Any architectural work has
both a functional and an artistic dimension, which are :
An immediate physical context that determines the style, and
A wider social, cultural and economic frame of reference that gives
For example, in the case of a Masjid, the prayer hall must be suitable
for its purpose in accordance with the liturgy of Islam, but the
building itself must also 'speak' to the local community,
providing both spiritual upliftment and an anchor for the community's identity.
Calligraphy, known as 'khatt' in Arabic, is an outstanding
example of such blending of form and function. From the grandest
of Masjids with their expertly carved stuccos to the simplest of
rural Masjids with few Qur'anic verses painted on their walls, one can
see the strong influence of Qur'anic calligraphy that has
attached itself to the expression of Islamic art.
A passion for the written script constitutes one of the fundamental
traits of Islamic culture. For Islam, the Arabic script is not
merely a tool invented by human beings, but a gift of God. As
Allah says in the Qur'an:
and thy Lord is the Most Honourable!
Who taught (to write) with the
taught man what he knew not"
(Surah al-Alaq, verses 3-5).
Innumerable Hadeeth of the
Prophet ('s) and his Ahlul Bayt ('a) distinctly
convey the importance of gaining knowledge and emphasize the value of
the written word. For example, the Prophet has said "the
ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr".
In general, Qur'anic texts are selected for inscriptions in Masjids,
but quotations from the Hadeeth and other pious phrases are also found.
Thus, calligraphy serves as an ornamental purpose along with conveying
the word of God and sayings of the Holy Prophet ('s) and his noble Ahlul Bayt
In the words of Dost Muhammad of Gawashwan, a sixteenth century
writer, "it is etched on the minds of the masters of the
arcane that the garden of painting and illumination is an orchard
of perfect adornment; and the arrangement and embellishment of the Qur'ans,
which bespeak the glorification of the word of the exalted, are
connected to the pen and bound to the design and drawing of the
masters of this noble craft".
It has been recorded that the first person to adorn with painting and
illumination the writing of the word that is necessarily welcomed
was The Prince of the Faithful and Leader of the Pious, the Conquering
Lion of God...Ali Ibn Abi Talib ('a), and the gates of this commodity
were opened to this group by the key of that Majesty's pen. A few
leaves (barg), known in the parlance of painters as Islami, were
invented by him." (translated by Thackston in 'A Century of
Furthermore, Mir Sayyid Ahmad Mashhadi, in the preface to the Bahram
Mirza Album says; "by the teaching of him to whom honour
is incumbent, the tutor of the garden of nobility, sweet-tongued
preacher in the realm of the imamate... Guided by the inscription
of the register of the city of knowledge, of which Ali is the
gate,..."everyone is commanded to strive to attain this noble
and honourable craft (calligraphy) when he said, "have
beautiful writing, for it is among the keys to sustenance."
Thus, calligraphy has always enjoyed a special status in Islam.
The first example of the use of calligraphy in Islamic architecture is
the mosaic inscription which winds around the summit of the
octagonal arcade in the dome of the rock. It presents an angular
script with perfectly calibrated letters which follow each other on a
rigorously horizontal path. Early Masjids were restricted to the
angular lettering, also known as 'kufic', since it was the
only style of Arabic script in general use during the early Muslim
period. Later on, with the development of round hands and the
definition of calligraphic proportions leading to the
canonization of the classic round scripts in the tenth and
eleventh centuries, 'thuluth' became more and more the
calligraphic style par excellence for Qur'anic inscriptions and
epigraphy, particularly in monumental settings.
Angular kufic with its myriad variations was always retained, but over
time it became more and more ornamental with the incorporation of
foliation, floriation and knotting into the letters.
Islamic calligraphy has varied from as simple as possible, with no
extraneous ornamentation of the writing, to the indescribably ornate.
A good early example of utter, stark simplicity is the Great
Masjid at Sousse, Tunisia (850ad), which has a single unornamented band
of Qur'anic Arabic in kufic script running around the courtyard.
In later times perhaps nowhere has calligraphic starkness been used to
such effect as in the Eski Cami, Edirne, where an entire bay is
filled by the single word 'Allah'. It is as stark and
striking - and as modern-looking - as anything one is likely to find.
The elaborate Masjid is typified by the Friday Mosque in Samarqand,
which is completely covered inside and out with writing in
brickwork and on tiled surfaces. Another, but very different type
of ornate writing can be seen on the interior walls of the Ulu Cami in
Bursa (completed in 1400), which are covered with masterful, and
sometimes rather playful specimens of calligraphy, particularly of the 'aynali' (mirror
image) type which was popular in later centuries.
The Qur'an, or any part thereof, in and on a Masjid provides the
viewer with a message and focus of meditation. It may
incidentally be ornamental or decorative, but a Qur'anic inscription
has value in and of itself. Inscriptions are always in some sense
appropriate to the locations in which they are found.
A good example of agenda in the selection of Qur'anic inscriptions is
found on the Buland Darwaza, the huge ceremonial gateway into the
Masjid Complex at Fatehpur Sikri built by the Mughal Emperor
Akbar c.1575. Carved in low relief, the Thuluth inscription consists
of Surah 39:73-75, 41:53-54 and 41:30-31. The first section
includes phrases like 'and the gates thereof shall be ready
set open' and across the top of the gateway is 'hereafter we will
show them our signs in the regions of the earth' (41:53) - all
particularly appropriate for a monumental gateway.
Many Mihrabs contain one of two Qur'anic quotations containing
the word 'mihrab', either 3:37 ('whenever Zacharias
went into the mihrab') or 3;39 ('while he stood praying in the mihrab').
Other popular inscriptions for Mihrabs are the Qur'anic imperatives to
perform prayer, example, 11:114 ('pray regularly morning and
evening; and in the former part of the night'), as in
the congregational Masjid at Bistam, Iran (1302).
Tomb Masjids often have Sura 36, 'Ya Sin', which is also
recited at funerals. An example is the Taj Mahal: across the four
arches of the main building extends Surah 'Ya Sin' in its entirety.
On the Crypt Cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal is inscribed verse 3:185, so
markedly appropriate for graves:
"every soul shall taste
of death, and ye shall have your reward on the day of
and he who shall be far removed from hell fire,and
shall be admitted into paradise, shall be happy; but the present
life is only a deceitful provision."
Calligraphic inscriptions in Masjids occur not only in Arabic, Persian
and Urdu, but also sometimes in the local vernacular. For
example, a modern inscription in the prayer hall of the Great
Masjid, Xian, China (13th-17th century), identifies the building as
Qing Jin Si (mosque of true purity).
Some Masjids have a strong regional influence in their inscriptions.
An example of this is a panel below the ceiling of the Masjid
Jami Ayn Al Yagin'guri, Gresik, Java, Indonesia, which repeats
the names 'Allah' and 'Mohammad' around a central point.
In this Masjid, dating from 1556, there are a number of such
panels, in which the patterning was possibly influenced by the form of the Indian mandala.
Classical Arabic calligraphic styles can be broadly defined in the
following categories -
Mashq - an early script, first developed at Mecca and Medina during
the first century of the Muslim era
Square Kufic - developed at Kufa, this script had by the ninth
century become more ornamented and was the most influential in Islamic
Eastern Kufic - a more delicate version developed in the late tenth
century, notable for extended vertical upstrokes
Thuluth - fully developed by the ninth century, this script became
the most popular for ornamental inscriptions
Naqshi - being relatively easy to read and to write, this became the
most frequently used script for writing Qur'ans after it was
redesigned in the tenth century
Muhaqqaq - another popular script for writing Qur'ans featuring
shallow sub-linear curves with a pronounced flow from right to
Rihani - combines characteristics of Thuluth and Nakhshi, the
diacritical marks always being written with a finer pen than that
used for characters
Taliq - this 'hanging' script, developed by Persian
calligraphers in the ninth century, continued to be used for
monumental purposes even after a more refined variant -
Nastaliq - was introduced in the fifteenth century and became the
most generally used script for Persian documents. In the Indian
subcontinent, Nastaliq has been adapted as a script for the language
Each and every script, with is varied styles and decorative patterns,
plays a vital role in the enrichment of the culture of Islam.
Like threads of varying colours and textures, they beautifully weave
into the kaleidoscopic fabric of Islamic heritage.
Author: Siddiqua Shahnawaz
Chief Editor: Hj Nurzaynab El-Fatah
Production: Hj S. Abidin
Published Date: 8th February , 2003
Modification Date: 13th January 2009/ 16th
Publication ID: 03calligraHeritage.
- A Significant Islamic Heritage
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