Art of Words: Women Calligraphers Then and Now

A few days ago, Lubna Shaikh posted this calligraphic collage craft idea for children on Suhaibwebb.com, in honor of the remembrance of the birth of the Prophet. Lubna writes that there is a need to “seek creative ways of imparting the knowledge of our deen” to children, to help them cultivate a personal connection with the religion.

Lubna Shaik's Calligraphic Collage, via Suhaibwebb

The connections between calligraphy, education and religion are deep-rooted in Islam, from the first revealed word of the Quran, Iqra (Read). The prophet’s son in law Ali ibn Abi Talib is said to have said, “Teach your children writing and marksmanship” and “Beautiful writing makes the truth clearer.”

In Women’s Roles in the Art of Arabic Calligraphy, Salah al-Din al-Munajjid traces women’s roles in Islamic calligraphy, beginning from the advent of Islam and the role of al-Shifa al-Adawiyah, the woman known as “the first female teacher in Islam” who taught the Prophet’s daughter Hafsa to read and write.

While the art of calligraphy has often been dominated by men, Munajjid tells the stories of women who acheived high standing as calligraphers, many of whom were scholars and poets in their own rights. Women who distinguished themselves in the field include Fatimah bint al-Aqra, who modeled her style on the the famous calligrapher al-Bawwab, and was in turn imitated by calligraphers all over the Islamic world.

Soraya Syed's The Cup of Love via Art of the Pen, inspired by a quatrain from Rumi’s Divan-i Kabir

Another Fatimah (d 966/1558), better known as Bint Quraymazan, copied many books and was herself a scholar, as well as the principal of the Adiliyah Khanqah in Aleppo. Sayyidah al-Abdariyah (d 647/1249) of Granada, knew the Quran by heart and copied Ghazzali’s The Revival of Religious Sciences. Shuhdah bint al-Ubri was a hadith compiler, and was known as Musnidat al-Iraq, the Authority of Iraq. Another woman who copied Qurans was the Cordovan Aisha, who was also a bibliophile and a poet. During the Ottoman period, women calligraphers included Zahidah Salma Khanum; Sharifah Aishah Khanum; Silfinaz Khanum; Faridah Khanum, the Qastumonian; Khadijah Kuzaydah Khanum Celebi; and Nukhah Khanum.

This rich history of women calligraphers is often forgotten today. As David Simonowitz puts it in his article on Muslim women calligraphers, “much research has been conducted on Islamic calligraphy, yet the history of women calligraphers has been largely neglected,” although there is now a concerted effort to record and preserve and pass on this knowledge through efforts such as the International Female Calligraphers Exhibition which was held in Turkey in 2010. The famous Turkish calligrapher and art historian Hilal Kazan, author of Female Calligraphers Past and Present, was a coordinator at the exhibition. Soraya Syed is another calligrapher who received her Islamic Calligraphy diploma in Turkey. Her website Art of the Pen features her work, exhibitions and workshops.  Syed was interviewed by BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour in 2008 as  “a leading practitioner of the art of Islamic penmanship”, along with Avielah Barclay,  “unique in being a certified woman Hebrew scribe.”

Soraya Syed, via Art of the Pen

While the connection between religious authority and women scribes has become attenuated in modern times, calligraphy as an artform has taken on a variety of different forms, in artistic graffiti such as Aerosol Arabic‘s work, (described as Urban Spiritual Art) and even in fashion and jewellery, such as Malak Atut’s Zaiken Jewellery. Not so strange, perhaps, if we consider al Tawhidi’s words “Handwriting is jewelry fashioned by the hand from the pure gold of the intellect.”

With this rediscovery and new found popularity of calligraphy has come a proliferation of workshops and websites such as Calligraphy Qalam, and businesses like Lubna Shaikh’s Revival Arts, which

seeks to blend contemporary artistic mediums with traditional (Islamic or Arabic) artistic expressions…Revival Arts, then, seeks simply to “revive” art that combines a plethora of mediums to create something truly unique.

In this interview with Muslimness, Shaikh comments on the importance of art in religion, saying that “I feel as though many don’t view the arts to be important, or even to fit within our faith and that’s a misconception that really needs to be tackled.”

Perhaps the best way to tackle this misconception to revive the place of calligraphy within the religion, with an emphasis on the spiritual message and expressive power of calligraphy as an artform, qualities encapsulated in the famous axiom, “calligraphy is the tongue of the hand.”


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