Welcome to F.I.E.L.D.- the First Ismaili Electronic Library and Database. Guests are not required to login during this beta-testing phase

Speech at the Zamana Gallery-1989-01-26

Date: 
Thursday, 1989, January 26
Location: 

Zamana Gallery

Amyn Aga Khan_0.jpg
Author: 
Prince Amyn Muhammad Aga Khan

Your Excellencies, Mr. Mayor, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am delighted to have been asked to open this exhibition on Islamic Calligraphy. Indeed, of all the Muslim art forms, calligraphy holds, perhaps, pride of place as the foremost and perhaps most characteristic of the modes of visual expression in Islam. From China to Canada and from Russia to South Africa, the widespread use of calligraphy still unites Muslims and visibly differentiates them from the adepts of other religions.

This tradition started with the earliest written versions of the Koran in the mid-seventh century, gained speed between the ninth and tenth centuries when Arabic calligraphy entered a more codified form, knew a slight decline with the spread of printing through the Muslim world, but basically enjoyed 10 centuries of uninterrupted growth and splendour.

One only has to recall the Moghul buildings and manuscripts of India between 16th and the 18th centuries, or works of art from Turkey, Persia and India of the 19th century, to stand in admiration before the vitality of the tradition. It is a tradition which still endures today among Muslims scattered across the far reaches of the globe.

Just as the Quran and its message pervade every aspect of a Muslim's life, secular or religious, material or philosophic and abstract, almost any physical object can bear calligraphy, whether sacred or secular, whatever its size and use.

Calligraphy is indeed ubiquitous in the arts of Islam. It is perhaps most visible in architecture, and particularly in places of worship, but it is present on all forms of decorative arts - from coins to jewellery, textile, weapons and armour and even household utensils, painting, and of course, on all manner of written documents such as manuscripts, scientific documents, political acts, etc.

For Muslims, calligraphy has never had the Greek connotations of merely "Beautiful Writing". It goes far beyond such a definition and has an importance both deeper and broader. Beautiful writing existed in the West in the Middle Ages, but largely in monasteries and generally playing little role in purely secular circles, and it virtually disappeared with the birth of printing.

In Islam, the divine message was passed through the Prophet, first orally and subsequently written down as the Quran. Mohammed (pbuh) is Allah's Prophet, a Messenger who transmits faithfully to humanity Allah's words addressed directly to him. Mohammed being not divine but a Messenger, it is his message, the Word of Allah, that is all-important and the Quran is the direct visual embodiment of Allah's Message.

The written form of the Quran is the visible reflection of the eternal and for mankind the perpetual ability to glimpse the divine. Where most other Faiths make use of, or turn around, figural images to express their essential beliefs, the figural imagery of Islam is largely the written word, which is held up in opposition to the image. Since the words of the Koran are of Divine origin, both in form and content, it is natural that the word should become the sacred symbol of Islam.

The written word thus has from the outset, a symbolic content for Muslims which underlines and inspires the aesthetic significance that it developed as calligraphy grew to be a genuine art form. The written word as a symbol with both religious and aesthetic significance, is pervasive and is as important as it was several thousand years ago.

It is the name that counts and not the face (hence the 99 names of Allah and the frequent references by Muslims to the names of the Prophet, to his family, to Imams) and for Muslims, contemplation of the written verses of the Koran, or of the names of Allah and holy persons, becomes an aesthetic path to a spiritual, a religious experience.

In this sense, the Word, becomes epigraph, a visible manifestation of the intangible, the eternal and divine. By extension, the Word or name can become monogram - all the more so as the monogram is a natural bearer of symbolic meaning and content. This tradition endured right through the nineteenth century, for instance in the Turkish tughras.

Letters themselves, which convey both the text of the Quran as well as the 99 names of Allah, tend thus to become also imbued with a special aura. They were studied with the greatest care by scribes, scholars, mystics and even lay people, and in many periods of Muslim culture, the symbolism inherent in the Word is extended to include the individual letter and individual letters become imbued with esoteric meanings.

This tendency was perhaps reinforced by the famous Alif Lam Mim letters which occur in the Quran and whose exact significance has been much debated, as also, for instance, by the fact that Allah begins with an Alif which is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, the numerical equivalent of one and the symbol of divine unity, and that the Prophet's name begins with Mim.

It was thus perhaps not unnatural that in the Muslim world the Word should have come frequently to be considered to be considered to possess talismanic properties, or that individual letters should have been thought by some to have cabalistic and mystical qualities as well as pictorial associations.

Script is the binding visual medium not only of Muslims through the Quran, but also between the various peoples and minorities forming the Muslim Ummah. It thus becomes the formal expression of Islam's universality and of its universal aspirations.

The Arabic script itself lends itself by its very nature to a decorative treatment, with its diacritics that can be used as purely or largely embellishment and its mixture of ascending verticals, descending curves, discreet horizontals and isolated letters which give it a measured visual balance, in the static perfection of the individual forms of different isolated letters, as well as visual rhythm of upward and downward movement, straight and circular forms.

The range of possibilities with the Arabic script is almost limitless, words and individual letters can be compacted or drawn out, curved into almost any shape and embellished in almost any way. Perhaps only the scripts of China and of the civilizations of regions under Chinese influence present such possibilities and I wonder whether even they have the flexibility of the Arabic script and its consequent aesthetic power. It is meant to be both read and admired. Islamic calligraphy blends content and design which, whether legible or not, conveys, when used on religious text, the central symbol of Faith. The calligrapher is an artist who copies, and the text which he has to copy is given in advance. As the meaning of what he writes unfolds and simultaneously images appear, logic and imagination are combined and calligraphy becomes enchantment, writing itself tends to become an absolute, the Absolute.

Although in part, Islamic calligraphy assumes the Greek attitude that writing is a fine garment clothing meaning (as Abu Haiyn al-Tawhidi put it "Hand-writing is jewellery fashioned by the hand from the pure gold of the intellect. It is also a brocade woven by the pen with the thread of discernment.") in part Islamic calligraphy also assumes a status of a fundamentally sacred character.

The Quran, makes several references to the pen and to writing, in particular pointing out that Allah teaches by the pen (and teaches man) that which he does not know. The reference is simultaneously to revelation and the specific religious knowledge of faith that is passed on by revelation, as also to knowledge in general.

As the Quran is eternal, both in content and form, that it is the Work of God embodied in physical form in the process of divine emanation, the pen becomes the actual agent of creation.

Every human in Islam is invited to copy the text of the Quran and to do so in the most beautiful manner possible. Calligraphy appears in religion; political and cultural or aesthetic life. It is not an art reserved to any particular group or minority. It is intended to produce a beautiful work of art and simultaneously to constitute a pious act of faith, to be practised by any man, whether a professional scribe or a common believer. Throughout Muslim literature and philosophy one finds connections between moral rectitude and calligraphic excellence.

Legibility, in fact, becomes of minor importance, since calligraphy always conveys and constitutes by its very essence the central symbol of Faith. The attitude that the intrinsic meaning or content is secondary to the beauty, i.e. to the form and the abstraction of the letters considered as artistic composition, can lead one to positions not far distant from the "art for art's sake" school of the West, so many centuries later. Abu'l Fazal who wrote the Akbar Nama, says that, "the written letter is spiritual geometry emanating from the pen of invention". A closeness to Plato's view that writing is the geometry of the soul is evident.

Monumental architectural inscriptions, like those in tiny household objects, were more often observed and admired than read. If religious in content, that is, if extracted from the Quran, for most Muslims the recognition and the understanding of part of the inscription sufficed for him or her to know what the rest of the inscription said and for the viewer to recognize that he found himself before a building or an object emanating from his own culture and tying him to his religious brethren. Such inscriptions, however, if unread or even illegible to the mass of believers, served a symbolic function confirming the power and rectitude of Islam simply by their presence.

Islamic calligraphy takes on iconographic function. I suppose an analogy would be that it is probable that few Western believers understood the complex theology behind the complex sculptures on gothic churches, just as few Eastern believers comprehended the abstruse iconography of the temples. The fact of intricate thought given visible form may particularly please intellectuals and theologians, but such an intellectual satisfaction is not perhaps the substance and essence of religious faith to the mass of people.

The visible testimony of Islam on buildings, objects and elsewhere, was an affirmation of religious and cultural belonging and it was this affirmation which held a vital social function. The role of calligraphy in uniting believers in Islam and in strengthening their feeling of having their own religious identity cannot be overstated.

Civilization and sedentary culture developed rapidly throughout the expanding Muslim empire in the early years. Books were copied and recopied, the were written and bound. Libraries were created and filled with them, and the libraries vied with each other and rivalled each other in their collections. These copies covered everything from biographies to scientific treatises, works of literature, poetry, letters, devotional literature, works of philosophy and many other subjects and they not only preserved culture but they enabled (and indeed were essential to) the dissemination of knowledge throughout the Islamic world.

Most skilled calligraphers were also scholars and many were also poets and prose writers. Indeed, the later master calligraphers came to be respected both as scholars and artists, just as Renaissance painters gained greater respect among intellectuals following the invention of one point perspective. It strikes one though, that the Renaissance man of the Islamic world, well-versed in astronomy and medicine, botany and the arts, philosophy and mathematics, preceded his erudite Italian counterpart by several hundred years.

Islam builds up science and philosophy from the basis of the Quran and its miraculous rhetoric, but there is a link, both historic and essential, between the development of calligraphy and the development of scientific and philosophical thought.

The pervasiveness of this one single art form in Islamic culture did not have a stultifying effect, partly because the development and the use of different scripts and partly because of the inventive way in which Islamic Calligraphy is treated, yielding simultaneously fascination and variety. The invention of distinctive calligraphic styles went very fast and largely endured even after the 10th century. From the outset, calligraphy has played a role in bringing simultaneously unity and diversity to the arts of Islam. Still today, Regional styles throughout the Islamic world are united by a common calligraphic heritage.

This ethnic variety and historical debt still vitalises Islamic culture. Traditional motifs and styles can be traced in contemporary Muslim art even as modern Muslim artists explore new techniques such as mixed media or collage, and adopt new formats. There is a continuing tradition that has maintained its full diversity from spectacular monuments to infinitely refined, if modest, amulets, garments and household wares. Still today, a tiny talisman reflects the faith of the calligrapher just as strongly as does the grand mosque. The traditional chain of master calligraphers teaching younger scribes continues, even if weakened by the demands of the modern world and modern society.

I am personally all too aware of how vital the traditions of calligraphy have remained after spending entire days of my life discussing the most appropriate inscriptions, quotations or phrases and the most appropriate calligraphic rendering for the interiors and exteriors of the many buildings we have built here, in Karachi, in Vancouver and elsewhere.

I should like to end this speech by congratulating the organisers of the exhibition on ensuring that it travels to a number of cities. It also seems to me particularly appropriate that the exhibition should open in London, whose role in researching, in understanding and in bringing to international attention the arts of non-Western cultures has for so many centuries been so great.

Equally, I should like to end this speech by congratulating the organisers of the exhibition on ensuring that it travels to a number of cities. It also seems to me particularly appropriate that the exhibition should open in London, whose role in researching, in understanding and in bringing to international attention the arts of non-Western cultures has for so many centuries been so great.

Equally, I should like to express the hope that Zamana Gallery has begun to find a niche in the rich cultural life of London and that, in as clear and profound a way as possible it is now contributing to the cultural life of this cosmopolitan capital, bringing to it a deeper understanding of non-Western cultures and in particular, of Islamic culture.

To romanticize so-called 'exotic' art is far easier than it is to present such art with the care and the meticulous reference to context that make it intelligible to the viewer and that allow him, in time to absorb it as almost part of his own cultural heritage.

May I commend therefore all those who have been responsible for this exhibition and for the professionalism that they have shown in assembling this collection for the general public. The works exhibited are both beautiful and instructive. It gives me great pleasure today to open Zamana Gallery's exhibition on Islamic Calligraphy.


Back to top