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Sources and Principles of the Geometry of Letters
“This monumental work of Ahmed Moustafa and Stefan Sperl offers a comprehensive and convincing new account of the geometry of the Arabic script, accomplishing in the process a revolution at the intersection of art, mathematics, and spirituality. It is essential reading for anyone interested in Islamic art, calligraphy, and the beauty of geometry.”
--Carl W. Ernst, Kenan Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Calligraphy is the central visual art of Islam. At its core resides a perennial challenge: What letter shapes traced by human hands are rightful bearers of the divine message? The answer lies in the “Proportioned Script,” an Arabic writing system codified by Ibn Muqla, minister under the great Abbasid Caliphate in 10thcentury Baghdad, and refined by the 11th-century master scribe Ibn al-Bawwab.
Emphasizing harmony and geometry, the system they designed has governed the practice of Arabic scribal art up to the present day. In this two-volume, richly illustrated study, Ahmed Moustafa and Stefan Sperl analyze each letter form of Ibn Muqla’s perfected penmanship and share their decades of research on Islamic letter shapes, revealing the history, linguistics, philosophy, theology, and sacred geometry that underlie this spiritual art form.
In volume one the authors reveal the trilogy of prophecy, penmanship, and geometry at the foundation of Ibn Muqla’s Proportioned Script. Providing a fully illustrated analysis of Islamic calligraphy’s geometrical principles as transmitted in surviving writings and key manuscript sources, they examine the geometric grid of square, circle, and hexagon that informs the pen strokes of each letter shape and explore how the golden ratio appears within the matrix of the grid. They examine the development of Ibn Muqla’s system in the context of the sciences, arts, and penmanship of 10th-century Baghdad and trace its origins to the cross-cultural encounter between Greek learning and the scientific, artistic, and philosophical pursuits of classical Islam. In volume two the authors analyze the calligraphic forms of each letter of the Arabic alphabet. They decode the sacred geometry of each form as it appears within the geometric grid, providing letter samples from ancient sources.
From Geometric Pattern to Living Form
“The script is spiritual geometry, though made perceptible by a physical instrument.”
--Euclid, cited by Abu Bakr asSuli
The system of signs that make up the Arabic script is perceived to stand at the boundary between the physical and the metaphysical realms. The means to bridge it is geometry: a science rooted in immutable, immaterial laws that can be made perceptible to the senses in material form.
Volume two of The Cosmic Script addresses the nature of spiritual geometry and how it governs the structure of the 19 letter shapes that make up the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet and the ligature lam-alif. Based upon the theoretical foundations established in volume one, the authors explain how to construct each of the 19 letter shapes and reveal the processes at work as the pen, guided by the human hand, transforms them from rigid geometric shapes into pliant, lifelike organic forms.
The authors examine the 19 letter shapes in three principal stages: the translation and discussion of the data in the Arabic sources; the construction of the letter shapes using the geometric Grid Module; and the verification of these constructions in the light of two different points of reference--the paradigms of the Proportioned Script traced by the 15th-century master scribe aö-Öayyibï and relevant samples from the Bäysunghur Qur'an, which is penned in a larger, vertically elongated type of writing.
Exploring Ibn Muqla’s treatise on penmanship and its methodology in the context of its time, the authors then use these findings to investigate comparable developments in a range of art forms and intellectual disciplines, with particular focus on concepts such as “harmony” (i'tidäl ) and “justice” ('adl ). Particular attention is given to philosophy, theology, and literary criticism as well as to mystical thought on cosmology and the symbolism of the alphabet.
Volume two also explores the implications of the status of the Arabic script as the prime expressive medium of Islamic visual arts. The authors show that the geometry of letters is more than just a writing system. Contained within it is an entire statement about the visual representation of meaning and the relationship among man, word, and world.
Unearthing the theoretical and scientific foundations of Arabic calligraphy, this richly illustrated, two-volume landmark study not only examines the aesthetic implications of Ibn Muqla’s theory for the visual, verbal, and aural arts of Islam but also its influence on the Islamic mystical tradition.
AHMED MOUSTAFA is an Islamic artist and Arabic master scribe who received his original training in Western art. His works are included in major museum collections in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. As chairman of the Research Centre in Arab Art and Design in London, he has acted as design consultant for major corporations in the Middle East. He has also lectured widely on the subject of Arabic penmanship. STEFAN SPERL is senior lecturer in Arabic at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. He has published widely in the fields of classical Arabic literature and Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies.