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. 
Kufic

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

Naskh

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

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.

 

Diwani

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:

Medieval

Ottoman era