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Traditional Calligraphy & Modern Art

This paper discusses the traditional art of calligraphy in the contemporary cultural context, with particular reference to recent efforts on the one hand to “modernize Islamic calligraphy” and on the other hand to “Islamicize modern art” (or such constructs as “calligraph-art). It is our contention that these efforts are predicated on an uncritical acceptance of the modernist definition of “art” that relegates calligraphy to the category of a craft, and the modernist evolutionary cultural narrative that equates change with “progress” and “development”, that is, the modernity project that now threatens to destroy our humanity and our environment.

Let us restate the traditional perspective of art to remind ourselves that the art of calligraphy can be reduced to superficial levels of stylistic preferences and trendy graphics only at the cost of loosing a profoundly valuable means of accessing a world view that has defined our humanity and sustained our environment for millennia.

Traditional Perspective

Traditionally the term “art” includes all the arts and crafts. In fact it is applied to making or doing anything that meets the dual criteria of utility and beauty. Now utility – appropriateness to function and purpose – relates to quantity and the more obvious practical and physical aspects of material and form. But beauty relates to quality, and is traditionally understood as a quality of the Divine. In the traditional cosmology, all creation, everything in the created universe, is a manifestation of the Divine. In the creative process, the attributes and qualities of the Divine are reflected first as archetypes on the plane of the Spirit or the ideal plane, then as pure forms on the imaginal plane, and finally as natural and man-made objects and acts on the earthly plane. However, some objects and acts are more “transparent”, that is, the ideal forms are more readily recognized in them than in others which are more “opaque”. For example, qualities such as proportion, harmony, balance, symmetry etc. are more readily recognized in certain mathematical relationships, in music and other works of art. Similarly, a human form, or a tree or a sunset, may strike us as “perfect” because it corresponds with our idea of a “perfect” man, or woman or tree etc. Indeed every earthly object, artifice or act, takes on a symbolic meaning to the extent that it reflects its heavenly archetype[1].

The “perfected Man” / Insan e Kamil, the fully realized man, is a mirror that reflects all of the qualities, that is, absolute Being; This is his essential nature, his true self, and the potential within every human. But we are veiled from the knowledge of the Real by the phenomenal world, and we are veiled from our true Self by our animal desires[2]. To realize his potential man must recover his lost nature, his primordial nature made in the image of God but which he lost at the fall. It is when his human nature recovers its original wholeness that access to the Spirit, the Eye of the Heart becomes possible.[3] He must undertake an inward journey from the body, through the soul to the heart. For it is the “heart” that is the seat of the Spirit. Only when the “eye of the heart” is opened can it contemplate “the Real” and attain enlightenment

Traditional man measured human “development” in terms of the “progress” made on this journey towards “enlightenment”. The role of art, in traditional societies, has been to act as support in this spiritual quest or journey, by reminding us of our role and function in this life, by pointing to our true goal and by illuminating the way to that goal.

Within this framework the artist or craftsman cannot presume to be “original” (except in the sense of returning to the origin), or to “create” beauty. Beauty already exists as an objective reality. He can only aspire to reflect it in his work. But how can he reflect a heavenly archetype that by definition lies beyond this sensible world, the phenomenal world of matter, space and time?

To begin with, every artist or craftsman acquires his art or craft skill from a recognized master. The master in turn, invariably traces the source of his art through a chain of masters, to a divinely inspired source – a prophet, a saint, a sage or a great master who was both skilled in his art and spiritually enlightened. But none of these sources claim to be the originators or creators of the art in question, only to have been the vehicles or recipients of these gifts from the Divine Spirit. This is why the great classical forms in every traditional art and craft are held in such veneration and esteem. They are handed down from master to apprentice, from generation to generation. These forms are copied by students, not only as a means of perfecting their technical skills, but also as a means of purifying the spirit or acquiring a special blessing. They are used by professionals as exemplars, points of reference, guiding framework or grounds for their own work.

The superiority of calligraphy over representational art is discussed in some detail by Abul Fazal, the court historian of Akbar the Great, in the section on the painting studios in the A’een e Akbari[4].

An impression of the possessor of the form is found in the image. And an assessment of reality is gained from this impression. The letters and words are known through the shape of the line, and meaning is discerned from the letter and the word.

Although the likeness of the body is drawn in the picture, which is well known, and the European artists enable the spectators to roam the cloisters of reality, by bringing forth strange and wondrous forms in innumerable creative manners and styles, so that the eye is deceived into taking the likeness for the real. But writing has a far loftier and superior status because it informs us of the experiences of ancient masters, and the intellect and understanding is developed by this intimacy…

English: An Ottoman manuscript in Ta'liq Script.

An Ottoman manuscript in Taliq Script. Image via Wikipedia

The best form of illustration is calligraphy. …Those who are attracted by outer appearances only, regard the written word as a black form, but those who can discern the truth understand it as a lamp of discernment.

It is true that it is darkness, but hidden and radiant in this darkness are thousands of luminous torches. In fact it is absolutely correct to say that near the mole of the immature eye is a brilliant chandelier.

It is an imprint of the Divine handiwork, a product from the domain of truth and spirituality. It is a night in which the sun is radiant and manifest. It is a dark cloud from which are raining radiant and brilliant pearls. It is the treasure of sight and the secret chamber of reality. It is a strange and wonderful talisman that speaks in a world of silence

It is static, but has the power of motion. It is an untilled field, but is a seeker on the path of heavenward flight.

Its reality is that of a beam from the divine torch of knowledge that falls on the articulate soul. The heart conveys this beam to the imaginal world, which is intermediate between the abstract and the material worlds, so that the abstract may establish a relationship with the material, and an absolute entity may become accustomed to the bonds of confinement.

After this stage the beam descends from the celestial imaginal world to the heart, and comes from the heart to the tongue, and from the tongue enters the ear through the air, and after this, freeing itself from material ties one after the other, returns to its real center.

Sometimes it so happens that this celestial traveler is aided by the fingertips to tour the land and sea of pen and ink, and having completed its excursion, is brought down to the parlor of the page of white paper.

This celestial guest flies off to the higher world by way of the eyes, leaving its footprint on the sheets of paper.

The Problem of the Art Historian

The art-historic method catalogues and categorizes art under distinct “styles”, defined in terms of formal characteristic, and explains the “evolution” or “development” of each style, by tracing each form to its origin, source or precursor or to its social, economic and other environmental determinants. Thus “Islamic Art” is treated as a style characterized by such elements as geometry, non-figurative or abstract forms that are supposed to have “evolved” to circumvent the prohibition against representation of animate forms, or the “horror vaccui” of desert nomads. Alternatively, “Islamic Art” is either denied recognition as “Art” on the grounds that it does not meet the criteria of originality, and creative expression of the individual artist, and is classified as “crafts” or the lesser, applied, industrial or “useful arts”, or is denied as a single category since there is little in common between the widely varied productions in time and space, and because all the elements of each regional style can be traced to non-Islamic sources.

The problem of the Contemporary Practitioner

Given the modern definition of “Art”, the traditional “craftsman” seeks acceptance and recognition as an “artist” by “modernizing Islamic art”, distorting the traditional forms and incorporating new forms to demonstrate his originality, novelty, creative expression, whereas the modern “artist” seeks legitimacy in the eyes of his co-religionists by “Islamicising modern art”, by incorporating some traditional motifs, such as geometric patterns and calligraphy.

The effect in either case is to devalue tradition and to glorify modernism. This in itself would not have been remarkable were it not for the growing mountain of evidence that the present global environmental crisis is largely a direct consequence of the modern development paradigm that is  based on material science, technology and industry and measures “progress” in terms of acquisition of material possessions and monitory gain.


[1] Introduction to Dr. Martin Lings, Book of Poems, where he maintains that true artistic creativity requires an action of the Spirit. In the Greek tradition this function was called Apollo the god of light and the muses were then further aspects of the same function. In this context it is truer to say that Apollo is not the god of light but the light of God.

[2] Our misplaced passions and desires which are not bad in themselves but bad when the attachment to anything is for ‘the thing in itself’ through blindness to its archetype or the passion or desire itself becomes a ‘god’ i.e. a vice.

[3] See Martin Lings, ‘The Seven Deadly Sins in the Light of the Symbolism of Number’, in Needleman, ed., “Sword of Gnosis – Metaphysics, Cosmology, tradition, Symbolism”, ARKANA, London, 1986

[4] Abul Fazal, A’een e Akbari, Volume One, A’een 35 – tasveerkhana, Urdu translation by Maulvi Muhammad Fida Ali, Sang e Meel Publications, Lahore, 1988.



Article Source:

Seminar on Culture and Calligraphy

Kamil Khan Mumtaz,  20th November, 2007


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About the Author
As practicing architect, educator, author, and pioneer in the movement for conservation of architectural heritage Kamil Khan Mumtaz, has been a leading influence in raising standards of architectural design in general and in the search for a contemporary, appropriate architecture for Pakistan responsive to climate, economy and materials yet rooted in the indigenous culture. He has been a practicing professional architect in Lahore for the past forty three years. From 1966 to 1975 he was in private practice; was a partner in the firm BKM Associates from 1975 to 1985; and ran his own practice from 1985 to present.
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