While many religions have made use of figural images to convey their core convictions, Islam has instead used the shapes and sizes of words or letters. In Islam figural arts is seen as a possible implication of idolatry, and therefore early Muslims looked to the artistry of calligraphy for religious expression. In Islamic and Arabic cultures, calligraphy became highly respected as an art - the art of writing.
Scholar Yasin Hamid Safadi (1978) writes:
The primacy of the word in Islam is reflected in the virtually universal application of calligraphy. Writing is given pride of place on all kinds of objects -objects of everyday use as well as entire wall surfaces, mosque furniture, the interiors and exteriors of mosques, and al-Ka'ba, the most famous sanctuary of Islam. But like the icons of most other faiths, script also represents power. Its preeminent use is the writing of the divine message of the Qur'an, of course, which endowed it with extraordinary strength and transcendent significance. From this world's manifold possibilities, God had chosen Arabic as the vehicle for His final revelation.
Arabic calligraphy is a primary form of art for Islamic visual expression and creativity. Throughout the vast geography of the Islamic world, Arabic calligraphy is a symbol representing unity, beauty, and power. The aesthetic principles of Arabic calligraphy are a reflection of the cultural values of the Muslim world. A thorough investigation into the aesthetic differences between Arabic and non-Arabic calligraphy might provide an approach for understanding the essential spirit of each culture.
Anthony Welch (1979) writes that the primary reason for the chronological, social, and geographic persuasiveness of the calligraphic arts in the Islamic world is found in the Qur'an.
Welch cites the following quote from the 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)
This verse refers to the attainment of knowledge in general, and particularly to that gained from revelation as found in the Qur'an. The written form of the Qur'an is the visual expression of the eternal Qur'an and is humanity's perceptual glimpse of the Divine. The Holiness of the Qur'an lends a special aura to all forms of the written word.
Contemporary scholarship stipulates that Arabic belongs to the group of Semitic alphabetical scripts in which mainly the consonants are represented. Arabic script is derived from the Aramaic Nabataean alphabet. It is a script of 28 letters and uses long but not short vowels. 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 like a garden in spring.
Writes Welch: "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."
Arabic lettering has achieved a high level of sophistication, and Arabic scripts can vary from flowing cursive styles like Naskh and Thuluth to the angular Kufi. On a traditional Islamic building, a number of different writing styles may appear on, for example, the walls, windows, or minarets. Most of the inscriptions are not only from the Qur'an but also the Hadith (the Prophet's words) and are in harmony with the religious purposes of the building. An inscription can give meaning to the building by clarifying its function.
Arabic calligraphy is a symbol representing power and beauty. Its history is the integration of artistry and scholarship. Through the abstract beauty of the lines, energy flows in between the letters and words. All the parts are integrated into a whole. These parts include positive spacing, negative spacing, and the flow of energy that weaves together the calligrapher's rendering. The abstract beauty of Arabic calligraphy is not always easily comprehended - but this beauty will slowly reveal itself to the discerning eye.
Arabic calligraphy is not merely an art form but involves divine and moral representations -- from which calligraphy acquires its sublime reputation.
The Origins of Arabic Calligraphy
Arabic writing is a member of the Semitic alphabetical scripts in which mainly the consonants are represented. Arabic script was developed in a comparatively brief span of time. Arabic became a frequently used alphabet--and, today, it is second in use only to the Roman alphabet.
The early Arabs were basically a nomadic people. Their lives were hard before Islam, but their culture was prolific in terms of writing and poetry. Long before they were gathered into the Islamic fold, the nomadic Arabs acknowledged the power and beauty of words. Poetry, for example, was an essential part of daily life. The delight Arabs took in language and linguistic skills also would be exhibited in Arabic literature and calligraphy. The early Arabs felt an immense appreciation for the spoken word and later for its written form.
Arabic script is derived from the Aramaic Nabataean alphabet. The Arabic alphabet is a script of 28 letters and uses long but not short vowels. 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.
The Nabataean were semi-nomadic Arabs who dwelled in an area extending from Sinai and North Arabia to southern Syria. Their empire included the major cities of Hijr, Petra, and Busra. Although the Nabataean empire ended in 105 A.D., its language and script would have profound impact upon the early development of Arabic scripts.
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 Reform of Arabic Writing
As the teachings of Islam spread beyond the boundaries of the Arabian Peninsula, an enormous number of people worldwide became Muslims. The new Muslims interpreted the art of writing as an abstract expression of Islam, each according to their own cultural and aesthetic systems. The influx of this cultural diversity led to two major events: the birth of regional calligraphic schools and styles such as Ta'liq in Persia and Deewani in Turkey, and the need to reform of the Arabic language. A clear and universal language with legible script was needed if the non-Arab Muslims were to learn Arabic and become part of the Islamic melting pot.
The first movement to reform the Arabic language and writing system came during the Umayyad era. Abul Aswad ad-Du'ali was the founder of Arabic grammar and is credited with the invention of placing diacritical points to distinguish between certain identical consonants such as the 'qaf' 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.
The powerful and energetic Umayyad viceroy al-Hajjaj Ibn Yousuf al-Thaqafi (694-714), took on the responsibility of solving problems concerning diacriticals. He commissioned Nasr and Yahya to refine the Tashkil system. 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.
Unfortunately, for many people and scribes the system was unclear and confusing. A more sophisticated system was needed. The second reform movement was undertaken around 786. Khalil Ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, the famous Arab philologist and lexicographer, was entrusted with devising a new Tashkil system. Al-Farahidi introduced vowel signs inspired by the initial shape or parts of certain letters. The sign 'hamza,' for example, is part of the letter 'ayn' (without its end-tail).
The new system gained wide popularity throughout the Muslim world. And Arabic calligraphy acquired the characteristics of beauty, sanctity, and versatility. Arabic calligraphy was used administratively, on architecture, on coins, to pen impressive epistles, and to produce elegant books, especially the Qur'an, miniatures, and other literary works.
Calligraphers were dedicated to their work. David James writes in Sacred and Secular Writings (1988, p.22) that calligraphers often wrote, not at a small table but seated on the floor, holding the paper on their knees and supporting it with a piece of cardboard. Calligraphers had to be trained from a young age, sometimes from childhood; they studied examples called mufradat which had the letters of the alphabet written out singly and in combination with other letters.
The great calligraphers could write perfectly even without the proper tools and materials. Although a calligraphic master might be deprived of the use of his preferred hand either as a punishment or in the battle field, he would learn to write equally well with his other hand. When the other hand failed him, he would astound his admirers by using his mouth or feet to hold the pen.
An aspiring scribe would observe his predecessors' art very carefully. To perfect his touch, sharpen his skills, and find a style of his preference, the scribe would imitate the masters of calligraphy with a diligent hand. Welch (1979, p. 34) cites the following quote from the Sultan Ali's treatise on calligraphy:
Collect the writing of the masters,
Throw a glance at this and at that,
For whomsoever you feel a natural attraction,
Besides his writing, you must not look at others,
So that your eye should become saturated with his writing,
And because of his writing each of your letters should
become like a pearl.
al-Bawwab reproduced the writing of Ibn Muqlah so exactly that his employer, the Buyid amir Baha' ad-Dawlah of Shiraz, could not tell the difference.
Arabic calligraphers integrate inner experiences with their experiences of external reality. By imbuing strokes with life and feeling, an equilibrium of energy flows from all composing elements. A calligrapher's integration of inner and external realities results in a very personalized style and is accompanied by concentrated and unremitting scholarly study. The development of a calligraphy style is as unique as the calligrapher's personality, and its achievement is considered as the representation of the individual's self-cultivation.
It is fascinating to think how great calligraphers such as Ibn Muqlah, Ibn al-Bawwab, and Yaqut al-Musta'simi strove for knowledge and made use of all possible resources from the past.
In almost all of the Arabic scripts, the spacing between lines and words overflows with a sense of freedom and a flexibility that reveals the creativity and spontaneity of the calligrapher. Through the calligrapher's momentum and sense of balance, a tranquil harmony is achieved that immediately appeals to the mind and to the heart.
Early Calligraphic Development
In Islam, the significance of writing stems from the essence of the religion. According to Islamic teachings, the instruction given in the very first Qur'anic revelation received by the Prophet Muhammad was: "Recite in the name of thy Lord ... Who has taught (the writing) by the pen" (from Surah 96, al-A'laq, 1-4).
Zaid Ibn Thabit, who served as a secretary for the Prophet, was assigned to compile and collate the revelations into a book. The first versions of the Qur'an were written in the scripts of Makki and Madani. These scripts were variants of the Jazm script and were named for cities--Makki for Makkah, and Madani for Madinah. Although the scripts had different names, they were not particularly distinct from one another.
Only two scripts with distinctive features were maintained. They were Muqawwar which was cursive and easy to write, and Mabsut which was elongated and straight-lined. These two scripts had their impact on the development and creation of new styles, the most important being Ma'il (slanting), a kind of primitive Kufic script; Mashq (extended); and Naskh (inscriptional). The Ma'il script failed to achieve relative celebrity and was replaced by the angular Kufic script. On the other hand, the Mashq and Naskh were used extensively after considerable technical improvements.
The development of Arabic calligraphy did not follow a linear movement. A number of various forms appeared simultaneously, especially at auspicious times of intense creative activities within the field of writing. The very early versions of Arabic scripts lacked elegance and discipline and were used mainly for secular purposes. The systems of al-Hajjaj Ibn Yousuf al-Thaqafi and al-Khalil Ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi were incorporated into and became part of both the cursive and the Kufic scripts.
The intense and dramatic early development of writing ended with the rise of the Umayyad dynasty (661-755). According to Safadi (1978), the Umayyad caliph Abd-Al-Malik Ibn Marwan (685-705) was the first to legislate the compulsory use of Arabic script for all official and state registers.
Damascus was the Umayyad capital and was an important political and cultural center. During the Umayyad era, two new Arabic scripts appeared, Tumar and Jali. These scripts were invented by the famous calligrapher Qutbah al-Mihrr. Later, Ibn Jlan and Ibn Hama developed and improved the Tumar and Jali scripts during the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258).
Tumar was formulated and extensively used during the reign of Muawiyyah Ibn Abi Sufyan (660-679), the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. Tumar became the royal script of the succeeding Umayyad caliphs.
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.
The first of a triad of geniuses, Ibn Muqlah (886-940) was followed by Ibn al-Bawwab in the 11th century and Yaqut al-Musta'simi in the late 13th century. The latter two men built upon Ibn Muqlah's achievements so well that to scribes, connoisseurs, and literati from the 14th through 18th centuries, these three calligraphers appeared to be the sole creators of the 'modern styles,' and the three men assumed the roles of semi-legendary figures personifying the developments that took place over many centuries by a number of scribes. Each of the three men came to be viewed as an exemplar of certain admirable personal characteristics or as a model for necessary calligraphic skills.
Reaching near levels of perfection, the cursive scripts, especially Thuluth, continued to evolve very distinctive and elegant ornamental versions. The beauty of these new versions of Thuluth set them in a position to compete with Kufic script within the field of epigraphy. Moreover, the scripts were, and still are, used in copying the Qur'an, as well as in secular manuscripts.
Late Calligraphic Development
The Abbasid dynasty, the last of the Islamic caliphates, ended in 1258 when Baghdad was sacked by Ghengiz 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. It should come as no surprise that no sooner had Hulagu's great-grandson Ghazan (1295-1305) embraced Islam than he made it the state religion throughout his entire domain.
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 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. Objects like lamps, glass, brass candlesticks, paper Qur'an manuscripts, and wooden minbars were well designed, calligraphed, and decorated. The two great periods of Mamluk art coincided with the reigns of Qalawun and his son al-Naser Mohammed (1294-1340) and al-Ashraf Qa'itbay (1468-1496). The artistic works of the Mamluks are regarded as extraordinary masterpieces.
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.
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.
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 Osmani 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 sacred, 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.