March 8, 2012
An American's Qur'an
— Jonathan M. Bloom
Sandow Birk's American Qur'an project is the exception that proves the rule: for some fourteen hundred years manuscripts and—more recently—printed editions of the Qur'an have always been written in Arabic and have never been illustrated. Birk, an American artist living in Southern California, has been at work transcribing "official, copyright free English translations of the Qur'an" onto 16 x 24 inch sheets of paper and illustrating them with scenes from contemporary American life. These range from depictions of busy shopping malls and sleepy office cubicles to auto races and tanks on the battlefield. Orthodox Muslims might view this project with some skepticism or even revulsion, even though Birk's motives, to consider "the Qur'an as it was intended – as a universal message to humankind" and explain "what might the Qur'an mean to contemporary Americans" are admirable indeed.
It is often said that Muslims abhor representational imagery and that the Qur'an forbids representations, but the Qur'an merely forbids idolatry, or the worship of idols and images, and has little more to say on the subject. The Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century of the Common Era, in a time and place when many monotheists were deeply conflicted about the possibility of representing the divine. Muslim aniconism, or the eschewal of images in religious contexts, must be understood in that setting. Just as Christians believe that God gave mankind his Son, Muslims believe that God gave mankind the Qur'an in the Arabic language. For Muslims, the Qur'an is the only permissible "representation" of the divine.
Although the Angel Jibra'il (Gabriel) transmitted the words of the Qur'an to the Prophet, it was some decades before Muslim scribes transformed the rather rudimentary Arabic script used in the Prophet's lifetime into true calligraphy ("beautiful writing"). This process had certainly begun by 692, the date of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, for its interior is decorated with quotations from the Qur'an written in a blocky calligraphic script. By that time calligraphers were copying manuscripts of the Qur'an on large sheets of parchment, but they never embellished God's actual words because they couldn't. Even chapter headings and reading aids such as diacritical points, vowels and punctuation, which are not part of the revealed text, were initially distinguished in manuscripts by different styles, sizes and colors of writing. Fragments of one exceptional manuscript discovered in a Yemeni mosque, perhaps dating from the early eighth century, contain a double frontispiece schematically depicting two buildings, but otherwise calligraphers decorated manuscripts of the Qur'an only with abstract vegetal and geometric designs, which specialists call illumination. Unlike the Christian Bible, the Qur'an was never illustrated. Not only is its non-narrative structure unsuitable for illustration, but also the sheer beauty of the Arabic script is meant to underscore and emphasize the transcendent message of the words themselves.
Over the course of centuries Islam spread from the land of its birth, and Muslims encountered speakers of languages other than Arabic. The necessity of learning the Qur'an in the Arabic in which it had been revealed led to the establishment of Arabic as a global language. At the same time, the necessity to help non-native speakers of Arabic learn the message of the Qur'an led people to explain it in such other languages as Persian and Turkish, and many manuscripts of the Qur'an survive with interlinear explanations in other languages. Although the text of the Qur'an was recast into Latin as early as the Middle Ages, Muslims would argue that the Qur'an cannot be translated. That is why A. J. Arberry (1905-69), one of the most sensitive Arabists of the twentieth century, termed his work The Koran Interpreted.
In his American Qur'an project, Sandow Birk acknowledges the traditions of manuscript illumination in the Islamic lands, with specific nods to the styles and schemes used to decorate secular (i.e. poetical and historical) manuscripts in Safavid Iran and Mughal India from ca. 1500 on. Curiously, he shows little awareness of how Muslims visually revered their manuscripts of the Qur'an. There is no way that Birk's rather pedestrian English lettering can compare to the beauties of Arabic script written by a master calligrapher. While some viewers may find his visual interpretations stimulating and thought-provoking, others will find that his project reveals an appreciation of only the banal externalities of Islamic visual art, and not any of its deeper resonances to Muslims (and others) over the past fourteen centuries.
The American Qur'an project website can be found here.
Jonathan M. Bloom shares both the Norma Jean Calderwood University Professorship of Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College and the Hamad bin Khalifa Endowed Chair in Islamic Art at Virginia Commonwealth University with his wife and colleague, Sheila S. Blair.