The Many Voices of the Qur’an

This paper was written for Dr. Bertrum MacDonald’s class “The History of the Book,” which I took during the Winter semester of 2012 at Dalhousie University, Halifax. I wanted to take a close look at, not only the history of the Qur’an as a physical and religious object, but the relationship between written and oral transmission of the text. By the end of the paper I highlight several features of the Qur’anic calligraphic traditions that one can also see associated with the oral tradition of the Qur’an.

The Word, the Text, and the Art:

The Many Voices of the Qur’an

Say: ‘You people! I am God’s emissary to you all. He has sovereignty over the heavens and the earth. There is no god but Him. He ordains life and death. Therefore have faith in God and His apostle, the Unlettered Prophet, who believes in God and His commandments. Follow him so that you may be rightly guided.’ (Koran 7:158).

While there remains some argument about the Prophet’s illiteracy, there is no doubt that Muhammad did as he was directed above, and spread God’s Revelation. Considered the purest and final link on a chain of prophecy that began with Judeo-Christian forefather Abraham, within all existing branches of Islam the Qur’an has maintained its fundamentality as the direct and unmitigated Word of God for over 1,400 years. As an object, the Qur’an is a challenging text, not simply due to the obscure history surrounding its original compilation and physical transmission, but also because of deeply-rooted expectations and perceptions of the text from within and without Islam. It appears that Muhammad and many of his Companions – those closest to him and some of the earliest converts to Islam – understood almost immediately that oral transmission was an unsustainable method of diffusion and uniformity in a period of nomadic warfare. Despite the commission of the Qur’an to paper, Islam has maintained oral traditions and rituals, some of which can even be found in the Qur’an codex itself.

While Islam has struggled philosophically with the Qur’an as a physical object, writing, specifically calligraphy, has become the art par excellence in Islam. In large measure calligraphy holds such a cherished position because through it Muslims are afforded an opportunity to immerse themselves in the Qur’an as well as the Arabic language. As well, although the words depicted in calligraphic art are images, they are at the same time an “absence of image” (Leaman 56). This fact is crucial since in Islam the depiction of some images, including depictions of Allah and face of Muhammad, is considered to be the most atrocious of ideological crimes in Islam, idolatry (shirk).

Illuminated Qur’ans as well as “stand-alone” Qur’anic calligraphy – art in which one section of the Qur’an has been represented – spread quickly during the ‘Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 CE). This calligraphy further transformed script as well as the Islamic aesthetic (Fraser and Kwiatkowski 9). In addition to providing a space for this aesthetic, Islamic expertise in geometry was also utilized in the creation of some of this art. The following paper will argue that in addition to the aesthetic and geometrical opportunities provided by Qur’anic calligraphy, this art also maintains oral attributes found in the original oral transmission of the Qur’an and its early written form.

Literature and Sources

Qur’anic exegesis lends itself to confusion, not only regarding how one analyzes the text, but also to what extent one should do so. The Qur’an states that “some of its verses are precise in meaning […] and others ambiguous. Those whose hearts are infected with disbelief observe the ambiguous part, so as to create dissension by seeking to explain it” (The Koran 3:7). During his life Muhammad was relied upon to untangle the “ambiguous” portions of the Qur’an. After the Prophet’s death in 632 CE, the community realized that the door that was the Prophet was now closed and that “‘the revelation from heaven has been cut off’” (Muslim, 73). This realization lead the Companions of the Prophet to rely upon Qur’anic passages insisting that God’s Revelation was of such importance that He had made it completely clear (The Koran 17:41), that the literal meaning was the only meaning to be taken. Since God’s Revelation was pronounced in Arabic, this gave the Muslim community additional insight that would be lost in a translation of the Qur’an (The Koran 16:103).

Subsequently, while keeping in mind that “no one knows [the Book’s] meaning except God” (The Koran 3:7), an intelligentsia developed that took care of ‘understanding’ the Qur’an (tafsir). As the context in which the Qur’an was studied changed, so did the questions posed to and of the Qur’an. As tafsir progressed multiple schools of thought varied on the interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadiths, the recorded sayings and actions of the Prophet during his life (Mir 170). This began a rich and sometimes fraught exegetical dialogue that continues today. Contemporary scholarly articles on the Qur’an range from translation of the Qur’an (Brigaglia, Loimeier, Rahman, Shimmel,), to the role and treatment of women in Islam (Barlas; Smith; Smith and Haddad), with some even dissecting single passages or words within the Qur’an (Haleem; Marín; Shahīd).

With a few exceptions (Zakaria 398), it is only relatively recently that attention has been paid to the history of the Qur’an, particularly the chronology of the revelations (Böwering, “The Qur’an as the Voice of God”). Useful overviews of this subject include Ingrid Mattson’s The Story of the Qur’an and George N. Atiyeh’s The Book in the Islamic World, the latter being an edited anthology which provides contextual as well as philosophical assessments of the Qur’an’s religious and cultural impact. These authors note the importance of the oral character of the Qur’an, as do Graham (29-40), Zebiri (97), and Zadeh (50-52). Graham states that past academic initiatives focussed on scripture have been concerned with recreating an “‘original,’” “uncorrupted” text and placing it within historical context (25). Graham suggests instead that those studying scripture should consider the “function” (26) of scripture as a religious phenomenon (Graham’s italics). A similar approach will be taken in this paper, applying the work of scholars that self-identify as Muslims, non-Muslims, and converts to Islam. With this assumed balance in the literature every effort will be taken to remember the Qur’an as “a document as it is understood by those for whom it is more than a document” (27, Graham’s italics). This is an approach that may be palatable to Abdul-Rauf, who quite reasonably maintains that “whatever may be said about Islam in relation to the place and time in which it arose, its unique and well-testified claim upon its adherents cannot be explained away” (185).

Reception and Oral Transmission of the Qur’an

            It would be wrong to underestimate the inherent orality of the Qur’an. Around the year 610 CE, Allah, through his mediator the archangel Gabriel, spoke the Revelation to Muhammad. The verb from which “Qur’an” is derived literally means “recitation” and the first word from Gabriel, the first command from God was “Recite!” The command to “recite” was given three times before the first of the revelations was declared by Gabriel (Dawood 2). After hearing the Revelation it is said that the words were “inscribed upon [Muhammad’s] heart” (Dawood, 2). The entirety of the Qur’an was revealed over twenty-two years, until Muhammad’s death in 632 CE. This long period of revelation represented ample time for Muhammad to learn and teach all of the revealed surahs, or “chapters,” or the Qur’an. One should note that there was a large Jewish population in the Hijaz – the region in which Muhammad lived and received the Revelation – and Christian creeds and vocabulary were common in Arabia during the Prophet’s lifetime (Zeitlin 75). Despite the fact that the Qur’an links its authority to Jewish and Christian traditions, particularly in its staunch monotheism, “Muhammad’s inspiration and the language in which it was couched were original” (Lapidus 20), indicating that this was also a departure from the Jewish and Christian religions.

Muhammad did not immediately spread the received revelations, spending that time “coming to terms with God’s message” (Lapidus 21). After these three years Muhammad was commanded to “rise and warn” (Lapidus 21). The Prophet first orally diffused God’s message amongst his family and close friends, subsequently proselytizing to the Hijaz’s most downtrodden, namely those least in significance according to the well-entrenched tribal and clan system in the Hijaz. Brown notes that the “constant blood feuds and intertribal wars” (37) gave rise to many oral histories and poetry. Monroe has posited that although pre-Islamic poetry was orally transmitted, “conscious memorization [played] no part in the technique of the oral poet,” (8) further distinguishing the act of “reading” the Qur’an from the “reading” of the Arabian literature of early Islam. In his exhaustive survey on pre-Islamic Arabian linguistics, Macdonald views the dearth of documents in Old Arabic as an implication that late pre-Islamic societies used the language as the vernacular, and that these societies which were either non-literate or writing in languages that were already well established (57).

As mentioned above, there is some question as to whether or not Muhammad himself could read and write. After marrying his first wife Khadija, a wealthy widow, Muhammad was put in charge of Khadija’s caravan holdings. Zeitlin presumes that Muhammad’s involvement in trade, which likely involved accounting of goods and money, to be an argument for his literacy (76). Zeitlin states that reports of Muhammad’s illiteracy stem from Muslim scholars who “prefer to believe that Muhammad was unlettered in order to accentuate the miraculous nature of his having written down the worlds of God, mediated by Gabriel” (76). While others agree that it Islamic tradition regards Muhammad as illiterate (Al-Munajjid 142, Denny 397, Mattson 91), the only thing that is certain is that Muhammad believed in the importance of literacy (Mattson 91). While remembrance and recitation remained ideologically fundamental to the Qur’an’s documentation and transmission, Muhammad directed his literate Companions to write down the Revelations as they were revealed.

The Collation of the Written Qur’an

Alongside professional remembrancers that memorized the Qur’an in its entirety, individual surahs were written down. Despite the high cost and relative lack of writing materials – another motive for continued oral transmission – scribes wrote down individual surahs on materials such as flat bones like shoulder blades, pieces of wood, palm leaves, stones, and pieces of parchment (Berque 18, Dawood 3, Mattson 90). Muhammad, his Companions, and some of his wives had their own personal collections of the surahs, but these were partial compilations that varied in the wording, order, and the number of surahs included (Ayoub, 38). Almost immediately the Muslim community, and particularly Muhammad, were the targets of hostility and ridicule from the long-established clan aristocracy; this aggression led to bloody war that previously plagued Muhammad’s forefathers. Military victories such as the Battle of Badr (624 CE) supplied the early Muslim community with money and goods from those captives that could pay a ransom for their freedom (Tritton 137). For illiterate captives the Prophet made it “obligatory upon them that each one of them should teach reading and writing to ten children of al-Madinah,” and thus literacy slowly spread throughout the Muslim community (Al-Zanjani 16). Of course, when bidden by Muhammad, literate Companions were eager to be the first to inscribe any new portion of the revelation (Mattson 91).

In 632 CE, the importance of Qur’anic compilation was underscored in two ways. The first of these events was the death of Muhammad; since the Prophet could no longer transmit further revelations it had to be supposed that God’s Revelation was complete and that no future additions should be expected. The second event was the Battle of Yamama, during which seventy reciters of the Qur’an perished in battle. Abu Bakr, father-in-law and close Companion of the Prophet, was chosen as the leader (caliph) of the community. Despite Abu Bakr’s hesitation “to do what Muhammad had never done” (Mattson 92), ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, who would take up the project as the second caliph after Abu Bakr’s death, insisted that the written Qur’an was crucial for the survival of the Revelation. Abu Bakr, who had also been one of Muhammad’s scribal secretaries (Al-Munajjid 142), commissioned the first entire assembling of the Qur’an.

The compilation of the Qur’an was not a project that was completed quickly, nor was the process isolated from “political, theological, and juristic exigencies” (Ayoub 386). Since the Revelation was the pure Word of God, never to be delivered again, there was a concern regarding contradictions and exclusions. Many individual surahs existed at the time of Muhammad’s death and each was critically examined. Qur’anic compiler Zaid ibn Thabit, a consistent and loyal scribe of the Prophet, declared that he “‘gathered the Qur’an from various parchment and pieces of bone and from the chests of men’” (Mattson 92). Abu Bakr and the two succeeding caliphs, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, advanced this important task. The ‘Uthmanic Qur’an, named such for having been completed during ‘Uthman’s caliphate (ruled from 644-656) and under his close guidance, is the official Qur’anic codex in use today. Despite ‘Uthman’s attempts to destroy other copies of the Qur’an, he was not entirely successful (Ayoub 386; Zakaria 68).

Just as there was concern over the inclusion of counterfeit revelations and the exclusion of genuine ones, there were Muslims distressed at the idea of the Qur’an taking any physical form. These individuals believed themselves to be “custodians of the holy book” (Lapidus 46), in the tradition of the Prophet. Although the reasons for his assassination were numerous, the recently compiled Qur’an is, at least, at the center of the story of ‘Uthman’s murder: “‘Uthman is said to have been assassinated while holding in his hand a copy of the Koran that he himself had written. His assassin, al-Ghafīqī, is said to have kicked the venerable volume [with] his foot” (Berque 25). The particular reason ‘Uthman’s murderer kicked his copy of the Qur’an is unclear, but the story’s mere existence lends some insight into popular attitudes towards ‘Uthman and the ‘Uthmanic Qur’an.

The Preservation of Orality

As stated briefly, the inherent importance of an oral tradition was not lost after the caliphal compilation and codification of the Qur’an. Memorization remained a critical portion of caliphal education (Cooperson 28). Mattson relates a hadith wherein Muhammad weeps at one Muslim’s recitation of the Surah al-Nisra. The man is at first hesitant to recite in front of the Prophet, but Muhammad urges him on, saying, “‘I like to hear it from someone other than myself’” (88). This shared sense of responsibility, not only to internalize the Qur’an for oneself, but to share it with members of the community, has persisted through a number of Islamic rituals and practices, as well as in the organization of the Qur’an itself.

Berque believes that to Westerners the Qur’an must appear as “nothing more than a miscellany of disorganization and arbitrariness” (23). The arrangement of surahs within the Qur’an is neither chronological nor geographical – some of the revelations were received in Mecca and others in Medina. The surahs are not even compiled in the order they were revealed by God. The surahs of the Qur’an are ordered by length, beginning with the longest and ending with the shortest (Ruthven 23). Since the traditional narrative or composition one finds in other books and scripture does not exist in the Qur’an, the normal limitations that these bring to the reader do not exist for Muslims. If one was keen on memorizing the entirety of the Qur’an, one could begin with the last, and shortest, surah and work their way towards the first, and longest. Some traditions hold that the Prophet himself directed compilers to order the Qur’an in this way (Lapidus 18, Zakaria 399). The 15th-century scholar Jalaluddin Sayuti attempted “to rearrange the surahs chronologically, but there was no acceptance of it among Muslims. (Zakaria 398).

The first surah is an exception to this order. Surah al-Fātihah (The Exordium) is brief:

Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe,
The Compassionate, the Merciful,
Sovereign of the Day of Judgement!
You alone we worship, and to You alone
we turn for help.
Guide us to the straight path,
The path of those whom You have favoured,
Not of those who have uncured Your wrath,
Nor of those who have gone astray. (The Koran 1:1-7)

Muslims repeat this surah aloud during the five daily prayer sessions that take place throughout the day. Ruthven states that the al-Fātihah has been called “the Mother of the Book” (23). The surah’s “quintessence of Islam,” as well as its daily use in vocalized prayer, lend it a special place in the textual Qur’an. Another important vocal element to Muslim prayer is the shahada, which is cried during the call to prayer, reminding other Muslims not simply that it is time to pray, but that “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger,” the literal words of the shahada (Sells 46). In order to convert to Islam, the only thing a sincere heart must do is publicly recite the shahada. There are a number of places in which the recitation of the Qur’an is forbidden in order to preserve the purity of the Revelation. As described in one hadith, ritual prayer, and thus recitation of the Qur’an, is prohibited when one is in “a refuse heap, a slaughterhouse, a cemetery, a bath, a thoroughfare, a place where camels are stood, and the top of the Ka‘ba” (Melchert 141).

Sufis, those devotees partaking in the esoteric, mystical Islam, “view their thought and way of life as Qur’anic in every sense” (Sells 29). The ultimate goal of the Sufi is to achieve annihilation (fana’), where the self is entirely lost in the absolute knowledge that only God exists. There is a multiplicity of prayer for the Sufi, each contributing to the practitioner’s life and their constant remembrance of God. The oral Qur’an is taken to its logical, if extreme, conclusion in meditative remembrance (dhikr). Dhikr includes the recitation of the Names of God or particular Qur’anic passages, particularly the tahlīl, the second portion of the shahada which states “There is no God but God” (Sells 46). The Sufi believes that dhikr can bridge this gap between his “pre-existential past and [allow him to anticipate] his post-existential future, drawing the two antipodal events into his temporal existence and realising the direct and certain presence of the Eternal within his inmost being” (Böwering, “Ideas of Time,” 82); in short, the Sufi can achieve fana’.

The Trouble with Text

Sufism is a good example of how the dispersion of the written Qur’an allowed for many new exegetical opportunities and discoveries. Of course, these opportunities were not seen as such by all. A group of Muslim theologists called the Mu‘tazila enthusiastically studied, and to a great extent adopted, Hellenistic dialectic and rational thinking (Lapidus 87). The Mu‘tazila challenged the orthodox belief that the Qur’an was uncreated and shared a co-existence with God. This was an audacious statement to make in an intellectual landscape that insisted upon the divine quality of the text as being the pure Word of God. The textual Qur’an could be burned or damaged in any number of ways, indicating that the Qur’an must be separate from God or risk damaging God as well. The Mu‘tazila theologians declared that the Qur’an “was a created message inspired by God in Muhammad, and not part of God’s essence or divine itself” (Lapidus 88). Under the rule of the Umayyad caliphate (661-750 CE), this was a political statement as much as a religious one and the assertion disturbed the caliphate as much as it did orthodox hadith scholars. When the Umayyad caliphate faltered in the 8th-century, the Mu‘tazili supported the ‘Abbasid caliphate and received their support in turn. Caliph Al-Ma’mun (ruled from 818-838 CE) waged war on the hadith scholars, the ‘literalists,’ partly to legitimize his own caliphate (Lapidus 103).

Al-Ma’mun instituted a long period of inquisition (mihnah, from 833-848 CE), wherein groups of hadith scholars were questioned regarding the createdness or uncreatedness of the Qur’an, the former, of course, being the position held by Al-Ma’mun. Most hadith scholars capitulated to Al-Ma’mun’s view for fear of imprisonment, banishment and even death. ‘Ibn Hanbal, the founder of the Hanbali school of sharia law, narrowly escaped such a fate. Sent to the Byzantine frontier in chains, ‘Ibn Hanbal avoided a life of hard labour when they arrived in Raqqa only to discover that Al-Ma’mun had suddenly died (Cooperson 120-121). During the mihnah, debates occurred during which hadith scholars and the ‘rationalists’ – those that believed in the doctrine of the created Qur’an – used their respective intimate knowledge of the Qur’an to their advantage, quoting the Qur’an extensively (Cooperson 116-119).

Medieval Islamic philosophers such as the 11th– 12th-century scholar of orthodox Islam al-Ghazālī took up these arguments. Interestingly, despite his scholarly orthodoxy, al-Ghazālī also “delv[ed] into mysticism” (Khalidi xxvi). Al- Ghazālī argued against the Hellenistic philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle (Khalidi xxvii), yet he stated that the Mu‘tazila “ought not to be considered blasphemous” for their refusal to attribute physical properties, including the Qur’an, to God (Al- Ghazālī 72). This conversation about the createdness or uncreatedness of the Qur’an is still relevant today. This year, in 2012, two American soldiers in Afghanistan were shot dead by an Afghan National Army soldier after copies of the Qur’an were mistakenly burned by American forces. Multiple civilians were also injured and killed in similar clashes surrounding the incident. Despite a letter of apology from United States President Barack Obama to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the fundamentalist Islamic militant group the Taliban called for further attacks of revenge on American soldiers and headquarters (Graham-Harrison).

Islamic Aesthetics

Blair and Bloom articulate the difficulty experienced by scholars of “Islamic art”. The struggle in identifying a definition for Islamic art arises from the utter geographical pervasiveness of Islam, which influenced and was itself modified by the cultures it contacted. Moreover, while much of Islamic art is religio-centric, much of it is not, meaning that Islamic art provides the scholar with a wide variety of styles, content, and methods of approach (152). While a localized geography is not central to my argument, the incorporation of Qur’anic surahs or ayats – the verses that make up surahs – certainly is. For the remainder of this paper Islamic art will be studied in relation to the Qur’an and the oral traditions inherent in it and other Islamic rituals.

Islamic artists are conscious to avoid idolatry (shirk) (Leaman 9), which means that any visual representation of God or the Prophet is forbidden. The modern world was reminded of the seriousness with which Muslims view this imperative when a Danish newspaper Politiken published a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet. At least 200 people died in the resulting riots in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (Cohen). Politiken issued an apology to a number of Islamic organizations. One of the Danish cartoonists of these drawings who was attacked in his home as a result, Kurt Westergaard, called the editors’ apology a “[betrayal of their] duty to freedom of speech” (Eriksen). Since God is in Unity and thus is All; He who “gives nourishment to all and is nourished by none” (The Koran 6:14), it would not be imprudent to be uneasy with the representation of any thing. Leaman suggests that “if religion is to be more than surface deep, one might think that it should really dominate one’s whole life, because what could be more important than our relationship with God? […] Just talking about God is not sufficient, since that may only be a way of talking” (9-10). Allowing for individual material motives, the Islamic artist may require art as an expression of piety. Indeed, Fraser and Kwiatkowski agree that it is the centrality of the Qur’anic Revelation that has left calligraphy unopposed “as the supreme art of the Islamic world” (9).

Reportedly, Muhammad stated that a person who writes beautifully the Basmalah, the short prayer that begins each surah of the Qur’an, will enter Paradise (Schimmel 243). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Basmalah (“in the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”) has remained a common calligraphic subject. The form and method of calligraphy changed with technical innovations and geographical influence (Roxburgh, Taabaa “Qur’anic Calligraphy,” Taabaa “The Public Text”). Sheepskin was a popular, and perhaps the only, material used for the earliest written Qur’ans (Blair 73). The Arabs were introduced to paper during 8th-century Battle of Talas (751 CE) between the Arab and Chinese armies, after the Arabs found it on Chinese prisoners of war (Fraser and Kwiatkowski 10). As caliphates relocated and flourished, Persian, Turkish, North African, Spanish, Ottoman, Mughal Indian, and Egyptian calligraphers made significant changes to, as well as standardized, styles of scripts.

Mathematics and algebra have occupied a central position in the history of Islamic thought and study (Kheirandish 65-66). In addition to providing the artist with a subject, with such a sacred subject, calligraphy also provides the artist with an opportunity for mathematical and geometric expression (Ahuja and Loeb, George). Fraser and Kwiatkowski note that “the study and use of geometric forms and classical proportions in early Qur’ans (as well as early Islamic architecture) is an area of growing interest” (32). This manuscript below (fig. 1) is an example of the control and and mathematical exactness used when creating Qur’anic calligraphy. This large Qur’an leaf in gold Kufic script, depicting Surah 38, has been digitally altered by Fraser and Kwiatkowski (32) to demonstrate the use of the precision in ratio. In fact, this ratio is the equivalent of the rectangle of Pythagoras.

Fig. 1 “Large Qur’an leaf in Gold Kufic script” (32), Near East or North Africa, Late eighth-early 9th-century

Calligraphy and Orality

There are various ways in which calligraphy maintains and emphasizes the orality of the spoken Qur’an. I identify them as brevity, repetition, accessibility, and inaccessibility and I will use visual examples to demonstrate my arguments. It should be noted that not all of the following examples will employ all of the ‘oral characteristics,’ but they will all feature at least one.

The Brief Qur’an

As we have seen, the succinctness of each surah is significant in its primary transmission – from God – and secondary transmission – from the Prophet to the Muslim. Unlike other religions, where the scripture is received or created as a more immediate whole, such as Moses’s writing of the Tanakh/Pentateuch or Joseph Smith’s retrieval of the gold tablets known as the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an was delivered piecemeal over twenty-two years. Those that influenced the first compilation of the Qur’an, whether it was Muhammad, the first three caliphs, or Zaid ibn Thabit, recognized that a traditional narrative was not necessary. While there may have been several reasons for doing so, the Qur’an was compiled based on a fixed ritual formula, that of the length-oriented, or at least individual surah-oriented, oral memorization.

Calligraphy often depicts only one or two surahs at a time, or ever shorter ayats. As mentioned, the Basmalah is popular calligraphic matter. In the below image of the ship (fig. 2), the calligrapher Abdu’l Qadir Hisari has incorporated ayat 2:255 into the standard of a ship. Famed calligrapher ‘Umar Aqta‘ depicted only two ayats from surah 60 (fig. 3).

Fig. 2 “Calligraphic Galleon,” Turkey, 1766-67

Fig. 3 “Fragment from a Qur’anic manuscript,” Central Asia (probably Samarqand), ca. 1400

The Repetitive Qur’an

Repetition is central to the idea of memorization, recitation, and devotion. Not simply in the oral repetition of prayer, particularly dhikr, or the memorization of the Qur’an, but in the physical act of repeating prayer at five different points during the day. Memorization, principally through repetition, and public recitation are important contemporary events in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia (Al-Fārūqī 221). If one is to truly possess the spiritual aid the Qur’an provides, one must go “through the process of memorisation [to internalise] the Qur’an and thus [come] to possess it and be protected by it” (Zadeh 53). Qur’anic calligraphers have adopted patterns of repetition in their art with visually stunning consequences. The below calligraphic panel, which bears striking similarity to a skull (fig. 4), is actually a mirror-image of the ‘Ali wali Allah, a tribute to ‘Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad. Because the image is mirrored in each side of the calligraphy, the viewer’s eyes go back and forth between the two sides, providing a silent repetition of the depicted expression. The description of the Prophet, known as a hilye (fig. 5), features the Basmalah; this piece also incorporates the phrase Inna Allah ala kull shay qadir, linking the phrase five times to create a circle with the name of the Prophet at the centre. This is a five-fold repetition of the phrase, “For God hath power over all things,” and this circular Ouroborosian pattern also gives the impression that the repetition of this statement can go on forever.

Fig. 4 “Calligraphic panel with the inscription ‘Ali is the viceregent of God,'” Ottoman, Eighteenth-century

Fig. 5 “Hilye,” Ottoman, n.d.

The Accessible Qur’an

One can find Qur’anic calligraphy in a variety of places, including on walls (fig. 6 depicts a person contemplating the name of Allah), dishes, tiles, carpets (normally hung on walls), and signs. Multiple surahs are depicted on the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, arguably one of the most recognizable and beautiful buildings in the world (fig. 7 & fig. 8). While Leaman argues that this use of secular objects to convey a sacred message detracts from the religiosity of Qur’anic calligraphy (39), one could also argue that this widespread transmission and recollection of the Qur’an is a reminder of God’s omnipresence. While Leaman agrees that this rather mystical view “fits nicely with the Sufi principle that the distinction between the sacred and the secular is basically unreal, and that if we look hard enough at the latter we shall discover it is really the same as the former” (39) it does not appear to be a theory that he accepts. Keeping in mind that the earliest versions of the written Qur’an were written on all manner of materials, the depiction of Qur’anic passages on such “secular” substances and places recalls this past.

Fig. 6 “Allah,” Erdine Old Mosque, Turkey, 1999

Fig. 7 “Taj Mahal,” Arga, India, 2009

Fig. 8 “Taj Mahal Detail,” Agra, India, 2009

The Inaccessible Qur’an

In his foreword to Ink and Gold: Islamic Calligraphy, Claus-Peter Haase points out that “the fact has been neglected that the beauty of a calligraphic design is not wholly connected to its ‘readability’” (7). This illegibility is in keeping with the earliest Qur’anic compositions. During the Prophet’s time any written surah lacked vowels and double consonants, meaning that unless you already knew what the surah said, you probably couldn’t read it. (Mattson, 90-91). Leaman goes so far as to state that “some styles of kufic and shikasta writing are deliberately illegible, and perhaps doubly beautiful” (37). The Qur’an leaf below (fig. 9) depicts surah 69 and is basically illegible, even for those that can read Kufic script (Fraser & Kwiatkowski 45). This illegibility and unreadability demands that the beholder of the work turn inwards, reminding us that the primary function of the Qur’an is not to be read by scholars or students, but to be appreciated by the devout as the undoubted Word of God.

Fig. 9 “Qur’an leaf in Kufic script,” Near East or North Africa, Late ninth-century


Orality maintained a place of prominence and importance in the Muslim community. The rather astonishing decision to arrange God’s Word outside the order in which it was given, choosing instead to organize it in a manner that reflected a system of memorization, indicates the importance placed on the eternality of the text rather than mere chronology. Muhammad and the early Muslim community placed importance on the ability to read and write, yet orality was maintained, not only in the compiled Qur’an, but in the daily spiritual rituals practiced by Muslims.

Calligraphy developed alongside the compiled Qur’an, through myriad systems of change and standardization. Despite the geographical and chronological distances covered by this art, calligraphy has maintained the inherent orality of the original Revelation. By examining multiple examples of Qur’anic calligraphy one finds the oral tradition carried on in the brevity, the repetition, the accessibility, and the inaccessibility of the original, spoken Qur’an.


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