By J.F. Sullivan
From the post-9/11 fear of Islamic terrorists to the most recent flap over the Cordoba House and the proposed Qur’an burning event, there is a growing trend that has conflated almost anything Islamic or Arabic, religious or cultural, into a single negatively perceived monolith. It is against this backdrop that Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum opens a dual exhibition; Traces of the Calligrapher: Islamic Calligraphy in Practice, c. 1600–1900 and Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur’an. These exhibitions, while meritorious in their own regard as collections of material with broad religious, historical, and cultural value, remind us that the perception of Islam, and the Arabic language in particular, were not always tinged with shades of terrorism and intolerance. Indeed the Arabic language was for a time, according to Maria Rosa Menocal, the lingua franca as far as the eye could see and beyond.
The exhibitions feature collections of tools and materials used to produce the storied Arabic calligraphy designs, along with the ultimate expression of piety: manuscripts of the Qur’an. The very existence of this exhibition and the culture it alludes to opens a window onto a culture that developed over many centuries and transformed the arts and culture of several regions on multiple continents.
The Arabic language began humbly on the Arabian Peninsula and grew in prominence thanks to Islam and a thriving poetic tradition. As the language of the Qur’an, and thus the language in which God imparted the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad, the Arabic language received an elevated status in addition to being the language of a growing and expanding empire. The Arabic language and its relationship to both the Qur’an and Islamicate civilization had numerous cultural side effects. The status of Arabic as the language of the Qur’an gave the language a special relationship to God, and as such, the actual reproduction of the script became important as well. Dr. Gordon Newby, Emory’s Professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, notes, “For Muslims, the writing of God’s words, the Qur’an, is an act of worship in which devotion and beauty join in praise of God. In many biographies of Muslims, the number of Qur’an copies they made or had made are listed among their life’s accomplishments.”
More than simply scribes, calligraphers of Arabic trained endlessly to develop their skill in producing the script, and in some cases even developing different styles of Arabic calligraphy.
The elevated status of Arabic combined with the prohibition against depicting humans led to the production of Arabic script as an art form. These calligraphic art forms went on to adorn numerous buildings and mosques throughout Islamdom as well as countless other artisanal products (textiles, handcrafts, house wares, jewelry and more). Inevitably, with the elevation of the Arabic language as art form came the elevation of the tools used to create that art form. Thus the pens, penknives, maktas, inkwells, scissors, shakers and burnishers each became art forms in themselves.
The exhibitions Traces of the Calligrapher: Islamic Calligraphy in Practice, c. 1600–1900 and Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur’an both illustrate the beauty of the skill and production of Arabic calligraphy. They should also serve as a reminder that for a time the Arabic language was considered the language of poetry as well as the language of God – so much so that some groups of Christian Visigoths in Medieval Iberia (later called Mozarabs) abandoned their Latin language in favor of Arabic for its sheer eloquence and versatility in communicating the poetic imagination.
As these exhibitions show, Arabic is not the language of terror as some might conclude from modern media depictions and fearful misperceptions, rather it is one of the few cosmopolitan languages of art, poetry, piety and culture that, like Greek and Latin, once spanned the length of much of the known world.
The exhibitions Traces of the Calligrapher: Islamic Calligraphy in Practice, c. 1600–1900 and Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur’an are on view at the Michael C. Carlos Museum (http://www.carlos.emory.edu/) from August 28 through December 5, 2010