Islamic Art


What is Islamic Art and Calligraphy. Read some of the criticism in Islamic Art.

Criticism in Islamic Art

The Case of Calligraphy


How often I have been at exhibitions of Islamic calligraphy, both my own work and that of others, and heard this or that pundit exclaim, “Oh, what a beautiful nun he has written here, but oh, that sad over there is not so good” or something along that line. How odd, especially considering that the poor fellow has no clue of what constitutes good or bad calligraphy. What a quandary. I began to wonder to what degree such attitudes have permeated other branches of the study of Islamic art. Was there any way out?


We all seek understanding of Islamic art—that is, the arts of Islamic peoples and the arts in the service of this religion, arts we find so worthy of study and admiration. Yet something has been missing, some dimension. It’s not enough to say that this piece is old or this one is from Mosul, this one’s of courtly manufacture, and from this and that collection. True, the Islamic arts were created, existed, and used within a particular sphere of influence—the context of many cultural realities—as were most early arts. It was a large sphere with many entrances and exits, but it no longer functions as such, and isolation is a thing of the past. Islamic art is now accessible to anyone, anywhere through museum exhibitions, books, and the internet.


So how to understand it, especially its artistic values? Art is made by people. What was in their minds? How did they judge the success or failure of their work? I think the key to opening such doors is criticism. With criticism we begin to see Islamic art in the light of pure art. The scholars in our field have done an excellent job of answering the questions of historical context and provenance. This question is a little more subjective.


In attempting to answer it, I will draw on my own field—calligraphy—and use the Turkish names and spellings that are integral to the tradition I was trained in. (For the reader’s convenience, I have made slight alterations, using jeli, for example, rather than the Turkish celi.)



How do we find the criteria by which the consumers of Islamic art judged calligraphy? Surely they judged! Historically, Muslims were people who delighted in distinguishing qualities. They were critical people in many ways. To be specific and practical, we need a tool, and I propose the tool is to be found in two sources: the literature of calligraphy and the on-the-ground artifact record. Though often contradictory, the two, for the large part, confirm each other. I will concentrate on the literary record here, with some references to the artifacts.


No other visual art caught the Muslim imagination with such excitement as calligraphy, or gave birth to such an immense body of descriptive and critical writing. We have accounts, advice, and biography by and about calligraphers. The surviving record of actual existing works tends to confirm the literary sources, although there are extensive areas that, lacking the documentation, remain points of surmise, such as the true names of very early scripts or an Arabic vocabulary for the art of illumination.


The literature has many facets. It is very diffuse, full of myths and legends about the origins of Arabic writing, religious perspectives, and an important body of appreciative aphorisms, all of which helped establish the legitimacy of practice and the material value of collecting among its advocates. This literature is rather flowery. Here is an example from al Ma’mun’s vizier Umar ibn Musida (d. 832 CE):


“The scripts are like a garden of the sciences. They are a picture whose spirit is elucidation. The body is swiftness. The feet are regularity. Its limbs are skill in the details of knowledge. Its composition is like the composition of musical notes and melodies.”


With the exception of the intriguing final sentence, this florid prose is largely useless. Still, it suggests that even before the calligraphic reforms of Ibn Muqla (d. 940 CE), there was already a tradition of connoisseurship. This was just two hundred years after the Prophetic period.


At this time, Korans and other religious texts were written in what is becoming known now as the mawzun scripts, what used to be called Kufic. Other scripts were used for more mundane types of texts, such as government documents and books. For a more useful definition of these early scripts, it is valuable to look at the great compendia in Arabic, such as the Subh al-A’sha of al-Qalqashandi, the Miftah as-Sa’ada of Tashköprüzade, and the Nihayat-al-Arab. These volumes include extensive treatment of most aspects of writing in the middle period—that is, the Baghdad centuries and the years of the Mamluks, coinciding with the rise and fall of the Abbasid state (749-1258 CE) and ending with the decline of Mamluk power. The early period, while not totally missing in this literature, is glimpsed only darkly.


The most remarkable and complete work from this period that is devoted solely to calligraphy and is still extant today was written by Ziftawi, who died in 1403 in Mamluk Egypt. This work, Minhaj-ul-Isaba, was famously plagiarized by a calligrapher, At-tibi, around 1500. The plagiarized manuscript, now in the Topkapi Library in Istanbul, has two advantages over the original: it is written in better calligraphy, and it includes a final section of over twenty examples of scripts common at that time, each named very carefully. That makes it a veritable Rosetta Stone for the correct forms and characteristics of the various styles in use at the time. So far, this is the most important text for tying a script to a correct name, giving us a very good tool for script identification.


An early example of a critical analysis of scripts is a passage from Ibn Muqla, founder of the “Proportioned Styles.” Concerning the letter dal, or D, he says, “And regarding its being written, you test it by drawing a line touching its two extremities and thus it becomes a triangle with equal sides.” This geometric approach to standardizing writing styles gave calligraphers the beginnings of repeatability, relation, and proportion—and susceptibility to criticism. Ibn Muqla’s critical approach was simple and straightforward, but for a practitioner it was almost useless. Something better had to come along.


The following principles of calligraphic aesthetics are said to have originated with Ibn Muqla:


  • At-tawfiya—giving each letter its full complement of linear movement, curve, angle, etc.


  • Al-itmam—giving each letter its full dimension


  • Al-ikmal—giving each letter its full shape


  • Al-ishba—giving each letter the proper thicks and thins by the use of the pen


  • Al-irsal—the power and command of the writer over his tools and materials to give will, drive, and motion to the writing


  • At-tarsif—joining letters to make words


  • At-ta’lif—harmonious use of the non-connecting letters


  • At-tastir—joining word to word until the whole becomes a well-composed line


  • At-tansil—finding the best locations for stretching ligatures to improve legibility and flow


  • Al insijam—harmony between all elements in writing.


These are things that students of calligraphy learn and try to embody in their writing until it becomes second nature. It’s a little like a musician practicing his scales. These principles still apply, even though the art of calligraphy has progressed immeasurably. They can be employed in analyzing all Islamic calligraphy, old and new.


Nevertheless, it was only later in the work of Ibnul Bawwab (d. 1022 CE), that the geometric concept began to take off and become more practical. This calligrapher, who was an odd though learned savant in Baghdad—a man who had emerged through merit only—made in many ways the biggest break with the past. We don’t know enough about him, but fortunately we do have a Koran that he wrote, which is in the Chester Beatty collection, and several manuscripts that are very probably his. He was a very keen intellect and a shrewd judge of people’s abilities, especially after a life of being harassed and lampooned by the fops and dandies of the Abbasid court. He adopted odd ways of dress and discourse, probably as a defense against constant taunting about his lowly origins. He was also a famous preacher and religious figure at a time when Baghdad was a pretty racy place.


Most sources misidentify the script Ibnul Bawwab used to write the Beatty Koran as naskh or even the wretched name naskhi. By studying the sources, however, we see that Ibnul Bawwab said:


“As for the rayhan script [or rayhani as we call it now], its relation to muhaqqaq is as hawashi is to naskh. The letters of rayhan are written like muhaqqaq, except they are smaller and finer and the vowels and reading marks are written with the same pen as the writing. [The vowels and marks of muhaqqaq and thuluth are added later in a smaller pen.] These two styles are distinguished by the fact that the letters mim, waw, middle ha, and final ain and qaf are not written closed, but as if light shines forth from their openings.”


From texts such as this, and from comparison with extant examples from the time and later, as well as examples and texts about what constitutes naskh, there can be no doubt that this Koran was actually written in the rayhan script. Another way to tell rayhan from naskh is the tarwis, the dots on top of the letters, on both the alif and the lam. That is another characteristic of rayhan, which is a member of the muhaqqaq family.


Ibnul Bawwab’s influence lasted until the thirteenth century. His style is written characteristically with a slightly angled nib, giving an instantly recognizable heavyish look. His school survived in Egypt through the fifteenth century. It was advocated by the Mamluk establishment, which did not care for the writing reforms of Yaqut al Mustasimi (d. 1298 CE), the last originator of a school in Baghdad. Yaqut cut the pen more obliquely, giving the writing more delicacy. His vertical letters were much slimmer, giving a drive downwards toward the left.


All the modern schools today are based on the reforms made by Yaqut during his long life. It is fairly easy to distinguish between works produced under either one of these schools. Hybrid styles, which are common, are a different challenge altogether. We see them mostly in medical manuscripts and other literature, particularly texts written quickly by ordinary scribes.


The Baghdad period, roughly 749-1248, was a gestational period of the main line of Arabic script calligraphy. Other branches broke away earlier and evolved separately, such as the Andalusian, West African, and North African styles. The use of these scripts tends to coincide with the spread of the Maliki school of fiqh and the Medinan version of the Koran, which requires specific orthographic details. Although these styles conform to Ibn Muqla’s ten principles, they are visually quite distinct: some are tight and compact, while others are open and flowing. In well-written examples of these scripts, however, you see wonderful , or harmony, that runs through all the letters as if what happens at one point resounds at another.



For the historian of calligraphy, the early scripts can strike a note of awe. One can always stand amazed at their beauty. The people of the time found these works to be the top of the line, the pinnacle of the art, which of course they were. But as time went by and new technologies and materials became available—such as paper and paper treatments, better inks, new illumination schemes—changes were needed. Art must never stand still.


The art of calligraphy spread from Baghdad most spectacularly in Persia, especially with the Persians’ inventions of talik and nastalik, and in Mamluk Egypt. The Mamluks, preferring the style of Ibnul Bawwab, cultivated and refined it and produced the best examples of that school. The most extraordinary and controversial calligrapher in the Mamluk court was Muhammad Ibnul Wahid, a native of Damascus who lived from 1249 to 1311.


An outstanding example of his work is the famous seven-volume Golden Koran of Sultan Baybars in the British Museum—it takes your breath away. Quite big, the pages are as smooth as a baby’s skin with a wonderful yellowish-pink color. The writing is pure Ibnul Bawwab style in the tawqi script, produced by writing with hot glue on the paper, putting gold leaf down over the glue, and finally, outlining the letters. The result is not only spectacular but very regular, legible, and cleverly arranged. (Note: The Sultan Baybars Koran is digitally available through the British Library)


Ibnul Wahid was a multi-talented man who spoke many languages. A bit of a dandy, he was not widely liked. He settled in Egypt, where he worked at the royal chancellery. He was said to put wine in his ink while writing holy Korans, a detestable act if true. It could have been sour grape juice, which was used to give ink more fluidity, or the story could be a slander born of envy or malice. Ibnul Wahid was considered lazy and unreliable as to deadlines, yet he was a peerless calligrapher, as the accounts of contemporaries and the manuscript artifacts all attest. Sultan Baybars was urged to fire Ibnul Wahid from the diwan al-insha (state chancery), but he rebutted the detractors, saying, “Only if someone who can write like him comes along.” He was, I think without question, the finest calligrapher of that period.


For our purposes, some of Ibnul Wahid’s critical observations are worthy of study. We can sample some of his sharp wit and keen observation in the commentaries he made on Ibnul Bawwab’s great poem on calligraphy. Here are two hemistiches from Ibn al-Bawwab followed by commentaries by Ibnul Wahid.


  • Ibnul Bawwab: “Bravely put forth your right hand to write. No one obtains his desire like the bold.”
  • Ibnul Wahid: “Most people fear their effort will not be successful. This thought will cause cowardice, and that will disturb the hand.”
  • Ibnul Bawwab: “Don’t be embarrassed by the ugliness you will write when you first copy the words of the masters and draw the letters.” [As a teacher of calligraphy, I can attest to that.]
  • Ibnul Wahid: “The weak and ignorant person is ashamed that people will see his shortcomings during this learning stage. Thus he will withdraw from learning due to his arrogance and foolishness and will remain ignorant all his life.” [That’s as true today as it was then.]


Ibnul Wahid must have felt that he lived in a world full of dunces and knaves, which gave him his edgy quality. In Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani’s biography, we learn that Ibnul Wahid reached the pinnacle of prowess in the muhaqqaq and naskh scripts and that no one of his time could come close to him in those scripts. In fact, he was no slouch when it came to tawqi and the thuluth family scripts as well.


When we look at an example said to be by Ibnul Wahid (David James, Qurans of the Mamluks, p. 39, figure 17),* we see the jalil ath-thuluth script on the top in gold and jalil al-muhaqqaq under it. Clearly, the attribution to Ibnul Wahid can’t hold water. If we apply the criteria of these scripts to the example, which is part of a widely dispersed manuscript, we can see that it is poorly executed, ill formed, and not at all the work of an experienced Mamluk artist, but rather an immature work of some kind. The illumination here is very lavish, quite gorgeous, and very expensive in its production. So it is a beautiful artwork, but not a beautiful piece of calligraphy. Who actually wrote it and why remains a mystery. If we find the colophon someday, we may find out, but the manuscript has unfortunately been cut up.


* Note: For photographs of this and other works referred to, see the works cited in the text; full publishing information is provided in the Bibliography.




The comments of the calligraphers form a continuum of thought throughout the centuries. In spite of the different styles of script and different materials used, these comments have been surprisingly relevant to calligraphers in all ages, even today. These statements form the bulk of the literature that advised subsequent calligraphers. In addition, a wide body of unwritten lore circulated among the calligraphers and their students, and many memoirs remain unpublished. Like the teaching methods themselves, the literature—written and unwritten—was passed on, and augmented, from teacher to student. The process continues to this day.


In Ottoman times calligraphy became an even more honored subject. From the 1600s to the 1900s, a small but important number of books were written, among them the Gulzar-i Sawab (The Rose Garden of the True Method); the Devhut ul-Kuttab (The Shade Tree of the Scribes); Tufhe-I Hattatin, the marvelous work on the calligraphers by Mustakim Zade; the Hat ve Hattatan (Calligraphy and the Calligraphers) of Habib Efendi; and the Mizan ul-Hat (The Balance Scale of Calligraphy). The twentieth century saw some top-flight scholars, such as Mahmud Kamal Inal, Süheyl Unver, and Ugur Derman, who all contributed to the literature. Many of these works concerned biography and contained valuable details on calligraphy itself, such as the Mustaqimzade’s Sanihas, or Inspirations.


In the late nineteenth century, two brothers came to Istanbul from Elmali in southwest Turkey. The older, Hamdi Efendi, became such a fine calligrapher that the master Bakkal Arif Efendi (d.1909) said, “If Hamdi Efendi had not been so busy with religious knowledge and had spent most of his time on calligraphy, no other names would remain.” Hamdi Efendi went on to write what is arguably the best Koranic commentary of the twentieth century, finishing it in 1937. He died in 1942.


His younger brother Mahmud also wanted to be a calligrapher and studied with numerous masters, but, sadly, his skill never developed to a high degree. Nevertheless, he knew the times and the big and small names. He took lessons with Rakim Efendi, the son of Bakkal Arif, and with Ömer Vasfi (Deli Ömer), Aziz Efendi, and Hulusi Efendi. He absorbed the lore of these men and their friends and students. He copied by hand his brother’s commentary—over six thousand pages—in a tiny rika script, completing the task in 1942. The commentary fills thirteen volumes, four hundred and some pages each. It’s mind-boggling. And the writing style is marvelous, not just the calligraphy. This commentary, called Hak Dini Kuran Dili, or The True God’s Religion and the Language of the Koran, was transcribed into Latin script and remains in circulation today, although in slightly modernized language. Mahmud Hoça died in 1952.


The importance of Mahmud Yazir’s work cannot be overemphasized. He learned calligraphy unadulterated in its natural setting—the studio. His exposure to European philosophical thought helped him to formulate his own concepts and observations, adapting them to a classic Islamic art. Through this synthesis, he originated what might well be the essentials of a comprehensive general theory of Islamic art. He expressed his concepts in his three-volume masterpiece, Kalem Guzeli, or The Beauty of the Pen, edited and brought to the public by Ugur Derman. In this work, Mahmud Yazir often used his own calligraphy to demonstrate bad calligraphy as opposed to good. We can be thankful that he was not too proud to do so.


For our purposes, two subjects are prominent: his definition of the concept of the breath-like flow of the pen and what he called siritan yer, “the grimacing place”—the spot that grimaces, or attracts undue attention. “Writing should flow through the line and across the page smoothly,” he said, “like breath. Every line, every detail should visually flow.” This is an interesting way of expressing what in modern terms would be the concept of seamlessness or even of being in the zone.


He describes artlessness and naturalness in art, suggesting that writing should have no artificiality. Writing should look so natural that it would seem to the viewer as if it had just grown there spontaneously, not as the result of labor. Yazir suggests that this concept originated with Ibnul Bawwab and Yakut al Mustasimi, but I have not been able to trace it back to them. You can see examples of that flow in levhas produced in gold from an original stencil made by Kadiasker Mustafa Izzet, the giant of the nineteenth century calligraphers (Nabil Safwat, The Art of the Pen, p. 150, nos. 78 and 79). This stencil, or kalip, began as calligraphy written with arsenic ink on a dark paper. The stencil was made by piercing along the edges of each letter with a needle and then pounding chalk dust or carbon dust through the holes onto stone or another paper surface and making a reproduction from the that—a kind of calligraphic connect the dots.


Such stencils are, in a sense, more interesting than the final works, because you can see in them the actual motions that the pen makes. You can also judge the ability of the copier from the results. Consider, for example, reproductions made from the Mustafa Izzet stencil. Two that are in the Khalili collection were reproduced by the zerendud method—that is, painting in gold—by rather inferior gilders. You can see the rough, uneven look of the letter edges, the lack of harmony of thicks and thins.


A third levha from the same kalip—this one is in the Sabanci collection—was produced by a fine gilder whose name is not known but who was, in my estimation, one of the greatest gilders of the time (M. Ugur Derman, “Calligraphy,” in The Sabanci Collection, p. 121). The result is perfection. The rhythm and the flow are there abundantly. This is the Kadiasker’s work in full flower. The composition is perfect. The illumination around the borders, although of a style that is not in vogue today, is a beautiful version of what is called Ottoman baroque, incorporating elements from the European decorative arts. It works excellently.


In his discussion of the flow, Yazir borrows a term from classical Arabic literary criticism called as-sahl al-mumtani (in Turkish, sehl-i mümteni) which means the quality of a difficult goal accomplished with such skill that it appears to be easy. This is the Italian sprezzatura. Yazir uses this term often. For example, he says:


“In a calligraphic work in which the pen is seen to have not been flowing like breath—the quality of sehl-i mümteni required for the art—the quality that indicates the natural state does not exist at all.”


Yazir gives the conditions necessary for the calligraphers to see the flow, to accomplish it, and to nurture it. It is very difficult, he says:


“The hand must both be submissive to the pen and dominate it. This domination along with the harmonizing quality of naturalness is a delicate and difficult page from the story of the art of writing. At first glance, it is difficult to explain the concept of “naturalness within domination.” In order to give the pen’s traces that breath-like flow, the writer’s will must leave the pen free just enough for the required action. The pen will not be totally submissive to this freedom, however. Pens are recalcitrant and unruly tools. Rather, the pen will apply this freedom by being dominated by the hand. To dominate the pen’s flow is more meaningfully expressed as “to dominate in giving it its own natural characteristics.”


I think a classical musician would understand that. (For the full discussion of this point, see number 11 in Yazir.)


Another concept found only once in Yazir’s three volumes is what he called the places that grimace at you. I was stumped by this term and I asked my late friend, the classical Ottoman musician Cinucen Tanrikorur, about it. He said the concept is known even in music. It refers to any element in a work of art or music that draws too much attention, such as a mistake, a bad note, a distraction. Yazir calls such a spot a falso, a bad note, that seems to gnash its teeth at you like a gremlin. It can be said to be a focal point, but a negative one.


A work by Sami Efendi in the Sabanci collection (Derman, “Calligraphy,” in The Sabanci Collection, pp. 52 and 143) was produced by an innovative gilder who took one of Sami’s stencils and made a beautiful piece out of it, painting in gold. Here we see the flow in its most perfect and majestic form. It doesn’t get much better than this, and then, even in the illumination, the gilder did a very innovative thing. He took a rather normal scroll pattern and turned it into almost a work of Art Nouveau.


I began to look at Islamic art—not just calligraphy, but music, metalwork, literature, and architecture—with these principles in mind. With the exception of Islamic folk art, the absence of a focal point seems to be a guiding principle, the idea being to give equal value to all areas and elements of the work. At one time, this was achieved in calligraphy by use of complex patterning, which created visual and actual textures that counterbalanced the areas of writing and the border spaces. Borders, colors, golds, and burnishing effects all balance the various elements and give energy and tension to the work. Bad writing, on the other hand, has focal points—you can’t take your eyes off of them.




These two principles—flow and lack of focal point—can be applied in judging the success and failure of an artwork. A piece in jeli talik from the Khalili collection (Safwat, The Art of the Pen, p. 169, no. 103) illustrates the total lack of flow. Nothing is right about it. The original it was made from was bad, and the copy was badly done. The letterforms are just bad enough to grate, especially the droopy nuns and the khi of khaba. The line has no rhythm. The colors are jarring, and the border is inappropriate. There’s nothing natural about it—the whole thing just gnashes its teeth. This is what Ugur Derman would call a catastrophic piece of calligraphy (hat felaketi).


On the other hand, a priceless and rare levha by Sami Efendi, also in jeli talik and also from Khalili (Safwat, The Art of the Pen, p. 169, no. 101), is in every respect a knockout. No part of the writing is less than perfect, and some elements are innovative. The line flows like breath, totally natural and artless. The tonalities of gold and their relationship to the background are a perfect fit. The illumination scheme is daring and brilliantly achieved. As Professor Derman says of such a work, “The eyes cannot get their fill.”


Two hilyes from the Khalili collection (Safwat, The Art of the Pen, p. 62, no. 34 and p. 63, no. 35) demonstrate the presence and absence of focal points. Photos can be misleading, however, since you need to actually see and feel the burnish, light and texture, etc. The first is by Pazarcikli Mehmed Hulusi, one of the students of Shefik Bey. The calligraphy is pedestrian but not bad. The illumination by the enigmatic Osman Yumni, on the other hand, presents two grimacing or gnashing points: the green fringe and the dreadful big signature, which keeps pulling you in, distracting your eye from the whole to the unfortunate detail, rather than seeing the nice things he did—the subtle treatment around the gobek (the circular area, called the belly) and the nice little figures around the atek (the lower part, in nesih, called the skirt).


The second, by the great Yahya Hilmi, while a little more complex, is free of any focal points. No matter where you look, the values of the various elements don’t distract from one another. You can let your eyes roam across the piece at will and not get stuck anywhere, and the calligraphy is quite magnificent. Yahya Hilmi was a very interesting man, by the way. When he was a young fellow, he could write a Koran in one month, but by his old age it took him a whole year to write one.


The Library of Congress has a short book of Koranic selections reputed to be by the illustrious Sheikh Hamdullah, who died in 1520. I took Professor Derman there in 1998 for a look at it. He concluded that, in short, it is simply not the sheikh’s work. One of the many indicators is that the calligraphy is poor (no flow, bad letter forms, wiggly lines, completely weird formats—all impossible in the sheikh’s work). The illumination, however, was outstanding. Professor Derman applied his vast experience and knowledge of theory in his analysis of the piece, but apparently, the Library’s desire to possess a real Sheikh Hamdullah work won out. There is an authentic Sheikh Hamdallah album at the Walters Gallery in Baltimore, which is very useful in comparison.


Such criticism is useful for scholars of Islamic art in order to distinguish in such matters as attribution and dating, as well as artistic quality. As the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote, “What counts first and last in art is whether it is good or bad. Everything else is secondary.” We may not want to go quite that far, but his point is relevant nevertheless.


Two additional questions are also relevant when analyzing old Islamic artworks. First, how were they appreciated at the time they were made and by subsequent collectors? And second, how good are they from a modern perspective? A work of art can be a critical failure according to the standards of the time, yet be considered beautiful by modern standards. Similarly, a piece that was considered great in its time may be just plain kitsch today.


A 19th-century book of devotional miscellany (Safwat, The Art of the Pen, p. 269, no. 69) is an example of Ottoman kitsch. It’s well intentioned, based on a concept that was experimental at the time, but the piece is so poorly executed that it fails. On the other hand, a Koran by Hafiz Mehmed Rashid, from approximately the same period (Safwat, The Art of the Pen, p. 235, no. 59) is almost the same but works beautifully. Although its artistic value may be a little dubious, it’s still a very successful attempt. The work is much finer and the colors more harmonious. The design is a basic reworking of the classic Koranic serlevha, or double frontispiece. Only the background is gilded; all the elements are painted in gouache. Classicists do not generally appreciate the experimental qualities of such exuberant experiments, believing they are too distant from the canon of Islamic design and too close to Imperial Europe’s modes of artistic expression.


Calligraphic criteria can be applied to other arts as well to some extent, as if by qiyas (analogy). These criteria may have been present to some degree as part of the art and craft cultures of most Islamic societies. Of course many artworks that are critically good are also very dull and unexciting works to the modern eye, lacking that essential quality called ibda, or creativity, which Mahmud Yazir also discusses.


Look, for example, at the famous Persian miniature “Court of Gayumars” in the Houghton Shahname. Here we see all of the calligraphic ideals in action in another medium. The brush lines, the calligraphy itself, the color—all flow as easily as breath. Although the king is in a potentially focal setting, he is not the focal point. The entire painting is focal, as is each part of it. The eye is not inexorably drawn to one preordained spot, as is desirable in Western art, but must take in the entire piece at once or at least give each element equal time. The scene breaks into the border area, thus further breaking the focality of the whole page. The zerefshan border (sprinkled with flakes of gold leaf) mediates between the painting and the surrounding space. This, plus the sheer ibda, which is of the highest order, makes this a timeless, seamless masterpiece and elevates it over other, often brilliant works.


The complexity doesn’t hide the simplicity inherent in a great composition. Such a piece looks so natural that we can for a moment imagine that it simply grew, a work of nature untouched by the artist’s labor. Four small masterpieces demonstrate this effect.


The first is an Iranian nastalik piece by the calligrapher Mahmud Shihabi in the Khalili Collection (Safwat, The Art of the Pen, p. 133, no. 64). Here the zerefshan treatment in the borders, the whole layout, the simplicity, are simply breathtaking. But there’s a complexity in it. The triangular corner illuminations are complex, but they don’t distract.


The second is a double page from a murakkaa (album) by the great left-handed calligrapher, the founder of the Ottoman school of talik or nastalik, Mehmed Esad Efendi (M. Ugur Derman, Selected Works from the Calligraphy Collection, p. 125). It is so simple—no color, no design, no border illumination, just one totally seamless piece. The calligraphy doesn’t jump out at you. It just rides the wave.


At first glance, pages from a mufradet (lesson) album by Mehmed Shevki Efendi (Safwat, The Art of the Pen, pp. 29-31, no. 12) appear a bit gaudy. Each open page has different colors—oranges, reds, pinks, purples, browns—yet the same gilding technique is used on all the pages, harmonizing them and unifying the different colors. In other words, the simplicity of the pages, rather than the complexity, comes out, embued with exuberance.


Finally, an album by Hasan Riza (Safwat, The Art of the Pen, pp. 126-27, no. 60) has taken a complex concept and stripped it to the bone. This album is his homage to Sheikh Hamdullah, who did it originally; rather than producing a taklid (photo-accurate copy done by eye), however, Hasan Riza has imparted an overwhelmingly personal flavor to the work. He has taken out all the detail in the koltuks (the spaces on either side of the shorter lines, called armpits). Moreover, there is no border illumination. Instead the calligraphy is set in a beautiful red leather frame, which Hasan Riza probably did himself, and a wonderful peacock blue border with nothing in it at all. A narrow band of stamped gold and a fine white line—the finishing touch—complete this masterpiece of harmony, simplicity, and elegance. In my opinion, this is one of the greatest pieces ever made. It is simply stunning.


To be great, calligraphy must be artless, without artifice, and I believe this applies to other Islamic arts as well. Good art abounds, and our world is graced by it, but great art is very rare. Great art is artless because it is natural—the impossible made to seem easy. In this quality, great Islamic art is one with the great art of all cultures and times, and that’s what matters most. All else is secondary.



Derman, M. Ugur. “Calligraphy,” in The Sabanci Collection: Calligraphy, Paintings, Sculpture & Porcelain. Istanbul: Akbank Culture and Art Department, 1995.

Derman, M. Ugur. Selected Works from the Calligraphy Collection. Istanbul: Sakip Sabanci Museum, Sabanci University, n.d.

James, David. Qur’ans of the Mamluks. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1988.

Safwat, Nabil F. The Art of the Pen: Calligraphy of the 14th to 20th Centuries. Vol. 6 of The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art. London: The Nour Foundation, in association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1966.

Safwat, Nabil F. Golden Pages: Qur’ans and Other Manuscripts from the Collection of Ghassan I. Shaker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Yazir, Mahmud Bedreddin. Medeniyet Aleminde Yazi ve Islam Medeniyetinde Kalem Güzeli, vols. 1 and 2; second edition; edited by M. Ugur Derman. Ankara: Ayyildiz Matbaasi A.S. for the Department of Religious Affairs, 1981; out of print.

Yazir, Mahmud Bedreddin. Medeniyet Aleminde Yazi ve Islam Medeniyetinde Kalem Güzeli, vol. 3; second edition; edited by M. Ugur Derman. Ankara: Gaye Matbaacilik A.S. for the Department of Religious Affairs, 1989; out of print.


Copyright 2010 by Mohamed Zakariya. This article is taken from a presentation at Expanded Frontiers: An International Symposium on Islamic Art, sponsored by Virginia Commonwealth University-Qatar School of the Arts, November 2004, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.