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