Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy has always fascinated me. I studied Persian, Arabic and Urdu as part of my degree and travelled widely in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1970s. I really like the flowing lines and geometric styles, and the way abstraction is used to create artwork from words. These techniques could also be applied to more figurative drawing styles like fashion illustration. This is an area where I have only just begun to explore the potential.

I am particularly interested in the techniques of some contemporary calligraphers who use watercolour and ink to create word paintings from poetry.

See Meriem Marsli’s calligraphy particularly use of different materials to create letterforms in the Alif Baa series

For other examples of contemporary calligraphy see Free Islamic Calligraphy

Al Talaq
Al Talaq

How to do it

Development and Styles

Edited and extended from the Wikipedia links below

Islamic calligraphy is the artistic practice of handwriting and calligraphy, based upon the alphabet in the lands sharing a common Islamic cultural heritage. It includes Arabic , Ottoman, and Persian calligraphy. It is known in Arabic as khatt Islami (خط اسلامي), derived from the word ‘line’, ‘design’, or ‘construction’.

The development of Islamic calligraphy is strongly tied to the Qur’an; chapters, and excerpts from the Qur’an is a common and almost universal text upon which Islamic calligraphy is based. Deep religious association with the Qur’an, as well as suspicion of figurative art as idolatrous has led calligraphy to become one of the major forms of artistic expression in Islamic cultures.

Instruments and media

The traditional instrument of the Islamic calligrapher is the qalam, a pen normally made of dried reed or bamboo; the ink is often in colour, and chosen so that its intensity can vary greatly, so that the greater strokes of the compositions can be very dynamic in their effect. Some styles are often written using a metallic-tip pen.

 Islamic calligraphy is applied on a wide range of decorative mediums other than paper, such as tiles, vessels, carpets, and inscriptions. Before the advent of paper, papyrus and parchment were used for writing. 

Beginning in 692, the Islamic caliphate reformed the coinage of the Near East by replacing visual depiction with words. This was especially true for dinars, or gold coins of high value. Generally the coins were inscribed with quotes from the Qur’an. By the tenth century, the Persians, who had converted to Islam, began weaving inscriptions onto elaborately patterned silks. So precious were calligraphic inscribed textiles that Crusaders brought them to Europe as prized possessions. A notable example is the Suaire de Saint-Josse, used to wrap the bones of St. Josse in the Abbey of St. Josse-sur-Mer near Caen in northwestern France.

Style typology

As Islamic calligraphy is highly venerated, most works follow examples set by well established calligraphers, with the exception of secular or contemporary works. In antiquity, a pupil would copy a master’s work repeatedly until their handwriting is similar. With the spread of Islam, the Arabic script was established in a vast geographic area with many regions developing their own unique style. From the 14th century onward, other cursive styles began to developed in Turkey, Persia, and China. The most common styles are divided into:

  1. Kufic: oldest angular style
  2. Naskh (نسخ nasḫ): cursive style . With variants Thuluth (ثلث ṯuluṯ)  Ruq‘ah (رقعة ruqʿah)
  3. Nasta‘liq (نستعلیق nastaʿlīq) developed in Persia
  4. Diwani (ديواني dīwānī) developed in Ottoman Empire
  5.  Sini is a style developed in China. 

The oldest form of the Arabic script developed around the end of the 7th century in the areas of Kufa, Iraq, from which it takes its name. It was the main script used to copy Qur’ans from the 8th to 10th century and went out of general use in the 12th century when the flowing naskh style become more practical, although it continued to be used as a decorative element to contrast superseding styles. Contemporary calligraphy using this style is also popular in modern decorations.

The Archaic Kufi consisted of about 17 letters without diacritic dots or accents. Afterwards, dots and accents were added to help readers with pronunciation, and the set of Arabic letters rose to 29.

A  common feature is the rigid, angular, linear strokes and shapes of the characters – a modified form of the old Nabataean script. The style later developed into several varieties, including floral, foliated, plaited or interlaced, bordered, and squared kufi. Common varieties include square Kufic, a technique known as banna’i.

9th century Qur’an, an early kufic example from the Abbasid period
Bowl with Kufic Calligraphy, 10th century.Brooklyn Museum


Muhaqqaq script in a 14th-century Qur’an from the Mamluk dynasty.

With the rapid expansion  of Islam,  a cursive called naskh first appeared in the 10th century and is the most ubiquitous style used in Qur’ans, official decrees, and private correspondence. It became the basis of modern Arabic print. It was standardised by Ibn Muqla (886-940 A.D.) who establish systematic rules and proportions for shaping the letters, which use ‘alif as the x-height. This was later expanded by Abu Hayan at-Tawhidi (died 1009 A.D.) and Muhammad Ibn Abd ar-Rahman (1492–1545 A.D.). Variations  include:

  1. Thuluth is developed as a display script to decorate particular scriptural objects. Letters have long vertical lines with broad spacing. The name reference to the x-height, which is one third of the ‘alif.
  2. Riq’ah is a handwriting style derived from naskh and thuluth, first appeared in the 9th century. The shape is simple with short strokes and little flourishes.
  3. Muhaqqaq is considered one of the most beautiful scripts, as well as one of the most difficult to execute. Muhaqqaq was commonly used during the Mameluke era, but the use become largely restricted to short phrases, such as the basmallah, from the 18th century onward.


Nasta’liq calligraphy by Mir Emad Hassani, perhaps the most celebrated Persian calligrapher.

A cursive style developed in the 14th century by Mir Ali Tabrizi to write the Persian language for literary and non-Qur’anic works. Nasta’liq is thought to be a later development of the naskh and the earlier ta’liq script used in Iran. The name ta’liq means ‘hanging’, and refers to the slightly steeped lines of which words run in, giving the script a hanging appearance. Letters have short vertical strokes with broad and sweeping horizontal strokes. The shapes are deep, hook-like, and have high contrast.



is a cursive style of Arabic calligraphy developed during the reign of the early Ottoman Turks in the 16th and early 17th centuries. It was invented by Housam Roumi and reached its height of popularity under Süleyman I the Magnificent (1520–1566). Spaces between letters are often narrow, and lines ascend upwards from right to left. Larger variation called djali are filled with dense decorations of dots and diacritical marks in the space between, giving it a compact appearance. Diwani is difficult to read and write due to its heavy stylization, and became ideal script for writing court documents as it insured confidentiality and prevented forgery.

 Sini is a style greatly influenced by Chinese calligraphy, using a horsehair brush instead of the standard reed pen. A famous modern calligrapher in this tradition is Hajji Noor Deen Mi Guangjiang.

List of calligraphers

Some classical calligraphers:


Ottoman era



Urban sketching: people

For basic figure drawing see: Figure Sketching


I realily like the very basic stylised figures here. An architectural illustrator.

This is a very basic stylised video, showing use of eyeline and basic principles of capturing people in a scene. I like the variation between ink outline, then others started in wash.

Teoh’s tips for sketching people on location – contour drawing and don’t keep moving your head up and down.

This one is just inking in already drawn people. But I like the style.

Realitime videos by Meridel L. Abrams following of how she copes with the various challenges of sketching on location.The first is very rapid sketching of shoppers in a parking lot. The second more stationary outside a restaurant. Both done from a car.

Urban Sketching: pen and ink


Alphonso Dunn

A very good series on the process of constructing a scene.
First think about the type of line – drawing with arm, wrist or fingers. Framing and focus. Can see things in different ways. Importance of simplification.

Fashion Illustration:

Fashion illustration records and documents forms of clothing, especially when being worn. Its aim is to help designers and manufacturers understand the physicality and look of clothes, but also to persuade and excite the view about the clothes. It requires capturing the posture of a person, the clothes they’re wearing, the particular nature and detail of those clothes, and how they relate to the figure wearing them. But it often uses a very stylised way of drawing, to try and bring some energy, excitement and style to the whole piece.

A dilemma with fashion illustration – particularly contemporary illustration – is how to capture both the details of the product with a contemporary aesthetic style that relies on simplification? The type of styles I like make use of line – dynamic/gesture or quirky, and have an eye for shape. But I am also interested in the underlying concept – are images of women and men being promoted stereotypical or new. Given that the obvious aim of fashion illustration is generally to sell clothes, how does fashion itself serve to challenge stereotypes?

Project 2.2: Everyday Fashion

My source material for this project is ongoing from quick pencil sketches at airports while I was travelling. These were then worked up as digital illustrations in different styles as part of Assignment 6: Review – iPad workflow review and during my final preparation for assessment.


In the early twentieth century fashion illustration tended to be quite constrained, and also limited in the media used to pencil, ink and watercolour. Most of the illustration was of women. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s fashion illustration became more varied in media and emphasising much more individuality. Men were also represented as men became more interested in fashion.

Fashion Illustration 1900 – 1980s: London and Paris


Western contemporary innovation

Since the beginning of 21st century there has been a widening of both style and media. A lot of fashion illustration does tend to still have a very similar feel – glossy and photoshopped or Twiggy-like long legs. But there is a much greater mixing of ethnic styles, use of black and white.

The advent of digital software has made fashion illustration, particularly Photoshop, possible even for people who cannot draw figures. But a lot of images on the Internet are (in my view) samey over-glamorised images without much ‘soul’. The reason I have not been much interested in fashion illustration so far. But through a Pinterest search as well as Google, I found quite a few styles that I found innovative and interesting to follow up.

In my own work I am particularly interested in work by:

tobie giddio


Tobbie Giddio works with dynamic lines and shapes, often using Japanese ink techniques or charcoal strokes. These capture the gestural line of the figure. However some of her more detailed coloured work I find overdone and formulaic – not much of the clothing and model left under the artistic panache.

 Tiffany Ju

Tiffany Ju has a more sketchy style in some of her work, that captures details of the pose and clothing. But without looking too polished.

Tiffany Ju
Tiffany Ju

Choon Fai

page on Behance

Singapore-based illustrator who creates black and white digital images.  These are a bit staged and stereotyped in portrayal of female ‘attitude’ – as in much of the fashion iconography. But I also find them atmospheric.

Choonfai from collection Wakening of the Puppresses
Choonfai Broken Angel
Choonfai Broken Angel
Alec Strang


Strang’s work is very stylised, often with a fairly dark edge to it.

Alex Strang
Richard Haines


Some of his work is in a style like Ronald Scarfe. Other work like the pants illustration below combines humour with clear information – as an innovative way of combining photography and illustration.

Richard Haines
Richard Haines
Sophie Griotto

Sophie Griotto works digitally, collaging images into carefully crafted figure shapes that reflect the style of the clothing.  Using location images, rather than just patterns of textiles, creates a status image – who the wearer wants to be.


Anja Kroenke

Anja Kroenke
Anja Kroenke

I also very much like the edgy art of Herakut. They also do some fashion work.

Herakut style for fashion

Herakut style for fashion

Other sources include:

LineArt on :

Showstudio artists links:

Other influences

I am also interested in possibilities of adapting styles of artists like Egon Schiele and Basquiat. Also the potential of adapting Islamic, Japanese and other calligraphy styles. In preparation for the project I looked particularly at:

Islamic Fashion Illustration


Islamic Calligraphy


I also consulted a number of books on technique and You Tube videos like: Fashion Illustration Techniques: Zoe Hong


Islamic Fashion Illustration

Islamic fashion illustration styles

Pinterest Pinboards and Flickr

Hijab Illustration: Asma Shririn:

Fraom Asma Shirin's Pinboard - not clear if it is by her. I really like the everyday simplicity of this.
Fraom Asma Shirin’s Pinboard – not clear if it is by her. I really like the everyday simplicity of this with the emphasis on simple headscarves and trainers/slippers with some pattern.
Beautiful head scarves - but cant see who did this.
Aromatic by Amilka: Flickr. Beautiful head scarves and eye makeup

For Amilka’s other non-Islamic fashion illustration see her Flickr page:

Silkroute Stylein:

From Silk Route Stylein. This is very elegant! and like Greek statues.
From Silk Route Stylein. This is very elegant! and like Greek statues.
Abaya design from Silkroute Stylein
Abaya design from Silkroute Stylein

Does courses in fashion illustration and has You Tube promotional videos by students and tutors.


Dubai black pencil, wash and crayon (woman)

Nouna Khorasanee

(woman) Interesting fantasy – but not exactly modest despite the face mask!

Demo video for the course

Watercolour illustration using watercolour brush pen. But more western than Islamic.

Anik Pujati

Indonesia (woman) has a whole series of videos in the same style.


Farida Ridhwan (woman)

Islamic fashion brands

International brand



High street hijabis UK