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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Eighteenth century mirror writing in Ottoman calligraphy. Depicts the phrase 'Ali is the viceregent of God' in both directions.

Islamic calligraphy, colloquially known as 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.[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 motives 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.

History of the different styles

The different writing styles of the Arabic alphabet are generally divided between geometric scripts (basically Kufic and its variations) and cursive scripts (such as Naskh, Ruq'ah, Thuluth...)


Geometric styles

Kufic script in a Qur'an from the 9th-10th centuries

Hijazi is a simple, cursive script, generally without diacritical marks. Hijazi was mainly used between the end of the 7th century and the 8th century. It is found in the very first Qur'ans and also on stone carvings.

Kufic is a cleaner, more geometric style, with a very visible rhythm and a stress on horizontall 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

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. Naskh or naskhi is a simple cursive writing that was used in correspondance 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.
  2. Thuluth is a more monumental and energetic writing style, with elongated verticals. It was especially used by Mamluks during the 14th-15th centuries.
  3. Tawqi' 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. Riqa' was a miniature version of tawqi', also little used.
  5. Muhaqqaq is an ample, alert script. Letter endings are elongated and their curves underline the text.
  6. Rayhani is a miniature version of muhaqqaq.

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 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 (1520–66). 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]


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.

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.

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.

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.[12]

Mosque calligraphy

Islamic Mosque calligraphy is calligraphy that can be found in and out of amosque, 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.

Istanbul Suleymaniye Mosque

Commonly used in mosques:

Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim

Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim is the most common phrase found in mosques. It means: "In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate."

Allah & Muhammad

Allah is Arabic for one god and Muhammad is the last prophet in Islam. Both Allah and Muhammad are almost always found inside mosques as a reminder of the religion's main beliefs.


See also

List of calligraphers

Some classical calligraphers:

Some contemporary calligraphers:


  1. ^ a b Bloom (1999), pg. 218[citation needed]
  2. ^ Bernard Lewis and Butnzie Ellis Churchill, Islam : the Religion and the People, ISBN-13: 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. ^ "Gallery", Haji Noor Deen.
  6. ^ a b BNF - Torah, Bible, Coran. In French.
  7. ^ Praying man, Network of Ethiopian Muslims.
  8. ^ Lion of ’Ali.
  9. ^ Horse of ’Ali.
  10. ^ HudHud.
  11. ^ Islamic Bird, UC Santa Cruz Currents Online.
  12. ^ Bloom (1999), pg. 223-5

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