The Pen: The Role of Writing and Calligraphy in Islamic Art and Science

The following is a guest post by Dr Waleed Kadous. It is an edited version of a speech given at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on its exhibition of the Nasser D. Khalili Collection called The Arts of Islam on 15th August, 2007.

Hamza Yusuf Hanson, an American Islamic Scholar who studied Islam in Mauritania in his twenties, a small country in northwest Africa, where Islam is taught very traditionally using the traditional reed pens, was one day cleaning his nails with the end of the reed while waiting for the class to start. All of a sudden he feels a stinging pain on his head. He looks around and sees his teacher looking at him. He said why? What did I do wrong? He said, “this is the pen that God has made an oath by, and you’re using it to clean your nails?”

This story gives us a flavour of the respect and veneration of writing within Islam. What I’d like to share with you are some thoughts on the place of writing and calligraphy in Islamic Art and really I wanted to look at a three questions: firstly, why is it that writing is so venerated in Islam and in Islamic art? Secondly, what impact did writing have on Islam’s development and what impact does it have on Muslims even today? And finally, what can it tell us about how communities relate in the modern world and in Australia?

In order to understand the place of writing in Islam, we first need to understand a little about Islam itself. Compared to other religions, there are two things that I would argue that distinguish Islam from other religions, and both of them – in one way or another – relate to the place of writing in Islamic Art.

The first of these is that Islam is purely monotheistic. That is, in Islam there is only one God, separate from his creation, and that this God, who Muslims call Allah, is the only entity that should be worshipped. This is without doubt the most fundamental aspect of all of Islam. Muslims believe that this was the message of all religions – even those before the arrival of Muhammad, the final messenger of Islam came, but that this got distorted over time. An example told in Islam is the story of the people of Noah and how they strayed away from monotheism. There were some pious men, and the people said “Let us build statues of these pious men to remind us of their piety”. So they did. And people would walk by the statues every so often and remember the pious men for a while, but slowly, as the generation who built the statues passed away, the message got forgotten and it wasn’t long before the people started worshipping the statues as ways of reaching God, and what was originally intended as a good act became distorted and came to mean the exact antithesis of what was intended. Once this happens, it’s very hard to get a society back on track, so Islam is extremely protective of anything that could be depicted by man to be worshipped, including drawings – even of the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad himself feared being deified and advised people not to depict him or any of God’s creation exactly because of this.

The second distinctive element of Islam is the preservation of its sources: the Qur’an, which Muslims believe to be the word of God as conveyed through the Angel Gabriel – was written down during Muhammad’s lifetime by a team of scribes from amongst his followers on anything they could find (since Muhammad himself was unlettered), such as vellum, bark, even the scapula bones of camels – whatever they could find. It was also memorised by people — remember this was at a time when poetry was the highest art form and where there was the concept of zajal – that is, battles being fought by poets, with the entire tribe’s honour at stake. The Qur’an was compiled to a book about 20 years after his death.

The secondary text of Islam is the Hadith which is different to the Qur’an, which are things that Muhammad did or said. These were compiled much later in written form the most well-known of which were compiled based on oral traditions about 200 years later with very strict checking of authenticity.

Because Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the untainted word of God, this leads to the reverence of the Qur’an and representing it in the most perfect way. And you will see in the Arts of Islam exhibition just how much of Islamic art is devoted to the beautiful presentation of the Qur’an and its verses.

Furthermore, the Qur’an itself mentions writing and emphasises it as one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind. In fact the first few verses of the Qur’an revealed were “Read in the name of thy Lord who created. Who created the human from a lump of clotted blood. Read, for thy lord is most noble. The one who taught with the Pen. He taught man that which he did not know.” One of the early chapter is known as the chapter of the pen, which says “Nun (which is the most basic of Arabic characters). By the Pen and what it writes.”

Now, as Hamza Yusuf Hanson discovered the hard way while waiting for his class to start, Muslims take God’s oaths seriously. God doesn’t make an oath by something unless it is the best or most magnificent of his creation. Other things that God makes oath by in this way are things like the Sun, and the Moon, and the Stars.

So on the one hand, you have the pure monotheism pushing away from figurative depictions and on the other hand you have the emphasis on words and writing pulling towards calligraphy and patterns.

What all of this points to is that writing is inextricably intertwined with the Islamic faith. This centrality of writing is something that’s very obvious when you go through the exhibition. It’s not just that there’s writing in books, but there is writing on the buildings, on dinner plates, on basins. And the most artistic and creative form of expressing writing is calligraphy.

What impact has this had on the development of the Muslim mentality and how has it affected – together with other aspects of Islam – Islamic history? I would like to explore three themes with you that I think that calligraphy has contributed to or reinforced. The first is that there is more to the world than just the material things we see around us. The second is that the idea of due balance and proportion of everything around us, not just in faith, but in all fields of human endeavour. The third is that a person’s background or lineage is not what matters, but what matters is their relationship to God and their relationship to their community.

The first thing is that words have an ability – especially when combined with the visual elegance of calligraphy to connect directly with our thoughts without necessarily forcing us to conceive of a physical image. It’s like words are wired straight into our brains and bypass our senses, and thus the material. Nabil Safwat who actually catalogued the calligraphy in the Nasser Khalili collection said “Calligraphy presents the thought as the source of the image, not the image as the source of the thought.” And I think this is really important because it is as if words in a visual arrangements are kind of a pointer to another world beyond the visual – beyond the material. The first verses of the Qur’an after the introduction say “Alif Lam Mim: This is the book there is no doubt in it, guidance for those who are pious. Those who believe in the unseen and establish the prayer and give in charity from what we have given them.” It seems to me extraordinary that the first thing the Qur’an does is push away from the material world itself using words.

And you can see that in the exhibit. There is one room that really affected me emotionally when I went through the exhibit – and that is the central room, the room with the Kiswa or covering of the Kaaba – the holiest of places in Islam, though I should emphasise it is not the Kaaba itself that is being worshipped. I had never thought of it as a piece of art, but I’m so grateful the curators included it. The calligraphy on that is amazing – there’s a very subtle effect they do which is satin black writing on matt black material in a zig zag pattern that points up. And then as your eyes are drawn up, skywards, almost as if it is designed to draw you up to looking towards God, there is this statement of verses that remind you of why you are there. Then at the top there is what is known as the hizam or belt, which is written in gold, with a description of the importance of that place, that it was the first building built on the Earth for the sake of God. I can’t help but feel that it raises my spirituality when I see it, and it reminds me that there is more to the world than just the physical, there is a world that can only be described – for now – in words and ideas.

The second thing that I think calligraphy evokes is the idea of balance and proportion. Calligraphy is all about things being in their right place, their right size and in the right relationship to one another. In fact if you look at the style of writing in the hizam the belt at the top of the Kiswah, it is in a style or font called Thuluth or literally in English – thirds. One of the opinions of historians of why it was called thuluth was because it’s about different parts of the letters being in the ratio of one to a third. This idea of everything being in its right place and due proportion if you examine the Qur’an is one of the on-going themes of the description of the Qur’an – especially of celestial bodies – is that they move in proportion to one another, and that God “qaddara” – literally calculated, measured, proportioned – the moon and the sun. God says: “Truly we have created everything in due balance and proportion”. In fact, man is encouraged to examine and imitate these ideas of balance and proportion: “Truly in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed Signs for those foremost in understanding.” The Muslim community are encouraged in other verses to be amongst those who are balanced, and on the middle path, and Muslims are encouraged to avoid extremes. So for Muslims the idea of balance and proportion, and indeed exploring the balance and proportion that exists in the world around us is seen as a form of worship. This is seen as something to be pursued in art, literature, science and religion.

One object that really shows a combination of all things and the idea of balance and proportion is the astrolabes that we see on display in the exhibition. Now the astrolabe is an interesting device – it’s not easy to explain without diagrams and equations, but for now, just think of it as an ancient form of GPS. With it you could work out where you were – so it could be used for navigation, you could work out what time it is, you could work out for a given date when the sun was going to rise and set, and so on. But they are not just technical devices – these are ornate pieces of art, often inscribed with beautiful calligraphy. Many of them had beautiful embellishments as well. The science involved in putting together the astrolabes, the mathematics and the astronomical observations was huge. But amazingly one of the purposes is actually religious: you could use it to work out prayer times, and which way to face when you prayed. This is why I find astrolabes such fascinating devices, they’re a bit of art, a bit of science, a bit of religion. I say this now, but in the time they were created, they wouldn’t have been seen like that. They were all kind of mixed up – all of art, science, and religion were seen as manifestations of God’s creation.

The third idea looking at how the Islamic Calligraphy styles developed was that it was not actually tied to Arabs. Even though all of the calligraphy is done using Arabic scripts, it is generally acknowledged that the best calligraphers of the modern age are actually in Turkey, which ironically doesn’t even use Arabic lettering for its common writing. One of the themes of the exhibition that I found most intriguing was that Muslims borrowed styles from the cultures around them – not solely from the artistic point of view, like borrowing glassmaking tricks from the Byzantines, and porcelain techniques from the Chinese, but from the scientific point of view as well – borrowing number systems from the Indians and mathematics from the Greeks, and extending them in many ways. A saying of Muhammad was that wisdom is the lost property of the believer wherever he finds it – and so it was that as with all the Islamic arts, different influences and ideas entered and where consistent incorporated into Islamic art. One should not think that this has stopped happening, in fact two of the most fascinating Islamic calligraphers of the modern age to me are Muhammad Zakariya, an American calligrapher, originally trained as an engineer, but who produces incredibly ornate calligraphy; and Hajji Muhammad Noordin, who is a Chinese calligrapher who works in what is actually surprisingly old style of hybrid Chinese Arab calligraphy.

So what can these ideas – of emphasising things beyond the material, and the ideas of balance and proportion and embracing ideas from outside our own – and what can the development of the Islamic arts of calligraphy tell us about the modern day world, and even about Australia?

Obviously, an openness to ideas – even in something as conservative as calligraphy and writing – is something that we can benefit from. And obviously in a time when it is so easy to be caught up in the housing crisis and interest rates and plasma TVs around us, the calligraphy should be a reminder to us that perhaps there is something more than what we see with our eyes and touch with our hands.

I also think what calligraphy and writing in Islam demonstrate is that different civilisations evolve in different ways. One way to think of the prominence of writing and shapes and patterns in Islamic art is to think of it as Western Art upside down. Western art started off being figurative and pictorial, and then evolved towards impressionism and then to abstract art. In a sense using writing as a basic form is starting with the abstract, and then evolving towards figurative art. Does that mean Islamic art is more advanced than Western art? No, not really – just different.

Unfortunately I don’t think this is how some people view Islam generally. They see Islam is backwards and needing to evolve to where the West is today. They say things like “Islam needs its Martin Luther” or that Islam needs to be reformed or modernised, not realising that that would be like transplanting Islamic Calligraphy into Western art. The world is richer than that and civilisations are richer than that. Certainly there are ideas in Western development that Muslim communities around the world can learn from and improve on and everyone would agree that the Muslim world is not doing well at the moment (for starters literacy rates are incredibly low) but we need to have a broader and more nuanced outlook as to how civilisations can and ought to interact.

For me, the lesson to be drawn from looking at Islamic writing and calligraphy in today’s world is that we must try to understand each others’ ideas with depth and eschew the thought “why can’t Muslims be more like us” approach and embrace the thought “what can Muslims learn from us and what can we learn from them”.