Arabic typesetting revisited


Hand written naskh (by Ibrahim Khattat – Iraq 20th century)

My involvement with arabic has always been, for over 40 years, essentially calligraphic and I have always disliked the idea of trying to mechanise an essentially hand written script.  But the practical demands of publishing in the modern world has meant making a kind of a rapprochement which has meant accepting its use. But it comes at a cost.

When Egypt became the media centre of the Muslim world after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s it established modes in the typesetting of books, manuals, newspapers etc., which flooded the Arabic speaking world and beyond. The script of choice to accomplish this was naskh which was the prominent style for text amongst arabic calligraphers everywhere. At that time printing was universally letterpress moveable type with words (and spaces), hand composed from minute blocks of metal, which was a very time consuming process but necessary for printing to be possible. The history of arabic typesetting is quite interesting as the first attempts were actually made in Italy as long ago as the 17th century, and not in the arabic speaking world. You can read an in-depth article on this by Paul Lunde in an Aramco World article from 1981. (see link below) You see in his study the political and religious import of printing and its part in the fall of the Ottomans and the rise of the west. Also how printed arabic made available treatises on science to the west which were lost when great libraries of places like Baghdad and Cordoba, with its millions of handwritten texts, were destroyed by the Mongols and the Spanish Catholics. See this article:

There were calligraphic variations in naskh even though the great Ottoman khatats of the time had resolved the handwritten script into an almost typographic uniformity, but beautiful as well.  It is known that in the time of the Ottomans, a whole book could be handwritten by a group of calligraphers dividing it into sections but with indistinguishable styles of writing in naskh script. In Ottoman days I am told you could get a book expertly copied by a team of calligraphers like a giant human photocopying machine and have it bound and illuminated for a bit extra. So it was logical to develop the naskh style into a typeface. I may have mentioned in earlier posts about the Daily Jang, an Urdu daily newspaper produced in a London. In the 1980s I was working for an advertising agency and our main banking client required a newspaper ad in Urdu. I found a calligrapher to do it who had just lost his job as a calligrapher producing along with many, possibly a hundred other calligraphers, the whole Daily Jang, Pakistan’s major daily newspaper produced in London, traditionally by hand. The newspaper had installed computer typesetting and laid most of them off.

In the world of Roman type there are literally tens of thousands of typefaces. These styles reflect a whole history of western lettering styles going back over 500 years. The varieties of Arabic scripts are minute by comparison and this is reflected in the relatively few arabic typefaces available even with the proliferation of computer use. Some say this was because of rampant piracy but also because there was no escaping the fact that anything but the traditional styles were unutterably ugly.

Despite this vast cornucopia of type possibilities I have reduced my own choice of both Arabic and Roman faces these days to about three or four for various reasons. Beauty, legibility, printability etc all come into play because this all adds up to what is easy to read and communicate the author’s message accurately and with least effort. Good typesetting is often described as being invisible i.e. that it doesn’t get in the way.

Pickthall 2

Pickthall 1

Pickthall’s 1930 Hyderabad Edition hand set in metal moveable type.

Arabic typesetting has a complex history, as a cursive script with many links and variations that occur in Arabic, requires many more elements to be combined together than Roman text. With hand composed metal type this is very complicated and resulted in as many as a hundred and fifty separate elements once you start to include all the various Arabic ligatures, connections and vowels. So the early Arabic typefaces were simple iterations of naskh and actually very good although not able to deal with the flexibility that hand calligraphy allowed. The Hyderabad Pickthall translation of Quran first published in 1930 (see above) used a hand composed metal naskh typeface which was for for many years a workable Arabic print face and was not improved upon until the coming of firstly hot metal composers, then photo-setting and later computer setting in the 1980s. It has now reached incredible levels of sophistication albeit still limited by the fact that it had to be input from a keyboard.

All this compelled IBM in the 1950s to try and create, with the help of Nasri Khattar a well established calligrapher and designer, an Arabic face based on discrete glyphs (ie not joined up) so that it would fit their 256 ASCII character set based upon the qwerty keyboard. This experiment mercifully failed as it would have violated so much of the script and what was well established over the vast expanse of time, since the first complete Qur’an texts which had been written down in pen and ink on vellum. This would have been an aberration too far. See

The few Arabic faces I use when there is no possibility of hand calligraphy, are stylistically limited but suffice. One of them, Decotype naskh was an attempt to mimic the way a calligrapher writes although some find it a little difficult to read. Thomas Milo, a Dutchman, who was once a gun-toting United Nations worker in the Lebanon, who created this, originally intended it to be used with its own software engine and was very effective but it got dumbed down somewhat when it appeared as a standard font on Mac and PC platforms in the 1990s as it had to bypass its natural variations from the base line. In other words it became more or less a linear script which naskh is not. (see the illustration at the top) Milo’s Tasmeem plug-in for Indesign mitigated some of these shortcomings, but who has the time to fiddle with text in this way? If you want calligraphy get a calligrapher. Another face I use is Linotype Lotus which began on PCs over thirty years ago and which is one of the best non-calligraphic faces but lacks certain important characters if you set Qur’anic text. A few more pass muster like Karim LT but as for the rest they are mostly abominations reflecting Arab designers’ modernistic tastes. One compromise I have made which works, is to mix hand calligraphed Arabic for titles with typeset blocks of text. Many Arabic newspapers and magazines used to do this.

My rapprochement with typeset Arabic is not unconnected with my view of the early Arabic scripts which were unselfconsciously the vessels of knowledge, its translation and dissemination, and not made for artistic merit although with implicit and unself-conscious beauty. These days if all Arabic writing was by hand the dissemination of knowledge would be severely impaired. But this does not diminish my gut feeling that typeset Arabic is not a substitute for writing by hand and all its many secrets.

In the madrassas of India, I am told that the teachers still prefer to teach from hand written lithographs rather than printed texts. There is an understanding of the deep connection of handwritten letters, learning and religious knowledge and the recent understanding that the human brain responds profoundly to hand written right left writing. God taught by the pen, not by the computer.

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Mending fences, chasing demons.

Hassan 11 mosqueI have just returned from a few days filming in Morocco which was an attempt to revisit the time myself and a bunch of young white English and American men and women first visited a venerable Sufi master and his people in the medieval city of Meknes over 42 years ago. I believe the film is an attempt by the producer to find out why and how it all happened and why such people, from often privileged and educated backgrounds, would go against the Christian and patrician grain of English society of the time and embark on what was, ostensibly, such a difficult journey.

The film, which is being shot in several countries, is also trying to trace the history of this nascent community in England, it’s successes and failures and why after ten years it started to fall apart. Any such documentary was likely to look under the scabs of old wounds and to see if there was any way some fences could be mended and some demons expunged. I’m not holding my breath, as rebuilding trust after a divorce is well nigh impossible; but the children of the marriage, the next generation, have a chance if it fully understands what happened and then re-buries the corpse after the post-mortem. Then I think we could all breathe a little bit easier. Some oxygen pumped into this stagnant pond wouldn’t be a bad idea. And I’m saying this to all concerned. Let’s see if the director has the courage not to sterilise the story and cut out the uncomfortable bits of the movie.

I’m tapping this post in Casablanca airport having been snared by failing to check-in at Terminal 1 in time (they closed it an hour before the flight!) and then change to Terminal 2 to catch the plane. Shades of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart who also had a few problems at this airport. So I had 24 hours to have a quick shufti of this sprawling city, Morocco’s slightly grubby commercial capital.

Initially the traffic in Casa is quite alarming, as cars, pedestrians and carts of vegetables and chickens seem to have independent ideas of who owns the road. But now I believe there is some kind of invisible angelic bubble wrap allowing cars to bounce off each other without actually colliding. Not once did I see a collision, though every minute it seemed inevitable. I also had a quick peep at the enormous Hassan II mosque on the sea shore, enshrouded in a mysterious sea mist, with hundreds of Sunday strollers wandering across its vast concourse. Nice, but a few trees and seats wouldn’t have gone amiss. (see pic above)

My drive to the airport from Meknes was with a fine young Morrocan from the family of the big shaykh we first met all those years ago. He explained in good English how this generation of westerners and Moroccans too, have a confusion with simple word definitions. One of these is the word shaykh which young zealous Muslims get confused about. He said that to a Moroccan,  anyone who is your teacher is your shaykh (often the father of the family) and oddly how certain notable men of high repute in recent times have refused the appellation shaykh even though others would address them as such and wish them to be it. This is why I find it faintly amusing when I get emails addressed to shaykh Ian. I have white hair but shaykh? – I don’t think so. A bloke I will always remain.  Also when a teacher is a master of any discipline he would rightly be called a shaykh as a term of respect. A man or woman might have many shaykhs or teachers. The problems start when a man or woman claims this title as if it bequeaths some divine right of unchallengeable authority, which of course it doesn’t.

We are not a people of claims
The words of an eminent Moroccan scholar.

Morocco remains a place of wonders after all these years and certainly where you learn the true meaning of qabd and bast. (The divine contraction and expansion of the heart).

Last thought: why do travellers in the third world have such enormous suitcases?

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Self-publish and be Blessed


Self-publishing is a topic which flies about the publishing world like helicopters fly around the valley I live in, seemingly never to land. I do see the attraction to a wannabe writer to fork out not very much money and have his or hers masterpiece in his or her hand and it is an idea that is gaining traction. Self-publishing is intrinsically tied up with print on demand or POD as it is acronymed, which enables print runs of one or a thousand as required using laser printing technology. I designed a whole series of books for American poet Daniel Moore between 2005 and 2009, using which was a solution to the problem of laying out a lot of cash for a run of books that you had to store and then sell — every publisher’s headache. Furthermore lulu distributed the book and provided the bar codes etc. and got it out on distributor’s lists. Fine so far, but the end result was rather disappointing for me who had been for many years been working with litho printers using beautiful book-wove papers nicely bound with properly sewn sections etc., trying to improve and refine book production. Lulu also limited the self publisher to just a few size formats. It was like eating badly cooked food.

Seeing poetry laser printed on white photocopy quality paper and a cover with automated spine lettering, with cut and glued page sections was a let down indeed. To me printed poetry (and anything else of quality come to that) demands quality typography, quality paper stock, good binding, etc etc., as it is intrinsically part of the magic of the printed word. It proves the author and the publisher believe in their book and want to honour it. It’s as if the smell and touch of the paper are inseparably part of the poem or whatever. It’s all about quality, not quantity and economy. The difference between say an email and a handwritten letter. This is the reason why to me, a poem read on an internet page doesn’t excite in the same way as in the kind of book I describe above. Maybe there is a kind of poem that would suit the internet but I’m not sure what that is. A koan? Maybe a tweet? Poems for limited attention spans. 140 characters.

But things have changed since the early experience. I have now sourced quite a few traditional book printers who have now entered the self publishing field and now offer quality books with best papers, binding etc., in all size formats with bar codes and distribution thrown in. You pay more for sewn sections and better paper but not much more and the end result is well worth it. If every author or poet knew how this extra care taken increases the book’s impact, the few extra dollars always looks like a good investment. Not to mention that the book will last a lot longer.

A good American friend of mine, Michael Sugich, has recently dived into this arena having self published his book, Signs on the Horizon, (illustrated above) about his encounters with remarkable Muslim saints over the last 40 years. With my book designers hat on I naturally had serious professional criticisms but strangely the content of the book shone through strongly and its technical and design faults seemed to fade into the background. It was produced using a Jeff Bezos Amazon company designed to hammer yet another nail in the booksellers’ and publishers’ coffin. Another client of mine in the USA used Clearspace to do a quick pre-print run of a book and I encountered some of Clearspace’s requirements which seemed quite absurd. Eg. requiring a huge inner text margin of 0.75″, a space necessary to avoid the “pinch” when the pages are folded, cut and glued creating a tight book that doesn’t open easily and which is always in danger of bursting when the glue gives out. But it obviously caters for a sector of the market. Although actually ultimately serving Jeff Bezos’s bottom line.

Clearspace looks very much like repackaged with the added benefit of Amazon’s goliath like muscle with it’s admittedly efficient book distribution network. I’m told the author gets 35% of the sale which is far more than traditional publishing royalties. So not all bad. But a big publisher has marketing muscle which the self-publisher does not have. This is the argument they use to discourage the self-publisher of course. Self-marketing is the next frontier to free the individual publisher from the old world of publicists and their cosy relationships with broadcasters, news media, advertisers and so on. But what shape that will take I am still waiting on. The internet has changed everything.

By the same token I am disappointed with ebooks which return books to a kind of anarchy where you choose the font, the size etc which although has its uses goes just a step too far. Curiously I read the other day that a man who suffered from dyslexia all his life found that by ranging all the text left in an ebook he could read easily as all the inter word spaces were equal. This may not be the cause of all dyslexia but it’s worth noting. Also for those with difficulty reading like children or old people being able to enlarge the text you can see the advantage.

But I return to my protestations about dumbing down the book because the origins of knowledge are intertwined with the idea of writing, pages and books. These are the metaphors used in revelation and why we have to honour more than we do the almost sacred nature of how we convey and preserve words and language on paper (or by electronic means come to that).

In my job I’m always looking for the perfect book with a perfect marriage of content, design and printing, with paper that will last for hundreds of years (sewn sections, acid free book wove, high rag content etc). Because when the hard drives and the sold state memory banks of the world of stored knowledge and information give out there will be something of quality left to read. Who knows, vellum might make a come back one day as it outlast everything short of carving into granite.

PS There are very good alternatives to Amazon who I have got tired of and who at the time of writing are about to be exposed by a BBC Panorama programme as running what looks like exploitative and inhuman working conditions for their workers. I just used Books etc., which went well. They also enable you to sell your own books at a cut of 15% to them. When I was last selling books though Amazon they were taking 60%!  The public’s hatred of Ryanair, the Irish cheapo airline, has been so intense of late that they have en masse gone elsewhere and directly contributed to a second profits warning for Ryanair this year. Now for Amazon. It’s time we realised that the Amazon maybe the biggest river in the world but is full of piranhas.

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From Mods to Mecca

Nostalgia has always been big business. Look how the Victorians ached for a romantic gothic past and the Edwardians for a rapidly disappearing bucolic world with the arts and crafts revival. To find my own past the subject of a nostalgic movement was for me a bit of a curiosity as earlier this year saw the release of Flashback (3rd edition), a magazine for folks for whom late 1960s prog rock was a great forgotten period of British music.

Flashback_Issue 3_Spring 2013

Its featured article was entitled, eye-catchingly, from Mods to Mecca. This arcane genre of music is not necessarily the realm of bald headed,  grey haired freaks, but apparently  people of all ages (mostly blokes I imagine). Richard Morton Jack, an Old Etonian who is in his early 30s, publishes the magazine dedicated to this prog rock period from about 1967-73 and wrote From Mods to Mecca a 39 page feature about my erstwhile friends and co-musicians of the rock group Mighty Baby which was born in 1967 out of the ashes of the great London 60s mod band The Action. Mighty Baby floundered in 1971 for many reasons which the article describes in detail.

Aside from whether you like the music, (you don’t have to) it’s an unusual story of how a group of musicians of mixed English backgrounds (middle and working class) met up in 1967 and after a jolly few years playing music just about everywhere and with everyone, ended up with firstly a real Sufi brotherhood in North Africa, meeting one of the truly great muslim saints of the 20th century, and subsequently going on the pilgrimage to Mekka. (Well three fifths made that journey.) The article, richly illustrated with photos and newspaper cuttings, is 99% accurate, historically speaking, unlike previous histories which were pretty fictitious and incomplete. Richard Morton Jack dug up things I had completely forgotten about and found photos I had never seen before. The band’s music was also featured in May this year on Stuart Macone’s BBC radio 6 show called appropriately The Freakier Zone.

To the establishment you can’t mention things like Glastonbury or names like Jimi Hendrix or George Martin in the same breath (or article in this case) as Islam and the Haj or Sufi shaykhs. Almost like oil and water. But Richard Morton Jack courageously tells the whole story and leaves the reader to judge for himself. I say the establishment, because when Cat Stevens was embraced by Islam (it’s interesting to phrase it that way round), the UK establishment did their best to slaughter him. Though well intended, Yusuf put his head too far above the parapet and just didn’t have enough media savvy to deal with it, but also Islam, the religion. was something not wanted in the public discourse as something rational and an option to be considered by ordinary people. So at every opportunity journalists (the voices of the ruling establishment) set out to trap him and resurrect all the old canards about oppression of women, the Satanic Verses issue, jihad and so on. I was personally present at a live BBC radio interview with Nicky Campbell, about Yusuf’s Bosnia War CD when his opening question to Yusuf was “how can you follow a religion that condones the rape of women?”  This gives you an idea of the deep seated hatred and ignorance of anything to do with Islam that is dormant in the British psyche and which I believe goes back to colonialist times when the British were heavily brainwashed against the Turks, Arabs. Africans et alia, just about everyone the British were colonising and whose lands they were plundering in the name of Christianity and progress. That’s another story but is the background to the Mods to Mecca narrative.

mb monmouth rd

Photo by the late Keith Morris 1971.  

To me it still seems impossible now, in fact almost miraculous, that this was to be our destiny – from just itinerant rock musicians to hajj pilgrims. The Flashback article reveals the complete story, which for me is both gratifying, shocking, sad and bizarre all at the same time. It’s from so long ago that it seems almost to be about someone else, not me. But in case anyone thinks it just happened out of the blue, let me put you straight. In fact the direction the music was taking, the chemistry of the band, the books studied on gigs and so on, all led to this amazing conclusion. Both a logical and a theological outcome. The music was the means to the end and let no-one tell you otherwise. Some say we arrived at the gates of a Islam in spite of the music. I beg to disagree. It not only took us to the gates, but through them and on right up to this day. I am the same person now as I was then with just less negative baggage and with accrued wisdom from the journey. Music is very powerful and a hot divisive topic amongst muslims but my experience convinced me that with a good heart, music can serve you and give an uplift and ease to the heart like nothing else. Of course it has a satanic side, what in the realm of human activity doesn’t, but to disparage music purely for doctrinal reasons is senseless. It’s another subject but not to be explored here.

For many years we were all frankly embarrassed by the whole thing and nobody wanted to talk about it. I think this was partly because of the horrendous collapse of our Sufi community in 1983 and the considerable antipathy toward its leader whose shenanigans had destabilised too many lives and families in the 1970s and a drama around which there was a kind of omerta, a traumatised silence. We didn’t want people to know what had been going on out of a sort of twisted shame. But this silence was also because the music Mighty Baby had been playing was nothing to do with commercial rock music but more of a mystical adventure set to music and words, which we knew few would understand. And it all got mixed up with what came later and all the Sufi capers. It had been a journey into the spiritual unknown for all to see. The story is spelled out in the song lyrics of the final album Jug of Love, and particularly in the lyrics of Martin Stone, the wizard front-of-stage guitarist. This final swan song of an LP told the story of the spiritual awakening of this pretty unknown group of musicians and what they were experiencing right at the time the record was being made. When it was released the record companies and music press unsurprisingly missed all these subtleties, but a recent review of the band’s last album that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, when it was re-released on CD (and vinyl),  expressed it succinctly.

“Mighty Baby were original acid-country mystics: remnants of a great British mod band, the Action, that went psychedelic in the late Sixties, then turned down the amps and amped up the prayer. By the time of Mighty Baby’s second album, A Jug of Love, issued in Britain by Blue Horizon in 1971, most of the band members had converted to Sufism, the mystic Muslim sect, and the record is aptly meditative: slow, extended songs of self-examination sparkling with fireside harmonizing and the gently serpentine lead guitar of Martin Stone. Although Mighty Baby, as practicing Muslims, subscribed to a natural high, the record’s vibe is more stoned than sanctimonious, a trancelike blend of the Middle-era Floyd, the Byrds circa Ballad of Easy Rider and how, I suspect, the Grateful Dead sounded in early rehearsals for American Beauty. A Jug of Love, a big-money rarity for years, has finally been issued on CD by the Sunbeam label. It still overflows with sweet OM.” (David Fricke)

So in the last ten years I have grown to accept that period of my life, who I was, profane language and all. As far as nostalgia goes, I am not nostalgic for that time as it was hazardous and chaotic as well as exciting– creative and destructive simultaneously. Many of the people I knew and worked with from that time are now dead. They died from lifestyle poisoning. So don’t get too dewy eyed for this lost epoch. But reading about it might just open someone’s heart and mind all these years later and how remarkable things come out of the most unlikely situations. It did happen and it’s all true although the Flashback story is only part of the whole picture which will be told some day I hope.

If you are curious to read more about all this caper you can either buy the 208 page magazine or download a pdf from Several Mighty Baby albums are now available from Sunbeam Records in London and can also be downloaded from Itunes.

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The Descent of Man


The latest L’Oreal TV ad goes like this: A beautiful female model pouts, “I believe in science, I don’t believe in miracles.” It’s a statement of faith. Odd, as they have a product called Revitalift Miracle Blur. So I don’t think L’Oreal know quite what they think.

When you look at the wonder of the seamless universe of vast infinite space and the enormous galaxies and suns around which planets orbit effortlessly and on whose surface vast lands, mountains and oceans contain unending varieties of teeming vegetable, animal and aquatic  life concealing subatomic worlds mirroring the outer worlds in which tender mercy is manifest every moment every time new life is born and nourished and in which men and women of knowledge and intellect contemplate and worship, openly and in secret, the incomprehensible power of its creator and sustainer…don’t you just groan when scientists reduce it all to a two dimensional TV programme with the inevitable catechism…”but science tells us…”…!! Thank you Professor Brian Cox.

One scholar rightly describes this as the tyranny of modern empirical science in which the wonders of life and the universe, of cosmology, mathematics, astronomy, biology, zoology, physics and chemistry and so on, are reduced to a random accident in some kind of primordial deadly molecular olympic games of survival of the species. Where is the awe? Where is the wonder? Where is the humility? Where is the truth?

CERN, the 28km diameter hadron collider is the way that the modern scientific mind approaches the mysteries of the universe. Smash it to pieces and see what it tells us and squander a vast fortune in the process. Almost a metaphor of how modern man deals with the feared unknown –i.e. blow it to pieces. Rather like the Manhattan project when an atomic bomb was first exploded at Los Alamos in New Mexico in 1943, they didn’t really know what would happen but they just had to do it. I’m not diminishing what the incisive scientific mind can discover and intellectual brilliance when it produces some good, but sorry, it is not the same as the great spiritual adepts of history, who tasted and experienced realities and knowledges that the scientists of this time couldn’t begin to imagine. Nor did their knowledge unleash destructive technologies on the scale of the industrial world that we all know. Anything not visible or ascertained by scientific method is written off as hokum and non-existent….which is hardly scientific if you think about it. Which allows them to posit anything they feel like. But then science has raised itself to quasi-religious status nowadays which no-one is allowed to challenge, which I don’t think was the intention of the enquiring minds of the renaissance. Scientists, from their scientific institutions, with their pulpit of BBC science programmes, hand down their interpretation of reality to the masses as religious doctrine — and often aired on Sundays appropriately. Anything of a religious nature is presented as a superstitious fiction if mentioned at all.

I am currently reading Rupert Sheldrake’s excellent book, The Science Delusion, which puts some some flesh on these ideas and supplies the history of how science made itself into a religion. It’s a factual and rational explanation of how materialism has come about and how people like the atheist evangelist high priest Prof. Richard Dawkins have reduced existence to its lowest common denominator…molecules. The trope Sheldrake uses to debunk Dawkins is of someone grinding a computer down to dust and then trying to discover what that sophisticated machine was in the first place by analysing the raw materials. I’m only a little way into the book and it looks promising, though Sheldrake is a microbiologist himself and sees things from a trained scientist viewpoint. To him, there just seems too much that modern science cannot explain. Too much of how but not enough why. Since the time of Sir Francis Bacon in the 17th century the science establishment has seen itself as an augury of a future world in which scientists controlled, understood and guided everything in the world like high priests and it’s pretty much what has happened.

Underpinning this notion that everything is progressing to some future utopia is the Darwinian idea of endless evolution in which might is right and the only deserving beings are the ones who can destroy the competition and survive. The shocking subtitle of Darwin’s famous treatise the Origin of the Species was “or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” Already a kind of racism had crept into the scientists’ theology and maybe how and why Darwin’s ideas were at the root of the Nazis’ Third Reich philosophy and probably all racist doctrines. This idea is symbolised by the drawing – pinned on many a school room wall and which has brainwashed generations – of man evolving from an ape into man. (and then in this example below descending into a manual worker with a road drill and finally a computer operator – quite a telling and pessimistic conclusion really)


Many have written that technology is the next phase of evolution. This is delusionary in my view. I want to suggest a different idea from the ascent of man concept. It’s called the descent of man…here it is below (excuse my drawing which I will improve on dv). This idea is well substantiated in both Quran and Prophetic Traditions and is self-explanatory and makes much more sense to me. Without going too deeply into it here, so-called  progress and technological innovations were merely a crutch which replaced what were God given faculties and skills. I’m not talking of craft tools and so on but things like mechanisation, printing, radio, television, smart phones!….modernity in other words, which Tim Winter describes as “what filled the hole that came with the loss of religion.”The Descent of ManI also want to suggest a much simpler approach to Professor Sheldrake, whose book is as far as I have got, spot on, but which I believe will leave a big question mark by its end. That is, if you begin with a premise that all knowledge is with the Divinity who created it and then work backwards you will arrive at something true. i.e. from revelation. The Dawkins approach is like groveling around in the primeval swamp by comparison and clearly mistaken like an insect trying to weave a beautiful carpet. Don’t doubt this approach before giving it a whirl, but explore where it leads. All your queries will be answered, you will be surprised. What is required is not a Hadron collider to smash matter apart and to find a ‘god particle’ (the word matter comes from the word mother incidentally) but what will smash this illusion of the self, the great idol. With professor Sheldrake’s timely book we can now understand the delusions of science but not yet see our own delusions and the great illusion of perceived metaphorical reality which all of us humans are saddled with. •

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Rumi, Rihlas and Other Considerations


If you are Turkish, Afghan or Iranian, most likely you would consider your ‘bard’ to be Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi the great poet and Imam who is buried in Konya, the capital of central Anatolia, Turkey. He was born in Balkh, Afghanistan but after migrating to Turkey where he settled and taught he wrote his twenty seven thousand couplet poetic masterpiece, the Mathnawi which was written in Persian. He died in 1273 CE and is buried in Konya in the most beautiful of maqams (pictured above)  In recent times translations of this work have been made into every language of the world and which has seen Rumi become, in the case of North America, its best selling poet. (a manuscript from 1479 in Persian pictured below)

rumi mathnawi

So, when given the opportunity to attend the well known Deen Intensive Rihla in Konya this past July, my wife and I jumped at the opportunity as there had to be something special waiting for us there. To most people who read this blog the words Rihla and Deen Intensive are probably well known but for those who just happen to have dropped in and don’t know, let me give you a brief explanation.

The Rihla was conceived back in 1995 in the USA by the well known teacher and translator, Hamza Yusuf (amongst others) as an opportunity for anyone who wanted to study, intensively in a residential situation, a selection of the traditional Islamic sciences with prominent scholars, over a three to four week period in the summer break and in an interesting venue. The scholars would teach in English and could give the students the best of their knowledge over a short time which would traditionally have entailed the student traveling over many years to different countries and gathering such knowledge, having first mastered Arabic of course, and enduring all the rigours that this would have demanded.

So it was designed for those whom a life devoted to scholarship would be impossible, but who were able shell out a fairly hefty sum to attend for this brief period. It has over these last 18 years proved a remarkable success and continues to attract 150-200 students of all ages every year from all over the world. The subjects covered every year would find their place in the curriculum of any self respecting seminary or university in the muslim universe and include Aqida, Qalam, Logic, Fiqh, Sira, Tajweed, Tasawwuf etc., * (see below for translation) and much more, but all embraced by the broad and luminous shariah. Shariah being a very much abused and misunderstood term in the Western universe who have confined it to amputations and similar cherry picked distortions. Appropriately its accurate translation is “the wide road that leads to an everlasting spring of water”, a special meaning for a desert dweller and also for the dweller in the modern desert of the western world desperate for the essential water of divine knowledge.

In the 1970s we used to go yearly to Morocco to attend great moussems and mawlids of singing, hadras and visiting living and dead saints and benefitting greatly but with little or no real study of what it all meant and why. Not that we could have sustained such study at the time. I have seen a common phenomenon in nascent muslim cultures in the west over the last 40 years or so of the tariqas or sufi brotherhoods and how they became the necessary starting points in countries where no Islam existed which was the case in point in London in 1970 when I opted in to this particular religion. It was like survival Islam and the brotherhoods (which was also a sisterhood in fact) helped concentrate study, practice and create a kind of social nexus in a town or city location (in London in my case). And for a few years we became Moroccans both in dress, culture and religious practice.  But despite its outreach it remained quite insular and eventually fell foul of the usual problems of such communities: group think, mismanagement, economic collapse and after an exodus to Norfolk, complete disintegration into rancorous civil war.

I mention this because looking back I think it was a lack of a certain fundamental education that left no real foundation for any future growth although it sufficed for a time. Tasawwuf (sufism) was always one of the traditional sciences embedded in the shariah studied in Muslim seminaries going back over a thousand years to the time of Junayd who consolidated this knowledge and who is considered the Imam of this science. But our early education subsumed all other sciences under the rubric ‘tasawwuf‘ which is clearly incorrect. We were to be sufis more than anything else. The term tasawwuf has many translations but rectification and purification of the heart is the most useful. But it is only part of a spectrum of essential knowledge for the traveller on a spiritual journey. It deals with unravelling and cleansing the human heart of all its vices like envy, lying, idolatry, backbiting, arrogance and so on and in these times probably the most important initial medicine for people who enter Islam from the dominant culture.

But even a few hundred years ago the value of tariqas was called into question by such scholars and authentic teachers as Sidi Ahmad Zarruq who had in his lifetime seen tariqas become corrupted in different ways. In the late 1970s and early 1980s we saw the same thing happening in the UK. What was needed was a new sound basis for all of the Islamic sciences in which tasawwuf could take its proper place so that sincere seekers could be protected from charlatans and the latent cultishness and corruption of ‘groups’ of this kind – but still benefit from its core function.

Since the 1980s quite a few young men and women from the west have ventured into the traditional muslim world and have returned with authorised knowledges which they have set about teaching. This is where we come back to the notion of the Rihla which means essentially “traveling for divine knowledge”. This is where the overview of knowledge so much needed can be established in a kind of roving university that the Rihla is. In the past it has tempted gifted students to take this kind of study much further and who have become qualified teachers themselves.

Much as I know that tariqas have fulfilled a vital service in conserving this teaching down the centuries, something I have benefitted from personally, I can see how some have become unfit for purpose and have trapped their devotees in cults which deny them the bigger picture in which both men and women can advance in the acquisition of sacred knowledge and spiritual growth. In traditional societies there were many scholars, muftis, qadis and faqihs in circulation to keep the balance and to counsel sufi shaykhs if they got out of line…and in fact to counsel anyone from kings to the common man — something lacking in western cultures till recently. Remember that the great lights of muslim history, Imams Al-Ghazali and Jalaluddin Rumi and in my own time the great Moroccan teacher and poet Muhammad ibn Al- Habib who passed away in 1971 at a great age (shortly after we met him), were first and foremost great ulema, masters and teachers of outward formal knowledge. It’s worth reflecting that Ibn al-Habib was teaching these sciences in the Karoueen Mosque in Fes in 1900!

So this Rihla in Konya for us was very beneficial, albeit for a week, and was as illuminating as weeks of singing and dancing in Morocco 40 years ago. It was filling all the big gaps that my initial introduction to Islam and Sufism had left me with. The content of Rihlas from this year and last year can be viewed online at so you can ascertain yourself what it was all about. Viewing on-line is not the same as being physically present but nonetheless is very beneficial. Its strong web presence is a symbol of its relevance in the digital universe but with its feet firmly in the ground of person to person teaching. Receiving knowledge from teachers authorised to teach from an isnad of authorised teachers is very different from instruction from auto-didacts who have constructed what they teach from books and knowledge gleaned from unauthorised sources and who make false claims as to their authority. What is most refreshing at these Rihlas is being in the company of people who sought no identity or distinction in the group, in their name, their clothes or what sat on their heads other than being muslims and sincere seekers of knowledge. And how after only a week you can closely bond with people you have never met before and how your whole interior perspective can be changed and refreshed. It really puts the holy back into holiday.

 “Travel, that ye may gain advantage” (Rumi) 

* Approximate translations of the terms above of a sample of Sharia sciences:
Aqida: belief; what we can believe and cannot believe about God. (Imams ‘Ashari and Maturidi)
Qalam: literally speech; theology, deeper knowledge of Aqida
Fiqh: jurisprudence / sacred law. (Imams Malik, Shafi’i, Hanafi & ibn Hanbal)
Tasawwuf: sufism; spiritual purification and illumination of the heart. (Imam Junaid)
Mantiq: logic
Sira: life of the Prophet
Tajweed: correct Qur’anic recitation and pronounciation

Posted in language, miscellaneous, religion, sacred knowledge, tassawuf, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Translation, Lost and Found

SHAMAI'ILMay28temp arabic.indd

Above: A page from an as yet unpublished edition of the Shama’il of Tirmidhi.

Part One
Although my work is principally typesetting books, something previously done by men in inky overalls composing metal type, I do actually read some of them and it might explain why when I write on this blog about what I hope might be of some practical typographical value I cannot but help slip into philosophy, religion and metaphysics and all that comes with it, as many of those books I have worked on are often translations of important and famous texts on these subjects – mostly from Arabic with the Arabic and English running in parallel. And quite an education it has been. Studying the texts has really rammed home to me the crushing responsibility of the translator’s job. Not only must he or her deeply understand the foreign language concerned and the subject matter, but also have a profound grasp of English and all its subtle nuances and get it right. Their word choice can have life-changing impact and lead people in all kinds of right or wrong directions. Especially such texts as the source books of Islam like the Qur’an itself and the many collections of Prophetic traditions that surround it. Which is why commentaries and explanatory footnotes are so important to flesh out the translation.

In the last 40 years there has been a huge unstoppable convergence of different cultures all over the world especially in Britain and it has been very visible for me in setting these translations mentioned above, as two languages on the same page, one in roman text ranging right to left and the other in arabic script from left to right makes particular demands. In the same way the translator has had to refine his words to excellently express meanings, the task of a designer is to reflect that as clearly and as beautifully as possible with type. It is a wonderful metaphor for how cultures should merge. When the cultures clash it is often because they haven’t been juxtaposed in a beautiful way and the scripts coming from opposite directions collide rather than blend harmoniously. There is a parallel in human behaviour and how good manners can facilitate so much in life, the elixir for just about everything in fact. Is there not good manners in the way a page of text is designed? The designer of course needs to know deeply the roots of western design and calligraphy as much as that of Arabic or Persian if he is going to succeed. The exact parallel of the translator in his or her work. And in a different realm the same could be said of the way a mosque might integrate into an English urban landscape.

Recently I was a consultant on the Cambridge mosque competition for an English architect who asked me some quite reasonable questions, one which was how to reconcile a mosque facing Mecca with a road frontage which is not, and more generally how do you design a mosque that integrates harmoniously into say a northern English town. Safe to say that too often mosques are like a two finger salute to the local vernacular and built environment with the oh-so-predictable dome and minaret. Now to me this is the height of bad manners. But it is an an honest metaphor for what is going on socially and politically.

The new Cambridge mosque project has, to its credit, taken a much more considered route with a lot of local consultation and an interesting mosque design concept by architect David Marks of Marks Barfield who were responsible for the London Eye opposite the Houses of Parliament. Now when I first heard they had won the competition I had visions of a funfair mosque with a helter skelter minaret down which the muezzin helter-skeltered after calling the prayer. But after going through various evolutions the final design has matured and I actually quite like it now, as it has done its utmost to blend in with the surrounding landscape and is a serious attempt to blend various traditional motifs with what is in fact a hi-tech eco-building. Quite a leap from the brief I was given some years ago for a sketch design for this mosque which requested an Anglo Ottoman style of architecture. (I might reexamine this idea in a future post).

Because the proposed mosque has full approval from Cambridge City Council and is of a high architectural quality the locals generally accept it. It is thought it might even raise surrounding property values. It doesn’t have a minaret and the small token green dome will be barely visible from the road I think. Some might say it doesn’t look a mosque. Which in many ways is in its favour I believe. It is doing its best to dodge the cliche and all the baggage that goes with that cliche. Personally I think the dome could have been dispensed with but I presume some people like the link with tradition even though the idea of a dome for a large space predates Islam by thousands of years. I suppose its symbolism prevents it been mistaken for an upmarket industrial shed or a telephone exchange.

The architect I was consultant to in the mosque competition asked me where in the Qur’an the rules were for building a mosque. The answer of course is nowhere. The first mosque was just an open area defined by a low wall and what became a famous palm tree. In other words anywhere within reason (like not in a road) if it is clean and where you could put your head on the ground. How it was organised was entirely up to those concerned in building it. There were times in history when Muslims and Christians shared the same prayer space as in Cordoba and earlier in Jerusalem – a pragmatic solution with no fuss about the style of architecture. But on the whole if you ask most muslims what a mosque space should be you would get a very wide range of answers. Most actually don’t know or are confused or regrettably the dome and minaret idea.

It all comes down to translation and the challenge of bringing something of a seemingly alien nature: beliefs, ideas, culture, the printed word or buildings into a new environment. Much has been lost in translation to date but in time things will improve as it all takes on new hybrid forms.


The Mill Road aspect of the proposed new Cambridge mosque.

Part Two
The subject of mosque design has occupied me a lot in the last thirty years, and at one point a couple of years back I was invited to speak at a small symposium put on by the Arts Council (and others) in London on this very subject: Spiritual Spaces in an Urban Environment. Up to that point I had considered that a mosque space needed to be traditional because the religion itself was based on tradition and anyway I could not abide all the nouveau trends in mosque architecture which exploited every kind of fashionable technology. I didn’t understand Zaha Hadid type buildings and neither did the audience at the symposium we were participating in. Necessity created the minaret as a means of the call to prayer reaching people from a high point and domes or columnated spaces were arrived at as a way of creating large spaces and were not created out of some religious dogma. However to depart too much from such conventions in the modern context causes consternation and not without cause. After all the human form is a traditional thing, on the form of the first man, It is what gives things meaning. We are looking back down the long corridor of time and it is possible to draw on all that experience.

Modernity has, however thrown a spanner in the works as suddenly creating interior space was not restricted by what could be built by hand and human scale was the first casualty. Technology given birth by the industrial revolution, disconnected architecture from craft and allowed builders, architects and engineers to run riot and create new ways of construction. Tradition was still a powerful influence though and the Victorians created some remarkable structures with strong historical references in wrought iron and glass covering previously unattainable expanses of interior space: the great glasshouses at Kew, the famous dome in Buxton covered in slate which is bigger than St Peters Rome, and many of Britain’s great railway stations.

The amassing of capital and the profit motive was instrumental in the industrialisation of building and remains as the motivator of modernity and what leaves us with all this debate about just what is a spiritual space. Much as I love the beautiful traditional mosques that you will find from Beijing to Fez, attempting such ideas in a western urban environment is extremely difficult. The Paris mosque is maybe the one exception that worked as it conveniently fits a whole block and is more a collection of interior spaces than a building very much as it would integrate into a traditional north African city. And it was utterly north African, built by craftsmen from Morocco and was a model of local cooperation with the opening prayer conducted by Shaykh al-Alawi of Mustaghanem and the then French premier. The Woking mosque worked well being the first in the UK but it was standing on its own in a small park. In general the cliché of minaret and dome mosque that has sprouted up all over the UK and Europe reflects how awkwardly the new communities have attempted to blend into their host communities. To me it’s “in your face” architecture and in many ways understandably provokes the local community. I realise that many people came into the UK who weren’t educated in the fineries of architecture or town planning but even where immigrants were educated as in the USA the results were the same, an awkward blend.

Of late I have been thinking that one possible urban solution is to create a space for retreat off the street for anyone who is in need of spiritual solace, or just to rest your feet without having to pay for a coffee. It can be like the prayer spaces that have cropped up in airports, football stadiums and even office blocks and factories. When walking through central London recently I was intensely aware of a need of something to counter the horrific commercial pressure everywhere. Non-denominational prayer spaces seemed like an obvious answer paid for by banks. Maybe if people learned the basic good manners of sharing a prayer space they might learn the manners of building a mosque (or a temple, synagogue or whatever) in an unwelcoming environment.

In a remote country situation the hitech modern solution seems inappropriate and a design driven by indigenous building techniques is best and probably cheapest and then you are fairly safe. My own choice is to avoid prestressed concrete, steel and ‘hard’ cement products produced by high firing techniques. A building constructed from say adobe bricks with a wooden or vaulted roof has an unrivalled stillness and beauty that is effortlessly a spiritual space. The actual design, proportions and details can also reflect calm and stillness but these are more conditioned by cultural and artistic factors. The community who will use it can, if at all possible, also help in the construction which helps bind them to it for ever. But importing all that into an urban context is well nigh impossible. Health and Safety stop it dead. And even in a remote situation there will still be legal and cultural hurdles to cross. All the courtesies required in the Cambridge case still apply, but it is just less complex.

Ultimately, any building is like a glove on a hand and is no better or worse than the vision, aspiration and abilities of the community of men and women who build it which is why architecture can tell you so much about history and about our forbears and what they were up to. Architects should of course be the servants of their clients but the intention behind such things as mosques is what produces the final result and when you walk into such a mosque for the first time you meet that intention full on.

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