‘art and soul

In the Name of God...

The Basmalah appears everywhere: carved on monuments, engraved in stone, etched upon metal, penned upon paper. And one is constantly astonished at the form it takes in gifted hands,
B. N. Goswamy

The Basmalah: Calligraphy by Ahmet Karahisari. Turkey, 16th century
The Basmalah: Calligraphy by Ahmet Karahisari. Turkey, 16th century

THE Quran was revealed in Mecca", they say in the Islamic world, "but the art of reciting it was born in Cairo, and the art of writing it was perfected in Istanbul."

I was reminded of this while going through, recently, a Turkish book titled The Garden of Besmeleh, that treated, exclusively, of the countless ways in which the sacred opening words of the Book – Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, "In the name of God, the Merciful, and the Compassionate" – have been scripted across the centuries by great calligraphers. It was an amazing collection of images that I was seeing, constantly marvelling at the inventiveness and the artistry of man.

There they all were, some of those great styles of Arabic calligraphy – Kufic, severe but ever so pure; Naskh, with its ornamental flourishes; Muhaqqaq of the bold lines; Maghribi, the letters of which keep turning upon themselves; Tughra, in which calligraphy gets transformed almost into a visual puzzle; Nastaliq, so easy on the eye and so elegant; – but each of them illustrated through a rendering only of the opening prayer: the Basmalah, as it has come to be called.

One knows that the formula-prayer is uttered almost before every action by the devout, God’s blessings being invoked through it: reading from a text, sitting down to dinner, having a drink of water, the midwife bringing a baby into the world, a mother at the first suckling of her new-born. At post-match interviews, the captain of the Pakistan cricket-team, Inzamam ul-Haq, routinely recites the formula before answering any questions. This much one knows, and has heard.

I am also aware that, in writing, the prayer is often translated into numerical terms and thus replaced by the number "786", this being the sum of the values attached to each letter of the Arabic alphabet: in Bismillah, ‘b’ (bay) stands for 2, ‘s’ (sin) for 60, ‘m’ (mim) for 40, and so on. That there are nineteen letters in the prayer one can count, but I was not aware that a special significance attaches to the number 19. For several scholars have made elaborate calculations and tables to establish that there is a grand mathematical design in the structure of the Holy Book, which uses this number.

Equally, I did not know that there is a unique textual problem that scholars and clergymen have been grappling with for centuries: that, of all the sections or surahs in the Quran, only one, that numbered Nine, is not prefaced with the sacred formula, and no one can quite work out exactly why. There are speculations and heated arguments, but no real answers.

But to get back to the formula-prayer as calligraphed, for there devotion and aesthetics merge, become inextricably woven together, as it were. The Basmalah appears everywhere: carved on monuments, engraved in stone, etched upon metal, penned upon paper. And one is constantly astonished at the form it takes in gifted hands: the letters take off and soar, curl and sweep, rise like minarets and expand like domes as it were.

The unique flexibility that the Arabic script offers, the manner in which letters merge and coalesce into one another, is put here to the finest, the most daring, possible use. As one goes over what is on view in books such as the one I have referred to above, one is left bedazzled not only by what the great calligraphers of the past were able to do, but also by what the current generation of calligraphers active in the Islamic world achieves. This is much more than decoration: it is "spiritual geometry", the term that the great Abu’l Fazl used for writing.

In all this one does not forget the great calligraphers of the past, whether from the Arabic world, or from India, nor the great honours that they received in their own lifetimes. Zarrin Qalam – "the one with the golden pen", Anbarin Qalam – "he whose pen is like the amber" – were the kind of titles that grateful, and discerning, patrons conferred upon them.

There are stories about the greatest of them that still do the rounds of the world of literature. Like the one about Shaikh Hamdullah (1436-1520) about whom it is reported that his patron, the Sultan of Turkey, Bayazid II, would himself hold the inkpot sometimes as the great calligrapher would write. Or the one about Hafiz Usman (1642-1698)

It is said that in the course of a journey in which a river had to be crossed, he suddenly found himself short of money. When the boatman demanded his fee, the great calligrapher drew just one letter in his hand on a sheet of paper, the letter "vav", and gave it to him instead. The boatman accepted, but with some reluctance, only to find later that he was able to sell that ‘letter’ for a very high price. On the return journey, days later, the boatman demanded no money of the calligrapher, but asked only for a letter written in his own hand, as before. To be denied this time, however. That is how they say: "It is not easy to get the ‘vav’ a second time".