Basharat Bashir

Islamic Calligraphy

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Calligraphy is the art of lettering in the languages which use Arabic alphabet or the alphabets derived from it. It includes Arabic, Persian, Ottoman, and Urdu calligraphy. It is known in Arabic as ‘KhattArabi’ which translates into Arabic line, design, or construction. Islamic Calligraphy is based on Qur’anic verses and chapters and its development is strongly knotted to the Qur’an. Although not explicitly forbidden by the Qur’an but traditionally Islam does not appreciate the use of pictures thereforecalligraphyproves to be an ideal form of creative expression. Apart from calligraphy Islamic art as a whole exploreddecorative patterns and designs with minimal use of figures and pictures. In Islamic art calligraphy gained a unique reputation and it was even considered as a moral good. An ancient Arabic proverb illustrates this point by emphatically stating that “Purity of writing is purity of the soul.”

Islamic calligraphy, on the other hand, is not limited to strictly religious subjects, objects, or spaces. Calligraphy, like all Islamic art, includes a diverse range of works created in a variety of contexts. The popularity of calligraphy in Islamic art is not due to its non-figural tradition; rather, it reflects the importance of writing and written text in Islam. For example, the Islamic prophet Muhammad is said to have said, “The pen was the first thing God created.”

Islamic calligraphy developed from two major styles: Kufic and Naskh. There are several variations of each, as well as regionally specific styles. Arabic or Persian calligraphy has also been incorporated into modern art, beginning with the post-colonial period in the Middle East, as well as the more recent style of calligraffiti.

The traditional instrument of the Islamic calligrapher is the kalam, a pen normally made of dried reed or bamboo. The ink is often in colour and chosen so that its intensity can vary greatly, creating dynamism and movement in the letter forms. Some styles are often written using a metallic-tip pen.

Islamic calligraphy can be applied to a wide range of decorative mediums other than paper, such as tiles, vessels, carpets, and stone. Before the advent of paper, papyrus and parchment were used for writing. During the 9th century, an influx of paper from China revolutionized calligraphy. While monasteries in Europe treasured a few dozen volumes, libraries in the Muslim world regularly contained hundreds and even thousands of books.

For centuries, the art of writing has fulfilled a central iconographic function in Islamic art. Although the academic tradition of Islamic calligraphy began in Baghdad, the centre of the Islamic empire during much of its early history, it eventually spread as far as India and Spain.

Coins were another support for calligraphy. Beginning in 692, the Islamic caliphate reformed the coinage of the Near East by replacing Byzantine Christian imagery with Islamic phrases inscribed in Arabic. 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 onto elaborately patterned silks. So precious were textiles featuring Arabic text 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 north-western France.

As Islamic calligraphy is highly venerated, most works follow examples set by well-established calligraphers, with the exception of secular or contemporary works. In the Islamic tradition, calligraphers underwent extensive training in three stages, including the study of their teacher’s models, in order to be granted certification.

Different Styles of Islamic Calligraphy


Kufic style is one of the oldest style of Islamic calligraphy. It developed alongside with Naskh script in as early as 7th century. Although some scholars assertthat Kufic script was supposedly developed around the end of the 7th century in Kufa, Iraq, from which it takes its name.The Kufic style emphasizes rigid and angular strokes and was frequently used in ornamental stone carving as well as on coins. It was the main script used to copy the Qur’an. Kufic style later developed into several varieties, including floral, foliated, plaited or interlaced, bordered, and square Kufic. It gradually went of general use as flowing naskh style become more practical around 12th century. However, it continued to be used as a decorative element to contrast superseding styles.

There was no set rules of using the Kufic script; the only common feature is the angular, linear shapes of the characters. Due to the lack of standardization of early Kufic, the script differs widely between regions, ranging from very square and rigid forms to flowery and decorative ones.

Common varieties includesquare Kufic, a technique known as banna’i. Contemporary calligraphy using this style is also popular in modern decorations.

Decorative Kufic inscriptions are often imitated into pseudo-kufics in Middle age and Renaissance Europe. Pseudo-kufics is especially common in Renaissance depictions of people from the Holy Land. The exact reason for the incorporation of pseudo-Kufic is unclear. It seems that Westerners mistakenly associated 13th-14th century Middle Eastern scripts with systems of writing used during the time of Jesus, and thus found it natural to represent early Christians in association with them.


. Naskh, which means “copying,” first appeared in the Islamic calendar during the first century. These  Cursive scripts coexisted with Kufic, and was historically commonly used for informal purposes. It became the standard for transcribing books and manuscripts. The script is the most common style, appearing in the Qur’an, official decrees, and private correspondence. It served as the foundation for modern Arabic printing.

Kufic is commonly thought to predate Naskh, but historians have found that the two scripts coexisted long before their codification by ibn Muqla, as they served different purposes. Kufi was primarily used for decoration, whereas Naskh was used for everyday scribal work.


Thuluth originated in the fifteenth century and was gradually enhanced by Ottoman calligraphers like Mustafa Râkim, Shaykh Hamdallah, and others to become what it is today. This script has broad vertical lines and long vertical lines for the letters. The name, which means “one third,” might be a reference to the x-height, which is one-third of the ‘alif, or to the fact that the pen used to write the vowels and ornaments is one-third the width of the pen used to write the letters.


Developed in 10th century Reqa’ is a writing stylesimilar tothuluth. Designated by Short strokes and modest flourishes gives the shape a simple appearance. One of the calligraphers who used this style was Yaqut al-Musta’simi. This script is actually thought to have been introduced  by the Arab Ibn al-Bawwab..


Muhaqqaq is a variation of Thuluth style. It is a majestic style used by accomplished calligraphers. Along with thuluth, it was considered one of the most beautiful scripts, as well as one of the most difficult to execute. Muhaqqaq was commonly used during the Mamluk era, but its use became largely restricted to short phrases, such as the ‘Bismallah’, from the 18th century onward.

 Regional styles

With the spread of Islam, the Arabic script was established in a vast geographic area with many regions developing their own unique style. From the 14th century onward, other cursive styles began to develop in Turkey, Persia, and China.

Maghrebi scripts developed from Kufic letters in the Maghreb (North Africa) and al-Andalus (Iberia), Maghrebi scripts are traditionally written with a pointed tip , producing a line of even thickness. Within the Maghrebi family, there are different styles including the cursive Mujawher and the Ceremonial Mabsut.

Sudani scripts developed in Biled as-Sudan (the West African Sahel) and can be considered a subcategory of Maghrebi scripts.

Diwani is a cursive style of Arabic calligraphy developed during the reign of the early Ottoman Turks in the 16th and early 17th centuries. It was invented by HousamRoumi, and reached its height of popularity under Süleyman I the Magnificent.Spaces between letters are often narrow, and lines ascend upwards from right to left. Larger variations called djali are filled with dense decorations of dots and diacritical marks in the space between, giving it a compact appearance. Diwani is difficult to read and write due to its heavy stylization and became the ideal script for writing court documents as it ensured confidentiality and prevented forgery.

Nasta’liq is a cursive style originally devised to write the Persian language for literary and non-Qur’anic works. Nasta’liq is thought to be a later development of the naskh and the earlier ta’liq script used in Iran. Quite rapidly gaining popularity as a script in South Asia. The name ta’liq means “hanging,” and refers to the slightly sloped quality of lines of text in this script. Letters have short vertical strokes with broad and sweeping horizontal strokes. The shapes are deep, hook-like, and have high contrast. A variant called Shikasteh was developed in the 17th century for more formal contexts.

Sini is a style developed in China. The shape is greatly influenced by 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.

 Islamic Calligraphy as a Modern Art movement

Arabic calligraphy was transformed into a modern art movement known as the Hurufiyya movement by artists working in North Africa and the Middle East during the post-colonial era. Artists working in this genre used calligraphy as a graphic component in contemporary art.Beginning in North Africa around 1955 with the work of Ibrahim el-SalahiHurufiyya movement spread around the world with different manifestations of style. Artists working in different parts of the world were unaware of each other and that allowed each Artist to create his own blend of style that was different from the other. In Sudan, for instance, artworks include both Islamic calligraphy and West African motifs.

The word Hurufiyyais derived from the Arabic word Harf, which means letter. The term has historically been associated with esoteric and intellectual Sufi meaning. It makes direct allusion to a political theology and letteristic mediaeval educational framework. Letters were viewed in this theology as the first signifiers and cosmic controllers.

The artistic identities and sensibilities of Hurufiyya artists were a fusion of Western art concepts with elements from their own culture and heritage. These artists created syncretic contemporary compositions by fusing Islamic visual traditions, particularly calligraphy, and elements of modern art. Although Hurufiyyah artists struggled to find their own unique dialogue within the context of nationalism, but they worked towards an aesthetic that crossed national boundaries and symbolised a wider affiliation with an Islamic identity.

The Hurufiyya art movement included creators from a range of media in addition to painters. Mahmoud Taha, a Jordanian ceramicist, is one illustration of how traditional calligraphy aesthetics can be combined with expert craftsmanship. The contemporary artist Shirin Neshat incorporates Arabic text into her black-and-white photography to create contrast and duality, despite not being connected to the Hurufiyya movement. The movement was known as the Saqqa-Khaneh movement in Iran and Al Bu’d al Wahad (or the One Dimension Group) in Iraq.

Calligraffiti is one way that western art influenced Islamic calligraphy. It emerged quite forcefully in the Middle East in recent years, particularly in the wake of the Arab uprisings. el Seed, who works in France and Tunisia, Yazan Halwani, who is active in Lebanon, and A1one, who is based in Tehran are notable Islamic calligraffiti artists.

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