by Roderick Conway Morris

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Library of Congress
Ottoman ijazah, or certificate of competence in calligraphy, by Ali Ra'if Efendi, 1791

Mightier than the sword

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 11 March 1989


Alphabets come with religions. We in Western Europe write today in Roman script because we were converted to Christianity by the Latin church; Russian Serbs and Bulgarians, who were converted by the Greek Orthodox Church, write their languages in Cyrillic, a version of the Greek script. When in the 1920s Atatürk founded the new secular Republic of Turkey, he not only abolished the Caliphate, he also imposed the Roman alphabet. Had the outcome of the Battle of Tours in 732 been different, and Charles the Hammer and his Frankish warriors failed to halt the apparently in inexorable march of the Saracens towards the English Channel, I might well now be penning this piece in Arabic script.

Muhammad, whose militant religion was responsible for the spreading of the Arabic script of his native Hijaz over vast tracts of the globe, was himself illiterate, a fact adduced at the time as proof that his revelations were divinely inspired,: for how otherwise could one so ill-educated produce such exquisite poetry? But the Prophet's verses were memorized and noted down on palm leaves, bits of stone and wood by his companions during his lifetime, and after his death collected together to form the Koran. Muslims believe the words contained therein to be not the words of the Prophet but of God Himself, as transmitted to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel.

In Islam, therefore, from the very beginning the written word was imbued with an importance far beyond that attributed to it in other religions. For not only was it essential that the Koranic verses should be accurately preserved (the original Arabic alphabet being expanded and clarified by the early Muslims for this purpose) but, being the words of the Deity, they had also to be inscribed with piety and devotion, and in the most beautiful manner possible. Consequently, calligraphy came to be regarded by Muslims as the supreme form of artistic endeavour.

Already held in unique esteem, calligraphy could also count on attracting many artists who might otherwise have poured their efforts into figurative painting and sculpture, both forbidden by the new faith as blasphemous encroachment on God's prerogative to form living creatures. Nor, for all the pious aura surrounding calligraphy, was it devoid of temporal rewards. In a culture where artistic anonymity was the norm, calligraphers broke all the rules: innumerable biographies and biographical dictionaries recorded their lives and triumphs, and signed examples of their works abounded. It was not untypical for the calligrapher responsible for the inscriptions in a mosque to be remembered long after everybody had forgotten the architect's name.

The art of calligraphy was passed on from master to pupil, the aspiring apprentice spending many laborious years copying earlier examples and perfecting his own technique. This sounds like a recipe for artistic sclerosis, yet as 'Islamic Calligraphy', an admirable exhibition at the Zamana Gallery (1 Cromwell Gardens, SW7) shows, far from cramping calligraphic artists' creativity, the inescapable obligation to reproduce over and over again the same Koranic and traditional texts seems to have excited in them a fever of inventiveness and ingenuity.

Nearly all the exhibits come from private collections, and the organizers deserve high praise for both the consistently excellent quality and sheer variety of their selection. There are pieces on vellum, papyrus, paper, card, in wool on cotton, silk on linen, in brass, ceramic, stone, marble and wood. One of the most stunning exhibits is a 16th-century Iranian plaque carved out of steel. Throughout the workmanship is breathtaking, the colours dazzling. The very best pieces are bursting with life and energy.

Of all Islamic art-forms calligraphy, so central to the culture of the Muslim world, is one of the last to win wide appreciation in the West. The barrier of the Arabic script has no doubt been the prime reason. But as this collection demonstrates, such is the beauty of form, colour, texture of really fine pieces that they can be entrancing even to the uninitiated.

First published: The Spectator

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023