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Styles of Calligraphy

From the book – ‘Calligraphy and Islamic Culture’.

Come, O pen of composition and write letters. In the name of the Writer of the Well-preserved Tablet and the Pen!1

Arabic Alphabet

Arabic Alphabet

The Arabic Alphabet

Thus begins a sixteenth-century treatise on calligraphy, and the expression is representative of the numerous formulas by which Is­lamic poets and calligraphers began their epistles on writing. The art of writing has played, and still plays, a very special role in the entire Islamic culture, for by the Arabic letters—heritage of all Is­lamic societies—the Divine Word could be preserved; and Muslims were well aware that writing is a special quality of the human race, “and by it man is distinguished from the other animals.” It is, as Ibrahim ash-Shaybani stated, “the language of the hand, the idiom of the mind, the ambassador of intellect, and the trustee of thought, the weapon of knowledge and the companion of brethren in the time of separation.”2

The field of Islamic calligraphy is almost inexhaustible, given the various types of Arabic script and the extension of Islamic culture. It is therefore not surprising that a comparatively copious literature about various aspects of Arabic calligraphy has been produced not only in Muslim lands but also in the West, since Arabic letters were known in Europe during the Middle Ages and were often used for decorative purposes. The fine Kufic inscription on the coronation gown of the German emperor shows the west’s admiration for Ara­bic writing as do paintings like the famed “Madonna with the sha- hada3(profession of faith). These letters were understood as exotic decorative devices, however, and only in the late fifteenth century was the Arabic alphabet first made accessible to German readers in its entirety. It is found in the travelogue of a German nobleman, Brey- denbach, who performed a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and of­fered his impressions of the journey to his compatriots in woodcuts, among which is also found an awkwardly shaped Arabic alphabet. Somewhat later presses for Arabic printing were founded, first in Italy, then in Holland; but there was no general interest in the let­ters used by the alleged archenemy of the Christian world.4 As late as in the eighteenth century, with the unbiased interest in Oriental subjects growing, some studies were devoted to the early develop­ment of the Arabic script; as Adolf Grohmann has shown in his indispensable work on Arabic Paleography, J. G. C. Adler was the first to study the Kufic inscriptions on early coins.5 But one should not forget that even Goethe, in his West-Ostlicher Divan (1819), played with the names of various styles, such as naskh and tacliq, claiming that, whatever style the beloved uses, it does not matter as long as he expresses his love. Grohmann’s survey has been updated and enlarged by Janine Sourdel-Thomine in her articles on kitab and khatt in the new Encyclopedia of Islam.

It was natural that the type of Arabic that first attracted the ori­entalists was the angular script as found on the coronation gown and on early coins, which was generally called Kufi. For a long time it was used in Western scholarship to distinguish merely between two major types of script—the so-called Kufi and the cursive hand, the latter type then subdivided into the western, Maghribi character and the style used in the Persian world, tacltqor nastaliq. Even A. J. Arberry, in his handlist of the Korans in the Chester Beatty Library, uses only these terms without entering into a more detailed definition of the cursive hands.

A debt of gratitude is owed to Nabia Abbott, who did the first independent study of the so-called Koranic scripts, published in 1939.6 The incoherent statements found in Arabic and Persian sources concerning the earliest forms of Arabic writing are difficult to disentangle. They speak often of macqiliy which was invented, ac­cording to legend, by the prophet Idris and had no curved lines whatsoever.7 Then, out of this inherited script cAli ibn Abi Talib allegedly developed the so-called Kufi, with a division of curved and 5/e straight lines—a tradition that may reflect the transition from earlier Semitic alphabets to the elaborate Kufic style of the first cen­turies of the Hegira. It is remarkable that a scholar like Abu Hayyan at-Tauhidi in the early eleventh century still mentions twelve basic forms of Kufi, many of them named after the places where they were first used.8 We certainly can recognize the mail script that, slanting to the right rather unbeautifully, is found on some frag­ments of vertical format (in contrast to the horizontal formats of Kufi Korans).9 Nabia Abbott regards many pieces that show a slight slant toward the left and a low, small curve at the beginning of the alif as Meccan, but we still do not know how Medinan or Basrian styles may have looked. It seems, however, that Kufa was indeed one of the important centers for the art of writing, and the political connection of cAli ibn Abi Talib with this city accentuates the gen­erally maintained claim that cAli was the first master of calligraphy. Later generations ascribe to him the invention of the “two-horned alif” which may be the shape found in early inscriptions and called “split- arrowhead alif as in Sufism, the spiritual pedigree of the calligraphers invariably leads back to cAli, and in the late fifteenth century, Sultan-cAli Mashhadi, the famous master of nastacliq, claimed that “the renown of my writing is due to the name of cAli.”10

Horned Alif

Franz Rosenthal correctly states that ”the earliest Arabic documents of writing exhibit, to say the least, a most ungainly type of script.” 11 One of the true miracles of Islam is how this script developed in a comparatively brief span of time into a well-proportioned, highly refined calligraphy of superb beauty. As used for early Ko-rans, Kufi is the liturgic script par excellence,12 as Martin Lings has shown with great clarity. However, it is more than doubtful whether any of the fragments preserved in the museums date back to the time of the first caliphs, as is claimed by their proud owners. As early as in the ninth century the great mosque in Damascus boasted of possessing a copy of cOthman’s Koran, and so did the mosque in Cordova; this latter copy was so heavy that it had to be carried by two men.13 The terminus ante quem for a fragment or a copy of the Koran can be established only when the piece has a waqf note, showing the date of its accession in a certain library. The earliest datable fragments go back to the first quarter of the eighth century; but it is possible that the recently discovered Korans in Sanaa, which are at present being inventoried and analyzed by a German team, may offer a further clue to the early development of writing. Less problematic, of course, is the date of coins and of architectural Kufi.

The very impressive, sometimes truly festive character of the oldest Korans—which were written in mushaf, that is, book form, as distinguished from the papyrus scrolls with profane texts14—may suggest that at least some of them were written tabarrukan, or for the sake of blessing, rather than for reading purposes. They may have also served for the huffaz and qurra, who had committed to memory the Holy Book but wanted a written support. Diacritical marks and signs for vowels were added in the days of cAbdul-Malik (685) in order to avoid misreadings of the sacred text;15 colored ink was used for this purpose, and thus the poets would compare such manuscripts to a colorful garden.

The number of known Kufi Korans and f ragments is remarkably great and increases almost daily, but no two of them seem to be completely identical in style. The majority, with the exception of the ma’il fragments, are written on vellum in horizontal format. Often only three to five lines of black or brown letters fill the page, and the letters on the hairy side of the parchment are usually faded; as the poet says:

After being full of glory the places became desolate desert, Like lines of writing when books are worn out.16

Kufic Alif

Sometimes golden ornamentation is used for sura headings or to separate the ay as; in some cases groups of five ayas are separated by a minute h, a letter whose numerical value is 5. Generally the alif begins with a crescent-shaped curve at the lower right, the n goes straight down without any curve, and r and w are Hat and curled in themselves.

kufic kaf

Dal, kaf, and tay can be extended to a great length according to the space at the writer’s disposal, and one can understand why Persian poets of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries spoke of someone’s heart or intellect as being “as narrow as a Kufic kaf.”

The distance between the single letters is almost equal—grammatical considerations are not taken into account—which also holds true for the separation of words from line to line.

The measurements of the early Korans vary as widely as those of later times. A tradition ordered God’s Word to be written in large letters, and most Korans seem to comply with this injunction; but there are also miniature copies. A fragment on fine vellum, 7 by 4 cm, with fourteen lines on the page, written in brownish ink, is as meticulously calligraphed as large manuscripts. Whether such a pocket Koran was meant for a traveling scholar, an officer in the caliphal army, or a merchant is unknown.17

Beginning of the first three lines of Sura 81, wa idha a, from an early Koran, showing the equal distance between the letters. After Moritz, Arabic Palaeography

Beginning of the first three lines of Sura 81, wa idha a, from an early Koran, showing the equal distance between the letters. After Moritz, Arabic Palaeography

Some Koran copies were written on colored paper. A famous example is the one whose greatest part is preserved in Tunis, fragments of which are found in Western museums. It is written in golden letters on dark blue vellum, and one may assume that cross-relations with Byzantium may have inspired the artist, since the use of purple and other colored paper for official Byzantine documents is attested. (A good example is the purple letter sent by Constantine VII Porphyrogenetos to cAbdur-Rahman of Cordova in 949.) Another possible source of influence may be Manichean art. Mani appears constantly in Persian poetical imagery as the painter par excellence, and precious, lavishly decorated Manichean writing from Central Asia may have influenced the use of colored and gilded paper in some sectarian or mystical writings; that seems to be the case in the correspondence of Hallaj, which aroused the suspicion of the Baghdadi authorities.18

As we can barely date any of the early Korans and only very few names of calligraphers are known,19 the problem of their provenance is equally puzzling. If all the Korans now preserved in Tunis were written in Ifriqiyya, a flourishing school of calligraphy must have existed there during the first centuries of the Hegira. Somewhat later this “school” produced also one of the most unusual Korans hitherto known, the so-called Mushaf al-hadina, which was ordered by the nurse of the Zirid prince al-Mucizz ibn Badis in 1019— 20. It is in a vertical format, with five lines on pages measuring 45 by 31 cm. The letters with “teeth” are slanting toward the left; the rounded ones look like buds, resembling the eastern varieties of Kufi much more than the Maghribi style that began to emerge about the same time.20 Given the mobility of Islamic artists, the possibility cannot be excluded that a calligrapher from Iran may have spent a more or less extended period of his life in Tunisia; but this is highly speculative. Interestingly, Ibn Badis himself composed a book on “pens, ink, and script.”21

Eastern Kufi seems to have developed out of an apparently innate tendency of the Persians to use a slightly slanting script. The first known example of eastern Kufi is dated 972. Eastern Kufic Korans belong to a period when the art of the book had developed considerably, mainly because of the introduction of paper in 751, and are frequently written on paper instead of vellum; the vertical format used for profane works was adopted also. Diagonal lines became predominant; the high endings of t and k, utterly flat in early Kufi, assume elegant long strokes toward the right; and triangular forms become a distinctive feature of both the letters in general and the ending curves, which are sometimes filled with minute triangles. Eric Schroeder suggested that this might have been the badic script mentioned in Arabic historical works, but this is not the case.22

dal in plaited decorative Kufi, from the border of a Koran, fifteenth century

dal in plaited decorative Kufi, from the border of a Koran, fifteenth century

Eastern Kufi found its most perfect expression in a style called—without obvious reason—Karmathian Kufi, represented by a Koran, scattered pages of which are found all over the world. The numerous examples allow a stylistic analysis that may help to answer the question whether the Kufic calligrapher carefully planned and outlined each of his pages or whether he was able to visualize the completed page and write it without previous modeling.21* In this Koran the combination of very slender letters with a colored arabesque background is fascinating; it is echoed in the tombstone of Mascud III in Ghazni.

Eastern Kufi developed into a smaller variant used in numerous Korans written in eastern Iran and Afghanistan, of which the present owners usually claim that they are at least from the time of caliph cOthman. This style, in ever more delicate form, continued to be used for such decorative purposes as chapter headings after Korans were no longer written in this hand. It still occupies a place in contemporary book decoration.

rabbuka "your Lord", late decorative Kufi, from the border of a fifteenth century Koran

rabbuka "your Lord", late decorative Kufi, from the border of a fifteenth century Koran

Western Kufi probably developed a character of its own about the same time as its eastern cousin; its characters are very pronounced long, round endings of the n, and so on, which foreshadowed the wide endings of the later Maghribi script.

min, from a North African Koran, tenth century, with the nun developing into the Maghribi form

min, from a North African Koran, tenth century, with the nun developing into the Maghribi form

Kufic Korans and the few profane manuscripts in this style always remained legible; but, when the script was used on material other than vellum or paper, new forms had to be developed. Coins and seals offer some beautiful and finely incised shapes of letters that had to be fitted into a small round space, so that the shapes of these letters had to undergo some changes. Particularly difficult to disentangle are inscriptions on woven material, the so-called tiraz work, which was either woven into linen or silk with different threads of varying colors or, more rarely, embroidered on the fabric. The tiraz inscription would mention the name of the ruler or of a vizier who had ordered the piece of cloth from one of the official looms, and it might also contain some good wishes for them, blessings over the Prophet, or the like. Ernst Kuhnel, to whom we owe the most important studies of tiraz, rightly describes the group, most examples of which are preserved (the Fatimid tiraz), as an art form “in which calligrapher and weaver sometimes seem to compete to make the deciphering of the decorative borders as difficult as possible.”24 Whoever has tried to read the Yemeni fabrics in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts will agree with him!25 Similar difficulties may also be encountered in ceramics, although the material itself offered fewer problems for calligraphers, who usually devised harmonious formulas of blessings or popular adages to fill the borders of bowls and plates. Good ceramic Kufi often has a fine incised line around the letters to distinguish them properly.26 The difficulties for the reader begin with the numerous inscriptions that are not the works of a master calligrapher but seem to be hastily jotted on the glaze and may often consist of no more than remnants of pious wishes.

Easiest to follow is the development of Kufi on stone, beginning from the simple inscription on the Nilometer in Rauda/Cairo. The discovery of a comparatively large number of tombstones in Egypt that date from the eighth to the tenth century enables the scholar to trace the development of the decoration: the extension of letters (mashq) that was then filled with secondary devices called musannam and looking, as the name indicates, like camels’ humps, or with floriated and foliated hilliyas that were used to fill the space between, beneath, and above the letters.27 The horror vacui, which is considered a formative principle in so much of Islamic decoration, seems to have contributed to the invention of these forms that, in the course of time, developed into the innumerable varieties of floriated and foliated Kufi, to which the plaited Kufi was very soon added. The letters lam and alif, which form the article in Arabic and that are repeated time and again in the profession of faith as well as in the word Allah, induced the artists to plait their stems in ingenious ways. And it should be kept in mind that the central concept of Islam— the word Allah—offered infinite possibilities to artists, who would fill the space between its two l‘s with knots, flowers, stars, and other designs, which, if put in their proper context, serve the art historian to date Kufic inscriptions.28 The tendency to embellish the name of

Allah with decorative developments between the two lam. Egypt, tombstones, eighth century. After Bassem Zaki

Word Allah with decorative developments between the two lam. Egypt, tombstones, eighth century. After Bassem Zaki

God was not restricted to one area: the stucco band with the word Allah from Sar-i Pul in Afghanistan, dated 1164,29 and a window screen consisting of the same word and built in Zaragossa, Spain, at about the same time show that these decorative tendencies were universal.30

lam alifThe plaiting, often combined with foliation, attained its greatest perfection in the thirteenth century,31 when the Seljuks in Anatolia found some superb solutions for this calligraphic device (as in Sivas and Konya), while the inscription at Iltutmish’s tomb in Delhi, which is slightly earlier, proves that as far east as the recently conquered Indian cities plaiting had assumed an important role, undoubtedly introduced from Afghanistan with its superb Ghaznavid and Ghorid inscriptions. Finally, the mathematical regularity of plaits and knots rather than the letters themselves determined the calligraphic presentation. The last great example of this art is the profession of faith in its Shia form in Oljaitu’s mihrab in the Friday Mosque in Isfahan, dated 1307, which appears to the untutored eye merely as a network of arabesques.

This inscription has an almost magical character; indeed, one may understand it as a kind of amulet; for such inscriptions as this, illegible as they might appear, conveyed baraka to the onlooker. One is even inclined to say that, the more incomprehensible the text seemed, the more it radiated this quality of sacredness, as Richard Ettinghausen has duly stressed.32 Seen from a different angle, the regularly posited knots and foliation are comparable to the radif (the constantly repeated rhyme word of a Persian poem), because the artistic vision out of which both emerged—the poem with its mon-orhyme and the regularly ornamentalized Kufi—is the same.

Kufic writing is usually thought to be connected with Arabic texts, whether the Koran, or sacred sayings, at times historical inscriptions. However, the complicated ductus was used even for Persian works, and there exists a long poetical inscription of Mascud III (1099-1115) in Ghazni that contains a heroic epic with which he had his palace decorated. Other inscriptions in Kufic Persian are found in Bukhara, Uzgend, Delhi, and Nakhchewan.33

"Verily we belong to God, and to Him we return" (Sura 2/151), in plaited Kufi, Shifa'iye Medrese, Sivas, Turkey, 1278

"Verily we belong to God, and to Him we return" (Sura 2/151), in plaited Kufi, Shifa'iye Medrese, Sivas, Turkey, 1278

The development of Kufic epigraphy was largely due to the material used. While stucco inscriptions could assume an almost tapestry like quality, working with bricks required a different technique out of which angular forms developed, leading to the shatranji (rectangular) Kufi. Minarets in Central Asia and Afghanistan (Minara-i Jam) show some of the earliest examples of this style; and the names of the Prophet and the righteous caliphs in the “Turkish triangles” in the Karatay Medrese in Konya (1251) are among the earliest examples of rectangular Kufi in tilework and contrast in this same building with a most intricate Kufic inscription that fills the drum of the dome; the latter led to highly refined stellar forms. Shatranji Kufi became a favorite with artists in Iran and Turan. The Timurid masters in Samarqand and Herat and the Safavid architects in Isfahan and elsewhere invented delightful ornaments consisting of the names of God, His Prophet, and the First Imam cAli,34 or of pious formulas, which were inserted in colorful tiles in the overall pattern of vaults, entrances, and domes. This rectangular Kufi was at times used for book decoration and has lately inspired some modern Muslim artists to develop new forms of art.

Huwa Allah, fourfold, in quadrangular Kufi "He is God"

Huwa Allah, fourfold, in quadrangular Kufi "He is God"


The conviction of the first students of Islamic calligraphy (also held by some Islamic historians) that the cursive hands developed out of the Kufi has long been discarded. We now know that there was always a cursive hand in which people jotted down various texts, business transactions, and so forth on leather and palm leaves but mostly on papyrus. Grohmann, studying the numerous papyri available, has shown how this nonliturgical style of writing developed in the first centuries of Islam.35

The cursive hand began to be shaped more elegantly with the arabization of the diwan under the Omayyad caliph cAbdul-Malik in 697, when particular scripts for the chancellery were required. The first name to be mentioned is that of Khalid ibn Abi’l-Hayyaj, who wrote poems, informative news, and also Korans during the rules of al-Walid and cOmar II, that is, in the first two decades of the eighth century. We do not know, however, whether the Korans were written in Kufi or in cursive hand on papyrus, a style of which a fragment has been preserved.

The development of the cursive hand and its use by both the warraq (the copyist) and the muharrir (who was in charge of the clean copying of manuscripts in the chancelleries) resulted in a whole literature on the duties of a katib (secretary) in which the rules for the construction of letters, the cutting of the pen, the preparation of both types of ink, midad and hibr, and the whole vocabulary connected with these occupations were discussed at length. This literature also provided the katib with all necessary grammatical, historical, geographical, and ethical information.36 Qalqashandi’s Subh al-acsha, the four teen-volume manual for the Mamluk chancellery in Egypt, is a good summary of earlier works and presents a very lucid introduction to the art of writing in its third volume.37

The earliest chancellery scripts must have been very heavy; their prototype was tumar, described by Nabia Abbott as an angular Kufic style but understood later as a powerful script written with a broad pen, often in loops and connections of letters not permitted in other styles, and without dots; it was then mainly used for the ruler’s signature. The pious caliph cOmar II regarded the large measurements of thaqil tumar documents used by his predecessor as a sheer waste of money and urged his secretaries to use a smaller hand for documents. Heavy tumar and so-called shami (Syrian) script were discarded by the cAbbasids, who instead used a pen called nisf (half) for their own outgoing documents; smaller styles were prescribed for correspondence between officials, such as thuluth (one third). The rule was that a person with lower rank used smaller letters when writing to his superior.38

The most frequently used script for documents was tauqlc. Invented by Yusuf, the brother of Ibrahim as-Sijzi, it remained the preeminent chancellery script and could be used in different sizes according to the rank of the addressee and the importance of the document. Each style had a small (khafi) and a large (jali) variant. Ishaq ibn Hammad, secretary to the cAbbasid caliph al-Mahdi (775-85), is mentioned as the first to have founded a real “school” of calligraphy; the names of fifteen of his disciples are mentioned. Slightly later Ahmad ibn Abi Khalid al-Ahwal, “the Squint-eyed,” worked for al-Ma’mun. Qalqashandi, following the earlier sources, ascribes to him the invention of a variety of styles, among them khatt al-mu’amarat (for correspondence between amirs), khatt al-qisas (for small pieces of paper), and ghubar al-hilya (“for secrets and for pigeon post”). But we do not know what these styles looked like. It is attested that a document written by al-Ahwal—a letter from Ma’mun to the Byzantine emperor—was exhibited in Constantinople for its unusual beauty.39 As Ma’mun’s rule gave rise to numerous ventures in the field of science, philosophy, and theology, it was apparently also a crucial period for the development of calligraphy. The caliph’s vizier, al-Fadl ibn Sahl Dhu’r-Riyasatain, is credited with shaping, at the caliph’s behest, the riyasi script that seems to be a more compact form of nisf with a large space between the lines. This script was accepted for Ma’mun’s bureau.40

Documents could be written on paper of various colors, according to the exigencies of protocol.41 A story that provides an idea of how these medieval forerunners of the long Ottoman and Persian firmans may have looked is told about the Sahib Ibn cAbbad, vizier, calligrapher, and famed litterateur. In 996, he produced, for the investiture of the qadi al-qudat (chief judge), a document of seven hundred lines, each of them written on one sheet of Samarqandi paper; the whole scroll was rolled up and put in a sheath of ivory, which looked like a thick column.

Model of the tauqic style, written in 1324h/1906, with the ligatures between the final letters of words and the initial alif of the following letter

Model of the tauqic style, written in 1324h/1906, with the ligatures between the final letters of words and the initial alif of the following letter

This wonderful document was presented—almost one century later—to Nizamulmulk, along with a Koran that contained an interlinear translation in red and an explanation of difficult expressions in blue; those verses which could be applied to practical purposes were marked in gold.42

The use of colored inks was likewise common in the chancelleries. The letter that Timur sent in 1399 to Sultan Faraj of Egypt was seventy cubits long and had been calligraphed in golden letters by his master scribe, Badruddin Muhammad Tabrizi, to whom also seven Korans on thick Khanbaliq paper are ascribed43—three of them in thuluth and four in naskh, with the basmala in Kufi and the sha’n an-nuzul (the explanation of when and where the revelation came) in riqac and rihani style.

One special feature of the chancellery scripts seems to be that they contain many more ligatures than do the copyists’ styles. A protocol script of the caliph al-Muqtadir (r. 908-32) shows the lam and the alif joining together, and in the later musalsal that was used in official writing virtually all letters are closely connected with one another. Ibn Khaldun’s remarks about the almost “secret” style of chancellery writers shows that this development continued through the centuries.44 When Hafiz in the fourteenth century complains that his beloved did not send him a letter made from the chainlike letters to catch the fluttering bird of his heart, he cleverly alludes to a document in musalsal script.45

A smaller script, ijaza, was derived from tauqic and was commonly used in Ottoman documents; it preserves the large loops between the final letters and the alif of the definite article of the following word, which is also found in the Turkish divani style, where the loops assume the shape of pointed ovals.

How well known the chancellery styles were in the Middle Ages is attested by a line of the twelfth-century poet Khaqani, who claims:

I have bound the eye of greed and broken the teeth of avarice, like a mim in the style of the calligrapher, like a sin in divani script.46

The letter mim as used by calligraphers is “blind,” that is, it has no opening in the center, while the three teeth of the sin are straightened out in chancellery style into a single line.

mim and sin

In the case of Ottoman dlvani the flow of the lines follows the imperial tughra, the decorative shape developed out of the handsign of the emperor, which was already fairly well developed in the days of Mehmet the Conqueror.47 Hence the lines show a rising tendency toward the left. A jail form of dlvani was sometimes used by Ottoman calligraphers for decorative pages.

line in divani script

The development of calligraphy inside and outside chancellery use was facilitated by the introduction of paper, for papyrus with its raw surface did not allow artistic writing. The first book on paper about which we know anything was written by 870, but there may have been earlier examples. Scribes and calligraphers occupied an important place in Islamic society, and more than one story in the Arabian Nights tells of the importance of writing and of beautiful writing with “erect alif, swelling ha‘, and well-rounded waw.”4S The use of diacritical marks and, in many cases, of vowel signs became more common, even though some sophisticated persons might object to the use of these signs in private correspondence because it would mean that the addressee was not intelligent enough to decipher the message.49 But at the same time there was an awareness of the danger of misreading important words, and the general feeling was well expressed by the cAbbasid vizier cAli ibn cIsa (d. 946) that “writing provided with diacritical points is like an artistically designed cloth.”50 Somewhat later, an Andalusian poet compared a drummer’s stick in a musical performance to “a reed pen in the hand of a litterateur who constantly marks dots when writing poetry.”51

The measurements of Arabic letters according to Ibn ar-Rawandi, Rahat as-sudur

The measurements of Arabic letters according to Ibn ar-Rawandi, Rahat as-sudur

Praise of beautiful script is common in the sources of the ninth and tenth centuries. When Ismacil al-Katib saw a fine handwriting, he exclaimed:

If it were a plant, it would be a rose; if it were metal, it would be pure gold; if it were something to taste, it would be sweet; and if it were wine, it would be very pure.52

One may here also think of the story of the first qalandar in the Arabian Nights in which the monkey wins the king s heart by his elegant calligraphy in various styles and by his skillful poetical allusions to writing.53

But on the whole, the development of truly beautiful, well-measured script is connected with the name of Ibn Muqla, a native of Shiraz who served several times as vizier until he finally died in prison or was killed in 940. Before that, his enemies had cut off his right hand, the harshest punishment to be meted out to the undisputed master of calligraphy. His main contribution to the development of the cursive hand was to relate the proportions of the letters to that of the alif.54 The measurements were taken by rhomboid points produced by the pen so that an alif would be, according to the style, 5, 7, or 9 points high, a ba’ 1 point high and 5 points long, and so on. This geometry of the letters, which was perfected by explaining the relations among the parts of letters in circles and semicircles, has remained binding for calligraphers to our day, and the perfection of a script is judged according to the relation of the letters to each other, not simply to their shape. Every lover of calligraphy would probably agree with Abu Hayyan at-Tauhidi’s statement: “Ibn Muqla is a prophet in the field of handwriting; it was poured upon his hand, even as it was revealed to the bees to make their honey cells hexagonal.”55

examples of measuring letters

Thus, his name has become proverbial in Islamic lore and is mentioned not only by calligraphers but by poets as well, almost all of whom continue to play on a pun the Sahib Ibn cAbbad had invented shortly after the calligrapher-vizier‘s death:

The writing of the vizier Ibn Muqla is a garden for the heart and the eyeball (muqla).56


The script of Ibn Muqla!—He whose eyeball (muqla) regarded it carefully,

Would wish that all his limbs were eyeballs!57

Even in our century the Egyptian poet laureate Shauqi compared the pillars of the Alhambra to “alifs written by Ibn Muqla.”58

The vizier, who continued to write skillfully even after his hand had been amputated, taught his art to several followers, among them his daughter, with whom cAli ibn Hilal, known as Ibn al-Bawwab, studied the art.59 He added some more elegance to the strict rules of Ibn Muqla, and the Koran that he wrote in the year 1000 (now in the Chester Beatty Library) is a remarkable piece of writing, particularly the long swinging curves at the final round letters. One wonders if some of the hundred Korans in the library of the Bu-wayhid vizier Ardashir ibn Sabur, which were written by the best calligraphers, came from his pen, as one also wonders how great the ratio between Kufi and cursive Korans in this famous library might have been. (The vizier owned, besides the Korans, more than ten thousand manuscripts, most of them autographs.)60

When Ibn al-Bawwab, who was noted for his immensely long beard,61 “completed the letters of annihilation and traveled toward the practicing-house of eternity”62 in 1032, no less than ash-Sharif al-Murtadawrote a threnody on him. During his lifetime he was famous in the Islamic world, for his younger contemporary, Abu’ 1-cAla al-Macarri, describes an evening in the verse:

The crescent (hilal) appeared like a nun, which has been written beautifully

With golden ink by the calligrapher Ibn Hilal [i.e., Ibn al-Bawwab],63

Bismillah in the handwriting of Ibn al-Bawwab in tumdr script. From Unver-Athari, Ibn al-Bawwab

Bismillah in the handwriting of Ibn al-Bawwab in tumdr script. From Unver-Athari, Ibn al-Bawwab


nun in cursive script

and the highest praise one might bestow upon a book “like an or-nated garden,” in which content and form were equally attractive, was that:

Its lines were written by the hand of Ibn Hilal from the mouth of Ibn Hilal,64

that is, Ibn Hilal as-Sabi, the famous stylist of the tenth century. A few decades later, Sana’i in eastern Iran could describe outwardly delightful but inwardly disgusting people as resembling

the nonsensical talk of Musaylima the Liar in the script of Ibn Muqla and Bawwab.65

The school of Ibn al-Bawwab was continued in Baghdad. Among the masters of his style was a woman, Shuhda al-Katiba, from whom the chain of transmission goes to the last of the great medieval calligraphers, Yaqut al-Mustacsimi (d. 1298), a eunuch who had been in the service of the last cAbbasid caliph, whom he outlived by forty years. To be sure, there were flourishing schools of calligraphy before him, as Ibn ar-Rawandi’s remarks about the masters of his native Kashan prove for the time around 1200—remarks supported by the superb quality of some early calligraphies;66 but to Yaqut a new way of trimming the pen is attributed—a slight slant that makes the thicker and thinner strokes more distinguishable and renders the script more elegant. In later times, no greater praise could be bestowed upon a calligrapher than to say that he was able to sell his own writings for a piece of Yaqut. Among his doubtlessly numerous disciples six are singled out, each of whom is credited with the development of a particular style. From that time onward the sitta styles remain exclusively in use for copyists’ and “calligraphers’ ” purposes. They are (1) naskh (connected with cAbdallah as-Sayrafi), (2) muhaqqaq (connected with cAbdallah Arghun), (3) thuluth (connected with Ahmad Tayyib Shah), (4) tauqic (connected with Mubarakshah Qutb), (5) rlhdnl (connected with Mubarakshah Suyufi), and (6) riqac (connected with Ahmad as-Suhrawardi).67

With the introduction of these six basic styles, the multiplicity of previous styles falls into oblivion, for it is amazing and somewhat disquieting that Ibn an-Nadim’s Fihrist, composed in the time between Ibn Muqla and Ibn al-Bawwab, enumerates no less than twenty-four different cursive hands, among which some that were to become very prominent later are not mentioned.68 It is consoling that a writer who is almost contemporary with Ibn an-Nadim, Ibn Wahb al-Katib, complains that even the scribes are no longer aware of all the different styles of the good old days.69

alif and waw in a "round" style, such as thuluth described as muqawwar (hollowed) or layyin (soft).

alif and waw in a "round" style, such as thuluth described as muqawwar (hollowed) or layyin (soft).

alif and waw in a "dry" script, such as muhaqqaq

alif and waw in a "dry" script, such as muhaqqaq

Among the aqlam as-sitta the most impressive one is thuluth, which belongs to the aqlam murattaba, the rounded, plump style, and is also it is written with a broad pen; the alif begins with a light stroke at the right upper angle and can have a slight curve at its lower left. Even in the Middle Ages it was compared to a man looking at his feet. Thuluth was mainly used in epigraphy, less frequently in calligraphy except for the sura headings of Korans. Some fine Korans in thuluth belong to Mamluk Egypt; written in golden ink, the eyes of their letters are sometimes filled with dark lapis lazuli.70 It seems that an art form that later became a favorite with calligraphers was invented under Timur. Sayyid cAbdul Qadir ibn cAbdul Wahhab wrote a Koran for him in which the first, the central, and the last lines are in thuluth, the rest in naskh.71 This combination of two styles was then continued in Mamluk and Ottoman times, especially for decorative album pages. Thuluth in its jali form was predominantly used for the enormous inscriptions with names of God and the Prophet or other religious formulas as they adorn Turkish mosques and have been aptly described by Franz Rosenthal as “religious emotion frozen by art.”72 The other large script used in the Middle Ages is muhaqqaq, (meaning the “accurate, well-organized, ideal” script); according to Tauhidi, the first condition for writing is tahqiq (attempting accuracy).73 Like rihani, which is its smaller relative, muhaqqaq has flat endings terminating in sharp points.74 It is therefore called a dry (yabis) script, in which the difference between the vertical letters and the lower ones is very marked, alif being 9 points high (in thuluth only 7). Alif has a small stroke at its upper right but under no circumstances swings out at the lower left; thus, the contrasts between the letters become more marked. Muhaqqaq was always a copyists’, not a chancellery, script; and like the most common copyists’ script, the naskh, it is distinguished by the la al-warraqiyya, that is, a way of writing lam and alif as a single, triangular letter.

la al-warraqiyya, the lam-alif as used by the copyists

la al-warraqiyya, the lam-alif as used by the copyists

Modern handbooks of calligraphy in Turkey claim that both muhaqqaq and rihani are merely flat variants of thuluth, and the style has formerly rarely been observed by Western scholars, even though allusions to it are abundant in poetry.

The true copyists’ script is the small naskh, written with a fine pen and with a straight alif without an initial stroke. Among the chancellery styles its counterpart is riqca, meant for small pieces of paper and notes but not for significant documents. In both styles the alif measures only 5 points. Even though riqca was never a classical script, the last biographer of Turkish calligraphers, Ibnul Emin Inal, devotes a whole chapter to the masters of this style who, as is to be expected, were mainly high government officials.75 Out of riqca, qirma, the “broken script,” developed; that was a kind of shorthand used in the government for tax purposes and for other purposes that were not supposed to become commonly known.76

Naskh as an artistic form developed according to local taste. In Iran it is rounded and very upright, with the letters extremely neatly drawn, thus clearly contrasting with the normal slanting style of writing in Iran. The last great master of naskh in Iran was Mirza Ahmad Nayrizi in the early eighteenth century who wrote with a very obliquely cut pen and whose Korans were highly prized.77 From Iran the round naskh reached India, where it is even stiffer, the round endings of the letters being small and perfectly circular so that a page may look very calm and sedate. However, the letters are often too closely crammed together, and someone used to Turkish naskh would find a Koran printed in Pakistani style difficult to appreciate.

The Turks developed a naskh in which the fine, graceful letters seem to walk swiftly toward the left. This style, whose foundation was laid by Shaykh Hamdullah around 1500 and that was perfected by his successor, Hafiz Osman, after seven generations, has become a model of beauty. That is why the Turkish saying claims, Kuran Mekke’ye indi, Mislrda okundu, Istanbul da yazildi (“The Koran was revealed in Mecca, was recited [properly] in Egypt, and was written in Istanbul”).

Derived from naskh is ghubar, the dust script, written with a minute pen. Originally meant for pigeon post, it was later used for decorative purposes such as filling single letters with a whole text or making up figures of human beings, animals, or flowers from pious formulas. One can also write the basmala or the profession of faith in ghubar on a grain of rice.78 The first ghubar Koran of which we know was written for Timur by cOmar al-Aqtac, a calligrapher who did not belong to the Yaqutian chain of transmission. The ruler, however, was not happy with a Koran that could be fitted under a signet ring. He rebuked the calligrapher, who then wrote another copy of the Holy Book, each page of which measured a cubit in length. Timur, finally impressed, handsomely rewarded the artist.79

The story may or may not be authentic, but it certainly shows the predilection of late-fourteenth and fifteenth-century connoisseurs for

Korans of enormous sizes—suffice it to mention a Mamluk copy of 117 by 98 cm and the Koran written by Timur’s grandson Baysun-ghur, which measures 101 by 177 cm. To write Korans, or at least their first and last pages, in gold was not unusual, as copies from all parts of the Muslim world, from Morocco to India, prove. But non-religious texts could also be lavishly decorated, particularly poetry composed by kings, be it al-Muctamid’s verse in the ninth century in Baghdad80 or the poetical works of the Deccani rulers Muhammad-Quli Qutbshah and Ibrahim cAdilshah around 1600.81

But the cursive hand did not remain restricted to chancellery or copyist purposes. Shortly after the year 1000 one finds its first examples in architectural inscriptions, and in a comparatively short time it replaced Kufi, or coexisted with it for a while until Kufi became so highly involved that it had to be replaced by a more readable script. A typical example is the area of the Quwwat ul-Islam mosque and the Qutb Minar in Delhi (1236), where both styles are used to a high degree of perfection. Two decades later, Konya is another striking example, where the sophisticated Kufi of the Kar-atay Medrese and the elegant thuluth surrounding the gate of the neighboring Ince Minareli Medrese are almost contemporary (1251 and 1258, respectively). Such inscriptions show that thuluth had indeed reached a high degree of refinement even before it was given its final touch by Yaqut, and it is not astonishing that two generations later some of Yaqut’s disciples excelled both in Koranic calligraphy and in the layout of huge architectural inscriptions. They used to write the texts for the stonecutters or tilemakers; it is told of one master that he “wrote Surat al-Kahf . . . and the stonecutters reproduced it in relief . . . simply with baked bricks.”82

Thuluth remained the ideal style for epigraphy and was used on virtually every material and everywhere. Muslim artisans seem to have covered every conceivable object with writing, often with verses or rhyming sentences. The Kitdb al-muwashsha, which offers a lively picture of the life of the elegant upper class in Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries,83 quotes verses that were artistically written on pillows and curtains, goblets and flasks, garments and headgear, belts and kerchiefs, golden and silver vessels, as well as on porcelain. Handsome slave girls had verses written in henna on their cheeks and foreheads, as did writers with the reed pens that they used or sent as gifts to friends. Mihrabs (prayer-niches) in wood and marble show every possible combination of script, and wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl or ivory inscriptions has been found from India to Spain. Glazed tiles with inscriptions scribbled around their borders not only offer difficult specimens of the early “hanging” style but sometimes preserve interesting pieces from Arabic or Persian literature, both poetry and prose; inscriptions inlaid in copper or brass may offer either historical information or contain literary pieces in which the vessel is imagined speaking about its destination. Many of them have a religious content (thus the Bidri ware from the Deccan with strongly Shiite invocations), and mosque lamps in Syrian glass supply us with the names of their donors or allude to the Prophet who is sent as sirajun munir (a shining light; Sura 33/40), or else to the light-verse of the Koran (Sura 24/35). The use of inscriptions on glass and ceramics was so widespread that mock Arabic words are found on some porcelain pieces produced in China for export to Near Eastern countries. Many signs on vessels no longer yield any meaning, for more and more the craftsman imitated traditional models without understanding the letters, which therefore often consist simply of remnants of repeated blessing formulas. Quite early in history the Arabs seem to have used rugs with inscriptions or letters on them; otherwise, the long deliberation put forth by the fourteenth-century theologian as-Subki as to whether or not one was allowed to tread upon such a rug would be meaningless.84

Cursive epigraphy reached its apex in the inscriptions on mosques and minarets. The use of tiles enabled the artists to produce highly intricate, radiant inscriptions of flawless beauty; here, Timurids and Safavids found unsurpassable solutions. India, on the other hand, can boast of some of the finest inscriptions carved out of marble or laid in black into white marble, as in the Taj Mahal, where calligra-phers and architects skilfully produced the illusion that all letters are absolutely equal in size, despite the changing perspective.85 One must also not forget the powerful stone inscriptions with a highly decorative organization of the verticals in rhythmical parallelism, as found in fifteenth-century Bengal or early seventeenth-century Bi-japur,86 an area whose contributions to the development of the art of Arabic epigraphy is usually overlooked because art historians tend to focus on the examples of Ottoman Turkish architecture that have long since become the perfect embodiment of cursive epigraphy at its best.

Naskh and thuluth seem to embody the genius of the Arabic script most perfectly, whereas the development of Arabic writing in the Western part of the Muslim world, the Maghrib, is less attractive to many. Even Ibn Khaldun, a Tunisian himself, did not approve of the writing of his compatriots who had not participated in the reform of the cursive hand by Ibn Muqla and his successors and who lived in an area that, as he implies, was not really culturally advanced enough to equal Cairo with its numerous facilities where a refined art like calligraphy would be sought and hence taught.87 We know, however, that there were also quite a number of scholars and writers in the Maghrib who practiced calligraphy according to the rules of the Baghdadian masters, which they apparently learned while traveling to the East.88 Inscriptions in the Alhambra as well as on Spanish silks prove that for epigraphic purposes the traditional thuluth was generally used.

The punctuation of Maghribi differs from that in the East in that the l has its dot beneath it and the q has only one dot. The common North African hand was apparently refined in Spain; the so-called Andalusian script, with its dense succession of letters, impresses the reader by its high degree of straightness.

It seems that in the Maghrib vellum remained in use for copies of the Koran longer than in the East, and some Maghribi Korans written in gold on fine vellum have a beauty of their own, even though they do not conform to the canon. Maghribi appears to the spectator less logical than naskh, for the very wide opening of the initial cayn and the enormous endings of the letters, which are by no means perfectly circular, look too irregular. Some later manuscripts have buttonlike upper endings of the verticals, and the pages often assume a spiderweblike character. The decoration in its strong colors, however, is often strikingly attractive; the use of colored inks for the vowel signs adds to the picturesque quality of the page. Examples from the works of the Moroccan master al-Qandusi from the early nineteenth century, as shown in Khatibi and Sijelmasi’s book, reveal the artistic possibilities of this style.89

Maghribi was exported to western Africa, but both in Bornu and in Kano (northern Nigeria) the letters are much heavier than in the

First page of an Aljamiado manuscript, a sixteenth-century Spanish text in Arabic letters in Maghribi style. Only the initial basmala and the blessings upon the Prophet are in Arabic. Courtesy Dr. Luce Lopez-Baralt, Puerto Rico

First page of an Aljamiado manuscript, a sixteenth-century Spanish text in Arabic letters in Maghribi style. Only the initial basmala and the blessings upon the Prophet are in Arabic. Courtesy Dr. Luce Lopez-Baralt, Puerto Rico

Maghrib proper: in Bornu they rather resemble oblique Kufic letters, whereas in Kano they are very stiff. Besides, the normative naskh style became more common in West Africa as soon as printed religious books were imported from Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.90

Most lovers of Islamic calligraphy would bestow the highest praise on the “hanging” style as developed in the Persianate world. A certain trend toward extending the letters to the lower left can be found in early Persian manuscripts and on ceramics from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This is a natural development, because the frequently occurring verbal endings -t, -i, -st require a movement of the pen from the upper right toward a long, swinging left ending. The so-called tacliq was used, according to Qadi Ahmad, exclusively for chancellery purposes.91 That remained so even after Mir-cAli of Tabriz, called qudwat al-kuttab (“the exemplary calligrapher”),92 had regulated the hanging style by shaping and measuring the letters according to the rules developed for the Arabic cursive style. Legends tell that a dream of Hying geese, interpreted for him by Hazrat cAli, inspired him to perfect the style so that he can be called, not the inventor, but the first calligrapher of nastaliq. The masters of this style still teach their disciples to form certain letters like a bird’s wing or beak. Under the Timurid prince Baysunghur Mirza (d. 1433) the hanging style became the true vehicle for Persian texts, and it is said that all his forty court calligraphers were Mir-cAli Tabrizi’s disciples. Mir-cAli’s son, cAbdullah Shakarin-Qalam, perfected his father’s work, and his style remained so predominant that attempts by some other calligraphers, namely Maulana cAbdur-Rahman Khwar-izmi and his two sons, to develop a style of their own is harshly criticized by some Oriental sources.93

The bird like shapes of some letters in nastaliq

Nastaliq the ‘bride of the islamic styles of writings.94‘, is certainly an ideal vehicle for poetical texts, and the combination of fine poetry written in elegant nastaliq and decorated with artistic borders is doubtlessly one of the greatest achievements of Muslim artists. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, pages with pious sayings or with pithy quatrains were as popular as were small oblong safinas, anthologies in which poems were written in minute elegant nastaliq. The greatest masters of this style are connected with eastern Iran. Sultan-cAli Mashhadi (d. 924/1519), the Sultan al-Khattatin, (King of Calligraphers) produced during a lifetime of some eighty years an enormous number of books, many of which are extant, but he was surpassed in elegance by Mir-cAli Haravi, examples of whose hand are found in most libraries and museums. It is said that Mir-cAli was asked about the difference between Sultan-cAli’s and his own writing and answered, “I have brought it to perfection, but his writing has a special flavor.”95 The two masters are in a certain way comparable to Ibn Muqla and Ibn al-Bawwab;96 but to some poets Ibn al-Bawwab compared to them appeared “like a doorkeeper with his stick in his hand.”97

After the dispersion of the Timurid rule in Herat, different schools of nastaliq developed in Safavid Iran, where the outstanding master is Mir-cImad, whose pedigree goes back to Mir-cAli.98 Before Mir-cImad, the name of Mahmud Nishapuri outshines calligraphers of the first half of the sixteenth century in Iran. He was the favorite of Shah Tahmasp, for whom he wrote a Koran in nastaliq in 1538; it is one of the very few specimens of a whole Koran in the hanging style, which is not aesthetically well suited to Arabic. An Indian poet says in the seventeenth century:

The condition of love is not elegant beauty,

just like a Koran in nastaliq.”99

This means that what matters is the content more than the form. Another fragment of a Koran in nastaliq was written for Shah Tahmasp by the librarian of Bahram Mirza, the calligrapher, painter, and historian Dost-Muhammad.100

From Iran the hanging style was adapted in those countries where Persian culture prevailed, namely in India, where many masters of this style migrated in the latter days of Shah Tahmasp and during the heyday of the Moghul Empire and in Ottoman Turkey. Turkish tacliq tends to a slightly wider opening of the final semicircles of the rounded letters, whereas Indian tacliq like Indian naskh, often has rather tightly closed, perfectly circular endings.

Out of tacliq developed shikasta, the “broken script,” which was apparently in the beginning mainly used in the chancelleries and was molded into a more elegant form by Shafica of Herat (d. 1676), whose writing looked “like the tresses of a bride.”101 cAbdul-Majid of Taliqan (d. 1185/1773) brought it to perfection.102 It seems more than an accident that this style developed at exactly the same time when the word shikast (broken) became one of the key words of Persian poetry in India. Pages with shikasta, their lines thrown, as it were, over the page without apparent order, are often reminiscent of modern graphics rather than of legible script, and thus the aesthetic result of the most sacred, hieratic script, the early Koranic Kufi, and that of the extreme profane, poetical script are quite similar: one admires them without trying to decipher them. The poets then would claim that they wrote their letters in khatt-i shikasta in order to express their broken hearts’ hopeless state;103 and one wonders whether Bedil, the most famous representative of the involved Indian style in poetry, had in mind a page of shikasta, with its lines crossing each other, when he exclaimed:

The back and the face of the plate of your understanding are Islam and infidelity: Out of nearsightedness have you made the lines of the Koran into a cross!104

There are some peculiar developments of the Arabic script in the eastern part of the Islamic world. Among them is the so-called Bi-hari style, which was used in India mainly in the fifteenth century. The rules of Ibn Muqla were either unknown to, or neglected by, its calligraphers; in fact, its slowly thickening lower endings and the flat sad are reminiscent of Maghribi, and, as in that style, the decoration in colorful inks can render a good Bihari manuscript quite beautiful.105 Again, in the Central Asian areas, influences of Mongolian and Chinese writing are palpable; and certain Korans, in which the long endings are strangely stacked, would deserve more intense study. It seems that some of these texts were written with a brush instead of with a reedpen; but more research has to be done in this field.

Out of the basic styles of Arabic writing a great number of derivatives developed and are still in use. The long verticals that are so predominant in Arabic especially invited the calligraphers to invent fascinating calligraphic fences on album pages, a technique that probably grew out of the headings of princely documents and that were apparently particularly common in India.106 Playful inventions were not lacking either: while the use of animated letters on metal vessels in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is well attested, the Herati master Majnun is also credited with inventing a script of human and animal figures of which, unfortunately, no trace has yet come to light.107 Mirror script, used first for seal cutting, developed into a special art; some of the greatest Turkish calligraphers have elaborated highly sophisticated mirrored inscriptions for mosques and mausoleums.108

Zoomorphic letters: sin and ya from a bronze pen-case. After Herz feld

Zoomorphic letters: sin and ya from a bronze pen-case. After Herz feld



The khatt-i nakhun, in which the script is engraved with the fingernail into the backside of the paper, was invented, or made popular, in the sixteenth century by Nizamuddin Bukhari, whose talent was praised in a poem by the Safavid prince Bahrain Mirza; it is still known to one or two artists in Pakistan.109

It goes without saying that in the long history of Islamic calligraphy various attempts have been made to introduce new shapes— “sharpening the teeth of the sin“; adding little flourishes to the letters; and creating styles poetically called “bride’s tresses,” “peacock script,” “flame script,” “crescent script,” and so on—but none of these had a major bearing on the development of calligraphy proper, and historians mention such innovations with great disapproval. Thus, even the calligraphic paintings of the Pakistani artist Sadiqain, interesting as they may look as an attempt to write the Koran in a pictorial style, are frowned upon by professional calligraphers, since his letters do not follow the classical rules.

For the lover of calligraphy, however, it is fascinating to observe that throughout the Islamic world a new interest in calligraphy as such as well as in calligraphic painting has occurred recently—a trend that stretches from Morocco to Pakistan, with leading representatives also in Egypt and Iraq.110 This new interest in calligraphy, from whatever angle it be, shows that the Muslims are very much aware that the Arabic letters—the “letters of the Koran”—are their most precious heirloom, and everyone will probably agree with Qadi Ahmad who, well aware of the fact that most of his compatriots were illiterate, wrote: “If someone, whether he can read or not, sees good writing, he likes to enjoy the sight of it.”111


Kufic kaf from a Koran, Iran, ca. twelfth century. While other known pages of this Koran are written in normal Eastern Kufi, the Surat al-ikhlas (Sura 112), which contains the profession of God's absolute Unity, is written in highly complicated Kufi reminiscent of stucco decorations, and so is the name of the Prophet Muhammad.

Kufic kaf from a Koran, Iran, ca. twelfth century. While other known pages of this Koran are written in normal Eastern Kufi, the Surat al-ikhlas (Sura 112), which contains the profession of God's absolute Unity, is written in highly complicated Kufi reminiscent of stucco decorations, and so is the name of the Prophet Muhammad.


A Scribe. Moghul, India, ca. 1625.  Anonymous Private Collection, courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.

A Scribe. Moghul, India, ca. 1625. Anonymous Private Collection, courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.


Page from a Maghribi Koran, gold on vellum.  Courtesy John Rylands Library, Manchester. Ms. Arabic 691, fol. 87 b

Page from a Maghribi Koran, gold on vellum. Courtesy John Rylands Library, Manchester. Ms. Arabic 691, fol. 87 b


Arabic prayers, written in naskh by Ahmad an-Nayrizi, colors and gold on parchment, dated 1137/1724.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1962

Arabic prayers, written in naskh by Ahmad an-Nayrizi, colors and gold on parchment, dated 1137/1724. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1962

Beginning of Jami's poem on the secrets of the letters of the basmala in nastaliq, chapter heading in late decorative Kufi. Ca. 1500, probably Herat.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Purchase, 1952. Joseph Pulitzer Bequest

Beginning of Jami's poem on the secrets of the letters of the basmala in nastaliq, chapter heading in late decorative Kufi. Ca. 1500, probably Herat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, 1952. Joseph Pulitzer Bequest



1. Mayil, eel. Majnun, Risala, p. 1.

2. Qalqashandi, Subh al-acsha, vol. Ill, p. 35.

3. See Erdmann, Arabische Schriftzeichen ah Ornamente, and Sellheim, “Die Madonna mit der sahada.”

4. For this development see Flick, Die arabischen Studien in Europa.

5. Grohmann, Arabische Palaographie, is the most scholarly work on the development of the Arabic script in the first centuries. The articles in the new EI, Khatt, Kitab, Kitabat, Katib, deal extensively with the development of calligraphy, epigraphy, and secretarial skills. In addition, a number of more general works have been published in the last two decades, after Kiihnel, Islamhche Schriftkunst (published during World War II), had given the first introduction to our subject, which was both scholarly and delightfully written. For the history of Arabic writing in general, not especially calligraphy, Moritz, Arabic Paleography, is still indispensable. Schimmel, Islamic Calligraphy, was written for the historian of religions, while Sa-fadi, Islamic Calligraphy, gives a good, reliable survey of the development and has plentiful illustrations. Martin Lings, in The Quranic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination, offers superb examples of calligraphy as used for Korans, and is a fine guide in this field. Lately, Hasan Massoudy, Calligraphic Arabe vivante, has produced a book on calligraphy that is written, and partly illustrated, by one of the leading modern calligraphers. A vast survey of material, unfortunately not very well arranged, is Zaynuddin’s Musawwar al-khatt al-zarabl, in which the reader finds thousands of examples of the different styles. On the other hand, the beautifully produced book by Khatibi and Sijelmasi, Splendour of Islamic Calligraphy, suffers from an inadequate and partly incorrect, rather badly translated text. Among the catalogues of special exhibitions held in the last years, A. Welch, Calligraphy and the Arts of the Muslim World, is a good and instructive introduction to the various

applications of calligraphy; A. Raeuber, Islamische Schdnschrift, has a special chapter on modern calligraphy. Every work on Islamic art deals with calligraphy; particularly rich is Pope, Survey of Persian Art; a number of smaller Turkish studies have been devoted to the topic as well. Every issue of the Arabic magazine Fikrun wa Fann since 1964 contains examples of classical and modern calligraphy.

6. Abbott, The Rise of the North Arabic Script and “Arabic Paleography.”

7. Thus QA, p. 53, and in Sultan-cAli’s Risala, QA, p. 107; this tradition was apparently generally accepted, for even Akbar’s chronicler, Abu’l-Fazl, A’in-i Ak-bari, vol. I, 105 (transl.), mentions it.

8. Rosenthal, Four Essays, p. 24.

9. Examples in Moritz, Arabic Palaeography, pis. 1, 44; Safadi, Islamic Calligraphy, p. 8. Early writing often has a tendency toward slanting, as the examples in Moritz show.

10. QA, p. 11.

11. Rosenthal, Four Essays, p. 59.

12. Lings, The Quranic Art of Calligraphy, chap. 1.

13. Mez, Renaissance des Islams, p. 327.

14. EI, vol. IV, p. 207, kitab.

15. Abu’l-Aswad ad-Du’ali, the qadi of Basra (d. 69/688-89), is credited with inventing the diacritical marks; according to another tradition, it was Abu Sulay-man Yahya al-Laythi who “was inspired to put diacritical marks while copying the Koran,” TH, p. 583.

16. Hoenerbach, Die dichterischen Vergleiche, p. 151.

17. Pages from this Koran in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, in the Metropolitan Museum New York, and in private collections; see Schimmel, Islamic Calligraphy, pi. V a; A. Welch, Calligraphy, no. 3.

18. Massignon, La Passion . . . d’al Hoseyn ibn Mansour al Hallaj, vol. 1, p. 168.

19. TH, p. 370, mentions Madi ibn Muhammad al-Ghafiqi (d. 183/799) and p. 112, Ishaq ibn Murad ash-Shaybani (d. 206/821-22, more than a hundred years old). That would place the beginning of Kufic calligraphy in the mid-eighth century.

20. Lings, The Quranic Art of Calligraphy, pi. 10.

21. Al-Mucizz ibn Badis, who tried to free Tunisia from Fatimid rule, is mentioned as the author of a treatise on calligraphy that is called either cUmdat al-kuttab wa ciddat dhawT l-albab or cUmdat al-kuttdb ft $ifati’l-hibr wa’l-aqlam wa I-khatt;

see GAL S, 1,473.

22. Schroeder, “What Was the bad? Script?”

23. Pages from the Koran have often been reproduced: Kuhnel, Islamische Schriftkunst, fig. 12; Schimmel, Islamic Calligraphy, pi. VIII a; Lings, The Quranic Art of Calligraphy, pi. 17; A. Welch, Calligraphy, no. 13. A qualifying paper in the Fine Arts Department, Harvard University, by Beatrice St. Laurent, 1982, deals with this Koran; the author was able to find a group of 55 hitherto unknown pages of this Koran in Istanbul, which show that the Koran was bound not as a whole but in codices containing onejuz each (one juz’ constitutes one thirtieth of the full text). The date should be around 1100 or slightly later; Lings, The Quranic Art of Calligraphy, pi. 16, has a Koran in similar, though less elaborate eastern Kufi, signed by one cAli, and dated 485/1092. Likewise Habibi, A Short History of Calligraphy, offers very similar examples written by masters from Ghazni and dated in the second half of the eleventh and mid-twelfth centuries, pp. 178, 182.

24. Kuhnel, Islamische Schriftkunst, p. 8.

25. See A. Welch, Calligraphy, fig. 7.

26. A good introduction to the problems of inscriptions on early ceramics is Lisa Volov, “Plaited Kufic on Samanid Epigraphic Pottery.”

27. The dissertation of Bassem Zaki deals with this development, Harvard University, 1976.

28. For Spain see Ocana Jimenez, El cufica hispano, pp. 47-48.

29. Bivar, “Seljuqid Ziarets of Sar-i Pul.”

30. See the figures in Schimmel, Islamic Calligraphy, pi. I (Saragossa), and p. 12, fig. n (Sar-i Pul).

31. The best survey of a group of plaited inscriptions is Flury, Islamische Schrift-bander: Amida-Diyarbekir.

32. Ettinghausen, “Arabic Epigraphy” and Aanavi,”Devotional Writing: ‘Pseudo-Inscriptions’ in Islamic Art.”

33. Bombaci, The Kufic Inscription in Persian Verses in the Court of the Royal Palace of Mascud III at Ghazni.

34. A particularly beautiful example of a shatranji cAli from a Turkish manuscript of the later fifteenth century in Ettinghausen, “Die Islamische Zeit,” in Die Tiirkei und ihre KunsLschdtze. A fine square Muhammad on a Turkish linen kerchief is in A. Welch, Calligraphy, no. 36.

35. See Grohmann, Arabische Palaographie and Dietrich, Arabische Briefe.

36. The best-known handbooks are as-Suli, Adab al-kuttab, and Ibn Durusta-wayh, Kitab al-kuttab; see also Sourdel, “Le Livre des Secretaires.”

37. An autograph of Qalqashandi’s Subh al-acsha in the Library of al-Azhar, dated 799/1397, in Moritz, Arabic Palaeography, pi. 171. For an analysis of this important work see Bjorkman, Beitrage zur Geschichte der Staatskanzlei.

38. Ibn Wahb, Al-burhan, p. 344, gives a good introduction; he himself belongs to an old secretarial family.

39. Rosenthal, Four Essays, p. 32.

40. Ibn Wahb, Al-burhan, p. 344.

41. A nice poetical description of a scribe working on a scroll that he unfolds on his lap, by Abu Nuwas, quoted in Wagner, Abu Nuwas, p. 381.

42. Mez, Renaissance des Islams, p. 168, according to Subki, Tabaqat ash-shafiHyya, vol. II, p. 230.

43. Habib, p. 76; cf. Huart, pp. 93-94; Badruddin, master in all styles, was the son-in-law of Mir-cAIi Tabrizi, the first calligrapher of nastaliq.

44. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddima, trans. Rosenthal, Vol. II, p. 390.

45. Hafiz, Divan, ed. Ahmad-Na’ini, no. 203; ed. Brockhaus no. 247; a good example of musalsal in EI, vol. V, pi. XXXVI 6.

46. Khaqani, Divan, p. 411; cf. ibid., p. 424: “the blind mim of the scribes.”

47. Ayverdi, Fatih devri hattatlari, fig. 32; Kiihnel, “Die osmanische Tughra.”

48. The 687th night: “Asmaci and the Three Girls from Basra.”

49. Abu Nuwas, in Suli, Adab al-kuttab, quoted by Wagner, Abu Nuwas, p. 324. Moritz’s examples in Arabic Palaeography show that many profane manuscripts up to the eleventh century were very sparsely, if at all, marked.

50. Rosenthal, Four Essays, p. 45. Hamza al-Isfahani, At-tanblh shows the dangers inherent in leaving out or mixing up the diacritical marks; see Chapter 4, note 5, below.

51. Hoenerbach, Die dichterischen Vergleiche, p. 99.

52. Hamza al-Isfahani, At-tanbih, p. 94.

53. The story of the first qalandar.

54. Ibn ar-Rawandi, Rahat as-$udur, pp. 437-38, gives the ratios. For an analysis see Ahmad Moustafa, “The Scientific Construction of the Arabic Alphabet,” mentioned in Soucek, “The Arts of Calligraphy,” p. 21.

55. Rosenthal, Four Essays, p. 33.

56. Onver-Athari, Ibn al-Bawwab, p. 65. A panegyric poem by the scribe-poet Kushajim of Aleppo, in Kushajim, Diwan, pp. 398 ff.

57. Unver-Athari, Ibn al-Bawwab, p. 66. A fine pun is quoted by Zamakhshari: In his khatt (“script/down”) is the good luck, Jiazz, for every eyeball, as if it were the script of Ibn Muqla.

58. GALS, 111,35.

59. QA, p. 56.

60. Mez, Renaissance des Islams, p. 168.

61. Cf. Unver-Athari, Ibn al-Bawwab, p. 17, based on Yaqut’s Mucjam al-udaba: someone admired the calligrapher “because you are singular in things which nobody in Baghdad shares with you: among them is the beautiful handwriting, and that I have never seen in my life a calligrapher except you, the distance between whose turban and his beard is two and a half cubits.” Long beards were apparently not too common for calligraphers, as TH, p. 81, tells about Ahmad al-Hama’ili (d. 737/1337) in Mecca: “While he was writing the drafts of his correspondence, he would constantly pluck out and corrode his long beard with the hand of negligence.”

62. TH, p. 27. Ibn al-Bawwab’s unique Koran manuscript in the Chester Beatty Library has been studied by D. S. Rice.

63. Unver-Athari, Ibn al-Bawwab, p. 7.

64. Ibid., p. 26, according to Ibn Khallikan, Wafayat al-a^yan, vol. I, p. 246.

65. Sana’i, Hadiqat, p. 667.

66. Ibn ar-Rawandi, Rahat af-$udur, pp. 42-44.

67. Habib, p. 22, sums up the styles and their proper applications: rihani for Koran copies and prayers; thuluth for instruction and practicing calligraphy; riqac for correspondence; naskh for commentaries of the Koran and hadith; tauqlc for documents and royal orders; muhaqqaq for poetry of sorts. This typology was, however, not strictly enforced. For the calligraphers in Yaqut’s line see Huart, pp. 86 ff., who gives a slightly different tradition.

68. Ibn an-Nadim, Fihrist, trans. Dodge, chap. I, pp. 6-21. Thus, naskh in its later technical sense as copyists’ script is missing, and muhaqqaq is mentioned only among the derived scripts.

69. Ibn Wahb, Al-burhdn, p. 345.

70. Fine examples from Ilkhan and Mamluk times in Lings, The Quranic Art, chap. 5.

71. QA, p. 64; Huart, p. 95; cf. Zaynuddin, Mu$aum>ar al-khatt al-carabi, no. 265.

72. Rosenthal, Four Essays, p. 59.

73. Ibid., p. 28.

74. According to QA, p. 16, it has one and a half circular strokes and four and a half straight strokes.

75. SH, pp. 647-767.

76. Murad Kamil “Die ^mwa-Schrift in Agypten.” The scribes knew of course various tricks to conceal or deform their letters so that a secret document could not be read by the uninitiated; one method was to write with milk instead of ink; when the recipient put hot ashes on the paper, the letters became visible; TH, p. 628.

77. See Arberry, The Koran Illuminated, no. 177, and Lings, The Quranic Art of Calligraphy, p. 32.

78. Examples in TH, p. 129 (d. 788/1386), TH, p. 367 (d. 1035/1626), TH, p. 461 (d. 1081/1670-71); Bada’uni, Muntakhab, vol. Ill, p. 429 (transl.), Ill, p. 310 (text), speaks of the extraordinary achievements of Sharif Farisi, the son of Ak-bar’s famous painter cAbdus-Samad, who made whole drawings and writings on a grain of rice; see also Huart, p. 132, for Sayyid Qasim Ghubari in Istanbul. I was given a grain of rice with the basmala and one with Sura 112 in Hydera-bad/Deccan in 1979 and 1981; my full name in Roman letters was written on another grain.

79. QA, p. 64; Huart, p. 252.

80. Mez, Renaissance des Islams, p. 167.

81. A sumptuous copy of Muhammad-Quli Qutbshah’s Divan is in the Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad; all the magnificent copies of Ibrahim cAdilshah’s Ki-tdb-i Nauras seem to be dispersed.

82. QA, p. 24; cf. chapter 2, note 256, below.

83. Al-Washsha,’ Kitab al-muwashsha, pp. 157 ff.

84. Rosenthal, Four Essays, pp. 50-56.

85. Nath, Calligraphic Art, fig. VII: correction of inscriptional illusion.

86. Fraad-Ettinghausen, “Sultanate Painting in Persian Style,” p. 62. An unusually impressive example is a black stone slab from a Bengali mosque, built by prince Danyal, son of the great patron of arts, Husayn Shah, in 1500, now in the Metropolitan Museum; for a related slab see Faris and Miles, “An Inscription of Barbak Shah of Bengal”; cf. A. Welch, Calligraphy, fig. 1.

87. Ibn Khaldun, Al-Muqaddima, trans. Rosenthal, vol. II, pp. 378, 386.

88. Mustaqimzade mentions the following masters in the Maghrib who wrote in “classical” style: Ibn cAbdun (d. 300/912-13), TH, p. 295; Abu cOmar Yusuf ibn Muhammad (Cordova, d. 334/945-46), TH, p. 591; Ahmad ibn Ibban al-An-dalusi, who studied with Ibn Muqla (d. 381/991-92), TH, p. 58; Halaf ibn Sulay-man cAmrun as-Sanhaji (d. 398/1007-8 in Cordova), TH, p. 193; Abu cAbdallah Muhammad ibn Shaqq al-layl (d. 454/1062 in Toledo), who had studied with Ibn al-Bawwab, TH, p. 373; Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Maghribi (d. 540/1145^6), TH, p. 379; Abu’l-Hasan Muhammad at-Tabib (d. 560/1165), TH, p. 417; Abu Bakr cAbdur-Rahman al-Miknasi (d. 592/1196 in Marrakesh), TH, p. 250; Hayyan ibn cAbdallah al-Andalusi (d. 609/1212-13), TH, p. 189; Abu Jacfar Ahmad ibn Ibrahim (d. 707/1307-8 in Granada), learned from Yaqut, TH, p. 58; Abu Muhammad cAbdallah ibn cAli ash-Sharishi (d. 717/1317 in Sevilla), TH, p. 276; Abu Jacfar Hassan al-Habibi al-Andalusi (d. 742/1341^12), TH, p. 145; he further mentions TH, pp. 69 and 81, other masters who wrote in the style of Ibn al-Bawwab.

89. Khatibi and Sijelmasi,Splendour, pis. 24, 104, 107, 145, 156, 214.

90. Cf. Bivar, “The Arabic Calligraphy of West Africa.”

91. QA, chap. 2, is devoted to the masters of tacliq.

92. Bayani, no. 631.

93. Huart, pp. 257 ff.: “Les Deformateurs”; QA, p. 100, is less aggressive; TH, pp. 674-77, is also less critical than Huart; he mentions that “the unlucky calligrapher” who sometimes signed with “Giraffe” and sometimes with “Shah” became somewhat mentally deranged.

94. Bayani, p. 442.

95. Qatici, Majmac al-shucara, p. 226 n.

96. Bayani, p. 821.

97. MH, p. 44.

98. Bayani, no. 709; Huart, pp. 98, 235; QA, p. 167.

99. Aslah, Shucara-yi Kashmir, S, I, p. 397.

100. QA, p. 147; Huart, p. 220; the copy, dated 945/1538, is now in the Top-kapu Seray, HS 25, see Lings, The Quranic Art of Calligraphy, pi. 91; Zaynuddin, Mujawwar al-khatt al-carahl, no. 225. According to QA, p. 145, Maulana Malik began a Koran in Nastaliq but did not finish it; in 1111/1699, Dervish cAli wrote a nastacliq Koran; see Ghafur, Calligraphers of Thatta, p. 62. A copy of a Koran in nastaliq, dated 1060/1650, is in the National Museum Karachi. To our day, prayers in Arabic are frequently written in nastacliq, especially in Iran and Indo-Paki-stan.

101. QA, p. 77; Huart, p. 244.

102. Huart, p. 107; he wrote even a Fatiha in shikasta.

103. Thus Qanic, Maqalat ash-shucara, p. 746.

104. Bedil, Kulliyat, vol. I, p. 112.

105. A. Welch, Calligraphy, no. 75, color plate p. 14; it is written in Gwalior, 801/1398-99.

106. See Schimmel, Islamic Calligraphy, pi. XI.V, for a beautiful Surat an-Nas (Sura 114) from the Deccan; also the same in A. Welch, Calligraphy, no. 86.

107. QA, p. 133; Bayani, no. 826.

108. Avcl, “Tiirk sanatlnda aynali yazllar.”

109. Minorsky, in various places in QA, translates it with “written with the finger,” but it has to be “with the fingernail,” as Huart, p. 253, correctly says. I received some specimens in 1981 from the Pakistani artist Agha Abdul-Wase Sa-qib, Lahore.

110. For the development in Pakistan see Halem, ed., Calligraphy and Modern Art, the proceedings of a seminar held in Karachi in 1974. Among the modern artists, one can mention the names of Issam as-Sacid, and of Wasmaa Chorbachi, whose calligraphies on silk and ceramics were recently widely acclaimed in Saudi Arabia; Massoudy, the author of Calligraphie Arabe vivante, has invented powerful calligrams. There are interesting experiments with angular Kufi in both Morocco and Pakistan, and the tradition of “speaking letters” was used in Iran by Adhar-bod. The work of the Persian sculptor Tanavoli is likewise influenced by calligraphic concepts, as is modern art in Egypt and the Sudan, in Lebanon and Syria.


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About the Author
Annemarie Schimmel, SI, HI, (April 7, 1922 – January 26, 2003) was a well known and very influential German Orientalist and scholar, who wrote extensively on Islam and Sufism. She was a professor at Harvard University from 1967 to 1992. For her work on Islam, Sufism or mysticism and Muhammad Iqbal, the government of Pakistan honored her with its highest civil awards known as Sitara-e-Imtiaz or 'Star of Excellence', and Hilal-e-Imtiaz or 'Crescent of Excellence'. She was conferred with many other awards from many countries of the world, including the Leopold Lucas Prize of the Evangelisch-Theologische Faculty of the University of Tübingen and the 1995 prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.
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