Calligraphy and Islamic Design

IslamIslam in Arabic literally means “submitting” or “submission.” One who submits or surrenders his or her will to God is called a Muslim. While the whole of God’s creation is described as being inherently Muslim, human beings must choose whether to... is often called a “religion of the Book” because of the centrality of the written Qur’anThe word Qur’an literally means “recitation.” Revealed orally to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, he recited it to his followers. These recitations collected in written form are arranged in 114 surahs, generally from longest to shortest. Muslims consi.... In Islamic art as well as architecture, the written word has assumed extraordinary value. Although according to tradition MuhammadThe Prophet Muhammad, known as “the Seal of the Prophets,” was born in the city of Makkah on the Arabian peninsula in 570 C.E. At 40, he began to receive a series of revelations from God through the angel Gabriel. His small group of followers met with... was himself illiterate, the first revelationRevelation is the gift or disclosure of knowledge, insight, or instruction from God to the human. The term is used in the Jewish tradition to refer to the revelation of Torah, the law; in the Islamic tradition to refer to the revelation of the Qur’an, t... ordered him to recite; the full Qur’anic revelation he received was later written down in ArabicClassical Arabic is the language of revelation in Islam as recorded in the Qur’an. Muslims consider every word of the Qur’an to be a direct utterance of God. The Arabic language itself is regarded as perfectly suited as the instrument for God’s comm..., the language of the revelation, in order to preserve the Divine Word.

Muslim calligraphers trace their artistry back to ’Ali b. Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of the ProphetA prophet is one who communicates a divine message or vision, sometimes calling people to repentance or awakening, sometimes predicting future events. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to Hebrew prophets, including Abraham and Moses. Muslims believe .... Although copying the Qur’an in beautiful script was a meritorious spiritual act in itself, early copies of the Qur’an were mere supports for the memory of reciters. For these early Qur’ans, the Kufic script with block letters was the liturgical script of choice. Calligraphers developed it, embellishing the script with flower and leaf motifs or plaiting the letters together in elaborate designs. Cursive scripts became prominent in the palaces of khalifahsThe word “caliph,” from the Arabic Khalifah, means “successor” to the Prophet Muhammad. It was used as the title for the highest politico-religious leader of the Sunni Muslim community from 632 to 1258 CE. and eventually in the poetic and mystical texts of the 14th century.

The embellishment of Arabic script and the weaving of letters took on increasingly abstract form as calligraphy was used in architectural decoration. Stylized Qur’anic verses or pious sayings blended with traditional vegetal and geometric patterns in stucco and ceramic work, covering the facades of important buildings, ornamenting masajid, tombs, plates, and coins.

The religious art of Islam generally avoided concrete symbols and the physical representation of created things. Instead, Muslim artists developed elaborate Arabic script and ornamentation, emphasizing the importance of the Divine Word. In the newly built masajid in the United States, calligraphy appears in inscriptions and wall decorations: driving along Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., one can see a verse from Surat al-NurSurat al-Nur is the Chapter of Light (Surah 24) in the Qur’an. Verse 35, which begins with “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth,” is often found inscribed on the hanging lamps in a mosque. Interpretations of this image of God as illumina... emblazoned in blue above the arches of the Islamic CenterAn Islamic center will typically include a mosque, school, and area for social and cultural activities. When a new Islamic center is being organized in the United States, attention is paid to community needs, including a weekend or full-time school, indic...; in Manhattan’s landmark masjidMasjid (plural masajid) in Arabic means “place of prostration,” or the place where Muslims bow in prayer; in English, this word has become “mosque.” A masjid contains a prayer hall in which there is a mihrab or prayer niche, and a minbar or pulpit..., kufic script adorns the mihrabThe mihrab is the niche in the wall of a mosque indicating the direction (qiblah) of the Ka’bah in Makkah, thus the direction of ritual prayer.. Modern Muslim artists in this country and around the world continue to experiment with the flowing shapes of the words, incorporating Qur’anic verses and sayings in abstract designs to ornament not only buildings but also posters, t-shirts, and diverse Muslim media projects. Technological advancements in desktop publishing and computer graphics allow for continuing expression and experimentation with the presentation of the Divine Word in Arabic script.

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