The sacred art of the written word

To the Western mind, writing is merely a method of verbal communication, and calligraphy is a footnote to art. But in the Muslim world, where there is no tradition of portraiture or sculpture, calligraphy is primordial, characteristic, and sacred - arguably the alpha if not also the omega of Islamic art.

Although Islamic architecture attracts more Western attention, Islamic art is primarily the art of small things: miniature painting, textiles, glass and metalwork, bookbinding, and, most fundamentally, calligraphy. The reason calligraphy is held in such high esteem is a holy one.

Words, of course, form the defining text of Islam, the Koran. And calligraphy is the art of beautifully forming words so as to bring an elevation of spirit to those who read them. As Geza Fehervari explains in "1,400 Years of Islamic Art" (1984), "The need of Arab Muslims ... to record precisely the divine revelation contained in the Koran compelled them to perfect the art of writing."

So great is the Islamic devotion to the words of the Koran that Muslims believe the shape of the letters forming these words was divinely ordained and intended. A traditional Islamic saying: "Calligraphy is the geometry of the Spirit."

Indeed, some adherents believe that Perso-Arabic letters have beings or personalities with which one may come into contact when writing or reading, and that letters symbolize (in visual form) the divine qualities. Thus contemplation of the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, "alif," the first letter of the word "Allah," the Islamic word for God, would be sufficient to bring a believer into contact with the divine.

Virtually all Islamic art is an abstraction. The realistic portrayal of people and animals was, in general, discouraged by tradition. The abstract rhythm of the script - the form and line of the letters moving from right to left - holds great aesthetic value in the Muslim world, similar to the beauty those in the West would ascribe to a modern abstract composition.

Even the horizontal and vertical direction of the lines forming calligraphic letters is given specific meaning or connotation. Put simply, vertical lines are thought to express majesty; horizontal lines denote serenity.

In Islam, it is believed that "God has inscribed beauty upon all things." So the beautiful forms of calligraphy are frequently to be found decorating mosques and everyday objects, with the goal of surrounding the Islamic believer with beauty and truth.

The Persian copy (AD 1598) of the Koran pictured here is opened to the concluding chapters. It was written in ink that was blended with powdered gold and lapis lazuli. The care that has been lavished upon it illustrates the principle of calligraphy as an art in which style and substance, meaning and form, have become inextricably fused. To paraphrase communications theorist Marshall McLuhan: The medium has become the message; the message the medium.

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