The single letters of a circular nature; the pen; the inkwell; the Quran; the endless sea of words and remembrance; reading; calligraphy, and the inscriptions that encompass the art of a whole culture, all come together for us to contemplate...
"Nūn. By the pen and what they inscribe” (Al-Qalam 68:1). One interpretation says that “nūn,” the name of an Arabic letter, here refers to the “dawāt” or the “inkwell.” Does it? Allah Almighty says: “Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous (3). Who taught by the pen (4). Taught man that which he knew not (5).” (Surah al-‛Alaq 96:3-5).
Some Muslims find the letter emblematic and talismanic.
Dhū al-nūn (man of the fish), Prophet Yūnus, recited one of the most popular istighfār (plead for forgiveness) prayers that Muslims learn to cherish when he was in distress:
“And [mention] the man of the fish, when he went off in anger and thought that We would not decree [anything] upon him. And he called out within the darknesses, "There is no deity except You; exalted are You. Indeed, I have been of the wrongdoers." (Surah al-Anbiya’ 21:87).
He was, therefore, rescued from the belly of the fish: “And had he not been of those who exalt Allah (143). He would have remained inside its belly until the Day they are resurrected (144).” (Surah al Sāffāt 37: 1143-144).
Allah (SWT) has taught by the pen, and nūn might be the dawāt (inkwell) and the fish, but the sea could not be the midād (the ink), for: “Say, "If the sea were ink (midād) for [writing] the words of my Lord, the sea would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even if We brought the like of it as a supplement (madad)." (Surah al-Kahf 18:109).
One can only contemplate the meanings of midād and madad! The madad, the support and the strength, the divine gift that may be translated into all forms of help and assistance, and the quite controversial Sufi concept too!
Arabic, the language that lends itself most elegantly to ornamentation, was chosen for the honour:
“Indeed, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an that you might understand.” (Surah Yūsuf 12:2).
Historians tell us that the Fatimids of Egypt (r. 969-1171 AD) had a golden dawāt (inkwell), adorned with coral, among their extravagant royal instruments. Various shapes of inkwells and pen-boxes survive from the middle ages of the Islamic civilization. Among the most interesting is an early Fatimid rock crystal inkwell of a circular body, much like a nūn. Arabic scripts, which started with the early simple Kufi became so complex, diverse, and variable in their employment. The cursive scripts, Naskh and Thuluth and their large family, flourished and developed under the Abbasids, owing to the contributions of genius calligraphers like Ibn Muqla, Ibn al-Bawwāb and Yaqūt al-Musta‛simī in the tenth, eleventh and thirteenth centuries AD. The art of Arabic calligraphy has always established itself as an incredibly powerful visual magnet. The argument that figural representation is forbidden and avoided in religious context is mostly presented as the explanation for the special role inscriptions played in Islamic architecture.
Needless to say, figural representation was employed, many times quite lavishly, in secular contexts. The earliest surviving religious building from the Umayyad dynasty, the first Islamic monarchy, namely, The Dome of the Rock (691 AD), stands providing evidence of an era of eclecticism and the emergence of a new art. Byzantine inspired mosaics, also Sassanian motifs were used, figural representation was avoided, and Arabic inscriptions were most prominent, being an honour, a glory, and a statement of power. The subsequent vast development of Islamic inscriptions, historically and geographically, is beyond the scope of one article.
Under the rule of the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705 AD) and continued under his son al-Walid (705-715 AD), Arabic was imposed as the language of administration in all Islamic lands. It was not only the language of the new, fast-propagating faith, but also the formal language of the empire. Its divine insinuation and character, its beauty, as well as its practicality, ensured its popularity.
Through conquests, trade, and official and non-official travels, Muslims borrowed from other civilizations then added to them. The story is no different from what we learn about philosophy and science. Muslim Arabs, non-Arabs, newly converted Muslims, and non-Muslims who lived in newly acquired Muslim lands, all contributed to an Islamic culture. The diversity was remarkable, and so was the unity!
The ornamented and ornamental Arabic word continued to embellish this culture.
We started with a question that no one can answer. Is the nūn the dawāt? Allah has chosen to keep this knowledge for Himself. Is it a coincidence that the only other two instances when a single letter is mentioned in the beginning of a sūra, the letters are the sād and qāf, both having quite a circular character, like the nūn? Is it another coincidence that while Allah swears by nūn and the pen, He (SWT), swears: “Sād. By the Quran, containing the Remembrance,” (Surah Sād, 38:1) and “Qāf, by the Glorious Quran” (Surah Qāf, 50:1).
The single letters of a circular nature; the pen; the inkwell; the Quran; the endless sea of words and remembrance; reading; calligraphy, and the inscriptions that encompass the art of a whole culture, all come together for us to contemplate, conceptually and visually.
We might not be led to conclusive answers to every question, but contemplation, which is so encouraged by the Islamic faith, is in itself a prayer for guidance.
By: Heba Al Toudy
Posted on: November 10, 2011