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Qur’anic History and the Role of Islamic Calligraphy

The Review of Religions is pleased to present the second and final part in a two-part article on the fascinating art and history behind Islamic calligraphy. first part is available here or see June 2016 edition.

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Elements for Making Calligraphy

The Qur’an is the eternal word of Allah, and as such, Muslims became very focused on developing and furthering the art of calligraphy.

Paper was introduced to the Islamic world in the first century. Before this time, most Qur’anic calligraphy was found on papyrus, parchment (goat skin), stones, or leaves.

The regard with which the art of calligraphy was held also led to scientific developments. The eleventh century Tunisian scientist, Ibn Badis, wrote in his book, ‘Umdat al-Kuttab (Staff of the Scribes), about many topics, including on how to prepare different types of inks, how to produce different colours of ink, how to produce mixtures, and on the art and science of secret writing and on how to make paper.1

Qalam: The Reed Pen, Bamboo Roses Stem, Kamish and Java Pens

LA reed pen or “Qalam” in Arabic, is the traditional tool used for writing calligraphy.

Qalams can be made from a variety of materials—while thicker pens often are made from bamboo, thinner ones can be fashioned out of rose stems. These can range from 24-30 cm in length, with the width determined by what kind of script the pen will be used for. After this, they are “seasoned” for up to four years. They are then cut by placing the pen on a flat surface called a makta, which is often made of ivory or wood. An angled cut is then made to reveal an oval opening in the reed.2

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Illustration of the end of a calligraphy pen which is pointed and has distinct characteristics which enables elegant writing with precision and grace.

This tongue is then split so that the opening can hold the ink needed. Finally, the tip of the tongue is cut at an oblique angle. For very fine scripts, the nib is cut to an angular chisel-edge and slit mid-way to facilitate the flow of ink in right-to-left strokes.3

The smallest end of reed or bamboo in diameter is cut. Reeds and bamboo grow in such a way that the base is always wider, the top narrower. This narrower part also tends to be harder, which makes it better suited for calligraphy. For that reason the narrower end is cut.4

The width of the pen and the angular cut specifies which script will be written with the pen. For example, Naskh and Thuluth have a more acute angle then Ta’liq, around 30 degrees, while Ta’liq is nearly flat, with only a slight incline of about 10 degrees.

Hazrat Alira said to Ubaid ullah bin abi Rafay: “Get the ink right in your inkpot and make sure that the nib of the pen is long, that there is adequate distance between the lines, words should be close to each other and the shapes of the alphabets should be vibrant.”5

Hard Stone or Surface for Cutting a Pen

A hard surface or plain stone should be used when cutting the nib of a reed pen. Once the angle and placement of the cut is known, the pen is held steadily against the makta. The knife is firmly pressed into the pen until it makes one single crack.

Ink

F_pngInk is mostly made organically, using vegetable, stones, tree bark, etc.

Arabic calligraphy is traditionally written with a black ink made from dissolved gum arabic and water that is called “soot”. This ink is water-soluble so that any mistakes can be easily removed from the paper with a wet cloth. In olden times, the soot used was scraped from inside the antique mosque lamps, thus adding an element of spiritual blessing to the Arabic calligraphy.

One interesting hadith states: “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” Perhaps ink is referring to the longevity of ink versus blood. The scholar’s ink is a reference to writing, particularly recording history and significant events, etc. Thus, writing can become an invaluable medium for recording things almost indefinitely.6

Traditional Lamp Black Calligraphy Ink

This kind of ink was used by Ottoman and Arab calligraphers for generations and because of its simplicity and purity of ingredients, is impervious to light, and archival and permanent.

Lamp black ink got its name through the way the pigment is created. When kerosene lamps are burned, they leave behind a black carbon coating on the lamp. This “black” can also be captured by holding a ceramic plate over the flame of a kerosene lamp and collecting the soot. Whatever the method, this material is mixed with gum arabic and distilled water.7

The consistency of the ink can be improved by adding egg white and honey drops to the gum Arabic.K_png

In any case, the ink is made by mixing the gum arabic powder and water together until it forms a thick syrup. After that, the syrup is mixed with the lamp black, usually in a mortar and pestle of some kind. After that, it can take up to an hour to moisten all the powder. Once all of the powder is wet, more pigment is added until it becomes a thick and sticky paste. This paste needs to be stirred up to thirty more hours until it becomes completely smooth. It is then blended with some distilled water until the consistency thins out to that of milk, when it is able to be used on paper.8

Inkpot

In Chapter 68, verse 2, the Holy Qur’an states: “By the inkstand and by the pen and by that which they write.”

A brief commentary in reference to these verses by Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh stated that this chapter began with the letter “Noon”, one meaning of which is inkpot. He continued that the writer who writes with a pen always desires knowledge and that all enlightenment of human knowledge started with the kingship of the pen. If writing were eliminated from the development of human knowledge, then man would regress to the dark ages and remain ignorant.9

Preparing Paper for Calligraphy

After the Battle of Talas, which was fought in 751 AD between the Chinese Tang dynasty and Muslims, the Chinese prisoners revealed the secret of papermaking to the Muslims. From this basic art, the Muslims developed it into a major industry.

Birmingham University has found fragments of potentially the world’s oldest Quran. Radiocarbon analysis has dated the parchment on which the text is written to the period between 568 and 645 CE.
Birmingham University has found fragments of potentially the world’s oldest Quran. Radiocarbon analysis has dated the parchment on which the text is written
to the period between 568 and 645 CE.

Paper was easier to manufacture than parchment, less likely to crack than papyrus and could absorb ink, making it difficult to erase and ideal for keeping records.

For calligraphy on paper, specialised materials and techniques are required to dye and coat with aged starch. This is then varnished with several coats of ahar (a liquid composed of egg whites mixed with alum). The coated papers are highly burnished, using an agate burnishing stone and then aged for at least a year.10

Various qualities of paper were produced in the Islamic world. Many of the major cities had paper mills which produced good paper. Papyrus or parchment (goat skin) was initially used for copies of the Holy Qur’an. But ideally, calligraphy paper should have a smooth glossy surface in order for the pen to glide

Ever since it was created, paper has been treated using a variety of different elements, such as onion water, gesso, gum arabic, and honey. Tea was sometimes also used to colour it. Paper is made with live organisms and requires air to preserve it for longer periods.

 The Persian Language and the Use of the Latin Alphabet

Many centuries after Islam had been introduced to the Persians, they began to start using their pre-Islamic language while still using the Arabic alphabet. Starting from the eastern side of Persia, this trend traveled west towards Iraq.11 Although the area that comprises modern-day Iraq has occasionally been ruled by Persia, that area itself is not actually Persian.B

Interestingly, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, the Promised Messiah, in his book Minan ur-Rahman, has argued that the Torah supports that there was only one original language in the world which began to diversify at Babel in the region of present-day Karbala, Iraq. This could be another reason for the prevalence of the Arabic alphabet there.

Iraq, Egypt and North Africa are still Arab-speaking countries. Some Persian territories used the Arabic letters to pen their own local languages. In contrast, Turkey, under the direction of President Mustafa Kamal Pasha, did just the opposite. Instead of adopting the Arabic alphabet, he tried to “westernize” Turkish language by using the Latin alphabet as opposed to the Arabic alphabet to write Turkish. And as a result, the change eroded some of the country’s ties to Islamic civilization—including an end of the rich calligraphic tradition that included the Diwani and Tughra scripts.12

Arabic is the Mother of All Languages: 1895

A brief treatise on philology (the science of the structure and development of languages) by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and the Promised Messiah, written in May 1895, revealed that Arabic is the first language taught to man by Allah Himself and the mother of all languages, or Ummul-al-Sinnah. He highlighted certain peculiarities of the Arabic language, which he claimed could not be found in any other language. For example, he described the system of Mufradaat [the basic roots of words] in the Arabic language had a unique scientific organisation and a system unknown in any other language. He described the five peculiarities of Arabic and claimed that all other languages of man were derived from Arabic.S

One unique characteristic is that even single letters could contain rich and extensive meanings.13 For example, فِ (fi) would indicate “Be faithful”, while لِ (li) would mean “Come nearer”, and عِ (‘I) “Call to mind.” In addition, the Promised Messiahas explained that sometimes even small words can have longer, richer meanings than might first be assumed. For example,  (araztu) means: “I have roamed about Makkah, Medina, and all the habitations around them”, while (Tahfaltu) means: “I eat and have determined always to eat millet bread.”

Quoting from the Torah, Genesis 11:1, he writes: “And the whole earth was one lip and speeches identical.” Hazrat Shaikh Muhammad Ahmad Mazharra, a renowned philologist, further researched the connection between other languages and Arabic and traced the words of 60 languages as derivatives of Arabic.

Coins of King Offa of Mercia

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The first full translation of the Qur’an into English was done by George Sale in 1736, a lawyer and languages enthusiast from Kent. (Commonly Called the Alcoran of Mohammed)
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This gold coin of O a, king of Mercia in England, imitates a gold dinar of Al-Mansur, the caliph regarded as the founder of the Abbasid Caliphate (reigned 654 – 775 AD). Further analysis of the coin reveals the ‘Bismallah’ inscribed along with “The Shahada,” and Surat Al-Ikhlas.

The United Kingdom has a long association with Islamic art and Qur’anic calligraphy. Among the most mysterious discoveries of Anglo-Saxon archaeology is the golden coinage of King Offa of Mercia.

Further analysis of the coin reveals that the Bismallah is inscribed along with the Shahada, (the Muslim Declaration of Faith) and Surah al-Ikhlas,(a Qur’anic chapter)

IMG_8481_AK_FIX
His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaba, worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (centre), at The Review of Religions Exhibtion at the Annual Convention of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK 2015. Razwan Baig (left) had his unique private collection on display and here shows old copies of the Quran and other ancient artefacts to His Holiness.

This gold coin of Offa, king of Mercia in England, imitates a gold dinar of Al-Mansur, the caliph regarded as the founder of the Abbasid Caliphate (reigned 654 – 775 AD).

Sir Winston Churchill’s book, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples mentions this coin and considers it to be amongst the first coins of Britain.

The coinage, struck in Kent, was issued in perfect Arabic Kufic script. It bore Qur’anic verses referring to the fundamentals of the Islamic faith along with the name of King Offa of Mercia.

Conclusion

Islamic calligraphy is a sacred art that has largely been defined and shaped by religion.

The Arabic language and writing was uniquely suited to preserve Arab ethnic heritage beyond its borders and in fact promulgated it far beyond Arabia itself.14 Calligraphy’s role was as a way to preserve sacred language recording profound truths. The need to record and hand down to succeeding generations every syllable of the Qur’an with exactitude made it impossible to rely on anything so fallible as human memory alone. Martin Lings writes, “These people were in love with the beauty of their language and with the beauty of the human voice. There was absolutely no common measure between these two summits on the one hand and the ungainliness of the only available script on the other.”15 In a way, he continues, it was as if they thought: “Since we have no choice but to write down the Revelation, then let that written record be as powerful an experience for the eye as the memorised record is for the ear when the verses are spoken or chanted.”16 Thus, calligraphic art became the most noble of the arts, because it gave visible form to the revealed word of the Holy Qur’an.

Martin Lings said once that “The calligraphy is the geometry of the spirit.” 17

One can conclude that beautiful writing enhances a unique spiritual dimension and helps the expression of profound concepts in any art form.

About the Author: Razwan Baig is a scholar, collector, philanthropist and Islamic art critic and researcher. His Islamic art collection includes items as diverse as textiles and ceramics to Qur’anic manuscripts,and has been shown in several major art museums and international exhibitions. His interest in Islamic calligraphy began at age 12 and has run workshops and presented on the art of calligraphy since 1994. He completed his BA (Hons) History of Art & Archaeology of Islamic world, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He also has obtained extensive training in Arabic calligraphy in different styles from Birkbeck College, University of Sunderland as well as from some of the foremost calligraphers from Turkey, Baghdad and Pakistan. He will be exhibiting a portion of his collection this summer at The Review of Religions exhibition at the 50th annual convention of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community on August 12-14, 2016. As one of the largest private collectors of Islamic manuscripts in the U.K., he is also currently showing portions of his collection at the Art of Islam festival at Buckinghamshire County Museum through the end of September 2016.

Endnotes

  1. http://alfutuhat.com/islamiccivilization/Chemistry/Alternative.html. Accessed June 2016.
  2. http://education.asianart.org/explore-resources/background-information/islamic-calligraphy-materials-and-tools. Accessed June 2016.
  3. Ibid.
  4. https://josh-berer.squarespace.com/s/Cutting-the-Pen-yy2b.pdf. Accessed June 2016
  5. . Allama Ala wud Din Ali Bin Husam un Deen, (p486 and ref no.29564)
  6. . https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090811080408AAqHjgJ and http://www.islamicity.org/6580/the-pleasures-of-seeking-knowledge/
  7. https://joshberer.wordpress.com/2010/04/28/lamp-black-calligraphy-ink/. Accessed June 2016.
  8. Ibid.
  9. . Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh, A Brief Commentary of the Holy Qur’an, Surah Al Qalam
  10. http://www.nuriaart.com/mat.asp?id=2. Accessed July 2016.
  11. http://alavimehr.com/articles/history-of-calligraphy/. Accessed July 2016.
  12. Ibid.
  13. . Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, Manan ur Rahman, pp.10-11: http://www.alislam.org/library/books
  14. Vincent J. Cornell, Voices of Islam (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007), 20.
  15. Martin Lings, “The Art of Qur’an Calligraphy,” in Voices of Islam, ed. Vincent J. Cornell (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007), 33.
  16. Ibid.
  17. http://www.spiritilluminated.org/SacredArt.htm