JEDDAH/RIYAD: Arabic calligraphy is an integral part of Islamic civilization. The art form is integral to almost every aspect of Arab cultural expression.
Despite its importance in Islamic art and culture, however, its popularity seems to be declining among the masses. A number of reasons could be suggested as to why this is the case, perhaps the most plausible of which is the lack of promotion and visual representation of the Arabic language in the tools of modern technology – the most important being the Internet. .
Whatever the reason for the dwindling popular appeal and appreciation of this art form in the modern world, it nevertheless continues to survive in its classical form.
The importance of Arabic calligraphy comes from its connection to the Holy Quran, according to Dr. Nassar Mansour (@dr.nassarmansour), a Jordanian-Palestinian artist and calligrapher who teaches Islamic calligraphy and Quranic manuscripts at the College of Islamic Arts and architecture at the World Islamic University of Science and Education in Amman, Jordan.
The classical school fears, wrongly, that technology will kill its traditions; the basic skill and the principles of its teaching cannot be lost or eliminated.
The divine nature of the Quran forced the Arabs to rethink their writing and embellish it, he said, which gave the initial impetus to the development of this art form in the 7th century. Modern technology has had little effect on the classic forms of Arabic calligraphy which he believes will remain relevant due to their strong connection to the sacred text.
“However, the functional aspect of calligraphy has undoubtedly receded” since the advent of the printing press, he added.
The connection between Arabic calligraphy and the Quran means that its practice is first and foremost a religious experience, for which a set of rules have been developed over the centuries regarding patience and self-discipline. These rules are collectively known as “adab” (manners) among calligraphers, and it is mandatory for instructors and students to follow them.
Siraj Allaf (@sirajallaf), Saudi artist and engineer, studied calligraphy at the Grand Mosque in Mecca under the supervision of the famous calligrapher Ibrahim Al-Arafi. After years of training, he obtained his “ijazah”, or diploma, in traditional calligraphy. Studying calligraphy in this way is a rich and rewarding educational experience, especially for young people, he said.
“I learned endless life lessons from my master,” Allaf said. “I always say I learned everything from him, and calligraphy is last on the list.”
Classical calligraphy graduates sometimes become “too modest” in their approach to life, he added, which means they miss opportunities to grow and don’t receive the public recognition they deserve.
“Their strong emotional attachment to their art does not allow them to invest in their talent, as they refrain from using it to make money,” he explained. “If we look at other forms of art, like photography, we find that artists have actually gone that route to make money in the first place.”
To help raise the profile of the art form, Allaf founded Hrofiat, Saudi Arabia’s first calligraphy platform, through which some of the country’s top calligraphers work together to promote it through workshops, events, online, the creation of original works and digital works and the provision of artistic consultancy services.
He said building an elite group of calligraphers was a challenge as some were wary of the idea of making money from their art. Most calligraphers, he believes, take a conservative approach to trade and the adoption of modern techniques; they avoid the use of technology for fear of losing the “spirit” of their art, which they consider sacred.
Many experts, including Allaf, believe that the roots of this reluctance to adopt modern innovations date back to the time of Ottoman rule, during which there was a lag in the adoption of printing technology in because of religious resistance and scribes.
As the Ottoman Empire consolidated its power from its capital, Constantinople, it acquired the technology of printing, which was common throughout Europe, as early as 1453. However, the Ottomans did not officially started printing only in 1726, when Ibrahim Muteferrika opened a printing press with the blessings of Sultan Ahmed III and religious authorities.
Consequently, the printing press only began to take hold in the Arab, Ottoman and Islamic worlds in the 18th century, nearly 400 years after its rapid spread across Europe. This had the long-term effect of delaying the adaptation of ever-changing technology to meet the specific aesthetic demands of Arabic calligraphy.
When the use of new printing technologies finally began to spread, traditional calligraphers began to lose their jobs in newspapers, magazines, and other forms of publishing. Many lacked the skills and alternative tools to adapt and channel their experience in new directions.
As a result, the unparalleled beauty of Arabic calligraphy has been mostly banished from art galleries and museums around the world.
Dr. Abdullah Futiny, president of the Saudi Scholarly Association of Arabic Calligraphy, believes that another factor in the declining appreciation of Arabic calligraphy, especially among the younger generation, is the growing popularity of computer-generated fonts, now used by most people.
This disconnect between the modern masses and the classical art form has also discouraged Arab calligraphers from experimenting with digital tools, he added, convinced that their traditional approach to the art form is the ultimate expression. purest of the Islamic spirit.
Allaf agreed with this analysis, saying: “The classical school wrongly fears that technology will kill its traditions; the basic skill and the principles of its teaching cannot be lost or eliminated.
“Some are afraid to accept the fact that many of the techniques they’ve been practicing for years can now be applied at the push of a button.”
The classically trained Yemeni-Turkish calligrapher Zeki Al-Hashimi (@hattatzeki), who studied for the traditional degree in Turkey, believes that the classical school must change and adapt to the demands of the modern world and adopt the use of new technologies. After all, he pointed out, even traditional calligraphy tools have evolved over time.
“Some aspects have been less influenced by the passage of time, such as the formal expression of each letter and glyph,” he said. “Therefore, the golden ratio and the geometry of the general form of Arabic writing are the only traditional factors that we should be concerned about preserving.”
Allaf and Al-Hashimi agree that modern technology poses no threat to the traditions of classical calligraphy.
“Technology is simply a means to further develop art and promote culture, not an end in itself,” Al-Hashimi said.
Allaf said calligraphers need to work with designers and developers to improve the technical tools available, and that such cooperation is necessary because “individual efforts are no longer effective”.
Mansour, was also open to the use of new technologies but stressed that any integration of Arabic script with modern technology must be done by professionals who understand the art and its value, and respect its spiritual and aesthetic aspects.
It is ironic that although there has long been a reluctance to embrace the use of modern technology in Arabic calligraphy, social media could, to some extent, help revive the classic art form. and increase its popularity among young people. Mansour and Allaf said that social media and other modern tools at their disposal enable them to teach students from other countries and spread knowledge and appreciation of the art form to a wide audience to an extent unimaginable before the digital revolution.
Yet it is the fundamental spiritual values of Arabic calligraphy, through its connection with the sacred texts, which continue to encourage young people to explore its mysteries, following their personal experiences.
Al-Hashimi also uses social media to share calligraphy lessons and discuss the art form with his followers.
“While I understand that not everyone sees the script the way professionals do, I try to offer diverse content suitable for all segments of society,” he said.
Mansour said the blame for calligraphy’s decline in prominence and popularity is shared by many, including official institutions, educators and a general failure to promote cultural awareness of the art form.
“Calligraphers are also responsible for this ignorance of the art form and its aesthetic value,” he added.
It is generally accepted that the only way to restore the social and cultural status and value of Arabic calligraphy is through long-term institutional projects, with government support. An important step was therefore the announcement in January by Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture, Prince Badr bin Abdullah, that 2020 is “the year of Arabic calligraphy”. Another remarkable step taken by the Kingdom is the recent establishment of the Prince Mohammed bin Salman World Center for Arabic Calligraphy in Medina, which will include a museum, an exhibition hall and an institute dedicated to the art form.
“Any creative person, be it a scientist or an artist, in any field, needs a sovereign and empowering decision to have a voice and earn their right to popular attention” , Allaf said.
Al-Hashimi added, “These giant projects remain important initiatives that not only benefit the country and its people, but also serve the broader Arab and Islamic world.”
Futiny called on people gifted with calligraphy, in its classic and modern forms, to put their skills to good use and work hard to perfect them.
“There are many tasks that Arabic calligraphers and Arabic software programmers should perform to improve the format and form of Arabic letters for computer users,” he said.
He also stressed the importance of introducing new, well-designed calligraphy lessons in schools to develop students’ handwriting and encourage them to explore and realize their full potential.