American Qur’an

I recently found out about a fascinating project by the artist Sandow Birk, who is working to create an “American” Qur’an. The lettering and illustration for this manuscript are informed by a uniquely American aesthetic, which contrasts sharply with more traditional manuscripts found in the Middle East. Below is a description of the project:

[This is] an ongoing project to hand-transcribe the entire Qur’an according to historic Islamic traditions and to illuminate the text with relevant scenes from contemporary American life. Five years in the making, the project has been inspired by a decade of extended travel in Islamic regions of the world and undertaken after extensive research.

To find out more, visit:

Discover Islamic Art


Discover Islamic Art (, a project of the Museum with No Frontiers, is a virtual museum that “explores Islamic art and material culture in the Mediterranean region.” This website is an excellent resource for educators and those who are interested in learning more about Islamic art.

You can explore the museum’s permanent collection by country and/or by dynasty. Use the “My Museum” feature to gather and save your favorite items from the Museum’s collection in one place.

Check out their introductory guide to Islamic art in the Mediterranean (, their online exhibit on Arabic calligraphy ( and the teacher’s guide with several games and educational activities (

The tale of two Alphabets

I just read an interesting article by James Souttar that compares the development of the Latin and Arabic alphabets. He has some good insights (I think) on how the differences between these two scripts reveal different divergent cultural values.

Gutenberg’s revolution, which made possible many other technological revolutions in Western Europe and North America, couldn’t have happened without two highly significant characteristics of the Roman alphabet. First, the isolated nature of its letterforms and, second, the fact that the shape of each letterform is wholly independent of its context.

Visual language says a great deal about a culture and in particular these two alphabetic characteristics say a great deal about that of ‘the West’. This was a culture that valued the breaking down of things into simple, consistent and context-independent components – so as to exercise greater control and effectiveness over those things – whether the ‘thing’ in question was a system, a process or an aesthetic composition. And the monks of the mediaeval scriptoria, whose incanabulae Gutenberg so carefully copied, clearly understood this: they had produced the alphabetic characteristics that enabled Gutenberg’s revolution to facilitate a proto-industrial process of document production. It was this emphasis on decontextualisation – literally, separating the letterform from its context – that later gave birth to the stripped back aesthetic of modernist typography.

The Arabic alphabet, which was common to all of the languages of the Islamic world (principally Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Urdu) provided a different trajectory to modernity. Arabic may only have 28 letters but in writing the appearance of each one of those letters depends, critically, on whether it appears at the beginning, middle or end of a word (and in fine calligraphy this is extended to include a much wider range of variations). Furthermore, although its letterforms are no less considered than their Roman counterparts, each is valued less, aesthetically, than the beauty of the unique word shape they contribute to (and, indeed, than the form of the whole text). The Arabic letter is inseparably part of a whole – which makes for exquisite calligraphy, dependent entirely upon the fine judgment of the calligrapher – but does not lend itself to a simple, repeatable set of mechanical rules.

In the 2010s it seems more likely that we’ll be celebrating a ‘world design’ aesthetic that is about positive qualities of connection and context, dialogue and relationship – qualities that resonate increasingly strongly for many of us. And, ironically, these are exactly the qualities that have always been implicit in the visual expressions of the Arabic alphabet.

The full article can be found here:

So what do you think? Is the recent creative explosion in the world of Arabic typography responding to our need to be more inter-connected? How have our typographic sensitivities changed in recent years?

Leeds University Calligraphy Society

I recently found out about the Leeds University Calligraphy Society, a university society aimed at introducing people to calligraphy—with a particular emphasis on Arabic calligraphy. The society holds calligraphy classes at the University of Leeds every Wednesday evening. They have lessons in Thuluth for beginners and intermediate students. Here is a link to class details:

If you know of a class or course in Arabic script calligraphy near you, please send me an e-mail! I’ve published a list of the classes that I know about here:

Arabesque—it’s trendy!


I just read an article at that discussed 2009 logo design and branding trends. In this article, the Paris-based design studio analyzes new logos produced in 2009 for recurring design patterns. They have come up with several categories, including psychedelic pop backgrounds, origami, tactile elements, “classic modern,” pictograms, etc. One of the categories they discuss is called “arabesque.” The logos in this category use the Arabic script or decorative elements which are reminiscent of Arabic. I particularly liked this quote:

Logo designers who use the Arabesque style often have to be sensitive to one of the defining characteristics of Arab calligraphy: thick downstrokes and thin upstrokes with in-between gradations.

Check out the rest of the article here:

Moth Written

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I went to a craft festival in DC this weekend, and came across a lovely shop featuring Arabic writing on a variety of products. The shop was called Moth Written, and is the result of a collaboration of two artists—one from Maine and one from Morocco. While the Arabic writing on their products isn’t calligraphy per se, it is a great example of how the Arabic language is become (slightly) more mainstream in American culture. The booth generated a lot of interest at the craft fair, and the “I love DC” (in Arabic) buttons and bags were especially popular. Visit the Moth Written website for more information about the artists.

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Arabic Calligraphy, Sichuan Style

These works were sent to me by a calligrapher named Abdullah Ma-qibing. Abdullah is a Chinese Muslim from Chengdu. I thought that in light of the recent media attention given to the conflict between Chinese Muslims and the Chinese government in Urumqi, it would be fitting to feature the work of this artist. Each piece is written on traditional Chinese rice paper, using calligraphy pens 4-5 cm wide.




Color in Islamic Art and Culture


From the conference website:

The Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art, organized by Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom, is a leading international conference on Islamic art and culture. It is co-sponsored by Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, VCUQatar and the Qatar Foundation. Previous symposia were held in Richmond, Virginia in 2004 and in Doha, Qatar in 2007. The third biennial symposium, And Diverse Are Their Hues: Color in Islamic Art and Culture, will be held in Córdoba, Spain, November 2-4, 2009.

For those of you interested in studying Islamic Art in more detail and depth, the Hamad Bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art offers a great chance to interact with scholars and artists in the field. Register now!

New website: From Pen to Printing Press

The Indiana University Art Museum recently launched an online exhibit entitled, “From Pen to Printing Press: Ten Centuries of Islamic Book Arts in Indiana University Collections.”

This permanent online exhibit is an adaptation of the Indiana University Art Museum special exhibition, “From Pen to Printing Press: Ten Centuries of Islamic Book Arts” which was on display from March 7-June 30, 2009. All of the materials featured on this website are housed in Indiana University collections on the Bloomington campus and are accessible to the general public.

The online exhibit features over 50 individual objects, most of which are accompanied by catalogue information and descriptions. Objects are arranged into the following categories: Writing Implements and Materials, Manuscripts, Paintings and Illustrations, Miniature Manuscripts and Scrolls, Early Printed Books, and Modern Revivals.

For more information visit the exhibit website:


Winner of the Jameel Prize 2009

From the Victoria and Albert Museum (

On 7 July 2009 Iranian born Afruz Amighi was awarded the first Jameel Prize for her work 1001 Pages (2008). The Prize, worth £25,000, is an international art prize launched by the V&A to award contemporary artists and designers inspired by the Islamic traditions of craft and design.

1001 Pages is from a series of shadow pieces in which Amighi uses light and shadow to create complex and engaging designs. She employs a stencil burner to hand-cut the design from a thin, porous sheet of plastic – a material used in the construction of refugee tents. The work is suspended, and an overhead projector illuminates the piece, which casts a shadow of the intricate pattern against a wall. The winning work is on display in the new Studio Gallery (8 July – 13 September) alongside work by the 8 other artists shortlisted for The Jameel Prize.

For more information, visit the Victoria and Albert Museum’s website: