It is the nature of mankind to have tendency towards perpetuity and fear from extinction. Such a tendency compelled mankind to create masterpieces or make inventions to be remembered by future generations. Naturally, the creators of such masterpieces and inventions sign them off or put their name on the invention.
In written texts, the name of the creator and the era they lived in has been accurately registered.
In monotheistic schools, this tendency is incorporated, but in a more delicate and subtle manner. These masterpieces give a picture of the life after death, namely the Hereafter.
Such registering of names of people and events is different when it comes to Islamic works of art. If it were that a person’s even less significant piece of art had to be registered, it would undermine his efforts and signature as well as his works of art.
Given the fact that if a person truly believes in the impact Islamic ideology has on the subject of art, they would be able to see such an ideology in the Quranic texts written in the early centuries of the Hijri calendar.
The lack of facilities, sophisticated technology and the difficulty associated with writing in Kufic and any other obstacle in the way of producing a script in Kufic style never made the writer to sign off his name under the text. This was conscious indeed, because documents show that few seals of writers have been found from the past. The ideology that an entire masterpiece is a product of the Perpetual Being (God Almighty) results in the inventors’ conscious reluctance to sign off the masterpiece. In other words, the name of a mortal creature being under a masterpiece did not have any meaning for the inventors of the work of art.
It is He Who is looking, look where I ask myself?!
It is He Who beholds the heart, where to I ask myself?! — Attar Neishabouri
Another kind of conscious reluctance in signing off a work of art can be seen in Iranian works of painting, in which the painter, based upon his interpretation of the universe, sees everything equal and consciously avoids using the question of dimension.
Not believing in signing off a work of art has culminated in an invaluable collection of written texts without a typical identification a written text must have. This characteristic is unique to Islamic works of art, including the art of calligraphy, and this is why it has been difficult for researchers to identify these works of art.
Stories about the dedication of these artists and the fact that they consciously did not sign off their works of art is intriguing. Although, we have to take into account the fact that, due to many reasons, the contemporary artist cannot do the same thing as the dedicated artists of the past did in not signing off their works of art.
At any rate, since we have mentioned the Kufic style, we have to give a brief and accurate description of it.
It is obvious that every written text has a special meaning, which is transferred through the form of letters, combination of words and other decorations. No effort has been spared for creating cohesion between the meaning of a text and the shape and form of letters with which it is composed.
This is not unique to only a people from one part of the world, yet all people around the world have always tried to transfer the meaning of a written text through the letters they use. One example is Chinese writing. This is because the writers of Chinese texts have spared no effort to create cohesion between form and content.
As a brief note on the origin of the Kufic style, we can say it was first and foremost used to write Quranic texts.
Before that, the history of Kufic calligraphy is not quite confirmed and still there are doubts about how it developed through time, and the only corroborating evidence today is Quranic texts.
Cohesion between form and content, with regards to written texts, indeed has a pleasing effect on the viewer; although, this cohesion is very complicated to explain.
Obvious issues are unnecessary to be explained. In other cases, sufficient transparency or sharing the same meaning would culminate in the acceptance of an issue.
As it is customary, some books do not pay attention to commonsense issues or only consider a specific issue as obvious, thereby they turn a blind eye to the subject of discussion without elaborating on its details. The phrase “not discussable” can be seen very often in such books. The reader of such books comes to the conclusion that the non-discussable issue needs no more or no explanation at all. The more meaningful the content, the more complicated and difficult it is to describe them. Such difficulty can be vividly seen whilst describing issues going on in the mind.
Meanings fail to pass through the lips,
Like an ocean that fails to fit in a bowl,
We are frustrated over our own words,
So why should we add more to it.
—Sheikh Mahmoud Shabestari in “Golshan-e-Raaz”
Among written religious texts, whose content has cohesion with the letters with which it has been written, the subject of cohesion is mostly the first and foremost issue that comes to mind.
Although the issue of cohesion is incorporated in all styles of Islamic calligraphy, in some styles it tends to stand out more.
It seems that the very prototype of Kufic has the most cohesion between form and content among other styles.
There is no need to explain more about why such a script with such a specific style is superior to other styles.
A close study of the written works show that such a style is second to none, although, this does not mean that other styles of calligraphy such as Muhaqqeq or Rayhan have fallen into disrepute. It is just a matter of comparison with regards to the issue of cohesion.
The lack of enough effort for researching on the art of calligraphy has led us to possessing little knowledge about the history of Islamic calligraphy. No doubt, our statements are cogent only when we become aware of even the most delicate and subtle issues related to calligraphy and have knowledge over its developments in form over time. The shape of letters and the way they are written are two other issues that have been paid less attention.
The fact of the matter is that throughout the eras of history writing (in its various styles) reached its climax, an issue that with the passing of even centuries has not been repeated. This has been the case with the Kufic as well in view of the fact that the many diversities of this style are considered as climaxes of Islamic calligraphy.
Kufic has different methods and its versatility explains the reason for its use in religious texts. In other words the usage of the style for mere writing (calligraphy) is only one of its features. This is while its other applications are in architecture and craftsmanship.
Now, we spoke of cohesion between form and content. The effect of form and the method of its application are of great significance, because it is these things that have the last impression on the viewer.
The influence of Islamic works of art reaches its climax in its usage in inscriptions, in view of the fact that Kufic writings relate the soul of the viewer to another world, where one perceives how dedicated souls created masterpieces out of letters written with devotion and love.
Styles succeeding Kufic are usually samples created professionally. Most of them have been created for perpetuity. The experience of artists working on Islamic arts and development of this art is because of the innovativeness of the calligrapher. But all of this, compared to what we see in early centuries, has not resulted in the creation of an ethereal masterpiece as can be observed in the Kufic; although, the skill of some writers is unachievable. The issue here is about the degree of influence masterpieces have on the viewer.
The role of form is very influential and important. The diminishing degree of influence of masterpieces includes the works of contemporary artists. The art of contemporary calligraphy stands at a level much lower than its ancestors, to the extent that hope for an improvement in this art is fading away.
The usage of Kufic inscriptions, which themselves have intriguing stories, is an issue worth pondering.
The soul of these works of art is too significant to be given mere passing attention. A major part of Islamic calligraphy, which is of great importance to the history of writing, comprises Kufic writings. The artists of every land have created new features of this style according to their individual artistic nature and the culture and traditions of the particular region.
One of the reasons of diversity in the Kufic is the enthusiasm shown by calligraphers, which can be seen mostly in the early centuries of the Islamic era. Such a feature is not associated with other styles of calligraphy that succeeded Kufic. The essence and nature of the Kufic style is such that less effort has been made for decoding its meaning.
No doubt, one of the manifestations of Islamic calligraphy can be seen in the works of clay and stucco produced in the city of Neishabour in northeastern Iran. The content of texts, the way they are professionally written and performed and the variety in letters all indicate the true beauty of these works of art. There is also a difference between the pottery and the stucco inscriptions of Neishabour with similar works produced elsewhere. The uniqueness of such works of art makes us recall their names:
It became incumbent on me when I brought His Name,
To mention one of His secrets. —Molavi Rumi
Not to mention or bring a name of small flowers of the garden of Islamic calligraphy will not harm anyone; styles that their existence or nonexistence does not make a difference.
The most worthy lessons that we have learned from the world of “writing” belongs to eras in history when the Kufic style was most commonplace. The necessity to understand such a background is greatly felt in the contemporary era; although, the visual senses and the drive for variety were influential in the advent of the many diverse styles of Kufic. But the main reason for the variety in such scripts is their being used in masterpieces, which can be found in either written texts or architecture.
The effects of the Kufic and its role in developments of form and the advent of other styles are due to the creativity of the calligraphers. This is not only the result of the effect of greatness of written texts, but also there are other factors that played an important role in this regard.
When we speak about the fundamental role of Kufic letters and their effect on newer styles, we mean a great spectrum of Kufic styles, which each have their own intriguing story and future role in the development of succeeding scripts. But most of the emphasis of this text is on the old scripts of the past, which is due to the calligraphic feature of the masterpieces presented in this series.
The scientific and accurate categorization of works of art that would include works from other countries undoubtedly provides this opportunity to learn more about the secrets of the Kufic script. This started several years ago and has today provided new clues to certain ambiguities of Kufic calligraphy. In case of complete analyses and an imminent answer, the latest results will be given.
One of the most important achievements in dealing with calligraphic masterpieces is the feeling of devotion that runs through the veins. Our knowledge of the significance of these periods of time, more than anything else, spotlights the less significant works of contemporary artists.
This distinct difference between the works of art of the past and the contemporary era indicates the great value of the works of art of the past. This is while the works of today’s artists could be likened to an invalid and worthless emulation or photocopy of the original works of art.
In a more accurate comparison, we are forced to compare the features of modern calligraphy with the historic scripts.
Today, those writing in Kufic style have no other option but to rely on a pre-conceived design and then paint it, which of course has no effect.
This worthless method, which is a result of the ignorance of the contemporary man of his historic background, is not considered as a valuable work of art; although, the status in other styles is not much different.
Although the centerpiece of our discussion is the Kufic style, it should be mentioned that such expert analyses have probably not been done for succeeding styles. Anyhow, we should leave it here until another time.