Robert Irwin

The art of the arabesque

Arabic script has always had a special prestige among Muslims. But too many ravishing manuscripts have been tragically lost

The title of this book, By the Pen and What They Write, is a quotation from the Qur’an and comes from the opening of the ‘Surah al-Qalam’ (Chapter of the Pen), in which the authority of the cosmic scribes in heaven, whose writing determines the fate of humanity, is invoked in order to authenticate the revelation that follows. According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad was illiterate (and so presumably were most of his audience).

So it is odd to find writing featuring so prominently in this surah and throughout the Qur’an. Prior to the revelation of the Qur’an in the seventh century, the only texts that have survived in the Arabian Peninsula are brief, unargumentative rock inscriptions and many of these are in languages or scripts other than Arabic. So, as Angelika Neuwirth, one of the distinguished scholars to contribute to this volume, observes:

It is a striking fact then, that the Qur’an appears — seemingly — out of the void, as a fully fledged discursive text, extensive in range and replete with philosophical and theological queries.

The Bible consists of many diverse texts by diverse hands that have been assembled over the centuries. The Qur’an is not like that. Its message is held to be eternal, inimitable and untranslatable, and it was revealed to just one man in a matter of decades.

As a consequence, the Arabic language and script had and still has a special prestige among Muslims. That prestige had been increased towards the end of the seventh century when the Umayyad Caliph, Abd al-Malik, decreed that Arabic should be the sole language of administration in the Muslim empire and that its currency should bear Arabic inscriptions. Ambitious Nabataeans, Persians, Copts and others hastened to learn the Arabic language and script.

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