How to Read Islamic Calligraphy

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Maryam D. Ekhtiar
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , September
     2018.
     156 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781588396303.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Many of us teaching courses pertaining to Islam incorporate material on the arts—especially calligraphy—as a way of balancing out the history, theology, and politics that are at the center of so many survey texts. Maryam Ekhtiar’s text, the eighth in a series of How to Read texts published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMOA), contains all of the sumptuous visuals to serve the needs of educators, students, and members of the general public who want to learn more about this incredibly rich and diverse vein of Islamic culture. This volume contains a wealth of knowledge on how to appreciate and understand the cultural significance and historical development of Islamic calligraphy, with material from the pre-Islamic period clear through to the present day. This would be a welcome supplementary resource for undergraduate survey courses and a boon for the general public—local libraries in particular should certainly acquire this book. The quality of the photos is simply spectacular, with detailed shots inset allowing for the viewer to see many of the objects as up close as if seeing them in person. Each chapter reads very smoothly, and the combination of text and image is engaging and accessible. 

What they will not find, alas, is a literal guide to deciphering a range of scripts populating the tapestry of sources on which we may draw upon in teaching ourselves and others about Islamic art. To be fair the foreword by the MMOA’s president and chief executive officer concludes with: “[Ekhtiar’s] illuminating text will no doubt inspire you, newly equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary to ‘read’ them, to explore the many outstanding examples of Islamic calligraphy on view in The Met’s galleries” (7). For the reader who aspires to do more than develop a deeper understanding of Islamic calligraphy’s general meaning, but actually read some of these calligraphic texts, this book will not do. For that level of knowledge, one must work under the careful tutelage of a specialist, as well as—where applicable—consulting works such as Brian Spooner and William L. Hanaway’s Reading Nasta`liq: Persian and Urdu Hands from 1500 to the Present (Mazda Publishers, 1995) for detailed examples with instructions for how to make out a particular type of script. Readers of Ekhtiar’s volume will learn how to differentiate between thuluthkufic, and naskh, for example, but identifying a script type and being able to read that script type are two very different tasks. 

This book also includes a welcome Persian emphasis that de-centers the usual focus on Arabic as the normative register—linguistically, culturally, geographically, etc.—for all things Islamic. For example, when Ekhtiar refers to the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” (the first four leaders of the Muslim community after the Prophet Muhammad’s death), she does so using the Persian transliteration, khulafa-yi rashidun (70)Readers of other scholarly English-language texts on early Muslim history will see the Arabic transliteration, khulafa’ al-rashidun. The inclusion of some contemporary work by artists from Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey is a fitting end to this book in the final chapter, “Ornament and Abstraction.” While Islamic calligraphy may have its beginnings 1400 years ago, it is still very much a living set of diverse traditions, whose practitioners continue to preserve the old techniques as well as inventing new ways of pushing its boundaries. 

While a book of this type is not intended to be encyclopedic—representation matters, and there are still some notable omissions in terms of the samples chosen to represent Islamic calligraphy. Examples from the Middle East, Central Asia, East Asia, and North Africa are included, but what about sub-Saharan Africa? More pointedly, for an institution such as the MMOA, based in the United States, it would have been greatly appreciated if more than one example from North America had been included—I am thinking in particular of the famous `Eid stamp commissioned from famed American calligrapher Mohamad Zakariya (b. 1942). After all, people visiting the MMOA will be able to travel to the New York City boroughs where Muslim communities display calligraphy on storefronts, restaurants, and taxi cabs, let alone in private homes. Including examples from North America, especially the United States, would help correct the assumption that Islam is foreign, when in truth, Muslims have been a part of America for centuries. 

At one point the reader learns that “orthodox Islam has traditionally discouraged the reliance on amulets and other magico-religious devices, these objects remained a vital aspect of popular culture ... [they] reflect the human need to influence various aspects of life over which an individual has little tangible control” (75). Perhaps this is beyond the scope of an art history book aimed at a general audience, but I think a bit more nuance to the term “orthodox” is warranted here. Who are the people behind the institutions and schools of thought being referred to here as orthodox? 

How to Read Islamic Calligraphy concludes with a list of sources, bibliography for further reading, index of key terms, and listing of “Major Empires and Dynasties of the Islamic World.” It is telling that in this final piece of information, nothing from Sub-Saharan Africa is mentioned. What of Mansa Musa (d. 1337), whose caravan from Mali to Egypt—en route to complete the pilgrimage to Mecca—brought such large amounts of gold in tow that reportedly the Cairo market took decades to recover? Every book, no matter the audience, represents an opportunity to intervene and address gaps in our understanding of a subject. Every image … every map … every word matters. 

If the criticism in this review seems overly harsh, perhaps it is that I have found in teaching at a variety of institutions around the country that few other subjects facilitate breaking through Islamophobic stereotypes than the visual arts—although Qur’anic recitation and devotional genres of music, such as South Asian qawwali, come a close second. As such, I have great expectations for art historians, especially with books geared towards the general public. As in life, so too in publishing—no one (book) can be everything to everyone. How to Read Islamic Calligraphy contributions far outweigh any deficits.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick J. D'Silva is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maryam Ekhtiar is Associate Curator in the Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

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