Cleveland State University
The Art Gallery at Cleveland State University

Current Exhibitions

Another Way of Looking: Influences from Islam
main gallery: May 21 to June 26, 2010

Islamic Calligraphy by Dr. Huda Totonji
Calligraphy will stay forever even after the death of those who write it

Islam looked to the artistry of calligraphy as a communication tool for religious expression between nations and tribes. They used it to write letters to the leaders of neighboring countries. As Islam started spreading out to non-Arabs and with the increasing number of non-Arab Muslims, there was a greater need for facilitating reading and learning of the Arabic language. Therefore, the Arabic language was slowly shifting from being an oral language to being a readable language, as a form of spreading literacy. The way in which different styles of Arabic calligraphy are classified “constitute the backing for an orally transmitted teaching”  (Sijelmassi 78). Since several letters of the Arabic alphabet share the same shapes, and since vowels are not clearly defined, some reform was needed to avoid confusion in the phonetics. A system of Naqt or I’jam (letter-pointing) and Tashkeel (vowel indication) was developed. As a result, Islam had the flexibility to make changes into the calligraphy to make it more readable, accessible, and universal.

The ancient Arabic alphabets that were created originally did not have dots in their structures, because most of the people who read the Quran knew Arabic and were of Arabian origins. According to Versteegh, there were two major issues involved in the development of classical Arabic. “In the first place, there were as yet not diacritic dots to distinguish between certain phonemes and many of the letters of the alphabet indicated two or even more phonemes” (Versteegh 55). The second is “connected with a general trait of all Semitic scripts, namely the fact that these scripts do not indicate the short vowels” (Versteegh 55). After Islam started spreading around to other countries, however, a change occurred with ultimately dramatic results. People from Persian as well as Turkish origins started to embrace Islam, and it was difficult for them to read that Arabic language without the phonetic characters and dots. “People started to collect and record the fragments of the Quranic revelation” (Versteegh 56).  As a result “the notation of the short vowels,” harakaat, which are phonetic characters, and the dots where added to the Arabic letters to make the text more readable (Versteegh 56). A system of dots below and above the letters to indicate the three short vowels” was created (Versteegh 56).

The letters of the Arabic alphabet are believed to transcend the surface of the canvas. They travel into a higher realm beyond reality. They enter into the realm of spirituality, which nourishes the mind, body, spirit, and soul. Reaching to the heavens, collectively they connect and create words that translate into poetic verses. By combining earth tones with cool and warm colors, two eras merge: the era of prehistoric evolution of writing; and, the modern era of connected verses. Using traditional and non-traditional mediums, the artist refers to the importance of history in modern life. With every letter that makes up a word, a phrase-communication becomes visual and literal. Using the hand as a means to transfer knowledge and ideas relies on human connectivity with the outside world, the world of visual communication.

The beauty of the Arabic text transforms the textual into the visual. Combining both the textual and the visual language refers to prehistoric icons, when writing evolved through “hieroglyphics” and iconography (Jean 29). The dots on the Arabic letters show the stages the Arabic alphabets went through in order to achieve this universal beauty that pleases the eyes of diverse viewers. Moreover, the dots, along with the curvy lines and the accentuated characters further assist in the readability of the text. Among the beauties of Arabic Calligraphy is that it reaches and addresses all the senses. The musical sound in the recitation of the poetic verses touches the soul in many aspects—as do the visual components.

It is believed that if anyone wishes to come closer to God, one can see the strong affect that Arabic Calligraphy has on those who do not even speak Arabic or read it. God puts the strong will in the eyes of those who view the Quranic script. It is as if the viewer is standing in front of God, whether this viewer is an Arab, non-Arab, Muslim, or one who is from another faith. It is believed that whoever wants to experience this feeling will simultaneously experience feelings of fear as well as spiritual enlightenment. Among those who are spiritually enriched by admiring Islamic calligraphy are those who come to view this calligraphy for the sake of cultural enlightenment and educational interests. Indeed, one may read the verses of the Holy Quran in any language, but there is a special feel to it when it is recited in the Arabic language. This is due to the beauty of the text with its poetic meaning.

Artist Biography

Dr. Huda Totonji was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Art Studio and her Masters of Fine Art (MFA) Degree in Art and Visual Technology from George Mason University. She gained her Islamic Calligraphy Masters Certificate (Ijazah) from Jordan. She also has a PhD degree in Fine Art from Ireland. Her PhD dissertation explored the integration of text and image researching Islamic Calligraphy, Female Subjectivity, and Art and Science. She has teaching experience from Saudi Arabia and the US. She taught at Dar Al Hekma College in Jeddah.. She worked collaboratively with a Japanese American Artist on a permanent public artwork entitled “Money Tree” in Portland Oregon. It stands tall on Powell Boulevard Station, TriMet, I 205. Dr. Huda was also selected among the 300 Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow from 75 countries, at the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow 2009 Conference in Doha, Qatar. She currently works at Georgetown University and the Art Institute of Washington

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