Pioneering computer typography with DecoType’s Mushaf Muscat

Since its inception, Bourchier has offered typesetting and design in many languages, including Arabic and other non-Western scripts. Naturally curious about new developments in the field, we’ve followed the work of the Amsterdam-based firm DecoType for many years. But, in terms of pioneering computer typography, their recent publication of a digital Quran is quite simply outstanding.

The sacred scripture of the Quran has long been bound in its traditional print form (in fact, the 1924 Cairo edition, printed with metal type, has become the de facto standard). But in collaboration with the Omani government, Thomas Milo, partner in DecoType, has created the first digital Quran. Known as the Mushaf Muscat, this creation bridges the gap between digital and traditional typography, allowing readers access to an entirely new form of interactive reading.

Technical innovation

“One of the challenges we had was to find a manageable system to allow any user in the world to discover this dimension, this unknown dimension of Arabic script” – Thomas Milo

This task was no small or simple feat. The Arabic script, from the perspective of the Western world, is highly complex, versatile and ever shifting. Single words and even letters within those words can change shape in subtle and minute ways depending on aesthetic whim of the scribe, leading to thousands of nuanced variations without affecting meaning. Modern typographical systems and fonts have not yet fully catered to, or indeed even recognized, the innumerable intricacies and sophistication of the Arabic script: diacritics are dropped and calligraphic curves straightened. Though many have tried to digitize the Quran, its complexities have thus far resulted in a digression away from tradition.

DecoType’s innovative technology bypasses the dominance of Western computer font technology — today’s monopoly of Microsoft and Apple — which seemingly copies, yet cannot fully replicate, non-Western scripts. Along with the subtleties in the writing system itself, Milo and his team overcame the challenges of technology. By adopting scalable vector graphics, the technology that became the web standard thanks to its adoption by Wikipedia, it became possible to provide fast, flexible and interchangeable Unicode-based web text. With mastery of both non-Western text and advancing technologies, DecoType’s nuanced digital architecture has started with the Quran, but promises to transform the future of non-Western digital text.

Tradition at its core

To ensure tradition remains at the heart of the project, Milo and his team studied the underlying rules of Arabic calligraphy in the relevant writing styles to create an analysis similar to a grammar of language. Script grammar rules these variations — what Milo labels ‘Arabic shape synthesis based on shape analysis’ — by taking the original written word and inflecting it based on five conjugations: stretch, variation, vertical points, miniature copies and swash. Combinations of classifications of each single shape replicate the endless aesthetic variation in Quran manuscripts, yet, thanks to script grammar and revolutionary web typography, no more than 400 digitized graphical shapes create a fully dynamic Mushaf Muscat.

Religious traditions, of course, lie at the heart of the Quran, but Milo also wanted to encapsulate cultural traditions. A celebration of the beauty of Oman, the design of the Mushaf Muscat replicates the nation’s colours, traditional dress, handicrafts, as well as the architectural profiles of its cityscapes and the shapes of its flora and fauna.

Drawing on Oman’s landscape, designer Lara Captan created a colour palette and devised shapes to replicate the city’s beauty.

The human touch

The Mushaf Muscat is a fine example of the way in which transferring a written text to a digital medium doesn’t have to mean compromising artistry. A key triumph of the project is its respect of and sensitivity to the rich Arabic calligraphic tradition, which values the meaning and purpose behind the touch of the human hand.

This electronic Quran is dynamic and interactive, usable from any platform or device with no need for specialist software; parts of the script can be selected, coloured, altered and shared. A far cry from a standard PDF, the interactivity of the Mushaf Muscat epitomizes alignment with tradition and the search for innovation.

It is to be hoped that this new availability of an Arabic typography underscored by beauty, respect and integrity will pave the way for the publication, both digitally and in print, of many more Arabic works, or indeed, in any culturally sensitive writing system. This is a digital Quran at the fingertips of all, but which remains rooted and profoundly connected to a vibrantly human Arabic culture.

Check out the interactive Mushaf Muscat here:

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