178). For example, Sakkal reports that, "The measuring system of Ibn Muqlah is based on a circle with a diameter that equals the height of the letter Alef. It controls the correct proportions of the letters by comparing them to the circle, and by diagonal dots written with the calligraphy pen" (1993:9). In his analysis of Ibn Muqla's role in the standardization of the geometrical basis of Arabic writing, Ernst, citing an early treatise, illustrates the religious significance of the circle as being an integral part of these revisions to calligraphic script: "God (glory be to the Most High) created the world in a circular form. The master Abu Ali Muhammad ibn Ali ibn al- Husayn ibn Muqla the scribe (may God have mercy on him) realized that writing could be made circular. He transmitted that method of [round] Kufic in this fashion that is now current, so that it would be related to the creation of the Earth, which is the principle of all principles" (432). The religious significance of the art form was also related to the connection between the calligrapher and the divine message as codified in the Quran. For example, Ganem notes that, "Calligraphy was perceived as capturing the spirit of the calligrapher through the contiguous relation of his hand with the reed pen and paper. In this way, the calligrapher partakes in the sacredness of the Qur'an, for it is through his body that the text is copied and made evident" (2009:2).
The various geometric figures and calligraphy used in Islamic sacred texts have become the hallmarks of Islamic art. According to Rodriguez, geometric figures and calligraphy "substitute for human figures, which Islamic religious teachings believe encourage idolatry. Fortuitously, Arabic script lends itself to incorporation into physical art. Certain numerals and passages from the Qur'an have acquired special significance through repetitive use as decoration" (2008:106). The following calligraphic scripts have assumed particular prominence in Islamic art:
1. The "ninety-nine sublime attributes and beautiful names of God" (AlAsma Allah al-Husna);
2. The affirmation of the Muslim faith (ash-shahada): "La Hah illallah Muhammad-ur Rasulul Allah"-"There is no God but God and Mohammed is his messenger"; and,
3. The summary of the Muslim faith: "Bismlllah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim" - "In the name of God, the Charitable, the Merciful" (Rodriguez 2008:107).
This inextricable connection between the divine and calligraphy elevated the art form throughout the Muslim world, making its practice a highly esteemed profession and enviable skill. Indeed, Blair and Bloom emphasize that, "Calligraphy is the only form of visual art universally admired by Muslims, and its ubiquity is the one feature that distinguishes Islamic art from other artistic traditions. The study of Arabic calligraphy is vital to understanding the visual world of Islamic art and how it differs from other traditions" (152). The importance of Islamic calligraphy to the Islamic world may not be completely understood by Western observers who may, though, certainly appreciate its elegance and beauty. In this regard, Blair and Bloom add that, "Even for those Westerners who come to appreciate the formal and abstract values of Islamic calligraphy, such a one-sided appreciation trivializes the semantic content of the message" (153). Taken together, it is clear that calligraphy is an important part of the Islamic world and while much has been written concerning its origins and applications, less has been published concerning the role of women and calligraphy in early Islam, and these issues are discussed further below.
The Role of Women in Adopting Calligraphy
As noted above, while a growing body of research has been directed at identifying the origins and evolution of Islamic calligraphy in general, less attention has been focused on the role of women in adopting calligraphy during the early Islamic era. According to Haddad and Findly (1985), this paucity of attention is due to two primary factors: "The task of discussing the depiction in the imagery of Islamic art of the role of women in Islamic society and culture is an unusually difficult one, for two separate but complementary reasons. The first is the extremely tenuous nature of the status of art itself in Islamic society and culture. The second is the problematic nature of defining the role of women in Islamic society and culture" (147). Despite this lack of scholarly research, some evidence has emerged in recent years concerning how and why women came to practice calligraphy during this period in Islam's history.
The role of women in adopting calligraphy as a livelihood was based in large part on pragmatic needs and the traditional practice of entire families engaging in the discipline. For example, Sakkal reports that, "Calligraphy skills often stayed within families, and were usually passed down from father to son. It was not uncommon to find entire families who earned their livelihoods as calligraphers" (1993:3). Although the vast majority of calligraphers in the early Islamic world appear to have been males, some indication that women also played a role in the art form can be discerned from Sakkal's observation that, "If a young person (most often a male) demonstrated artistic potential, he would be chosen to study under a master calligraphy and learn the basic scripts. He would also be trained in related arts such as ink-making, paper-making and illuminating" (1993:3). "Most often a male," Sakkal observes, but it is therefore reasonable to suggest that that not all calligraphers during the early era of Islam were men. In fact, Simonowitz emphasizes that:
Much research has been conducted on Islamic calligraphy, yet the history of women calligraphers has largely been neglected. Evidence suggests, however, that it was not entirely uncommon for women to practice calligraphy. Indeed, the Prophet Mohammed reportedly encouraged women to practice and teach writing. Scattered references indicate that women practiced Islamic calligraphy from the earliest, formative periods of the art, and in certain well-to-do strata of some Muslim societies, training in calligraphy appears to have been a commonplace occurrence. (2010:75)
While there remains a dearth of scholarly documentation concerning Islamic women who have practiced calligraphy, some sources refer to female masters of the calligraphic art form (Simonowitz 76). One such master identified by Simonowitz was Hilal Kazan, described by this authority as "a Turkish female master calligrapher who holds traditional authorizations to practice" (Simonowitz 76). The license to practice calligraphy in early Islam afforded the license-holder significant prestige that is not reflected in Western societies. According to Simonowitz, "Kazan is, in a sense, a living national treasure. Kazan and other Muslim women [are] in a genealogical tree of master calligraphers. Some of these women are akin to religious scholars" (2010:76).
The research showed that the term Islamic art embraces the full complement of the artistic endeavors of the Muslim world, including textiles, architecture, literature and calligraphy, with the latter being widely regarded as the zenith of Islamic art. The development and evolution of Islamic calligraphy is viewed as being in response to the need to accurately communicate the revealed word of God contained in the Quran, and the beauty and elegance of the art form have been elevated to a highly refined form based on mathematical principles. Finally, the research was consistent in showing that although a growing body of research has been directed at Islamic calligraphy in general, less attention has been paid to the role of women as calligraphers in early Islamic society. Despite this lack of attention, scattered historical references indicate that some women did in fact practice calligraphy and that it might have been more commonplace than many modern scholars might believe.
Brown, Keith, Anne H. Anderson, Laurie Bauer, Margie Berns, Graeme Hirst and Jim Miller.
Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Boston: Elsevier, 2006.
Blair, Sheila S. And Jonathan M. Bloom. 2003. "The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field." The Art Bulletin 85(1): 152-154.
Eaton, Gai. Islam and the Destiny of Man. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press,
Ernst, Carl W. 2009. "Sufism and the Aesthetics of Penmanship in Siraj Al-Shirazi's Tuhfat Al-
Muhibbin." The Journal of the American Oriental Society 129(3): 431-433.
Ettinghausen, Richard. The Unicorn. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.
Gannem, Jacqueline. 2009. "Athar: Traces of the Calligrapher and Prophet." Asia Society.