From the Greek word for “beautiful writing,” calligraphy was considered the highest art form in Islam, for several reasons. For one, Muslims believe that Allah used the Arabic language to recite the Qur’an to Muhammad, and for that reason, it has a spiritual meaning for Muslims. Also, using words as artistry avoided the problem of using pictorial images. Whereas decorative writing all but disappeared in Europe with the advent of the printing press, the Islamic world retained it as an art form long after the necessity of writing longhand was removed by modern technology. Calligraphy adorned architecture, decorative arts, coins, jewellery, textiles, weapons, tools, paintings, and manuscripts.

Examples of the Naskh, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Nastaliq, and Riq’a scripts in Arabic calligraphy
Courtesy of Sakkal Design

Although the Arabic language and script existed before Islam, the spread of the religion also facilitated the spread of the language throughout the new Muslim lands. Arabic became a basic component of Islamic culture, mostly because it was the language of the Qur’an. Caliph Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) decreed that Arabic should be the administrative language of the empire. There were many Muslim regions, of course, in which Arabic was not the native language. Persian was the major non-Arabic language spoken in the Islamic world, and in the 7th century it had its own script. As Islam spread through the areas where Persian and other languages were spoken, however, the Arabic script was adopted. The Persian language, also known as Farsi, added four letters to the Arabic script to represent sounds that existed in Persian, but not in Arabic. The Turks later also added another letter to render a distinctly Turkish sound, although modern Turkish no longer uses the Arabic script. The Arabic script is still used to write the Kazakh, Uzbek, and Tajik languages in Central Asia, as well as Urdu in present-day Pakistan. It was also used at one point, though no longer, to write Malay, Swahili, and several North African languages. Arabic, belonging to the Semitic language group, has 28 letters. There are only 17 different forms, however, so dots or strokes above or below the forms are used to indicate different letters. For calligraphic purposes, these extra markings add to the beauty and artistic appeal of Arabic.

Arabic Calligraphy

The Mosque of the Immortal Crane in Yangzhou, China, featuring the Shahada in the central medallion and Qur’anic verses written in parallel bands around the sides
Courtesy of IslamiCity

In the early Islamic period, calligraphy was written on parchment or papyrus from Egypt. The introduction of paper from China in the middle of the 9th century greatly helped the art of calligraphy, as paper was cheaper, more abundant, easier to cut, and took color better than the previously used writing materials. The Islamic writing instrument was called a qalam, and was usually made from a reed. The best reeds came from the Persian Gulf region, and they were a valued object of trade throughout the Islamic world. The initial task of the calligrapher, and the one that remained the most important, was copying the Qur’an. Early Qur’ans were very large, sometimes several feet across when opened, and meticulously detailed in artistry. From there, calligraphy grew into one of the greatest Islamic arts, as it was used to decorate almost any surface. Religious architecture almost always featured inscriptions in Arabic calligraphy, usually verses from the Qur’an, in place of iconography. On coinage, calligraphy replaced images of rulers early in the Islamic period, as the ruler’s name became more important than his face in symbolising the state. The Ottoman Empire in fact created an official monogram, called the tughra, for each sultan. The calligraphic writing of each sultan’s name, and that of his father, with the Turkish title khan and the words “ever victorious,” was used as the sign of the sultan. This proliferation of writing above pictorial imagery suggests a relatively literate population, since imagery has often been used throughout history for the benefit of the illiterate. Indeed, the Islamic emphasis on learning and knowledge, as well as prolific book production, led to a much more literate population than in medieval Europe. But even among those who could not read the calligraphic inscriptions on various materials, the writing served as a type of picture, and the illiterate population could still appreciate its artistic beauty, without knowing what it said.

Prophet's Mosque Calligraphy
Calligraphy adorns the inside of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina
Courtesy of IslamiCity

Ibn Muqla (886-940) was one of Islam’s greatest calligraphers. He developed the geometric principles used by calligraphers after him, to keep letters in proportion, and he also helped develop the cursive script known as Naskh. There were many different script styles, which differed in various centuries and throughout the widespread regions of the Islamic world. Kufic was largely used for Qur’anic writing, Naskh was the regular script of educated Muslims, and Thuluth was an ornamental script for headings or tile inscriptions, in addition to many other variations.


1 Response to “Calligraphy”

  1. June 8, 2014 at 8:33 am

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