mastery of majesty – Calligraphy

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Rules of geometry … rules of proportion the cornerstones of the most revered form of the visual arts in the Islamic world

Dr Alain George gave the audience of Yarmouk Cultural Centre, a fascinating history of Arabic calligraphy, following its development from Pre-Islamic period until the present time, while presenting a selection of items in The al-Sabah Collection, last Monday evening as part of the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah’s 23rd cultural season.

He stated that calligraphy was one of the earliest art forms developed by Muslims and its cornerstones were laid as early as the first century after the hijra, during the Umayyad caliphate, giving script a visual sophistication largely unprecedented in the Mediterranean and Iranian worlds. In his lecture, based primarily on objects from The al-Sabah Collection, he focused on the main lines of these developments in core regions of the Islamic world and further afield, from West Africa to China.

Dr George is the IM Pei Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Oxford’s Khalili Research Centre and Wolfson College. His research, for which he was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2010, encompasses several intersecting themes. He is currently preparing a book on Qur’anic manuscripts and religious books in The al-Sabah Collection. He is also working on a book about the Great Mosque of Damascus.

He began his lecture by explaining his reason for choosing the topic of calligraphy. The first is that for a number of years he has been working on a catalogue of religious manuscripts of The al-Sabah Collection, mostly manuscripts of the Holy Quran. This lecture, he remarked, was a foretaste of what is to come in a forthcoming publication. The second reason is that while calligraphy is the most revered of the visual arts historically in the Islamic world, until recently it has been very poorly known, relatively speaking. He pointed out that when the study of Islamic arts began in modern terms, Western scholars were not drawn towards things like figural painting. However, he informed, that this has been changing over the last decade.

There have been a number of scholars who are developing new insights about very different areas in the history of Islamic calligraphy. “We are at quite an exciting moment as historians which is the moment when the broad outline of this history is beginning to emerge with more clarity but we also know that there is a lot more is to be discovered”, he said.

He charted the development of calligraphy from the pre-Islamic period when the Arabic script begins until the present time when people develop calligraphy in varied forms. He stated that the Arabic script is a late offshoot of the Nabatean script. The Nabateans are best known for their central city of Petra in Northern Jordan and they adopted the Aramaic script for their written documents in antiquity. Before Islam, the culture of Arabia at large was predominantly oral and scripts were used occasionally. He informed that epigraphers have discovered thousands of Pre-Islamic inscriptions in the Arabian desert and suspect from sources that writing was used before Islam for correspondence.

The Arabs of that period borrowed the local script of prestige when they wrote, they did it with Aramaic, Greek, South Arabian and others, he shared. “Between the 4th and 6th Centuries, there develops a specific strain of the Nabataean script, the oldest inscription in the Arabic language and the letter forms gradually evolve. By the 6th Century, we have letters that can be recognized as Arabic by us but has been developed. The transition phases have become better understood in recent years thanks to the archaeology of Saudi Arabia and Jordan.”

He shared a trilingual inscription with Greek, Syriac and Aramaic found on a church lintel in the very north of the Arabian cultural sphere in Zabad, Syria. The hypothesis put forward about this is that the rise of the more regular Arabic script with a straight baseline and straight vertical letters inclined in regular directions, may have been developed in the context of the spread of Christianity among the Arabs.

He shared that the rise of Islam in the early 7th Century created a completely new momentum. Facing the risk of losing and corrupting the text the Mus’haf emerged. In the following decades, there is a spectacular transformation of script and culture. “Arabic culture from being oral becomes a culture of the book where orality remains central but is enmeshed with the book as a support for memory, learning and transmission”, he stated.

From the 7th Century, a number of documents have survived that range from inscriptions, papyri from the administration and these two types of documents are often dated. He discussed a corpus of a few dozen of very early fragments of the Quran known as the Hijazi tradition in modern scholarship, even thought they were produced beyond the Hijaz in regions dominated by the Islamic empire.

He showed a rare fragment kept in the al-Sabah collection, and shared that a large section of the same manuscript is at the British library in London. He informed that it is the largest single manuscript fragment from this period that survives. He pointed out that the script by the standards of later Arabic writing is irregular, the scribe is referring to an ideal form but there is variability in its execution.

“This script is still akin to individual handwriting. There are several manuscripts from that corpus written by more than one scribe, the best studied one has at least five different hands and each hand takes you to a completely different style. However there is also a certain unity that exists in this period as all Hijazi Qur’an’s, with very rare exceptions, are written in vertical format to compensate, in broad visual terms, for the variably of the script itself”, he noted.

Jumping ahead a few years, the script had profoundly changed in the reign of Abd al Malik bin Marwan, the great builder of the Umayyad caliphs, he prevails in the second civil war and consolidates Umayyad power by rationalizing the administration and tax collection, and on a visual level by asserting the identity of Islam as a clearly distinct monotheistic religion in a predominantly christian context.

The earliest context in which we see this is the monumental mosaic inscription at the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The script has been rationalised first in form we have only straight lines either horizontal or vertical, and the additiional form is circles and semi circles for letters meem and suad. He hypothesized that the creation of this new codification is likely linked to the very context of the dome of the rock becuase mosaicists laying out this inscription worked with grids.

Abd Al Malik, his circle and supervisors created this new script and spread it to a range of media from milestones which people see on the road to coins that spread all across the land. The Umayyad conveyed the identity of their State and faith through calligraphy.

He affirmed that once these rules had been set, they remain at the heart of calligraphy, rules of geometry for the shape of the letter but also rules of proportion to govern the relationships between parts of the letters and between different letters as well. “This remains the cornerstone of Arabic calligraphy to the present day.”

The Umayyads and Abbasids developed the kufic script which flourished for two and a half centuries with about 19 kufic styles being identified. Some styles were devoted for usage in the Quran only, a separate strand was utlized for administration and books with a more informal cursive writing in the early Islamic period.

These Kufic Qur’an’s have simple and austere majesty. Over the course of centuries, the development of quranic orthography can be seen from being merely in existence in the 7th century to vocalisation with red dots and with added complexity and layers of notation with different colours and sounds.

The early kufic scripts were then superceded by a new aesthetic deemed the ‘new style’, the preliminary stages of it are seen in the Umayyad period but it became widespread in the 10th century. The new style, Dr George states, is more angular than kufic and there is much more play between the thin and thick strokes within the letters.

The new style isn’t one single script but there is a range of styles put under the broad umbrella on account of shared character aesthetics. While kufic was very closely defines, the letter shapes across manuscript are like modern. Typography in the level of detail, the new style is variable and a more decentralized development.

He shared that in the first century of its spread, it is found from the Western Islamic world to Iran, and it them spreads to the Eastern Islamic world. He shared that the reason this new style emerged is on account of the demography and the spread of paper making technology in the Islamic world.

Arabic and Persian historians credited Ibn Muqla, a vizier in the Abbasid court in the early 10th century with the codification of the Arabic script that corresponds to the new style.

He shared that there is a debate about whether he was the creator of this new trend or whether he just played a big role.

Dr George discussed a miniature Quran preserved in India which is the best candidate for being an original work by Ibn Muqla. he shared that the case of Ibn Muqla is also interesting for historiography for the Arabic conception of art history. Calligraphy being a fundamental art-form becomes the subject of art historical writing at very early stage in Arabic and then in Persian much earlier than art historical writing in Europe. Writers in Arabic and Persian had the tendency to ascribe major developments in the script to the genius of a single figure.

In this period, the way things are codified changes from geometrical grids in which letters are set to a simpler system devised with the letter alif being used as the diameter of the circle and the others is constructed by inscribing letters within the same circle. “This was advantageous as you could more easily create a set of proportional relationship between different letters and letter parts”, he remarked.

The whole idea of proportion came from the Greeks and Plato and is present among early Christian writers. The Arabs before Islam had their own concepts of cosmic harmony which made these ideas easy to adopt. A few decades later, the same principles are applied to cursive styles of writing and this gave rise to modern styles of calligraphy. The sources ascribe this change to Ibn al Bawwab, who lived in Baghdad from the late 10th to early 11th centuries, and was revered as a calligrapher.

Dr George shared that as with Ibn Al Muqla, and several successors, there are many forged mass in their names so it is hard to ascertain what their work might have been. He discussed a manuscript believed to be an original work by Ibn al Bawwab which shows a more fluid script and an obvious advantage of writing more quickly while remaining elegant in output. Letter forms are very precise which for the classical tradition is always a key aspect of fine calligraphy.

However he pointed out that a scholar has recently discovered that the script appears to be more mature than what was found in the early 11th century, the illumination has some aspects that only begin to appear much later in the late 12th or 13th centuries and there are devices that go back to kufic manuscripts. All of this brings its authenticity into question.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, there was a proliferation of cursive styles and they have been known as muhaqqaq, naskh or tuluth, the names of modern scripts while they are not. The concept of these scripts is historically contingent and based on the Ottoman tradition as it reached its peak in the 16th century and its later development in the 19th century. He pointed out that on analyzing scripts in detail, it can be seen that they all have elements of different styles, they are all hybrid. The reason for this is that the canon was still being created at the time and a variety of centers came to prominence for decades and styles were transferred and transformed.

This phase came to an end towards the late 13th early 14th centuries, and the Arabic and Persian tradition associates this transition with Yaqut al-Musta’simi. A recent study has studied the manuscripts attributed to him in great detail as well as the historical context and concluded that out of 134 known manuscripts attributed to him, only 11 can be confidently ascribed to him while most of the rest are probably forgeries.

“When you look at a manuscript by Yaqut al-Musta’simi, you finally have a script which you can call naskh as we know it,” he said pointing to the tremendous regularity in letter shapes and that earlier sources credit him with a new cut of the pen which had a major impact on the appearance of the script.

Looking at the broader picture, he noted that there was an establishment and refinement in the 14th century of the classical, canonical styles of calligraphy. He showed the audience examples of the muhaqqaq from the al-Sabah collection and others. The muhaqqaq displays more clarity, firmness and mastery of the line, and is supple at the same time, he opined.

In broader terms, he iterated, there was the emergence of the six pens and the evolution continues but it becomes more subtle within the broad framework set in this period. The six pens are also found in the same period in the Mamluk empire and in Iran a new script is developed on the basis of naskh.

He revealed that the Mongol period was a new watershed in the development of calligraphy and what is created at the time was consolidated by the Timurids. The Timurid also created and established the institution of the royal workshop in which the finest craftsmen of the land were brought together to create a unified imperial art. They set the standard for the three great early modern empires of Islam — the Ottomans, the Safavids and the Mughals.

The Ottomans in the early period of the 16th Century produced manuscripts in muhaqqaq but they became the great historical masters of naskh and tuluth. These are still the two fundamental styles taught in the Ottoman school today and their definitions colour the writing of other scripts in the tradition as well.

Highly refined manuscripts were produced in Iran at the courts and in Shiraz, which was the center of the most luxurious types of Quran with astonishing illumination and calligraphy.

He pointed out that in this period, India entered the cultural fold of Iran in terms of calligraphy to the point where a corpus of manuscripts cannot be very securely attributes to Shiraz or Golconda as the production in these two centres was so similar in the second half of the 16th Century.

In Iran in the early 18th Century, a new iteration of naskh developed, the letter forms were broadly similar to the Ottoman tradition but the strokes became bolder and the baseline of writing was flatter. It remained predominant in Iran and India until the 19th century.

Dr George then moved to the Islamic West and West Africa in his lecture, sharing that the Maghrebi experienced a different strand of evolution. They used kufic much longer than everybody else. He discussed a corpus of Maghrebi kufic Qur’an’s mid 11th century. The form of the letter is close to classic kufic types and they are distinguished by a complex vocalization system with red dots and a range of other signs which helps recitation and orthography.

A second development, he touched upon, was the rise of the script known as Maghrebi today which developed on the basis of Maghrebi book hands of the 9th Century. The cut of the pen fundamentally affects the appearance of the script and the eastern codification defines each letter very precisely in number of dots, inclination, and thickness. He also discussed other major styles that developed and became widespread such as Magrebi tuluth and Barnawi/Kanami.

Moving east to the region linked by the Indian ocean, he shared that there was distinct stylistic development. In India, the Bihari style, angular and contrasting with thin and thick strokes, was predominant in northern India. “Bihari is a mystery, it is a very coherent corpus in both script and illumination. The rules are less precise than the core regions but there is a lot of vitality about the script as well and was associated with Sufi circles in the period.” Bihari isn’t an isolated style, it was superseded by Iranian style in the 16th Century but it was still produced in the 19th Century.

In East Africa, we have completely different styles that are more angular and have a broad resemblance to Bihari. This pattern seen on western India ocean that can be linked to Egypt, Ethiopia and others both for script and illumination with echoes of resemblances in Southeast Asia as well pointing to an Indian-ocean specific visual language that developed in the long term.

He also discussed South East Asian scripts before detailing the contemporary scene of calligraphy and its resonance today and its prevalence today in painting, sculpture, installation art and graffiti. “I hope that the traditional forms that have survived until today may be taught to the highest level tomorrow”, he concluded.


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