The art of making accurate portraits in the Islamic world had to wait until the Mughal era in 15th-century India. Since early in its inception in 7th century AD — the depiction of living beings and persons in Islam was discouraged, if not outright forbidden. It was done to prevent mortals from coming between man and his God — the invisible fabric of the universe. This theological constraint slowly took the form of an intricate, arabesque tradition of geometric calligraphy which is unique in world culture.

One of the first distinct styles to emerge was the square Kufic, characterised by sharp rectangles and linear cityscapes of tall, microcosmic minarets. For four-five centuries, it held sway on the scripture and architecture from Africa to Andalusia. And then an entirely new specie began to take over, replete with looping curves and flowing movement — called Naskhi. Under what circumstances did this mysterious and remarkable transformation from stasis to movement take place?

Since the principal subject of calligraphy always remained the divine word of God, copying of the Qu’ran gave rise to numerous questions involving geometry, beauty and theology itself. “Should all copies be written in exactly the same way? Should they all have same number of lines? Could words be broken at the end of a line and continue onto the following one? On these points there appears to have been no general consensus at first. Eventually, however, Qu’rans came to be copied out in odd numbers of lines and the splitting up of words was forbidden,” writes historian David James. The structure of these Qu’rans hints at number-mysticism and atomism very similar to ancient Greek philosophers like Euclid and Plato, whose works were also being studied and translated during this period.

Historian François Déroche noted a tendency of the width/height ratios to be in the vicinity of 1.5 (landscape), which later was switched to portrait and back and forth over centuries. Another historian Alain Fouad George went further and found that, “in the Qu’ran of Amajur (876 AD), the thickness of the pen defines the height of all the letters on the basis of the Golden Ratio. Thereupon, by successive geometrical steps, the whole page is constructed.” By treating calligraphic space as cosmic architecture, the artists seemed to whisper that “letters are the elements of the body of God.”

If so, why did these sacred Platonic elements (or atoms?) become transformed from rectangles to curves, as if they were forces playing with matter?

One theory suggests that the flowy Naskh style with its slanted nib allowed faster copying of the manuscripts, and resulted in more compact manuscripts. That may have been one factor, but this calligraphic art was clearly not simply about writing. Before letters were put on parchment, they were drafted with lines and a base structure which was later rendered invisible. The designs ranged from linear, circular and triangular stacks to kaleidoscopic pentagonal tessellations. The construction of these geometric designs required compasses, rulers and sophisticated theorems of algebra.

How to draw a perfect circle upon a giant horizontal wall? How to divide a circle into a hexagon or pentagon? How many ways to tile a plane? (They knew all the 17 possible ways). Hexagons and squares can tile a plane, but pentagons don’t — and yet such complexity exists in Isfahan at the Darb-e-Imam shrine. These ‘girih patterns’ are known to us today as quasicrystals, one example being the famous Penrose tiling.

Scientists, astronomers and mathematicians in this region — such as Al Khwarizmi, Al Kindi, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, and Thabit ibn Qurra were not aloof from the calligraphers of their age. Architects and astrolabe makers, builders of sundials or celestial globes — all used calligraphy in some form.

We know of a geometry manual for craftsmen written by Abu al-Wafa’ al-Buzjani, and Abû Sahl al-Qûhî wrote of a ‘perfect compass’ that could draw not only circles — but parabolas, ellipses and hyperbolas.

One might imagine that Kufic gave way to Naskhi simply because the artisans now had more sophisticated instruments and a larger variety of lines to choose from. Sometimes the Kufic letters resembled cities with minarets, but they could easily be arranged to give the illusion of a face or a horse, a sunset. Enough evidence of zoomorphic calligraphy exists — depicting cranes, tigers, elephants, peacocks and soldiers — by cleverly arranging only the alphabet. Christopher Vitale remarks that “..various Islamic calligraphies were disciplined by the state, only to keep having various images arise from their edges...there was a constant attempt to tame lines and their voids, to keep images from creeping into words and words from exploding into images, to prevent figures dissolving back into patterns.”

Or it may be that the transition from Kufic to Naskh reflected the undercurrent in medieval physics — from statics to dynamics, from matter to forces. The new script had this curious interplay between the elements, or as Ernest Fenollosa wrote in his beautiful but flawed study of Chinese characters — “...our lines of cleavage fail, one part of speech acts for another. They act for one another because they were originally one and the same.”

(Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah)