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The Spiritual Dimensions of Calligraphy
K K Aziz

How the pursuit of unity with the Divine infuses the written word.

The Sufi, and for that matter every Muslim who has kept his faith unsullied by false doctrine, credulity and superstition, believes that man has to set up a direct relationship between himself and God without a human intermediary. He, therefore, rejects the claim of the mullah to act as his mentor and guide or to intervene on his behalf

It is useful to recall the connection between Sufism and the various spiritual interpretations of art. It is no coincidence that the most perceptive and profound studies of Islamic art to appear in English in recent years have been the work of practising Sufis. Nor is it a matter of chance that the supreme flowering of calligraphy and architecture from the thirteenth century onwards coincided with the rise of a “mystical bias” in the society. One major factor responsible for the artistic renaissance was the awakening of a spirit which began to seek the ultimate truth or at least the dimensions of its manifestation in man’s attempt to create loveliness in the image of Absolute Beauty. Spirit and art joined hands in search of the Infinite in its finite form. Indeed, in the words of Martin Lings, “in order to exist, sacred art presupposes the opening of doors of which mysticism may be said to hold the key”.

The Sufi, and for that matter every Muslim who has kept his faith unsullied by false doctrine, credulity and superstition, believes that man has to set up a direct relationship between himself and God without a human intermediary. He, therefore, rejects the claim of the âlim and the mullah to act as his mentor and guide or to intervene on his behalf. A painting or an illustration stands between the viewer and the objective fact that it portrays. There is no such ‘remove’ in the case of writing, which is a direct expression of the spirit of man. The Chinese culture viewed fine writing in the same light, and the sayings of Chinese sages seem to reflect precisely the thoughts of the Iranian masters of the art. For example, the Chinese standard of grading the qualities of calligraphy should be perfectly comprehensible and acceptable to us: “calligraphy may be able or skilful, but this is faint praise; in the next category above it is wonderful; but the brush strokes of the supreme calligraphers are divine, and divine in the specific sense that they penetrate the Highest Being”. Some great Sufis, like Shabistari, have used terms and figures of speech borrowed from calligraphy to convey their perception of True Beauty or the Ultimate.

A line of verse from a Punjabi Sufi poet is a consummate epitome of the mystic significances and allusions of calligraphy. I came across the line years ago and do not know the reference. It struck me as startlingly original and I hope the actual author will accept my apology for using it:

Aa qalmã´, munh la siyahi, chum zamin nurani
(Come, O pen! blacken thy face and kiss the white earth).

The line comes from the poet’s eulogy of his master at the end of the book. There is a pun on both the images. Blackness refers both to the ink and to the instinctive humility with which the poet approaches the master. The white ground signifies the paper as well as the vicinity of the master’s presence. (The original word for white, nurani, comes from nur, light, also a symbol of God in the Quran.) The pen prostrates itself before the sacred unknown represented by the whiteness of paper. The first two imperatives in the line express the enthusiastic preparation for the ecstasy of a profound homage, and the last imperative marks the ecstasy itself. There is a contrast between the vertical open vowels of the first half of the line and the downward curving nasal sounds of the last half, which physically suggests the act of prostration from the upright standing position to the bowing and kissing of the earth. The act of prostration is the loving act of artistic creation. As the pen kisses the paper it gives birth to the written word which is symbolic of man’s effort to know the unknown.

What is on the paper is a calligraphic pattern. The black characters hold the eye and the mind, and point to what they overtly signify. But another aspect of the calligraphic pattern evades the eye: it is the space on the paper, which the black characters have thrown into relief. In poetry, the word is important not merely for what it says but also what it leaves unsaid – the unutterable word which can be defined only through its negative. And words are the negation of the space, and through their dark dance of death on the paper they bear witness to that which remains to be written.

Another spiritual dimension of calligraphy is described by Titus Burckhardt. The Arabic script “proceeds horizontally, on the plane of becoming, but starts from the right, which is the field of action, and moves to the left, which is the region of the heart; it therefore describes a progression from the outward to the inward. The successive lines of a text can be compared to the weft of a piece of cloth. In fact, the symbolism of writing is cognate with that of weaving; both refer to the crossing of the cosmic axes … As in weaving, the horizontal movement of the script, which is a rippling movement, corresponds to change and becoming, whereas the vertical represents the dimension of the Essence or the immutable essences.” The horizontal and vertical strokes in calligraphy bear an even closer similarity to the warp and weft in the making of a carpet, because the carpet is a symbol of Paradise, of final unity with the Creator, of the merger of human soul with the Divine soul, of Eternity. The principle of tawhid (oneness of God) is imbedded in all Islamic art; the unfolding of it in calligraphy is in itself an art.

The Divine origin or aspect of the written word is preserved and stressed in the inscriptions which decorate and sanctify the mihrab (niche) of the mosque. These are always in cobalt-blue letters rendered in relief. No matter where you choose to stand, you can see them clearly. But their ornate background of scrollwork and arabesque is always in lustre painting. Mostly the designs are in white and their background is golden. The blue is permanent, firm and assertive. The lustre is evanescent, wavering and fleeting. As Richard Ettinghausen said, “Could there be any better symbol of this impermanence than lustre, which sparkles forth at one moment and is gone the next? And could the whole idea be better expressed than in contrasting the impermanent lustre effect with the word of Allah, set in clear, bold, blue relief on the mihrab, or in monumental black Kufic script in the Quran?” If you gaze at the mihrab and reflect on its letters and decoration, the realisation will come to you that the inscription is fixed and will last while the ornament is moving and might vanish. The Word of God is enduring and its impress eternal. Human decoration is transitory and its purpose narrow. One stands for the Truth, the other for the passing time. One is Reality, the other the slipping existence of man. But both must co-exist. They present a contrast which man must notice, observe and ponder. Further, it is man’s duty to beautify the Word of God, to realise even if partially its origin in Absolute Beauty. The background is the homage of man to God. It does not compete with the Word, but gives it a habitation and a home as lovely as human effort can dare.

The floral designs usually accompanying the calligraphed text signify the Word of God and the Nature which He has created. The Quran’s repeated injunction to observe nature gives it the solemn standing of a commentary of the Book. Nature illustrates the power of God. It is the objective, sensible, visible manifestation of God’s beauty and the proof of His power to create. The calligrapher only emphasises this God-nature relationship by surrounding his text (the Word of God) with natural images (the Creation of God). The vegetation is on the periphery, the words in the centre. The design runs around the text, just as the commentary is around the message to be explained. The design is the juzdan (portfolio or covering) of the Word, only in this case a transparent juzdan through which the Word can be seen in an even lovelier form. To use another allegory, the scroll and the arabesque are the coverings of Absolute Beauty which, if seen naked, will dazzle the viewer to blindness. All beauty demands a covering; here the beauty of the text is provided with a purdah of patterns.

Burckhardt reads in the juxtaposition of the text and the image of a tree several esoteric meanings. It evokes the analogy which exists between the “book of the world” and the “world tree”. “The universe is both a revealed book and a tree whose leaves and branches unfold from a single trunk. The letters of the revealed book are like the leaves of the tree, and just as these are linked to the branches and finally to the trunk, so too are the letters linked to words, then to sentences and finally to the total and single truth of the book.”

Source: ... graphy.htm

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