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.

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.

Spotlight on the International Rescue Committee in Afghanistan

A global organization dedicated to responding to the world’s most challenging humanitarian crises, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has been helping people rebuild their lives after conflict and natural disaster for more than 80 years. And while the IRC currently operates in more than 30 countries around the globe, it’s in Afghanistan that the organization’s efforts have been the most longstanding.

Read on to learn more about the IRC, its history in Afghanistan, and what the organization has planned for its future efforts in the country.

 

What is the International Rescue Committee?

IRC logoA non-governmental humanitarian aid, relief, and development organization, the IRC provides both emergency aid and long-term assistance to refugees and others displaced or affected by war, persecution, and natural disaster. By focusing on key areas like health, safety, education, economic well-being, and decision-making power, the IRC works to help the world’s most vulnerable people survive and recover from crises and gain control of their futures.

 

How long has the IRC been working in Afghanistan?

Within weeks of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the IRC was on the ground helping support the waves of Afghan refugees flooding into neighboring countries. The organization has continued to provide Afghanistan with relief and development assistance ever since. Some key dates and highlights from the IRC’s more than 30 years in Afghanistan include:

1980 – John Whitehead, then the board president of the IRC, journeyed to the makeshift refugee camps springing up just beyond the borders of Afghanistan. The situation he witnessed, in which more than 5 million Afghans had fled their homeland only to encounter terrible living conditions outside it, proved to be the catalyst for the creation of more permanent IRC operations in the country.

1988 – This year saw the official establishment of IRC operations in Afghanistan, although by this time the IRC had already been operating an extensive relief program in Afghan refugee camps for some years. Mobile clinics and dispensary tents, vocational and self-help programs, and comprehensive educational programs were some of the IRC’s most important contributions to improving the lives of Afghans displaced by conflict.

1989 – Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, many aid agencies also left the country. The IRC was one of the few organizations to remain and to continue operating under the new regime. Working with a dedicated team of Afghan national staff members, the IRC helped with significant rebuilding efforts, including making repairs to roads and irrigation systems and establishing public health and sanitation facilities.

Early 2000s – Following yet another regime change at the start of the new millennium, millions of returning refugees and internally displaced Afghans began to make their way back to their homes. During this period, the IRC intensified its efforts to help Afghanistan rebuild and repair critical infrastructure.

2007 – Education has always been an important tool for the IRC to help people affected by crisis to regain control over their lives and build a better future for themselves. In Afghanistan in 2007, for example, the IRC trained more than 1,000 new teachers, and helped roughly 11,000 students enroll in 400 schools. In addition, nearly 2,000 people graduated from IRC-supported vocational programs.

 

What’s next for the IRC in Afghanistan?

Now that Afghanistan is beginning to establish and sustain modest but important gains, the IRC’s experience and expertise are more critical than ever. In 2017, the IRC published a strategic action plan for Afghanistan, outlining its program priorities through 2020 and detailing the key focus areas and actions that will help Afghanistan move into a new era of stability and prosperity. Particular desired outcomes of this plan include:

Education – Building on its extensive experience in coordinating community-based education for children, the IRC aims to ensure that Afghan children aged 6 to 14 have the opportunity to fully develop their literacy, numeracy, and social-emotional skills. Achieving this goal will involve training more teachers, supplying educational materials to classrooms, and partnering with the Ministry of Education to create an evidence-based assessment program to determine the quality of Afghan education services.

Health – Because inadequate sanitation and water supply access are leading causes of disease, the IRC plans to build safe and accessible water and sanitation facilities in the nine Afghan provinces in which the organization currently operates. Community-oriented hygiene awareness and disease prevention programs will also help curtail the spread of illness.

Economic well-being – All Afghans should have the opportunity to earn an income that is sufficient to meet basic needs, build assets, and save for the future. To this end, the IRC will continue to offer skills-based training and apprenticeship programs that prepare participants for skilled, high-demand jobs in Afghanistan’s new economy.

Power and decision-making – The IRC aims to ensure that Afghan citizens have the knowledge and power to influence the decisions that affect them. Community education programs around critical issues like property rights and land expropriation are a key component of this objective.