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Tracing Figural and Pictorial Developments in Islamic Calligraphy

Irvin Cemil Schick

Calligraphy is all-pervading in both Islamic art and architecture. As a matter of fact, it is widely accepted that calligraphy is the most “quintessentially Islamic” of all artforms.

This prominence is often mistakenly attributed to the supposed iconophobia of Islam. This explanation is not sound for various of reasons. Cal­ligraphy is more effectively viewed as a distinctive artform with clear cultural genealogy and social function. As such it is not a substitute for figurative art. However, calligraphy is intensely visual, and it combines form and content (meaning) in such a unique way. This article addresses the intermediacy of Islamic calligraphy between its textual and pictorial dimensions.

According to some scholars, the word “calligraphy” is an eighteenth-century western term, and is thus inapplicable to the Islamic con­text. (1) This is not accurate: the term ḥusn al-khaṭṭ, which in Arabic can mean either “beauty of script” or “beautiful script” and is the exact equivalent of the Greek kalligraphia, was used in Islamic sources many centuries before the eighteenth. For example, there is a (possibly fabricated) hadīth, a saying attributed to the Prophet Muḥammad (pbuh), that says: “man kataba bismi Allāhi al-raḥmāni al-raḥīmi bi-ḥusni al-khaṭṭi dakhala al-jannata bi ghayri ḥisāb,” that is, “whoever writes the Basmala [In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful] with beautiful script [ḥusn al-khaṭṭ] shall enter paradise without accounting.” Even though this saying does not appear in the canonical compilations of sayings of the Prophet, it certainly occurs well before the eighteenth cen­tury. The wide circulation and several existing versions of this saying strongly points the existence of a certain tradition. (2) There is also another slightly different saying: “man kataba bismi Allāhi al-raḥmāni al-raḥīmi fa-jawwadahu ghafar Allāhu lahu,” that is, “whoever writes the Basmala and beautifies it, God shall forgive him [for his sins].” (3) While this saying does not explicitly say “calligraphy,” it refers to beautifying writing. This saying does have a stronger attribution: it is included in Imām Suyūṭī’s (1445–1505) collec­tion of ḥadīths.

There is more evidence establishing the use of the term ḥusn al-khaṭṭ in Islamic sources before the eighteenth century. For example, the cele­brated poem al-Qaṣīda al-rā’iyya (Poem on the Letter ) by the great calligrapher Ibn al-Bawwāb (d. 1022) begins with the couplet “yā man yurīdu ijādata al-taḥrīri / wa yarawmu ḥusna al-khaṭṭi wa al-taṣwīri,” which roughly translates to “O you who aspire to beauti­fying writing / and desire beautiful script [ḥusn al-khaṭṭ] and drawing.” (4) This poem was included in the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldūn (1332–1406) and was widely commented upon ever since. About two centuries later, the earliest known Ottoman treatise on the Islamic arts of the book, written by Muṣṭafā ʿĀlī of Gallipoli in 1587, begins with addressing “the essentialness of writing and the honorable­ness of calligraphy.” (5) Here, too, the author uses the Arabic term ḥusn al-khaṭṭ for calligraphy.

An examination of early Qur’ān manuscripts in chronological order clearly indicates that beautiful writing was pursued at a very early date. Arabic script at the time of the Prophet (pbuh) was not artistic. On the other hand, less than two centuries later, scribes writing the Revelation in the ninth century were giving letters and letter combinations more and more refined forms, the only purpose of which was aesthetic. Moreover, as these forms became more standardized, writ­ing increasingly acquired a pictorial character. Beginning in the tenth century, this character was enhanced via developing sev­eral highly ornamented variants of Kūfī script, as the elaboration of the tops of some vertical letters gradually led to plaited, foliated, and floriated scripts that, to some degree, sacrificed legibility for decorative effect. (6) In some manuscripts and more so in architec­tural inscriptions, such as the superb dome of the Seljuk-era Karatay madrasa in Konya (1251), (7) writ­ing and ornamentation combined in ways that blurred the distinction between script and image.

It is fair to say that this trend has reached its apex in the anthropomorphic and zoomor­phic inscriptions that became fashionable dur­ing the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, first emerging in Khorasan then spreading west into Mesopotamia. (8) According to Richard Ettinghausen, this “rather remarkable phenomenon . . . seems to stem mainly from two converging impulses: the general tendency to elaborate the letters, and the tendency between the 10th and 13th centuries to develop floral and other ornament into birds, animals, or human beings.” (9) D. S. Rice distinguished three main types of fig­ural inscription. (10) In the first, ascenders end in human heads. Barbara Brend has indicated that this style was known as waqwaq after the legendary tree bearing humanlike fruits. (11) In the second type, inscriptions are composed entirely of human or animal figures; Rice dubbed this “animated script.” And in the third, which he aptly named “inhabited,” animals fill in the spaces between individual letters.

Figural inscriptions of this kind were used almost exclusively on metalwork. A number of masterpieces bearing such inscriptions are available in museums; e.g., the Bobrinsky bucket (1163) at the State Hermitage Museum, which is the earliest dated example; the Wade cup and Mosul ewer at the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Fano cup at the Cabinet des médailles in the Bibliothèque nationale de France; a bronze penbox (1210–1211) and a canteen at the Freer Gallery; the Zodiac ewer and a copper basin at the Musée du Louvre; and finally the Blacas ewer and another ewer at the British Museum. (12) Only a few of these are signed, and those signatures likely belong to the metalworkers, not the callig­raphers. Whether or not the animated inscrip­tions were actually designed by the metalworkers themselves is unknown; indeed, even the precise identity of the metalworkers remains uncertain. (13) In his treatise Gulistān-i hunar (ca. 1606), Qāḍī Aḥmad b. Mīr Munshī al-Ḥusaynī mentioned a calligrapher named Maḥmūd Chap-nivīs, also known as Majnūn, who “invented a style of writing in which combinations of letters formed images of men and beasts.” (14) Given that Majnūn lived around the turn of the sixteenth century, (15) however, he was obviously not the orig­inator of the animated script. (16)

Fig. 1

The inscriptions in fig­ural writing are often difficult to decipher. Rice’s pioneering study of the Wade cup, and Yousif Mahmud Ghulam’s more recent reconstruction of the inscriptions on a number of metallic objects, have revealed that animated inscriptions mostly feature “generic” subjects such as bene­dictions or prayers for the item’s owner, often without explicitly naming the owner. (17) For example, the following inscription appears on the top of one of the British Museum’s ewers: “al-‘izz wa’l-baqā’ wa’l-madḥa wa’l-sana’ wa’l-rif ‘a wa’l-‘alā’ wa’l-‘āfiya wa’l-shifā’ wa’l-birr wa’l-‘aṭā’ li-ṣāḥibihi abadan” (“glory and endurance and praise and laudation and eminence and high standing and health and gratification and reverence and award to its owner, forever”). (18) The waqwaq style of this inscription is much easier to decipher than the animated inscription on the Wade cup (fig. 1), which has a very similar content: “al-‘izz wa’l-iqbāl wa’l-dawlawa’l-sa‘āda wa’l-salāma wa’l-rāḥa wa’l-rutba wa’lni‘ ma wa’l-‘āfiya wa’l-dawāma wa’l-ziyāda wa’lkifāya wa’l-‘ināya wa’l-baqā’ dā’im li-ṣāḥibihi” (“glory and prosperity and fortune and happiness and soundness and comfort and rank and benefaction and health and permanence and plentifulness and sufficiency and providence and endurance everlasting to its owner”). (19) On the other hand, inscriptions containing names, dates, and specific information were typically written in simpler and easier-to-read scripts. This suggests that objects tended to be customized with legible scripts, while animated inscriptions may have followed standard models that were not necessarily intended to be read letter by letter. In fact, Jonathan Bloom writes, “as artists explored the possibilities of animated inscriptions, they made the form of the inscription increasingly complex while allowing the content of the inscription to become increasingly banal. . . . Apparently, animated inscriptions were never designed to convey particularly significant information such as the names and titles of a patron or an artist: they were appropriate only for generalized good wishes.” (20) This raises the question as to whether or not the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic forms of the animated inscriptions had any clear meaning at the time they were produced. Were they simply meant to be ornamental, or did they add more meaning to their textual content? There is no certain answer to this question, but Bloom offers the following: “The content was intelligible even if the inscription was illegible, and a line of figures engaged in the hunt or revelry, for example, would immediately be understood as conveying good wishes, whether or not Arabic letters could be discerned among the limbs. . . . The form of the inscription signifies its content: one does not need to read the inscription to understand it, one only needs to recognize its form. . . . The decorative panels. . . should then be understood as signs rather than ‘mere decoration.’” (21) This means that the images of hunters and revelers represented the good life wished upon the object of the benediction. If this is the case, then it offers a fascinating example of iconicity in the sense used by Charles Sanders Peirce, who contends that an icon signifies its object by sharing certain attributes with it, that is, through resemblance and similarity—as in the case of onomatopoeia for example. (22) Accordingly, if the form of the inscriptions did not necessarily add to the meaning of textual contents, it did convey that meaning graphically by conjuring the hoped-for good life.

Another example of combining writing and pictures is the so-called gulzār (flowerbed) style popular in nineteenth-century Iran, in which the outlines of letters are filled in with pictures. (23) This can also be related to inscriptions in ghubarī (dust) script, in which the outlines of letters or pictures are filled in with microcalligraphy. (24) In both cases the pictures and writing do not constitute a semantic unit. Meaning, the images and the textual content of the inscription do not share a common meaning, and therefore do not mutually reinforce each other.


(Excerpted and adapted from İ.C. Schick, “The Content of Form: Islamic Calligraphy Between Text and Representation,” in Sign and Design, ed. B. Bedos-Rezak and J. Hamburger [Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2016], 169–190.)

1 Carol Garrett Fisher, “Introduction,” in Brocade of the Pen: The Art of Islamic Writing, ed. eadem (East Lansing, Mich., 1991), ix, where private communications with Oleg Grabar and Heath Lowry are credited for the idea.

2 Several sayings along these lines appear in Nefes-zâde İbrahim, Gülzarı Savab, ed. Kilisli Muallim Rifat (İstanbul, 1939), 36–37. Nefes-zâde died in 1650.

3 Müstakīm-zâde Süleyman Sadeddin, Tuhfe-i Hattâtîn, ed. İbnülemin Mahmud Kemal [İnal] (İstanbul, 1928), 10, where the ḥadīth is attributed to the Imām Suyūṭī.

4 For the Arabic text, see Muḥammad Bahjat al-Atharī, Taḥqīqāt wa-ta‘ līqāt ‘alā kitāb al-Khaṭṭāṭ al-Baghdādī ‘Alī ibn Hilāl al-mashhūr bi-Ibn al-Bawwāb ([Baghdad], 1958), 31–33; an English translation, though not one that I have fol­lowed here, is given in Ibn Khaldûn, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton, 1967), 2:388–89.

5 Mustafa Âlî, Menâkıb-ı Hünerverân, ed. İbnülemin Mahmud Kemal [İnal] (İstanbul, 1926), 8.

6 See, e.g., Adolf Grohmann, “The Origin and Early Development of Floriated Kufic,” BIE 37, no. 2 (1954–55): 273–304, republished in Ars Orientalis 2 (1957): 183–213. It has been sug­gested recently that floriation was sometimes not purely deco­rative, but rather served to emphasize certain important words in architectural inscriptions, thus conveying public messages about spatial hierarchy in the urban realm. See Bahia Shehab, “Fāṭimid Kūfī Epigraphy on the Gates of Cairo: Between Royal Patronage and Civil Utility,” in Calligraphy and Architecture in the Muslim World, ed. Mohammad Gharipour and İrvin Cemil Schick (Edinburgh, 2013), 275–89.

7 See, e.g., Mehmet (Emin) Eminoğlu, Karatay Medresesi Yazı İncileri (Konya, 1999), 54–85.

8 Adolf Grohmann, “Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Letters in the History of Arabic Writing,” BIE 38, no. 1 (1955– 56): 117–22; and Thérèse Bittar, “Les écritures animées,” in L’Étrange et le merveilleux en terres d’Islam: Paris, Musée du Louvre, 23 avril–23 juillet 2001, ed. Laurence Posselle (Paris, 2001), 83–90.

9 Richard Ettinghausen, “Islamic Art,” BMMA 33, no. 1 (1975): 50.

10 D. S. Rice, The Wade Cup in the Cleveland Museum of Art (Paris, 1955), 22.

11 Barbara Brend, Islamic Art (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), 92.

12 Richard Ettinghausen, “The Bobrinski ‘Kettle’: Patron and Style of an Islamic Bronze,” GBA 24, no. 920 (1943): 193–208; Rice, The Wade Cup; Richard Ettinghausen, “The ‘Wade Cup’ in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Its Origin and Decorations,” Ars Orientalis 2 (1957): 327–66; Ernst Herzfeld, “A Bronze Pen- Case,” AI 3, no. 1 (1936): 35–43; Laura T. Schneider, “The Freer Canteen,” Ars Orientalis 9 (1973): 137–56; D. S. Rice, “Inlaid Brasses from the Workshop of Aḥmad al-Dhakī al-Mawṣilī,” Ars Orientalis 2 (1957): 283–326; Dorothy G. Shepherd, “An Early Inlaid Brass Ewer from Mesopotamia,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 46, no. 1 (1959): 4–10; R. H. Pinder- Wilson, “An Islamic Bronze Bowl,” BMQ 16, no. 3 (1951): 85–87; Esin Atıl, W. T. Chase, and Paul Jett, Islamic Metalwork in the Freer Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C., 1985), 102–10, 124–36; and Bittar, “Les écritures animées,” 84–89.

13 Julian Raby, “The Principle of Parsimony and the Problem of the ‘Mosul School of Metalwork’,” in Metalwork and Material Culture in the Islamic World: Art, Craft, and Text; Essays Presented to James W. Allan, ed. Venetia Porter and Mariam Rosser-Owen (London and New York, 2012), 11–85.

14 Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise by Qāḍī Aḥmad, Son of Mīr-Munshī, trans. V. Minorsky, with an introduction by B. N. Zakhoder, trans. T. Minorsky (Washington, D.C., 1959), 132–33.

15 Mehdī Bayānī, Aḥvāl ve āsār-i khoshnivīsān (Tehran, 1358), 3:611–16.

16 It is worth noting that the Turkish sociologist, pedagogue, and amateur calligrapher İsmayıl Hakkı Baltacıoğlu argued from 1904 onward that Arabic letters originally arose from the human form. See, e.g., “Türk Yazılarının Tedkikine Medhal,” Dârülfünûn İlâhiyât Fakültesi Mecmu‘ası 2, nos. 5–6 (1927): 119–20; and Türklerde Yazı Sanatı (Ankara, 1958), 17–19. Though certainly interesting, this hypothesis is without merit since the forms of Arabic letters as we now know them evolved over a long period of time.

17 Rice, Wade Cup, 21–33; and Yousif Mahmud Ghulam, The Art of Arabic Calligraphy ([Lafayette, Calif., 1982]), 300–379.

21 Ibid., 19–20.

22 See The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge, Mass., 1931–58), 2: §§247–49.

23 See, e.g., Islamic Calligraphy/Calligraphie islamique, exh. cat. (Geneva, 1988), 128–29.

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