Rediscovering Andalusi Arabic Calligraphy

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A film exploring Andalusi calligraphy, that is the only form of Arabic script created by European Muslims.

It’s not an overstatement to say that Andalusi calligraphy helped shaped the world as we know it today. This beautiful documentary, The Beginner’s Guide to Andalusi Calligraphy, brings to light how this script came into formation and how it grew to ultimately become the means through which invaluable knowledge was preserved and passed on.

We caught up with Zak Whiteman, freelance director & producer, whose father, Abdallateef Whiteman, is the protagonist in the documentary and one of the last remaining practitioners of Andalusi calligraphy…

What was the original inspiration to create this film?

The idea for the film came about from conversations with the people at Alchemiya.com, who recognised the importance of this calligraphic script, and the privileged access we had to it through my dad, Abdallateef Whiteman. By sharing his personal experience with this particular style, he provided an opening into an otherwise rarely mentioned subject, at the same time as inspiring us to find out more about it for ourselves.

Our budget was limited from the get go, so we couldn’t visit Marrakech, Cairo, or other cities where there are a few calligraphers that still specialise in this style. So the challenge was to see what remained of it in Spain, particularly in Andalusia, the region that gives it its name. As it turned out, it’s not a subject matter that is very accessible per se. This obviously has a lot to do with the fact that it was pretty much eradicated from its homeland, through centuries of persecution and inquisition.

With the expulsion of Muslims from Spain, the evolution of the Andalusi script in the Iberian Peninsula came to an abrupt end. It still survives in parts of North Africa, but local references are quite scarce. Millions of books were destroyed or stolen. Owning an Arabic manuscript became a crime punishable by death, which led to a diaspora of the surviving volumes.

So very quickly the research and subsequent production began to resemble an archaeological dig, where we had to sift through layers of sediment, to eventually get to the good stuff. In most cases the main obstacle was actually bureaucracy, as the best examples of this script are precious artefacts held in museums and private collections. Acquiring samples of these was a time consuming and costly affair that nearly stopped the film in its tracks. We are indebted to institutions like the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia, and the Tonegawa Collection, who kindly donated images for free, essentially saving the production.

It’s interesting to see how these rare books and manuscripts have become so valuable with time. Had the Spanish Inquisition known that this would happen, it’s hard to believe they would have burnt or otherwise destroyed them as they did.

 

Did you learn anything unexpected about arabic calligraphy along the way?

Perhaps one of the most meaningful things that came to light during the making of the film was pointed out by Abdal Hakim Murad, Dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, when he said that the Andalusi style is thought to be the only European form of Arabic calligraphy. This means that when we speak about ‘the Andalusis’, we are really referring to early European Muslims.

In these times, when Islam on the whole is increasingly portrayed as something foreign to the West, this angle only acquires more relevance, as it highlights the early presence and continued influence of Muslim culture on Western societies, and how these have repeatedly tapped into the wellsprings of Islamic civilisation. So this film isn’t just about a style of writing, it’s really the story of how something as simple as pen and paper can transform the lives of individuals and societies at the most profound level.

the Andalusi style is thought to be the only European form of Arabic calligraphy. This means that when we speak about ‘the Andalusis’, we are really referring to early European Muslims.

Another fact, which is gradually gaining acceptance in mainstream thought, is that the Andalusis’ fascination with classical Greek knowledge served to kindle the Renaissance, essentially rescuing Europe from its darkest era. It was only when Western scholars started translating documents from Arabic into Latin that this knowledge flourished once again.

This is something I personally find fascinating, because not only was this not recognised until recently, but the Muslims of those times are still mostly portrayed as barbarians – particularly in Spain – and history has proven this to be nonsense. The Andalusi period is considered to be one of the golden eras of Muslim history, they were far ahead of the rest of Europe in many respects, and they deserve their stories and achievements to be told in an accurate light.

Who needs to see this and why?
Researching this film was fairly complex, as the facts surrounding it have only been preserved in academic circles, museums, libraries, etc. We hope that viewers aren’t put off by the abundance of talking heads and academic jargon, but it’s thanks to the minds and work of these scholars that this story survives at all.

Seeing a (non Muslim) academic’s eyes well up while narrating how thousands of Andalusi manuscripts were burnt was really moving. Anyone with an interest in history, arts, or science can relate to this, as the destruction of a people’s culture is sadly only too common. It’s not only Andalusi Muslims who have been deprived of a heritage that was reduced to ashes, but mankind as a whole.

With so many aspects of Islamic heritage, culture and history still unknown to the general public, I think that now more than ever we need to create content that addresses this.

Given the niche appeal of the film, so far major documentary distributors haven’t wanted to carry it. While I can understand this from a commercial perspective, it does suggest that anything ‘Islamic’ that’s not related to warzones, and so on, just isn’t mainstream enough.

With so many aspects of Islamic heritage, culture and history still unknown to the general public, I think that now more than ever we need to create content that addresses this. It’s also up to Islamic cultural institutions and media platforms to help voice the real stories of Muslims, in the present and the past, so that these continued stereotypes can be corrected.

This film was financed partly by a crowdfunding campaign, so I’d like to take the chance to thank everyone who got involved, especially the team at Launchgood.com.

You can watch “A Beginner’s Guide to Andalusi Calligraphy” here. Rent the full film: