The Power of the Word in the Arts of Islam

Hiromi Lorraine Sakata, UCLA

The mainstay of Islam is the Qur’an, the revelations of God as passed on to the Prophet Mohammad. The Qur’an is the ultimate authority in legal and religious matters and is central to all aspects of Islamic society. Its Arabic language is thought to be God’s language, unsurpassed in purity and beauty, representing the highest ideal of literary style and providing the basis for the aesthetics of artistic expression in Islamic cultures.

The “voice” and the “pen” that convey the sound and the words of Qur’anic recitation, are regarded with great respect and value in the Muslim world. The word “Qur’an” comes from the Arabic qara’a, “to read” or “to recite.” It is regarded by believers as the true words of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It is significant to note that the Prophet “heard” the revelations and later “recited” the verses of his revelations to his followers who wrote them down or memorized them.

For the faithful, the sound or voice of Qur’anic chant is the most immediate means of contact with the Word of God. The sound itself has a divine source. Participation in Qur’anic recitation as reciter or as listener, is an act of worship. The fulfillment of this obligation gains spiritual merit and assures continued transmission of the revelation. According to Kristina Nelson, author of The Art of Reciting the Qur’an, “the significance of the revelation is carried as much by the sound as by its semantic information. In other words, the Qur’an is not the Qur’an unless it is heard.” (Nelson 1985: xiv)

The oral nature of the Qur’an’s revelation and transmission elevates the place of the human voice in Islamic societies. The performance of vocal music blends words and melody to transmit information, knowledge and meaning to the people who listen for religious purposes or secular ones; from bardic folk traditions to classical art forms. In this sense, singing is more closely allied to literature than to music. For example, the Persian word khandanqawwali, a musical expression of Sufi poetry, comes from the Arabic, qaul, meaning “speech” or “word.” Although it is commonly thought that music is not a religiously sanctioned art form in Islam, singing (especially the singing of religious texts), being closely related to poetry, is viewed with great respect.

Formal learning is oral, with students repeating the verses, word for word, with proper inflection and rhythm. The codification of the accent of the words exists according to the rhythm, timbre and phonetics of the text. The best way to learn the Qur’an, is to listen to its recitation, imitate and practice the sounds, then recite back to the teacher. Memorization of the text is an inherent part of learning. Professional reciters must learn and preserve the Qur’an by memorizing the complete text of the holy book. It is also necessary for the reciter to correlate the vocal expression of the words to melodic modes (maqamat), for it is recognized that musical expression brings out the meanings of the text. The melodic modes used for Qur’anic recitation are the very same modes used in Arab classical music.

The notion that music has the power to touch the listener’s heart and enhance meaning, that sound is an essential part of learning, all point to the pivotal role of the art of singing which has control over both words and music. Here, it is important to distinguish between what is musical and what is music. Musical rendering of the Qur’an is not music. The power of music to touch the listener’s heart is understood, and is thus used to enhance the meaning of the text. The Sufis recognized that music had the “mystical power to draw out the deepest emotions . . . . [and] has power over man’s will.” (Trimmingham 1971:195) It has been said that the reciter skilled in correlating musical technique to his understanding of the text can convey the meaning of the text to someone who does not understand Arabic. (Nelson 1985:65)

If musical expression, in the form of recitation, can highlight the sounds of God’s words, so too, can the visual expression of the written word, in the form of calligraphy, highlight the written words of the Qur’an. Like flowing musical phrases, the writing of Arabic script can be connected with long and sweeping strokes that accentuate the continuity and beauty of the words. "Of all the arts, Muslims respected calligraphy the most. Writing was considered the invention of God, and the use of the pen one of the major skills He passed on to man." (Stewart, 1967:153)

In his introduction to Arabic Calligraphy, Khalid Mubireek writes, "Arabic calligraphy is a symbol representing power and beauty. Its history is the integration of artistry and scholarship. Through abstract beauty of the lines, energy flows in between the letters and words. All the parts are integrated into a whole. These parts include positive spacing, negative spacing, and the flow of energy that weaves together the calligrapher’s rendering." (Mubireek, 2000:2)

This description of the abstract beauty of Arabic calligraphy, seems to correspond to Islamic ornamental designs in general where patterns are based on “logical, coherent systems of lines.” (Steward, 1967: 150)

These artistic expressions of the “voice” and the “pen” which emanate from the Qur’an, represent the power and beauty of the Word and unify the Muslim world.

For further reading:
Mubireek, Khalid
2000 "Introduction" Arabic Calligraphy.

Nelson, Kristina
1985 The Art of Reciting the Qur’an. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Stewart, Desmond
1967 Early Islam. New York: Time Incorporated.

Trimmingham, J. Spencer
1971 The Sufi Orders in Islam. Oxford: Clarendon Press.