The abstraction of Islamic calligraphic script occurred well before the advent of twentieth- century Western modernism. For centuries, calligraphers and artists have straddled the boundary between text and image, revealing their inextricable intertwinement. The calligram in which letters, words and phrases are shaped into forms ranging from animals and humans to ships and swords- epitomizes the fusion of writing and picturing.
In the mid-1950s, the global phenomenon of modernism in tandem with widespread postcolonial nationalism triggered the development of a new chapter in calligrapher abstraction that continues to this today.
The art of writing became an instrument of protest, a means of reclaiming national identity and heritage, and a vehicle for voicing sociopolitical and economic concerns, as well as issues of personal identity and gender.
Fragment of a Bowl with a Proverb in Decorative New- Style Script
Iran, Nishapur,10th century
Earthenware: painted in black slip and polychrome pigments under a transparent colorless glaze (buffware)
Gifts of Richard Ettingshausen in appreciation of the work of Marie Lukens Swietochowski, Marilyn Jenkins, Manuel Keene and Carolyn Kane of installing the new Islamic Galleries (1975.320.2,3)
Bowl with Inscription in Floriated Kufic Script Conveying Blessings to the Owner
Present-day Uzbekistan, Samarqand, or Iran, Nishapur, 10th century
Earthenware: white slip with incised black slip decorated under transparent glaze
Fletcher Fund,1975 (1975.195)
Bowl with the Phrase “Sovereignty Belongs to God” in Decorative Kufic Script
Iran, Sabz Pushan, Nishapur, late 9th-early 10th century
Earthenware; white slip with black slip decoration under transparent glaze
Rogers Fund, 1938 (38.40.118)
Footed Bowl with an Inscription in Human-Headed Naskh Script
Iran, early 13th century
Bronze; inlaid with silver and black compound
Edward C. Moore Collection, Bequest of Edward C. Moore, 1891 (91.1.543)
Ewer with Inscriptions in Human-Headed Naskh Script
Iran, late 13th century
Bronze; cast, chased, engraved, inlaid with silver and gold
Plate with Pseudo-Kufic Inscription
Spain, probably Manises, Valencia, late 14th- early 15th century
The Cloisters Collection, 1956 (56.171.161)
This lusterware plate bears inscriptions in pseudo-kufic enclosed in cartouches and roundels. Such calligraphy was not meant to be read; rather, it served to evoke the elegance, prestige, and wealth associated with Muslim arts in predominantly Christian territories. This example demonstrates the continued popularity of Islamic decorative styles after the conquest of Valencia by Christian forces and their subsequent influx into the region.
Roundel with Inscriptions in Mirror-Image (Muthanna) Writing
India, probably Hyderabad, Deccan, late 16th century Wood and gesso; painted and metal-leafed with gold and silver
Purchase, Richard S. Perkins and Alastair B. Martin Gifts and Rogers Fund, 1991 (1991.223)
This carved wood roundel invokes two of the ninety-nine beautiful names of Allah (asma al-husna) – al- Haqq (the Truth) and al-Qayym (the Everlasting)- through its mesmerizing composition. The inscription is first written vertically and then in mirror image (Muthanna), each pair repeating eight times. This Deccan example is related to a group affixed to the walls of a Shi’i shrine in Hyderabad; such medallions were regarded as mirror reflections of the outer (zahir) and inner (batin) aspects of the Divine.
Folio from a Qur’an in Plaited and Floriated Kufic Script
Iran or Central Asia, 11th century
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Rogers Fund, 1945 (45.140)
Prayer Book with Images in Ghubar (“Dustlike”) Script
Calligrapher: ‘‘Abd al- Qadir Hisari
Turkey, dated A.H. 1180/ A.D. 1766 Manuscript: ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Binding: leather and gold
Purchase, Friends of Islamic Art Gifts, 2014 (2014.44)
This prayer book, or du’anama, contains twenty-nine images covered in tiny ghubar, or “dustlike,” script. Among them are representations of the Ka’ba in Mecca the footprints (kadem) of the Prophet Muhammad, the Seal of Solomon, and the bifurcated sword of Ali (dhu’l fiqar). The folio shown here features Noah’s Ark (Safina-yi Nuh), the legendary ship mentioned in both the Bible and the Qur’an.
Folio from an Octagonal Miniature Qur’an in Ghubar (“Dustlike”) Script
Iran or Turkey, 17th century
Ink and gold on paper: leather binding
Gift of Joseph W. Drexel,1889 (89,2,2156)
Miniature octagonal Qur’ans were often carried in lockets or leather cases and were sometimes attached to armbands (bazubands) or worn around the neck. Historical texts and paintings reveal that in Ottoman Turkey these tiny manuscripts functioned as talismanic pendants; placed in metal boxes or pouches and attached to the shafts of military standards (‘alams), they were thought to empower and protect the sultan and his troops both on and off the battlefield.
Calligraphic Composition in the Shape of a Peacock, from the Bellini Album
Turkey, ca. 1600
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Louis V. Bell Fund, 1967 (67.266.7.8r)
The playful practice of weaving an inscription into the form of an animal, bird, flower, or inanimate object remains a tour de force of Islamic calligraphers to this day. Here, an inscription in chancellery divani script follows the outer curve of a stunning peacock’s tail and reverses direction midway. The inscription contains blessings and praise for an unnamed sultan.
Calligraphic Galleon with the Names of the Seven Sleepers
Calligrapher: ‘Abd al-Qadir Hisari
Turkey, dated A.H. 1180/A.D. 1766-67
Ink and gold on paper
Louis E. and Theresa S. Seley Purchase Fund for Islamic art and rogers Fund, 2003 (2003.241)
Ships were among the most popular subjects for calligrams in the Islamic world. This large example shows an imperial galleon in full sail, amid waves made of tiny ghubar (“dustlike”) inscriptions. The hull and deck are composed of the names of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, referring to a Christian story of seven youths who escaped persecution by the Roman authorities by taking refuge in a cave, where they slept for a few hundred years. The story is reinterpreted in Sura 18 of the Qur’an (al-kahf, “The Cave”). These inscriptions render the composition a potent talisman, for the Seven Sleepers were believed to protect ships from shrinking.
Seascape with Three Boats
Sadequain (Pakistani, 1930-1987)
Pakistan, 20th century
Oil on wood
Gift of the Government of Pakistan, 1980 (2016.12)
Ships remained a popular subject for calligrams well into the modern period. In this example, the renowned Pakistani artist Sadequain used the age-old cipher of a boat as a symbol of safety and security, depicting a seascape with three boats whose respective forms are composed of the Arabic phrases “In the name of the Qur’an. In the name of the pen (and anything that writes).” The letter sad, qaf, and nun on the three prows could also be a pun on the artist’s name.
Poet Turning into Heech
Parviz Tanavoli (Iranian, born 1937)
Canada, Vancouver, 2007
Purchase, 2011 NoRuz at The Met Benefit, 2012 (2012.39)
For decades Parviz Tanavoli has been producing sculptural renditions of the Persian word for “nothingness” (heech). On a spiritual level, they represent the Sufi notion that God creates everything from nothing. The letters in Tanavoli’s heeches are anthropomorphic, with a head, two eyes, and a body. This example abstracts the figure of a poet into a cylindrical body with pseudo-inscriptions covering its upper half. He, the first letter of heech, winds around and emerges from the front of the piece, enveloping the poet as the word and figure emerge into one.