For many, calligraphy is simply an art. But, over the years, it has been much more than that, from adorning spiritual knowledge through Quran manuscripts to helping preserve and spread other types of information. The muslims ruled the Iberian peninsula or Al-Andalus for about 800 years (711-1492). Islamic Spain resonates the splendor and masterpieces of European muslim heritage, art and architecture such as stucco panels, jewelry,marble capitals, and monuments such as the Alhambra, the great mosque of Cordoba and the palace city of Madinat al-Zahra.
Many centuries ago, in Andalusi script calligraphy was THE primary form of writing, which written on paper, helped preserve and spread the knowledge of the time, and the knowledge passed down from Greek, and other, civilizations.
The preservation of the Andalusi script has been a long-time mission of master artist Ian Whiteman, also known as Abdallateef, one of the last remaining custodian and practitioner of the script in Andalusia Spain. Born in U.K, Mr. Whiteman has a background in architecture, an accomplished musician, master artist, calligrapher graphic designer and typographer. He has designed for many renowned organizations and institutions, to name a few, Zaytuna College, Cambridge Muslim College, Alhambra Productions, Quilliam Press and Fons Vitae. He currently lives in the Alpujarras in southern Spain, which interestingly were the last strongholds of the Spanish Muslims. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Mr. Whiteman recently, and here’s what he shared for our readers.
1) What inspired you to study calligraphy? Who was your first teacher?
I enjoyed English calligraphy from as long ago as I can remember but my attraction to Arabic wasn't till my mid twenties. Beautiful things always attracted me but with Arabic you go through various veils. You don't really see what's there till someone or something lifts that veil. After I visited Mohamed Zakariya around 1976 in DC I became an unofficial student and it opened my eyes just seeing him work and I studied the well known copybooks he recommended as well as setting about practicing the letters. This was in the classical Ottoman styles which I loved but never really mastered. Then and even now it's hard to make a decent living as a calligrapher and I applied what knowledge I had in other areas of design as I had a family to support. But the knowledge I had accrued was incredibly useful.
2) You are a successful musician and calligraphy artist. Does one help with the other?
These skills are quite complementary but they are different disciplines. Calligraphy and design are more meditative and about hand eye coordination and a knowledge of aesthetics. Music starts in the heart and lungs and is an event in time rather than space and less mental. But beauty is its own advocate and music and singing can make the heart race as can a beautiful page of calligraphy but you can't really quantify it. You could say it's just a matter of taste but beauty and love often surpasses individual personal preferences.
I earn my living from designing mostly books and not from music anymore. I might say I love involvement with music most of all as it's probably emotionally more intense than design or calligraphy but you get tired of it with excess. And the reverse is true. After a lot of mental gymnastics designing books, building logos, and whatever, it's a joy to create music. I think everyone should do everything….better to know a lot of things and have rich experiences which you can draw from. Better a rounded human being than a one trick card player. The great men and women in our tradition we're invariably polymaths. When I realized I didn't really understand what I was writing or singing in Arabic it stopped me from doing anything for a long time. I love the piece on your web site by Aishah [Holland] with the English calligraphy surrounding the Arabic. If you come from this English culture you can't bury it and pretend to be Arab. To put both languages together is really dynamic and I’ve always thought that.
3) How do you come up with your compositions in calligraphy? What is the process?
I came to a standstill with my attempts with the Ottoman styles but explored other forms like Kufic, which I studied closely. I found with both Kufic and the later Andalusi styles which are closely related, a kind of freedom which I didn't get with the Ottoman styles, probably as I wasn't that good at them. But for me the Andalusi styles were a liberation as you could really decide what the style was to be as if it was a glorified handwriting. There were fashions but not rigid forms. Some were very carefully scribed and some were just nice looking scrawl, this was a time before printing. It was much less self-conscious and functional in that it was used to disseminate knowledge rather than just look nice hanging on a wall.
I have plenty of calligraphy hanging on walls but the best of it is Ottoman or Chinese. The Andalusi scripts you will find mostly in books. It might have been put on walls discreetly in mosques carved in alabaster or plaster as in the Al-Hambra but I believe the Maliki scholars looked unfavorably on wall displays in mosques and kept things fairly spartan. The Alhambra wasn't a mosque but a palace and it is covered with Arabic but subtlety so.
I'm not doing too much calligraphy these days but if I do it will be in an Andalusi style as it is easy, it might be an ayat (verse) or a dua (invocation) that I know. I sketch possibilities and then just dive in. I deplore expertism where people don't do anything themselves because they think they are no good and only revere the professionals. I've seen people with no calligraphic experience at all copy a page of Andalusi script perfectly. It's an age of couch potatoes now and clicking screens and it's doing a lot of damage. Both my wife and daughter both can copy a page of Andalusi khatt as good as anyone and get enormous satisfaction from it. You might have seen the film we did on the Beginners Guide to Andalusi Calligraphy. The trailer is on line. The film is all about this subject.
4) Most important thing you have learned from one of your teachers.
Mohamed Zakariya was just an inspiration. His house was full of his craft. Furniture, scientific instruments, calligraphy pens and knives that he had made himself. His house was and still is an Aladdin’s cave of inventions and creations as if he had a door into another time in another world. But it was all done with a kind of luminous almost magical love…you can't really put a word to it. This is what anything we do has to be imbued with. In the end what we make is just all stuff but it’s how it changes us that matters. It's no good if you can write a perfect ayat of Quran on beautifully hand made paper with exquisite hand made ebru and gold illumination if….you are beastly to your family or cheat your neighbor or are just plain grumpy all day. Everything you are goes into that moment you put pen to paper and is recorded for ever. It should make you smile and inspire you and others. That’s a big secret. It's what you experience when you see in a museum an exquisite mus'haf written 1400 years ago. You meet the calligrapher. He knew what verse he was writing and you could read it as well 1400 years later. This actually happened when I was shown the famous Medinan ma’il mus'haf in the British Library back in the 1970s.
5) Your advice for students who are getting started in the arts.
Just do everything. Enjoy life. But whatever it is be patient as it all takes time. Get good at something and do it well and you will be happy….I think Aristotle says that. With calligraphy, specifically, the classic advice is to spend half of your time collecting and gazing at works of calligraphy and pieces of art that you are drawn to and the other half of your time practicing it. Doors will open for you.
Gallery of Mr. Whiteman's work: