Tile frieze from the tomb of Buyanquli Kahn (detail), Uzbekistan, Bukhara
c. 1360, carved fritware with colored glazes
43.6 x 173.2 cm (17 3/16 x 68 3/16)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

~The Written Word

Nothing is more characteristic of Islamic art than the use of inscriptions in Arabic, which appear on the walls of both palaces and mosques, and on a variety of objects. A system of proportions governing the forms of the letters and their relationship to each other was developed as early as the eighth century. Over time, the rules changed, as different styles of script became popular or fell from favor. But rules always existed, lending consistency to the art of Islamic calligraphy--the art of "writing well" in the Arabic script.

The increased importance of inscriptions during the Islamic period is intimately connected to the nature of Islam, which is based on the revelation received from God by the Prophet Muhammad. This was the Qur'an--the Word of God spoken in the Arabic language. Muslims in each generation made copies of the Qur'an written in the Arabic script, and this use of writing to record the very Word of God has given calligraphy its prominent status in Islamic culture.

Quotations in elegant calligraphy from the Qur'an and other religious texts embellish Islamic buildings and works of art. They are principally used in religious contexts, as in the case of the tile frieze bearing a monumental Qur'anic inscription that once adorned the tomb of Buyanquli Khan in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. However, a wide range of secular inscriptions also appears, many expressing benedictions such as, "Good fortune and prosperity to the owner!" Sometimes, the names of patrons and artists are worked into the calligraphic ornament, as are quotations from the huge storehouse of Middle Eastern poetry written in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.

Copyright © National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.