By Sadia Dehlvi
Apr 09, 2015
The first word to be revealed to Prophet Muhammad through the intermediary angel Gabriel was “Iqra”, which translates as “read”, the following lines commanding, “Read in the name of the Lord, Who created man out of a clot of congealed blood, Proclaim! Thy Lord is most Bounteous, he who taught the use of the pen, Teacheth man that which he knew not”.
Iqra is the basis of human knowledge, and the spirit of Islam lies in nurturing the intellect. A chapter of the Quran is called “Al Qalam” in which God swears by the pen. The verses in the chapter demonstrate the importance of seeking knowledge, the sanctity of the written word and the pen as an instrument of inscription. There is the concept of a divine pen with which the destinies of all created beings to come into this world until the Day of Judgment are inscribed upon the Lauh-e-Mahfooz — the divine guarded tablet.
The Quran contains inexhaustible possibilities of creativity, attesting to the “ink” in the verse — “if all the trees in the earth were pens, and if the sea eked out by seven seas more were ink, the words of God could not be written out unto their end”.
All Islamic art is based on a saying of Prophet Muhammad, “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” It remains the most visible feature of Islamic civilisation.
Arabic is written from the right to the left — this is said to symbolise the movement from the periphery to the heart, which is located on the left side of the body. Traditionally, Muslims have practised calligraphy, not just to improve their handwriting, but also to discipline their souls. Through centuries, Sufis and sages have studied the hikmah (wisdom) of Islamic calligraphy, drawing spiritual nourishment from the sacred art form.
The art of Islamic calligraphy reflects on the earthly plane the writing of His word upon the written tablet. It is a visual representation of the divine message. Some traditionalists call it the “geometry of the spirit”. Each letter has a personality of its own, symbolising in its visual form a particular divine quality as the letters of the sacred alphabet correspond to features and qualities of God, the divine scribe.
The universe can be symbolised by a tree, which according to the Quran has “its roots firm and its branches in the heavens”. Islamic patterns often combine Quran verses with stylised plant forms, known as arabesque, and geometric patterns. Through the symbolism of its forms, Islamic calligraphy represents the intertwining between permanence and change, characterising the very nature of creation. Vertical letters and patterns represent the principal of divine unity, the horizontal, the multiplicity of manifestation. Quranic calligraphy represents the response of the soul to the divine message.
Sadia Dehlvi is a Delhi-based writer and author of Sufism: The Heart of Islam. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org