What is calligraphy?
Calligraphy is a writing-related visual art. It is the design and execution of lettering with a large tip tool, brush, or other writing equipment.
“The art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious and skillful way”, is a contemporary calligraphic practice.
In this article, we will focus on Arabic calligraphy, its history, and types.
Also known as Islamic calligraphy, is the art of artistic handwriting based on the Arabic alphabet.
Arabic tribes tended to memorize text and poetry and pass it on from generation to generation orally. Yet, with the spread of Islam and the increasing importance of keeping the Quran in written form, that changed. Below, we detail the history of Arabic calligraphy.
Arabic calligraphy throughout history
The Arabian Peninsula was home to a host of early Semitic languages before the spread of Islam. The finding of calligraphic artifacts in these early languages shows that Islam predates the tradition of calligraphy. Ancient Persia, for example, used cuneiform calligraphy to adorn the statues of kings as early as 600 – 500 B.C. But, because of how it reunited the region under the Arabic language, it was undeniably the expansion of Islam that resulted in a great age of calligraphy in the ancient Middle East. The early development of Arabic calligraphy wasn’t a serial method. In regions as far as Damascus, Baghdad, Morocco, and Spain, a vast range of scripts grew and fell in popularity.
The first universal script was Kufi, named after the city of Kufah in Iraq. It dominated Arabic calligraphy from the 7th to the 11th century. It was still rough and unorganized, especially compared to the systematization it underwent during the “Golden Age” of calligraphy.
Arabic calligraphy’s “Golden Age” is traditionally traced along with a series of three main calligraphers:
Vizier Ibn Muqla (886-940)
Ibn Muqla is famous for codifying the six scripts (al aqlam al-sitta) that were the basis for the calligraphy art that was to come. He also set up a writing method that used as its base a circle with the diameter of the letter “alif” and wrote and developed letter form theories.
Ibn al-Bawwab (961-1022)
Ibn al-Bawwab is famous for refining the rules of the six scripts of Ibn Muqla. He also created a proportional measuring method such that people could measure each letter by its height and width in dots.
Yaqut al-Musta’simi (d. 1298)
Yaqut al-Musta’simi renowned for refining Ibn al-Bawwab’s six scripts, and the organization of the method of equal dot calculation. He also developed the calligraphy school that Turkish and Persian calligraphers followed. Not to forget that he also gave the letter shapes a new dimension by emphasizing the slanted cut of the pen.
The Types of Calligraphy
According to scholars, the name of this script comes from the southern Iraqi town of Al-Kufa, hence the name.
The Kufi script, which gained more importance in the 9th century, people used for writing Qur’anic manuscripts for a long time.
Early Kufic characteristics include either highly elongated or very compact horizontal strokes. The crescent-shaped curve on the lower right side of the “alif”, and distinctly circular characters that have small counters. Later on, they inserted vowels into the text in the form of red dots positioned above or below characters to show the correct pronunciation.
Persian calligraphers developed a modern form of Kufi, called Eastern Kufi, in the 10th century. There are many strong similarities between this style and Early Kufi in the character forms and geometric composition. But, one can detect distinct influences of the national scripts when looking at Eastern Kufic and scripts such as Avestan and Pahlavi.
The Western equal, called the Maghribi Kufi, was emerging at the same time as the Eastern Kufi was being created. Originally from the Western Islamic world of North Africa and southern Spain. Maghribi (which translates to Western) was highly influential in the future scripts of North and West Africa, as well as Andalusia.
This style’s characteristics include downward strokes with wide bowls. Sweeping curves that envelop the next few letters. They added smooth vowel signs with red ink too.
By the 12th century, these three styles of Kufi were progressively replaced as the main style for transcribing the Quran and book calligraphy. Instead, people used them for ornamentation on objects such as coins, seals, pottery, and monuments. Many of the newer Kufi styles began to focus on artistic aesthetics over legibility.
This Style is still heavily used in architecture and for decorative purposes nowadays.
Around the 7th century, the early Naskh style emerged in the cities of Mecca and Medina. With the efforts of Ibn Muqla, who converted it into an exquisite cursive script, it was fully perfected in the early 10th century. Naskh’s harmonious proportions make it incredibly legible. This, combined with the way most characters rest on a noticeable linking middle stroke has classified it as the most adaptable style to the difficulties presented by metal. Today, the printing industry makes most magazines, and newspapers with Naskh-based typefaces, making it the most used style for Arabic text framework.
The word Thuluth translates into “one third” in Arabic. There are various hypotheses, such as the observation that one-third of each letter corresponds to the scale of the pen used to write this type. Most possibly, the most fitting explanation is that of Ibn Muqla himself, who stated that one-third of the letters in Thuluth is linear, and two-thirds are circular. The thuluth script was first developed during the Abbasid dynasty in the 11th century. During the Ottoman dynasty, calligrapher Seyh Hamdullah improved it. Thuluth is closely associated with religion and also finds its use in the decoration of mosques and the writing of holy names.
The names of some scripts derive from the geographic region where they produced them. In this case, people took the word Riq’a from how they used the script: printed on small pieces of paper or fabric. It is one of the more modern scripts, developed in the 11th century, and still used nowadays. The script of Riq’a is popular for its clear structure, making it suitable for long texts. It is especially easy to transform into a digital font. In title or decorations, it is however not particularly appealing. It does not have the elegant letterforms of the Diwani, Thuluth, and Kufi scripts.
Arabic calligraphy has flourished in different regions around the world for over 14 centuries. This history and diversity have enriched Arabic scripts with ever more complex and artistic forms. The Baghdadi and Ottoman eras contributed the most to its growth during this long period.
Arabic calligraphy is still one of the most widely recognized arts today, and continue to flourish in both traditional methods and modern computer-generated arts. Based on existing scripts and their own letters and scripts, Arabic calligraphers from around the world continue to create their own types and artwork.