The Hurufiyah Art Movement in Middle Eastern Art
By Nadia Mavrakis
Arabic calligraphy has long been an important part of Muslim culture and Islamic art. For over a thousand years, Arabic calligraphy has been a strict tradition that was passed on from generation to generation, from teacher to student. Recently, artists of the modern age have experimented with traditional Arabic calligraphy methods and have created, effectively, a new art form, called hurufiyah. Hurufiyah has emerged among artists of the modern Middle East as an outcome of struggles between expressing their cultural heritage and the Western conditioning they have experienced. This paper attempts to describe the background of both classical Islamic calligraphy and Western art traditions and how these two tensions created a struggle for the modern Middle Eastern artist that erupted into a new identity and art movement, hurufiyah. The paper will then describe several artists and explain their significance in the hurufiyah movement.
Islamic Calligraphy: Background
Writing has played an important role in the Middle East since the revelation of Islam to the Prophet Mohammed in the early seventh century in Arabia. Simple Arabic script was in practice at the time of the Prophet and was used to write down and preserve the Muslim holy text, the Quran. However, over time, decorative Arabic scripts, or calligraphy, were developed to preserve the Quran in the most beautiful way possible. Kufic script, a rigid and angular script, was used predominantly both for religious and everyday uses for several centuries (Figure 1). By the late ninth century, more than 20 kufic scripts were in use. Around this same time, a cursive script was introduced called naskh (Figure 2) which was used, from that point forward, for most writing purposes. Ibn Muqla, a calligrapher and vizier to the Abbasid caliphs, created rules by which six “proportioned scripts” should be written, and Ibn al-Bawwab, a later calligrapher and illuminator, refined those six scripts. Arabic calligraphy continued to play an important role in Islamic arts not only for Quranic manuscripts but also for other book manuscripts, metalwork, pottery, coins, and more in the centuries to come.
The Influence of Western Art on Islamic Art
Western art began to have an influence in Islamic lands in the mid to late nineteenth century as a result of the Arab renaissance, or al-Nahda, and the European colonization of the Middle East. While al-Nadha represented a period of revival of traditional literature and poetry, it represented a complete Westernization, rather than traditional revival, in the visual arts. This process started when Ottoman sultans and Mohammed Ali of Egypt encouraged Western art as part of their modernization policies. The intellectuals of al-Nahda further encouraged Westernization of art by affirming the superiority of European art. In addition to the influences from al-Nahda, European colonial expansion caused artists of the Middle East to adopt Western artistic traditions and aesthetics. As a result of colonization, Middle Eastern artists lost their patrons, whose attention and money encouraged the creation of the arts. The occupation of Islamic lands by Westerners also caused Western aesthetics and culture to overpower indigenous artistic traditions. Even in most of the Ottoman Empire, where European colonization did not occur, Western economic and cultural influences were strong as a result of the weakening of the empire.
As a result of al-Nahda and European colonization, by the early twentieth century, most traditional Islamic art forms had been replaced by Western art forms. Creation of traditional Islamic artifacts continued but only to cater to the foreign tourist market. Educational institutions, art societies, and salons were created to support the promotion of Western art in the Middle East. European instructors taught courses in drawing, painting, and perspective at the educational institutions while art societies and salons exposed to the public the Westernized work of Arab artists. Some artists even traveled to Europe to be trained in Western art practices.
The Emergence of Hurufiyah
After Middle Eastern countries gained independence from European colonial powers, these nations slowly began to shed the idea that European culture was superior. They also began to realize the significance of and take pride in their own cultural heritage. As a result, these Islamic Middle Eastern nations began searching for an authentic cultural and national identity. One way of searching for this identity was through reviving traditional art forms.
The use of Arabic script was one traditional art form that was revived and is the basis of the hurufiyah movement. The art of calligraphy, or copying verses of the Qur’an or other texts according to a tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation, is not what is meant by hurufiyah. Rather, hurufiyah is a term referring to artistic experimentation with the Arabic language, letters, or text “as a visual element for composing.” Arab artists chose the Arabic script as a subject as a means to express their cultural identity, which they felt had been repressed during colonial times.
Western art influenced Middle Eastern artists during the hurufiyah movement, as can be seen most immediately by the use of text as the subject matter. Many prominent European artists used text in their pieces, which certainly influenced the hurufiyah movement. Western examples include Cubist painter Georges Braque’s 1911 Le Portugais (Figure 3) as well as works by Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Bruce Nauman, and Paul Klee.
Madiha Omar was one of the first Middle Eastern artists to successfully revive the use of Arabic script while still representing the influence of her Western artistic conditioning in what was to become the hurufiyah movement. Arabic letters were the foundation of her abstract pieces, where she aimed to transform their simple forms into expressive images. Omar’s 1978 Untitled (Figure 4) shows shapes and forms that are influenced by Arabic script. The curved lines in this piece in particular resemble different forms of the Arabic letter ayn, which, as Omar wrote in 1949, signify two vital meanings in Arabic: a spring of water and the eye with which people see. Perhaps Omar’s abstract piece represents one or both of those objects. One can also see similarities in and influence by modern Western art in terms of composition and color, such as pieces by Joan Miró (Figure 5).
Another pioneer of the hurufiyah movement was Iraqi artist Shakir Hassan al-Said, who believed that the Arabic script reflected the history of Arabs that, despite colonialism, remained in the intellectual consciousness of society. As a result, he used the Arabic script increasingly in his works in an abstract manner, which harkened to his European-style artistic schooling. His 1978 piece Lines on a Wall (Figure 6) depicts a street wall segment, similar to graffiti found in Baghdad and other Middle Eastern cities. He uses Arabic letters in his piece, perhaps to convey a specific meaning to the viewer or perhaps simply to establish the Middle Eastern setting and exhibit his Arab and Islamic cultural identity. The abstraction of his work is influenced perhaps by Western artists such as Mark Rothko (Figure 7) through the use of large, flat colored planes.
Some artists, many from Sudan, did not feel comfortable borrowing elements from Western Art. Rather, their aim was to assimilate African cultural traditions, Islamic visual tradition, and local customs in modern indigenous compositions. Most notable among these is Osman Waqialla who emphasized envisioned letter forms as living entities and manipulated the space that was between them (Figure 8).
Before continuing, it is important to note that, though Western art is considered to be the major catalyst for the abstraction seen in the hurufiyah movement and other modern Islamic art movements, traditional Islamic art is not entirely devoid of abstraction. In fact, before modern times, abstract or nonfigurative art received more attention in the Islamic world than in the Byzantine or Christian world. Oftentimes, through decorative patterns, even traditional Arabic calligraphy was abstracted and therefore difficult to read, even for literate Arabs (Figure 9). Some scholars have noted that the primary purpose of Arabic calligraphy decorative patterns was to transform matter so that it “loses its solidity and heaviness,” or, in other words, to abstract it. Therefore, though Western art is often cited as the primary influence behind hurufiyah abstraction, perhaps one could conclude that modern hurufiyah art was just a further abstraction of traditional Arabic calligraphy.
Maryam Ekhtar makes a similar argument regarding the influence of traditional calligraphy exercise pages, or siyah mashq, on modern Islamic art. Siyah mashq were exercise pages created by calligraphy apprentices and masters in order to perfect the art of calligraphy (Figure 10). These pages show the calligrapher’s most candid and personal artistic expression and represent his struggle to perfect the forms and shapes of the letters while experimenting with new compositions. She argues that modern Iranian artists have likely drawn inspiration from these calligraphy exercise pages. In particular, she notes works by modern artist Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (Figure 11) who drew inspiration from Arabic script and, most likely calligraphy exercise pages. One can see how his work clearly uses Arabic script that has been abstracted and modernized through the use of overlapping texts and varying script colors.
Hurufiyah in Practice: Examples
Following the pioneering works of Madiha Omar and Shakir Hassan al-Said, numerous hurufiyah artists have also created works that show how Middle Eastern artists raised in Western artistic traditions have formed bridges to the past through the use of Arabic script. Wijdan Ali is one such artist who uses Arabic script in her Kerbala series (Figure 12). The letters written on the pieces, as well as the entire composition, carry a specific political message regarding the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein, which is known as the tragedy of Kerbala. The lines and composition resemble those of pieces by Jackson Pollock (Figure 13), suggesting that Ali was inspired by modern Western art. Ali’s work shows how she exhibits the ideology of the hurufiyah movement by resolving and combining two conflicting tensions: her training in Western artistic tradition and her desire to exhibit her national identity.
Mahmoud Hammad is a hurufiyah artist who depicts Arabic phrases in abstract compositions of geometric forms, such as in Iqraa Bism (Figure 14). By interweaving letters to create a mass of shapes, Hammad attempts to use familiar forms from Islamic culture rather than purely abstract geometric forms to express his cultural identity. His work harkens to early cubist works of Pablo Picasso (Figure 15) who also used familiar forms, in this case buildings or trees, which are broken up into geometric forms.
Nja Mahdaoui is a Tunisian artist who extensively uses the shapes of Arabic letter forms but does not aim to create legible groups of text. For example, his Calligrams (Figure 16) uses much small Arabic script within a larger composition that also uses larger Arabic script on the bottom and sides that has been transformed into abstract signs that are not legible. This has been called “Pseudoscript” by some scholars since it resembles Arabic letters, but the actual forms of the letters are no longer recognizable.
Kamal Boullata is a Palestinian artist who creates works that have been called “Geometrical Hurufiyah” because his letters assume a geometric form. In his piece Nur ‘ala nur (Figure 17), Boullata repeats the phrase “light upon light” in Arabic, which is from the Chapter of the Quran titled “Light.” Boullata’s works resemble traditional square kufic designs (Figure 18). However, his works differ because, through the use of composition and color, he arranges the letters as visual elements. He expresses his cultural heritage and at the same time shows the influence of modern computer graphics.
Shirin Neshat left her native Iran as a teenager in 1974 and returned as a visitor sixteen years later in 1990. During this time, a revolution drastically changed the society’s dominant values and norms. In her works, she questions stereotypes and passionately believes in women’s emancipation. In one of her works, Speechless (Figure 19), she draws attention to the social class newly empowered by the revolution through the image of a veiled woman wearing a gun barrel as an ornament. On top of the woman’s face, she has inscribed a eulogy to martyrdom by a fervently religious contemporary poet Tahereh Saffarzadeh.
As Middle Eastern Islamic countries gained independence from colonial rule in the early to mid twentieth century, they faced a growing tension: the need to understand and express their cultural identity while at the same time reconcile Western values and norms that had been imposed upon them. In the visual arts, the hurufiyah movement resolved this tension by incorporating Arabic text into art pieces while still retaining many of the Western art forms that had been learned. This movement has resulted in a number of extraordinary works that exemplify artists’ cultural identities in new and creative ways.
 Venetia Porter, Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East (London: The British Museum Press, 2006), 20.
 Francis Robinson, ed. Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World (London: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 262, 268.
 Nada M. Shabout, Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007), 15-16.
 Wijdan Ali, “The Status of Islamic Art in the Twentieth Century,” Muqarnas: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture 9 (1992): 186.
 Nada M. Shabout, 17-23.
 Wijdan Ali, 187.
 Nada M. Shabout, 75.
 Venetia Porter, 15-16.
 Nada M. Shabout, 71-72.
 Nada M. Shabout, 72.
 Venetia Porter, 69, 71.
 Nada M. Shabout, 30.
 Nada M. Shabout, 66.
 Sherry Blankenship, “Cultural Considerations: Arabic Calligraphy and Latin Typography,” Design Issues 19, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 61.
 Maryam Ekhtiar, “Practice Makes Perfect: The Art of Calligraphy Exercises (Siyah Mashq) in Iran,” Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World 23 (2006): 114.
 Nada M. Shabout, 82.
 Nada M. Shabout, 83.
 Venetia Porter, 94.
 Nada M. Shabout, 83.
 Venetia Porter, 33.
 Nada M. Shabout, 92.
 Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2006), 1.
Leaf from a Qur’an manuscript, late 9th–10th century
Ink, gold, and colors on vellum
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Leaf from a Qur’an manuscript, 14th-15th centuries
Library of Congress
Le Portugais, 1911
Oil on Canvas
Mixed Media on Board
Shakir Hassan al-Said
Lines on a Wall, 1978
Oil on Canvas
No. 3/No. 13 (Magenta, Black, Green on Orange), 1949
Oil on Canvas
Museum of Modern Art
Kaf ha ya ayn sad, 1980
Cenotaph Cover 17th–18th century
Mashq calligraphy page, 19th century
Ink on parchment
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Silkscreen on Paper
Women of Kerbala, 1993
No. 5, 1948
Iqraa Bism, 1983
Factory at Horta de Ebro, 1909
Nur ‘ala nur, 1982
Square kufic design
Ali, Wijdan. “The Status of Islamic Art in the Twentieth Century.” Muqarnas: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture 9 (1992): 186-188.
Blankenship, Sherry. “Cultural Considerations: Arabic Calligraphy and Latin Typography.” Design Issues 19, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 60-63.
Ekhtiar, Maryam. “Practice Makes Perfect: The Art of Calligraphy Exercises (Siyah Mashq) in Iran.” Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World 23 (2006): 107-130.
Porter, Venetia. Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East. London: The British Museum Press, 2006.
Robinson, Francis, ed. Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World. London: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Shabout, Nada M. Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.
Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2006.