Calligraphy as Identity: Defining Arabness in Script

Art shows us how to navigate the delicate balance between then and now, me and you, us and them

Calligraphy as Identity: Defining Arabness in Script
Calligraphy by Everitte Barbee for New Lines

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Is it possible to speak of a shared “Arabness” — what I’ve taken to calling an Arab affinity — without falling into the trap of definitions and censure, of determining our belonging by measuring the un-belonging of others? And can art, specifically the art of Arabic calligraphy, help us find our way through such entanglements?

That the people of our region are mired in an identity crisis is a claim that surfaces repeatedly, most often in times of economic stress. We hear it in politics — usually accompanied by blatant xenophobic sentiments aimed at immigrant and marginalized populations. Frequently the anxiety over identity is also expressed in cultural and linguistic terms. What invariably follows are labels and categories, definitions and frameworks. Often, it’s not so much about identifying an “us” as it is about decrying who is “not us.” There’s an inherently defensive, almost hysterical quality to these campaigns that masks a deep insecurity. It comes down to whether you think of identity as the sum of what Amin Maalouf calls the “genes of the soul” or whether you see identity as performance, a declaration aimed at someone for some purpose.

There’s no escaping the influence of others, and questions about what is mine, ours and theirs remain tangled. Art can be a comforting home for such entanglements. Content with contradictions, resistant to the bottlenecks of definition, art is a space where the individual can speak without making declarations. The artist’s task is articulating truth as the artist sees it, messy and irreconcilable, leaving it up to the viewer to find meaning. What is the artist’s and what is shared is for others to debate. This tension between the individual and the collective has played out in all sorts of arenas, including on perhaps the unlikeliest of stages: contemporary Arabic calligraphy.

In the world of calligraphy, we find a microcosm of the debates that have plagued Arab modernity since the 19th-century “nahda” (“Arab Awakening”). There’s an undercurrent of anxiety, a restlessness revolving around the same axes — conservative or progressive, Islamic or secular, accommodating or radical, traditional or modern — binaries and polarities, perhaps another Western import. In the history of calligraphy, we’ll find even more dualities: Do we call calligraphy Arabic or Islamic? Is it about beauty or functionality? These are the intersecting circles in which we find ourselves ensnared. And at the center is the individual, the artist navigating a landscape — by turns laudatory and hostile — that goes back 1,400 years.

The art of Arabic calligraphy didn’t begin as an art at all, at least not in the sense that we understand art. Calligraphy’s beginnings were functional and divinely oriented. Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, the first caliphs applied themselves to the task of canonizing the Quran, and consequently the Arabic script (which, like the language, predates Islam) was bent to a specific purpose. It had to be clear as well as beautiful, allowing for a precise reading of words that were direct revelations from the Creator. To comprehend the enormity of this responsibility, one must understand what makes Islam’s holy book unique. Muslims believe the Quran is the direct word of God, unadulterated by human interference. The verses of the Quran, revealed to Muhammad, were immediately recorded by companions and memorized by followers. Consequently, though the second and third caliphs (Umar ibn al-Khattab and Uthman ibn Affan, respectively) set about gathering and canonizing these uncollected chapters, the words within were always the undiluted words of the Creator, voiced by Muhammad and set down in writing.

It’s easy to see how this divinity was then transposed onto the language itself, how it made Arabic a “truth language.” Consequently, developments in calligraphic script (primarily the oldest scripts — “hijazi,” from the Hejaz region of what would become western Saudi Arabia, and “kufi,” which became prominent in the eighth century as the caliphate moved to Iraq) during those first few centuries were driven by a desire for legibility.

Copying the Quran was a slow and laborious task — one that calligraphers still regard as a form of worship. This is not to say that beauty was sacrificed on the altar of functionality. There is, after all, a sublime quality to devotion that finds beauty in its expression, and calligraphy from its inception was understood to be a visual embodiment of the faith, providing what scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr calls “the external dress for the Word of God in the visible world.”

It wasn’t until the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1517) that a vizier by the name of Ibn Muqlah (died 940) laid down precise measurements and geometric rules that to this day serve as the foundation for those undergoing classic calligraphy training. An inventor of multiple styles, including “thuluth” and “naskh,” Ibn Muqlah developed a system called “al-khatt al-mansub” (“proportioned script”), which distilled the essence of Arabic lettering down to three measurements: the size of the “nuqta” (“dot”), drawn as a square; the height of the letter “alif”; and a circle with a diameter equal to the height of the “alif.” During Muhammad’s time the consensus was against adding dots to the letters, so by moving the nuqta front and center, Ibn Muqlah instigated an innovative leap forward in calligraphic development. From then on, the basic building block of the letter was the nuqta, seven of which formed the first letter of the alphabet, alif, which then determined the size of letters with circular dimensions, such as “ba,” “nun” and others.

However, the importance of the nuqta wasn’t limited to its function as a unit of measurement. As the faith grew mystical branches, the nuqta assumed unparalleled spiritual significance.

The Abbasid era gave birth to Islam’s Golden Age (eighth to 14th century), and the Baghdad-based caliphate saw to it that Arabic was not only the language of the faith but also the language of learning, culture, science and truly innovative thought, stretching from Persia to Andalusia in present-day Spain. It’s no accident that this era also saw a proliferation of Sufi philosophy, whose inward focus infused calligraphy with a mystical dimension that impacted the art in dramatic and lasting ways.

By far the most significant Sufi master was Muhyi al-Din ibn Arabi (died 1240). Ibn Arabi was an Andalusian whose ancestry lay in the mountain ranges of what would become Saudi Arabia. It’s difficult to overstate the profound influence Ibn Arabi has had not only on Islamic thought and philosophy but also on European thought: We find him cited, for instance, by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Ibn Arabi, who was a scholar, poet and prolific writer of over 700 works, wrote about cosmological concepts that pushed Sufi doctrine to new dimensions. Though he himself was not a calligrapher, in his seminal text “The Meccan Revelations” (“Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya”), Ibn Arabi composed profound meditations on the power of Arabic letters, essentially doubling down on the divinity of the language and what it truly means to consider it a sacred utterance.

Verse 117 of “surat al-baqara,” the second and longest chapter in the Quran, expresses the concept of existence as divine manifestation: “He is the Originator of the heavens and the earth. When He decrees a matter, He simply tells it, ‘Be,’ and it is.” We are made of elements — water, minerals, air, fire and passion — which, as Ibn Arabi says, are “material for bringing about the generation of our bodies.” We are then blown into life with divine breath: “‘Be’ and it is” (“Kun fa-yakūn”). At its core, this is a Platonic idea, and Ibn Arabi was greatly influenced by the ancient Greeks. Plato conceived of existence as a great chain of being, stretching from the lowest, the stationary and mute (minerals, stones and plants) to the ambulatory and sentient (such as animals) to higher beings like humans, who are moved by intellect and will. The Sufi master saw parallels here with our human acts of creation, of speech and writing, for as God breathed his spirit into humans, so we breathe life into letters, the building blocks of words. This was not a purely metaphorical gesture. For Ibn Arabi, language had the power to shape existence, and there was no separation between the sanctity of our Arabic script and our own status as entities infused with the divine spirit.

For contemporary calligraphy artist Ghaleb Hawila of Lebanon, the nuqta is “the essence of calligraphy,” so much so that he devoted his 2018 exhibit to exploring how the dot could inspire new understandings of humanity’s relationship with the universe. In this collection, Hawila uses natural materials — untreated wood, cotton thread and light — to meditate on the notion of creation as a chain of divine manifestation. In particular, his installation titled “Human” leads one along such a path of thought. The wooden relief features the words “mukawan min al-kawn” (“made from the universe”), composed of dots and written in square “kufi” script. The phrase is repeated four times in a circular pattern that leads the viewer to the center of the piece, where more dots are set in a square configuration (like a “kaaba,” we’ve been circumnavigating). As viewers move toward the center, the dots grow higher and the relief deepens, leading us to an intense contemplation of existence and our singular place in it.

In the Ottoman Empire, calligraphy leaped forward so audaciously — on both the functional and aesthetic levels — that by its waning years, the thuluth and naskh scripts would reach what many believe to be the zenith of their development at the hands of master calligraphers like Mustafa Rakim (died 1826) and Muhammed Shawqi (died 1887). This was an era that saw the creation of the “tughra” (“sultan’s seal”), a sophisticated emblem that was used to sign the sultan’s communications and official decrees. The calligraphic design of the tughra was composed of visual elements holding great symbolic power: The two concentric loops on the left side denoted the Mediterranean and the Black seas, the bodies of water the sultan held sway over; the three vertical lines extending from the top of the design signified independence, while the lines protruding from the right side symbolized the might of the empire’s sword; and finally, the s-shaped curves crossing the vertical lines stood for winds blowing from east to west, the customary movement of the Ottomans.

It’s not difficult to see that this was also the period when the art of calligraphy lost its “Arabness” and was solidified as Islamic, pivotal to the cultural identity of a great empire that was in constant competition with the world, particularly on its western borders. As a result, calligraphy and other Islamic aesthetics — such as those expressed in the architectural designs of mosques and the art of manuscript illumination (known as “zakhrafa” or “tathhib” in Arabic) — became the visual signs of the empire’s might. If Western art excelled in reproducing humans’ image in frescoes on chapel ceilings or in sculptures of cold marble, aniconic Islamic art compelled its practitioners to seek innovative and abstract modes of creative expression. As the dominant strand of Islam at the time, Sufism — with its symbolic, metaphorical and philosophical language — was the prime engine for driving this innovation.

Already considered divine, calligraphy attained political cachet through its elevation by successive sultans. As many as 15 sultans were trained calligraphers, and the sultan’s calligrapher was a prized position in the “diwan” or “royal court.” This official interest in the art by the centralized authority of the sultanate pushed master calligraphers to develop new styles (such as diwani) as well as refine and elaborate existing ones.

Calligraphic innovations during this period began with Sheikh Hamdullah of Amasya (died 1520), whose style would endure for two centuries and earn him the moniker “father of Ottoman calligraphy” — as clear a sign as any of the desire to divorce the art from its Arab roots. When his childhood friend, the future Sultan Bayezid II, assumed the throne in 1481, Hamdullah was invited to take up the position of court calligrapher. Soon after, the sultan acquired several manuscripts by the last great Abbasid-era calligrapher, Yaqut al-Mustasimi (died 1298), and imposed upon Hamdullah to develop a new script inspired by the master’s work. Despairing at what he saw as an impossible task, the sheikh went into seclusion, during which time he claimed to have been taught new scripts in a vision (Sufism widely recognized the validity of prophetic dreams and personal witnessing). He emerged with a refinement of Mustasimi’s style that was more elegant and legible, leading it to become the standard script for writing the Quran.

Other innovations during this period were driven by masters such as Hafiz Osman (died 1698), a native of Istanbul who instructed multiple sultans in the art of calligraphy. A great admirer of Hamdullah’s work, Osman would copy his manuscripts over and over in order to perfect his craft. He revived and reintroduced a number of scripts that had fallen into disuse and developed his own style, which would eventually replace that of the sheikh. Osman also beautified and standardized the layout of the “hilye,” a calligraphic panel containing a hadith-based text describing Muhammad’s physical attributes, which served a talismanic and devotional function.

So, while calligraphers were encouraged to innovate the art and refine its styles, these developments remained under the auspices of the centralized authority of the sultan and the empire he commanded. According to contemporary calligraphy artist Jassim AlNasrallah, “Islamic art was founded on Islamic civilization,” and thus all artistic endeavors in this era sought to express the ethos and identity of the empire or caliphate to which they belonged. AlNasrallah wonders where this leaves the artist who must perhaps suppress personal ambitions and function as “an instrument put into the service of a pre-set collective identity.” Calligraphers were bound by the centralized and communal sense of self that propelled the entire empire and, in the process, helped construct a holistic Islamic civilization that would govern a vast and ethnically diverse region for over 600 years.

Let’s return to the beginning, to where we are now. The Ottoman Empire has crumbled, there will be no more caliphates, the idea of a pan-Arab state was always dead in the water. There is no centralized authority to push the art of calligraphy in this or that direction, no agreed-upon sense of who we are and what we stand for. There are only calligraphers, the artists. And just like the rest of us, they’re atomized and dispersed in a world that values the individual. In such an era, the rhetoric of belonging reverberates louder than ever, with individuals engaged in a frantic inventory of all the components of their personhood.

In his book “In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong” (1998), Amin Maalouf speaks of what he calls “genes of the soul,” the manifold and often contradictory elements that make up who we are. Some of these “genes” are external and not of our choosing (where we’re born, into which family, which faith community), while others are acquired and at times consciously chosen as we live out our lives (the friends who leave an impression on us, the books we read, the music we dance to, our travels and adventures). Not only do we catalog these elements that accumulate like sediment to form the strata of our personhood, but we also rank them. Some elements are prioritized while others are disregarded or even concealed. We determine where our allegiances lie and that is where we invest our sense of belonging and therefore our sense of self. The quest for identity, for Maalouf, is driven by a need to belong — to exist, to be within whatever it is we yearn for. The public aspect of this quest, its performative nature, further points to a desire to have this identity affirmed by those around us. There is no Arab “individual” — not really.

Where does this leave us, then? What are the dimensions of our identities? Is the idea of “Arabness” so porous and malleable that it allows for literally infinite expression? Or does the acceptance of literally infinite expression dissolve Arab identity into a kind of murky soup where there’s nothing tangible to grasp?

Questions of identity are always triggering, and they were no less so with the calligraphers I spoke to for this piece. eL Seed, who is both Tunisian and French and sees neither a need to choose between the two nor a need to place them in a hierarchy, assures me that “you cannot define identity because it is constantly evolving.” Arabic calligraphy has allowed him to reconcile the hybrid nature of his personhood; and much in the way that it served to bridge the French and Tunisian aspects of himself, eL Seed’s art serves to bridge communities. For him, “the art of calligraphy is a sub-layer of the human experience, and artists are here to open the conversation.” Perhaps that is what identity is at the end of the day, a conversation you keep having over and over — with yourself and with those around you.

Hawila spoke to me of concentric circles, how there is a core essence of being that is perhaps inarticulable and beyond definition, around which the wider influences of family, tribe, religion, nation and so on may revolve: internal and external, in constant dialogue, in a way that classic calligraphy has no conceptual space for. There’s still too strong a link with religion, he says, where Arab audiences in particular have a knee-jerk reaction to calligraphic art, always looking for the Islamic in it. Hawila, like eL Seed and others, aims to move beyond that framework. For them, to view calligraphy as art means to view it as human expression, one that transcends labels and discourses, to touch upon the essence of what it means to be alive.

For other calligraphers I spoke to — Narjes Noureddine from the United Arab Emirates, or Iraq’s Wissam Shawkat, for example — the question of Arab identity expressed through the art of calligraphy seemed an unnecessary one. We are who we are. We are Arabs, and that will undoubtedly emerge in any of our endeavors, whether we are conscious of it or not. This is the conclusion.

When the line “atini an-nay wa ghuni” (“give me the flute and sing”) makes its way from a 1919 poem by Kahlil Gibran to a 1965 melody sung by Fairuz to a calligraphic piece by Dubai-based artist Majid al-Yousef, who sets the words down in a diwani script that goes back half a millennium — this is the Arabness I speak about. It’s an Arabness that transcends borders, religion and even language, an Arabness that reaches across history and whatever political circumstances may divide us in the present, to say, “We are a people.”

Our identities are both a quest and an unresolvable negotiation. To arrive at an authentic sense of self, it is perhaps necessary to keep one foot in the past, to maintain some link with those who came before us and what they have added to the rich tapestry of who we are. As much as we want to be seen as individuals, to be recognized on our terms rather than ones we’ve inherited or that have been granted to us through association, we can’t help but also desire to feel part of something larger than ourselves. It’s no use to break away entirely, to disavow the past and float, untethered and unmoored, in a world that doesn’t offer safe harbor. Art shows us how to navigate the delicate balance between then and now, me and you, us and them. It shows us that in between is a perfectly fine place to belong, that there’s room enough for all ideas of what it means to be Arab.

This article was published in the Summer 2023 issue of New Lines’ print edition.

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