Arabic Script: Mightier than the Sword

© 2004 Ahmed Moustafa

The phrase 'the pen is mightier than the sword' expresses a universal recognition of the power of the written word.

A defining feature of Islamic civilisation has been its widespread use of writing. Writing has a profound significance because Arabic was both the language of God's revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century AD and the script in which the Qur'an, the holy book of Muslims, was written down.

The Arabic language spread geographically with Islam. It was generally learned alongside local languages but the Arabic script often displaced local scripts. It has been used to write many languages, including Persian in Iran and Urdu in India. It is now the most commonly written script after the Roman alphabet.

From very early on Arabic script also began to be used for its decorative potential. Islamic art has, as a result, rightly been described as a 'speaking art'. The objects in this tour have Arabic script inscribed upon them or are connected to the art of writing. Together they show the continuing importance of Arabic in the cultures of what we can broadly call the Islamic lands.

The tour was written to accompany the exhibition Mightier than the Sword, Arabic Script: Beauty and Meaning, which was first shown at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Australia, in 2003. Many other objects decorated with Arabic script can be seen in Room 34 at the British Museum.

Illustration: Frolicking horses by Ahmed Moustafa.