Arabic Calligraphy: The Essential Islamic
By Ahmed Ebeed
Foreword by CI editor
Nothing is comparable
to love. Nothing is comparable to the love of
wisdom. Arabic calligraphy was originated to crown the divine word,
Qur'an. It is an artistic expression for the love of wisdom. The
immediate impressions that capture the receiver—with
the eyes, mind,
heart, and soul—inside of them are, no doubt, a moment of infinity.
That moment of receiving is
not just related to the artistic labor.
In itself, it is a product of the experience itself: the primal
dealing with the divine word and reaching beyond it.
Arabic calligraphy is an artistic medium with which the Muslim
was equally vanished and overwhelmed, exterminated and
flooded, fashioned and ended in dealing with the scripture.
monumental calligraphic works that we see are artistic,
spiritual, and—above all—sentimental testimonies of
The state in which such works were carried, states of dhikr, of
carrying out an act of worship into an
artistic medium (or is it the
other way?), of exemplifying the transcendental through the
temporal, of expressing the
awe of the divine through the marks of
ink and hand strokes—just shows one unmistakable idea.
The heart of
Arabic calligraphy—just as any other authentic work
that stems from the soul—is a pressing out of something,
essential. What is it? Our entire being is based on it, revolving
around it or breaking away from it. It is
a basic unfulfilled need.
It is the fulfillment of our existential nostalgia and spiritual
craving for our Creator that
ache our hearts.
In trying to represent and preserve our tradition, Contemporary
Issues is pleased to present to
you an introduction to Arabic
calligraphy by Ahmed Ebeed, with samples of new calligraphic works
from the Second Youth
Arabic Calligraphy Exhibition, which was held
under the title "Echo of Tradition," by many professional art
who studied and teach in the classical calligraphy schools.
We have also added few samples by the most distinguished calligraphy
Muhammad Haddad, who wrote out the Qur'an six times.
The art of every people constitutes
part of their culture as well as
their pride. Arabic calligraphy is the central original Islamic art,
which our ancestors
mastered. They perfected its scripts, designs,
and decorations, turning it into a great and eternal art. Throughout
Arabic calligraphy has reflected the essence of our Arab
and Islamic art, mirroring its spirit and nature and representing
progress. Arabic calligraphy has managed to be a genuine
expression of each age in the history of Arabic and Islamic art
has been a living and developing creation, passing through different
stages of change and with many types.
of the scripts died out because of their inability to develop.
Other types, however, interacted directly with the people's'
and their letters crystallized the genius of Muslim and Arabic art,
reaching the climax of beauty and the peak
of creativity. No other
people has ever handled writing in such an artistic way. Arabic
calligraphy turned into the
origin of all arts, thanks to the fact
that it derives its nobility and greatness from the Qur'anic verses.
unfortunately, while other cultures became interested in
this art form, we as Arabs and Muslims overlooked this great art,
is closely related to Islam, and borrowed other arts from the
West. We have almost lost touch with calligraphy's true essence
This article is an attempt to rediscover this beautiful art,
examining its origin, progress, types,
tools, and figures.
THE ORIGIN OF ARABIC CALLIGRAPHY
There are different viewpoints and theories
about the origin of
Arabic calligraphy, some of which are based on legendary and
metaphysical hypotheses with no real
grounds. But inscriptions
discovered in the north of the Arab Peninsula have made the origins
of Arabic calligraphy
a little clearer. There are several viewpoints
about the origin of Arabic calligraphy, among which are the
inspired origin:Advocators of this theory perceive that
Arabic writing is bestowed from God, Who taught Adam (peace and
be upon him) all names. Ishmael (peace and blessings be
upon him) was the first to speak the Arabic language and this was
Historical origin: Others link Arabic calligraphy to the writing of
the Himyrite in Yemen. Yet this opinion
does not depend on any
physical evidence, as there is no relation linking the calligraphy
of the people of Yemen to
the calligraphy of the Arabs in the north.
Ancient Egyptian origin: According to this theory, hieroglyphic
is the oldest link in the chain leading to Arabic
calligraphy. This is the origin of the Arabic calligraphy now
in the modern age. Hieroglyphic writing, according to this
theory, was changed by the Phoenicians, who turned it into the
which they taught to the Greeks in the 16th century BCE.
It then spread from Greece to other parts of Europe.
opinion: Having reviewed different viewpoints, advocators of
this opinion believe that the Arabs only became acquainted
writing in the modern ages as a result of their emigration from the
center of the Arabian Peninsula to the more
In these areas, the Arabs gave up their Bedouin style and endorsed
more civilized means of living.
They established the Nabataean
Kingdom, with Petra as its capital, and they invented a script
derived from the Aramaic
one. This was known afterwards as Nabataean
calligraphy. The Nabataean Kingdom disappeared at the end of the
century CE, but their script remained and it was used by the
Arabs who moved from the north. Afterwards, Arabic calligraphy
through different stages until it reached the current form.
ARABIC CALLIGRAPHY: FROM NOMADIC TO AN ART
was highly primitive in style when the Arabs were first
introduced to it. At that time, there was little stability to allow
to innovate. Arabic calligraphy did not reach the level of an
art until the Arabs had a metropolitan state with competing
centers in Kufa, Basra, the Levant, and Egypt. Only then did Muslim
artists direct their attention to Arabic
calligraphy, improving it
and making new innovations.
Arabs tended to name handwriting with regional names, as was
case with products. Arabic calligraphy before the age of Prophet
Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was
known as Nabataean,
Hirian, or Anbarian, as this was a result of trade interaction with
these regions. Later, the two
holy cities of Makkah and Madinah
become centers for Arabic calligraphy named after them.
Arabic calligraphy was
improved and polished in Iraq and the Levant.
When the Arabs conquered these countries, they had the time to
and renovate, and they began to have their own architecture
and arts. This began when there was a need for governmental
(diwan, plural dawaween). This is valid in relation to both Iraq and
the Levant. During the Umayyad Dynasty,
there was an expansion of
the state and Damascus became the capital. The Umayyad Dynasty was
known for its luxury and
tendency toward urban development;
therefore, it witnessed a steady movement of construction, with a
spirit that was also reflected in the writings
that appeared on utensils and in the writing and decoration of the
the Abbasid Dynasty, handwriting was improved even further;
calligraphy blossomed and varied with each region having its
type of writing. It is worth mentioning in this regard that pens
were named according to their proportions to standard
standard pen was measured by putting together twelve hairs of a
certain animal. That was the standard thickness
of the pen and the
derivatives from that pen were called by their proportion to the
original, such as al-thuluth pen
(literally meaning a third).
Scripts were named according to the purposes they served, such as
the Signatory script;
or by reference to its innovator, such as Al-
Ra'isi (presidential) script. By this time, scripts were rarely
after the cities where they were invented. Scripts of the
Abbasid Dynasty followed a system similar to the Egyptians, who
three types of scripts—Clerical Hieroglyphic, Bureaucratic, and
Popular—each named according to its
Many of these handwriting styles disappeared, but other kinds are
still used today. We will illustrate
some of the most important
types of Islamic calligraphy, their description, and their use.
THE TUMAR SCRIPT
script was used by the caliphs in signatures and in writing to
There was also the Tumar Minor, which was
used in the accreditation
of ministers and representatives, and in ceremonies. Various pens
were used for these scripts.
two-thirds pen was used for the caliph's writings to his
deputies and princes.
The small round pen was used for
writing books, and for writing
hadith and poetry.
The ceremonial pen was used for recording the consultations and
of the princes.
The treaties pen was for the writing of treaties and pacts.
The Jarim pen was for princesses'
The Ghubar Al-Hilya (Dust of Ornamentation) pen was used for writing
messages to be taken by carrier pigeon.
KUFI SCRIPT: FLEXIBLE AND ACCURATE
Many wrongly believe that the Kufi handwriting refers to its origin
Kufa. This is not true; the name refers to the special attention
and interest that the Kufa paid to this kind of handwriting,
As stated, the Kufa paid special attention to this firm script,
polishing and decorating its
letters. This script was thus known as
the Kufi script and it mainly goes back to Hiri or Anbari
calligraphy. It was
called Kufi handwriting as it spread from the
Kufa to other parts of the Islamic world with the conquerors in the
age of Kufa.
The Kufa produced two main types of scripts:
1. Solid heavy script. This is known as the ceremonial
script or al-
khat al-tizkari, which was normally written on solid materials such
as stone or wood. It was known for
its beauty and decorative nature.
Sometimes it avoided any points or association between the letters.
script. This script is easy to write. This style of
handwriting moved away from the Madinah script to the Kufa. It was
as the editorial script because it was used for
correspondence, registrations, and writings.
The combination of
both kinds of handwriting brought about a third
type, which was known for its beauty and elegance; this was the
that was used in writing the Qur'an and it combines both
firmness and flexibility. It remained the favorite script during
first three centuries of Islam. Several artistic and decorative
kinds were derived from the Kufi script and were
divided by the
historians of Islamic art into the following types:
1. The Simple Kufi script, which is a plain script
with no leaf-like
ornaments, adornment, or plaiting. This script spread in the nascent
Islamic world and remained the
most favored style of handwriting in
the western Islamic world until later ages. Chief among these
examples are the
writings found on the top of the Dome of the Rock
2. The Vegetal script, which has leaf-like decorations,
ending with vertical strokes. This type blossomed in Egypt and
spread to both the east and west of the known
3. The Connected Braided Kufi script, whose ornamentations
accompanying it are highly complicated
to an extent that makes it
sometimes difficult to distinguish between the elements of the
script and the ornamentation.
Letters of the same word may be
braided, and sometimes two words or more are joined in a beautiful
framework of braiding.
The Geometric Kufi, known for its straight elements, acute
angles, and geometric features. This form of Kufi script is
in Iran and Iraq. It is a purely decorative kind of
handwriting, and the intertwining of its letters sometimes makes it
to decipher the sentences.
THULUTH:MOTHER OF ALL CALLIGRAPHY
This kind of calligraphy is known
as the "mother" and origin of all
calligraphy. All calligraphers have to master this kind of
handwriting, which is the
most difficult, followed by the Naskh,
which means "copying," as the Qur'an was copied in that script, and
Farsi or Persian script. The naming of the Thuluth script
goes back to the standard Tumar pen, which is the biggest pen
has a width of 24 horsehairs. The Thuluth pen was a third of this
standard pen and made of eight hairs. There were
half (12 hairs) and
two-thirds (16 hairs) pens as well. This idea goes back to the
calligrapher and minister Ibn Muqla,
who set the rules of the
The Thuluth script is used to write on the walls of mosques, minbars
domes, facades, museums, as well as newspaper headlines
and books. This script was used in the openings of the surahs of
Qur'an and in epigrams. Thuluth script is also known for the
tendency to make artistic forms (tashkil) with it.
NASKH SCRIPT: THE SERVANT OF THE QUR'AN
Some arguably ascribe the Naskh script to `Abdullah Al-Hassan ibn
the brother of the calligrapher `Ali ibn Muqla, while others
perceive that the Naskh is much older than Ibn Muqla.
Muqla actually developed the handwriting to its current form,
distinguishing it from other handwritings. It was named Naskh
"copy") because writers used it in the copying of the
Qur'an, the Hadith, and other books. It was also used in writing
metal, wood, marble, and plaster. Ibn Muqla named this script Al-
Badei` (radiant or exquisite) due to its aesthetic
nature. Naskh is
close to Thuluth in its beauty, glamour, and accuracy. It is
decorated, but to a lesser extent than
Thuluth. The tashkil
(diacritical signs) add to its beauty and elegance.
Naskh script is considered as an element
of decoration and gained
much attention in Iraq in the Abbasid era. It was developed in the
Atabiki age, which started
around AH 545, and was known as the
Atabiki Naskh. It was used in the writing of the Qur'an in the
Islamic middle ages
and it replaced the Kufi script for copying the
Qur'an and decorating the walls of the mosques. Both Naskh and
became the most prevalent scripts. Naskh can be
differentiated from Thuluth by the small size of its letters. The
and sequence mean the writer can use the pen more swiftly than
when writing the Thuluth, but still retain harmony and beauty.
PERSIAN OR FARSI SCRIPT
The Persians used to use the Fahlawi script, which originated in the
city of Fehla,
which lies between Hamdan, Asfahan, and Azerbaijan.
When Persia was conquered, Persians were introduced to Arabic
and Arabic became their official handwriting. The Arabic
letters replaced the Fahlawi script and it then became known as
(cursive) due to its cursive style and horizontal forms.
At the beginning of the third century after the Hijrah, after
their position in both Persia and Iraq, the Abbasid
Dynasty showed deep interest in Arabic calligraphy. They tended to
in Naskh and they decorated the letters with excessive
decoration, to an extent that gave their script a particular
The Persian script was used in the writing of literature
and poetry books; whereas books of Hadith were written in Naskh.
Persians excelled in the cursive scripts. They added ornaments
and decorations that made the script unique with its beautiful
letters. Letters changed in length and thickness according
to the taste of the artist and the thickness of the pen. Letters
unique for their accuracy and extension and they bore no
formations. Persian script was used to write the titles of books
letters, and is widely used in Iran, India, and Afghanistan.
Types of Persian Script
The Ordinary Persian: Known in our time in foreign countries as
2. The Shikista script: This is small
and very difficult to read or
to write. This kind of handwriting does not follow the ordinary
rules of handwriting,
but has its own rules. Shiksta means "broken"
in Persian and in Turkish it means "the cursive formula." This kind
handwriting is rather an enigma, a complicated riddle. It is even
hard for Arabs to decipher writings in that script; whereas
Persia, only those who have mastered it can understand it.
3. Shikista Emir: This is a combination of the two
Ordinary and the Shikista. It is less enigmatic than the other kind.
Manuscripts, texts of legislative documents,
and books of literature
and poetry were written in Shikista Emir and ornamented with golden
STULE OF HANDWRITING: A QUICK RYTHM
The Riq`a style of handwriting is one of the "modern" types of
It was said to have been invented by Mr. Mumtaz Bek
Mustafa Effendi, the counselor, who set its rules in AH 1280, in the
of Sultan `Abd Al-Majdi Khan, although some believe that the
Riq`a goes back to the time of Sultan Muhammad Al-Fateh.
style of handwriting is known for its clipped letters. It was
probably derived from the Thuluth and Naskh styles. Riq`a
beautiful script known for its straight lines. It does not entail
any formation. It is clear and readable and is
the easiest of all
kinds for daily handwriting. In the beginning, it was the most
common for daily use, especially for
women. It is used in the titles
of books and magazines and in commercial advertisements, thanks to
its simplicity and
clearness. The simplicity of the Riq`a is
attributed to the simple geometric formation of its letters, which
on easily formed straight lines and circles.
THE DIWANI SCRIPT: THE SCRIPT OF ELOQUENCE
style of handwriting goes back to the Ottoman period. It was
labeled the Diwani script because it was used in the Ottoman
(bureaus) and was one of the secrets of the palaces of the
sultan. The rules of this script were not known to everyone,
confined to its masters and a few bright students. It was used in
the writing of all royal decrees, endowments,
The Diwani style spread enormously in modern times due to the
efforts of the Royal Arabic Calligraphy
School in Egypt. It was
simplified and developed by the Egyptian calligrapher Mustafa
Ghazlan; hence it was called the
The Diwani script is divided into two types.
1. The Riq`a Diwani style,
which is void of any decorations and
whose lines are straight, except for the lower parts of the letters.
Jali or clear style. This kind of handwriting is
distinguished by the intertwining of its letters and its straight
from top to bottom. It is punctuated and decorated to appear
as one piece. The Diwani handwriting is known for the intertwining
its letters, which makes it very difficult to read or write—and
difficult to forge!
Diwani is marked by beauty
and harmony. Accurate small samples are
usually more beautiful than big ones. This kind of handwriting is
in the correspondence of kings, princes, presidents, and
in ceremonies and greeting cards. It has a high artistic value.
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(Arabic Calligraphy: Principles, Development, Spread). 1984.
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(Arab Calligraphy: Journey of Improvement
& Embellishment). 1998.
Egypt: Dar Al-Kitab.
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(Calligraphy and Handwriting in the Arab Civilization).
1994. Morroco: Dar Al-Gharb Al-Islami.
- `Abdul `Aziz Al-Dali.
Al-Khataath: Al-Kitab Al-`Arabih
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