In the 7th and early 8th centuries, Islam expanded from its spiritual origins in southwest Arabia to rule over regions such as Andalusia, the Maghrib, Egypt and Mesopotamia, all with ancient cultural traditions. Through the Arabic language, the Qur’an, and the Muslim faith, this vast geographical region was united. Traditional Arab passion for language focused on the written word and on books through its strict focus on the Qur’an. The art of the manuscript brought together the skills of paper-makers, binders, illuminators, calligraphers, and painters. Manuscript patronage on the part of the sultans symbolized power and ability.15
Calligraphy--beautiful writing-- continued to be the region’s most distinctive art. It grew directly from the importance of the Qur’an. Because the Qur’an was the revered word of God, it was to be written in the most elegant and beautiful script possible. As well as being beautiful, the writing style needed to be very clear, so that none of the words would be misread. From the Arab script developed dozens of major writing styles. Scriptures such as the Qur’an and the Hadith were never illustrated with images of human or animal figures, but were beautifully illustrated with abstract geometric and vegetal designs. Later, books with secular content, such as literature, history or scientific ideas, were often figurally illustrated, and the early 11th century began the tradition of the illustrated Islamic manuscript.16
Educated Muslims were expected to have good handwriting. However, to become a calligrapher, years of study were required. Women as well as men could become calligraphers. One of the Prophet’s wives was known for her elegant writing. Later, women of royalty as well as slave women and scribes would become famous as master calligraphers.17
Calligraphy was used to decorate mosques, usually with lines from the Qur’an. The use of calligraphy extended to decoration on all kinds of objects. Lines of poetry would be inscribed on a cup or around the edge of a bowl or on the blade of a sword.18 Passages from the Qur’an or other writings were woven into the borders of the fine fabrics and the carpets of the time. As time went on, the writing became very stylized and purely decorative, rather than intended to be read.
Illuminated Tughras from Turkey
Calligraphy was a highly respected art in Turkey. Whenever the sultan issued a written decree, his monogram, the
appeared at the head of the document. The Tughra was a complex design derived from the letters in his name or signature. It was developed by skilled calligraphers as the sultan’s symbol of authority. This monogram was always a masterpiece of calligraphy, elegantly illuminated, which means elaborately decorated, usually with vine and flower scrolls.
A famous illuminated tughra was that of Sultan Suleyman I, who ruled in Turkey in the 1500s. The Ottoman Dynasty was under his rule from 1520-1566. He is sometimes called Suleyman the Magnificent, in part because under his patronage, thousands of books, paintings, and objects of art were created.19