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The Decorated Word: Islamic Calligraphy on Film

Gold Writing On Blue Page

From the tradition of Quranic script to poetic verse, Islamic calligraphy is a sacred art form integral to Muslim culture and civilisation. Alchemiya has curated a collection of films that explore its history and variety.

By Valerie Grove

Given that the Arabic script of today is essentially the same as that in which the Quran was originally revealed, there is an inherently sacred association with writing. Perhaps because of this there is a common assumption that all Arabic calligraphy constitutes verses from the Quran. However this completely overlooks the magnificently rich and varied literary and poetic traditions, also expressed as an aesthetic and spiritual union of form and meaning. In the medieval period it was common to inscribe poetry on urns or pots, transforming even the most functional of forms into works of literary art. There is also a common perception that calligraphic representation is little more than historical artefact or just craft in the service of tourism, but this does a great disservice to how the art of calligraphy continues to develop and respond to the present. Before introducing the documentaries on Alchemiya that explore this, however, here is a very brief history of calligraphic style.

The Arabic alphabet can be traced back to the 3rd century CE. However, although earlier script forms existed, major developments in writing really begin with Islam and the Kufic script. The name Kufic refers to the city of Kufa (Iraq) where it first appeared, although most examples of the script have been found in and around Madinah. As one of the oldest standardised Arabic scripts, Kufic therefore played an essential role in the earliest manuscripts of the Quran. The Quranic text itself then prompted a major development of the written language into a structured system.

Kufic continued developing and remained in common use until the 13th century, but major developments under the Abbasid dynasty (750–1258CE) resulted in rules about letter proportions that led to the emergence of the dominant cursive script of Thuluth. The clear structure and readability of this script made it practical in many ways and it then predominated in Quranic and poetic text and in architectural decoration. The astounding beauty of several very early Qurans written in different styles of script, can be seen in the documentary The Art of Quran Manuscripts. The care and skill of the calligraphers and artists who copied the sacred text and illuminated each page with fine detail and sublime colouration is an act of devotion in itself. These manuscripts are ancient, but the design is one that has remained constant right through to the printed Qurans of the present day.

The Art Of Qu'ran Manuscripts

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The Persian Safavid dynasty (1502–1722CE) was a very creative period not just for the art of writing but also in areas like architecture and ceramics. The most notable cursive scripts developed in this period were Naskh, and Ta’liq, a script still widely used for books, letters and poems. Then combining elements of Ta’liq and Naskh, and said to have been inspired by the shape of geese flying across the sky, came the beautifully fluid script of Nasta’liq, a script still used in Persian, Urdu and Punjabi writing.

Meanwhile in North Africa, the Maghribi script was developing from the 10th century onwards. Easy to read and also decorative it was (and continues to be) used for writing, inscriptions and on monuments. Maghribi is related to another hugely important script called Andalusi and the documentary, A Beginners Guide to Andalusi Calligraphy, takes you on a journey through history, politics and art while telling the epic story of this style of writing and what it represents. Al-Andalus, also called Muslim Spain, thrived on the Iberian Peninsula from 711 CE until the collapse of the Umayyad dynasty’s rule of Spain in the early 11th century. Perhaps one of the most remarkable qualities of the Andalusi style is that it is the only European form of Arabic calligraphy. Furthermore, the relationship of Andalusi to the dissemination of knowledge in this period cannot be underestimated. After being much overlooked, Andalusi is now being re-examined by contemporary calligraphers reconnecting European Islam with its ancient past.

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Andalusi developed a life of its own – one that was very open to creative interpretation by the individual calligrapher. This is quite a contrast to styles that became formalised, especially in the Ottoman period when most Arabic scripts reached their final, modern form. During the four centuries of the Ottoman Empire (1444 – 1923) Arabic calligraphy went through a noticeable evolution when new scripts were developed, including the Diwani, Riq’a, Jeli Dewani, Tughra’a and Siyaqat. The two most common, the Diwani and Riq’a scripts, are both used today, with the Diwani defined by beautiful curved letters, merged to form complex shapes and decorative forms. Riq’a, on the other hand, is much simpler, enabling it to be easily converted into the ultimate modern form of a digital font.

This brief and not remotely comprehensive run through of fourteen centuries of calligraphic script development brings us to the creative calligraphy of the present. It is an art which continues to grow and innovate in both its traditional forms and in very modern ones. Three short films on Alchemiya explore three very different artists working with calligraphy today.

On the traditional side we have The Calligrapher, a short film by Amina Chaudary in which she interviews master calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya in his studio. His goal was to introduce calligraphy to the American public as a contemporary art, something quite difficult to do because of how rigidly it has been defined by museums as being in the past. He acknowledges that it is not something to make an easy living from but is rather a way of life. Zakariya makes all of his tools by hand and is very clear about the importance of caring for your materials. ‘The pen, the ink and the paper must all be in good shape but as the artist you must also be prepared. You are also a tool but one that breathes out words through the pen onto the page.’ 

Mohamed Zakariya The Calligrapher

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Hassan Massoudi, Calligrapher is a short but intense glimpse into the creative world and personality of a modern calligraphic master. Born in Iraq in 1944, Massoudi learned all the classical styles of calligraphy in Baghdad before moving to Paris to study fine arts. Of this time he notes: “In fine arts. I felt the painting did not really feel so important to me. I felt more at ease with water, paper, writing, letters, words.” Massoudi is an artist for whom the word itself remains the most sublime, creative force and whose innovations of both form and palette have hugely influenced the current generation of graffiti artists resulting in a new form now known as ‘calligraffiti’.

Hassan Massoudy Calligrapher

A wish to move from the page in order to ‘bring the words to life’ was what motivated Soraya Syed to create the radical and experimental, multi-media performance work Hurriyah. Syed, a classically trained calligrapher, artist and filmmaker began by animating her pen strokes as she wrote the words. The idea of then embodying these animated words to tell a story, led her to collaborate with dancer and choreographer Salah el-Brogy and musician Nitin Sawhney. Soraya Syed: The Power of Words, shows a part of this ground-breaking performance while the artist talks about how the Hurriyah project was made.

The Power Of Words

The scripts that we use today are mostly produced and even read on a screen. They are barely noticed as anything other than functions of communication. Although fonts may be the modern and visible equivalent of changes in writing design, in any language, it is good to be reminded that this particular art of writing – an expression of beauty in both form and meaning – is as alive and responsive to the present as ever. 

Watch these and other films in our special Art, Creativity & Culture collection.

'Circling the House of God' is an amazing documentary interviewing renowned writer and scholar Dr. Martin Lings (1909-2005) about his pilgrimages to Mecca in 1948 and 1976, interspersed with incredible archive material of the Hajj from the early twentieth century.
'Circling the House of God' is an amazing documentary interviewing renowned writer and scholar Dr. Martin Lings (1909-2005) about his pilgrimages to Mecca in 1948 and 1976, interspersed with incredible archive material of the Hajj from the early twentieth century.

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