The earliest Islamic calligraphy is found in highly decorated manuscripts of Qur'an. Muslim scribes used black ink and gold leaves to write on parchment or paper. They employed an angled alphabet, called Kuffi. Such writings appeared in 8th century, and reached their apex in 10th century. Later on decoration of margin, page and other graphic techniques were added to ornate the book. In the 12th century, the Naskh alphabet was invented, which instead of angled lines used curved alphabet . Elaborations, such as foliation, interfacing, and other complexities were invented later, but they are used only for decorative work. Many different cursive scripts developed thereafter.
|This Andalusian manuscript on pink paper, early 13th century was made for a member of an oligarchic family , probably from Granada or Valencia. The pink paper was produced in the town of Jativa, south-west of Valencia (al-waraq al-Shatibi).|
|Koran manuscript, 13th century. Sura 200: "O ye who believe, persevere in patience and constancy; in such perseverance strengthen each other and fear God that ye may prosper!" Ben Yussuf Library, Marrakesh, Morocco.|
Islamic calligraphy is an integral part of the Islamic cultural tradition relying on the aesthetics of calligraphy for spiritual expression, making calligraphy a highly respected art form. Calligraphy is applied on all kinds of objects to remind the observer of the mystical power of divine .
As Anthony Welch has observed; the primary reason for the chronological, social, and geographic persuasiveness of the calligraphic arts in the Islamic world is found in the Holy Qur'an;
Thy Lord is the Most Bounteous,
Who teacheth by the pen,
Teacheth man that which he knew not. -- (Surah al-Alaq, 96:3-5)
Arabic script, derived from the Aramaic Nabataean alphabet, encompasses 28 letters and uses long but not short vowels. Archeologists and linguists have analyzed and studied the Nabataean inscriptions that represent the advanced transitional stage toward the development of such Arabic scripts as the Um al-Jimal, dating from about 250 A.D., and the Namarah of the famous pre-Islamic poet Imru' al-Qays, dating from 328 A.D. Another inscription from Um al-Jimal, dating from the 6th century, confirms the derivation of the Arabic script from the Nabataean and points to the birth of distinctive Arabic writing forms.
North Arabic script was first introduced and established in the northeastern part of Arabia. During the 5th century, Arabian nomadic tribes who dwelled in the areas of Hirah and Anbar used this script extensively. In the early part of the 6th century, the North Arabic script reached Hijaz in western Arabia. Bishr Ibn Abd al-Malik and his father-in-law Harb Ibn Umayyah are credited with introducing and popularizing the use of this script among the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad, Quraysh. Other tribes in nearby cities adopted with enthusiasm the art of writing. Jazm is the earliest referenced Arabic script. This script is believed to be an advanced form of the Nabataean alphabet. The stiff, angular, and well-proportioned letters of the Jazm script would later influence the development of the famous Kufi script -- the script of Kufa, a small town in Iraq.
The letters are derived from only 17 distinct forms, distinguished one from another by a dot or dots placed above or below the letter. Short vowels are indicated by small diagonal strokes above or below letters. When written without dots and diacritical points, Arabic script can look flat and barren. But when the dots and diacritical points are added, the script comes to life with a dynamic energy.
As Welch explains:
Written from right to left, the Arabic script at its best can be a flowing continuum of ascending verticals, descending curves, and temperate horizontals, achieving a measured balance between static perfection of individual form and paced and rhythmic movement. There is great variability in form: words and letters can be compacted to a dense knot or drawn out to great length; they can be angular or curving; they can be small or large. The range of possibilities is almost infinite, and the scribes of Islam labored with passion to unfold the promise of the script. Moreover, technical aspects were not separated from aesthetic and even personal criteria. Inscriptions are found incorporated in the decoration of almost every Islamic work, and in that of a large number of objects as well.
Early Calligraphic Development
After the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632, the Qur'anic revelation was passed orally by huffaz -- those who memorized and recited the contents of the Qur'an by heart. As the Islamic territory expanded, the correct and accurate transmission of the Qur'anic revelation became a focus of the community and Zaid Ibn Thabit, who served as a secretary for the Prophet, was assigned by the first Caliph Abu Bakr to put the Qur'an in writing.
The first written copies of the Qur'an were written in the scripts of Makki and Madani, which were variants of the Jazm script and were named for cities--Makki for Mekka, and Madani for Medina. The two were not very different from one another and they were written in two different styles; Muqawwar which was cursive and easy to write, and Mabsut which was elongated and straight-lined. However, used mainly in secular texts, the earliest versions of Arabic scripts lacked aesthetics and accuracy. Later, many of the newer styles such as; Ma'il (slanting), a kind of primitive Kufic script; Mashq (extended); and Naskh (inscriptional) are originated from those two earlier styles. The Ma'il script proved to be unwieldy and was replaced by the nore efficient angular Kufic script, while the Mashq and Naskh were used extensively after considerable technical improvements.
The Reform of Arabic Writing
The expansion of Islamic culture into the Persian and Byzantine empires resulted in development of regional calligraphic schools and styles, y, interpreting the art of writing as an abstract expression of Islam, resulting in development of styles such as Ta'liq in Persia and Deewani in Turkey. The vast Islamic territory required a more efficient system of writing. The intense and dramatic early development of writing matured during the Umayyad dynasty (661-755), when two new scripts Tumar and Jali were appeared. These were created by the renowned calligrapher Qutbah al-Mihrr. Tumar that was formulated and extensively used during the reign of Muawieyah Ibn Abi Sufyan (660-679), the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, became the royal script of the succeeding Umayyad caliphs.
Caliph Abd-Al-Malik Ibn Marwan (685-705) legislated the compulsory use of Arabic script for all official and state registers, and on the behest of al-Hajjaj Ibn Yousuf al-Thaqafi (694-714), Nasr and Yehya refined the Tashkil system, and they introduced the use of dots and certain vowel signs as differentiating marks. The dots were placed either above or beneath the letter, either single or in groups of two or three.
Abul Aswad ad-Du'ali is credited with the invention of placing diacritical points to distinguish between certain identical consonants such as the 'gaf' and 'fa' in the Arabic alphabet. This system of diacritical marks is known as Tashkil (vocalization). Different colors also were introduced to differentiate between these marks--black for the diacriticals and red or yellow for the vocalics.
Later, during the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258), Ibn Jlan and Ibn Hama developed and improved the Tumar and Jali scripts. Calligraphy entered a phase of glory under the influence of Abbasid vizier and calligrapher Ibn Muqlah. According to Welch (1979), Ibn Muqlah is regarded as a figure of heroic stature who laid the basis for a great art upon firm principles and who created the Six Styles of writing: Kufi, Thuluth, Naskh, Riq'a, Deewani, and Ta'liq. Unfortunately, for many people and scribes the system was unclear and confusing. A more sophisticated system was needed.
Al-Khalil Ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi (718-786) introduced vowel signs that was inspired by the basic shapes or parts of certain letters; like the sign 'hamza,' which is adopted from the letter 'ayn' (without its end-tail). The new system gained wide popularity throughout the Islamic world, and its calligraphy acquired the characteristics of beauty, sanctity, and versatility. The calligrapher Ibn Muqlah (886-940) was followed by Ibn al-Bawwab in the 11th century and Yaqut al-Musta'simi in the late 13th century who built upon Ibn Muqlah's achievements and raised its standards of harmony and elegance to new heights.
The Abbasid dynasty, the last of the Islamic caliphates, ended in 1258 when Baghdad was sacked by Chengiz Khan, his son Hulagu, and their Mongol armies. That was a major turning point in the history of Islamic culture, especially in the fields of arts and architecture. Abaqa (1265-1282), the son of Hulagu, established the Ilkhanid dynasty in Persia. Ghazan, taking the Muslim name of Mahmud, dedicated himself to the revival of Islamic culture, arts, and traditions. The impact of Ghazan's reforms continued through the reigns of his two successors, his brother Uljaytu (1304-1316) and his nephew Abu Sa'id (1317-1335). During this era, the arts of the book and calligraphy were at their zenith. Abdullah Ibn Muhammad al-Hamadani was commissioned by Uljaytu to copy and illuminate the Qur'an in Rayhani script. Ahmad al-Suhrawardi, another master calligrapher and a student of Yaqut al-Musta'simi al-Suhrawardi, copied the Qur'an in Muhaqqaq script. Many master calligraphers contributed significantly to the production of fine copies of the Qur'an in Rayhani and Thuluth scripts; these calligraphers included Abdullah al-Sayrafi, Yehya-l-Jamali al-Sufi, and Muhammad Ibn Yousuf al-Abari. By the end of the 14th century, the Timurid dynasty had succeeded the Ilkhanids in Persia.
The arts and architecture under the Timurids and their contemporaries set a standard of excellence and elegance for generations in Iran, Turkey, and India. During this era, special attention was given to the arts of the book -- elaborate arts involving transcription, illumination, illustration, and binding. Safadi (1979) notes in Islamic Calligraphy that the Timurid style aimed to create a balance between beauty and grandeur by combining clearly written scripts in large Qur'ans and extremely fine, intricate, softly-colored illumination of floral patterns integrated with ornamental eastern Kufic script so fine as to be almost invisible. The calligraphers of this era were the first to use various styles with different sizes of scripts on the same page when copying the Holy Qur'an. Under Timurid patronage, the most impressive and largest copies ever of the Qur'an were produced.
The Mamluks founded their dynasty (1260-1389) mainly in Egypt and Syria. During the Mamluk era, architecture was the pre-eminent art, and the Mamluks' patronage defined many Islamic arts. There were many master Mamluk calligraphers whose works exhibit superb artistic skills including Muhammad Ibn al-Wahid, Muhammad Ibn Sulayman al-Muhsini, Ahmad Ibn Muhammad al-Ansari, and Ibrahim Ibn Muhammad al-Khabbaz. Abd al-Rahman al-Sayigh is very well-known for copying the largest-size Qur'an in Muhaqqa script.
The Safavid dynasty (1502-1736) in Iran also produced alluring and attractive masterpieces of Islamic art. During the reigns of Shah Isma'il and his successor Shah Tahmasp (1524-1576), the Ta'liq script was formulated and developed into a widely used native script which led to the invention of a lighter and more elegant version called Nasta'liq. These two relatively young scripts soon were elevated to the status of major scripts. Although Nasta'liq was a beautiful and appealing script, Turkish calligraphers continued to use Ta'liq as a monumental script for important occasions.
|A verse from the Al-An'am Chapter of the Quran, written in Muhaqqaq style|
The word Nasta'liq is a compound word derived from Naskh and Ta'liq. The Persian calligrapher Mir Ali Sultan al-Tabrizi invented this script and devised the rules to govern it. Ta'liq and Nasta'liq scripts were used extensively for copying Persian anthologies, epics, miniatures, and other literary works -- but not for the Qur'an. There is only one copy of the Qur'an written in Nasta'liq. It was done by a Persian master calligrapher, Shah Muhammad al-Nishaburi, in 1539. The reign of Shah Abbas (1588-1629) was the golden era for this script and for many master calligraphers, including Kamal ad-Din Hirati, Ghiyath ad-Din al-Isfahani, and Imad ad-Din al-Husayni who was the last and greatest of this generation.
The Mughals lived and reigned in India from 1526 to 1858. This dynasty was the greatest, richest, and longest-lasting Muslim dynasty to rule India. The dynasty produced some of the finest and most elegant arts and architecture in the history of Muslim dynasties. A minor script appeared in India called Behari but was not very popular. Nasta'liq, Naskh, and Thuluth were adopted by the Muslim calligraphers during this era. The intense development of calligraphy in India led to the creation of new versions of Naskh and Thuluth. These Mughal scripts are thicker and bolder, the letters are widely spaced, and the curves are more rounded.
During the Mughal reign of Shah Jahan (1628-1658), calligraphy reached new heights of excellence, especially when the Taj Mahal was built. One name remains closely associated with the Taj Mahal, -- in particular with the superb calligraphic inscriptions displayed in the geometric friezes on the white marble -- that is the name of the ingenious calligrapher Amanat Khan, whose real name was Abd ul-Haq.
This incomparable calligrapher came to India from Shiraz, Iran, in 1609. According to Okada and Joshi in Taj Mahal (1993) , Shah Jahan conferred the title of Amanat Khan upon this Iranian as a reward for the calligrapher's dazzling virtuosity. In all probability, Amanat Khan was entrusted with the entire calligraphic decoration of the Taj Mahal. During Jahangir's reign, Amanat Kahn had been responsible for the calligraphic work of the Akbar mausoleum at Sikandra and for that of the Madrasah Shahi Mosque at Agra.
|Flowering Kufic, where the script is merged with vegetal and floral motifs.|
It is quite possible that Amanat Khan was responsible for the choice of the epigraphs of the Taj Mahal -- that is, the Qur'anic verses and other religious quotations appearing on the mausoleum. He signed his work inside the calligraphic inscription on the left side of the southern iwan -- Amant Khan al-Shirazi, followed by the date (1638-39). The calligrapher's signature bears witness to his status and renown at the court, since many of his peers remained anonymous.
Muslims in China who used the Arabic scripts for liturgical purposes adopted the calligraphic styles of Afghanistan with slight modifications. Muslim Chinese calligraphers invented a unique script called Sini (Chinese). The features of this script are extremely rounded letters and very fine lines. Another style was derived from Sini for ornamental purposes and was used on ceramics and chinaware. This ornamental style is characterized by thick, triangular verticals and thin horizontals.
The Osmanli or Ottoman dynasty reigned in Anatolia from 1444 until 1923. Under Ottoman patronage, a new and glorious chapter of Islamic arts and architecture was opened, especially the arts of the book and Arabic calligraphy. The Ottomans not only adopted the most popular calligraphic scripts of the time, but also invented a few new and purely indigenous styles such as Tughra. Arabic calligraphy was highly esteemed and incorporated into such artistic objects as mosques, madrassahs, palaces, miniatures, and other literary works. The most accomplished Ottoman calligrapher of all time was Shaykh Hamdullah al-Amsani who taught calligraphy to the Sultan Bayazid II (1481-1520). Uthman Ibn Ali, better known as Hafiz Uthman (1698), was another figure in a line of famous calligraphers.
The most celebrated derivative scripts, from the Persian scripts Ta'liq and Nasta'liq, were Shikasteh, Deewani, and Jali. The Shikasteh style is characterized by extreme density resulting from tightly connected ligatures, very low and inclined verticals, and no marks.
Ibrahim Munif was a master calligrapher who is credited with the invention of Deewani script which was later refined by the Shaykh Hamdullah. Deewani is excessively cursive and structured. Its letters are undotted and joined together unconventionally. Jali script is attributed to Hafiz Uthman and his students. The major features of Jali are its profuse embellishments, making the script perfect for ornamental purposes. Arabic calligraphy acquired a sublime reputation for being the divine, moral, and artistic representation of Islamic faith and arts. The contributions of calligraphers and their legacies still remain today. The rules governing the use of scripts, the writing techniques, and the entire calligraphic culture the scripts generated are a valued part of the heritage of the Islamic world. Writing Instruments
The typical tools of the trade for a calligrapher included reed and brush pens, scissors, a knife for cutting the pens, an ink pot, and a sharpening tool. The reed pen, writes Safadi (1978), was the preferred pen of Islamic calligraphers. According to Safadi, the reed pen -- called a qalam -- remains an essential tool for a true calligrapher. "The traditional way to hold the pen," writes Safadi, "is with middle finger, forefinger, and thumb well spaced out along the (pen's) shaft. Only the lightest possible pressure is applied."
|An example of the Geometric Kufic, decorating the walls of the Jame Mosque in Isfahan, Iran|
The most esteemed reeds were native to the coastal lands of the Persian Gulf. Qalams were valued objects and were traded across the entire Muslim world. An accomplished and versatile scribe would require different qalams in order to achieve different degrees of fineness. Franz Rosenthal notes in Abu Haiyan al-Tawhidi on Penmanship (1948) that shaping the reed was one of the significant skills acquired by the scribe: "Make your knife sharper than a razor; do not cut any thing else with it but the calamus (qalam), and take very good care of it. Let your miqatt be the toughest wood available, so that the point may come out evenly." The standard length of a qalam ranged from 9.5 to 12 inches with a diameter of about a half-inch. David James notes in Sacred and Secular Writings (1988) that these reeds were cut in the marshes and left to lie there for weeks until they had become supple. Then they were gathered, sorted, cut, and trimmed.
Calligraphers had thorough knowledge on how to identify the best cane suitable for a good pen, how to trim the nib and cut the point, and how to split the cane exactly in the center so that the nib had equal halves. A good pen was cherished and, sometimes, was even handed down to another generation. Other times, it was buried with the calligrapher when he died. Ink was of many colors including black, brown, yellow, red, blue, white, silver, and gold. Black and brown inks were often used, since their intensities and consistencies could vary greatly. Many calligraphers provided instructions on how to prepare ink, while others implied that their recipes were guarded secrets. The ink made by the Persians, Indians, and the Turks would stay fresh for a considerable amount of time. Ink preparation could take several days and involve many complex chemical processes.
|A verse from the Ali Imran Chapter from the Quran written in Tawqi' script|
David James writes that although techniques varied from one place to another, most inks were based on soot or lamp-black mixed with water and gum-Arabic. Other ingredients are indigo, minced gall-nuts, and henna. The final stage of preparation involved straining the ink through silk. Also, the ink might be perfumed if desired.
Welch (1979) adds that the instruments of writing figure among the very first divine creations and came to serve as ready similes for mortal lives. With its power to preserve knowledge and extend thought over time and space, ink was compared to the water of life that gives immortality, while human beings were likened to so many pens in Allah's hand.
Paper was introduced in 751 from China via Samarqand. That was a turning point in the art of writing. Paper would play a major role in countless subsequent inventions and would reform Arabic calligraphy. This new medium of written communication had a decisive impact on every aspect of Islamic civilization.
Paper was made from cotton, and sometimes from silk or other fibers, but not from wood pulp. The paper was polished with a smooth stone like agate or jade before the calligrapher began to write. Guide lines were inscribed with a point. The script stood on these barely visible lines or sometimes was suspended from them.
When calligraphers developed the idea of independent or original compositions, each one had to be worked out from scratch. Once devised, a calligraphic composition might be copied time and time again by masters in places as far apart as India and Istanbul. As in most of the traditional arts, less emphasis was placed on innovation than on emulation of the great masters -- both contemporary and past masters. Nevertheless, some of the masters were outstanding innovators.
|The Al-fatihah, first chapter of the Al-Quran, written in the Nasakh script|
The Alif as calligraphy's unit of proportion
Geometric principles play an essential role in Arabic calligraphy. As Khatibi and Sijelmassi write in The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy, the legibility of a text and the beauty of its line require rules of proportion. These rules of proportion are based upon the size of the alif. The first letter of the Arabic alphabet, the alif is, in essence, a straight, vertical stroke. Before we look further at the alif, we must consider the Arabic dot which is the unit of measurement in calligraphy. Khatibi and Sijelmassi refer to the dot as the calligrapher's working unit. The dot is a square impression formed by pressing the tip of the calligrapher's pen to paper. The dimensions of each side of the square dot, write Khatibi and Sijelmassi, depend on the way the pen has been cut and on the pressure exerted by the fingers. Khatibi and Sijelmassi state that the pressure had to be sufficiently delicate and precise to separate the two sides of the nib, or point, of the pen. The calligrapher's reed pen, known as a tomar, consisted of 24 hairs of a donkey. How the pen was cut depended upon considerations like the calligrapher's usage, the traditions of his native land, and the type of text being transcribed.
|An example of the Thuluth script, attributed to Yaqut Al-Mustacimi|
Depending on the calligrapher and the style of script, the height of the alif varied from three to 12 dots. The width of the alif was equivalent to one dot. "The important thing," write Khatibi and Sijelmassi, "was to establish the height for each text. Once the calligrapher had his alif odule, he would draw it in the same way throughout the text. This was the general geometric principle, although in practice the calligrapher introduced variations. The arrangement of these variations is of great interest." The alif also was used as the diameter of an imaginary circle within which all Arabic letters could be written. Thus, three elements -- that were chosen by the calligrapher -- became the basis of proportion. These elements were the height of the alif, the width of the alif, and the imaginary circle. In Naskh script, for example, the alif is five dots high. In Thuluth script, the alif is nine dots high with a crochet or hook of three dots at the top. A single character, which is the fundamental element in calligraphic writing, has a head, body and tail. The characters of calligraphic script also are interrelated with relationships of position, direction and interval. An interplay of curves and uprights, write Khatibi and Sijelmassi, articulate the words, vowels and points.
|A Ruba'ie (Quartrain) written in Nastaliq. from the Library of Congress.|
Calligraphic Ornamental Styles
The development of Arabic calligraphy led to the creation of several decorative styles that were designed to accommodate special needs or tastes and to please or impress others. The most outstanding of these techniques or scripts are Gulzar, Maraya or Muthanna, Zoomorphic, Siyaqat, and al-Khat al-Hurr.
Gulzar is defined by Safadi (1979) in Islamic Calligraphy as the technique of filling the area within the outlines of relatively large letters with various ornamental devices, including floral designs, geometric patterns, hunting scenes, portraits, small script, and other motifs. Gulzar is often used in composite calligraphy where it is also surrounded by other decorative units and calligraphic panels.
Maraya or Muthanna:
Maraya or Muthanna is the technique of mirror writing in which the composition on the left reflects the composition on the right.
In zoomorphic calligraphy, the words are manipulated and structured into the shape of a human figure, a bird, an animal, or an object. Safadi notes that Thuluth, Naskh, and Nasta'liq scripts are extensively applied to create such calligraphic compositions.
Tughra is a unique calligraphic device that is used as a royal seal. The nishanghi or tughrakesh is the only scribe specialized in writing Tughra. The emblems became quite ornate and were particularly favored by Ottoman officialdom.
Siyaqat is another style developed and favored by the Ottomans; it was used in chancelleries and courts. Siyaqat has a close affinity with Kufic script where the lines are straight and heavy and relatively angular.
Al-Khat al-Hurr may be the most modern calligraphic script and was developed in different parts of the Arab world in the 1980s. This free-style script does not follow a pre-set pattern but typically is elegant and highly stylized. It is excessively cursive, and the curves display marked contrast in line width. A curve might change abruptly from the heaviest possible line a pen can create to the thinnest possible line from the same pen.
|A Quran manuscript done in the Shikaste style, from the Library of Congress.|
- See: M. S. Dimand, Ph. D. Curator of Near Eastern Art The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ''A Handbook of Muhammadan Art''. New York, HARTSDALE HOUSE , 1947 .
- Miner, Dorothy E. compiler, 2000 Years of Calligraphy, an Exhibition Organized  by the Baltimore Museum of Art, et al. New Jersey: Rowman & Littlefield, 1972
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.