For Students

Past Exhibitions: 2005

Art of the Written Word in the Middle East

January 15, 2005–June 5, 2005

North African Qur'an page

North Africa, 8th-9th century
A page from the Qur'an in Kufic script
Ink and color on natural parchment
Gift of Mrs. Kamer Aga-Oglu for The James Marshall Plumer Memorial Collection

The art of writing, one of the supreme and lasting achievements of Islamic art, has been shaped by unique historical circumstances. In a culture that shunned figural religious iconography, writing became the purveyor of the Sacred Word (the Qur'an) as well as an indelible sign of dynastic hegemony. Under the official guidance of the religious community and the court, Arabic calligraphy was transformed from the raw and unpromising material of early inscriptions into an art form of majesty and elegance with the development of the Kufic script (named after the Iraqi city of Kufa) in the eighth century. Kufic script is an angular, monumental, and highly abstracted form of writing that is found across the Islamic world in architectural inscriptions and in copies of the Qur'an, from the eighth through eleventh century. Reading Kufic script can be very difficult, even for those fluent in Arabic, as it omits vowels and diacritical marks and does not adequately differentiate character forms. It is quite likely that the primary function of Kufic Qur'anic manuscripts was not to be read as much as to reinforce the act of recitation and to venerate the word of God. Kufic script was thus set apart from other forms of writing, such as correspondence or literary, whose primary function was informative and whose form was little regulated. In the exhibition, Kufic script is represented by one page and a small section of the Qur'an, both from Iraq or Iran.

By the eleventh century, however, Kufic script began to be replaced by a variety of more legible cursive scripts, most of which have remained in use until very recently. This development is related to the adoption of paper instead of parchment, a move that made books--including Qur'ans--available to a much greater audience and facilitated the spread of literacy. But more than anything, the development of cursive Qur'anic scripts was linked to the widespread acceptance by rulers and theologians of the exoteric (clear and apparent) nature of the word of God. Writing the Qur'an in legible cursive scripts was intended to make the sacred text accessible to the broadest readership while also creating a radically different image for the explicit word of God.

Ibn Muqla (d. 940), minister of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, was the force behind this transformation, as the inventor of a method known as "Proportionate Writing," a system of strict rules of geometry and proportion for letters and their combinations, which resulted in elegant and legible scripts. Ibn Muqla's codifications of scripts were further refined by Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1022), also a calligrapher at the Abbasid court in Baghdad. From the efforts of these two men came a repertoire of six cursive scripts that would attain a canonical status throughout the Islamic world, except for North Africa where a Kufic variety continued to be used in Qur'ans until the twentieth century.

The cursive scripts are differentiated by their size, degree of roundedness, and their intended function. For example, the monumental thuluth script appears as architectural ornament and for chapter headings of the Qur'an. Large Mamluk and Mongol (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) Qur'ans were written in the muhaqqaq (verified) script and smaller one in the rayhan (basil) script. Ottoman Qur'ans between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries were written in naskh, which was also used for literary manuscripts. The exhibition includes excellent manuscripts and fragments in all these scripts and a few others.

The expanded use of cursive scripts is also felt in art objects--such as metalwork, pottery, and architectural tiles--which begin from the early twelfth century to be decorated in increasingly elaborate bands of thuluth inscriptions. Although many of these inscriptions are repetitive good wishes to the owner, some, including several pieces in the exhibition, include Qur'anic verses, titles, aphorisms, and interesting poems.

Yasser Tabbaa, Ph.D., Guest Curator

This exhibition is made possible by the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Additional support has been provided by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.