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Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy: About The Collection

Dr. Christiane J. Gruber
Indiana University at Bloomington

“Whoever writes the bismillah in a beautiful writing enters Paradise without judgment.”


Scholars and practitioners of Islamic calligraphy have long considered the written word the quintessential medium for the expression of religious sentiment and personal piety despite the existence of a number of different art forms and visual media in Islamic culture.  Indeed, as noted in the calligraphic fragment above, held in the collections of the Library of Congress (1-84-154.56), a beautiful handwriting (husn al-khatt) that includes the bismillah (“In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful”) is believed to provide an immediate passport to Heaven’s gate.  Such graphic virtuosity combined with the praising of God underscores the moralizing potential of this ‘sacred’ art form.[i]

A practical skill and a graphic science that developed gradually over the centuries, calligraphy is the subject of numerous studies analyzing its role in the faith, culture, and art of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish speaking lands.[ii]  Calligraphic traditions are discussed only briefly here as they pertain to important fragments in the collections of the Library of Congress.  In-depth analyses of specific fragments are found in the individual entries of the catalogue; primary and secondary sources referenced in each entry are listed in the Bibliography

There are approximately 355 Islamic calligraphic items in the Library’s collections.  A corpus of Qur’anic fragments dating from the 9th and 10th centuries is written on parchment, but the great majority of items are on paper.  The collection of Arabic papyri in the library, on the other hand, is not included; they await conservation, scholarly analysis, and cataloging.  Collectively, the materials constitute a disparate yet fascinating corpus of fragments, bearing witness to several calligraphic traditions—such as Safavid (1501-1722) practices of divination by the Qur’an (fal-i qur’an), calligraphic gifts on the occasion of the Persian New Year (pishkas-i noruz), and Qajar (1785-1925) monochromatic “fingernail calligraphy” (khatt-i nakhani).  These three calligraphic traditions, in particular, remain poorly understood.

The Library of Congress' collection of Arabic script calligraphy items was created during two periods of activity.  The vast majority of the sheets were acquired during the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Almost all the sheets were acquired from Mr. Kirkor Minassian of New York and Paris.  A second group of items was acquired in the 1990s through the Library's Overseas Office in Islamabad, which received permission from the Government of Pakistan to acquire and export calligraphic materials belonging to a Pakistani citizen.  Other disparate pieces came to the Library from various sources throughout the 20th century.  The Library of Congress has acquired and is now publishing these important cultural items as part of its ongoing mission to document the cultures and civilizations of the entire world.





i Martin Lings, The Quranic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination (London: World of Islam Festival Trust, 1976), 15; and David James, The Master Scribes: Qur'ans of the 10th to 14th Centuries AD, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, vol. 2, ed. Julian Raby (Oxford: Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1992), 11.

ii See inter alia: Sheila Blair, Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006); Mohammed Zakariya, “Islamic Calligraphy: An Overview,” in Brocade of the Pen: The Art of Islamic Writing, ed. Carol Garrett Fisher (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1991), 1-19; Glenn Lowry and Ann Yonemura, From Concept to Context: Approaches to Asian and Islamic Calligraphy (Washington D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art, 1986); Annemarie Schimmel, Calligraphy and Islamic Culture (New York: New York University Press, 1984); Priscilla Soucek, “The Arts of Calligraphy,” in Arts of the Book in Central Asia, 14th-17th Centuries, ed. Basil Gray et al (Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 1979), 7-34; Anthony Welch, Calligraphy in the Arts of the Muslim World (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979); Mohammed Zakariya, The Calligraphy of Islam: Reflections on the State of the Art (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, 1979); and Yasin H. Safadi, Islamic Calligraphy (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1978).

Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy >> About The Collection