Islamic Calligraphy

calligraphy in the stained glass in Selimiye Mosque

photo by murdjo (cc)

Islamic law forbids Muslims from using iconography, thus the faithful will often used calligraphy in place of art when depicting their god. This can be seen in their mosques, where the decorations are mostly made out of Arabic script–often relaying a phrase from the Koran or other such inscription–and simplified floral patterns.

To compensate for the lack of images, over time, Islamic artists developed the art of shifting Arabic script into images themselves. For example, in the picture below, words from a book are shifted into the figure of a sitting man.

calligram of a man

These images are called calligrams and come in varied shapes, such as this pear calligram:

It's a pear!

image by Aziz Efendi (public domain)

These calligrams can also take the form of animals are are referred to as zoomorphic calligrams.

an example of a zoomorphic calligram

another calligram

(Both are the work of Sudanese artist Hassan Musa)

Although the words are extremely warped and the images may seem to just be drawings, they are really made up of Arabic words. To dispel some disbelieving looks, here is a short animation that shows the Al-Jazeera logo, which is a calligram, being shifted into the word “Al-Jazeera”.

It’s pretty cool, so you should definitely take a look.

A note: Al-Jazeera is an Arabic news agency that does a lot of reporting in the Middle East. It has a reputation for being pretty unbiased, and its a pretty good source for news from the Middle East. (Although, some bigoted people have kept their English language station off the majority of airwaves in the US because it is an Arabic news source.)

More information on Al-Jazeera and the logo, plus another really cool animation.

Islamic calligraphy has over the years developed into a full fledged art form from a cultural restriction.

Linda Yu, extra credit