Allah In My Art: Calligraphy

by Farida Haji

The Series Allah In My Art is a humble effort to explore elements of the Islamic Arts through a perspective of faith and understanding of Allah through the eyes of an artist.

The Inspiration

قُل لَّوْ كَانَ ٱلْبَحْرُ مِدَادًا لِّكَلِمَـٰتِ رَبِّى لَنَفِدَ ٱلْبَحْرُ قَبْلَ أَن تَنفَدَ كَلِمَـٰتُ رَبِّى وَلَوْ جِئْنَا بِمِثْلِهِۦ مَدَدًا

Say, “If the sea were ink for [writing] the words of my Lord, the sea would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even if We brought the like of it in [continual] supplement.”

[Surah Al Kahf 18:109 ]

Majority of Muslims throughout the world share a unique linguistic bond based on the desire to read the Quran in its original form, Arabic. Calligraphy is considered the highest art form for it shapes the form of the divine word. Calligraphers, known as scribes in the early ages were honoured and held in high regard for writing the words of Allah. As Islam spread far and wide, scribes were tasked with creating precise, eligible and beautiful Arabic scripts.

Types of Arabic Calligraphy

1. Kufic

The Kufic script is the first script used to write the Holy Quran. The script is square and bold with vertical and horizontal lines meeting at ninety-degree angles usually devoid of diacritical marks. Various styles emerged as part of the the Kufic script, like the floriated and the plaited or knotted Kufic scripts. This style is largely featured on the walls of various Islamic structures, textiles and metal work.

A LARGE QUR'AN LEAF IN GOLD KUFIC SCRIPT ON BLUE VELLUM, ANDALUSIA, NORTH AFRICA OR NEAR EAST, 9TH-10TH CENTURY AD
Gold Kufic Script on Blue Vellum (Source: Sotheby’s)

2. Naksh

In the early tenth century, this quickly became the preferred calligraphic style for manuscripts and the Quran due to its elegant cursive script. The proportions of Naskh make it extremely legible and quick to write. This style is widely used for ceramics, tiles and most modern day publications. 

3. Thuluth

This style is inclusive of vowel signs and ornamental additions. The combination of sharp strokes and slight upward curves beautify the script. The letters are usually large and compact. This style is highly visible on Mosque facades, architecture, metalwork, ceramics and manuscripts.

4. Ruq’ah

Ruq’ah was created by combining elements from two styles, Thuluth and Naksh. It is not considered an art form like the other styles as it was devised for quick writing. The style is used mainly for government scribes, letters, rulings and manuscripts.

5. Muhaqqaq & Rayhani

Ibn al-Bawwāb, also called Ibn As-sitrī, invented the cursive rayḥānī and muḥaqqaq scripts. He refined the calligraphic styles invented by Ibn Muqlah. Both these styles are used for Qurans, edicts, letters and in architecture. 

6. Diwani

The Diwani script was invented by Housam Roumi during the reign of the Ottoman Turks. It was a secretive style used by the court to pen official documents like proclamation scrolls, edicts, land and title grants, appointments, correspondence, endowments. Today this style also extends as Diwani Jeli, a more fluid and decorative style of calligraphy.

Works of Art

1. Kiswa

One of the most magnificent artworks of Arabic Calligraphiy is the Kiswa or the Ghilaaf of Kaaba. Various Quranic verses are written on it in the Thuluth style of calligraphy. Ms. Aafiya shares a detailed understanding of the making of the Kiswa. Due to the spiritual significance of the Kaaba, an official ‘kiswa’ factory was established during the reign of King Abdul Aziz in 1346H. Laborious hours were spent in carefully hand-embroidering the Kiswa with pure gold and silver every year.  

2. Calligraphic Galleon

The Calligraphic Galleon by Abd al-Qadir Hisari is dated A.H. 1180/ A.D. 1766–67. The artwork features imagery and text from Surah Al Kahf. Calligrams were popular in Ottoman art.

3. Sino-Arabic Calligraphic Composition of Five Pillars of Islam

Source: Research Gate

The calligraphic composition made by Shi Jie Chen (1925-2006), also known as Muhammad Hasan Ibn Yusuf, is one of its kind. The fusion of Chinese and Arabic calligraphic elements is remarkable. The Chinese characters in the center of the artwork symbolise the five pillars starting with Hajj nearest to the Kaaba.

The Arabic Calligraphy above the Chinese characters reads: The Messenger of Allah says that Islam is built on five pillars

4. Modern Wall Art (MWA) by Syed Rahman

Modern Wall Art (MWA)

Searching for Islamic decor, Syed Rahman started creating his own in his father’s basement in Chicago and Modern Wall Art (MWA) in 2014. “One of our exceptionally favourites is the staggering Ayat Al Kursi and Ayat Al Nur chandelier lights we have recently started to produce. It is very finely carved with the Ayat which is lightened by individual beveled cut crystals. The focus for these chandeliers was to add readable Ayat’s and light beaming through them in your house,” writes Syed about his unique product. He adds, “I don’t chase money, I chase barakah. This is what I imply in all my business or in anything that I do.” 

5. Ayatul Kursi by Fahima Iqbal

Ayatul Kursi

Fahima Iqbal, an Arabic calligraphy and lettering artist prefers to let her art speak for itself. Creating artworks that measure up to four feet, she prides herself and describes her work as such:

“Ayatul Kursi, is regarded as the greatest, most powerful verse of the holy Quran. The colours used vaguely represents the starry night sky and the land by which I hope to convey His power. As a calligraphy artist I’ve been privileged to create unique artworks for hundreds of homes worldwide exhibiting the beauty of the Arabic script and the verses of the holy Quran. I am extremely grateful to have a profession closely related to my faith.”

6. Jawahir

Habibti

Run by three women, Ajab, Jamila and Zainab; have been creating magnificent calligraphic jewellery since 2019. They share their inspirations, “The elegant flow of the Arabic script; how one letter joins and connects to another, how the eraab sits atop and below, bracketing the words between them is what drew our eye to natural beauty of Arabic calligraphy.”

They call their collaboration and brand Jawahir, meaning jewels. “Our calligraphy bracelets feature words like habibati and qurrato aini, expressions of love through jewellery. We find inspiration for our jewellery pieces from the world around us, the Arabic literature we read everyday and by observing things in our everyday life.”

Understanding Art

The extent of how calligraphy became the most esteemed art form in Islamic culture is evident through the variety of Quran manuscripts and Islamic decor over the millenia. However, calligraphy has seeped into our lives through the artworks shared in this article. The modern calligraphic artists pick their pens to create what they have learnt from the words of the Divine and incorporate it in products we use in our daily lives.  

How blessed are those artists who directly attain their rizq through expression of their love for Allah? How blessed are those who get this barakah for themselves?

UNESCO recently declared Arabic calligraphy an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. Words fall short to describe the power of Allah. There are infinite artist worldwide, who create magic with calligraphy. The advent of modern art has given rise to more abstract calligraphic creations.

Next week, also the last of the series Allah In My Art, we shall explore the art and understanding of the illumination technique.