Beauty in the Margin

above the courtyard entrance to the Bayezid Mosque in Istanbul.

above the courtyard entrance to the Bayezid Mosque in Istanbul.

This is a blog about the written word in Islamicate culture. It is a place where I can share my love of and fascination with manuscripts, calligraphy, inscriptions, and other mediums in which words were put down and preserved for posterity. If done right, this blog may be interesting to those who are specialists while being accessible to those who are not. I welcome comments from both groups. If nothing else, you'll be able to find lovely and occasionally fascinating samples of the beautifully (and sometimes not so beautifully) written word on a variety of subjects and from a variety of places in the Islamicate world.

First a description of the inscription in the image and then a little more about this blog.

The Inscription

The inscription to the right is taken from Quran 39:73. It reads: "Peace be upon you! May you ever be pure. So enter it, abiding therein forever." The verse in context is addressed the inhabitants of Paradise. Here the verse is placed above the entrance to the Bayezit Mosque in Istanbul.

About this Blog

Why the written word? 

A lot of blogs focus on one's field expertise or on current affairs. I wish to focus on neither. If you've visited other parts of my site, you'll know that I am an Islamic historian by training with a specialization in Islamic law. I spend many hours of my week doing research on Islamic law for academic audiences, and I am occasionally invited to talk on the subject to public ones. Although I enjoy my little corner of expertise, there is more to Islamicate culture than law that occupies my interest and is worth writing about. There is similarly more worth writing about than the current affairs of the Middle East and the larger Muslim world. For all their importance, I prefer to leave current affairs for venues more suited to discussing them—where questions can be debated and arguments appraised by experts—than a forum of musings curated by one person. Current affairs are fluid, and I don't wish to write words now that I will end up eating later. Furthermore, the news tends to overwhelm us with images of sadness and ugliness while obscuring from view what is beautiful and uplifting about the great and venerable cultures of the Islamicate world. I hope that, if nothing else, this blog can be a place where you can see pretty images and take solace in the beautiful productions that the human spirit and hand, despite the vicissitudes and hardships of life, have produced. These productions quietly live on when the fury of the present passes.

"In the Margin"

I call this blog Al-Hamish, which means “the margin” in Arabic, with the same literal and figurative senses as in English. A practical reason for this choice is that the word is gentle on the ear and is hard to mispronounce. It is pronounced pretty much how it looks (ha- as in happy); the worst one can really do is say HEY-mish, which isn't so bad. The more substantive reason is that things which appear not to matter—the things or people that lie at the margins of society's—often deserve but do not receive the attention of the main attraction. The text written “in the margin” of some larger and more prestigious production of the mind and hand—the note in the blank space of a manuscript or the inscription above the grand entrance of a building—is placed at the margin of the observer's concern. Yet this is what I often enjoy reading the most and what Al-Hamish will focus on: the written words that people went to great lengths to preserve but often go unnoticed. Take a look at the inscription in the image above. I suspect that every day thousands of people, even those who can read it, pass by it and many inscriptions like it without stopping to take notice. Yet these words remain there for us to enjoy if we take the time. I have always liked stopping to stare at such inscriptions, mouthing the tough ones to myself as I try to make them out, all while my travel party patiently indulges me before gently asking to move on or simply abandoning me in my fixation. I hope my own fascination may provide something of interest to readers here.

One of the remarkable things to me about the written word is that—unlike architecture, music, and other fine arts, which are more abstract by design and require a different kind of training to unpack—a text at the very least has an apparent meaning that we can understand even if we no longer know who the artist was or what secrets they stored in their production. The writer was at the very least communicating something that readers can readily understand at a great remove of time. I find it yet more remarkable that someone like me, from a culture and land far away, can understand that hundreds of such texts with some training in the language, a little practice, and the help of a dictionary or two. Some texts of course can conceal a deeper meaning, but very often an apparent one lies at the surface for us to enjoy.

My approach

Usually my posts will center around the image of a text and its translation. Some of those images will come from photos that I have taken during travels of my own. Occasionally I will provide a bit of background when useful, but generally I will refrain from indulging in too much interpretation, partly to keep things brief and digestible and partly to avoid detaining readers with what may just be my own speculation. My intent is to keep each post as enjoyable and useful as possible to as many people as possible.