Tariq Alrimawi – Uses of Arabic Calligraphy in Religious Animated Films

The aim of this paper is to examine and understand the uses of Arabic calligraphy as a visual language tool in animated films. The results of this exploration will enable Arab animators to use religious stories adapted from the Qur’an to make animated films for the domestic and international animation market. Most of the Islamic councils publish an advisory opinion (fatwa) and demand animation must be compatible with Islamic law; they suggest that there is no harm in producing animation teaching people the rules of Islam and good morals (Al-Azhar, n.date). Thus, it is acceptable to draw and move human and animal figures.

While the Islamic council acknowledged the potential of using animation to educate people about Islamic values, it did not condone representing religious figures that are mentioned in the Qur’an, including the prophets, therefore, any human attempt to depicting them would not be seen as a true physical representation. The reason for the Muslims scholars’ decision about the prohibition of representing the prophets is to show the highest respect to them (Religious Institution 2011). They claim that there is no accurate description of the prophets and by merely creating part representations by different artists from different perspectives such as those in the images that were found in 13th century, would lead to the criticism that this violates the Prophets of honour, and might include an element of defamation.

The challenge with Islamic films is that the audience cannot interact with the film’s story and actions, because they do not see the protagonist in the film. There is no physical representation, body language and physical gestures. Moreover, they cannot hear the prophets’ voices; thus, there is a lack of relationship between the characters and the story events, and the audience.

Finding solutions

Short animated clips were made by the researcher as practice-based research particularly for this paper to focus on the Prophet Moses story, when his mother puts him into a basket and throws him into the Nile River to save him from the Pharaoh’s soldiers. The story of the Prophet Moses was written in three holy books such as the Torah, the gospel and the Qur’an, these three holy books, sent from God to the prophets David, Jesus and Muhammad. However, five different techniques were used in the animated clips so that a comparison could be made between them and the techniques could be analysed to see if they are effective or not for the filmmakers and the audience. One of these techniques was a new approach developed through this research by using the Arabic calligraphy to solve the representational problem. At this stage, the practice will guide Arab-Islamic animation filmmakers by offering more solutions to representing religious figures that could be used in their animated films.

First solution: Point of View

Point of View (POV) is the main technique that was used in many Islamic films as an alternative way of non-depicting the Prophets and telling their stories. The directors of the Islamic films such as the two Islamic films Muhammad the Last Prophet and The Message made the camera, which represents the Prophet, a part of the scene to make them the first person without involving them physically in the scene in any way, in which a character within the film offers “limited perspective routed through what characters in the tale experience, see, hear, and understand” (Rabiger 2003, p. 194). The director would not be able to show any part of the prophets’ body in Islamic films because it is forbidden according to Islamic regulations. For example, when the POV of the Prophet Moses inside the basket looks up while the basket is floating on the river it is without any appearance of his hand moving, as children’s usually would.

Figure 1






Figure 1: POV of Prophet Moses while he is inside the basket

The first person POV technique replaces the invisible prophets, but actually becomes the viewer, who seems to be watching events through the Prophet’s eyes (Bakker 2006, p.81). Another problem with this type of POV is when a character, the second person, talks directly into the camera as if they were talking directly to the Prophet. This characteristic of POV has the problem of making the second person appear to talk directly to the audience, such as in a theatre, which would be called “breaking the fourth wall” (Brown 2002, p.8). It is possible then to completely break the illusion, or forget that the POV is in fact the Prophet.

Second solution: Non representation

The technique used in the practice is non-depicting the prophets figures and making them invisible within the frame to follow the Islamic rules. This is a common technique used in many Islamic films such as the animated feature film Muhammad the last prophet (2001) directed by Richard Rich and the live-action film The Message (1976) directed and produced by the Syrian-American filmmaker Mustafa Al Akkad. The spectator would not be able to see the protagonists and understand the actions that happen between the prophets and the events. Consequently, much information is missed in this technique, such as body language, dialogue, voice and facial expressions of emotions (happiness, sadness, wonder, suffering, wariness and relief). The lack of communication between the characters also leads the viewers to lose interaction with the film. In these cases, filmmakers need a narrator to explain what is happening inside the scenes of the prophets, such as who was found inside the basket (see Figure 2)?







Figure 2: Prophet Moses is inside the basket. Prophet Moses

Third solution: Flame or Sphere of Light

Wells indicates that animation “is an art of metaphor and is perfect for all kinds of role-play to show different perspective and ideas about the culture we live in” (2006, p.33). Hence, the metaphor is a necessary method to assist filmmakers in finding a solution for non-representing the human figures of the prophets. Use of metaphor in animated clips could involve using alternative figures in place of the religious human figures, which could be acceptable to Islamic Authorities and culture. Therefore, some Islamic TV series and films such as the clay animation ‘Stories of the Quran’ directed by Zainab Zamzam in 1998 depicted the prophets as a flame or a sphere of light without any indication of human form at all; it is one of the rare symbols that can be used to represent the prophets as a visual metaphor and become a part of the storytelling (Schimmel 1985, p.160). The solution that is used in the Prophet Moses clip after opening the basket and showing a sphere of light inside it (Figure 3) resolve part of the non-representational problem by filling the gap of the prophet’s absence, and also provides power and knowledge to make the spectators aware of the existence of a sacred figure (Ibid, p.158). The main reason for using the light as a symbol of representing the prophets is because the Qur’an describes the prophets as ‘a light’ and ‘an illuminating lamp’:

There has come to you from God a light and a clear Book.
(The Holy Qur’an, Al-Maidah 5:15)

And one who invites to God, by His permission, and an illuminating lamp.
(The Holy Qur’an, Al-Ahzab 33:46)

However, those spectators who are not familiar with the Prophet’s stories would not be able to delineate who is in the scene, particularly by replacing the figures of the prophets and angels as flames in one scene, which could lead to spectators misinterpreting the meaning of the scene. Therefore, the flame as a metaphor is a complicated device to use, and the risk is that it could mislead and generate confusion for the viewers especially to non-Islamic audiences (Ortony 1975, p.51-52).







Figure 3: Story of the Prophet Moses representing him as Light inside the basket

Fourth solution: Reported representational (anthropomorphism)

Anthropomorphism shows the capacity of animation and its powerful tools of giving any object or animal human characteristics. It is a useful strategy of reporting the stories that happened around the absence prophets by the presence of non-human witnesses, whether objects or animals, without including the picture of the prophets. For example, the basket that transmits the Prophet Moses in the river could be a witness by giving it human characteristics to tell about the Prophet’s dramatic actions (Figure 4). With this solution each character (objects or animals) has a story to tell about their experience with or around the Prophets. There are different methods available to these characters to tell the stories, such as talking directly to the viewers, or the characters having conversations with each other. For instance, the Basket character tells a story to viewers directly about Prophet Moses, or could speaks to a fish from the river.







Figure 4: Anthropomorphize the basket in the Prophet Moses’ story

This method is a key to understanding the events that happened around the absence prophets without showing them physically. This could give a bridge to a new solution by asking what other things could take on human characteristic that speaks to both absence and presence. It is not human figures or flame, and it is neither objects nor animals. On the other hand, anybody is allowed to say and write the name of the prophets. So, why not use the language itself?

Fifth solution: An approach to resolving non-representational issues

It is traditional to read the prophets names in the Holy Qur’an, books, mosques, flags, art works, and many other forms, so what about the animation? This solution is not to use language for its technical linguistic purpose but to use its visual property. What it has done is anthropomorphise language by visually giving words human characteristics, not just talking about the prophets by name, but by moving the symbol and giving it life, thus, the word itself is representing the human being. This idea comes out of looking at the previous solutions, but ultimately finding another solution. It enables filmmakers to present absence and presence; so the prophets will be presented through the symbol of language; for example, at one and the same time linguistically it is the Prophet and visually it is the Prophet. Thus, this has been achieved through ‘language’ which has been used all the time and everywhere by Islamic arts. It should be a permitted presence for any filmmaker to use as long as they do not manipulate the language into being a figure or too close to an idea of a human visual representation; it should be acceptable by the Islamic authorities and culture.

Arabic is the language of 22 Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The origin of Arabic belongs to the group of Semitic alphabetical scripts (Safadi 1978, p.7). It includes 28 alphabets, and it is read and written from right to left. Arabic is the main language of the holy book, the Qur’an, which ‘played a central role in the development of Arabic script’ (Ibid, p.7).The Qur’an describes the importance of gaining knowledge through reading and writing. The Qur’an and mosques are never decorated with figurative images, but they have been wildly decorated with Arabic text and geometric patterns which became the main unifying elements of ’artistic expression’ (Blair 2008, p.4).Therefore, calligraphy is the visual art most produced in the Islamic regions and heritage, which has been applied to Islamic architecture and art.

Representing the prophets as written-names in animated films would avoid presenting their appearances and it will not form and shape the image of the prophets, which should not conflict with the Islamic tradition of non-depicting the prophets as human forms. The motivation of using this suggestion is to help spectators to recognize the prophets in the animated videos. Using the written-names of the prophets as non-organic actors playing their parts within the animation scenes would narrow the problems of non-depicting the image of the prophets, and would be a solution to defining the characters within the frame as a visual message attempting to achieve effective communication (Krasner 2008, p.192). For example, it is easier for the spectator to identify that Prophet Moses was found inside the basket by reading his name instead of showing nothing as suggested before (Figure 5).







Figure 5: The name of Prophet Moses is inside the basket, Prophet Moses.

In attempting to keep the visual elements of the animated videos more compatible with tradition and more visually sacred, Islamic geometric patterns decorated the backgrounds (figure 6) with the aim of matching the style between the calligraphy and the drawn images. The combination of the Arabic calligraphy and Islamic geometric patterns is influenced by the characteristics and aesthetics of Islamic art, which are considered as main ‘elements that unify Islamic art across a diverse and large geographical area’ (Oweis 2002, p.19). Muslim artists and architects make extensive use of Islamic patterns accompanied with calligraphy, which they apply to mosques, palaces, textiles and other objects. The mixture of images, calligraphy and patterns establishes endless artistic possibilities to provide more aesthetic to Islamic animated projects, and to be linked with the extraordinary beauty of artistic traditions in Muslim culture.







Figure 6: Combinations of Islamic patterns & Arabic Calligraphy


I acknowledge the limitations in using the motion text such as the absence of voice, dialogue, and the lack of interaction between the text and human characters. Nevertheless, it is a suggested approach to help filmmakers to organize their film’s information and to make the audience understand more about the events around the prophets represented in their films (Krasner 2008, p.199). However, filmmakers should first get approval from the Islamic authorities before applying the written-names of the prophets before broadcasting animated videos to the public. Thus, the practice was submitted to the Islamic council in London and got the official approval.

Islamic films that tell stories about the prophets including the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) would be most unfamiliar in terms of animated films. Certainly, they are different from other animated films, due to having invisible protagonist for the duration of the film. On the other hand, the feature animated film Prince of Egypt produced by DreamWorks in 1998 is a biblical animated film which tells the story of the life of the Prophet Moses and contains both a physical representation of Moses along with God speaking to Moses from the Burning bush, representations which are forbidden to be made by Muslim filmmakers. Thus, the Narrator must replace the voice of both the Prophets and God in Islamic films.

The Muslim filmmakers’ show efforts of making religious films to be suited to the Islamic traditions. The main reason for making these films, from the Muslim filmmakers’ perspective, is because they feel it is their responsibility to export the Islamic culture to foreign countries and spread the truth about Islam and its peaceful message. Akkad, the director of the film The Message (1976) explained the reasons for making such this Islamic film about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) with its huge production budget, even though the project would face many difficulties:

I did the film because it is a personal thing for me. Besides its production value as a film, it has its story, its intrigue, its drama. Besides all this, I think there was something personal. Being a Muslim myself who lived in the West, I felt that it is my obligation, my duty to tell the truth about Islam. It is religious that has 700 million following, yet there is so little known about it, which surprised me. I thought I should tell the story that will bring this bridge, this gap to the West. (The Message, 1976)

Muslim filmmakers thus struggle to change the perception about their faith in the West with the purpose of reducing the gap, especially after the lack of knowledge about Islam in Europe and America that has been observed by Arab filmmakers. Hence, the contribution of the Muslim filmmakers will become more helpful to the religious animation industry in the Arab world, working together with the aim of fighting against the Islamophobia; whether it is religious films or films inspired by religious context within contemporary form.

Tariq Alrimawi is a Jordanian animated film director and scriptwriter. In 2010, he graduated with a Master’s Degree in Animation from Newport Film School in the United Kingdom. He wrote and directed the short animated films ‘Missing’ in 2010, ‘Growing’ in 2013, and ‘Surprise’ in 2016. His shorts have been screened at more than 140 international film festivals and received 13 awards domestically and internationally. In 2014, Tariq completed his PhD studies from The Animation Academy at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. Currently, he is the head of Animation & Multimedia Department at the University of Petra in Jordan.


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© Tariq Rimawi

Edited by Amy Ratelle