Islamic Calligraphy: Announcing two new films with Soraya Syed

A Fleas Liver 

by Qaisra Khan

The films were commissioned by the SSN for Islamic Art and Material Culture as part of their ACE funded activities that aim to support regional museums and their collections.

The art of Islamic Calligraphy can be said to be one of the most important historical developments in the Islamic world. Established over a thousand years and stretching across the world, calligraphy played a fundamental role in the development of Islamic Art and helped to develop a distinctive visual culture.

Hattat Soraya Syed has composed two beautiful short films consisting of a précis of the long and intricate development of the art of Islamic Calligraphy and the Methods, Materials and Training which go into establishing a master of this art. The films are not aimed at experts in the field, but they provide access to members of the public and to curators whose expertise is not in the area.

With the Development of the Art of Islamic Calligraphy, Soraya gives a summary of the movements and growth of a script which began with the advent of Islam. ‘Iqra’ (Read!) we are informed were the first words spoken to Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel and it is from this first revelation that calligraphers began to write for the benefit of the fledgling Muslim community. The rudimentary early scripts were practical, simple and humble but allowed a baseline from which the more artistically minded practitioners could develop into an art form that would delight the eye and enjoin the beauty of the meaning, with the exquisiteness of the visual. This would finally connect with the third element of rhythmic recitation, in order to create a perfect circle.

Soraya skilfully takes us through the use of early scripts and explains how shortly after the Prophet’s death in 632, signs of beautification and elaborateness begin to appear. The use of vowel markers and diacritics, add a new dimension which not only removes any doubt in terms of accuracy, but also adds a depth to the visual composition.

With the great masters Ibn Muqla (d. 940), Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1022) and Yaqut al-Musta’simi (d. 1298), we see this development reach a pinnacle which required regulation and a new standardisation in writing. The Mamluks and Ottomans take this further with new developments coupled with geometry and biomorphic designs. In the meantime, regional developments in places such as China and Africa create their own distinctive styles. Developed over many years by outstanding practitioners Kufic, Naskh, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Rayhani, Tawqi, Riqa’, Nasta’liq, Diwani, and Maghribi scripts were thus used as embellishments for beautifying the Word of God. Today we find ourselves in a period which allows for new starting points, from which the visual expression of Islamic culture can be expanded and maintained.

In the Methods of Making a calligrapher, Soraya tells us that calligraphy is contingent upon three things: the instruction of the master, the maintenance of practice and the religion of Islam. A good student must have five characteristics to embark on the journey of becoming a master and it may take years to succeed. It is no doubt an incredible and complicated skill and the wonderful description of a mistake as small as the liver of a flea having the ability to destroy the beauty of a composition, is an excellent example of the finesse and discipline it requires, for the service of the eye of the beholder.There is much in these two films which would inspire us during these difficult times. The emphasis on the patience of the calligrapher, the focus on temperament and the ability to be so consumed by a skill to the exclusion of all troubles around us. The ‘Rabbi Yassir’, a prayer that is copied at the start of a student’s calligraphy training and composed by Mustafa Rakim (d. 1825) makes the plea:

‘Make it easy, and do not make it difficult. O God! Make it end well.”

As long as students continue to practice, we know that this plea will endure.

Film 1. Islamic Calligraphy: Methods, Materials & Training – with Soraya Syed

Film 2. Islamic Calligraphy: The Development of the Art Through the Practice of its Masters – with Soraya Syed

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