11/10/2010 03:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Languages of God: The Word as Decoration

By F.E. Peters

F.E. Peters is an advisor on NYPL's latest exhibition, Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. In this piece, Peters writes about the development of Islamic calligraphy and discusses why a comparable movement did not emerge within Judaism.

Jews and Muslims have a particular attachment to languages as expressions of the Word of God. Hebrew and Arabic are both sacred languages since both are in a sense the language of God Himself.

But there is an important difference. The Jews lost their Hebrew as a living language while the Bible was still in the process of formation. As a result, some of the last sections of the Book of Daniel are not in Hebrew but in Aramaic, a closely related Semitic language spoken by many in the Middle East, including Jesus, in post-Exilic times.

The First Polyglot Psalter, in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Aramaic; Genoa: Petrus Paulus Porrus, 1516 The New York Public Library, Rare Book Division

Muslims, on the other hand, never turned away from the Arabic, because the language and style of the Quran were early on proven inimitable - and as a result, became the validating miracle of Islam, similar in importance to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The veneration of text and language thus went hand in hand in Islam, and the emphasis on both was strengthened by an even earlier aversion to figurative art.

Muslims took God's Biblical prohibition against idols as seriously as the Jews, and, like the Jews, they extended it, though not at all times or in all places, to figurative and pictorial art generally. Muslim decoration, then, frequently took the form of repetitive geometric or vegetal patterns, the so-called arabesque. (This type of decoration was not original with Islam; it can be observed on many of the Roman monuments of the Middle East, in Syria, for example, which antedate Islam by many centuries.)

The other Muslim alternative to figurative art seems to have been Islam's own special creation, or at least emphasis. Large, elegantly inscribed writing appears unmistakably as decoration and not merely as information on Greek and Roman buildings and in more miniature form on coins. Muslims too put inscriptions on their coins, and eventually removed the figures from them. They did the same to their earliest buildings, like the Dome of the Rock (692 CE) which has mosaic inscriptions in the interior. But as time passed, the writing on buildings in particular took on a life of its own as it was transformed from writing to calligraphy.

Extraordinarily ornate writing runs around the portals, across the facades or up and down panels on the walls of most of the great Islamic monuments of the Middle Ages. Its design is often stunningly intricate and complex, almost unreadable in fact, in the manner of modern graffiti. In most cases the literate viewer probably needed little help in understanding the writing since texts were usually familiar quranic ones. It was purely and simply the Word that was being magnified by artistic enhancement.

From the tenth century onward, Jews produced artistically illuminated manuscripts in Muslim Egypt, though without figurative representations. Two centuries later, when Jewish manuscript illumination began in Christian Europe, sacred or ceremonial objects were portrayed, and later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, figures of rabbis and others began to appear.

But there is no exaltation of Hebrew into the monumental public calligraphy of Arabic - and it's not difficult to understand why. Islam was official: it controlled the public life of the Middle East and what was permissible in it; Jews lived under the dhimma, which would have made the public display of Hebrew not only unlikely but dangerous.

F.E. Peters is a professor of Middle Eastern Studies and History at New York University, and author of The Children of Abraham.