Stefan Sperl (The Cosmic Script co-author)

Cosmic Script Launch
Brunei Gallery, SOAS, 21 November 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear colleagues, friends and family, dear students

Thank you for joining us today to celebrate the publication of our book. And profound thanks to all those here present who have helped us by sharing your advice and expertise, or simply by standing by us in the many years it has taken us to complete this task.

I would like to add my personal thanks to our esteemed benefactor, Mr. Muhammad Ali Reza of Xenel Industries, without whose generous support this publication could not have been produced.

I am very grateful also to Jamie Camplin, Director of our publisher Thames & Hudson. When we first met him we promised to have the book ready within three years. In the end it took us nine years to have it published. Jamie's patience and his genuine understanding for what we were trying to achieve were essential in giving us the energy to persevere.

Another person I must mention is Mark Brady. In his capacity as Ahmed's studio manager he helped to produce hundreds of multi-layered illustrations – such as the one you see here. I thank him personally for his devotion, his skill and his patience.

But my greatest thanks must go to my co-author Ahmed Moustafa. It has been an immense privilege to work so closely with someone who is not only a personal friend but also happens to be an absolutely outstanding, visionary artist. Those of you who are familiar with his work will know what I mean when I say that the journey he invited me to share with him turned into a life-changing experience and an intellectual adventure without equal.

Its beginnings go far back in time. We first met in 1972 in Alexandria where Ahmed was a Lecturer in Fine Arts and already a well-known painter, though working in the European tradition in which he had been trained. I specially remember the shared moments of listening, at night in his unlit studio, to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, a composer whom I was surprised to encounter in Egypt and who has been inspirational for us to this day.

The work we have produced aims to be a rigorous scholarly study. But it is also more than that. It reflects the intense, critical preoccupation of a major artist with his own tradition – a tradition which he is continually in the process of rediscovering, elucidating and, through his own creative work, rejuvenating. At the heart of this tradition is the encounter with the sacred word of scripture: the verses of the Qur'an. In the visual sphere, that encounter is mediated by the script, the writing system which gives visual expression to these words. This fact alone gives the Arabic script a status of pivotal importance in the cultural orb of Islam. Seen from this perspective, the letter shapes are not simply alphabetic signs. They are meditative tools in a search for inexhaustible layers of meaning, bridges of communication with the ineffable. But they can only convey this expressive range if their physical appearance is made commensurate with such a task. An existential question then arises: what aesthetic criteria must a writing system fulfil to be worthy of giving expression to the sacred word? This challenge underlies the entire tradition of Arabic penmanship. It is also central to Ahmed's work as an artist and the prime motivating factor behind the quest which has led to the publication of this book.

Ahmed became interested in this subject soon after arriving in England to engage in post-graduate studies. It is here that he chose the Arabic script as his medium of artistic expression. In seeking to understand its aesthetic foundations, he came across a set of geometric rules which determine the proportions of the letter shapes and the relationship between them. The Arabic tradition asserts that they go back to Ibn Muqla, a scribe and Chief Minister who lived in Baghdad in the early tenth century. By means of these rules, Ibn Muqla is credited with having brought about the so-called Proportioned Script, a writing system which has dominated the art of Arabic penmanship ever since and is at the origin of the Arabic script as we know it today.

Ahmed was profoundly intrigued by these rules, all the more so as he realised that they had hitherto never been studied in full detail. The reason for their neglect is easily explained. The rules are sparse, use an often cryptic and allusive terminology and have been transmitted in different, sometimes contradictory versions. As Ahmed continued to ponder over them, he became increasingly convinced that these rules, in their very sparseness and obscurity, held the key to an integrated system which represents the aesthetic and scientific foundation of the Arabic script as an artistic medium. His investigations resulted first in a Masters thesis and then in PhD which was completed some 25 years ago. At the time I had the privilege of participating in this research as a friend and an academic interlocutor. Our dialogue on the topic never ceased and has now resulted in this book. It builds upon these early advances, but at the same time represents a completely different, more thorough and wide-ranging approach. The core questions it seeks to answer, however, remain the same: what enabled the Proportioned Script to become the principle medium of Islamic visual art? How did it originate and what are its religious, philosophical and scientific foundations?

For me as a scholar, the question was how to present this tradition to the reader. In drafting the text, for this was my prime task, Ahmed and I agreed that we would present the topic from a neutral, scholarly perspective and avoid any faith-based assumptions or declarations. At the same time, I saw it as my task to make the reader share, to the maximum extent, the living experience of a faith-based tradition and its manner of thinking and seeing, which I had myself witnessed in the years of working with Ahmed. The book is therefore also an attempt at cross-cultural understanding by inviting the reader into the heart of that which alone makes Islamic art Islamic: its perennial dialogue with the words of scripture. The Qur'an therefore plays a central role in our argument. At the same time, the spiritual tradition which the reader will discover in these pages is a world removed from the narrow and draconian media image of Islam which has arisen in the conflict-ridden environment of our time. The reader will find an open tradition which encompasses a multitude of forms and stretches, in an unbroken chain of continuity, down to classical antiquity and beyond. To make this vision accessible to a wider readership, the book does not presume any specialist knowledge. It also includes an introductory chapter on the Arabic script for those who are not familiar with it.

The link with the more distant past was a source of particular fascination for me. To my surprise it brought me back again to the encounter with a man who was instrumental in inspiring me to engage in the study of Arabic and Islam. This was Richard Walzer, Reader in Islamic Philosophy at the University of Oxford to who had come to England as a German-Jewish refugee and was already retired when I met him. With increasingly failing eyesight he was completing his edition of a major work by the Islamic philosopher al-Farabi. Entitled The Views of the Inhabitants of the Perfect City, this work can be described a Neoplatonic and Islamic recasting of Plato's Republic.

What does this book have to do with the Arabic script? Firstly, al-Farabi and the great scribe and wazir Ibn Muqla were contemporaries and lived in Baghdad at the same time. And the terminology we find in Ibn Muqla's treatise on the script recalls al-Farabi's phrasing in such a way that we can see a parallel between the philosopher's vision of the Perfect City and the scribe's design of what we may, by analogy, call the Perfect Script. In Neoplatonic fashion, al-Farabi describes the cosmos as having been created by God in a series of emanations which mirror each other. The central ordering force of this entire hierarchy is justice which ensures that all constituent parts are provided with the resources they need to function to perfection. It is the source of health in the human body, of prosperity in society and it is manifest in unadulterated perfection in the macrocosm. Man's principal task is the provision of justice in emulation of the divine order, or tawfiyat al-'adl as al-Farabi calls it. Only in this way can social harmony and the bliss of paradise be attained.

Both the approach and the terminology we find in Ibn Muqla's treatise on the script recall those of al-Farabi. Just as the macrocosm emanates in stages from the First Cause, so all letter shapes emanate in stages out of a single point of origin. Hence the alif, the first letter of the alphabet, emanates from the square dot traced by the reed pen; and all letter shapes in turn emanate from the alif. And in both systems, the provision of distributive justice is the cornerstone. To express the notion of 'provision', Ibn Muqla even uses the same term as al-Farabi: tawfiya. For him, the provision of justice means ensuring that each letter shape is granted exactly the right number, type and length of strokes it needs in order to form it to perfection. The laws which ensure that justice is done are the laws of geometry. For all letter shapes are derived from circles, triangles and squares derived from the original alif which in turn is a straight line composed of seven dots.
Seen in the wider philosophical context of its time, which I have outlined here in its simplest form, the Proportioned Script can be understood as a writing system modelled upon the cosmic order, in which geometry represents the concrete manifestation of divine justice. For this reason our book carries the title The Cosmic Script [Slide 1] .

It follows that in structuring the proportion of the letter shapes in accordance with these laws, the scribe emulates the action of the Creator who has fashioned the cosmos as a whole 'in due measure and proportion', as asserted in numerous Qur'anic verses and upheld also by the Neaplatonic cosmology inherited by al-Farabi. A script based on such principles can indeed be deemed worthy of giving visual expression to the sacred text of revelation.

It follows furthermore that the act of writing in this manner is a spiritual exercise, an attempt at capturing an otherworldly beauty and perfection whose ideal resides beyond the bounds of human perception. This notion of the art of penmanship as a form of spiritual ascent is expressed by Ibn Muqla in the preamble of his epistle. It also figures in al-Farabi treatise on the Perfect City where assiduous practice in the art of writing appears as an image for the soul's striving to attain the felicity of virtuous action and even for the bliss of Paradise.

So how do these geometric laws work in practice? To work out the answer to these questions took by far the longest time. In involved quite a few false starts and twice we were forced, like Moses and Khidr in Surat al-Kahf, to retrace our steps and start again. I will not even begin to outline this here – it would take far too long – but would like to address just two key points.

Firstly, already when writing his MA and PhD thesis, Ahmed had realised that Ibn Muqla's geometric instructions for the composition of the letter shapes can traced back to a single source, a grid module composed of a circle, a square and a hexagon [Slide 2] . He had noticed furthermore, that this very same structure can be used to extrapolate the exact dimensions of the square dot from which the alif and all other letter shapes derive. This in turn makes it possible to determine the standard width of the strokes with which these letter shapes are to be composed on the grid module. To our surprise we subsequently realised that the grid module in its final form harbours within its confines a very ancient and well-known mandala-type pattern which in modern times has come to be known as the 'seed of life' [Slide 3] .

It so happens that this name – the seed of life – is extremely appropriate for a reason which brings me to the second key point I would like to make about the geometry of letters. The construction of letter shapes on the grid by means of strokes derived from circles, squares and triangles is only the first step towards the final product. The shapes thus composed are rigid geometric patterns of uniform thickness, entirely devoid of the pliancy, fluidity and sense of movement which is the most striking characteristic of the Arabic scripts at its best [Slide 4 and Slide 5] . The term used in the technical literature for endowing letter shapes with this type of pliancy is tartib, which literally means 'moisterisation' i.e. making something moist or humid. [It is important to note that the reference to 'moisture' is not just a metaphor but must be understood in the context of medieval physics which saw all material entities as composed of a fusion of four different qualities, wetness, dryness, heat and coldness. Moisturising a letter shape quite literally means to supply it with the qualities that moisture brings to any object of which is forms part.] What quality in particular is intended here and why should moisturised letter shapes be attractive? An anonymous 11th century treatise on the proportioned script gives us the answer: the human soul loves moisture because it is "the very substance of life" (li'annaha maddatu l-hayat).

We are inevitably reminded here of the famous Qur'anic phrase which states that "We created out of water every living thing". It brings to mind an analogy which is relevant for understanding the issue at hand here from a wider, I would say 'cosmic' perspective. If water is cooled sufficiently it is no longer fluid and moist but becomes crystallised and turns into ice. These ice crystals – of which you see one example here – [Slide 6] are one the numerous forms in which the hexagon is encountered in nature, the same geometric figure which is also an integral part of the grid module from which the letter shapes derive. As the static geometric patterns of the ice crystals melt under the impact of warmth they turn into the fluidity through which alone water is life-enhancing. Turning to the letter shapes constructed on the grid as static geometric patterns an analogous question arises: what warmth can moisturise and hence enliven these patterns? How exactly does it operate?

That this question is absolutely central to the art of penmanship is evident when we take a look at the way in which the beauty of perfect handwriting is described in classical Arabic literature. Again and again we find comparisons with living forms. A page of writing is likened to a garden of fruits and flowers, and individual letter shapes may look like an elephant's ear, have faces like a cat or gaping mouths like serpents or ferocious lions. The treatise on the proportioned script puts this correspondence between letter shapes and living forms into a wider philosophical context:

The soul is not content with the form of the letters [of the script] and the spacing of a word, without the correct execution of its proportions, like the bodily members of a living being are proportioned or like the parts of a plant are balanced, because the soul is enamoured of beauty and is conditioned to love comeliness, and that is [to be found in] the proportionality of the natural world, whether seen or heard.

It follows that writing is a kind of mimesis, a reflection of the natural world, but not of its outward forms as in naturalist painting. Rather, what is to be reproduced instead are the qualities inherent in these forms of which two stand out in particular: the harmonious proportions which underlie them; and the force of life which animates them. The distinction between these two aspects recalls God's creation of man in the Qur'an which is repeatedly described as composed of two separate actions: "He fashioned man evenly and breathed into him of his spirit". It is in passing through analogous phases that the art of penmanship can be seen as emulating the archetypal creative act.

How then, is the evenly fashioned but rigid geometric core of a letter shape endowed with the spirit and the moisture of life? The key factor at issue here is the reed pen: the angle at which the nib is cut and the manner in which it is held and moved across the page. For, if moved correctly from the shoulder, the pen transmits the 'warmth and moisture' of the scribe's body to the letter shapes by means of strokes that vary in thickness according to a distinct rhythmic pattern which is crucial for the animated appearance of the writing. A chapter in the first volume of our study examines this process in detail from a theoretical perspective.

The second volume, which carries the title From Geometric Pattern to Living Form, turns to a practical analysis of all the nineteen detached letter shapes of the Arabic script. In each case we constructed the geometric core of the letter shape on the grid module in accordance with Ibn Muqla's specifications (also taking account of variants by other authorities) and compared the result with letter shapes in two authoritative sources, the paradigms traced according to the school of Ibn al-Bawwab by the Mamluk master scribe at-Tayyibi, some of which appear at the frontispiece of our book, and samples from the famous Qur'an manuscript attributed to Baysunghur [Slide 7] .

What we found was that in each case the geometric specifications of the core where subtly modified when implemented by the pen. But these modifications were by no means random. On the contrary, a distinct pattern became apparent. The dominant feature here is the golden ratio, and in particular a golden rectangle with the longer side equal in length to alif. We termed it the Cardinal Golden Rectangle since it turned out to be a structural constant manifest in some form in virtually all the letter shapes.

A telling example is the paradigm of letter jim as traced by at-Tayyibi which appears on the frontispiece of our book [Slide 8 and Slide 9] . He quite deliberately placed the letter into a square which has dimensions akin to a golden rectangle. But how can we be sure that he intended it to be golden rectangle? There is no mention of such a feature in the written sources about letter jim. In his drawing, however, we find a striking detail. Every golden rectangle is divisible into a square and smaller golden rectangle, and just such a division is indicated by at-Tayyibi. The jim is just one example in which the explanatory geometric lines he has added to his drawings appear to hint at the golden ratio as a structural constant.

It has to be said that when we began our analytical work on the geometry of letters we were not in any way looking for that ratio. Discovering its relevance and its repeated occurrence was a complete surprise. That it is found so frequently in the letters shapes once they are, so to say, 'brought to life' and 'animated' by the action of the pen, is remarkably appropriate, however. The golden ratio is a constant in many forms of animal and plant life, including the human bone structure, [Slide 10] where it governs the stages of growth and the proportional relationship between individual components. It therefore stands to reason that a writing system modelled upon the "proportionality of the natural world" – as expressed in the source just quoted – should produce shapes that are governed by this very ratio.

In the years of working with Ahmed on this book I have been able to witness with fascination how the theoretical findings we made in the course of our work shaped and influenced his creative output. As I said at the beginning, for him this work has never been a disinterested scholarly pursuit. It was a quest to understand in depth the expressive tools of a tradition for a practical purpose: to use them for the exploration of new realms of meaning designed to reflect an ancient, timeless message – the very message which has given rise to this tradition.

I would like to end my talk by showing you an example of such art work [Slide 11] . It features in the concluding pages of our book, even though it was not originally composed as an illustration of our argument. Like any work of art, it is meant to be viewed on its own, without the need for explanatory comments. It was chosen, however, because it appeared like a visual expression of the key themes which have governed our research.

The work is entitled The Maturing of Consciousness and is based upon the following Qur'anic verse which is inscribed upon it:

We have enjoined upon man goodness towards his two parents. In pain did his mother bear him and in pain did she give him birth; and her bearing him and his utter dependence on her took thirty months. And so, when he attains to full maturity and reaches forty years, he prays: O my Sustainer! Inspire me so that I may forever be grateful for the blessings You have given to me and my two parents, and that I may do what is right and will meet Your acceptance; and grant me righteousness in my offspring. Unto You I have turned in repentance, for I am of those who have surrendered themselves unto You (46:15).

Seeing these words which deal with the birth and growth of life inscribed upon this multi-layered hexagonal structure recalls the hexagonal grid module which is the birth place of the letter shapes and which contains within itself the symbolic pattern known as the seed of life. We thus find here once more then analogy between the creative act and writing; between the birth of life and the birth of signs which give meaningful expression to life.

In the painting, this symbolic birth proceeds in stages which recall the creative emanations spawned by the First Cause in al-Farabi's Neoplatonic cosmos. At the centre is a small cube whose fourfold growth into ever larger cubes is governed by the golden ratio [Slide 12] . It is shielded and enfolded in the centre like the child in the mother's womb of which the Qur'anic verses speak. It appears weightless and immeasurably delicate, held in space by a single golden thread.

The cube as origin and source of growth recalls the square dot traced by the reed pen from which letter shapes emanate. As I mentioned before, seven such dots make up the alif a seven-ness hinted at by the seven concentric hexagons which together delineate the four cubes in this painting.

We are reminded here of a fact which Ahmed has often emphasised: that the square dot and the cube are indivisibly linked, because the cube is nothing other than a three dimensional dot. From a theistic perspective, square and cube have the same symbolic function. In the evenness of their measurements, they are symbols of that One-ness from which all multiplicity derives: the Creator to whom man is asked to surrender in gratitude and repentance, as stated in the Qur'anic verse inscribed on this composition.

While One-ness is the source of all plenitude, the Qur'anic verse specifically stresses that human life is brought into being by a duality: the two parents, referred to in the twice repeated grammatical dual. What is intended of course is mother and father, and with it male and female gender. But from a wider, cosmic, perspective, this contrasting pairing from which newness flows forth is but one manifestation of the many polarities which govern all forms of material existence [and which medieval physics tried to reduce to the four qualities hot and cold, dry and wet.]

As I pointed out earlier, the Proportioned Script, too, exhibits such a seminal polarity. It is that between the static, inorganic, 'dry' shapes ordained by the geometry of letters and the 'moist' organic pliancy and sense of movement which modulates these shapes in multiple ways and seemingly brings them to life when traced by the pen. This same polarity is, I believe, comes to the fore in this painting. Static geometry governs the well-proportioned concatenation of spatial shapes in the centre. Engraved upon them is writing in vivacious meanderings which in their very fluidity emanate from the stillness and order which they adorn. The sense of liveliness is further heightened by the rich palette of colours. Luscious vegetation is conjured up by the intense green of the shadow cast by the cubic edifice. The dark blue writing surrounding the embryonic cube at the centre is like ripples on a water surface, evoking the substance of which 'every living thing is made'.






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The presentation by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, author of the Epilogue for The Cosmic Script, is available to read here.


Links to the publishers' webpages - Thames & Hudson in the UK, and Inner Traditions in the US.


The Cosmic Script website is currently undergoing reconstruction - please return shortly.