On the Sacred Art of Qur’an Calligraphy and Illumination

The exhibition ‘The Spirit Illuminated’ is dedicated to the late Dr. Martin Lings, Shaykh Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din, whose insight and teaching has guided and inspired the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation in all its work with the sacred arts of the Holy Qur’an. He and his close colleague Titus Burckhardt are arguably the most important Western Muslims authors to write extensively on the subject of the sacred arts of Islam.  With these two authors must also be included Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, whose essay ‘On the Harmony of the Word’ has been written especially for this exhibition. It is appropriate here to present some brief passages from two works by these authors: ‘Splendours of Qur’an Calligraphy & Illumination’ by Martin Lings, recently published by the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation, and ‘Art of Islam’ by Titus Burckhardt. It is hoped that these passages will furnish the reader with certain keys to open up the inner dimensions of the arts of calligraphy and illumination found in the manuscripts and Editio Electrum Tradigital prints on exhibition.

It is useful to begin with some ever-timely reminders of Islam’s early history from Martin Lings:

In the sixth century A.D. the tribes of Arabia were poor, disunited, often at war with each other, and little known to the rest of the world. It was to a member of one of these tribes that the Divine Revelation was given, and some years later, in 620 A.D., having been rejected by the majority of his people, the new Prophet, in apparent danger of his life, left his home in Mecca with one companion and made his way to an unknown future in the eleven-camel-days distant township of Yathrib, soon to be known as Medina. One hundred and three years later the vanguards of his empire were crossing the Pyrenees into France, having conquered the whole of North Africa and most of Spain, while in the East that same empire had penetrated, through Persia and India, as far as the borders of China; and with subsequent losses outweighed by subsequent gains, Islam has remained in possession of most of those territories until the present day.

This expansion is one of, if not the most remarkable historical phenomena of the last two millenia. Titus Burckhardt comments on this expansion, its lasting effects, and its connection with Qur’anic Arabic:

Without Islam, the Arab thrust of the seventh century - even supposing it to have been possible without the religious impulse - would have been no more than an episode in the history of the Middle East; decadent as they may have been, the great sedentary civilizations, would have made short work of absorbing these hordes of Bedouin Arabs, and the nomadic invaders of the cultivated lands would have finished, as is generally the case, by accepting the customs and forms of expression of the sedentaries. But it was exactly the opposite that happened in the case of Islam, at least in a certain regard: it was the Arabs, nomads for the most part, who imposed on the sedentary peoples they conquered their forms of thought and expression by imposing their language upon them. In fact, the outstanding, and somehow refulgent, manifestation of the Arab genius is language, including writing. It was this language which not only preserved the ethnic heritage of the Arabs outside Arabia, but caused it to radiate far beyond its racial homeland. It was by the mediation of the Arabic language that the essential Arab genius was effectively communicated to Muslim civilization as a whole. The extraordinary normative power of the Arabic language derives from its role as a sacred language as well as from its archaic nature, both factors being, in any case, connected. It is its archaic quality that predestined Arabic for its role as a sacred language, and it was the Quranic revelation that, as it were, actualized its primordial substance. Archaism, in the linguistic order, is not, in any event, synonymous with simplicity of structure, very much to the contrary. Languages generally grow poorer with the passing of time by gradually losing the richness of their vocabulary, the ease with which they can diversify various aspects of one and the same idea and their power of synthesis, which is the ability to express many things with few words. In order to make up for this impoverishment, modern languages have become more complicated on the rhetorical level; while perhaps gaining in surface precision, they have not done so as regards content.

The forms of thought and expression referred to above have, over the centuries, given rise to and nourished one of the world’s great artistic traditions, intimately interwoven as they are with the lives of countless Muslims and embodying the profoundest dimensions of Islam. Titus Burckhardt writes:

If one were to reply to the question 'what is Islam?' by simply pointing to one of the masterpieces of Islamic art such as, for example, the Mosque of Cordova, or that of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, or one of the madrasahs in Samarqand or even the Taj Mahal, that reply, summary as it is, would be nonetheless valid, for the art of Islam expresses what its name indicates, and it does so without ambiguity.

He elaborates further:

It is not surprising, nor strange, that the most outward manifestation of a religion or civilization like Islam - and art is by definition an exteriorization - should reflect in its own fashion what is most inward in that civilization. The substance of art is beauty; and this, in Islamic terms, is a divine quality and as such has a double aspect: in the world, it is appearance; it is the garb which, as it were, clothes beautiful beings and beautiful things; in God, however, or in itself, it is pure inward beatitude; it is the divine quality which, among all the divine qualities manifested in the world, most directly recalls pure Being.

Martin Lings expands on this by referring to the teachings of Frithjof Schuon:

In his concise yet far-reaching definition of what may be said to constitute a religion, Frithjof Schuon includes the presence of sacred art as one of the criteria of authenticity. This will not seem surprising to anyone who bears in mind that the function of sacred art, always in the strictest sense of the term, is parallel to that of the Revelation itself as a means of causing repercussions in the human soul in the direction of the Transcendent. It is seldom, however, contemporary with the initial impact of a religion, and it thus able to compensate for certain losses, above all as a means of expressing to later generations something of what the presence of the Messenger expressed to the first generation. The Qur'an makes it clear that a Prophet must be considered as a Divine masterpiece. In one passage, God says to Moses what could be translated: I have fashioned thee as a work of art for Myself (XX, 41); and in another, Muhammad is told: Verily of an immense magnitude is thy nature (LXVIII, 4).

The pinnacle of Islamic sacred art is Arabic calligraphy, which transmits the verses of the Holy Qur’an in visual form. Martin Lings quotes from Frithjof Schuon’s ‘Understanding Islam’:

The verses of the Qur'an are not only utterances which transmit thoughts; they are also, in a sense, beings, powers, talismans. The soul of the Muslim is as it were woven out of sacred formulae; in these he works, in these he rests, in these he lives, in these he dies.

The effect on the sacred art of Islam of this immersion of Muslim life in the verses of the Holy Qur’an is elaborated upon by Titus Burckhardt:

The language of the Quran is omnipresent in the World of Islam; the entire life of a Muslim is filled with Quranic formulae, prayers, litanies and invocations in Arabic, the elements of which are drawn from the Sacred Book; innumerable inscriptions bear witness to this. It could be said that this ubiquity of the Quran works like a spiritual vibration - there is no better term to describe an influence which is both spiritual and sonorous - and this vibration necessarily determines the modes and measures of Muslim art; the plastic art of Islam is therefore, in a certain way, the reflection of the word of the Quran.

The importance of the Qur’an in Islam, indeed its complete centrality, necessitated its thorough recording, and from this the need for writing of the greatest beauty possible. Martin Lings explains:

The need to record and hand down to succeeding generations every syllable of the Qur'an with exactitude made it impossible to rely on anything so fallible as human memory even though the memories in question were outstanding. But the point to be made here is not that a people ungiven to writing and building should have come to be, through the force of circumstances, both writers and builders. The analogy we are drawing is based on the change from almost nothing to almost everything; and in the case of calligraphy the change is perhaps even more striking than in that of architecture. It might even be said not only that the Arabs have never been surpassed as calligraphers, but also that they have only been equalled by one other people, namely the Chinese, whose art has, however, developed along very different lines. It cannot, however, be considered a paradox that the civilization of the unlettered Prophet should have been destined to excel in the art of lettering. Even apart from the probable advantages of starting an enterprise uncluttered by previous experiences, the Arabs' disinclination to write down precious words had no doubt a very positive part to play in the genesis of Arabic calligraphy. These people were in love with the beauty of their language and with the beauty of the human voice. There was absolutely no common measure between these two summits on the one hand, and the ungainliness of the only available script on the other. Their disdain for writing showed a sense of values; and in the light of final results it is legitimate to suppose that it was the reverse side of an openness to calligraphic inspiration, as much as to say, "Since we have no choice but to write down the Revelation, then let that written record be as powerful an experience for the eye as the memorized record is for the ear when the verses are spoken or chanted."

Titus Burckhardt’s comments on the visual connections of Arabic calligraphy to the language it records are also highly pertinent here:

The art of Arabic writing is by definition the most Arab of all the plastic arts of Islam. It belongs nevertheless to the entire Islamic world, and is even considered to be the most noble of the arts, because it gives visible form to the revealed word of the Quran. Princes and princesses practised copying out the Sacred Book in beautiful script. Calligraphy is also the art most widely shared by all Muslims, since anyone who can write is in a position to appreciate the merits of a good calligrapher, and it can be said without fear of exaggeration that nothing has typified the aesthetic sense of the Muslim peoples as much as the Arabic script. One needs to be familiar with its forms and styles in order to follow the full sweep of the art, particularly in architectural ornamentation which is frequently dominated by epigraphy. We can give the measure of Arabic calligraphy, which is so astonishingly rich in style and modes, if we say that it knows how to combine the greatest geometrical strictness with the most melodious rhythm. And in saying this we also define the two poles between which this art evolves and which it succeeds in reconciling in various ways and various styles, each of which represents a perfect graphic balance and each of which is consistently valid. For one of the typical characteristics of Arabic calligraphy is that none of its various styles, born at different periods, has even fallen into disuse; calligraphy turns to each of them, depending on the nature and context of texts, and does not hesitate, should the occasion arise, to place inscriptions in contrasting styles side by side.

Turning now to the art of Qur’an illumination, Martin Lings writes:

The art of Qur'an illumination was bound to develop more slowly than that of calligraphy because it was not directly called for by the text. It was furthermore held in check by the fear of allowing anything to intrude upon that text. More positively, we can be certain that it was this same reverential awe, haybah, which guaranteed exactly the right channels for the flow of this development towards a result which is, by general agreement, marvellously right. "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." This saying of Solomon, continually quoted in Islam, is itself a synthesis of wisdom which has its application at all levels. Sacred Art is "wise"; and from what has already been said about its anonymity, it follows that the Quranic art of calligraphy itself, let alone that of illumination, was bound to start on a note of "reserve", a pious courtesy related to awe and to the artist's consciousness of the Divine Majesty.
In Qur’an illumination, the abstract designs of Islamic art attained an especially high degree of beauty when the artist applied them to the sacred text. Martin Lings further clarifies the context and function of these designs in Qur’an manuscripts:

The Qur'an itself may be said to hold out certain opportunities, as it were, in invitation to the illuminator. The most obvious of these are the surah headings, and the divisions between the verses. In addition, indications that five or ten verses have passed give an opportunity for a regularly repeated ornament in the margin, and the reader will find it helpful to know at what points in the text he is required to make a prostration, which also can be indicated ornamentally. It is, moreover, in the nature of things that if the opening of a surah admits of illumination, the opening of the first surah and therefore of the whole book should be treated with a particularly striking display of art.

And, in commenting on the esoteric function of Qur’an illumination, he reminds us:

It must also be remembered that the whole purpose of illumination is to recall the higher or deeper dimension of the text. The relationship between the hidden book and the fully revealed Qur'an is one of majesty to beauty of contraction, or reserve, to expansion; and however paradoxical it may seem, illumination, being there to remind us of the hidden book, has an overall function of majesty in relation to the beauty of the text.

The abstract designs of Islamic art are sometimes referred to as arabesques. Titus Burckhardt clarifies the forms these designs take:

In the broad sense of the term, the arabesque includes ornamentation in stylized plant forms and strictly geometrical interlacing work. The first kind of ornamentation is all rhythm, or, to put it more exactly, it is a practically perfect visual transcription of rhythm, whereas the second is crystalline in nature. Again then, in this domain, we discover the two poles of all artistic expression in Islam: the sense of rhythm and the spirit of geometry.

Further commenting on the stylised plant forms, he states:

In its more stylized versions, an arabesque in plant forms bears no more than a distant likeness to a plant. But it does represent a perfect transcription of the laws of rhythm into visual terms. Its unfolding is continuous, like a wave, with contrasting phases having various degrees of resonance. The design does not need to be symmetrical, but, to make up for this, it always has certain repetitions, whose rhythmic character is accentuated by the fact that the sounds and the silences are aesthetically equivalent. Strictly speaking, rhythm belongs not to space but to time, of which it is not the quantitative measure but the qualitative one. It is by the mediation of movement that rhythm is re-established in the spatial dimension.

Martin Lings gives an example of the specific use of these plant form designs in Qur’an illumination:

A Qur'an recitation must not be thought of as limited to this world for it has repercussions up to the Heavens, where its "fruits" await the believer. Otherwise expressed, the Qur'an uses the symbol of the tree so that it may liberate itself from being subject, in the awareness or in the subconsciousness of the believer, to the illusion that it is just one book among other books. It may thus be said to point a way for the illuminator, telling him how to set free from the finite its Infinite Presence. We need not therefore be surprised that one of the most fundamental ornaments of Qur'an illumination should be arboreal, namely the palmette, shujayrah or "little tree", nor need we doubt that it is meant to stand for the good word.

Returning to the geometric designs, Titus Burckhardt writes:

For a Muslim artist or - what comes to the same thing - a craftsman who has to decorate a surface, geometrical interlacement doubtless represents the most intellectually satisfying form, for it is an extremely direct expression of the idea of the Divine Unity underlying the inexhaustible variety of the world. True, Divine Unity as such is beyond all representation, because its nature, which is total, lets nothing remain outside itself; it is 'without a second'. Never the less, it is through harmony that it is reflected in the world, harmony being nothing other than 'unity in multiplicity' (al-wahdah fi ‘l-kathrah), the same as 'multiplicity in unity' (al-kathrah fi ‘l-wahdah). Interlacement expresses the one aspect and the other.