Islamic calligraphy is the artistic practice of handwriting and calligraphy, in the languages which use Arabic alphabet or the alphabets derived from it. It includes Arabic, Persian, Ottoman, and Urdu calligraphy. It is known in Arabic as khatt Arabi ( ?), which translates into Arabic line, design, or construction.
The development of Islamic calligraphy is strongly tied to the Qur'an; chapters and excerpts from the Qur'an are a common and almost universal text upon which Islamic calligraphy is based. Although artistic depictions of people and animals are not explicitly forbidden by the Qur'an, pictures have traditionally been limited in Islamic books in order to avoid idolatry. Although some scholars dispute this, Kufic script was supposedly developed around the end of the 7th century in Kufa, Iraq, from which it takes its name. The style later developed into several varieties, including floral, foliated, plaited or interlaced, bordered, and square kufic. In the ancient world, though, artists would often get around this prohibition by using strands of tiny writing to construct lines and images. Calligraphy was a valued art form, even as a moral good. An ancient Arabic proverb illustrates this point by emphatically stating that "Purity of writing is purity of the soul."
However, Islamic calligraphy is not limited to strictly religious subjects, objects, or spaces. Like all Islamic art, it encompasses a diverse array of works created in a wide variety of contexts. The prevalence of calligraphy in Islamic art is not directly related to its non-figural tradition; rather, it reflects the centrality of the notion of writing and written text in Islam. It is noteworthy, for instance, that the Islamic prophet Muhammad is related to have said: "The first thing God created was the pen."
Islamic calligraphy developed from two major styles: Kufic and Naskh. There are several variations of each, as well as regionally specific styles. Arabic or Persian calligraphy has also been incorporated into modern art, beginning with the post-colonial period in the Middle East, as well as the more recent style of calligraffiti.
The traditional instrument of the Islamic calligrapher is the kalam, a pen normally made of dried reed or bamboo. The ink is often in colour and chosen so that its intensity can vary greatly, creating dynamism and movement in the letter forms. Some styles are often written using a metallic-tip pen.
Islamic calligraphy can be applied to a wide range of decorative mediums other than paper, such as tiles, vessels, carpets, and stone. Before the advent of paper, papyrus and parchment were used for writing. During the 9th century, an influx of paper from China revolutionized calligraphy. While monasteries in Europe treasured a few dozen volumes, libraries in the Muslim world regularly contained hundreds and even thousands of books.
For centuries, the art of writing has fulfilled a central iconographic function in Islamic art. Although the academic tradition of Islamic calligraphy began in Baghdad, the centre of the Islamic empire during much of its early history, it eventually spread as far as India and Spain.
Coins were another support for calligraphy. Beginning in 692, the Islamic caliphate reformed the coinage of the Near East by replacing Byzantine Christian imagery with Islamic phrases inscribed in Arabic. 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 textiles featuring Arabic text 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 north-western France.
As Islamic calligraphy is highly venerated, most works follow examples set by well-established calligraphers, with the exception of secular or contemporary works. In the Islamic tradition, calligraphers underwent extensive training in three stages, including the study of their teacher's models, in order to be granted certification.
Kufic is the oldest form of the Arabic script. The style emphasizes rigid and angular strokes, which appears as a modified form of the old Nabataean script. The Archaic Kufi consisted of about 17 letters without diacritic dots or accents. Diacritical markings were added during the 7th century to help readers with pronunciation of the Qur'an and other important documents, increasing the number of Arabic letters to 28. Although some scholars dispute this, Kufic script was supposedly developed around the end of the 7th century in Kufa, Iraq, from which it takes its name. The style later developed into several varieties, including floral, foliated, plaited or interlaced, bordered, and square kufic. Due to its straight and orderly style of lettering, Kufic was frequently used in ornamental stone carving as well as on coins. It was the main script used to copy the Qur'an from the 8th to 10th century and went out of general use in the 12th century when the flowing naskh style become more practical. However, it continued to be used as a decorative element to contrast superseding styles.
There was no set rules of using the Kufic script; the only common feature is the angular, linear shapes of the characters. Due to the lack of standardization of early Kufic, the script differs widely between regions, ranging from very square and rigid forms to flowery and decorative ones.
Decorative Kufic inscriptions are often imitated into pseudo-kufics in Middle age and Renaissance Europe. Pseudo-kufics is especially common in Renaissance depictions of people from the Holy Land. The exact reason for the incorporation of pseudo-Kufic is unclear. It seems that Westerners mistakenly associated 13th-14th century Middle Eastern scripts with systems of writing used during the time of Jesus, and thus found it natural to represent early Christians in association with them.
The use of cursive scripts coexisted with Kufic, and historically cursive was commonly used for informal purposes. With the rise of Islam, a new script was needed to fit the pace of conversions, and a well-defined cursive called naskh first appeared in the 10th century. Naskh translates to "copying," as it became the standard for transcribing books and manuscripts. The script is the most ubiquitous among other styles, used in the Qur'an, official decrees, and private correspondence. It became the basis of modern Arabic print.
Standardization of the style was pioneered by Ibn Muqla (886 – 940 A.D.) and later expanded by Abu Hayan at-Tawhidi (died 1009 A.D.). Ibn Muqla is highly regarded in Muslim sources on calligraphy as the inventor of the naskh style, although this seems to be erroneous. Since Ibn Muqla wrote with a distinctly rounded hand, many scholars drew the conclusion that he founded this script. Ibn al-Bawwab, the student of Ibn Muqla, is actually believed to have created this script. However, Ibn Muqla did establish systematic rules and proportions for shaping the letters, which use 'alif as the x-height, and the dot as basic measurement.
Thuluth was developed during the 10th century and slowly refined by Ottoman Calligraphers including Mustafa Râkim, Shaykh Hamdallah, and others, till it became what it is today. Letters in this script have long vertical lines with broad spacing. The name, meaning "one third", may possibly be a reference to the x-height, which is one-third of the 'alif, or to the fact that the pen used to write the vowels and ornaments is one third the width of that used in writing the letters.
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 develop in Turkey, Persia, and China.
In the post-colonial era, artists working in North Africa and the Middle East transformed Arabic calligraphy into a modern art movement, known as the Hurufiyya movement. Artists working in this style use calligraphy as a graphic element within contemporary artwork.
The term, hurufiyya is derived from the Arabic term, harf for letter. Traditionally, the term was charged with Sufi intellectual and esoteric meaning. It is an explicit reference to a medieval system of teaching involving political theology and lettrism. In this theology, letters were seen as primordial signifiers and manipulators of the cosmos.
Hurufiyya artists blended Western art concepts with an artistic identity and sensibility drawn from their own culture and heritage. These artists integrated Islamic visual traditions, especially calligraphy, and elements of modern art into syncretic contemporary compositions. Although hurufiyyah artists struggled to find their own individual dialogue within the context of nationalism, they also worked towards an aesthetic that transcended national boundaries and represented a broader affiliation with an Islamic identity.
The hurufiyya artistic style as a movement most likely began in North Africa around 1955 with the work of Ibrahim el-Salahi. However, the use of calligraphy in modern artworks appears to have emerged independently in various Islamic states. Artists working in this were often unaware of other hurufiyya artists's works, allowing for different manifestations of the style to emerge in different regions. In Sudan, for instance, artworks include both Islamic calligraphy and West African motifs.
The hurufiyya art movement was not confined to painters and included artists working in a variety of media. One example is the Jordanian ceramicist, Mahmoud Taha who combined the traditional aesthetics of calligraphy with skilled craftsmanship. Although not affiliated with the hurufiyya movement, the contemporary artist Shirin Neshat integrates Arabic text into her black-and-white photography, creating contrast and duality. In Iraq, the movement was known as Al Bu'd al Wahad (or the One Dimension Group)", and in Iran, it was known as the Saqqa-Khaneh movement.
Western art has influenced Arabic calligraphy in other ways, with forms such as calligraffiti, which is the use of calligraphy in public art to make politico-social messages or to ornament public buildings and spaces. Notable Islamic calligraffiti artists include: Yazan Halwani active in Lebanon, el Seed working in France and Tunisia, and Caiand A1one in Tehran.
In 2017 the Sultanate of Oman unveiled the Mushaf Muscat, an interactive calligraphic Quran following supervision and support from the Omani Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, a voting member of the Unicode Consortium.
Under-glaze terracotta bowl from the 11th century Nishapur
Gold dinar from 10th century Syria
A Kufic calligraphy in Chota Imambara
Naskh script in an early 16th-century Ottoman manuscript dedicated to Selim I
Thuluth script tile in Samarkand
Calligraphy of Ali decorating Hagia Sophia
A Moroccan Quran in a mabs?t Maghrebi script
17th century Persian Nasta'liq script
Quran in Sini script with Chinese translations
Bismallah calligraphy. Thuluth Jali
An example of zoomorphic calligraphy
Some classical calligraphers:
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