May 2, 2022

An Introduction to Arabic Calligraphy

The written word in Arabic has always been, throughout the history of Islam, one of the most important and exquisite ways in which minds are touched by information and hearts are moved by the grace of the forms.

It is not only a simple transmission of meaning, but a means of contemplating the words in a visual way, accessing both the intellectual and the emotional or spiritual realm of the reader. For the calligrapher, it is also a meditative experience in itself, as you can discover in our upcoming workshops with Iranian calligrapher Asghar Alkaei Behjat.

Calligraphy literally means ‘beautiful writing’; graphs and graphics in general are shapes that represent something, be they statistics, music, or words. The earliest use of symbols in place of sounds dates from about 3200 BCE, by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. The Chinese seem to have invented their very different writing system independently, in about 1200 BCE, as did the Olmecs or Zapotecs of modern-day Mexico in about 600 BCE.

The phoneme-based alphabets of Eurasian scripts are by far the most flexible and varied. Our Latin script actually shares a common ancestor with Arabic. Greek and Latin scripts all evolved from Phoenician, which developed along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. On the one hand, Phoenician developed into Greek and later Latin scripts, while in the other direction, it developed into Aramaic (the language of Jesus Christ). Aramaic later split into Hebrew and Nabataen; Arabic evolved from Nabatean.

Of course, Arabic has a parallel source: according to Islamic doctrine, it existed before the beginning of the universal and cosmic time. While not being the most logical of histories, this explanation is in keeping with the non-linear approach to existence that Islam often takes (i.e. Allah is the ultimate Source of all, yet there are ways and means by which things come into being – human history being one of them).

Thus the Arabic language and script is a vehicle for a sacred, timeless message; according to various legends, the letters are associated with angels, or the light that fell upon the pen with which the destinies of all beings were written. Another story tells of the Prophet Adam writing a book each for numerous people who came after him. This mystical approach to the Arabic letters might account for the appearance of certain isolated letters at the beginning of some Qur’anic surahs (Saad, Lam, Mim…). So the letters depicted in the art of calligraphy are not simply letters, but part of a vast, subtle, interconnected approach to the universe.

Calligraphy began to raised up into an art in its own right during the classical age of the Arabic world, in the 9th and 10th centuries. There are a wealth of styles in Arabic calligraphy, from the classic Thuluth and the much-used Naskh to sweeping, elegant Eastern styles such as Nastaliq and Diwani, and the bold, graphic shapes of western Arabic calligraphy such as Maghrebi and Andalusi. Arabic calligraphy, in all its styles and uses, is by far one of the most important contributions to art that the Islamic world has made; quite apart from transmitting meanings, it beautifies them and makes them visual, tactile, and textural.

The skills needed for successful calligraphy are learned over a long period of time. But as our resident calligraphy teacher, Asghar Alkaei Behjat, says, if you can master one calligraphy form, you can very easily master any of the others. It is a matter of how you use the pen and the ink.

As a meditative practice, Asghar describes how calming and centring the practice of calligraphy is. Even though it may take years of dedicated practice to master one form, the time goes so quickly that you wonder where you were while you were practising – perhaps in a place beyond time itself. Indeed, tapping into an ancient tradition and using tools that can be made at home from natural materials certainly sends one into a timeless world, untroubled by technology.

However, technology is helpful if you wish to follow Asghar’s advice and play some traditional music, such as that found here, while you put away your worldly worries and concentrate of perfecting the shapes of the letters, and the movement of the ink over the paper. “You very soon discover that you don’t want to do anything else!”

The workshops will be held at Workshoptaller, a wonderfully quirky place that teaches various crafts in Granada. The first of three workshops will be held this Saturday from 10-1, with a break midway. Materials will be provided such as reed pens (which you will be taught how to cut and make for yourselves), paper, ink and two posters of different styles and usages of Arabic calligraphy to get you inspired. Another two workshops will be held on the 25th of May and the 29th of June.

We look forward to seeing you there!


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