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The Religious, Historical, and Cultural Development of Islamic Calligraphy
Mar 1, 2015

Islamic calligraphy isn’t just a gorgeous style of art, but a symbol for how rich and diverse the Islamic world truly is

For all of the artistic forms the Islamic world has produced, calligraphy seems to be the most pre-eminent. It is entwined in the popular consciousness with Islam itself; mosques around the world proudly display the shahada and the bismillah, and these are featured – in calligraphic script – on the flags of many Muslim countries. Calligraphy has travelled across the Muslim world, transliterating many languages and morphing into many different schools of styles; it has even influenced Western styles of illustrated books and penmanship. This article does not focus on calligraphy entirely, but rather will show how the religious, historical, and cultural backgrounds of the different Islamic cultures informed the development of calligraphy – from the way the Qur'an and the Sunnah view art, to the history of the Arabic script and its transmission, to the way calligraphy travelled around the Middle East, and finally to how the actual production of calligraphy and the training of calligraphers influences its style.

Essentially, the ubiquity of calligraphy in the Islamic visual arts can be traced to the fundamental religious concepts of shirk – that it is forbidden to associate any other entity with Allah, thus risking tawhid, or the “oneness of God.” These other entities can be anything – from the “little gods” (ilah) of greed, capriciousness, and atheism, to the polytheistic deities displaced by Islam at its birth – but for the purposes of this essay, shirk is synonymous with idolatry. To humans, God cannot be comprehended with our own senses or mentality; it is only possible to see the results of His work on Earth and infer His qualities from that. Since God is fundamentally beyond the scope of the human, any attempt to reduce Him to a visual representation is heretical. Idols and icons of God detract from tawhid – that is, it places an intermediate entity between the worshipper and God – and “nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God” (Burckhardt, 1976 : p.34).

Within the Qur'an itself, there are many verses dealing with proscriptions in producing images of the divine – in particular, the story of Abraham destroying the idols in 20:52-7. As well as this, many hadith tell of the Prophet Muhammad's disapproval of not only the makers of religious idols, but any visual depiction of animate beings like humans and animals. This again is to do with shirk – humans acting with arrogance and equating their creations with the creations and creatures of God.

Artists were encouraged to draw plants, landscapes, and abstract pictures instead. Historically, this prohibition against animate figures can explain the flowering of abstract design, calligraphy included, across the Islamic world; it also shows why mosques and other Islamic religious centres lack the anthropocentric art that is usual in their Christian counterparts (e.g., Jesus' crucifixion, icons of the saints, etc.). Visual depictions of humans and animals do exist in the Muslim world on a smaller scale – murals and frescoes were painted in liberal enclaves like al-Andalus and 'Abbasid Baghdad, and both Persia and Turkey have supported robust traditions of miniature painting and illustrated books since the 13th century (Eastman, 1933 : p.22-3). However, the common theme underlying all these works is that they were usually small and for private viewing only; murals were not found outside the palace walls, and illustrated books and paintings were hobbies for nobles, and not for mass consumption. Calligraphy, with its abstract, non-representational style, and the general veneration of language and writing in Islamic culture, became the dominant art form within the Muslim world.

To adequately explain the first appearance of Islamic calligraphy, two distinct questions should be asked – what sort of script did the first Muslims write in, and where did it come from? And what is the history of the written, illustrated Qur'an that actually used calligraphy?

Answering the former question, Arabic script evolved from Nabatean, which in turn came from a script termed Proto-Sinaitic. Only a few examples of Proto-Sinaitic have been found, all dated to c.1900 BCE (Man, 2000 : p.189), but it is postulated that Proto-Sinaitic was one of the first alphabetical scripts developed (rather than ideographic or “symbolic” scripts, like Chinese). Since the actual spoken languages across the region all belonged (and for the most part still belong) to the Semitic language family, it was relatively easy for one script to be adapted to many languages; an archaic form of the Arabic script was known to the first Muslims, even if they were for the most part illiterate. The production of copies of the Qur'an was the first step to greater literacy in the Muslim community (the umma).

The first Qur'ans that still survive today were written in a thick, angular, straight style called Kufic, after the city of Kufa in modern day Iraq, a center for book production; most date to the 8th or 9th centuries. According to tradition, it was 'Uthman's successor, Ali, who first used and popularised this style over others (Schimmel, 1984 : p.3-4). Kufic was not cursive like modern Arabic script is; rather, five-sixths of letters were supposed to be straight against one-sixth of curved. This meant that the angular, thick lines of Kufic were very easy to chisel into metal or stone – the first Islamic coins and tombstones feature inscriptions written in Kufic (Schimmel, 1992 : p.4-7). A slanted subset of Kufic appeared around the same time, in copies of the Qur'an found in and traced back to the cities of Mecca and Medina. This style, called Ma'il, did not seem as popular as Kufic, but represented the first step towards the more recognisable cursive classical calligraphy. As Islam spread across the Middle East, different varieties of cursive script developed. This development was helped by the spread of sophisticated paper-making technology. Though paper had been known of and used since the start of the 'Abbasid Caliphate in 751 (Coomaraswamy, 1929 : p.50), more durable vellum had been used to create Qur'ans up until the 10th century. However, with the importation of high-quality Chinese paper, and the creation of royal paper mills in Baghdad, cursive styles began to appear in both the Qur'an and in official documents of the era; the first wholly paper book can be dated back to 870 (Schimmel, 1984 : p.16). The differences between each style of writing were studied and placed into groups: the “six cursive scripts” or al-aqlam al-sittah, as conflated by the master calligrapher and 'Abbasid vizier, Ibn Muqla (885-940). These six groups were:

  1. Nashk – everyday script; the precursor to the modern Arabic used worldwide. It is the most basic cursive hand; at first it was not used much to write Qur'ans or important state documents, but for everyday writing purposes. However, after the 15th century, nashki underwent a “renaissance” and it appeared in many books across the Islamic world (Schimmel, 1970 : pl.IX).
  2. Thuluth – “one-third” (named after the angle of the slant of its letters); the most common decorative script used in Islamic cultures. Ibn Muqla called it “the mother of the cursive scripts.” Thuluth is more extravagant than Nashki writing, with long, flowing lines and elegant curves, and it was often used in medieval times to decorate the veneers of buildings (Coomaraswamy, 1929 : 54).
  3. Muhaqqaq – a script derived from thuluth and used by the Mamluk sultans of Egypt in the 13th century, and Safavid Persia in the 15th century; most of the sultan's royal documents were written in this hand. It was considered to be drier than thuluth, with pointed letter endings and very high “tall” letters (Schimmel, 1992 : p.16).
  4. Rihan – a less-extravagant version of muhaqqaq; it is distinguishable from thuluth by the pointed ends of its letters. After Ibn Muqla's time, rihani writing fell out of favour and is not very well attested (Tabbaa, 1991 : p.122).
  5. Tawqi' – the official hand used by the 'Abbasid caliphate under Yaqut al-Musta'simi, the successor of Ibn Muqla. The letters in tawqi' are straighter than in other varieties, though it is still very much a decorative style, rather than an everyday one; it was mainly used to write out court documents and royal decrees (Schimmel, 1970 : p.7)
  6. Riqa' – a more informal, less “monumental” version of tawqi', riqa' is still used today as a secondary writing style. Like tawqi', it flattens out elongated curves and high letters for ease of writing; it is known as the “copyist's hand” (Shimmel, 1984 : p.23-4).

As well as these definitive styles that were used across the Islamic world, there existed regional variations that were used by specific cultures. The most well-known of these include:

  1. Maghribi, which arose in North Africa sometime in the 14th century, and owed more of its stylistic origins to Kufic than the cursive scripts; thick lines and tall, straight letters were emphasised (Schimmel, 1992 : p.32-3).
  2. Ta'liq or “hanging,” that was used – from the time of its conquest – to write exclusively in the Persian language. It evolved into Nasta'liq in the 15th century; Nasta'liq separated the letters far more than other styles did, and often wrote them on differing levels for artistic effect (Schimmel, 1992 : p.34-7). It was the preferred script for writing poems and for accompanying miniature paintings.
  3. Diwani – the extremely elaborate calligraphy of the Ottoman Empire; it first appeared around the time of Suleiman in the 16th century; Suleiman was apparently a master calligrapher himself. Diwani is extremely complex and difficult to learn – its rules were only taught to a select few, but exponents of the art could create images out of calligraphy (Coomaraswamy, 1929 : 58).

The basic method of production for all of these hands is essentially the same – the calligrapher uses a reed stylus/pen called a qalam, a supply of ink (hibr), and usually an inkpot as well (dawaat). The ink was collected from “lampblack”; that is, the remnants of oil found in burnt oil-lamps, though other methods existed, like burning tar or pitch (Schimmel, 1984 : p.40). At first, in the early days of Islam's expansion, only black or brown ink was used; however, it is common to find manuscripts in which a later scribe has gone over their predecessors’ work with coloured inks, especially since not all the early Qur'ans used the same spelling. By the turn of the millennium, though, calligraphers could choose to write in many different dyes and inks, and color their books with such luxuries as lapis lazuli and gold leaf (Schimmel, 1970 : pl.XXII). The form of the calligraphy was also dictated by the material the words were written on; because only parchment was used to create the earliest books, cursive scripts would be too hard to write effectively on them.

The invention of paper directly led to the explosion of cursive styles. To prepare the paper for calligraphy, the artist had to first apply ahar, a conditioning mixture that consisted of rice powder, egg white, and starch, to make the paper smooth. Any further unevenness was smoothed out by a stone, traditionally an agate. Once the page was complete, sand was thrown over it, both to soak up the excess ink and as a blessing (Schimmel, 1984 : p.41-2).

The actual training of a professional calligrapher (khattat) was another matter entirely; though most Muslims of education knew how to write the basics of the nashki or riqa' styles, the future khattat must seek the patronage of a master teacher (sheik). This idea of seeking guidance through a teacher comes directly from the influence of Sufism –  in fact, almost all master calligraphers were Sufis as well. Students had to train constantly, using a mashq (practice slate); on a given day, they would study only the permutations of one letter, though of course the style of training varied from teacher to teacher (Schimmel, 1984 : p.48). Most commonly the rules of form laid down by Ibn Muqla were the most studied. If the students were successful enough in their endeavors, the teacher would award them an ijaza (lit.,  “permission”), a certificate that showed that their sheik considered them adept enough to be a khattat. These ijaza were vital in showing the different lineages of styles across the Islamic world. One final, surprising feature of the calligraphers and their students was that so many of them were women – calligraphy was seen as a pious career for both sexes; many Ottoman princesses were considered master calligraphers in their own right (Schimmel, 1970 : 47).

In conclusion, Islamic calligraphy inherently shows the growth and development of Islam itself, through its aniconic styles of art, to the growth in usage of the Arabic script, and to the blossoming of distinct local variants of Islamic culture. Through all this, it is possible to trace the respect and awe Muslims held for writing, and calligraphy in particular, linking it with the heart of religion. An old Arabic saying puts it best by saying, “Purity of writing is the purity of the soul” (Schimmel, 1992 : p.1).


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