The art of Islamic calligraphy involves writing and calligraphy in Arabic script or its derivatives, such as Persian, Ottoman, and Indian. Traditionally, this type of writing is called khatt Arabi (خط عربي), whose name translates as Arabic line, design, or construction.
The Quran has influenced Islamic calligraphy for centuries, but because Islam prohibits figurative representation, the words themselves became artwork. Lina M. Kattan notes that calligraphy in Islamic art has influenced both linguistic and aesthetic channels and was considered an “image-text,” combining images and words with meaning (213), a assertion supported by its interconnected nature with architectural structures, coins, tiles, metals, and other materials.
Islamic calligraphy came from two main fonts: Kufic and Naskh. Each of these forms has many variations, as well as regionally specific styles. A combination of Arabic, Turkish, and Persian calligraphy has also been used in modern art, beginning with the post-colonial period in the Middle East and continuing with modern “calligraffiti” – an abstract visual art form that combines calligraphy, graffiti, and typography. As seen in the works of Khadiga El-Ghawas (born 1992), Nasser Al-Salem (born 1984), and Mohamed Zakariya (born 1942), the tradition of calligraphy continues to influence contemporary art in the Islamic world.
The Origins of Islamic Calligraphy
For centuries, Arab tribes memorized texts and poetry, then passed them down orally. The situation changed with the spread of Islam and further preservation of the Quran in writing.
A brief history of Islamic script and calligraphy is presented below.
The Spread of Islam and the Arabic Language
In the Arabian Peninsula, early Semitic languages predated Islam, and the discovery of calligraphic artifacts in these early languages proves that the art dates back even further. The ancient Persians, for example, used cuneiform calligraphy to adorn kings’ monuments as early as 600-500 B.C. However, Islam brought about a great change for the literati in the ancient Middle East when it united the region under the Arabic language and made writing a revered art form.
The status and significance of the Arabic language to Islam dates to 610 C.E., following the revelation of the holy Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. As the Prophet revealed the Quran in Arabic to his companions, Muslims all over the world continue to hear, read, and recite it in Arabic. To date, up to 25% of the world’s population uses Arabic script and calligraphy in writing, in languages like Arabic, Urdu, Sindhi, Pashto, and Persian (Alzahrani 389). Over time, as Jean Graves, Eman Quotah, and Ansley Simmons note, “Islamic calligraphy travelled the spread of Islam, east to China and India, north to Persia, and west through northern Africa” (15). Besides Quranic passages, Islamic artworks bearing inscriptions also include poetry and praises of rulers.
The Middle Ages saw Arabic becoming a major language for recording scientific, mathematical, and philosophical ideas. Its vocabulary is still widely used in a number of languages, including Berber, Kurdish, Persian, Swahili, Urdu, Bengali, Turkish, Tatar, Malay, Indonesian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. As noted by Oana Ghica, there have also been lexical borrowings from Arabic in languages that are not in direct contact with Arabic (70). For example, Tatar borrowed many Arabic words from Turkish.
The Islamic Golden Age
Islamic calligraphy did not develop in a linear, sequential way. In far-flung regions such as Baghdad, Damascus, Morocco, and Spain, widely varying scripts rose and fell in popularity. From the 7th to 11th centuries, Kufic dominated Arabic calligraphy, but it was rough and unsystematized, especially in comparison to the systematization that would be experienced during the “Golden Age” of calligraphy that started around 1000 B.C. and lasted until the middle of the 13th century.
In 762 A.D., the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur decided to erect a new capital for his empire. Almost immediately, the city of Baghdad established itself as the cultural center for the Middle East. It was also the setting for the most significant period in Islamic calligraphy, credited to three great calligraphers: Ibn Muqla, Ibn al-Bawwab, and Yaqut al-Musta’simi.
Ibn Muqla (circa 885/6 – 939/940)
Among Ibn Muqla’s contributions to calligraphy are his theories of proportion, still used by calligraphers today. In his works, he established the rhomboid dot and the alif stroke as the means of measuring all letters from a particular script.
He is also thought to create naskhī, the first Arabic cursive script, replacing Kūfic as standard for Islamic calligraphy. As a result of the naskhī script, Arabic writing developed the flowing beauty it is known for. The naskhī was initially intended for copying the Quran, but by the 11th century, it was used for both royal and common correspondence.
Ibn al-Bawwab (circa 961–1022)
Ibn al-Bawwab is credited with refining several of Ibn Muqla’s scripts, as well as for inventing the cursive scripts rayḥānī and muḥaqqaq. It is also known that Ibn al-Bawwab preserved most of Ibn Muqla’s original manuscripts. Unfortunately, none of these have survived the passage of time.
Yaqut al-Musta’simi (died 1298)
As a court scribe, Yaqut al Musta’simi developed the technique of slanting the nib of the pen, a change that was seemingly insignificant today, but altered Arabic calligraphy forever. According to legend, Yaqut is said to have taken refuge in the minaret of a Baghdad mosque and continued to work while the city below was ravaged by the Mongols in 1258. He would eventually start a school that later was emulated by Turkish and Persian calligraphers.
While these three calligraphers are history’s most celebrated, countless scholars studied under them, including several women who became renown for their talents.
The Islamic Golden Age left behind six major calligraphy scripts, each with its own distinct purpose and use:
- Naskh – Ceramics, manuscripts, and tiles.
- Thuluth – Qurans, architecture, ceramics, manuscripts, and metalwork.
- Muḥaqqaq – Architectural decoration, ceramics, and Qurans.
- Rayḥānī – Architecture, chancellory script for edicts, letters, and missives.
- Tawqi‘ – Architecture, edicts, missives, and Qurans.
- Riqa‘ – Edicts, letters, and manuscripts.
The Evolution of Islamic Calligraphy
Islam grew fast in the meantime. Arabic calligraphy spread to other parts of the world with Ghazan Khan of the Mongol Empire, the Mughal and Mamluk dynasties of India and Egypt, and, later, the Ottoman Empire. With each new region, country, and culture that embraced Islamic calligraphy, the practice was both refined and expanded. Today, many forms of Islamic calligraphy have been preserved and handed down, while a remarkable variety of scripts has developed; indeed, as of 2020, “there are more than 1000 Arabic calligraphy-style fonts… [that are] available digitally” (Kattan 213).
Calligraphers are one of the most highly regarded artists in Islamic culture. For generations, the techniques were passed from master to student, often within the same family. In Islamic tradition, calligraphers have to go through three stages of training. The list includes, but isn’t limited to, studying the works of their teachers, correcting one’s posture, and maintaining a strict upkeep and preparation of calligraphy equipment (Schimmel and Revolta 19). Many calligraphers were highly educated, and some even came from elite families. Numerous rulers were not just trained in calligraphy by the best court masters but also became accomplished calligraphers. Some wealthy women also practiced calligraphy at the time, despite the majority of calligraphers being men. These days, almost all people do calligraphy for various reasons: for adornment, communication, and profit.
Licensure is earned through years of study, training, and practice; “only after a long period of studying all of the arts connected with calligraphy was the disciple allowed to sign his work; the ijaza (permission [to sign]) corresponds, so to speak, to an academic degree” (Schimmel and Revolta 19). David Roxburgh (2008) also emphasized commitment and dedication, observing trainee calligraphers study ink-on-paper models that they were given or selected according to their own taste before or during the writing process. In studying the models, calligraphers learned how letters work in different positions within a word.
In addition to expanding geographically, Islamic calligraphy has also had to adapt and change in terms of its main applications. Calligraphy emerged primarily as a means of recording the words of God (Allah) found in the Quran. However, the Arabic letterform was standardized in the early 6th century C.E., prompting calligraphy to become a distinct art. Over time, it also became a very important element in architecture, coin design, and decor. From the first Quran, which dates back to the ninth century, various Arabic calligraphy styles developed; all of them are different and have their own properties. Different eras saw different preferences for various styles and on various media, but multiple styles were in use simultaneously, even used side-by-side. The interior of the Dome of the Rock, for instance, bears multiple calligraphic fonts.
- Kufic: With its angular letters and horizontal format, Kufic was one of the first scripts to gain prominence in Qurans and on architectural pieces. Eventually, different varieties of Kufic emerged. The patterns can range from letters intertwined with flowers (floriated Kufic) to weaving the letters into knots (knotted/plaited Kufic).
2. Naskh: Historically, cursive was typically used for informal purposes, coexisting with Kufic script. The rise of Islam entailed a need for a new script, and in the 10th century, a well-defined script called Naskh was invented, which was eventually adapted into modern Arabic print. Books and manuscripts were transcribed using this format. In official decrees, in private correspondence, and the Quran, the script is widely used.
Standardization of this style was attributed to Ibn Muqla, but recent research suggests that his student, Ibn al-Bawwab, created the script. However, Ibn Muqla developed systematic rules and proportions for letter formation, using the rhomboid dot as the basis of measurement and the alif stroke for the x-height.
3. Thuluth: Developed during the 10th century and fine-tuned by Ottoman calligraphers, including Mustafa Rkim, Shaykh Hamdallah, and many others, till it became what it is today. The letters in this script have long vertical lines and wide spacing between them. Thuluth has two distinct variations, riqa‘ and muḥaqqaq.
The Arabic script spread throughout a vast geographic region as Islam spread, resulting in many localized variations. Turkey, Persia, and China began to develop their own styles of cursive writing around the 14th century.
- Maghrebi: The Maghrebi script traces its origins to Kufic letters in North Africa and Iberia, traditionally written with a pointed pen to produce thick, even lines. It has been used for centuries to write Arabic manuscripts and record Andalusi and Moroccan literature. Maghrebi’s distinct styles include the cursive mujawher, the thicker and blacker Sudani script, and the ceremonial mabsut.
2. Diwani: The Diwani script was a style of Arabic calligraphy developed by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries. Housam Roumi invented it, and its popularity peaked under Süleyman I the Magnificent (1520-1566). Lines ascend from right to left, and letters are often close together. A larger variation, called djali, has dots and diacritical marks interspersed between them, giving it a more compact look. Designed for court documents, Diwani is designed to guarantee confidentiality and prevent forgeries since it uses heavy styling.
3. Nasta’liq: This script was created for literary or non-Quranic writings in Persian, gaining popularity quite rapidly among South Asian audiences. The verticals of the letters are very short, but the horizontals are very wide. Its deep shape and hook-like nature, combined with a lot contrast, make it very appealing. During the 17th century, another variant was developed called shikasteh, which used in more formal settings and contexts.
4. Sini: The practice and study of calligraphy in China long preceded the arrival of the first Muslims in 651 C.E., during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 C.E.). Like Islamic calligraphy, writing with Chinese characters was regarded as a fine art with great aesthetic qualities, appreciated by scholars and laypeople alike. The Tang Dynasty is commonly viewed as a golden age in Chinese history, overseeing many innovations in literature and poetry and profiting from lucrative investments and trading posts along the Silk Road. During this time, thousands of Muslims and other foreign expatriates benefited from the influx of cosmopolitan cultures and religious policies, settling in “special quarters in the southeastern trading ports Guangzhou, Quanzhou, Yangzhou and Hangzhou, where they erected their own mosques and had their own graveyards” (Stöcker-Parnian 139). Over time, Islam spread throughout China, and Sini developed as a combination of Arabic and Chinese calligraphy; surviving examples can be seen at the Songjiang mosque in Shanghai.
Tools and Mediums
Tools and materials influence the quality of calligraphy, just as they do with any other piece. Having pens, inks, and paper ready was essential for every calligrapher. Historically prized for their flexibility, reeds were often used to shape pens. Calligraphers first harvested hollow reeds and left them to dry; they then cut a tip at the desired width, angle, and shape for the script. Natural materials like soot, ox gall, acacia, or plant essences were used for ink. Before importing paper from China in the eighth century, manuscripts were written on papyrus or parchment. In keeping with its status as an art form, calligraphy’s tools, such as shears, knives, inkwells, and pen boxes, were lavishly decorated and often made of precious materials.
Alzahrani, Mojib. “The Provenance and Origins of Arabic Calligraphy as an Islamic Art.” Journal of Arts, Literature, Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 54, 2020, pp. 387-405.
Ghica, Oana. “Calligraphy–A Fundamental Element of Islamic Art.” Analele Universitatii Crestine Dimitrie Cantemir, Seria Stiintele Limbii, Literaturii si Didactica predarii 2 (2016): 69-75.
Graves, Jean A., Eman Quotah, and Ansley Simmons. “Islamic Calligraphy: Writing Toward the Light.” Art Education (Reston), vol. 72, no. 2, 2019, pp. 14-19.
Kattan, Lina M. Sustaining Cultural Identity Through Arabic Calligraphy: A Critical Reading of Nasser Al-Salem’s Artworks. vol. 197, W I T Press, Southampton, 2020. ProQuest, http://proxy195.nclive.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/other-sources/sustaining-cultural-identity-through-arabic/docview/2460779646/se-2?accountid=14968, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.2495/IHA200181.
Roxburgh, David J. “‘The Eye Is Favored for Seeing the Writing’s Form’: On the Sensual and the Sensuous in Islamic Calligraphy.” Muqarnas, vol. 25, 2008, pp. 275–298. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27811125.
Schimmel, Annemarie, and Barbar Rivolta. “Islamic Calligraphy.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 50, no. 1, 1992, pp. 1–56. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3263914.
Stöcker-Parnian, Barbara. “Calligraphy in Chinese Mosques: At the Intersection of Arabic and Chinese Calligraphy.” Calligraphy and Architecture in the Muslim World, edited by Mohammad Gharipour and İrvin Cemil Schick, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2013, pp. 139–158. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctvxcrjh7.12.