Kuala Lumpur’s Islamic Arts Museum was quite interesting. Currently, there’s an Islamic calligraphy exhibit on called "Rhythm & Verses." It shows an evolution of Islamic calligraphy and typography. The specimens are delicate and beautiful, with the flowing lyrical script and gold leaf decoration.
For me, the black text, miniature painted decoration and gold leaf immediately hearkened medieval Christian illuminated manuscripts, some of which were created during the same timeframes. I saw the grandest of Christian illuminated manuscripts last year, the Book of Kells in Dublin, and have always had a fondness for them. I’ve never heard of an exhibit or book comparing or contrasting the two artforms, but it would certainly be interesting to see Islamic and Christian specimens from corresponding eras, side by side.
The calligraphy exhibit showed the evolution of the letterforms themselves, and the different forms or fonts synonymous with each era. It explained that Islamic calligraphers were thought of as composers, poets and musicians — the way a calligrapher drew the letterforms and words expressed all the emotions, colors and sounds of the passages. So when you’re looking at a prayer or poem, the text is extended, elongated, extruded, staccato-ed, muted, whispered, shouted, pleaded, cried, etcetera, to sing the meaning to the reader. A certain calligrapher was even described as making his "e"s as sad as a young lover’s eye. Handwritten passages were often spread over the page so they could be read in multiple ways — from multiple directions. And sometimes choruses of other words receded back behind the main message — a chorus of delicate voices reciting one of the ninety-nine names of Allah behind the strong voice reading the prayer.
It struck me that this kind of page design, where the page contains multiple readings or messages, and where the form of the typography itself expresses some of the message, was very similar to some "modern" western ideas about typography. Before the 20th century, the western typography has generally been read left to right, top to bottom, with no alternate readings. And the typography itself never performed the kind of gymnastics visible in the Islamic specimens.
Generally, more experimental Western typography came only recently, in the 20th century, with type that broke compositional rules or expressed content. Russian Constructivists, Futurists, or early Modernists began to broke traditional rules of composition and scale in western typography. The evolution of typography continued with movements like Swiss Modernism and Postmodernism.
It’s interesting to compare some of the forms of old Islamic calligraphy with the typography of these more recent movements. It would be more interesting if I weren’t writing this in an internet cafe and could find good visual examples to post — I tried, but wasn’t able to find images that made sense.
Anyway, I find it really fascinating to see such experimentation, so long ago, in what I would have previously thought was a conservative, staid art form.
Page decoration is another interesting aspect to the manuscripts. Since depiction of humans or animals was forbidden in religious calligraphy, Islamic calligraphers developed intricate patterns and decorations. Some are recognizable plants and flowers, others are abstract forms and geometry, or cloud-like forms encasing the words and passages. This is why there are so many wonderful abstract geometric patterns in Islamic art and architecture in general.
Also fascinating are the practice sheets, where the calligrapher would "warm up" and write a verse repeatedly till ready to inscribe the real manuscript. The repeated verses eventually create a rich illegible texture of graceful dark hatch-marks. The effect is, again, surprisingly modern. These sheets were saved and even ornamented, as the creators must also have realized their aesthetic value.
Upstairs, in the permanent exhibition, were gorgeous illuminated full-sized and miniature Qur’an, further affirming the visual similarity to illuminated Bibles. Fine miniature paintings of various domestic scenes or leaders were also displayed (apparently there are some loopholes to the "no humans" rules).
We also spent quite a bit of time in an exhibit outlining the history of mosque architecture. We realized we hadn’t even heard of most of these grand structures, barring the Dome of the Rock, the Taj Mahal, and several mosques in Istanbul. The Chinese mosques reminded us a lot of pagodas. Till this trip, we hadn’t realized that some Chinese have been Muslim for hundreds of years. Or, for that matter, that Islam has flourished in Malaysia and Indonesia for hundreds of years. Once again, we felt we’d been quite ignorant about this part of the world.
Another exhibit showed Chinese Muslim pottery and other art forms. The Chinese Qur’an weren’t as intricate as the Iranian or Indian. It was also interesting to see artwork from other areas such as Mughal India, Uzbekistan, and North Africa.
We found many of the museum’s exhibits fascinating, partly because we’d never seen similar objects or exhibits. It was great to read cogent text in English explaining the history of mosque architecture, or Qur’an calligraphy, or Islamic Chinese pottery. Walking through the museum made us realize that the world history we’d studied (and art and design history in my case) basically ignored this part of the world. The simple lack of western exposure to Islamic history and art is probably a huge factor in the lack of understanding between the west and the Middle East. It was surprising to realize how little we’d known, as educated people with backgrounds that should have intersected with some of this knowledge.
That said, of course the museum delivered some of its own revisionist history, as museums seem to.