In this series, we will consider how Arabic is and could be represented in a digital world. Our first, and likely most spectacular example is Muṣḥaf Masqaṭ al-Iliktrūnī, available at mushafmuscat.om.
This website is a showcase for the technology developed by DecoType, a company specialized in Arabic digital typography, in collaboration with the state of Oman. Just like a ruler would be a patron of the arts in medieval times and order a master calligrapher to make a lavish copy of the Koran, so Oman, in our time, ordered a masterful digital execution of that. The website has further gotten the approval of al-Azhar, for whatever it is worth.
The website, then, should be enjoyed much like a coffee table book, as a piece of art, rather than a useful tool. What points to this is the ultra clean interface which gives no hints as how to use the website. (Some pointers given below). Further noticeable is that the calligraphy does not pretend to represent a particular historical reality. This is a new, modern rendering of the Koran, which follows a self-developed naskh for the body of the text and a kufic script for the headers.
At the heart of the philosophy of the DecoType technology is the intention that Arabic should be displayed as it ought to be, in accordance with the rules of calligraphy (in so far as they are agreed upon, again, historicity is set aside). As we saw in a previous post, displaying Arabic in a digital environment is fraud with challenges and impossibilities. DecoType is able to circumvent all of those issues introduced by movable type and unicode. How they do it is fairly simple; instead of transmitting the text as text and allowing the computer of the user (called client side) to display that text by use of a font, they render the text into vector graphics (server side) and send those graphics. Niftily, they also send the text and invisibly transpose it over the graphics, so that you can still select the text and copy and paste it.
The result is a beautiful rendering of the Arabic text. They even build an interface for the user to change the appearance of the words. By clicking a word, the possible permutations become visible. It is nice to play around with the calligraphy, and there is possibly some use for it in classrooms.
The upside of this technique is obvious: there is ultimate flexibility in how to present the text and there is ultimate guarantee that the end user will see it the exact same way. When you need to be very precise, as is the case with a text with the importance of the Koran, this is a good way of doing it.
The downside is that the computers of both server and end-user need to crunch more numbers to display the text. Using Mushaf Muscat is a slow experience, regularly with loading times of several seconds.
It seems to me, then, that for now its main advantage lies with publishers. The technology is used to print Arabic as correctly as possible. This is also clear from the fact that the website displays the Arabic in a traditional page-by-page display. Text on a computer has no need for pages. It can be chopped up in arbitrary lengths or shown all at once in one long, scrollable column. Mushaf Muscat is still thinking in pages, and concerned about the appearance of Arabic, not with the interactivity or usability. To call this an “electronic mushaf” is therefore, in my opinion, a misnomer. This is the same way publishers call a PDF version of a hard copy an “e-book”, whereas this label should be reserved for truly electronic books in a format such as EPUB or MOBI. Further, the technology cannot be used outside the website. DecoType does sell its technology for use in for example Illustrator, but its integration in, say, Microsoft Word, is not to be expected. It is, then, publishers mostly who can (and should) take advantage of DecoType’s technology.
Some notes on how to use it
On the right you can quickly jumpt to a juz of the Koran. At the top-right, the circular device allows you to jump to a specific sura. At the left you can go to a page, an aya (it will jump), or a sura-aya combination (highlighted in red). At the bottom-left, the triangle controls color codes for different parts of the Arabic text, the rasm, vocalization, and recital aids. There are also buttons to turn on/off additional signs. At the very bottom you are supposed to be able to download/upload a part of the Koran, but I do not think it is working.
When you click on the blue border you enter a zoomed mode showing both pages. Clicking on a page zooms in on that page. At the top-right you can exit these views.
The most important element of the interface is the ability to click any word. This will pop-out an elaborate menu in which you can select variations of writing the word, as far as the rules of Arabic calligraphy allow it.
Here is a video detailing some of these features:
And here is a long talk by Thomas Milo, owner of DecoType. Other talks by him are highly recommended too: