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Arabic Calligraphy: The Essential Islamic Art

Arabic Calligraphy: The Essential Islamic Art
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,
the 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
experience of dealing with the divine word and reaching beyond it.
Arabic calligraphy is an artistic medium with which the Muslim
artist was equally vanished and overwhelmed, exterminated and
flooded, fashioned and ended in dealing with the scripture.

The monumental calligraphic works that we see are artistic,
spiritual, and—above all—sentimental testimonies of transcendence.
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, 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
masters who studied and teach in the classical calligraphy schools.
We have also added few samples by the most distinguished calligraphy
master, 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
history, Arabic calligraphy has reflected the essence of our Arab
and Islamic art, mirroring its spirit and nature and representing
its progress. Arabic calligraphy has managed to be a genuine
expression of each age in the history of Arabic and Islamic art and
has been a living and developing creation, passing through different
stages of change and with many types.

Some of the scripts died out because of their inability to develop.
Other types, however, interacted directly with the people's' lives,
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.

However, unfortunately, while other cultures became interested in
this art form, we as Arabs and Muslims overlooked this great art,
which is closely related to Islam, and borrowed other arts from the
West. We have almost lost touch with calligraphy's true essence and

This article is an attempt to rediscover this beautiful art,
examining its origin, progress, types, tools, and figures.


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

Divinely inspired origin:Advocators of this theory perceive that
Arabic writing is bestowed from God, Who taught Adam (peace and
blessings be upon him) all names. Ishmael (peace and blessings be
upon him) was the first to speak the Arabic language and this was
its origin.

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
writing is the oldest link in the chain leading to Arabic
calligraphy. This is the origin of the Arabic calligraphy now
accepted in the modern age. Hieroglyphic writing, according to this
theory, was changed by the Phoenicians, who turned it into the
alphabet, which they taught to the Greeks in the 16th century BCE.
It then spread from Greece to other parts of Europe.

Modern opinion: Having reviewed different viewpoints, advocators of
this opinion believe that the Arabs only became acquainted with
writing in the modern ages as a result of their emigration from the
center of the Arabian Peninsula to the more civilized peripheries.
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
second century CE, but their script remained and it was used by the
Arabs who moved from the north. Afterwards, Arabic calligraphy
passed through different stages until it reached the current form.


Writing was highly primitive in style when the Arabs were first
introduced to it. At that time, there was little stability to allow
them to innovate. Arabic calligraphy did not reach the level of an
art until the Arabs had a metropolitan state with competing cultural
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 the
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
improve and renovate, and they began to have their own architecture
and arts. This began when there was a need for governmental bureaus
(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
special architectural spirit that was also reflected in the writings
that appeared on utensils and in the writing and decoration of the

During the Abbasid Dynasty, handwriting was improved even further;
calligraphy blossomed and varied with each region having its own
type of writing. It is worth mentioning in this regard that pens
were named according to their proportions to standard pens. The
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
named after the cities where they were invented. Scripts of the
Abbasid Dynasty followed a system similar to the Egyptians, who had
three types of scripts—Clerical Hieroglyphic, Bureaucratic, and
Popular—each named according to its function.

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.


This 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.

The 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
discussions of the princes.

The treaties pen was for the writing of treaties and pacts.

The Jarim pen was for princesses' writings.

The Ghubar Al-Hilya (Dust of Ornamentation) pen was used for writing
messages to be taken by carrier pigeon.


Many wrongly believe that the Kufi handwriting refers to its origin
in Kufa. This is not true; the name refers to the special attention
and interest that the Kufa paid to this kind of handwriting, not to
its origin.

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
blooming 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.

2. Flexible script. This script is easy to write. This style of
handwriting moved away from the Madinah script to the Kufa. It was
known 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
handwriting that was used in writing the Qur'an and it combines both
firmness and flexibility. It remained the favorite script during the
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
in Jerusalem.

2. The Vegetal script, which has leaf-like decorations, its letters
ending with vertical strokes. This type blossomed in Egypt and
spread to both the east and west of the known Islamic world.

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.

4. The Geometric Kufi, known for its straight elements, acute
angles, and geometric features. This form of Kufi script is
prevalent in Iran and Iraq. It is a purely decorative kind of
handwriting, and the intertwining of its letters sometimes makes it
difficult to decipher the sentences.


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
then the Farsi or Persian script. The naming of the Thuluth script
goes back to the standard Tumar pen, which is the biggest pen and
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
Thuluth script.

The Thuluth script is used to write on the walls of mosques, minbars
(pulpits), domes, facades, museums, as well as newspaper headlines
and books. This script was used in the openings of the surahs of the
Qur'an and in epigrams. Thuluth script is also known for the
tendency to make artistic forms (tashkil) with it.


Some arguably ascribe the Naskh script to `Abdullah Al-Hassan ibn
Muqla, the brother of the calligrapher `Ali ibn Muqla, while others
perceive that the Naskh is much older than Ibn Muqla.

Ibn Muqla actually developed the handwriting to its current form,
distinguishing it from other handwritings. It was named Naskh
(meaning "copy") because writers used it in the copying of the
Qur'an, the Hadith, and other books. It was also used in writing on
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
Thuluth became the most prevalent scripts. Naskh can be
differentiated from Thuluth by the small size of its letters. The
size and sequence mean the writer can use the pen more swiftly than
when writing the Thuluth, but still retain harmony and beauty.


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
letters and Arabic became their official handwriting. The Arabic
letters replaced the Fahlawi script and it then became known as
Ta`liq (cursive) due to its cursive style and horizontal forms.

At the beginning of the third century after the Hijrah, after
consolidating their position in both Persia and Iraq, the Abbasid
Dynasty showed deep interest in Arabic calligraphy. They tended to
write in Naskh and they decorated the letters with excessive
decoration, to an extent that gave their script a particular
character. The Persian script was used in the writing of literature
and poetry books; whereas books of Hadith were written in Naskh.

The Persians excelled in the cursive scripts. They added ornaments
and decorations that made the script unique with its beautiful
inclined letters. Letters changed in length and thickness according
to the taste of the artist and the thickness of the pen. Letters
were unique for their accuracy and extension and they bore no
formations. Persian script was used to write the titles of books and
letters, and is widely used in Iran, India, and Afghanistan.

Types of Persian Script

1. 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
of handwriting is rather an enigma, a complicated riddle. It is even
hard for Arabs to decipher writings in that script; whereas in
Persia, only those who have mastered it can understand it.

3. Shikista Emir: This is a combination of the two types, the
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


The Riq`a style of handwriting is one of the "modern" types of
handwriting. It was said to have been invented by Mr. Mumtaz Bek
Mustafa Effendi, the counselor, who set its rules in AH 1280, in the
reign of Sultan `Abd Al-Majdi Khan, although some believe that the
Riq`a goes back to the time of Sultan Muhammad Al-Fateh.

This style of handwriting is known for its clipped letters. It was
probably derived from the Thuluth and Naskh styles. Riq`a is 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
are reliant on easily formed straight lines and circles.


This style of handwriting goes back to the Ottoman period. It was
labeled the Diwani script because it was used in the Ottoman
dawaween (bureaus) and was one of the secrets of the palaces of the
sultan. The rules of this script were not known to everyone, but
confined to its masters and a few bright students. It was used in
the writing of all royal decrees, endowments, and resolutions.

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 Ghazlani handwriting.

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.

2. The Jali or clear style. This kind of handwriting is
distinguished by the intertwining of its letters and its straight
lines from top to bottom. It is punctuated and decorated to appear
as one piece. The Diwani handwriting is known for the intertwining
of 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
still used in the correspondence of kings, princes, presidents, and
in ceremonies and greeting cards. It has a high artistic value.


- `Afif Bahnasi. Al-Khat Al-`Arabi: Usuluh, Nahdatuh, Intisharuh
(Arabic Calligraphy: Principles, Development, Spread). 1984.
Damascus: Dar Al-Fikr.

- Basim Zanoun. Al-Khat Al-`Arabi: Rihlat Al-Tahsien wa Al-Tajwid
(Arab Calligraphy: Journey of Improvement & Embellishment). 1998.
Egypt: Dar Al-Kitab.

- Yehya Wahin Al-Jaboury. Al-Khat wa Al-Kitabh fi Al-Hadarah Al-
`Arabiah (Calligraphy and Handwriting in the Arab Civilization).
1994. Morroco: Dar Al-Gharb Al-Islami.

- `Abdul `Aziz Al-Dali. Al-Khataath: Al-Kitab Al-`Arabih
(Calligraphy: Arabic Handwriting). 1992. Egypt: Al-Kahnjy.





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