Preserving the past: Exploring Saudi Arabia’s Madani calligraphy

Exploring Saudi Arabia’s Madani calligraphy. (SPA)
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Updated 22 March 2020

Preserving the past: Exploring Saudi Arabia’s Madani calligraphy

  • In light of The Year of Arabic Calligraphy, we explore the roots of the art form and why it’s such an integral part of Arab identity

DUBAI: Calligraphy, a practical means of communication, has evolved into a distinctly cultural proponent that is as contextual as it is decorative. Multifaceted and complex, calligraphy is a tradition that simultaneously reveals and shrouds layers of history, meaning and cultural value.

Though calligraphy dates back to Sumerian cuneiform around 3,500-3,000 B.C., the spread of the Islamic religion from the 7th century saw a more definable form of Arabic calligraphy that gave birth to numerous standardized and regional styles.




Madani, one of the oldest Arabic fonts, was named after Al-Madina Al-Muwara in Saudi Arabia. (SPA)

Each style contains a unique function, time stamp, patron, audience, context and place of origin — details which are discerned by analyzing, for example, letters such as Alif or Laam.

However, first and second Hijri century calligraphy leaves ample room for the adventurous scholar. Many fragmented surviving documents exclude era indicators such as colophons, dates and authors, relying instead on carbon-14 dating to extract a document or object’s investigative launch point, or resources like Ibn Al-Nadim’s 10th-century “Kitabh Al-Fihrist,” which reveals the four first calligraphic varieties to be Makki, Madani, Basri and Kufi.




Madani was used to transcribe the Holy Qur’an and Al-Sunnah, in addition to correspondence between kings. (SPA)

With no clear linear progression and strong stylistic similarities, in the 18th and 19th centuries the various monumental, angular and unpointed Arabic scripts typically used for writing the Qur’an in the first to third Hijri centuries were grouped under the blanket term “Kufic.” Makki and Madani were further linked under “Hijazi” — early handwriting from western Arabia — that in recent years Saudi Arabia has sought to protect.

“Madani is one of the oldest Arabic fonts that was named after Al-Madina Al-Muwara in Saudi Arabia, where it first emerged and was used to transcribe the Holy Qur’an and Al-Sunnah, in addition to correspondence between kings,” explains Fadhel Al-Ali, Sharjah Calligraphy Museum assistant curator. It is understood as a localized variant of the pre-Islamic Jazm script, borrowing from Himyar Musnad cursive and Nabatean script from the regions of southern Syria and Jordan, northern Arabia and the Sinai Peninsula.




Madani is characterized by the integrity and flexibility of its letters. (SPA)

“Madani is characterized by the integrity and flexibility of its letters. This a distinctive feature,” says calligrapher Abdulaziz Al-Rashidi.

Noted for its roundness and rightward slope and shape of the final ya, which turns backward to underline the preceding letter — a common Hijazi characteristic — Madani is a foundational font bearing a visual through line from which later styles sprung and are connected. Its specific functions dictated its characteristic compactness or elongated strokes, with dashes above the letters to differentiate consonants and a lack of dots or diacritical marks to indicate vowel sounds.

In the Qur’an, it was presented in singular columns on vertical pages of animal skin parchment, and the lack of consonant points suggest that at that time the Qur’an was memorized rather than read. In the context of royal correspondence, Madani employed technical complexity to reduce the risk of forgery, which enhanced its bold, stately aesthetic.




The font employed employed technical complexity to reduce the risk of forgery, which enhanced its bold, stately aesthetic. (SPA)

But Madani is no reliquary tradition. “It is still relevant because it is an important visual reference of the classical origins of calligraphy,” explains Al- Rashidi.

Following King Abdul Aziz’s interest in the preservation of Arabic calligraphy, documents and manuscripts at the King Salman Center for Restoration and Conservation of Historical Materials at the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center, Prince Faisal bin Salman, governor of Madina, has worked to protect the Madani script by showcasing it in exhibitions.

In 2018, the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an launched an initiative to digitalize the ancient font, while libraries including the Egyptian National Library, Paris National Library, the Leiden University Library, the University Library of Birmingham, and the Berlin Library hold Madani Qur’ans in their collections.

“The art of calligraphy is our identity and heritage,” says Al-Ali. “By preserving calligraphy, we are in fact preserving our identity as Arabs.”


Emirati photographer finds that lockdowns have a silver lining

The photographer enjoys capturing industrial facilities and ghostly landscapes. (Tashkeel)
Updated 29 May 2020

Emirati photographer finds that lockdowns have a silver lining

DUBAI: The COVID-19 lockdowns may have cancelled festivals and closed down museums around the world, but some artists have continued to thrive.  

Emirati photographer Jalal Bin Thaneya told Arab News that in his field the pandemic has only slowed down artistic photography.

“Some documentary and news photographers are still able to work, especially those employed by organizations and governments fighting the virus,” Thaneya said. “Documenting and getting images of what is happening on the ground is extremely important.”

“Photography records moments,” the artist said. “In World War II, (the American photographer) Margaret Bourke-White was actively taking pictures and she has been a big influence on me.”

This, he believes, is an example of how photography and art have flourished during difficult times.

Despite the delays the lockdown has imposed on Thaneya’s projects, he says he now has got more time to work on his unpublished pictures. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Rims 02, 120x160 cm, 2018 / #industry #beyondthefence

A post shared by Jalal Bin Thaneya (@binthaneya) on

“Priorities have shifted overnight. I have many images I made that I never showed which I’m currently compiling. The lockdown has given me time to organize myself and prepare for future projects,” he said. 

The self-taught artist, who enjoys capturing industrial facilities and ghostly landscapes, said: “What I do is very niche and not widely appreciated in the region.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Valves / #industry #industrial_landscapes

A post shared by Jalal Bin Thaneya (@binthaneya) on

He discovered his passion by “accident” in 2013. “I saw old architecture being demolished at the Jabal Ali port and it is from that point that I started taking pictures of abandoned spaces before focusing on industrial landscapes and artefacts from 2016 to date.”

Thaneya believes that many people look down on his job. “However, if I listened to what people said, I would’ve stopped many years ago,” he added. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Raw material feeder and cement silos. // #Industry #Industrial_Dubai

A post shared by Jalal Bin Thaneya (@binthaneya) on

“You’ve got to follow your intuition and do things that give you purpose. Listening and following the crowd will only dilute your character and individual essence,” he advised other photographers who wish to pursue this career. 

“We cannot allow others to do the thinking for us, we need to be clear and focused on what we would like to achieve,” Thaneya said.