Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> grammatic practice in Abbasid culture - Re: Islam - The Religi
Simon Yuill on Wed, 4 Jun 2003 21:41:37 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> grammatic practice in Abbasid culture - Re: Islam - The Religion of technology

In reference to Paul Miller's recent thread, below is an extract from a
paper I recently presented at the "Historicising Digital Art" conference
in London, April, 2003. The full paper is available online at:


Grammatic Practice in Abbasid Culture 
The Abbasid caliphate, based in Baghdad, Iraq, ruled over an area that
extended from North-West Africa, in Morocco, to the borders of India and
China.  Within this vast region grew one of the largest known "common
market" systems, "facilitated by the use of a single language (Arabic) and
a single monetary system." (Bloom, 2001, p. 136)  The spread of Islam had
proceeded during the previous Umayyad caliphate who, under Abd al-Malik,
had established the first Islamic coinage.  The Abbasid caliphate
implemented standardisations of the communication and information
technologies of the time - the first authoritative compilation of the
previously uncollated texts that make up the Koran was also completed
during this time.  During the 8th Century paper was introduced from China.
Its relative cheapness, compared to parchment, supported the development
of new notational systems, as well as the meticulous record-keeping of the
Abbasid bureaucracy [5].  Around the start of the 10th Century, Ibn Muqla,
a secretary and vizier of the Abbasid court in Baghdad, developed a new
form of Arabic script based on a rigorous proportional system known as
"khatt al-mansub" (proportional script), or "muhaqqaq" (often translated
as "accurate" or "well-organised") (Grabar, 1992, p. 69, Bloom and Blair,
1997, pp. 194 -5).  This introduced a clarity and economy into written
documents which, combined with the wider availability of paper, greatly
facilitated the development of an international textual and notational
culture.  Six of the script styles developed by Ibn Muqla became
established as part of the core skills of the Arabic scribe (Bloom and
Blair, 1997, pp. 195).  Their use was deployed in bureaucratic,
scientific, historical, philosophical and religious texts that were
disseminated through the new trade of scribe-booksellers who acted as
small-scale manual publishing houses, as well as through the production of
compilations, commentaries and original texts that became a popular
activity amongst the educated classes (Sourdel-Thomine, 1978, p. 1114).
This culture compares more strongly with that of 16th century Europe under
the impact of the printing-press than the monastic librarian culture which
is contemporary with it.  Comparisons with internet culture, and blogging
in particular, are also apparent [6].  It was within this culture that
many of the Greek scientific texts, banned or destroyed in Christian
Europe, which later, in combination with original Arabic works, so heavily
influenced the emergence of modern Western sciences and medical practice
in the Renaissance.
The work of the 9th Century mathematician, al-Khwarazmi, established a new
numerical system within Arabic culture [7].  This was a positional
numerical notation, derived from the Hindu system of numerical symbols:
the decimal system, introduced into Europe through Latin translations of
al-Khwarazmi's work in the 14th and 15th Centuries.  Al-Khwarazmi's text,
al-Mukhtasar fi hisab al-djabr wa al-muhabda, explains methods of working
with the positional notation to solve complex mathematical problems
through a series of simple steps, a process we now call algorithmic
computation [8].  The word "algorithm " is a Western corruption of
al-Khwarazmi - our word "algebra" is also derived from the "al-djabr" of
the books title, djabr being a tradition of mathematics dating back to the
Assyrians.  Binary mathematics, and the methods through which both Alan
Turing's Universal Machine and modern day computers are able to process
mathematical problems are both dependent upon the principles of positional
numerical computation derived from al-Khwarazmi's work.  Forms of
international credit finance, based on notational rather than material
transactions, pioneered during the Abbasid era were also later absorbed
into European practice, such as the bank cheque, which, in both concept
and name, is derived from the Arabic "sakk" or "sakka" (Bloom, 2001, p.
What is perhaps most significant in placing these developments in 9th and
10th century Baghdad in a relationship to contemporary use of computer
code as an artistic medium, is that we not only see the emergence of a new
"information technology" based on a "new media" - paper - and tied to the
needs of large scale bureaucracy, international trade and scientific
innovation, but that we also witness the emergence of a conscious
aesthetical appreciation of the notational and grammatic practices through
which it developed.  We see this most significantly in the work of Ibn
al-Bawwab, a 10th Century scribe and student of, among others, Ibn Muqla's
daughter [9].  Whilst Ibn Muqla was the innovator of the new script
styles, it was Ibn al-Bawwab who was credited as having perfected them.
Pieces of writing by Ibn al-Bawwab became collectable as aesthetic objects
in their own right, similar to the way in which in Europe, five centuries
later, the work of individual painters became collectible.  There are
accounts of texts such as a letter by Ibn al-Bawwab requesting recovery of
a debt being sold, after his death, to collectors for ten times the value
of the original debt (Rice, 1955, p. 8).  The Chester Beatty Library in
Dublin holds a manuscript in which a copy of Ibn al-Bawwab's signature has
been forged, and there are other accounts of forgeries of scribes' work
being sold [10].  We also have examples of scraps of practice writing
being collected as "art works", not unlike the collecting of a painter's
draught sketches (Rice, 1955, p. 10).
Not only do we see this in relation to the work of the scribe, however.
Text as an aesthetic entity, valued for its grammatic impact as much as,
and often even more so than its literary or semantic significance
dominates many forms of cultural product in the arts of Islamic culture
from the 10th Century onwards.  Whilst this may be related, in part, to
religious proscriptions against mimetic imagery and to the central
importance of the written word as manifestation of divine presence in the
Koran and related Islamic traditions, the sophistication and extent of its
deployment also demonstrate a deep engagement with the aesthetic
possibilities of a grammatic medium in its own right.  We find text used
on ceramics, textiles and buildings, sometimes presented in clear
legibility like a caption but more often exploring various forms of
complex formal play.  We find deliberate obfuscation of text, text
structured to suggest representational images (like a form of ascii art),
explorations of text in terms of layering, flow and rupture, and
deliberate uses of antiquated, or "old school", writing styles, juxtaposed
against newer styles [11].  As Oleg Grabar's analyses of such work
suggest, within Arabic culture, beginning in the 9th and 10th Centuries,
there is the development of a rich culture based on an aesthetic of
grammatic media alongside the utilisation of algorithmic compositional
processes [12].  We see both coming together in the ornamental systems of
architectural and textile design and in the practice of the scribe.
#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net