Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Qur’an as a Source of Artistic Inspiration

There is a hadith that is often quoted by Islamic artists: “God is beautiful and He loves beauty.” This is to say that if you are creating art, then you are doing something Godly, or at least something that will connect one with God.  One could say that the intentions of Islamic art is to do just that: connect the artists and the audience to God. This is done through a variety of methods to stimulate the senses. Reading calligraphy uses the avenue of visual stimulation, writing calligraphy the avenue of touch and recitation the avenue of verbal stimulation for the reciter and aural stimulation for the listen.

Recitation is the form of art available to all Muslims. In fact, at a very young age Muslims being memorizing suras. The intention of this recitation is not understanding but pure memorization.This might be because the Qur’an is understood as the direct word of God and therefore its’ recitation is the auditory manifestation of the divine and entirely transrational.

This practice might be referred to as the ‘internalization of the sacred,’ which makes recitation and memorization different from just reading. There are aspects of the Qur’an itself that make it clear that this practice was an intention, such as the rhyme schemes which make verses easier to memorize. There are two main recitation styles: tartil which is a steady chant and tajwid which is an elaborate chant with accompanying pasues and vocal flourishes.

Another reason as to why recitation has become so important is because of the importance of speech in the Qur’an. God uses speech to bring things into the world, as in sura  2.117 “When He decrees a matter, he merely says to it: ‘Be!’ and it is.” He also uses speech to first reveal Himself to Muhammad  in sura 96. He speaks through the Angel Gabriel to say “Recite in the name of your Lord” (Q 96.1) There is a somewhat divine power given to speech within the Qur’an, and by learning and reciting its verses, a Muslim is tapping into all their ancestors and connecting to their God. This is why it becomes so important to memorize as much of the text as possible and be able to recite it beautifully.

Virtually every Muslim has the ability to own a copy of the Qur’an and memorize its pages, but the religiously privileged also have the opportunity to learn calligraphy. (Before discussing the actual art of calligraphy, it is important to mention Muhammad’s illiteracy. Referred to as the Unlettered Prophet, Muhammad knew neither reading or writing. There is oftentimes a comparison between the Virgin Mary, an unmarried woman who produced the best child, and Muhammad, the Unlettered Prophet who produced the greatest book.) Calligraphy was refined as an art early on in Islamic history. Banning portraits as potentially derivative of idolatry, the written word became a medium in which to visually express one’s devotion. There are two main fonts: thuluth which is a round script and kufic which an angular script. A phonetic language, each intricate line added to the page corresponds to a sound and a meaning. For example, horizontal lines were associated with femininity and fertility, while vertical lines were associated with masculinity and permanence; harsher sounding words have harsher meanings; and some letters have symbolic meanings in certain contexts such as in sura 68, where the letter ‘N’ denotes ‘ink pot.’ The color in and upon which the the letters are written have meaning, most prominently with blues corresponding to the Cosmic. Another artistic flair added to Arabic calligraphy is the arabisk snaking around the letters: a plant with no beginning and no end, representing endless blessing.

Calligraphy is not just written on paper for other calligraphers to admire, but is an intimate part of everyday life for Muslims across the world and across time. Early coins in the Muslim Empires imitated previous empire’s coins, replacing the faces of Gods and Emperors with Qur’anic inscriptions. They did not use random suras but curated the verses to show the nature of the Islamic faith and the close ties of its community. A vital role that “Qur’anic inscriptions [play is] elucidating the meaning and function of objects and buildings.” Inscriptions were put on all sorts of buildings, not just religious centers. This was so that, at a glance, a passerby could recognize the verse from which the excerpt originates and feel the feelings associated with its message. For those who are literate and knew the actual meanings of the verse, the associated meanings would bubble to the surface which they could then ascribe them to the corresponding building. For those who are uneducated but could read Arabic (as many non-Arab Muslims are), the feelings associated with the sounds would arise and would then be associated with the building. As stated earlier, the sounds of Arabic letters are said to correspond to their meanings. This would mean that either method would elicit the same feelings, making both the scholar and the uneducated able to feel the same thing when reading the same verse and, consequently, when seeing those verses posted on buildings.

Islamic art more often than not draws inspiration directly from the Qur’an or other holy books. Like all art, Islamic art attempts to unlock emotions through stimulation of many different senses, such as sight, hearing, and touch. The two most prominent artistic endeavours are recitation, which using hearing, and calligraphy, which uses sight for reading and touch for writing. These practices play an irreplaceable role in society and enable both the artists and the audience to commune with the divine.

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