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Arabic Traces In Ridges of Sand

By Mustapha Marrouchi

30 November, 2009

For the uninitiated, the flowing of lines and seemingly idiosyncratic spattering of dots and dashes that characterize the Arabic script can appear an inscrutable enigma. That it is a cursive system with few clues as to exactly where discrete elements find their borders only adds to the puzzle. Without an overly onerous measure of study however, the mystery is breached and the tangled jungle of vines gives up its fruit, and its secrets, that the right to left procession of ascending peaks and receding troughs is regular, logical, and rigidly ruled. When one learns how to tease apart the sound sequences encoded in the script, meaning emerges, but the cracking of the code is bittersweet; what was once tantalizingly obscure devolves into the simply mundane–written words doing what they do–mere signs signifying something out there in the world, but what thing and which world? Even as the first great mystery fades, another comes into being: that ineffable quality in the arrangement and execution of these sound symbols that is more than the sum of its parts and the source of its captivating beauty.

Of all the so-called Islamic arts, al-khatt (or trace ) holds a privileged position. Combining function with perfect form, the hyper-stylized and fantastically ornate expressions retain a suppleness and a subtlety unmatched in other cultures. They are at once stirring and deeply soothing. Adapt scribes, whose masterworks can be seen adorning mosques and monuments, ancient coins and illuminated manuscripts, take the written words and weave them together not quite as poets do–into a tapestry of ideas and imagery that flood the mind–but rather into a blank canvas upon which one cannot anticipate what might emerge. The effect is a paradox. The work is in its nature one of arabesque (generally of highly spiritual matters), the form in which it is rendered allays the impulse to simply read–beginning at the beginning and ending at the end–one finds himself instead caught up in the unbounded net of loops and hooks, eyes wandering forward and backward over the field, infinitely fine in its detail, distinct, atomic; yet revealing the harmony and symmetry of the whole at a further remove. This tidal shifting of perspective transforms consciousness, offering a glimpse into what lies beneath and beyond our senses.

The transcendent beauty of the Arabic trace is well recognized and often heralded as the greatest and most well developed of the fine arts in Islamic civilization. That this should be so is often explained, particularly in the West, by early Islam’s censure of anthropomorphic figures and images–particularly in a religious context–as a safeguard against idol worship slipping in through the backdoor, as it were. In the absence of drawing and sculpture, stylized writing became the preferred mode of artistic and religious expression simply by default. This explanation, while credible, seems somewhat stingy. The fact is that the Arabs, to whom Islam was first revealed, have and have always had an especially profound reverence for the spoken and written word since well before the Islamic period. Pre-Islamic or Jahili poetry best represented in the epics of Al-Khansa, Asma bint Marwan, Antara ibn Chaddad, and Imru’l-Qays, to name but a few, was extremely well developed and widely celebrated as an art form.

The trace in Islam, assiduously cultivated over millennia, owes its genesis less to a prohibition against certain other art forms than to the serendipitous revelation of Al-Qur’an, unprecedented in form and unsurpassed in beauty, to a people who would recognize it as such. As the verbatim word of Allah, it existed outside time–eternal, unchanging, and uncreated–the transcribed emissions of a celestial wavelength, as it were. It was poetry of the most ineffable intensity and beauty to Arabs hearing it recited for the first time. It was believed to speak in an Arabic more majestic, more euphonious, more mesmeric that had been known in the time before Islam, al-Jahiliyya. To hear its surats (verses) intoned or, for the able few, to read them was to know language that was a gift from the supreme source: “Who has not begotten, nor is He begotten, and there is no one comparable to Him.” The entrancing music of the message compelled attention that removed all doubt as to belief and obligation. Hearing it recited under the hot sun in a town square or shivering by an oasis in the cold night, the camel driver, the souk merchant, and the slave were uplifted by Allah’s new commandments and commitments. Ancient tribal loyalties became loyalty to the greatest tribe of all–Islam and all those whose jihad (struggle in the path of Islam) proved true at the end of their time were wondrously rewarded.

So Allah will ward off from them the evil of that day, and cause them to meet with splendor and happiness.

And round about them will go youths, never altering in age; when

thou seest them thou wilt think them to be scattered pearls. And when

Thou lookest thither, thou seest blessings and a great kingdom.

Yet, as much as the eudaemonia experienced in the hearing and the reading of its scriptures, as much even as the confidence-building of their clarity and rigor, the unique balm of Muhammad’s message was that it lifted the Arabs out of an aged inferiority complex. Ishamel’s people had languished in their Jahiliyya of error and ignorance for centuries while other peoples of the Fertile Crescent boasted in writing of God’s special favor.

At last, after more than a millennium of axial revelations, Ishmael’s progeny had been chosen to recite the truths that superseded the gospels of Zarathustra, Abraham, Moses, Mani, and Jesus. The “UnCreated Creotor” chose the Arabs as custodians of mankind’s final covenant, for the “only true faith in God’s sight is Islam.” Surat Al-Hijr assures Believers that the “day will surely come when those who disbelieve will wish that they were Muslims.” The truth of that prophecy was about to be tested when ‘Uthman, the third Caliphe who reigned from 644 to 656, ascended the throne. It was under his guidance that the gathering and authentication of materials bearing the transmitted word of God, bits of which had already been assembled by Abu Bakr, the first Caliphe who ruled from 632 to 634, were pressed to a conclusion by a bevy of scribes who owed a considerable debt to A’isha, the Prophet’s child bride, Zayd ibn Thabit, the multilingual secretary, and ‘Uthman himself. The definitive Qur’an of 114 surats, or chapters, arranged more or less according to length, materialized in 650. The finished version was ‘Uthman’s singular legacy to his faith, but it also played a part in causing his violent death. He, too, like ‘Umar before him and Ali after him, was stabbed to death by a fanatic, who was none other than A’isha’s brother, Muhammad, son of Abu Bakr. By the time Ali ascended the caliphate in 656, many Muslims had already memorized the entire Mushaf.

There were also several Arabic scripts in circulation. The Iraqi city of Kufa, founded in 640, eventually became a religious and cultural center, attracting scholars from across the newly established empire. The Kufic script, which evolved from even earlier forms, is distinguished for its being non-cursive and geometrical. Its angular character made Kufic particularly suitable for use in adorning architecture, but was also the main script for transcribing Al-Qur’an for several centuries. However, newly developed cursive scripts (Thuluth comes to mind), more fluid and elegant in form, had unseated the Kufic style by the 11th century as the preferred mode of Qur’anic writing. The demands of the state likewise furthered the evolution of the Arabic cursive script via the massive number of documents generated by the Islamic empire’s vast bureaucracy. Probably the most important of all scribes, Abu Ali Muhammad Ibn Muqla (886-940), is credited with regularizing the geometries and rules of proportion for calligraphic writing, for which he invented and developed several new styles. Ibn Muqla’s script became the de facto official script for secular writing, variations of which remain the main Arabic script used today.

While the Arabic script and its subsequent developments were certainly meant to convey a message, the medium took on a form of its own. The more penmanship was used as ornamentation, the more abstract its form became, often rendering the resulting work almost completely opaque to many readers. This did not detract from the work’s aesthetic appeal and, indeed became a legitimate function of writing. Qur’anic verses and sayings of the prophet could be contorted into fantastic shapes–a bird; a tiger; a lamp; a five-pointed star; a man prostrate in prayer. The divinely inspired words taking the form of a material object enjoins the observer to consider that which underlies all reality–that which is eternal and infinitely intricate. The complexity of the language would later manifest itself in the prose of writers such as al-Mutanabbi and Abu’l Ala al-Ma’arri in the East and Ibn al-Arabi and Ibn Rushd in the West, all of whom in their odes soared to rhapsodic heights and drove their huge audiences into rapture. They used prose as a razor-sharp Aristotelian instrument to convey their message. Their knowledge of the language was so immense and natural that they could be eloquent and clear; they did not need fillers, verbosity, or display for its own sake.

It is true that the ‘Abbassid dynasty (750–1258), followed by the Mamluks in Egypt, and later, the Fatimid, Mughal, and Ottoman Empires in the East as well as al-Andalus in the West were all great patrons of the arts, and schools of calligraphy flourished during their respective reigns, when on the other had the scribes in Timbuktu (Mali), who practiced Sufi Islam, not only refined the existing styles but also created numerous novel forms. This can be seen in the fine, lean, and most steely prose of the manuscripts that were written at the time. The development of this style as an art form was called Maghribi. It coincided with the proliferation of the holy book in The Maghreb in the 8th century, following the defeat of the Jewish Priestess al-Amira al-Kahina by Hassan ibn Noman in 690. Nowhere is this reality more obvious than in the inscriptions one finds in the 8th-century mosque in al-Kairawan (Tunisia) and in manuscripts hosted in the 12th-century Great Mosque of Qutubiyya in Marrakesh (Morocco). Painstakingly transcribed by hand in exacting detail, a single copy of Al-Qur’an could take several months to complete in the Maghribi style. The reverence for their labor’s object and the sense of divine purpose the scribes must have felt in transmitting the perfect words of God’s message to mankind, transformed their effort into a sacred act of devotion, and the Maghribi script that was its vehicle was exalted and rendered ever more beautifully. The ductus developed by Mahmud bin Umar (1463-1548), Grand Cadi, (Islamic leader) of Timbuktu and one of the greatest jurists in the history of the city, is a case in point. The curly writing of Ahmed Baba (1556-1627), the last Chancellor of Sankore University in Timbuktu, is another.

At the same time that copyists in al-Mashraq were refining a fleshy script, their counterparts in al-Maghreb were developing a bony style. As in the East, the round skinny script used in the Islamic West came in different sizes and forms. Perhaps on analogy with the three pairs of majuscule/minuscule scripts that make up the Six Pens, Maghribi script is often juxtaposed as a pair of opposite sizes: Andalusi, from al-Andalus, the Arabic name for the Iberian peninsula, is often used for a small, compact variant that is the counterpart of a larger and looser style known as Fasi (literally from Fez in Morocco). By the 16th century the two are said to have merged into one average-sized script. The style that one finds in manuscripts dating back to the Early Modern period assembled in the Ahmed Baba Center for Research and Documentation (CEDRAB) in Timbuktu is closer to the Fasi script than to its al-Andalusi half-brother. It is visually distinct thanks to the descending letters with large bowls and swooping curves. The shafts of the letters often swell at the top, and they, like most initial strokes, begin with a left serif. The strokes on fa’ and (kaf) are generally diagonal and contrast with the rounded bodies of these letters. Final alif ends with a spur or point at the bottom. Sad is a smooth lozenge, without any initial bump. In addition to the distinctive script, several features of pointing, vocalization, orthography, added in red ink, are characteristic of the style. And if the materials are dense, the difference in illumination is much less pronounced. Suffice it to add that the stroke appears uniform and this may well be due to the way the scribe cut his pen, which was carved out of a thinner cane that came originally from the swamps in Senegal, and which was much softer than its counterpart in Fez or Tunis.

Here, the mythical past of Timbuktu, which was for centuries a desert crossroads, a major center for trading and for learning where thousands of manuscripts were written and stored, re-emerges to supply wonderful details of a forgotten golden age of Islamic history. The famously remote mud-walled city has been keeping a secret. In the past few years thousands of ancient manuscripts have been discovered there, mostly at the Sankore University-Mosque, a major center of intellectual life from the 12th to the 16th centuries. These rare documents are enormously important to the story of Africa. Some 15,000 have been located and filed under the aegis of the United Nations educational, scientific, and cultural organization (UNESCO). Perhaps 80,000 more lie untouched in chests, attics, and corners of the city. The precious manuscripts were the glory of the Niger river valley from the 12th to the 19th century but are now threatened by decay and illegal traffickers who take them, written in Arabic or sometimes Fulani by scholars from the old Malian empire and beyond, to Switzerland where they are enhanced before being sold to private collectors. Ali Ould Sid, head of the Timbuktu cultural mission, is alarmed: “The manuscripts found in homes need to be identified, protected, and restored. Otherwise, Timbuktu will be stripped of a written heritage whose importance can hardly be overestimated.” Doing away with the neglect and illegal export is something Ould Sidi is determined to uphold. For him (and for us) reclaiming a legacy, and a fabulous one at that, tells us by some other way of telling, that black Africa had and continues to have a literary history that goes beyond the mere notion of Africa as a continent of “song and dance.” It includes poetry by men and women, legal reflections, and scientific treatises. It also reveals that Africa has not only an oral but also literate culture–a corrective to the statement made by Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1963: “Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.” The claim brings to mind Derrida’s concept of over-representation: that history in Europe is dead not because it has nothing new to offer to the world but because it neglects the history of vast lands and peoples it once occupied.

Until recently, Timbuktu was seen as a holy, mysterious, and inaccessible place; a three-syllable-word, in the Western popular imagination at least, that leads to the end of the earth. Both the cliché and the “real thing” gave the city a reputation that fascinated explorers such as the Scotsman Mungo Park, France’s René Caillé, and the German Heinrich Barth. “Timbuktu is” wrote Charles de Foucault, “a waste land in the middle of another waste land, namely, the Sahara.” We may want to put it another way by saying that Timbuktu is a city of citadels and castles made of mud and sand in what is now northwestern Mali, on the edge of the Sahara desert, near the left bank of the Niger river. It began as a Tuareg encampment in the 11th century and came into its own in the 14th century as a trading post on the route between the old West Sudan and The Maghreb. Salt from Taoudenni in the north, gold from the mines of the Bouré region in the southwest, and slaves from Ghana passed through it. Later, Arab and Persian merchants were joined by travelers and Muslim philosophers acting as missionaries. The Sahel (the savannah area south of the Sahara) split between those peoples who accepted Islam as a way of life and those who did not. The Mossi people in what is now Burkina Faso resisted conversion whereas the Songhay empire, which succeeded the Malian empire at the end of the 14th century, embraced the new religion. The production of manuscripts in Timbuktu was linked with the spread of Sufi Islam, which was and is still widely practiced in the region. As a result, the three largest cities in the region, Timbuktu, Gao, and Djenné, became centers of an Islamo-Sudanese civilization the influences of which can still be felt today. In the 15th century the population of Timbuktu was an astonishing 100,000 (today it is 30,000), including 25,000 students, members of the Sankore University-Mosque. Ulema (scholars) lectured and scribes recorded their words on bark, camels’ shoulders, sheepskin, papyrus or paper from the east and later from Italy via Tunisia.

Over centuries they built up a priceless body of philosophical, legal, and religious writings. There is a vast variety of knowledge within these manuscripts, from the positions of the planets to the tonality of musical instruments, the prices of textiles to kola nuts. Caravans on the route from Agadez (now in Niger) to Tichit (now Mauritania) via Sokoto (now in northern Nigeria) carried quantities of information between enlightened merchants as well as blocks of salt, sacks of tobacco, and paper. For nearly 300 years trade and knowledge developed mutually. These manuscripts prove that it was never true that African civilizations relied solely on oral traditions, as scholars, including the late Hamadou Hampâte Bâ, suggested. Yet even as this cache is being discovered, it is in danger of disappearing, as sand and other grit are abrading many of the aging texts causing them to disintegrate. There is also a danger that these precious findings might fall into the hands of people who are more interested in making money than understanding the past of a proud people who left an incredible legacy. It is in this sense that the following set of questions is de rigueur: How can this rich vein of written wisdom be safely and sensibly tapped before time destroys it? Are we able to safeguard a key element of Africa’s historical consciousness? What should be our role as scholars to protect and restore an incredible portion of Islamic and/or Jewish history?

The Jewish community played a positive role in bringing not only gold from the Sudan to Christian Europe but also jealously guarded the culture of the time. They were well established in the ports of The Maghreb by the Middle Ages–the Cresques family, represented by Abraham Cresques (1325–1387), the father of cartography in Timbuktu, settled there in the 12th century–so trade routes linked them to the interior. The celebrated Arab trader Hasan ibn al-Wazzan, nicknamed Leon the African, wrote of a Jewish presence in Gao in the 15th century. Ismaël Diadé Haidara, is a descendant of the Kati dynasty of Ulema goes, into detail explaining the history of his family’s collection of rare manuscripts, kept in a restored house near the Jingereber mosque. “This trove began in 1468 when my ancestor, the Islamicized Visigoth Ali bin Ziyad al-Kuti, moved to West Africa from Toledo. After that it didn’t stop growing for several generations of Kati. We decided to get the texts out in 1999.” The Kati library is a rich lot of medieval knowledge, with writings ranging from manuscripts that deal with good governance, food, medicine, love, death, and the dangers of tobacco. Law, theology, medicine, grammar, music, and mathematics are all covered in works by scholars from Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenné. For now at least, the tomes are stored on shelves protected from sand and dust. Legal documents pertaining to the Jews and Christians of Timbuktu testify to the tolerance and intense commercial life of the city. Slaves sold and freed are recorded, together with the prices of salt, spices, gold, and feathers, on parchments attached to gold-illuminated letters from sovereigns from both sides of the Sahara.

The heritage that Timbuktu holds has a powerful lesson to teach us. Take the calligraphic works as an example and the case will be clear enough. The scale, proportion, and context guide our consciousness to a contemplative place, offering us in the process a chance to glimpse something profound. The sublime beauty of an illuminated manuscript, its pages adorned with scripts of various sizes and different colored inks, overlapping and interweaving into a composition that is white marble of the Taj Mahal or Cordova’s Great Mosque, so captivating and hypnotic are these that the individual words from which they are composed seem to fade in and out of resolution. These works entreat us to not merely see the finite word, the singular concrete object among a multitude of others, but to step back and take a wider view, to observe how the many merge into one, again a singularity, but one containing everything.


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