Islamic calligraphy

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18th century writing in Ottoman calligraphy. Depicts the phrase "In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Gracious"

Islamic calligraphy, also known as Arabic calligraphy, is the artistic practice of handwriting, calligraphy, and by extension, of bookmaking,[1]:218 in the lands sharing a common Islamic cultural heritage. This art form is based on the Arabic script, which for a long time was used by all Muslims in their respective languages. They used it to represent God because they denied representing God with images.[2] Calligraphy is especially revered among Islamic arts since it was the primary means for the preservation of the Qur'an. Suspicion of figurative art as idolatrous led to calligraphy and abstract depictions becoming a major form of artistic expression in Islamic cultures, especially in religious contexts.[1]:222

Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish calligraphy is associated with abstract arabesque motifs on the walls and ceilings of mosques as well as on the page. Contemporary artists in the Islamic world draw on the heritage of calligraphy to use calligraphic inscriptions or abstractions in their work.

Role in Islamic culture[edit]

Calligraphy has arguably become the most venerated form of Islamic art because the Arabic script was the means of transmission of the Qur'an. The holy book of Islam, the Qur'an, has played an important role in the development and evolution of the Arabic language, and by extension, calligraphy in the Arabic alphabet. Proverbs and complete passages from the Qur'an are still active sources for Islamic calligraphy.

Arabic scripts became known and given their names due to different criteria, such as the name of cities in which they originated, like the Kalnbti, Kufic, Hijazi, and Persian, or the names of their creators, Kalyakota, and Rihani and the Ghazlani.[citation needed]

Geometric scripts (Kufic styles)[edit]

Kufic is a cleaner, more geometric style, with a very visible rhythm and a stress on horizontal lines. Vowels are sometimes noted as red dots; consonants are distinguished with small dashes to make the texts more readable. A number of Qur'ans written in this style have been found in the Mosque at Kairouan, in Tunisia. Kufic writing also appears on ancient coins.

The Maghribi script and its Andalusi variant are less rigid versions of Kufic, with more curves.

For the writing of Qur'ans and other documents, Kufic was eventually replaced by the cursive scripts. It remains in use for decorative purposes:

Cursive styles as Naskh styles[edit]

Naskh script in an Egyptian Qur'an from the 14th–15th centuries

Cursive styles of calligraphy appeared during the 10th century.[3] They were easier to write and read and soon replaced the earlier geometric style, except for decorative purposes.

The canonical "six cursive scripts" (al-aqlam al-sittah) were pioneered by the Persian Ibn Muqla Shirazi (d. 939) and later refined by his successors Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1022) and Yaqut al-Musta'simi (d. 1298). Naskh script was the most widespread, used in Qur’ans, official decrees, and private correspondence.[3] Ancient texts listing these six styles typically do not provide examples. It is therefore difficult to distinguish these styles.

  1. Nasḫ or naskhi[4] is a simple cursive writing that was used in correspondence before the calligraphers started using it for Qur'an writing. It is slender and supple, without any particular emphasis, and highly readable. It remains among the most widespread styles. The most famous calligrapher of this genre was Hâfiz Osman, an Ottoman calligrapher who lived during the 17th century. It is the basis of modern Arabic print.
  2. Ṯuluṯ is a more monumental and energetic writing style, with elongated verticals. It was used by Mamluks during the 14th–15th centuries. However the style was transformed and refined by Ottoman calligraphers. Today the masters of this style still live in Turkey including Hüseyin Kutlu and Fuat Başar
  3. Tawqīʿ appeared under the Abbasid Caliphate, when it was used to sign official acts. With elongated verticals and wide curves under the writing line, it remained a little-used script.
  4. Riqaa' was a miniature version of tawqi'. It has nothing to do with ruq`ah, a much later style the Ottomans developed for secular handwriting, and which is still used at the present day in the Arab countries that fell within the Ottoman cultural sphere.
  5. Muḥaqqaq is an ample, alert script. Letter endings are elongated and their curves underline the text.
  6. Rīḥānī or rayḥānī is a miniature version of muḥaqqaq.

From the 14th century onward, other cursive styles began being used in Turkish and Persian lands.[3]

Nasta'liq is a cursive style developed in the Persian world. Nasta'liq means "suspended", which is a good description of the way each letter in a word is suspended from the previous one, i.e. lower rather than on the same level.

The Persians calligraphers gave this style under the name "ta'liq". It gave the style a refined look. The Ottoman calligraphers produced splendid works with this style. The larger size was called "jali-ta'liq" and used on entrances of mosques and other buildings.

Shikasteh (broken) is a Persian script used in more informal contexts.

The Diwani script is a cursive style of Arabic calligraphy developed during the reign of the early Ottoman Turks (16th and early 17th centuries). It was invented by Housam Roumi and reached its height of popularity under Süleyman I the Magnificent (1520–1566). As decorative as it was communicative, Diwani was distinguished by the complexity of the line within the letter and the close juxtaposition of the letters within the word. A variation of the Diwani, the Diwani Al Jali, is characterized by its abundance of diacritical and ornamental marks.

Bihari script was used in India during the 15th century.

The most common script for everyday use is Ruq'ah (also known as Riq'a). Simple and easy to write, its movements are small, without much amplitude. It is the one most commonly seen. It is considered a step up from Naskh script, which children are taught first. In later grades they are introduced to Ruq'ah.

In China, a calligraphic form called Sini has been developed. This form has evident influences from Chinese calligraphy, using a horsehair brush instead of the standard reed pen. A famous modern calligrapher in this tradition is Hajji Noor Deen Mi Guangjiang.[5]


leftThe official imperial Tughra of the Mughal Empire.
Bismillah calligraphy from the Mughal Empire.

Calligraphy, the most Islamic of arts in the Muslim world, also has its figurative sides. By interweaving written words, made from an "Allah", a "Muhammad", a "Bismillah", etc., or using micrography,[6] calligraphers produced anthropomorphic figures ('Ali, the Ideal Human of mystics, a praying man,[7] a face), zoomorphisms (symbolic creatures, most from the Shi'a iconography, like the lion (Ali "the Lion of God")[8] horse ('Ali's Duldul),[9] fish,[6] stork or other bird (the qur'anic Hudhud)[10][11]) and inanimate representations (a sword (Dhu al-Fiqar), a mosque, a ship (made from the letter waw, a symbol of mystical union, literally meaning "and," in Arabic)). Calligrams are related to Muslim mysticism and popular with many leading calligraphers in Turkey, Persia and India from the 17th century onward.

Although striking in appearance, calligrams have never been regarded as appropriate or a decent expression of the art by the master calligraphers. Many calligrams therefore were produced by either folk calligraphers or for the interest of uncultivated people. These calligrams were not exhibited in mosques or Sufi convents in the Ottoman state, for example.

An element in this perspective is the rejection of the interpretation by the heretic Hurufiyyah Sufi order which sees letters as true manifestations of the fate, events and creation in themselves.

In the teachings of calligraphy, figurative imagery is used to help visualize the shape of letters to trace, for example, the letter ha' looks in nasta'liq similar to two eyes, as its Persian name implies: "he' two eyes" he' do cheshm). In literature and poetry seeing in letters a reflection of the natural world goes back to the Abbasid times.

One of the contemporary masters of the calligram genre is Hassan Massoudy and Wissam Shawkat.

Good commercial examples are the logos of Al Jazeera, an international news station based at Qatar, and the Edinburgh Middle East Report, a Scottish academic journal on the Middle East, and also the work of the calligrapher and designer Wissam Shawkat.

Instruments and media[edit]

Inscriptions in calligraphy, form regular bands throughout the Qutb Minar, India, built 1192 CE

The traditional instrument of the Arabic calligrapher is the qalam, a pen made of dried reed or bamboo; the ink is often in color, and chosen such that its intensity can vary greatly, so that the greater strokes of the compositions can be very dynamic in their effect.

To present calligraphy, diverse media were used. Before the advent of paper, papyrus and parchment were used for writing. The advent of paper revolutionized calligraphy. While monasteries in Europe treasured a few dozen volumes, libraries in the Muslim world regularly contained hundreds and even thousands of volumes of books.[1]:218

Coins were another support for calligraphy. Beginning in 692, the Islamic caliphate reformed the coinage of the Near East by replacing visual depiction by words. This was especially true for dinars, or gold coins of high value. Generally the coins were inscribed with quotes from the Qur'an.

By the tenth century, the Persians, who had converted to Islam, began weaving inscriptions on to elaborately patterned silks. So precious were calligraphic inscribed textile that Crusaders brought them to Europe as prized possessions. A notable example is the Suaire de Saint-Josse, used to wrap the bones of St. Josse in the abbey of St. Josse-sur-Mer near Caen in northwestern France.[1]:223–5

Mosque calligraphy[edit]

Islamic Mosque calligraphy is calligraphy that can be found in and out of a mosque, typically in combination with Arabesque motifs. Arabesque is a form of Islamic art known for its repetitive geometric forms creating beautiful decorations. These geometric shapes often include Arabic calligraphy written on walls and ceilings inside and outside of mosques.

The subject of these writings can be derived from different sources in Islam. It can be derived from the written words of the Qur'an or from the oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of Islamic Prophet Muhammad.

There is a beautiful harmony between the inscriptions and the functions of the mosque. Specific surahs (chapters) or ayats (verses) from Koran are inscribed in accordance with functions of specific architectural elements. For example, on the domes you can find the Nour ayat (the divine stress on light) written, above the main entrance you find verses related to the entrances of the paradise, on the windows the divine names of Allah are inscribed so that reflection of the sun rays through those windows remind the believer that Allah manifests Himself upon the universe in all high qualities.[citation needed]


See also[edit]

List of calligraphers[edit]

Some classical calligraphers:


  1. ^ a b c d Blair, Sheila S.; Bloom, Jonathan M. (1995). The art and architecture of islam : 1250-1800 (Reprinted with corrections. ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300064659. 
  2. ^ Bernard Lewis and Butnzie Ellis Churchill, Islam : the Religion and the People, ISBN 978-0-13-223085-8
  3. ^ a b c "Library of Congress, Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy: Qur’anic Fragments". Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  4. ^ Muhammad Shafiq's "Arabic Primer of Calligraphy". World Digital Library Yale University Library.
  5. ^ "Gallery", Haji Noor Deen.
  6. ^ a b BNF - Torah, Bible, Coran. In French.
  7. ^ "Praying Man". Ethiopian Muslims Network. Archived from the original on 2008-12-17. Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  8. ^ Lion of ’Ali.
  9. ^ Horse of ’Ali.
  10. ^ HudHud.[dead link]
  11. ^ Islamic Bird, UC Santa Cruz Currents Online.

External links[edit]