Calligraphy is considered the quintessential art form of the Islamic world—Arabic letters decorate objects ranging from bowls to buildings. Numerous scripts have emerged over the centuries that serve a multitude of religious, political, social, and cultural functions. This unit explores the variety and versatility of Islamic calligraphy and historical efforts to perfect and codify scripts and generate new forms.


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Maryam Ekhtiar: In the Islamic world, and particularly in the Persian world, there is a very close relationship between the visual arts and literature, particularly poetry. The two really function together.

Denise-Marie Teece: So sometimes the objects themselves talk to us through the verses that they are decorated with. They might tell us how they were used. For instance, upon a candlestick, you might find verses that evoke imagery of light. And the poetry might discuss a moth being attracted to the flame of a candle. Or on a textile, the textile itself speaks and says: "There's never been a garment of such beauty. Look at me."

Maryam Ekhtiar: We sometimes have cups that are engraved with inscriptions that are mystical. And they usually refer to the wine, which is contained by the cup. In Sufi tradition, wine is a metaphor, it's actually a metaphor for love. Poets were elevated to the highest level in the court, and higher than the calligraphers and the painters.

Denise-Marie Teece: And, in fact, the imagery that is used to illustrate manuscripts oftentimes moves out from the book onto textiles, which might be worn as clothing, or onto tilework that would be decorating a wall. So in some sense, you are surrounded by poetry or references to poetry.

Lamp stand with chevron pattern

The lesson plan related to Arabic Script and the Art of Calligraphy features a sixteenth-century lamp stand from Iran.