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The divine word and Islamic art

Sep 23, 2011, 3:56 PM

This unfolding form the sate of formlessness to form and principal unity to manifestation in multiplicity is also to be seen on another level in the art to calligraphy itself. The earliest Quranic calligraphy is of course the Kufic which is bound to the depiction of the Word of God more than any other Islamic style of calligraphy. This is script that is difficult to read even by those whose mother tough is Arabic. The letter seems to be closed upon themselves, refusing to reveal their inner secrets. And there is discontinuity in the script as if each letter or cluster of letters were a world unto itself. Kufic is like the bud of a flower folded upon itself. Then gradually this bud seems to open up into a full blooming flower in later calligraphic styles where lines become more explicit and the flow more continuous. After the development of the great classical styles such as the thuluth and the naskh, calligraphy becomes even more ornate and even occasionally somewhat baroque in some parts of the Islamic world, leading to what form the Islamic point of view is nothing but a kind of decadence. Fortunately, however, the classical styles continue in a vibrant way to this day, but to the extent that there is a “development” seen in the change of styles over the centuries, one can detect this movement from an enclosed formal reality to the unfolding of this reality, and in certain areas to the decadence of forms through excessive immersion in externalization and forgetfulness of the original unity. For Islamic calligraphy as a whole, however, in contrast to Western art, the forms that attained perfection over the centuries have remained vibrant and living forms and this includes the Kufic. One can therefore say that the development thus outlined is not essentially temporal but principal, although it does possess a temporal dimension. But since it is not only temporal, the various stages of the “flower” from the bud to the full bloom are also simultaneously alive and none of the traditional styles is of only historical interest. 

The Quran as the Divine Word also left its indelible mark upon Islamic art in ways other than in calligraphy. Of course the external form of the Quran as written word led to calligraphy becoming a central sacred conditions Islam while its content provided for the Divine Law and social conditions within which Islamic art was created. Om a deeper level the metaphysical principles or the haqiqah of the Quran, are the ultimate source and fountainhead of all Islamic sacred art and not only calligraphy. But there are other aspects of the Quran which are of central importance for the Islamic art as a whole. One of these aspects is the invisible presence of the Quran as the sacred reality determining in the deeper manner the spiritual and artistic ambience of the Muslim artist. And then there are certain characteristics of the structure of the Sacred Text which determines the life of the soul of the Muslim including its rhythm.

Everyone familiar with Islamic art is aware of the rhythm that dominates the various forms of that art form architecture and calligraphy to music and poetry. One can experience this rhythm in meditating on the repeating columns of mosques, or strokes of calligraphy and in ornamentation on the rhythmic repetition of geometric patterns and arabesques. One rhythm is to be found in the arts of other civilizations, but the emphasis upon it in Islamic art is particularly notable. The answer to this question is the structure of the Quran. The Sacred Text possesses a strong rhythmic quality not only in the cadence of its poetic utterances, but also in the repetition of certain central refrains and ideas and realities such as the Divine Named to which the text of the Quran returns over and over again. This pattern is like that found in classical Persian music in which the composition flows outward from an origin to which it is always returns and so its movement is not linear but cyclic or more precisely helix. The imprint of the Quran upon the Muslim soul cerates a strong sense of rhythm which then manifests itself in various ways in different Islamic art forms.

Furthermore, the language of the Quran displays the effect to the shattering of human language by the Divine Word. The phrases are in a sense “atomized” rather than forming one long didactic or descriptive narrative. The Quranic narrative for the most part seems to have no beginning or end, continuous narratives such as the story of Joseph being an exception. Most other Quranic narratives are like broken pieces held together by the Divine Reality and brought back again and again to central truths which concern ma’s final ends. Meanwhile, sacred formulae such as the Divine Names are scattered throughout the Text, bringing man back again and again to the ubiquitous presence of God. The unity of the Quran is in fact an inner one and not on the plane of the external meaning of words. The outer form is like a galaxy of atomized sentences and narratives returning over and over to the essential truths, seemingly without beginning or end. It must be remembered that in the Islamic canonical prayers (salah) one can recite after the fatihah (the opening chapter of the Text) any set of verse of the Quran one wishes from anywhere in any of the chapters (surahs) without regard to beginning or end. The beginning and the end seem to be everywhere, reminding us that God is everywhere and nowhere. In this way the sense of infinitude is invoked and formal limitations are transcended.

The end.