For most people, calligraphy and especially arabic calligraphy is an arcane subject but it’s been a life long involvement for me and I want to introduce some of my own observations on this blog which as far as I can tell aren’t discussed anywhere in the mainstream and which are unabashedly not academic and which I hope will be of interest.
In an age when people rarely touch a pen or pencil and when especially young people are more deft at text input to their smart phones than they are at handwriting, it is suddenly a matter of urgency that handwriting and calligraphy (i.e excellent handwriting) in every language are restored to peoples lives. There are secrets to handwriting which need to be revived and taught to our children before their fingers atrophy and fall off. But I have no idea how you accomplish that, short of making it a compulsory school subject which of course for generations it always was, up to quite a high school age. When students of this time suddenly experience creating beautiful written forms, a universe of delight opens. Arabic calligraphy is artistically and culturally elevating the activity of writing up to another level from English (i.e. Roman) calligraphy. It doesn’t actually require a knowledge of the language to be able to copy the letter forms but it does help and people from Western lands tend to be drawn into it for religious reasons usually as for people learning qur’an etc., you really need to know the written language.
(A non-linear Basmallah in Thuluth script – probably 19th century Turkish)
My interest in arabic calligraphy goes back over three decades to when I first visited Mohamed Zakariya, the well known master calligrapher from Washington DC. In a short meeting with him he ignited my interest enough to take it seriously. He is primarily a master of the Ottoman styles which include Naskh, Thuluth, Muhaqaq, Nastaliq etc (see the link to his web site on the side bar of this blog) though he ventures occasionally into more obscure styles like kufic and Andalusi Maghrebi. It’s the last of these styles I want to focus on as it is, aside from its beauty, among the world’s threatened indigenous calligraphic styles. Rather like rare languages which are threatened with extinction every day, indigenous calligraphic styles have been over the last few centuries eclipsed by cultural globalisation and mass media.
Evidence suggests that when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the media centre of gravity of the Arabic speaking world shifted to Egypt which had become one of the first Arab countries to employ printing presses. In fact they led the way with book and newspaper printing, audio recording, radio, film making and because of this became very influential right across the Muslim world. The first text faces in arabic were naturally modelled on naskh, the preferred script of the Ottomans, as it was very readable but also one of the most difficult to write well. It must have had an enormous impact in far flung countries like Algeria, Morocco, Senegal and Nigeria which had their own scripts which had developed over centuries from the very first days of the Muslim empire.
My own fascination with Andalusi script is for several reasons. Firstly that I live in Andalusia and that I like to feel that I’m writing in a language and a script that was dangerous enough to have been banned by the Inquisition so many centuries ago. Aside from that the script itself has deep secrets. If you analyse the form of the script the first thing you notice is its linear nature revealing its ancestry in the kufic scripts of the Arabian peninsular.
(Qur’anic Andalusi script , circa 12th century Spain)
If you compare this with the basmallah at the head of this article the andalusi script is quite different from the Ottoman styles which have left the line and fall in elegant cadences with each word. This linear nature reveals its antiquity as it has descended directly from the early monumental kufic scripts which evolved in the first hundred years after the revelation.
As Islamic culture spread across North Africa the scripts became less formal and the nun for example which hitherto had been vertical like the Hebrew nun started to change and curve into the nun form now written universally in modern arabic. (below: a page of kufic arabic on vellum. Note that the scribe had no inhibitions about hyphenating words, something strictly avoided in later times)
A page from a Qur’an from Palermo in the Khalili collection (above) illustrates this transition 0f monumental arabic into a more practical and faster and speedier script. Mohamed Zakariya claims that there was always a cursive kind of quick script but only the important documents on vellum have survived.
So what happened in 1492 was that this line of history was cut off when the agents of Ferdinand and Isabella burnt all the books written in arabic in great bonfires in the streets of Granada, the last great muslim city to fall. The few books that escaped show what treasures they must have destroyed and which for this reason are immensely valuable. Another reason I enjoy this form of arabic is that is easy to write and is not subject to the strict rules of Ottoman calligraphy which came later. Some calligraphers obviously excelled more than others but the styles were very individual rather in the fashion of different handwriting styles in our time. It didn’t aspire to a high art but was practical and beautiful nonetheless. Remember the culture of Andalusia and Morocco was very different from the structured government and bureaucracy of Istanbul and its far flung empire. People in early Muslim Spain wanted writing as a means to an end such was the thirst for knowledge. What was needed was a quick means of recording and transmitting all kinds of information, translations of Greek and Latin texts, books on science, mathematics medicine, law etc. It is reputed that Cordoba in its early days was home to 700 calligraphers working full time copying manuscripts. Most of them women apparently. No printing meant plenty of jobs for scribes.
I must make it clear that I am the greatest admirer of the Ottoman scripts and I have only ever seen the differences with earlier forms as complementary – expressions of beauty in different periods of history. But in defence of the underdog I revert to the Andalusi style because I think this is a script that many could learn well without having the exacting training and gifts to practice the Ottoman styles (which i do know but find incredibly difficult).
I’ll develop this further in a future post to discuss practical ways of reviving the Andalusi styles and some useful reference material you can download. Also how arabic and roman scripts can be blended to beautiful effect. How this convergence of scripts is a metaphor for the kind of cultural convergence taking place in societies everywhere. And whether computer typesetting ( English and Arabic) has any artistic merit.