3 Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

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

Islamic calligraphy, colloquially known as Perso-Arabic calligraphy, is the artistic practice of handwriting, or calligraphy, and by extension, of bookmaking,[1] 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.[3] The work of calligraphers was collected and appreciated.

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

Woman looking at the word Allah at Old Mosque in Edirne, Turkey.

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.

Geometric scripts (basically Kufic styles)

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

  • In "Flowering Kufi", slender geometric lettering is associated with stylized vegetal elements.
  • In "Geometric Kufi", the letters are arranged in complex, two-dimensional geometric patterns, for example filling a square. This aims at decoration rather than readability.

Cursive styles as Naskh styles

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

Cursive styles of calligraphy appeared during the 10th century.[4] 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 Ibn Muqla (d. 939) and later refined by his successors Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1022) and Yaqut al-Mustacsimi (d. 1298). Naskh script was the most widespread, used in Qur’ans, official decrees, and private correspondence.[4] Ancient texts listing these six styles typically do not provide examples. It is therefore difficult to distinguish these styles.

  1. Nasḫ or naskhi[5] 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 Hafiz 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 Iran.
  3. Tawqīʿ appeared under the Abbassid 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. Ruq`ah or Riqʿah was a miniature version of tawqi'. The Ottomans used it for handwriting, and it is largely so used at the present day.
  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.

The proportion of the different letters is based on the letter 'Alif, a simple vertical line.

From the 14th century onward, other cursive styles began being used in Turkish and Persian lands.[4]

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.

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.[6]


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,[7] calligraphers produced anthropomorphic figures ('Ali, the Ideal Human of mystics, a sick man,[8] a face), zoomorphisms (symbolic creatures, most from the Shi'a iconography, like the lion (Ali "the Lion of God")[9] horse ('Ali's Duldul),[10] fish,[7] stork or other bird (the qur'anic Hudhud)[11][12]) 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 in Dubai.

Instruments and media

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]

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 Shroud of St. Josse, used to wrap the bones of St. Josse in the abbey of St. Josse-sur-Mer near Caen in northwestern France.[13]

Mosque calligraphy

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.

Istanbul Suleymaniye Mosque


See also

List of calligraphers

Some classical calligraphers:

External links


  1. ^ a b Bloom (1999), pg. 218[citation needed]
  2. ^ Bernard Lewis and Butnzie Ellis Churchill, Islam : the Religion and the People, ISBN 978-0-13-223085-8
  3. ^ Bloom (1999), pg. 222
  4. ^ a b c Library of Congress, Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy: Qur’anic Fragments
  5. ^ Muhammad Shafiq's "Arabic Primer of Calligraphy". World Digital Library Yale University Library.
  6. ^ "Gallery", Haji Noor Deen.
  7. ^ a b BNF - Torah, Bible, Coran. In French.
  8. ^ Praying man, Network of Ethiopian Muslims.
  9. ^ Lion of ’Ali.
  10. ^ Horse of ’Ali.
  11. ^ HudHud.[dead link]
  12. ^ Islamic Bird, UC Santa Cruz Currents Online.
  13. ^ Bloom (1999), pg. 223-5

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