Muthanna / Mirror Writing in Islamic Calligraphy

Muthanna / Mirror Writing in Islamic Calligraphy

History, Theory, and Aesthetics
Esra Akin-Kivanc
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 05/05/2020
Format: Paperback 47 B&W; 35 color
ISBN: 978-0-253-04921-6
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Muthanna, also known as mirror writing, is a compelling style of Islamic calligraphy composed of a source text and its mirror image placed symmetrically on a horizontal or vertical axis. This style elaborates on various scripts such as Kufi, naskh, and muqahhaq through compositional arrangements, including doubling, superimposing, and stacking. Muthanna is found in diverse media, ranging from architecture, textiles, and tiles to paper, metalwork, and woodwork. Yet despite its centuries-old history and popularity in countries from Iran to Spain, scholarship on the form has remained limited and flawed. Muthanna / Mirror Writing in Islamic Calligraphy provides a comprehensive study of the text and its forms, beginning with an explanation of the visual principles and techniques used in its creation. Author Esra Akın-Kıvanc explores muthanna's relationship to similar forms of writing in Judaic and Christian contexts, as well as the specifically Islamic contexts within which symmetrically mirrored compositions reached full fruition, were assigned new meanings, and transformed into more complex visual forms. Throughout, Akın-Kıvanc imaginatively plays on the implicit relationship between subject and object in muthanna by examining the point of view of the artist, the viewer, and the work of art. In doing so, this study elaborates on the vital links between outward form and inner meaning in Islamic calligraphy.

Author Bio

Esra Akın-Kıvanc is Assistant Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of South Florida's School of Art and Art History. She is author of Mustafa Âli's Epic Deeds of Artists: A Critical Edition of the Earliest Ottoman Text about the Calligraphers and Painters of the Islamic World and coauthor of Sinan's Autobiographies: Five Sixteenth-Century Texts.


"This book is an important and much-needed contribution to the field, which focuses on the nuances and complexities of this artform. It is carefully thought out and well documented."

Maryam Ekhtiar, Associate Curator of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"Muthanna not only makes a welcome intervention in the larger field of the history of calligraphy, but also highlights the specific practice of mirror writing, which has hitherto received almost no attention. The book brings religion and art together in an innovative and meaningful fashion, and Akın-Kıvanç is to be commended for her courageous pioneering work."

Emine Fetvaci, Boston University

"A truly groundbreaking study of a little-understood subject, muthanna (mirror writing) in Arabic script. Although all too often discussed as simple decoration, grounded at least in part by an alleged Islamic prohibition of figural imagery, the author shows that muthanna was, in fact, governed by a complex aesthetic and that its roots go back to inscriptions in Greek, Syriac, Samaritan, and Hebrew. A remarkable work of historical, cross-cultural, and aesthetic scholarship, Professor Akın-Kıvanç's book will doubtless stand as the go-to source for this distinctive, but much misunderstood, subject."

Howard Crane, The Ohio State University

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Table of Contents

A Note on Transcription and Translation

Introduction: Axes


Part I: A History of Mirror Writing

1. Perspectives: Previous Scholarship on Mirror Writing

2. Foundations: The Practice of Mirror Writing

3. Orientations: Reversed and Repeated Writing in Non-Arabic and Arabic Scripts

4. Convergences: Mirror Writing in Greek and Arabic

5. Diffractions: Mirror Writing in Arabic


Part II: A Theory of Mirror Writing

6. Reflections: Mirrors in Islamic Studies

7. Illuminations: A New Discourse on Mirror Writing

8. Directions: The Single-Letter Muthanna 

9. Receptions: Multiletter and Multiword Muthannas 

10. Projections: Calligraphic Nazires and Mobility


Conclusion: Refractions

Works Consulted