This Reed Flute Sings in Silenceby Deborah Addington on 05/05/11
I mentioned last week that the reed flute, the ney, is an important instrument in Mevlevi music and features strongly as a symbol in Mevelevi poetry. This discussion is about writing, not music, yet the reed flute is present, crying, "Hu, Hu!"
Arabic calligraphy is done with a hollow reed pen, cut and sharpened in a particular way. This reed flute cries for not wind, but ink; it sings a song of whisper and skritch, of pen on paper, the union of the loving ink with the beloved surface. The pen is the delivery system for union between the vessel of the words, the ink, and the recipient of that grace, the paper.
You may have heard that Muhammad, may peace and blessings be upon him, was illiterate. That's apparently a bad translation of the word "umi," (OOh-me) which is better translated as "unlettered." Some truly unlettered, ignorant folks would dismiss the Qur'an as a sacred text by saying it was given to an illiterate person and so it can't possibly be an accurate transmission. This is neither appropriate nor correct.
Muhammad was an orphan. Before he became a prophet, his uncle took him in and taught him the family merchant biz. Later, he met Khadijah, an older widow who ran her own business; Muhammad went to work for her. After she saw what a bangup job he did being a decent human and tending her affairs, she offered marriage. He accepted. It is said that it was in Khadijah's arms, wrapped in her cloak, that Muhammad wept his fear and frustration at having been picked to receive the Qur'an. It's highly unlikely that Muhammad was illiterate, running businesses and stuff like that. I think of 'unlettered' as being more like a really smart person with no degrees, no alphabet academic soup following the name. No Dr. Muhammad, no Muhammad of the Tribe Quraysh, Ph.D. Just Muhammad, messenger of Allah.
Muhammad may not have been a master poet or calligrapher, but that didn't stop him from receiving the Qur'an. The Qur'an itself helped to spread Arabic everywhere it went. I've read most of it in translation and heard much of it in Arabic. I can tell you that the music, the magic of the sound of the words, the transcendent resonances of the words spoken aloud instantly vanish when you take it out of Arabic. The language itself it quintessential to the message; the written language is the transmitter of that message. That makes Arabic really important.
Today, only 18% of the global Muslim population speaks Arabic, yet the Arabic alphabet is used to scribe many different languages, just as the Roman alphabet is (French, German, Spanish, etc). Not speaking Arabic makes engagement with the source text problematic but, if you think about it, very few Christians can read their source text in its parent tongues, either. With the Qur'an, there's only one language: Arabic. To read the Bible in its original bits (it's not one, cohesive text), you'd need to be able to read Aramaic, Latin and Greek at the very least.
Arabic isn't the easiest language I've ever tried to learn, but it may be the most beautiful, especially in its written form. Originally the vehicle for the Qur'an, written Arabic relatively quickly (it only took about 600 years) evolved into high art. Qur'anic passages done in elaborate calligraphy are referred to by some Sufis as "visual zikr" )zikr means "remembrance" in that nifty, mindful, prayer-ish kinda way). Enslaved Muslims forced to work on projects for people of other faiths incorporated Arabic in architecture, building and design. The Dome of the Rock, a site in Jerusalem sacred to Jews, Chritians and Muslims alike, sports gorgeous calligraphy (pix to your right).
Arabic calligraphy became not only the vehicle for transmission, but ornament and talisman as well; it was woven into clothing for blessing and protection (pic on right), used extensively in architecture and developed into a visual art suitable to many media.
To get a quick feel for Arabic calligraphy, watch this. With many thanks to my excellent and patient teacher, Issa Nessim, I offer for your viewing pleasure my first word written in Arabic: it's "hu," which means the Divine Essence (pic also on the right). The sound of Hu is also used as a Sufi breath practice, to help one come into the Presence.
Peace be with you, Hu-ever you are!