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Art and Architecture >
The Art of Writing

Writing is the most important theme to run through all Islamic art. The use of inscriptions is not unique to Islamic culture; the Islamic tradition developed in part from precedents in the region in which Islamic civilization first developed. There was, for example, a long tradition in the classical world of using inscriptions, particularly to decorate the fronts of building as well as monuments, such as triumphal arches. In turn, this tradition passed to the Christian world, and Byzantine art was often decorated with inscriptions (although pictures eventually became more popular). Similarly, in the ancient Near East inscriptions were often used, as on the wall reliefs at Bisitun (or Behistun) in western Iran, where a trilingual inscription in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian lauding the great Achaemenid king of Persia, Darius I (r. 522–486 b.c.e.), surrounds a monumental relief showing his triumph over the usurper Gaumata and the rebels. In all these cases, however, writing supplemented and explained the image. What is different about Islamic art is that writing became the main, and sometimes the only, element of decoration.

This fundamental change was due, in large part, to the pivotal role of writing in the religion of Islam. The first words that God revealed to Muhammad were the five verses opening chapter ninety-six of the Quran:

Recite in the name of thy lord who created,Created man from a clot;Recite in the name of thy lord,Who taught by the pen,Taught man what he knew not.

The Art of Writing

Writing was one of the most common themes of Islamic art. Since Umayyad times, when the first Islamic coins were struck, almost all coins minted in the Islamic lands have been decorated exclusively with writing, as with this gold dinar minted for the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik in 696.

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In other words, the knowledge of writing distinguishes man from God's other creatures. The importance of writing is stressed throughout the Quran. Chapter sixty-eight, another early revelation known either as surat al-Qalam (The pen) or surat al-Nun (The letter nun), opens with the words “Nun. By the pen and what they write.” According to another pair of verses revealed slightly later (Quran 50:17–18), two noble recording angels sit on man's shoulders to register his every action and thought. The one on the right writes down good deeds, the one on the left evil ones. On Judgment Day man's every deed will be tallied for the final accounting in the Book of Reckoning (Quran 69:18–19).

Given the importance of writing in revelation, it is no surprise that writing became such an important feature of Islamic culture. Books and book production became major art forms, and beautifully written words became a major decorative motif. Because the Quran was revealed in Arabic, the Arabic language and script quickly came to dominate the languages that had been used in the region, becoming the lingua franca that united the vast area. By the late eighth century calligraphers were responsible for making the Arabic script more legible and beautiful, and their efforts can be seen in surviving examples ranging from coins and milestones to buildings.

Byzantine and Sasanian coins bore pictures of the emperors under whose auspices the coins were struck. After a brief period of experimentation, Muslim rulers rejected this type of figural coin in favor of one purely dependent on words. Beginning in 692, under the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik, virtually all coins were exclusively decorated with writing. This is true, for example, of early gold coins, known as dinars. On the obverse or front, the center is filled by the profession of faith, which continues along part of the edge; the rest of the space contains a verse from the Quran (9:33) about the prophetic mission. On the reverse the coin is inscribed in the center with a Quranic verse (112) stating God's oneness and refuting the Trinity; the text around the edge contains the invocation, mint, and date. All of this appears on a coin less than twenty millimeters in diameter (smaller than a quarter). Although the style of script changed in various locales and periods, this type of epigraphic coin remained characteristic of virtually all Islamic coinage to modern times.

The Art of Writing

The first great monument of Islamic architecture, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, erected by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik in 692, was decorated with writing. The top of the mosaic panels on the interior has texts from the Quran in gold letters set against a blue ground.

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Inscriptions are found in all media and materials, even those in which the technical limitations of the medium made it extremely difficult to incorporate a running text. This is the case, for example, with textiles. It is relatively easy to weave symmetrical patterns of repeating motifs on a loom, but much more difficult to set up a directional design that reads in one direction. By the tenth century, however, Persian weavers had overcome the limitations of the medium and figured out how to incorporate long bands of inscriptions on their elaborately patterned silks. A good example is the fragmentary silk textile known as the Shroud of St. Josse, because it was used in medieval times to wrap the bones of St. Josse in the abbey of St. Josse-sur-Mer, near Caen in northwestern France, where it was probably brought by a Crusader returning home from the Holy Land. It shows how Islamic textiles were considered precious both at home and abroad. From the two surviving pieces, the textile can be reconstructed as a large square measuring one and a half meters (five feet) on a side, with a carpet-like design of several borders surrounding a central field. The borders contain a train of two-humped or Bactrian camels, and the field would have had two identical bands of elephants. Beneath the elephants’ feet is an inscription band written in Arabic. The animals are arranged symmetrically, but the inscription band can be read only from right to left. The text invokes glory and prosperity to the commander, Abu Mansur Bakhtikin, who is identified in medieval texts as a Turkish commander in northeastern Iran. He was arrested and executed on orders of his Samanid sovereign Abd al-Malik ibn Nuh around 960. The silk had to have been made before that, however, because it invokes good wishes on a living person. Although it is the only example to survive, this silk must have been one of many identical pieces. It was extremely time-consuming and expensive to set up a drawloom to weave this complicated design in seven colors, but by weaving multiple copies of the silk squares the costs would have been spread more reasonably. It is not known exactly how the St. Josse silk was originally used, but it probably was woven to be a saddlecloth for the troops serving under Bakhtikin's command.

The St. Josse silk is just one example of how artists in medieval Islamic times used inscriptions to decorate works of art. On objects made from expensive materials, such as silk textiles or jade cups, the inscriptions often name the patron or user who commissioned the object. On objects of more humble materials or those made for the market, however, the inscriptions contain more generalized texts. This is the case with a bowl with flaring sides, produced, like the St. Josse silk, in northeastern Iran in the tenth century. Made of buff-colored earthenware covered with a fine white slip, painted in red and dark brown slips, and covered with a transparent colorless glaze, the deep bowl is notable for its size and fine decoration on the interior.

In the center the bowl has an abstract plant motif of a single stem with five leaves, but the major decoration is a wide band of elegant angular script encircling the walls. Assuming that the bowl was meant to hold food, only the scallops on the edge would have been visible when the bowl was full. As the food was eaten, however, the inscription would have become more and more visible until all the decoration was revealed when the bowl was empty. The Arabic text inscribed on the bowl begins after a small decorative motif set at about four o’clock, with the phrase “blessing to its owner.” After a small teardrop motif set at about eight o’clock, the text continues with the proverb, “It is said that he who is content with his own opinion runs into danger.” Assuming that the bowl was intended to be held and appreciated with the stem of the plant at the bottom, closest to the viewer, then the most important part of the inscription, the blessing to the owner, is immediately legible below it. To read the proverb, the reader must turn the bowl around in a counterclockwise direction.

Other bowls and plates made in the same milieu are decorated with similar aphorisms, such as “Planning before work protects you from regret; patience is the key to comfort,” or “Knowledge is an ornament for youth and intelligence is a crown of gold.” The inscriptions on these ceramics are thought out extremely carefully, and the stylized script, quite distinct from contemporary handwriting known in manuscripts from that time, justly deserves to be called calligraphy. Modern viewers, even those who know Arabic well, find these inscriptions difficult to decipher. It is likely that even in their own time they were meant to be entertaining puzzles for a sophisticated clientele, who not only appreciated having their dinnerware decorated with stylized writing but also knew the Arabic language well enough to understand the moralizing aphorisms. In tenth-century Iran and Central Asia, New Persian was coming to the fore as a popular language, but Arabic was more appropriate for writing. The earliest surviving manuscript written in Persian dates only from the eleventh century.

The Art of Writing

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusaleum was extensively decorated with glass mosaics like those that survive on the interior. Those on the exterior were replaced with tiles first in the sixteenth and again in the twentieth centuries, but it may well have had inscriptions like those that survive on the interior.

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These two inscribed wares—the shroud and the bowl—both date from the tenth century, but inscriptions are found on objects created throughout the history of Islamic civilization, from the earliest times to the present. The earliest work of Islamic architecture, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, shows a sophisticated use of inscriptions executed in glass mosaic. In the sixteenth century the Ottoman sultan Süleyman (r. 1520–66) had the mosaics on the outside of the dome replaced with tiles, which were themselves replaced again in the twentieth century, so it is impossible to say anything about the original role of inscriptions there. The interior, however, preserves most of its original aspect and is the most lavish program of mosaics to survive from ancient or medieval times. Two long bands of inscriptions, written in gold letters that sparkle against the deep blue ground, encircle the inner and outer faces of the octagonal arcade. The texts contain pious phrases and verses from the Quran about God's omnipotence and Muhammad's prophetic mission as well as the name of the patron, the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik, and the date of construction.

The Art of Writing

Writing remains a potent theme in modern Islamic art. The dome around the King Khalid International Airport, built in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1984, is inscribed with verses from the Quran about God's glory.

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As on coins, the script used on the Dome of the Rock is carefully thought out and planned to fit the available space. The inscriptions there provide the first dated evidence for the writing down of the Quran, and they show that there were already calligraphers trained in exploiting the decorative possibilities of the Arabic script. No manuscripts of the Quran have survived from this early date, and some scholars have used this lack of evidence to suggest that Arabic script evolved rather slowly over the centuries. Judging from the inscriptions on the coins and the Dome of the Rock, there can be no question that the art of writing in Arabic was already well developed by the end of the eighth century.

Inscriptions remain an important theme of decoration in modern Islamic architecture. They are prominent, for example, inside the mosque erected in 1984 at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. As at the Dome of the Rock, the inscription in this mosque is written in a large band around the dome's base, but in this instance the text is entirely from the Quran (57:1–7). The verses state that whatever is on the earth or in the heavens declares the glory of God, the Almighty who has power over all things. The verses conclude with the statement that whoever spends money on a pious work will be justly rewarded. The text was clearly chosen as a reference to the motives of the patron in founding a mosque.

At all times and in all places, Quranic verses were carefully selected to fit a particular situation. Closely examining the chosen verses can provide clues about the original function or meaning of a work of art. Tombs were often decorated with verses referring to death and paradise, such as “All that dwells on the earth will perish, except the face of thy Lord” (55:26–27). Doorways might be inscribed with the verse asking God for a “just ingoing and a just outgoing” (17:80). Other Quranic texts were chosen because certain words had particular resonance. For example, the front of the tomb in the Shifaiye madrasa erected in 1220 at Sivas by the Rum Seljuk ruler Kaykaus is inscribed with a Quranic verse (69:28–29) that ends with the word sultaniya (power), undoubtedly chosen as a pun on Kaykaus’ most important title, sultan.

Writing in Arabic was also the means by which non-Islamic forms were made Islamic. This can be seen in the arched screen that the Muslim ruler of Delhi, Qutb al-Din Aybak (1206–10), added to the congregational mosque there in 1198. Known as Quwwat al-Islam (“Might of Islam”), the mosque had been built less than a decade earlier, following the Islamic conquest of the region. The screen, which stands in the courtyard in front of the prayer hall, serves no structural purpose and was apparently added to the hypostyle building for aesthetic reasons, to mask what lay behind and to make the new building look more attractive. The screen is richly decorated with bands of naturalistic vine scrolls and inscriptions. The vine scrolls belong to the local tradition of stone carving that can be seen on Hindu and Jain temples. There, the scrolls are usually accompanied by exuberant figural sculpture depicting the activities of innumerable gods and goddesses with multiple arms and legs. The new Muslim patrons found this idolatry horrific and had the local masons replace the figures with Arabic texts from the Quran.

The desire to use writing to decorate buildings and objects in the Islamic lands was overwhelming, and builders and designers, particularly in medieval times, vied to create new styles and methods of writing out their messages on buildings. In some cases they added flowers and leaves around and among the letters. This style was particularly popular in Cairo, and many of the stone buildings erected under the patronage of the Fatimid dynasty, wealthy and sophisticated rulers there from 969 to 1171, have beautifully sculpted texts in the style known as floriated Kufic. These are some of the finest architectural inscriptions known from the Islamic lands, because they judiciously balance the demands of decoration and readability.

In Iran and the adjacent region, where baked brick was the most common material of construction, designers evolved other types of script, particularly those with knots and other geometric elements of decoration. One of the architectural styles that lasted the longest is known in Persian as bannai or builder's technique. The script developed out of the techniques of bricklaying, as bricks and other elements of construction were set in relief to spell out words and simple phrases. The earliest example of this script survives on the minaret erected at Ghazni (in eastern Afghanistan) about 1100 by the Ghaznavid ruler Masud III (r. 1098–1115). The panels on the minaret's shaft spell out the ruler's name and various titles. The text is unusual, as it is one of the only examples known of an inscription in this technique containing historical information. The text is also very difficult to read, because the letters are formed by small pieces of terra-cotta sandwiched between larger bricks that are laid vertically in stepped bond.

The Art of Writing

Builders also used colored bricks and tiles to spell out words and phrases. The walls of the shrine that Timur erected in the late fourteenth century in memory of the Sufi shaykh Ahmad Yasavi at Turkestan City in the Kazakh steppe glows with such sacred phrases.

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Designing and setting out this inscription must have been extremely labor-intensive (and therefore expensive), and builders and designers soon figured out how to adopt the technique to faster methods of production. They simplified the text itself, so that instead of having the names and titles of a specific ruler, the text contained sacred names or a common pious phrase, such as “There is no prophet after Muhammad” or “Dominion belongs to God.” Builders and designers also simplified the technique. Instead of setting pieces of terra-cotta in relief, they used the bricks themselves to spell out the text. They first exploited the spaces between the bricks so that the shadows cast in the voids would form the words or phrases. It was a short step for designers to fill the spaces between the bricks with glazed elements, so that the words were spelled out by glittering surfaces that were flush with the brick bonds and contrasted with the matte surface around them.

This technique became widespread in the eastern Islamic lands from the thirteenth century, because it was an ideal way of covering large surfaces of brick buildings. A good example is the shrine that the Turkic conqueror Timur (1336–1405) built for the Sufi shaykh Ahmad Yasavi north of Samarqand. The shrine is a huge rectangular block that floats above the flat, dusty steppe. The expanse along the side walls is divided into a grid of cross shapes outlined in bricks glazed dark blue. Each cross is filled with light blue glazed bricks that spell out the names God, Ali, and Muhammad. The technique was not only visually effective but also religiously resonant, because anyone staring at the building from afar could repeat the sacred names, just as a pious believer would repeat sacred names as part of his or her devotions. The building was literally wrapped with sacred writing.

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