Above: A Seventh-century Qu’ran manuscript held by the University of Birmingham, dated among the oldest in the world (credit: Wikimedia Commons).
Calligraphy is not unique to Islamic culture. For centuries, the form has been seen in art, architecture, and religious texts originating from many different countries, continents, and empires. However, none of these have explored the craft quite as extensively as the Islamic world.
For a start, it’s sacred in itself. Arabic was the language in which the Qu’ran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). When Muslim scribes first committed the Qu’ran to parchment, they needed a script that would do justice to the word of God. Over time, beautiful calligraphy evolved as the text worthy of Qu’ranic verse – hence the distinct style of written Arabic language.
Calligraphy on The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem (credit: Wikimedia Commons).
The commitment of the Qu’ran to paper marked a shift in Islamic tradition, from an oral to a written one. The Qu’ran led to a wider respect for the written word in any form, hence the ensuing popularity of calligraphy in many different contexts. Calligraphy itself is often viewed as the highest form of visual art in Islam, as it is a transcription of the word of God. In the past, men and women who produce the cursive text have been held in the highest esteem as artists.
Despite its ancient history, the craft is by no means fully understood. Some Qu’ranic verse is yet to be translated, as many of the letters or forms present in calligraphy are still a mystery. It’s why parts of the Qu’ran are open to much interpretation. Yet for many, the unknown texts simply show that the true meaning is retained by God alone.
Muhaqqaq script in a 14th-century Qur’an from the Mamluk dynasty (credit: Wikimedia Commons).
Whatever the truth, there is one undeniable fact: Islamic calligraphy is aesthetically beautiful, and it contains the history of the faith within its flowing lines, even if some of that history isn’t always clear.