Did calligraphy replace the image in Islamic art?
Calligraphy is the art from that is perhaps most universally associated with Islam. Throughout its 1400 years of existence, Islamic art has been adorned with exquisite works of calligraphy, illustrated in the Qur’an; displayed in the architecture of mosques and palaces; on decorative arts such as manuscripts, paintings, ceramics, textiles, tools, coins, jewellery and weapons. This essay aims to highlight whether or not calligraphy did replace the image in Islamic art, and if so to explore what the reasons might be for this. The value of calligraphy as a separate entity will be explored in contrast to other art forms within Islam, and as an amalgamation of artworks, in the context of different time periods, settings and cultural backgrounds of Islam, notably within the Umayyad, Ottoman and Safavid dynasties retrospectively. The differences between religious and secular art will also be considered.
Calligraphy derives from the Greek word for ‘beautiful writing’ and is considered the highest art form in Islam1. In the hierarchical scale of Islamic art, calligraphy is the foremost, and noblest art form, because it is essentially the word of God, or Allah in Islam, written down in the Arabic language as it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore it is seen by Muslims that Arabic calligraphy is irreplaceable, as the Qur’an was revealed in the Arabic language, and the divine nature of the language rests even in its sound, with the Arabic script replacing sonority as faithfully as possible2. Calligraphy is described in the Qur’an as being ‘“an elegantly proportioned script” that is preserved with God on “spotless sheets of paper,” being “beautiful” and “unsurpassable”’3. It is indeed elegant, graceful and decorative, a distant shadow of the Divine Act4. Kufic script developed as a Qur’anic script in the seventh century, but by the twelfth century when other countries adopted Islam the script was modified to meet the demands of different languages, such as Turkish and Persian, so that there are now six main scripts that calligraphers follow today5, for example, Naskh, the regular script of educated Muslims, and Thuluth which was used for headings and tile inscriptions6, [Figure 1]. In contrast, figurative art is the lowest on the hierarchical scale of Islamic art7, as in the Hadith Muhammad asked for the destruction of pictures and warned against idolatry8. Islam is a religion in which liturgy is not separated from secular life; images were excluded from the liturgical domain9 in that the divine secret in every creature should be respected – only God could create and subsequently depict life, hence Islamic art is essentially aniconic in character10. Generally for Sunni Arabs this belief was especially strong11, whereas Shia and mystical sects of Islam held less stringent views about aniconism12.
In the Umayyad Dynasty of Damascus, the first Islamic dynasty (661-750 AD), calligraphy flourished13. Perhaps the most notable example is the calligraphy inscribed on the Dome of the Rock (691) [Figure 2], which is the oldest Islamic work of architecture along with the Kaaba14. This structure of the building is an interesting mix of Islamic religious piety and Byzantine artistic influence. Structurally, the Dome of the Rock consists of a an outer solid octagon enclosing two open octagons composed of columns, above the innermost of these stands a dome on a tall circular drum, the plan of which is very similar to Byzantine churches such as San Vitale in Ravenna15 and the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives16. The exterior is decorated with tiles of varying colours, white marble and golden Arabic Kufic script on a deep blue background around the uppermost part of the Dome17. The message inscribed speaks of Allah as the creator and One God who