Arabic calligraphy or the transformations of an age-old art

“Calligraphy is the geometry of the soul.” Ghani Alani

© Hassan Massoudy -

© Haji Noor Deen Mi Guang jian -

Celebrating, through lettering, the vitality of the language – and of the word, or even the expression of the living – calligraphy is indisputably considered as much more than an art of handwriting, but also as a form of expression, communication and depiction for which the Arab-Islamic civilization is renowned and which, centuries later, continues to reinvent that culture. Ghani Alani, an Iraqi calligrapher, born in Bagdad in 1937, was awarded the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture in 2009. As one of the great masters of contemporary calligraphy, he explains this form of art and how calligraphy continues to be a form of expression widely used in modern times, including among young artists.

© Hassan Massoudy -

Originally, calligraphy enabled Islam to transcend its aniconism, that is to say the proscription against material representations of the divine (whether through drawings or sculptures), but it also allowed Arabic art to develop and flourish from the seed of the “letter” and the philosophy that it conveys. Far from being an ornamental artifice – even though, according to Islamic tradition, God is beautiful and appreciates beauty – Arab-Islamic calligraphy is a stylization of thought, sacred in essence, according to basic principles: the form coincides with the substance; the letter is the body of the message; the mark is the movement of the living. Expression of the creative word and the unifying principle of the universe – as explained by the great calligrapher Ghani Alani in the interview herewith – the letter is a unit of measure, a geometrical proportion that, beyond its aesthetic appearance, is the primary element of the edifice of the living, of which God is the architect. And if the Qur’an – from its initial compilation under Abu Bakr, the first Sunni Islamic Caliph – has always been recorded in calligraphic styles, it is to express, through the letter and the geometric measure, the perfection of the divine word that believers see in it.

© Hassan Massoudy -

It so happens that, very rapidly, in both the Maghreb and Mashreq and as far as the Asian borders of Dar al-Islam, Arabic calligraphy developed in various styles, in contact with the cultures in which it evolved. From the root of Hijazi script, considered the oldest and most rustic form of Arabic writing, two major calligraphic branches grew: kufic and naskh (cursive script). While the first is distinguished by its angular characters – and developed mainly in the western Muslim world, that is to say from Fatimid Egypt to Andalusia – the second favoured round forms that were often used in the texts of the Ottoman Empire and Persia, the region of present-day Iran where, because of the Shiite tradition, calligraphy blends harmoniously with the representation of creation, especially with the Sufis who sang about the Divine, Love and Life.

The distinctive feature of Arabic calligraphy, compared to handwriting arts in the rest of the world – including Chinese calligraphy, for example, and its development when it came into contact with Buddhism – is that it can lay claim to all three major calligraphic families, as Ghani Alani explains:

  • the pictograph, which is the hieroglyph, the writing of ancient Egypt, where pictures were drawn to write;
  • the ideograph, which is the type of writing used in countries of the Far East and consists in writing symbols that represent ideas;
  • alphabetical writing, which is a phonetic form, expressed by writing signifiers, a succession of symbols corresponding to speech sounds.

According to Ghani Alani, Arabic calligraphy, as an art form, is at the junction of these three families. Both alphabetical and pictographic, it can feature the image by associating letters – and Ghani Alani adds: “Because it is art, it is not a text to be read as such; those without knowledge of Arabic writing can appreciate calligraphy for its beauty, as they would enjoy a painting”. Arabic calligraphy could also, however, be considered ideographically, “as it expresses an idea that communicates a certain mood”. The artist-poet concludes: “Calligraphy transmits a universal thought”.

© Haji Noor Deen Mi Guang jian -

Mosques, palaces and entire cities throughout the Arab-Islamic world, from Andalusia to Iran – and, mostly, regarded as part of UNESCO world heritage – are architectural and urban buildings where calligraphy, through its geometrical power, has been used to celebrate the divine and, by association, nature, as well as human intelligence and dexterity, both artistic and scientific, the clever mind put to the service of faith. Such precision, attention to detail and harmony show that, even from a secular viewpoint, calligraphy is clearly a complete art, which contemporary artists perpetuate while reinventing it.

From the magnitude of the caliphates and empires to the present, Arabic calligraphy lives on, not modestly, but in the minimalism and refinement preferred by some artists, who use it as the expression of a poetic form, where the image has regained increasing importance. Heirs of the calligramme – four centuries before Guillaume Apollinaire, this process was the glory of the Safavid, Ottoman and Mughal Empires – calligraphers, such as Ghani Alani of Iraq or Nja Mahdaoui of Tunisia, are modernizing the art, which has once again been acculturated, admittedly, through contact with the West, but without losing any of its lustre. Calligraphy plays the role that it always has, to express the inexpressible, which is what artists do worldwide. Calligraphic tradition has been continued through the ijaz (a calligraphy diploma reserved for the best pupil) and each artist joins a lineage that is complemented, in turn, by the artists’ originality, vision and the demands of their culture, era and a certain vision of the future.

There was a time when calligraphy was written on parchment and animal skin – today, it is widely used in tattooing. In the mid-twentieth century, when he was still a workman, Ghani Alani calligraphed on the sides of trains, unable to express himself elsewhere or in any other way. Today, in several Arab cities, calligraphy is linked to graffiti, becoming an urban art form. The “calligraffiti” of French artist eL Seed, born in 1981 to Tunisian parents and pupil of Hassan Massoudy and Nja Mahdaoui, is now well known, and many of his works adorn the facades of major world cities. From Gabès in Tunisia, via New York and Paris to Algiers, and even Sharjah – the Emirate and donor of our prize for Arab culture – this young calligraffiti artist creates monumental and colourful murals. In a perfect expression of the blending of values and forms, Arabic calligraphic art has become synonymous with the freedom of speech of youth who, both rooted and forward-looking, express the wish to live in a world that they cannot see any other way than united.

Khalil Khalsi

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