On the Harmony of the Word 

God is at once the Creator of all things and the supreme Geometer and Harmonizer. His Word or Kalimah, which is also the Qur’anic kun! that has existentiated the universe and all that is in it, is also the source of all harmony, including both geometric and musical, in the created order. This reality could not but become manifested in our encounter with the Word in its revealed as well as its ontological aspect. In the Islamic world the revealed Word of God is the Noble Qur’an, the Kalimat Allah, which Muslims, or at least traditional ones, usually experience as it is dressed in the garb of beauty and harmony. They hear it in the form of psalmodies based on strict traditional principles and in a harmonic fashion which is music in it highest sense. One cannot imagine how beautiful the verses of the Qur’an were when chanted by the archangel Gabriel at the time of their revelation to the Blessed Prophet – may blessings and peace be upon him. But one can rest assured that they were not revealed in a voice bereft of harmony and musicality. The beauty of the most exquisite chanting of the Noble Qur’an that we hear today must surely pale into insignificance when compared with the beauty of Gabriel’s voice which brought the Word of God on earth and revealed it to God’s chosen messenger. Henceforth, all oral experience of the Noble Qur’an in traditional settings was to be combined with the experience of the musical beauty of its chanting and the harmony which has its roots in the very substance of cosmic and metacosmic reality.

Muslims also gaze upon and read the written text of the Noble Qur’an and here again most often in forms of great beauty. Traditional Qur’anic calligraphy and with it the illuminations, which are like congealed forms of the inspiration flowing from the recitation of the Divine Word, were developed into a sacred art of the highest order early in Islamic history. Their beauty was in a sense the response of the Muslim soul to the beauty of the Word as it was received by the Blessed Prophet and transmitted to them. Muslims developed calligraphy and illumination as a central sacred art as response to the oral revelation and the innate barakah of the Sacred Text. Moreover, they created forms of calligraphy and illumination based on geometric harmony as well as harmony of colors and complementing in the deepest sense the “musical” harmony of the traditional recitation of the Noble Qur’an.

Harmony is the result of the manifestation of the One in the many and leads its beholder from multiplicity back to the One. More specifically, there is a science of harmonics which relates numbers based on arithmetical and geometric ratios and proportions to musical notes. The canon of Pythagoras and the Pythagorean table reveal this relationship. The division of a single stringed cord into units based on small whole numbers produces notes which the ear distinguishes musically, notes that are related to the ratio of small whole numbers and geometric proportions rather than arithmetical and geometric quantities themselves. Seen in this light, numbers are not just quantity but also quality. Likewise, space and geometric forms which are generated in it are not only quantitative but also qualitative. There is such a thing as Pythagorean mathematics and sacred geometry, closely related to harmonics and foundational to the sacred art of various civilizations, especially calligraphy, architecture and design. That is why the great German poet Goethe, who was also deeply immersed in the traditional sciences, called architecture “frozen music”.

Now, when one beholds a great masterpiece of the Qur’anic art of calligraphy and illumination, for example, pages of a Mamluk Qur’an, one experiences with the eye the same cosmic harmony that one hears with the ear in great traditional music. The deepest experience of viewing a page of traditional Qur’anic calligraphy or illumination, both based on strict geometrical principles derived from sacred geometry, is related to the most profound experience of hearing a masterpiece of traditional music, for example, using the Western canon, a Gregorian chant, a mass by Palestrina or the Sanctus of the B Minor Mass of Bach, or within the Islamic world a dastgah of classical Persian music or a mode of classical Arabic music. There is a most profound relation between the visual beauty of Qur’anic calligraphy and illumination and the oral beauty of its chant, this relation being rooted in harmonics and going back to the very substance of the Word of God which is the source of all harmony in the created order.

To behold the beauty of the text of the written Qur’an needs eyes which are not blinded by the glitter of outwardness, and to experience the beauty of the chanted Qur’an needs ears not deaf to the call of the Friend. To understand the relation between these two forms of beauty based on universal laws of harmony requires an intelligence which can pierce the veils of exteriority to reach that inner reality where the source of harmony resides. It also requires a heart whose outward shell has melted allowing the spiritual power rising from the ‘Arsh al-Rahman, the Throne of the Compassionate, residing at the center of the heart, to manifest itself in our whole being to become the light of our eyes so that we can see the reality of things as they truly are and above all to be hold His “signs”, and the power of hearing of our ears so that we can hear in depth the call of His Word as it beckons us to return back to Him.

wa’Llahu a‘lam  

Seyyed Hossein Nasr