Islamic calligraphy and decorative art of the mosques

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Blue Arabic calligraphy at King Abdullah Mosque in Amman, Jordan. Blue domed mosque with crescent moon on top in background. © Audra Brianne | Dreamstime.com

Lately, I have been talking of many of the famous mosques around the world. A mosque, first and foremost, is a shrine for prayer to Allah. Nothing supersedes that fundamental purpose for the existence of a mosque. However, we must also acknowledge the additional values that numerous mosques offer to us. Many mosques were witness to momentous events in history, and, therefore, are actually invaluable sources of sociopolitical history. Similarly, there are a great number of mosques which are artistic marvels. And it is in this regard that Islamic Calligraphy stands out as a unique genre of art.

Defining calligraphy

Calligraphy, as the Oxford lexicon defines, is “the art of producing decorative handwriting or lettering with a pen or brush”. Strictly speaking by that definition calligraphy is not unique to Islam. There are beautiful examples of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, as there are of calligraphically illuminated Bibles in Europe. However, the famous Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in its introductory section on Islamic calligraphy, informs us, “In the Islamic world, however, calligraphy has been used to a much greater extent and in astonishingly varied and imaginative ways, which have taken the written word far beyond pen and paper into all art forms and materials. For these reasons, calligraphy may be counted as a uniquely original feature of Islamic art.” And masjids, as I have had the great fortune to see for myself in many of them in different countries, offer some of the stunning examples of calligraphic art.

Genres of calligraphy

Most, though not all, of these calligraphic examples in mosques are invariably quotes in Arabic, the original language in which the Holy Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. Of course, there are other genres of calligraphic writings as well, even in Islamic structures, such as short poems, praise for emperors and kings, aphorisms etc., but those would be more in non-religious monuments.

Now, despite the language being common, that is Arabic, Islamic calligraphy is drawn in a number of scripts, varying according to periods and regions. The calligraphy on the Qubbat al-Sakhrah, the Dome of Rock, constructed in 691-91 CE in Jerusalem, uses the oldest calligraphic script called Kufic, after the city of Kufiah in Iraq. The other five major styles of Islamic calligraphy are the Naskh, the Nastaliq, the Diwani, the Thulth and the Reqa. Each of these are very distinct for the other. For example, while the Haqim Mosque in Isfahan, Iran, used Nastaliq, the Sultan Ahmet Camii in Istanbul has amazing calligraphy in Thulth.

Materials of calligraphy

Various materials were used to for the stunningly beautiful calligraphic pieces in Islamic architectures, one of the most common being ceramic calligraphic tiles. The ceramic tiles used to be first deeply carved with inscriptions, then covered with coloured glazes and finally fired. What used to come out of the kilns have stood for centuries as classic examples of Islamic art. No wonder, therefore, that calligraphists in the Islamic world were revered as great artists, and mastery over the art required decades of experience following years of apprenticeship.

 

 

(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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