Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Ashley George: Beauty of a Text: Qur’anic Art

Calligraphy is not only incredibly pleasing to the eye but also filled with spiritual depth and meaning as well. Decorative Arabic words can be found painted across mosque walls, ceramic bowls, intricate digital paintings and even on the hood of a car, if you ask Professor Mahallati. This is not only to show the beauty of Islamic art and the depth of Qur’anic verses but also to show love and pride for the deeply artistic religion of Islam. Islamic art is well-known around the world and can be found in any mosque, regardless of location. Muslims around the world practice and celebrate their faith through various artistic means, through art, architecture and music.

Calligraphy is an art form in all languages, but it doesn’t have the life and professionalism in other languages that it does in Arabic from the Qur’an and hadiths from the time of the Prophet. There are many popular scripts, three of the biggest being Kufic, Thuluth and Riqa. Kufic script has become increasingly popular in recent times, and it is very common to see it as an embellishment on mosque exteriors and facades.[1] Scholar of Islamic architecture Shaukat Mahmood explains that the script isn’t meant so much to be read as it is to serve as a sense of divine presence and piety in and around the mosque. Since most Muslims are expected to memorize the Qur’an from a young age, it is implied that one already knows the verses and the art of calligraphy serve more of a symbolic and aesthetic purpose.

Some Arabic letters even have a religious or divine affiliation. The letter alif, a single vertical line, is associated with Allah, the single God of the universe.[2] Another example of symbolism in Arabic/Islamic calligraphy is Arabesque, an endless pattern with a flowery appearance. Arabesque can often be seen decorating the exterior of mosques across the Muslim world and beyond it.[3] This pattern represents the never-ending depth of God’s blessings upon the world and all its creatures, and it has no clear beginning or end, it just is.[4] Diacritics, small symbols used to note the vowel used when pronouncing certain letters in a word, are often used as often as possible to make calligraphy and Qur’anic verses even more beautiful and eye catching than they are without them. Those who speak and read Arabic can figure out pronunciation of words without the diacritics, but they are there just for the extra beauty and precision of classical Arabic.

As a means of inspiration, the Qur’an is regarded as a highly intricate and artistic text by historians, as a 2016 art exhibit “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts” made its debut in America. Popular in London, this exhibit was brought to America at a time of much fear of the religion of Islam, but the curators hope that the Qur’an’s beauty and depth will inspire more Americans to view it as benevolent and admirable. They describe the mission of their exhibit as such, “Above all, we convey the sense of how artists from north Africa to Afghanistan found different ways to honor the same sacred text of Islam.”[5] They note that though the Qur’an is not meant to be illustrated, its words and concepts can come alive further through the art and practice of calligraphy. The exhibit is meant to foster a sense of pride and awe, or as they say, “What we hope is really to offer a different perspective on the Qur’an than has been presented, and is repeatedly presented given the state of the world.”[6] In other words, friendship and peace through art!

Perhaps the best proof of the fame of Islamic calligraphy is shown through its presence around the world. Despite Islam being most common in the Middle East and South Asia, calligraphy is even a popular art form in China, which is largely Buddhist. As Mahmood shows, Arabic calligraphy is a professional skill in China, a country also widely known for its calligraphy in its own native languages. Mosques found in larger cities including Beijing are adorned with beautiful calligraphy reading the shahada or the well-known phrase, “God is great.” Whether people have been captured simply by the beauty of Islamic art or their faith has compelled them to create their own works of calligraphy all across the continent, the spread of Islamic art and influence can be seen across the large mass of Asia, and around the rest of the world.

As well as artistic inspiration, the Qur’an is also known to inspire endless musical pieces and concepts. For instance, the famous Sufi poet Rumi is widely known across the general Muslim world for his mystical poetry inspired by his faith and the Qur’an. Along with this, the call to prayer, or azan, is an artform in and of itself. The most musically beautiful and breathtaking versions of the azan are recorded and often called upon for important spiritual gatherings. For example, Rahim Moazenzadeh Ardabili was famous for being the most talented singer of the azan, he eventually came to carry out the azan each morning on an Iranian radio show in Tehran.[7] When he died, his son took his place, building a legacy from this oral Islamic artform.[8] Young children are also taught to recite the Qur’an in a passionate and beautiful style to familiarize them with the words of God and to bring further beauty and life to the text.

All in all, Muslims around the world aim to show their love and appreciation for their faith through art, calligraphy and music. The Qur’an is already a deeply poetic and artistic text on its own, but the enhanced beauty and depth of calligraphy further represents the text and its meaning with majesty and grace. The Qur’an itself conveys the significance of writing and text, naming its sixty-eighth sura “The Pen.”[9] According to hadith, the Prophet even said himself that whoever writes “Bismillah” beautifully will surely go to paradise in the next life.[10] Through the words of the Qur’an and the words of the Prophet, the portrayal of Islamic words and values through art is priceless.

[1] Mahmood

[2] Mahallati, 3-1-18

[3] Mahmood

[4] Mahallati, 3-1-18

[5] Larson

[6] Larson

[7] Mahallati, 2-27-18

[8] Ibid

[9] Q.68

[10] Mahallati, 3-1-18


Works cited:

Shaukat, Mahmood. “Calligraphy in Islamic Architecture.”

Mahallati, Jafar. Class lecture. March 1, 2018

Mahallati, Jafar. Class lecture. February 27, 2018.

Larson, Vanessa H. “The Art of the Qur’an – Landmark Exhibit Shows Holy Book as Text and Work of Art.” The Guardian. October 24, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2018.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. HarperOne, 2016.

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