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Introduction: Calligraphy in Islam

Uğur Derman

If a profession qualified as “artistic” simultaneously benefits humankind, then its importance is certainly enhanced. Born of the necessity felt by Muslims to read and write, calligraphy (khaṭṭ) was, through the efforts of those same Muslims, transformed into a fine art in its own right.

After the birth of Islam, the first order of business was to ensure that the Divine Revelation was recorded correctly in the manuscripts that embodied the written form of the Holy Qur’ān, and that the subtleties of the Arabic language were properly transcribed so that the religious and scholarly messages that had completely transformed the Arabs’ worldview could be widely disseminated. These concerns drew their principal spiritual support from the fact that the verses first revealed to the Prophet began with the command “Read!” and went on to state that God, “Who teaches by the pen, taught man that which he knew not.” (al-‘Alaq 96:1–5) That writing and the pen were mentioned here and in certain other later verses (al-Baqara 2:282; Luqmān 31:27; al-Qalam 68:1), as well as in some sayings attributed to the Prophet, goes a long way toward providing an explanation for this interest. Another important reason was that, at a time when Islam was fast spreading, the most lasting means for its complete and faithful diffusion was writing.

The Origins of Arabic Script and its Dissemination through Islam

There are several theories concerning the origins of Arabic script. Some scholars trace it back to Nabatean script, others to Syriac. Both alphabets have letters with simple forms, and neither gives any indication of the aesthetic sophistication its descendant would one day achieve. With the emergence of Islam, and particularly after the Ḥijrah, Arabic script acquired the special honor of being the writing medium of the newest and last of the Abrahamic religions. That it did not remain limited to Arabia and the Arabs is without any doubt due to the spread of Islam.

For mainly religious reasons, virtually every people that espoused Islam also adopted Arabic script. As a result, within a few centuries following the Ḥijrah, Arabic script came to belong not to a single nation, but to the entire Muslim community of believers. Thus, though the term “Arabic calligraphy” is certainly apt for the birth and early stages of the art, it is more appropriate to speak of “Islamic calligraphy” in recognition of the broad scope it gradually acquired. That this art came into being with a religious character and preserved it for a long time is not surprising: After all, Renaissance art in Europe was also born of religious concerns, whose influence it bore for many centuries.

Those familiar with Arabic or with one of the many languages written in Arabic script will know that letters take different forms according to whether they appear at the beginning, inside, or at the end of a word. As writing was transformed into an art, the letters came to acquire very elegant shapes, and the ligatures they compose came to provide an extremely rich visual palette. This, and particularly the possibility of writing a word or sentence in many different arrangements, opened the door to the boundlessness and innovation that is so necessary in the arts. Not only can individual letters be written in several distinct forms, but the different kinds of script (discussed below) afford an astonishing wealth of appearances. It is consequently impossible not to agree with the succint definition that appears in Islamic sources, which state that “Calligraphy is spiritual geometry achieved with material instruments.” This aesthetic stance shaped the art as it evolved through the centuries.

The Development of Islamic Calligraphy

Though few initially knew how to read and write in it, Arabic script became widespread through intensified instruction, and was in time equipped with the diacritical symbols necessary for the correct recording of the Qur’ān, and therefore of the Arabic language. As there were originally no letters nor signs to denote short vowels in the Arabic alphabet, colored dots were used at first to indicate the vocalization of consonants. A century or so later, these were replaced by newly invented special signs known as ḥaraka. Likewise, letters that shared a common form and had, until then, only been contextually distinguishable were differentiated by the placement of a different number (1, 2, or 3) of dots in different locations (above or below) relative to them. Initially utilizing oblique lines, this system of dots was called raqsh. Indeed, as time progressed, new symbols came to be used with undotted letters to facilitate their differentiation from dotted ones that shared the same form. Questions remain as to exactly when these reforms began, but their development during the first two centuries of Islam is of interest primarily to Arabic philologists. Be that as it may, both the dots and the vocalization signs and undotted letter symbols played an important role in the artistic development of calligraphy through their decorative shapes. The article al-, another feature dictated by the Arabic language, also added to the beauty of writing by providing a constant element of balance.

North Arabic script took its name from the regions with which it was primarily associated, and came to be known as Anbārī or Ḥirī. After it spread into the Ḥijāz (Western Arabia), it was known first as Makkī and then, after the Ḥijrah, as Madanī. Collectively, these two phases are refered to as Ḥijāzī. The first copy of the Holy Qur’ān in book form was written in precisely this Makkī-Madanī script, on parchment, in brown or black ink, with letters that lacked dots and vocalization symbols. Such early exemplars lack the aesthetic dimension that later copies would enjoy.

Setting aside the historical trajectory of the art of calligraphy, we now briefly focus on the instruments and materials utilized in the practice of this art, in order to clarify the topic at hand.

The Instruments and Materials Used in Islamic Calligraphy

Before and After the Advent of Paper

In the pre- and early Islamic periods, the principal surfaces used for writing were date-palm stems and branches stripped of bark, the shoulder blades and ribs of camels and other large animals, thin white stones named likhāf, tanned animal skins, and finally—the most valuable of all—silk or cotton fabric glazed with gum and polished, which was known as muhraq.

With the spread of Islam and the rising importance of writing, new materials became necessary. The conquest of Egypt provided a first solution to this problem: sheets of papyrus, known first as bardī and later as qirṭās, and glazed fabric similar to muhraq known as qubāṭī. Skins and papyrus were widely used until paper production began in the second half of the eighth century C.E. first in Samarqand and then in Baghdad, after which they were gradually replaced by this new and fine medium. However, the abundance of bardī in Egypt led to its continued use there. In time, paper was also manufactured in Syria and Palestine, thence passing through North Africa to Sicily and Muslim Spain. In this manner, Europe also came to know paper.

As the artistic aspect of writing gained importance, the production of paper increased in volume, as did its varieties. The practice of dyeing the paper a light color, coating it with a solution of rice starch or with egg white whose viscosity has been reduced with alum, and then polishing it (ṣayqal, âhâr) gained currency and continued through the Mamluk, Timurid, Safavid, and Ottoman periods.

Types of Ink

Though a variety of substances were sometimes added to its composition, the basis of the ink used in Islamic calligraphy is a suspension of soot obtained by burning such materials as beeswax, naphtha, or linseed oil, dissolving the residue in a solution of gum Arabic, and pounding the mixture for a long time. Inkwells were made first by hollowing out pieces of wood, and later with seramics, glass, or metal. It is necessary to place a bunch of raw silk inside such containers, so that its fibres hold the ink. Pen containers in the form of rectangular prisms or cylinders were sometimes attached to the inkwells, thus forming practical and portable calligraphers’ sets.

Besides the commonly used soot ink, red, blue, yellow, and green inks were also procued from natural pigments. Moreover, gold ink was made by dissolving finely ground gold leaf in gelatinous water, and used to create majestic works in the style known as zer-endûd.

The Pen

Islamic calligraphy is written with a pen (qalam) made of certain types of reed that grow in warm climates. The reed is sharpened with a special knife and its tip is reduced to the appropriate width according to whether the script is to be fine of bold. A small rectangular platform of ivory (or mother-of-pearl, tortoise shell, or bone) named miqaṭṭa’ is used for this purpose: the pen is laid on it, its tip is nipped and slit to permit the flow of ink. Large inscriptions require special pens made of wood.

Other Instruments

Because the calligrapher writes while sitting down with the paper placed upon his raised right knee, a supporting pad is needed on which to place the sheet of paper. In addition, a line guide made of carboard on which lengths of silk thread are stretched according to the intended layout, is extremely useful.

Great importance was given to instruments and materials during the golden age of calligraphy, in an effort to attain the highest degree of artistic perfection. This led to the establishment of a supply industry for hand-crafting the various instruments used by calligraphers. Some of the most beautiful products of this industry—particularly those dating from the Ottoman period—are now preserved in museums and private collections.

The Separation of Calligraphy into a Diversity of Scripts

Let us now return to the subject of calligraphy proper. A characteristic of Northern Arabic script that was preserved after the birth of Islam was that angular script was reserved for copying the Qur’ān, for permanent correspondences, and for inscriptions carved into stone; it was used in Damascus and especially Kūfa, whence it received the name Kūfī. On the other hand, cursive script, which was better suited to speedy writing, was reserved for everyday use and for official business; its graceful and curvacious character, however, lent itself to artistic development. It was widely used and further developed in Damascus during the Umayyad period (661–750).

Certain specific widths of pen tips were set down in the eighth century, and, over time, new styles of writing emerged for each width. The earliest known scripts among these were jalīl, used for large inscriptions, and ṭūmar, another large script of fixed size used for official correspondence. The word ṭūmar means “scroll”; since state communications at the highest levels were written on pieces of skin (and later paper) of a certain size, rolled up, placed into sealed containers, and sent to the appropriate authorities, the script used for this purpose naturally came to be known by this name. It is probable that ṭūmar script was invented by Quṭbah al-Muharrir (d. 154/771). Ḍaḥḥāk b. ‘Ajlān and Isḥāq b. Ḥammād, who also lived in the eighth century, contributed to the elevation of writing to an art. Isḥāq’s student Ibrāhīm al-Sijzī developed two new pens respectively one-third (thulth) and two-thirds (thulthayn) as wide as the ṭūmar pen, and hence two new scripts. Ibrāhīm’s brother Yūsuf Laqwah invented riyāsī script, which later came to be known as tawqī‘āt. Ibrāhīm’s student Aḥmad Aḥwal invented qalam al-niṣf, which is half as wide as the ṭūmar pen, and also thin versions of niṣf and thulth known as khafīf al-niṣf and khafīf al-thulth. The scripts named musalsal, mu’āmarāt, and qiṣaṣ are also attributed to him.

As their names makes clear, some new types of writing were developed relative to ṭūmar script, and these were written with pens whose tips were a certain fraction (one-half, one-third, two-thirds) of the width of a ṭūmar pen. As the pens became narrower, the scripts acquired new characteristics, and this causal relationship led to the practice of referring to the scripts (khaṭṭ) by the name of the instruments used to write them, that is, the pen (qalam). On the other hand, those scripts that were developed for specific purposes and without regard to the relative width of the pen (such as mu’āmarāt and qiṣaṣ) were still known as khaṭṭ rather than qalam.

Scholarship and the arts flourished during the ‘Abbāsid period (750–1258), as a result of which a great demand arose for books in the major centers of learning, particularly Baghdad. The copyists who satisfied this demand were known as warrāq, and the scripts they used were called naskhī, warrāqī, muḥaqqaq, and ‘Irāqī. Starting with the end of the eighth century, the scribes’ efforts to seek the most beautiful forms in writing led to well-balanced scripts known as khaṭṭ al-aṣlī or khaṭṭ al-mawzūn. Foremost among those who promoted these scripts were the Ibn Muqlah brothers, Abū ‘Alī (d. 328/940) and Abū ‘Abdillāh (d. 338/949), who were students of Isḥāq b. Ibrāhīm al-Barbarī. No works certain to be by them are extant. The better known brother, Abū ‘Alī, who was also a vezir, formulated rules to govern the order and harmony of scripts; these came to be known as khaṭṭ al-mansūb, which means “proportioned script.”

The Six Scripts or Six Pens (aqlām al-sitta) discussed below grew out of these well-balanced and proportioned scripts. Though some sources state that the Six Scripts were created by Ibn Muqlah out of modified Kūfī script, that view is not generally accepted, for the golden age of Kūfī script continued simultaneously with these developments, particularly in the copying of Qur’āns. Indeed, changing shape as it spread out, Kūfī script became more rounded in North Africa where it reached its apogee in the tenth century and was known as Maghribī; it maintained its supremacy for a long time in the Maghreb and in Muslim Spain. Around the same time, Eastern (Mashriqī) Kūfī script developed in Iran and beyond, and remained in use until the Six Scripts gained the upper hand. A slight variant of Eastern Kūfī, characterized by certain letters shaped like a weaver’s shuttle, is sometimes refered to as Qarmathian Kūfī. Another variant known as Qayrawānī after the Tunisian city reflects the transition to Maghribī and has some of the characteristics of Mashriqī Kūfī script.

The large and ornamented Kūfī script found primarily on monumental inscriptions gained a decorative—and sometimes geometrical—quality during the twelfth century. Besides its plaited or interlaced, floral (muzahhar), and foliated (muwarraq) variants, a highly geometric form evolved, refered to in later sources as Ma‘qilī, architectural (bannāī), and chessboard-like (shaṭranjī).

Out of one of the proportioned scripts, used mainly to copy books and therefore known in the early eleventh century as warrāqī or naskhī, evolved the muḥaqqaq, rayḥānī, and naskh scripts. The brilliant calligrapher of the age, Ibn al-Bawwāb (d. 413/1022), further developed the approach of Ibn Muqlah, and that style remained in effect until the mid-thirteenth century. Ibn Khāzin (d. 518/1124), who also followed Ibn Muqlah, developed the tawqī‘ and riqā‘ scripts. Together with thulth, which already existed, these collectively constituted the so-called Six Scripts. However, it appears that thulth must have lost its “one-third” quality when it was included among these scripts.

Though naskhī was a fine script, some recent publications have for some reason taken to naming the script of certain architectural inscriptions dating from this period by this name, indeed distinguishing subcategories such as Ayyubid (1171–1250), Atabegid (1127–1260), and Seljukid (1040–1194). In fact, however, these inscriptions should be qualified as jalīl, a designation that remained in existence until the Six Scripts were fully developed, after which it was replaced by jalī thulth.

The Six Scripts in the Age of Yāqūt

The group of Six Scripts (thulth, naskh, muḥaqqaq, rayḥānī, tawqī‘ and riqā‘) were known as the Six Pens (aqlām al-sitta), because they had all been developed and differentiated out of a common foundation. Though their aesthetic dimension steadily increased in importance, it took Yāqūt al-Musta‘ṣimī (d. 698/1298) of Baghdad to codify all of their rules. He was the first to nip the tip of the pen obliquely, the end closest to the calligrapher being shorter than the other, thus taking script to a whole new level of gracefulness. As the Six Scripts developed and acquired all their many subtleties, numerous other scripts fell into oblivion; thus, nothing but the names are known today of mu‘annaq, dībāj, zanbūr, mufattaḥ, lu’lu’ī, mu‘allaq, mursal, ḥawāshī, and many others.

Baghdad was invaded by the Ilkhānids in 656/1258, when Yāqūt was still alive. The Caliphate was transfered to Cairo, where the Mamluk Sultanate had recently been established (648/1250) to rule over Egypt and Syria (Damascus, Aleppo). Mamluk calligraphers generally followed Ibn al-Bawwāb and resisted Yāqūt’s style, though they could not entirely ignore it. Still, it would be fair to say that the latest to abandon the style of Ibn al-Bawwāb were the Egyptians. On the other hand, after the Il Khānate adopted Islam (1295), the style of Yāqūt spread in the lands under its dominion. As was the case under the Mamluks, under the Ilkhānids too calligraphy was prized at the highest levels of the state.

After Yāqūt’s death, his students and their own propagated his style throughout Anatolia, Iran, and Transoxania (Māwarā’ al-Nahr). However, the style of Yāqūt did not reach North Africa except in rare and isolated instances; for the most part, calligraphers of the Maghreb remained committed to local scripts derived from Kūfī, and this approach continues to the present day.

In the fifteenth century, Samarqand and Herat excelled not only in calligraphy but in all the arts of the book, including illumination (tadhhīb), miniature-painting, and others. This was because when, in 795/1393, Timur (Tamerlane, d. 807/1405) took Baghdad from the Jalāyirids (1336–1431), he sent all the artists living there to Samarqand; his grandson Baysunghur Mirzā (d. 837/1433) was gifted in calligraphy and the decorative arts, and initiated an era of outstanding artistry. The Timurid dynasty continued its patronage of the arts until the end of the reign of Ḥusayn Bayqara (1469–1506). In the Six Scripts, these years were the apex of the style of Yāqūt.

The Akkoyunlu (Aq Qoyunlu, or White Sheep Turcomans, 1308–1502) and Karakoyunlu (Qara Qoyunlu, or Black Sheep Turcomans, 1437–1467), as well as the Safavid dynasty (1501–1732) that followed them, likewise greatly prized the arts of the book. As for the Mughal Empire (1526–1858), founded in India by Babur Shāh, it adhered to the calligraphic style brought there by artists who had come from Iran. However, before describing such scripts as qadīm, ta‘līq, and nasta‘līq, which emerged during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it will be appropriate to review the history of calligraphy in Anatolia.

Kūfī was abandoned for copying books during the Seljuk Sultanate of Rūm (that is, the Anatolian Seljuks, 1078–1308), and the styles first of Ibn al-Bawwāb and later of Yāqūt became dominant during the period of the Anatolian Principalities (Beyliks, 1080–1460), which included the foundation of the Ottoman dynasty (1299). Some attractive architectural inscriptions from that period are extant in Central Asia, Iran, and Anatolia, featuring Kūfī and jalīl al-thulth writing made of bricks or tiles, or carved into stones.

After the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, it was this city’s turn to be the cultural and artistic center of the Muslim world. Before discussing Ottoman calligraphy during the later periods, let us briefly analyze the Six Scripts in their most accomplished form. It is possible to subdivide the Six Scripts into three pairs, namely thulth and naskh, muḥaqqaq and rayḥānī, and finally tawqī‘ and riqā‘. The first member of each pair (thulth, muḥaqqaq, and tawqī‘) is written with a pen whose tip is approximately 2 millimeters wide, while the second member of each pair (naskh, rayḥānī, and riqā‘) is written with a narrower pen whose tip is approximately 1 millimeter wide. In terms of their basic characteristics, the members of each of two of these pairs (muḥaqqaq and rayḥānī, tawqī‘ and riqā‘) are quite similar to each other, evocative of two siblings of whom one is younger than the other, but who nevertheless resemble each other very much. This is not so with the pair thulth and naskh, however, for these two scripts are separated not only by their sizes, but also by many evident formal differences. There is also an extremely small version of naskh script which, because it is as small as specks of dust, is named ghubārī script.

Of the Six Scripts, thulth, refered to in older sources as umm al-khaṭṭ (mother of script), is the best suited to the practice of art, for the curvilinear, taut nature of its letters affords calligraphers the opportunity to manipulate it into the greatest wealth of forms and the most novel of arrangements. This is especially striking in the case of jalī (large) thulth, used in monumental inscriptions and written with pens that have very wide tips. When a thulth or jalī thulth inscription is written so that each letter is necessarily connected to the next, it is known as musalsal. When it is written so that the text is repeated twice, once as the mirror image of the other, it is known as muthannā. These were often produced as attractive and original variations of the basic forms.

Although naskh script is cursive, it is written with a thin pen and does not lend itself to constructing compositions. Instead, it is always disposed on a straight line. Naskh has been used primarily for copying long texts, especially the Holy Qur’ān. Likewise, muḥaqqaq and rayḥānī have been laid out on straight lines, because their letters tend to be relatively straight and flat. Until the sixteenth century, muḥaqqaq was used for copying large Qur’āns, and rayḥānī small ones. During the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, the naskh, muḥaqqaq, and rayḥānī scripts, and even thulth, were sometimes combined in particular arrangements in some copies of the Qur’ān. A considerable number of Qur’āns written during the same period with a pen between muḥaqqaq and rayḥānī (known as qalam al-maṣāḥif) are also extant.

The pair tawqī‘ and riqā‘ were used for official correspondence, and rarely for copying books. Chapter (sūrah) headings in Qur’āns were also sometimes written in one of these scripts. However, after Ottomans developed the dīwānī and jalī dīwānī scripts, tawqī‘ largely fell into disuse. For its part, riqā‘ script became specialized and was used in licenses and diplomas (ijāzah) for calligraphers, theologians, members of sūfī orders, and the like. As such, it came to be known as khaṭṭ al-ijāza.

All of the Six Scripts were usually vocalized, as required by the Arabic language, although occasionally naskh, tawqī‘, and riqā‘ were written without diacritical signs.

The Six Scripts during the Ottoman Period

Having traveled from Amasya to Istanbul, the calligrapher Shaykh Hamdullâh (d. 926/1520) proceeded, with the encouragement of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II (1448–1512)—who was also his student—to study works by Yāqūt and develop a style that had a new appearance, but did not contradict the fundamental principles enunciated by his predecessor. Hamdullâh’s distillation process is especially evident in naskh script. The style of Shaykh Hamdullâh replaced that of Yāqūt during the sixteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith. Though Ahmed Karahisârî (d. 963/1556) attempted to revive the style of Yāqūt in Istanbul, his efforts were forgotten within a generation. As Ottoman tastes leaned more towards the use of cursive naskh for copying Qur’āns, the largely flat muḥaqqaq and rayḥānī scripts were gradually abandoned.

The style of Shaykh Hamdullâh prevailed for more than 150 years, leaving its place towards the end of the seventeenth century to that of Hâfız Osman (1052/1642–1110/1698). This latter great artist’s style, its beauty enhanced over time, remains in effect today. However, the Ottoman callligraphers Kādıasker Mustafa İzzet (1216/1801–1293/1876) and Mehmed Şevkı (1245/1829–1304/1887) interpreted it differently, creating two branches that have persisted down to the present. In their hands, those of the Six Scripts that continued to be used reached their most elegant forms.

Having studied painting and mastered the art of perspective, Mustafa Râkım (1171/1758–1241/1826) perfected jalī thulth, which is also used for monumental inscriptions. He did so by applying Hâfız Osman’s conception of thulth to jalī thulth for the first time. Sâmi Efendi (1253/1838–1330/1912) followed in his footsteps, giving jalī thulth a style that is still dominant today.

Other Types of Script

After the Six Scripts, the type of writing used most widely is nasta‘līq. It is said to have evolved from the script known as ta‘līq al-qadīm, which had itself developed from tawqī‘ in Iran during the thirteenth century, and was used by secretaries (munshī) for official correspondence. It is also reported that it was originally named naskh-i ta‘līq in the sense of “that which has abolished or canceled ta‘līq script,” but that the difficulty in pronouncing this term eventually led to its contraction into nasta‘līq. This script came into itself in the fourteenth century, and was formalized in the fifteenth by Mīr ‘Alī of Tabrīz (d. 850/1446).

Nasta‘līq was brought to Anatolia at the time of the Akkoyunlu and Karakoyunlu as a script for copying books. In Iran, it split into two distinct styles as a result of differing interpretations by the calligraphers ‘Abdurraḥman al-Khwarizmī and Ja‘far-i Tabrīzī. The style developed by the former did not take hold in Iran, but was adopted in India. The style developed by the latter, on the other hand, had many brilliant exponents during the Safavid period, reaching the height of perfection in the works of Mīr ‘Imād al-Ḥasanī (d. 1024/1615). It is also worth noting that starting in the seventeenth century, the Six Scripts in Iran came under the influence of nasta‘līq and moved away from the style of Yāqūt.

Though used by Ottomans since the times of Mehmed the Conqueror (r. 1451–1481) under the name ta‘līq, nasta‘līq script gained wider popularity in Istanbul through the work of Darwīsh ‘Abdī of Bukhāra (d. 1057/1647), a student of Mīr ‘Imād’s. As a result, those who excelled in this style in the Ottoman Empire came to be known as ‘Imād-ı Rūm (“‘Imād of Rome,” that is, of Anatolia). One such calligrapher, Mehmed Es‘ad Efendi known as Yesârî (“The Left-Handed,” d. 1213/1798), studied ‘Imād’s letters as Shaykh Hamdullâh had studied Yāqūt’s before him, and thus created the Turkish style of ta‘līq script. His son Yesârîzâde Mustafa İzzet (d. 1265/1849) fully codified the rules of jalī ta‘līq, and his style, acquiring even greater beauty in the works of Sâmi Efendi, continues to be followed in Turkey today.

In Iran, a modified version of nasta‘līq adapted to speedy writing and known as shikesteh was used in official correspondence. The script ta‘līq al-qadīm was introduced to the Ottomans by secretaries brought to Istanbul from the Akkoyunlu palace following the Battle of Otlukbeli (1473). Combined with tawqī‘ in the hands of Ottoman scribes, it evolved first into unvocalized dīwānī, and later into the vocalized and much more intricate jalī dīwānī, both of which were used at the Imperial Court for more than four centuries and continued to change and evolve.

The sultan’s cipher (tughra) represented the state from the day of his accession to the throne until the end of his reign. It included the sultan’s name and patronymic, and a prayer for victory. Mustafa Râkım endowed it with a new aesthetic and mathematical unity, and Sâmi Efendi gave it its final form.

Riq‘a script was developed by the Ottomans for writing shorthand. Under the name Bâbıâli rık‘ası (riq‘a of the Sublime Porte), it was used for official business as well as everyday correspondence. It was standardized by İzzet Efendi (1257/1841–1320/1903) and took his name (İzzet Efendi rık‘ası); this new form became extremely widespread in the Arab world. Another script known as siyāqat was used as a code in financial documents and land registers, and has no artistic qualities to speak of.

Throughout its history, calligraphy was developed by a succession of states that gained a position of leadership in the Muslim World: Umayyad and ‘Abbāsid rule were followed by al-Andalus in Spain and the Mamluks of Egypt, and then the Timurid, Safavid, and, finally, Ottoman dynasties. If we were to attempt simply to mention every artist who contributed to calligraphy through the course of history, most of this article would doubtless be taken up by a list of names. Thus, we have limited ourselves to those calligraphers whose works constituted artistic milestones. Moreover, scripts that were named after individuals or places and remained localized (such as Bābur, Bihārī, or Qandūsī) were not included in this brief review. In any event, one could hardly claim that writing was elevated to an art form in every Islamic country.

The Uses of Calligraphy

Calligraphy has very many uses, including the following:


Before printing, books were copied by hand. The most common types of manuscript were copies of the Qur’ān, followed by sections of the Qur’ān (juz‘), collections of prayers, and the daily prayers of sūfī orders (awrād). After these come collections of the sayings and doings attributed to the Prophet (ḥadīth), scholarly works, collections of poetry (dīwān), and so forth. Needless to say, not every book was written with calligraphy. Nevertheless, the wealthy and the powerful commissioned such works both because they wished to own beautiful books, and in order to patronize the artists. During the later period, books were copied mostly in naskh and in khordeh (fine) nasta‘līq (known among Ottomans as ta‘līq, and among Arabs as Farsī).

Before printing, books were copied by hand. The most common types of manuscript were copies of the Qur’ān, followed by sections of the Qur’ān (juz‘), collections of prayers, and the daily prayers of sūfī orders (awrād). After these come collections of the sayings and doings attributed to the Prophet (ḥadīth), scholarly works, collections of poetry (dīwān), and so forth. Needless to say, not every book was written with calligraphy. Nevertheless, the wealthy and the powerful commissioned such works both because they wished to own beautiful books, and in order to patronize the artists. During the later period, books were copied mostly in naskh and in khordeh (fine) nasta‘līq (known among Ottomans as ta‘līq, and among Arabs as Farsī).

Single Pieces (qiṭ‘a)

An inscription was penned on one side of a sheet of paper having roughly the dimensions of a medium-sized book, either in a single script (such as ta‘līq) or in two (such as thulth and naskh, or muḥaqqaq and rayḥānī). These sheets were then mounted on cardboard so as to leave margins on all four sides, and the margins were sometimes decorated. Such pieces were called qiṭ‘a, and albums constructed by assembling several pieces into a single binding were called muraqqa‘.

Panels (lawha)

Large inscriptions in jalī scripts written onto panels gained popularity during the last two centuries, particularly among Ottomans. This allowed works of calligraphy to be framed and hung on walls, making it possible for many people to look at and read them. Word portraits of the Prophet of Islam, known as hilye-i sa‘adet and invented by Hâfız Osman, occupy a special place among calligraphic panels.

Books, single pieces, and panels were sometimes decorated in gold and various colors; this occasioned the birth and development of the art of illumination (tadhhīb). In addition, sheets of marbled paper have been used for several centuries for the purpose of decorating works of calligraphy, particularly when it was desired to reduce cost or complete work in a short time.

Large Inscriptions

Jalī inscriptions large enough to be read from a distance were either carved into stone or, when the climate was suitable, painted onto tiles and fired, or painted directly onto walls with pigments or gold leaf. The inscriptions on mosques and monuments belong to this category. Less often, calligraphy was also carved in wood or metal.

In addition to the above, ceramics (such as oil lamps and vases), precious stones, gold-inlaid metal, and other media can also feature calligraphy. However, these seldom retain the elegance of an inscription written with a pen.

The Teaching of Calligraphy

Throughout history, calligraphy was taught both in schools and through private tutoring, though care was taken not to turn this latter into a source of financial gain. Not only did lessons of calligraphy taken at a young age give talented individuals the opportunity to actualize their potential, but they also helped those devoid of talent by teaching them to appreciate order and beauty. The aesthetic unit of calligraphy is the dot written by a single penstroke, and the dimensions, curvature, and slant of letters are all determined in terms of dots. Thus, learning calligraphy is but a first step in learning to live a measured life.

The curriculum of calligraphy includes learning how to write, first, individual letters (mufradāt), and second, words and sentences (murakkabāt). When the student finally reaches the point of being able to perfectly imitate an old master’s work, he receives a license from his teacher, and earns the right to sign his works.

A number of factors helped calligraphy reach the twentieth century without straying from its path towards perfection:

a) That the art was transmitted from master to student through a rigorous course of instruction, the end of which was always certified by the granting of a license. The fact that no money was exhanged in the process also helped maintain high standards.

b) That it did not freeze or stagnate, but was always renewed in a manner that harmonized with its inner structure.

c) That a counterpart to it did not exist in Europe, so that it remained perhaps the only art form not to be influenced by the West, and thus not to be corrupted by external factors.

Today, the power of technology relentlessly drives man away from handicrafts that require patience and endurance; this does not mean, however, that the beauties of old can no longer be appreciated, nor that they cannot be integrated with the possibilities afforded by modernity, such as printing and computers. The calligraphers who gave their lives to this system of writing—a system that constitutes the most gracious and elegant response to the Divine Command “Read!”—and who produced works that today occupy some of the most distinguished places in the cultural heritage of Islam, deserve to be remembered with gratitude and prayers.

Arabic script was revered by Turks until eighty years ago, and though it is no longer used for writing in the Turkish language, it has survived among them in the form of calligraphy. During the decades following Turkey’s adoption of Latin script in 1928, the master calligraphers inherited from the Ottoman era departed from this world in despair, convinced that the abandonment of Arabic script in daily life would necessarily bring about the end of Islamic calligraphy. However, although the art did stagnate for some twenty to thirty years, the new generations in Turkey now feel a renewed interest in it, and have been discovering their identity through calligraphy. Deriving its nobility from the Holy Qur’ān, the art has thus reached the twenty-first century in all its perfection, taking its place within the sphere of the verse “Verily it is We who have sent down this reminder [i.e., the Qur’ān], and verily We shall guard it” (al-Ḥijr 15:9) revealed by “The Creator of the Tablet and the Pen.”


Translated from Turkish by İrvin Cemil Schıck

Preproduced with permission.

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