Styles and Development of Arabic Calligraphy

Qalam used in Arabic calligraphy

Arabic calligraphy is the art of writing in a fluid and beautiful manner to express harmony and grace. It comes from the word ‘line’, ‘design’, or ‘construction’ in Arabic, khatt (Arabic: خط). Though it began as readable handwriting, it has become an Arab tradition for artistic works – both old and new. Arabic calligraphy is a form of writing which has become an important traditional art form in the Muslim world. Originally used as a tool for communication, Arabic calligraphy began to be used in architecture, decoration and coin design over time.

Materials used in Arabic calligraphy

The tools used for calligraphy are different types of pens and inks. Traditional techniques use natural materials, such as reeds and bamboo stems for a type of pen called a qalam with a shaped and notched tip, (or another writing instrument). A mixture of honey, black soot and saffron is used for the ink, while paper is handmade before being treated with starch, egg white and alum. For modern calligraphy, markers and synthetic paint are commonly used. For calligraffiti, spray paint is utilized on walls, buildings and signs. Calligraphy can also be used for artistic enhancement by artisans and designers in mediums such as marble carving, wood carving, embroidery and metal etching.

Contexts of utilization

The Arab world has long linked its culture to calligraphy in fields such as religion and art. This connection has helped drive the advancement of Arabic calligraphy.

Inscriptions in Arabic calligraphy are found in many different contexts. Calligraphic designs appear frequently in books, especially sacred texts, but they can also be seen on pottery and other objects. They play an important role in the decoration of mosques. This is largely because calligraphy has a special place among the arts in Muslim cultures due to the prohibition against representative art in religious settings. Islam does not allow for the worship of images, and this extends to all religious figurative art in many Muslim cultures. Therefore, non-figurative art forms, such as calligraphy, have a great deal of value in Islamic culture.

In addition, Arabic garnering the language of the Qur’an, Islamic calligraphy obtains a unique status amongst Muslim communities where Arabic is not the dominant language.

Although a great deal of Islamic calligraphy is in Arabic, the two are not always linked. For example, Coptic or other Christian manuscripts written in Arabic have made use of calligraphy. Likewise, there is also Islamic calligraphy present Persian and historic Ottoman language documents.

We categorize various calligraphic styles by the era in which they were prevalent.

Hijazi script / الخَطّ الحِجازيّ

Qur'an 7th century in hijazi script
Qur’an 7th century in hijazi script

Hijazi, which means “relating to Hejaz” in Arabic, is the name given to a group of early Arabic scripts that originated in the Hejaz region. This area includes Mecca and Medina.

These scripts are characteristically very simple with cursive calligraphy and rarely use diacritics, which notations of short vowels, take small strokes. The Hijazi script is considered one of the oldest existing written languages.

The script was commonly used during the 7th and 8th centuries mainly, but can also be seen in some Qur’an manuscripts and lapidary inscriptions dating back even further.

Kufic script / الخَطّ الكُوفيّ

The script was known as Kūfi and supposedly invented in Iraq at the city of Kūfah, which was an important early Islamic cultural center. However, most examples of this type of writing were found much farther south in Medina, Arabia—where the Prophet Mohammed relocated after leaving Mecca.

The Simple Kūfi script was developed during the early Islamic era; the earliest surviving copies of the Qurʾān date from the 8th to 10th centuries and were written in this script. Later, a floral Kūfi style flourished, and several other varieties of the script developed, including foliated Kūfi, plaited or interlaced Kūfi, bordered Kūfi, and squared Kūf.

Kufic script is characterized by its angular, rectilinear letterforms and horizontal orientation. Different versions include square Kufic, floriated Kufic, and knotted Kufic.

The Kufic script is an ancient Arabic writing that remained in use until the 13th century.

Qur'an folio 11th century written in Eastern or new style kufic script
Qur’an folio 11th century written in Eastern or new style kufic script

Muhaqqaq script / الخَطّ المُحَقّق

Manuscript of the Qur'an in Muhaqqaq
Manuscript of the Qur’an in Muhaqqaq

The Muhaqqaq script was created specifically to beautifully copy large passages from the Quran.

Muhaqqaq is an ancient form of writing that was known for being both beautiful and difficult to execute perfectly. The main characteristic of Muhaqqaq is its large lettering, which was used to emphasize titles or phrases.

The Ottoman Empire replaced the Thuluth and Naskh styles gradually. In comparison to Thuluth, horizontal sections of letters in this style are more expanded. As a result, they appear wider than tall. This is a style with straight and angular letters; descending strokes often end in points. Letters that typically round downward at the ends curve under the next letter instead. Horizontal features are shallow and quick, while verticals are slender in height. Flourishes take on the form of diacritics here.

Thuluth script / خَطّ الثُلُث

The name “Thuluth” refers to the size of the pen used to write the script, which is one-third. It is a type of cursive script that was commonly used in mosques and other texts. The straight angular forms of Kufic were replaced by Thuluth’s curved and oblique lines. In Thuluth, one-third of each letter slopes–giving way to its meaning in Arabic (literally translated as “a third”). However, another theory suggests that smallest width of the letters are one-third instead.

First appearing in the 11th century during the Abbasid dynasty, the Thuluth script was later refined by calligrapher Seyh Hamdullah during the Ottoman dynasty. It is also considered to be the foundation of scripts that developed thereafter, such as Naskh and Muhaqqaq.

The Thuluth script is legible and straightforward, two qualities that make it ideal for a diverse range of applications even in the modern day. The flowing cursive letters and extendedstrokes contribute to its readability, making it an viable choice for both short titles and longer texts alike. Because of its artistic value, lapis lazuli was used in the Holy Quran and on many buildings throughout the Islamic empire.

Du'a Musa in thuluth
Invocation of Musa “My Lord, expand for me my breast [with assurance] And ease for me my task And untie the knot from my tongue That they may understand my speech.” Qur’an [Surat Ta-Ha : 25-28]

Naskh script / خَطّ النَسْخ

Surat Al-Fatiha in Naskh script
Surat Al-Fatiha in Naskh script

The 10th century saw the development of another key script: Naskh. This was used primarily to copy books, particularly the Holy Qur’an. It was later perfected by Islamic calligraphy master Seyh Hamdullah during the Ottoman dynasty (1436-1520).

The Naskh’s distinct, easy-to-read glyphs have earned it a reputation as the go-to script for lengthy texts and inscriptions. Even in the present day, with its modern appearance and cursive letters, Naskh is still a popular choice among graphic designers creating Arabic books.

Ta’liq script / خَطّ الشَكستة تَعْلِيق

Taʿliq script (تعلیق taʿliq in Arabic) is a type of calligraphy originating from the 12th century. Its cursive lettering was designed to better suit the Persian language. This style developed from aspects of naskhtawqiʿ and riqʿa scripts.

Taʿliq, which means “suspension”, was created by somebody who observed the shape of the script’s lines and noted how they appeared hung together. The fluidity is gorgeous, although it might make legibility more difficult. There are strict rules governing this script typeface; however, because it’s not always easy to read, writers often leave large spaces between the rows of letters.

The script was popular for various uses, including sending messages and copying Persian poetry after the 15th century in Iran and India. However, it eventually lost popularity to the nastaʿliq style.

A rare calligraphy in shikasteh ta'liq script, signed by Ikhtiyar al-Munshi (d.1567), Persia, Safavi
A rare calligraphy in shikasteh ta’liq script, signed by Ikhtiyar al-Munshi (d.1567), Persia, Safavi

Nasta’liq script / خَطّ النَسْتَعْليق

Manuscript in Nastaliq from the Book of Kings of Ferdowsi (the battle of al-Qādisiyyah)
Manuscript in Nastaliq from the Book of Kings of Ferdowsi (the battle of al-Qādisiyyah)

Nastaʿliq is a type of Persian calligraphy which is believed to originate from Mir Ali Tabrizi in the 14th century. It combines aspects of two other scripts- Naskh and Taʿliq. The resultant effect creates short vertical lines with long horizontal strokes, giving it a unique look among Iranian art forms.

The letters are a little curved, similar to the Ta’liq script. They also vary in thickness and appear to be seamless and smooth; however, it is hard to write, making it less readable than some other scripts.

Nastaʿliq is popular for writing poetry in Farsi, Dari and Urdu as well as other South Asian or Central Asian languages. In many cases, it is used more effectively than the Naskh style in both Iranian and Indian cultures. Additionally, people often use it to add decoration in titles, announcements and handwriting (manuscripts) within Iran and Afghanistan.

Maghrebi script / الخَطّ المَغْرِبيّ

The Maghrebi script is a type of writing system that developed in the 10th century in areas such as the Maghreb, al-Andalus (Iberia), and Biled as-Sudan (the West African Sahel) region.

This cursive style of handwritten alphabet known as Maghribi developed from the early Kūfic angular scripts used by Muslim peoples in northwestern Africa. The script they eventually created is rounded, with exaggerated horizontal elements and open curves below the writing line. Unlike Kufic script, it is usually written using brown ink, employs large bowls for some letters instead of points to create a more even thickness throughout the lines, and uses slanted vowels with coloured dots to assist pronunciation.

Most of this calligraphy is found in Spain and Morocco on architecture and ancient Quran manuscripts (today held in museums). The Maghribi script is still used today in northern Africa, from Morocco to Tripoli.

Maghrebi script Qur'an section, North-Africa or Andalusia, 13th century
Maghrebi script Qur’an section, North-Africa or Andalusia, 13th century

Diwani script / خَطّ الدِيوانيّ

Qur’an [Sūrat al-Ḥashr : 9] in diwani script

Diwanî is a calligraphic style of the cursive Arabic alphabet. It gets its name from “Diwan,” which was the Ottoman royal chancery where it developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Back then, Diwanî was used to write official documents. However, under Suleiman’s reign, this script reached its peak level of usage and still sees use today.

This style originated from naskhi and thulthi styles.

The defining characteristic of this writing is that all the letters are interconnected. The more it appears jumbled, the more beautiful it is. This handwriting also has an elegant fluidity to it since the lines curve upwards, especially at the end of each line. Another difficulty in decyphering this cursive for those unused to it, are the diacritical dots which do not stand out from one another.

Riq’a script / خَطّ الرِقْعَة

The riqʿa style of handwriting is among the more recent scripts, having been developed in the 18th century. It is now the most common type of handwriting used for Arabic script.

Riqʿa calligraphy is different than other types because it is fast and easy to read. In fact, all Ottomans that could write were expected to know how to use ruqʿah as it was common throughout the Ottoman Empire.

This style of writing is characterized by its straight lines and simple curves. It likely originates from the thuluth and naskh styles, both of which are well known for their clear, legible writing that is easy to read on a daily basis.

Nowadays, the main use of the script is for titles of books and magazines, as well as for commercial advertisements and diplomas awarded to students of the art.

Text in riq'a script
Text in riq’a script

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