From subtle riffs on traditional script-based decoration to a late father’s letters to his lover, the artists vying for the Jameel prize generate deep emotion from meticulousness

Words have had outsize importance in Muslim culture since the beginning. The Qur’an, which literally means “recitation”, was of course revered as the word of God. But, crucially, images of human beings and animals were disapproved of because they could distract people from prayer; as a result, artists poured all their creativity and imagination into calligraphy. Facing the same restriction, craftsmen and architects created dazzling geometric forms into which words were often incorporated. The discipline imposed by not being able to depict living things gave rise to some of the most beguiling decoration on the planet.

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