The Decorated Word: Writing and Picturing in Islamic Calligraphy

The Decorated Word: Writing and Picturing in Islamic Calligraphy

The importance of the written word and the prominence of Arabic script in Islamic culture are intimately connected with the transmission of the Divine Revelation to the Prophet Muhammad and its recording in the holy Qur’an. Because this message was delivered in Arabic, Muslims regard the language in its written form as the literal word of God, lending a sacred aura to all types of writing in Islamic lands.

Islamic calligraphy appears in myriad forms and styles, ranging from elegant and refined to decorative, and from eminently readable to abstract and barely legible. It is remarkable for its pervasive use as a mode of ornament on architecture and objects in an array of media. As such, the calligraphic art form reaches far beyond its fundamental function as a vehicle for written communication. Indeed, no other culture has explored the decorative and creative possibilities of the written word as extensively as Islam. This exhibition examines the inherent tension between textual design and verbal clarity, using works from The Met collection that represent a vast geographic sweep and span in date from the ninth century to today.

Early Qurans

The Arabic alphabet consists of eighteen primary letter forms(rasm), mostly consonants and long vowels, that with the help of dots (I’jam) and diacritical (accent) marks express twenty-eight phonetic sounds. Early manuscripts of the Qur’an were written with a reed pen on parchment and generally penned in kufic, a script known for its thick, angular, and minimal forms, its clarity and the horizontal extension of letters along the baseline. Many early Qur’ans were devoid of both i’jams, which phonetically distinguish letters of similar shape, and short vowel marks, which aid pronunciation. As the text of the Qur’an was often memorized for oral recitation.

The introduction of paper from China in the eighth century and its widespread use led to the development of new, more readable scripts. The “new Abbasid style,” or “new style,” is characterized by the extreme vertically of the shafts of the letters, sharp angular forms, a contrast between thick and thin strokes, and the consistent application of diacritical and vocalization marks.

Qur’an Page with Star-Shaped Prostration Mark

2. Qur’an Page with Star-Shaped Prostration Mark

Egypt or Syria, 13th century

Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper

Fletcher Fund, 1924 (24-146.1)

Muslim regard the Qur’an as a physical manifestation of God’s message and consider copying and embellishing it an act of devotion. The final form of the Qur’an was codified in the mid-seventh century, and its text has remained mostly unaltered to the present day. The Qur’an consists of 114 suras (chapters) and can be further divided into thirty parts (called juz’), sixty parts (hizb), or other less common divisions. The structure, divisions, and phonetic requirements of the text offered calligraphers and illuminators endless opportunities for demonstrating their talent and inventiveness.

This manuscript is from the second volume of a luxurious Qur’an in which all 274 folios are elaborately illuminated. The text is written in a variation of thuluth script, with gold ink outlined in black and complemented by gold, red, and blue diacritical marks. Illuminated disks indicate verse endings and other denominations. A mark instructing the worshipper to perform a prostration takes the form of a six-pointed star encircling the word sajad, or “prostrate.”

Folio from a Small Qur’an in New-Style Script

3. Folio from a Small Qur’an in New-Style Script

Iran, ca. 10th century

Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper

Louis E. and Theresa S. Seley Purchase Fund for Islamic Art, 2017 (2017.439a)

Section from a Monumental Qur’an

Manuscript in Elegant Muhaqqaq Script

4. Section from a Monumental Qur’an Manuscript in Elegant Muhaqqaq Script

Calligrapher: ‘Umar Aqta’

Samarqand, present-day Uzbekistan,

late 14th -early 15th century (before 1405)

Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper

Anonymous Gift, 1972 (1972.279)

This fragment once belonged to a Qur’an that was reportedly seven feet tall, weighed half a ton, and contained roughly 1,500 pages- possibly the largest copy ever produced. The manuscript was likely made for Timur (Tamerlane, died 1405), founder of the Timurid dynasty. Historical sources state that the calligrapher ‘Umar Aqta’ first presented Timur with a miniature Qur’an, penned in ghubar (“dustlike”) script, which could fit under the socket of a signet ring. When Timur disapproved, ‘Umar Aqta’ copied a Qur’an of monumental proportions for the ruler, who praised and handsomely rewarded him.

Up Next:

Proportional and Regional Scripts

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