stone or wood, paint or ceramic is not intended to represent actual bodies or leaves or animal forms but only to suggest an ideal. Pushed to the periphery of Islamic art, and never used in a religious context, is representation of the human form.
In a broad sense, calligraphy is merely handwriting, a means of recording and transmitting information, sometimes clearly, sometimes not, but in most instances hastily and with little regard for its appearance. In the Arab world calligraphy is something more. It is an art—indeed the chief form of visual art—with a history, a gallery of great masters and hallowed traditions. It is an art of grace and elegance which inspires wonderment for its appearance alone.
What distinguishes calligraphy from ordinary handwriting is, quite simply, beauty. Handwriting may express ideas, even great ideas, but to the Arab it must express, too, the richer dimension of aesthetics. Calligraphy to the Arab is, as the Alexandrian philosopher Euclid expressed it, "a spiritual technique," flowing quite naturally from the influence of Islam.