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Arabic Script Revealed | By Richard Humble
AHLAN WASAHLAN | Volume 15 - Issue 5 | May 1991

Arabic Script Revealed

For specialists and students of Islamic art and Arabic calligraphy around the world, a historic breakthrough is imminent. A book which unfolds and transforms our knowledge of how Arabic letter-shapes relate to one another, producing the harmonious visual expression of one of the world's most beautiful languages, will soon be published. The author, Egyptian scholar and artist Ahmed Moustafa, has unlocked a mystery that has endured for over a thousand years: the secret, of the epoch-making innovation al-Khatt al-Mansub - "proportioned script" - originally formulated by Ibn Muqla (272-328AH/886-940 CE), a celebrated minister (vizier) and a penman of unequalled calibre.

In any field of human knowledge, no great discovery has ever been made without the asking of the vital questions "WHY" and "HOW"? This questioning is the foundation of Ahmed Moustafa's historic new book, The Scientific Foundation of Arabic Letter-Shapes, which at fast provides the answer to a mystery that has baffled Arabic and Islamic art scholars for over a millennium.

It was in the 3rd century AH (9th-10th century CE) that the master calligrapher Ibn Muqla perfected his theory of "proportioned script" (al-Khatt al-Mansub), by which the basic letter-shapes of written Arabic could be controlled. Ibn Muqla's work was a major milestone in the history of Arabic penmanship. The principles he laid down transformed Arabic script from rudimentary Kufic strokes to a harmoniously structured art form. The order and beauty which Ibn Muqla devised as visual criteria for the formation of Arabic letter-shapes constituted, first and foremost, an act of worship. The art form into which he converted the execution of written Arabic was one considered truly compatible with preserving and conveying the Word of God as revealed in the Holy Quran.

The detail and order which Ibn Muqla brought to Arabic script extended to the reed pen which, according to his teachings, must be cut in a special, clearly delineated way. For over ten centuries, Arabic calligraphers continued to cut their pens and execute the formal strokes, curves, and dots of written Arabic according to Ibn Muqla's precepts.

This did not mean that the scriptorial discipline laid down by Ibn Muqla was in any way restricting or confining: far from it. The full range of each calligrapher's God-given talent was always permitted full scope, with results that still rank among the most glorious ever achieved in sacred art. What was missing, increasingly so with the passage of the centuries, was the spirit of analytical enquiry. To have asked "WHY?" would have appeared, to the vast majority of calligraphers, to verge on the irreverent. Their reply, if and when the question was ever asked, was that this was the practice established by the great masters - to be faithfully transferred to posterity, but never questioned.

So it was that the precise meaning of Ibn Muqla's al-Khatt al-Mansub remained obscure until the late 20th century CE. This was not for the lack of scholarly curiosity or reasoned analysis; repeated attempts were made to establish precisely what Ibn Muqla had meant by "proportioned script". But none of these enquiries met with success because all the researchers involved lacked the vital practical experience in the field of Arabic penmanship and its calligraphic technique. Those who might well have unravelled the secret - the calligraphers - lacked the academic motivation to do so; those who were genuinely curious - the academics - lacked the artistic skills.

It was left to a man with the vital blend of skills and motivation - as artist, as calligrapher, and as scholar - to approach the problem as it had to be approached. That man was Ahmed Moustafa, an established Egyptian artist and lecturer on painting and stage design at Alexandria University, who came to England in 1973 to study what was for him the entirely new medium of printmaking.

Ahmed Moustafa is an artist for whom the inherent beauty of Arabic script - "visual music", as he calls it - has opened entirely new possibilities as an artistic medium. His glowing paintings, prints, and tapestries have earned him international renown, most notably over the past year in a spectacular one-man show - "The Artistry of Arabic Script" - at London's Royal College of Art between August and October 1990. Western visitors to this exhibition were deeply moved by the structural role of Arabic script in Ahmed Moustafa's compositions - such as a ship constructed of words and letterforms supported by curling letters suggestive of waves, or images of the Holy Kaaba in Makkah using verses from the Quran.

It was while Ahmed Moustafa was researching for his Master of Arts Degree at London's Central School of Art and Design that he found his first references to Ibn Muqla and the theory of "proportioned script". As an artist and penman, Ahmed Moustafa was intrigued. He began to push deeper into the subject with the help of copies of Ibn MuqIa's treatises from the National Libraries of Tunis and Cairo, and the later compendium of Arabic letter-shapes drawn by the 15th-century master calligrapher Ibn Hasan Al-Tibi.

The immeasurable value of Al-Tibi's manuscript lies in the fact that it illustrates the construction of the basic (detached) letter-shapes according to the method of Ali Ibn Hilal -well-known as Ibn al Bawwab (died 413AH/1 01 0 CE), who had perfected and embellished the rules of the proportioned script devised by Ibn Muqla less than a century after their creation. Moreover, Ibn al-Bawwab was a pupil of Ibn Asad who, in turn, had been a pupil of Ibn Muqla.

As with the solving of a jigsaw puzzle, the revealing of all the pieces and of their relationship to each other took time. Some concepts, such as the structural role of the Arabic dot - a square standing on one corner, formed by the square face of the Arabic pen -were comparatively easy to grasp. Thus the correct length of the upright Arabic letter "A"" - Aleph - is equivalent to a line of eight, seven or six dots aligned point to point. Using this initial "building block", the flowing curves of Arabic letter-shapes are arcs of a circle with a diameter of the length of Aleph. But for Ahmed Moustafa the real breakthrough came in 1978, only a few weeks before his MA thesis - on which he had been working since 1976 - was due for submission. And it opened up an entirely new field for study, the like of which Ahmed Moustafa had never dreamed.

This breakthrough consisted of his sudden realisation that all 28 basic characters of the Arabic alphabet (derived from 19 letter-shapes) relate to a precise geometrical grid governing the proportional relationship of the letters to each other. Like Archimedes suddenly understanding how mass displaces water, or Newton realising what force makes an apple fall to the ground, it was one of those genuine "Eureka!" moments. For Ahmed Moustafa, it was also a very strange personal experience - "as if there was this invisible figure smiling at me, saying YES". He went to his drawing-board and began sketching out a grid dictated by the descriptions in his main sources. And he found that it worked.

As Ahmed Moustafa painstakingly went on to prove, the grid provided missing links that are vital for the correct understanding of Ibn MuqIa's theoretical definition of al-Khatt al-Mansub. Ahmed Moustafa discovered that the grid also resolved many apparent contradictions in the sources. Thanks to the grid, different versions of letter-shapes as described in the sources are shown to be variations on a theme: differing forms of the same underlying structure.

Ahmed Moustafa found that the 15th-century drawings of Arabic letter-shapes by Ibn Hasan al-Tibi provided vital corroboration of his findings. The geometrical lines which appear in al-Tibi's drawings matched those of Ahmed Moustafa's grid, confirming that such a geometrical framework was indeed the basis of Ibn Muqla's "proportioned script". The latter, Ahmed Moustafa clearly concludes, was devised by Ibn Muqla in conformity with principles of geometry and mathematics ultimately deriving from Greek sources, Pythagoras and Euclid in particular. In Ibn Muqla's theory, these principles generate a harmonious system of letter-shapes whose great range and apparently asymmetric variety is in fact firmly rooted in a single symmetric unity.

Following the enthusiastic endorsement of his MA examiners, the result, for Ahmed Moustafa, was the commencement of a wholly unlooked-for Ph.D research programme into his new discoveries. As an artist, he was painfully aware that this programme would involve much geometrical and mathematical calculation for which he had no specialist training or education. Not the least remarkable aspect of Ahmed Moustafa's thesis, finally completed and submitted in 1989, was that he did it all completely unaided by computers or any of the calculating tools taken for granted by modern research mathematicians.

Yet Ahmed Moustafa has never regarded his work with the detached, clinical eye of a purely scientific researcher. The briefest glimpse of any of his compositions and paintings confirms his reverence for Arabic: the language of God's Message as revealed to the Prophet and preserved in the Holy Quran.

"The Quran", comments Ahmed Moustafa, "is the ultimate manifestation of God's grace to man, the ultimate wisdom." Over a thousand years ago, it inspired Ibn Muqla to codify the rules governing the visual harmony of Arabic script through exact proportions and numbers - which themselves constitute the laws which govern the universe. Arabic script thereby became a visual form, capable of transcribing the Divine Message revealed by God -who, as the Quran states, "created everything in due measure and proportions" (Quran LIV:49).

With Ahmed Moustafa's discovery it becomes clear that Muslim artists were simply not interested in copying natural forms pictorially. Instead, they embarked upon a comprehensive abstract vocabulary which would express both the visible world and the invisible world through which the harmony of all natural forms is made manifest. Such an abstract vocabulary allows all possible answers, each of which contains the essential unity which Islamic art seeks to express.

Ahmed Moustafa's achievement has therefore been to confirm the universal, timeless energy and power of the Arabic language. As he writes at the end of his introduction to his new book: "This new approach should have considerable repercussions in the area of publication, visual communication systems, and education. It should also provide the ground for a greater understanding and reasoned appreciation of Islamic art in general and Arabic penmanship in particular."

It is hoped that the findings of this research will provide a scientific point of reference for Arabic type designers and enable us to base Arabic typography generally upon the soundest possible principles.


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