Anna Mclean: The Qur’anic Roots of Islamic Art

The Qur’anic Origins of Islamic Art

      All three of the major Abrahamic religions have a different conception of God. Judaism tends to conceive of God as a one to be feared, Christianity as a God that is merciful, and Islam holds God above all to be a creator1. “Marvellous Creator of the heavens and the earth! When He decrees a matter, He merely says ‘Be!’ and it is.”2. Creation is a major theme in the Qur’an, and it is thought that this universe in continually created by God.3 Our very existence is a testament to the miracle of God’s power of creation, and we are expected to honor God for that existence. One of the ways humans can praise God is to create as the Qur’an instructs. Like many things in Islamic culture, almost all Islamic art finds its root in Qur’anic verse, and traditional Islamic art such as calligraphy and recitation often directly involves the Qur’an.

     Islamic calligraphy is the ancient art of writing in Arabic, created originally to beautify the verses of the Qur’an. Developed very early in the history of Islam4, many styles of script have diverged from the originally dominant Kufi script of early Islam, which was a sharp, angular script with strict proportions. Today, common Islamic calligraphy come from all over the Arab world, includes Naskh, Thuluth, Riqa (which evolved from Naskh and Thuluth), and the Persian Taliq script5. Calligraphy is considered sacred and many references to the pen throughout the Qur’an reinforce the idea of writing as divinely inspired. First and foremost, the pen is said to be the first creation of God with which he wrote the tablet in which on which is preserved his commandments6. The symbolic sacredness of the first thing created by God can not, I think, be understated. God’s creation is often characterized in the Qur’an as writing, with quotes such as “If every tree on earth was a pen refilled by the sea, and by seven more seas besides, the words of God would not be exhausted.”7 The pen is said to be symbolic of the first intellect that can create, the ink is the analog used to be symbolic of creation, so God is said to have limitless words and limitless creation.8 These passages from the Qur’an are in addition to the Hadith, which tells Muslims that people who write the Qur’an beautifully are destined for paradise.9 However, with this sacredness comes particular rules about the use of Qur’anic calligraphy. Mainly that, as an art form praising God and glorifying the beauty of the Qur’an, it is not to be inscribed upon non-religious objects.10 Therefor, calligraphy is commonly found on mosques, tombs, and on religious objects like mosque lamps.11 Calligraphy was the first Islamic art, and birthed every Islamic visual art after it, meaning that all Islamic art has deep scriptural roots.

      While possibly not originally intended to be an art form, recitation of the Qur’an has also flourished into an act of melodic rhythm that borders on song, and certainly qualifies as an art. Calligraphy finds its divine source in emphasis on the pen in the Qur’an and in the Hadith, but the order to recite is a clear command in the Qur’anic text itself. In fact, the first word revealed to Muhammed is, “Recite!”.12 The recitation of the Qur’an, or tajwid, has been integral to the holy book since its beginning, as its first transmission was through the recitation of Muhammed. Over time, recitation has transformed from a simple means of transmission to an form of art with strict rules and guidelines, even though Qur’anic guidance on correct recitation mostly comes down to “repeat the recitation in an unhurried, distinct manner.”13 The Hadith, on the other hand, provides more instruction on proper performance, including particular suras it is beneficial to recite, the merits of reciting within a timeframe, and the important of memorization.14 However, recitation has taken on a life which I think nobody could have predicted. Different styles of Quranic recitation have developed with different purposes: tahqiq, a slow, precise recitation, often the basis for performance, hadr, a fast paced recitation meant for speed, and tartil, an simple recitation closely related to tahqiq.15 Melodic and mesmerizing, good recitations win their reciters fame and possibly fortune, as many across the Arab world will buy the CDs of their favorites. There are contests with cash prizes and pride up for grabs.16 And with its rhythms and distinct individual melodies, many would find it difficult not to call it music.

     However, many traditional Muslims would protest to recitation being related to music. While recitation can sound like music, instrumentation of recitation is often controversial and sometimes forbidden.17 The Qur’an does not recognize music as legitimate worship, and instruments are not played in mosques anywhere in the world. This is for a couple of reasons. First, in the time of Muhammed music was inextricably linked to revelry and sin. It was performed at parties and places of drinking, and was therefore unsuitable for the pious act of praising God18. Secondly, I would assert that music was often seen as an earthly enjoyment, and, in the same way every day object cannot be inscribed with verse, was not suitable to intrude on the pious act of recitation in which a soul is offering itself to God. But, as music is now used in a huge variety of religious and nonreligious contexts, I think it would be safe to allow its entrance into Islamic life to enhance worship. Music can be incredibly powerful and add to the spiritual energy of a moment, and could be especially effective at promoting the togetherness that the Qur’an encourages so heavily.

Islamic art, history, and culture owe their origins to the Qur’an, which as elaborated upon above, forms the foundations upon which that cultures tradition, spirituality, and art are built. In the beginning, the rule of the Qur’an was very strict and its purpose was originally probably not to create vast artistic traditions with millions of admirers. And amongst many of the most pious, there are still worries of tainting the Qur’anic verse with pleasure and worship of human achievement. However, as the Islamic world continues to very slowly liberalize, which I believe it will, I think the visual art expanded from calligraphy, and the chanting turned to song, will garner gradually largening support until hopefully they are one day also considered to be celebratory of God. Because to celebrate God is to do what God made you to do. If you are a flower, that is to be the most flowery you can be. For humans, I believe that is to create.

 

Endnotes

  1. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’an as Voice: Recitation and Ritual.” Lecture, February 27, 2018.
  2.  Qur’an 2:117 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  3. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’anic Worldview.” Lecture, February 20, 2018.
  4.  Schimmel, Annemarie. “Calligraphy: Islamic Calligraphy.” In Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., edited by Lindsay Jones, 1372-1373. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed March 1, 2018).
  5. Mahmood, Shaukat. Calligraphy in Islamic Architecture. Pg. 22-23
  6. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Codex and Calligraphy.” Lecture, March 1, 2018.
  7. Qur’an 31:28 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  8. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Codex and Calligraphy.” Lecture, March 1, 2018.
  9. ibid.
  10. McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. The Cambridge companion to the Qurān. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014.), pg. 163
  11. McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. The Cambridge companion to the Qurān. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014.), pg. 172
  12. Qur’an 96:1 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  13. Qur’an 72:4 (Khalidi, Tarif)
  14. Denny, Frederick Mathewson. Qur’ān Recitation: A Tradition of Oral Performance and Transmission. (1989.) pg. 8
  15.  Denny, Frederick Mathewson. Qur’ān Recitation: A Tradition of Oral Performance and Transmission. (1989.) pg. 21
  16. Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’an as Voice: Recitation and Ritual.” Lecture, February 27, 2018.
  17.  ibid.
  18.  Ibid.

 

Citations:

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. Qur’ān Recitation: A Tradition of Oral Performance and Transmission. (1989.)

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Codex and Calligraphy.” Lecture, March 1, 2018.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’an as Voice: Recitation and Ritual.” Lecture, February 27, 2018.

Mahallati, M. Jafar. “The Qur’anic Worldview.” Lecture, February 20, 2018.

Mahmood, Shaukat. Calligraphy in Islamic Architecture.

McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. The Cambridge companion to the Qurān. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014.)

Schimmel, Annemarie. “Calligraphy: Islamic Calligraphy.” In Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., edited by Lindsay Jones, 1372-1373. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed March 1, 2018).

The Qur’an, (Khalidi, Tarif)