4 Facts about Islamic Calligraphy That Will Amaze You

Turqoise MountainTraditional arts and crafts suffered greatly during Afghanistan’s long years of civil conflict, but over the last decade, the country has seen a renaissance of traditional art forms and the launch of a brand-new generation of artisans. One group spearheading this remarkable revival is the nonprofit, nongovernmental organization Turquoise Mountain, an international association founded in 2006 that is dedicated to revitalizing historic areas in Afghanistan and to spurring the development and growth of the Afghan arts and crafts industry.

One of Turquoise Mountain’s most important initiatives is the Turquoise Mountain Institute. As the premier arts vocational training institution in Afghanistan, the Institute is where the country’s future master artisans get their start. Around 15 students are accepted every year via a highly competitive application process, and successful candidates then receive three years of intensive training in their particular craft from some of the world’s most distinguished artisans (both Afghan and international faculty teach at the Institute).

In addition to offering world-class training in disciplines like woodworking, ceramics, and jewelry-making and gem-cutting, the Institute serves as the home of the Alwaleed Philanthropies School of Calligraphy and Miniature Painting. Calligraphy is a highly revered art form throughout Afghanistan and the rest of the Islamic world, and it has a rich and captivating history that few Westerners are familiar with. Read on for some fascinating facts about the beautiful art of Islamic calligraphy.


Islamic calligraphy is a sacred art form.

Islamic calligraphy began as the practice of handwriting text directly from, or based on the contents of, the Quran, the sacred book of Islam. Early calligraphers drew inspiration from significant parts of the Quran and particular sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, such as the statement “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” and they took these messages to heart in developing writing styles that would enhance and formalize the text of the Quran as people began to write it down on parchment. Because these artists regarded the words of the Quran as the verbal manifestation of divine truth, they viewed their work as an act of worship. Indeed, experts describe devoted Islamic calligraphers as adopting a meditative and almost mystical approach to penmanship, attempting to craft an inscription that is as pleasing to the eye and as rewarding to the spirit as the harmonious rhythm that emerges from recited verses of the Quran.



Islamic calligraphy exists in a surprising number of places.

While Islamic calligraphy began as the act of inscribing the Quran onto parchment, the art form quickly expanded to other materials. Over the centuries, people have applied calligraphy to ceramics, tile, metal, stone, glass, textiles, carpets, wood, leather, and ivory. In an exhibit of Islamic art, for example, calligraphy exists on almost every precious object, from a carved jewelry box to an inlaid pen case to a decorative water pitcher. But perhaps the most striking place to view Islamic calligraphy is in architecture: Muslim structures all over the world are adorned with beautifully crafted, flowing script running throughout the building. Some of the most famous examples include the Alhambra Palace in Spain, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and the Taj Mahal in India.


The instrument that people use to write calligraphy is called a qalam.

The tool that Islamic calligraphers use to create their art is called a qalam. Made from a dried bamboo stem or sometimes a dried reed, the qalam is treated and carved to hold different-colored inks. It’s important to understand, however, that the qalam is much more than just a pen—it is a spiritual tool. In fact, Muslim literature states that the first thing that God created was the qalam, which had the sacred duty to record everything that happened in a person’s life. In addition, because a calligrapher spends so much time using the qalam, it essentially becomes an extension of the hand and a repository for the calligrapher’s ideas and feelings.

For all these reasons, the qalam is treated with a particular reverence, and there’s perhaps no better illustration of this than the ritual of the qalam shavings. According to a custom long respected by calligraphers, all the shavings a calligrapher produces whenever he or she cuts and sharpens his or her qalam must be kept, from the calligrapher’s first day of learning to the day he or she dies. After the death of a calligrapher, the family performs the ritual of collecting the shavings and burning them in the fire that heats the water that will be used to wash the calligrapher’s body. In this way, the calligrapher and his or her qalam both disappear from the material world together.


Image by Doctor Yuri | Flickr


There are a number of different script styles in Islamic calligraphy.

While “Islamic calligraphy” is referred to as a single discipline or art form, there are several different script styles that calligraphers use depending on what they are writing and where they are writing it. For example, the Kufic style, which was popular during the 7th through the 10th centuries, is one of the oldest script forms and the source for other major styles that emerged later, while the Thuluth script style, which developed in the 9th century, was often used for architectural inscriptions because of its larger size and high visibility.

What You Need to Know about Afghanistan’s Blue Mosque

Of the many incredible historic sites and monuments found all over Afghanistan, the Blue Mosque is perhaps the most breathtaking. Located in the beautiful city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Blue Mosque was built in its present form more than five centuries ago, and is often described as an “oasis of peace” by visitors and locals alike. Here’s what you need to know about this stunning example of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.


It’s a huge complex.

Although its name might lead you to imagine a single building, the Blue Mosque is really a large and rather elaborate complex that covers roughly 22,000 square feet in the center of Mazar-i-Sharif. Surrounded by an extensive park, the Blue Mosque encompasses a courtyard, a small museum, and a number of holy tombs in addition to the large prayer hall. Experts often cite the Blue Mosque as one of the most exquisite examples of classical Islamic architecture in the world.



It’s an important shrine.

The Blue Mosque is an important place of pilgrimage because it’s believed to house the remains of Ali bin Abi Talib, a son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad. According to legend, a local mullah in the 12th century had a dream in which Ali revealed that he had been secretly buried in what is now northwestern Afghanistan, near the ancient city of Balkh. The Sultan of the Seljuq Empire, who was the ruler of the region at that time, was so captivated by this story that he ordered a shrine to be built on the site revealed in the dream; he also created the city of Mazar-i-Sharif around the shrine.

Although this original shrine lasted barely a century (it was unfortunately destroyed by Genghis Khan during the westward movement of his Mongol armies), it was rebuilt in 1481 by Sultan Husayn Mizra in the form of the Blue Mosque. Today, the shrine of Ali is the largest part of the complex.


It has a resident population of doves.

One of the first things that visitors notice upon entering the park surrounding the Blue Mosque are thousands of snow-white doves soaring overhead and pecking at the ground along the park paths lined with rose bushes. The reason why the doves seem so at home here is because they are: these doves are official residents of the complex. Raised by the Blue Mosque’s attendants ever since the original shrine was built, the doves live in the pigeon house located to one side of the mosque: year-round, this large, low, small-windowed concrete structure is where the doves nest, breed, and receive food. Today, they are one of the Blue Mosque’s most famous symbols, with local legend recounting that the doves are pure white because of the mosque’s holiness.


Calls to prayer now take place over a loudspeaker system.

Although the Blue Mosque dates from the 15th century, this doesn’t mean that every part of it is old. Today, when the muezzin chants the traditional call to prayer, he does so over a loudspeaker system that broadcasts the call across the city. This is quite different than the way things worked a generation ago, when four muezzins would stand at the top of the mosque’s minaret, each facing a different direction, and chant the call to prayer in perfect unison. However, the effect is largely the same: then, just as now, worshippers all across the city could hear the call.



Image courtesy Wikipedia


Thousands of intricate tiles cover the mosque’s exterior.

The Blue Mosque gets its name from the thousands upon thousands of stunning tiles that cover virtually every inch of the structure. Each tile is about the size of a hand, and together they form large mosaic patterns that are exquisitely detailed and produce incredible visual effects. For example, the tiles are arranged in such a way that, when looking at the mosque from farther away, it appears to be floating. This is a classic trick of Islamic architecture: the idea is to use the colors and designs of the tiles to distract viewers so that they forget to notice the solidity of the building. Instead, the mosque appears miraculously weightless—a visual representation of its sanctity.


A tile workshop is located just outside the mosque complex.

Not surprisingly, the intricate tilework of the Blue Mosque requires constant upkeep. Exposure to the elements gradually wears away at the tiles. Visiting worshipers also do damage by stealing small pieces of tile to take home as a treasured memento of their pilgrimage. Fortunately, the Blue Mosque maintains its very own staff of resident tile makers, who practice their craft in a small workshop just outside the mosque complex. The workshop and its artisans produce roughly six square meters of tile every month.

A Look at the New Afghan Fashion Label Putting Style in the Spotlight

LamanLogoAfghanistan might not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of global fashion hotspots, but that’s going to change if the new clothing label Laman has anything to say about it. The label was launched by a group of young Kabul-based entrepreneurs in 2015. Ever since, it’s been making headlines at home and abroad for its bold interpretations of Afghan fashion. Here’s what you need to know about this stylish startup.


It taps into Kabul’s history as a fashion capital.

From the 1920s to the 1970s, Kabul enjoyed an international reputation as a hub of fashion and style. The era was reflected in the chic outfits and hairstyles of its citizens, and the world took notice of unique examples of Afghan fashion like the goat-skin coat.

In December 1969, Vogue even ran a cover story titled “Afghan Adventure” that featured some of the country’s young style icons. And although decades of conflict have all but erased the vibrancy of Afghanistan’s fashion traditions, it’s precisely this spirit of style – a throwback to the country’s golden age of fashion – that Laman hopes to revive.


It’s headed by a sibling duo.

Laman is currently helmed by the brother-sister team of Haseeb and Rahiba Rahimi. As president, the self-taught Rahiba is the company’s lead designer. Ever since she was a child seeing her mother wearing dresses and scarves with traditional Afghan embroidery, she has wanted to have her own design company that would claim and celebrate her country’s cultural heritage.

Her brother Haseeb serves as the label’s CEO, supporting the company through his experience in business, economics, and finance. The two siblings launched the label with fellow co-founder Khalid Wardak, a designer and graduate of a fashion school in London, but he has since left the company to pursue other projects.

Together, the team has done pioneering work in advancing the business of fashion in Afghanistan. Because there was no pre-existing business model, the founders had to start completely from scratch: getting proper government authorizations, researching suppliers, establishing a production line, and taking care of the all-important marketing aspect of launching a new brand.


It blends traditional and contemporary styles.

Laman has become known for its innovative approach to fashion, which presents traditional Afghan designs and styles with a modern twist. The label has focused especially on reviving Afghanistan’s rich tradition of embroidery. These elaborate and detailed designs vary depending on the region and community. Bright colors and patterns are beautifully showcased in Laman’s dresses and suits, which are made of lighter fabrics that are more suitable for modern lifestyles.

Laman has also taken care to ensure that its women’s clothing is acceptable for everyday wear in Afghan society. To this end, the label produces two women’s collections. One features garments that are long and loose enough to be appropriate for public wear. The other features somewhat more fashion-forward designs that are meant to be worn privately in the home.



It has a diverse clientele.

When Laman first launched, its target market was middle- and upper-class Afghans, both men looking for professional clothes for work and women seeking dressier options for weddings and other formal events. Its clothing ranges in cost from $29, or 2000 Afghanis, for a simple dress, up to $200 for more intricately-embroidered pieces. Today, the label enjoys a diverse clientele, including foreign customers (both within and beyond Afghanistan), government officials, and young girls and boys.


Its designs have been seen on television.

An important early breakthrough for Laman came shortly after the label’s launch. The team was asked to design clothing for some of the judges and participants on “Afghan Star,” a hugely-popular reality television show structured like “American Idol.” This early exposure was critical in helping build brand recognition and demand for the label’s unique and trendy designs.


It promotes economic empowerment.

Small businesses like Laman play an incredibly important role in Afghanistan’s economic development. From its original three co-founders, Laman has grown to employ more than 30 people. Many of its employees work from home, sewing and embroidering the pieces. This allows people who might not otherwise have economic opportunities to earn an income and help support their families.

In big-picture terms, Afghanistan’s textiles sector is still very under-developed despite high consumer demand. In 2015, for example, Afghanistan spent more than $200 million importing textiles and clothes from countries like China and the United Arab Emirates. If even some of those items could be produced domestically, by companies like Laman, that could be a major contribution to Afghanistan’s economy.