Arabic Calligraphy – Vehicle for the Word of God


Compiled by Hina Jamal – Freelance writer and editor

For thirteen centuries, the dominant influence in the Arab world has been the Islamic religion. Quran, the Holy Book of Islam, was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (sa) in the Arabic language. Because this book was sacred, special care was taken in its transcription, and the art of calligraphy developed as a result. Arabic calligraphy, therefore, derives its great prestige in Islam from the fact that it is the chosen vehicle for the Word of God. It is an art – indeed the chief form of visual art – with an inspiring history and a gallery of great masters.

Islam has exerted a more subtle, indirect influence on the development of the art of calligraphy: by discouraging the graphic representation of human beings and animals, it channelled the creative energies of Muslim artists toward other decorative arts, especially calligraphy. Because the Quran itself has always been the most widely owned and widely read book in the Muslim world, the incentive to produce beautiful transcripts of the work has been powerful and constant. It has inspired generations of calligraphers, who have sought to reproduce its words with a perfection of style worthy of its content.

What distinguishes calligraphy from ordinary handwriting is, quite simply, beauty. Handwriting may express ideas, even great ideas, but to the Arabs it must also express the richer dimension of aesthetics. Calligraphy to the Arabs is, as the Alexandrian philosopher Euclid expressed it, “a spiritual technique,” flowing quite naturally from the influence of Islam.

Calligraphy Styles

There are many different styles of Arabic calligraphy. These developed over centuries into formal scripts. Each script has distinctive shapes and characteristics.

Scripts were created for various purposes. Some were used to write the Quran; others were used for court documents. Small scripts were created to send mail by pigeon post; large scripts were developed for architectural inscriptions and so on.

Different regions developed their own styles. Three regions in particular were important in the development of calligraphy: the Arab world (from Morocco to Iraq), the Ottoman empire (present-day Turkey and beyond) and Persia (present-day Iran and beyond).

The first script associated with the Quran is known as Kufic, after the southern Iraqi town of Kufa. Kufic script developed in the late eighth century and is generally recognizable by its short vertical and elongated horizontal strokes. By the tenth century, the rapid spread of Islam prompted calligraphers to refine and standardize six cursive scripts – Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Naskh, Rayhani, Tauqi and Riqa – used for literary, religious and administrative purposes.

Tools and Materials

Traditionally, a reed pen, carbon-based ink and coated paper are the primary tools needed to write good calligraphy.

1)      Pen (Qalam)

A reed pen is carved with a penknife and trimmed at an angle on a small cutting board made specifically for this purpose. The pen is then slit down the middle, allowing it to hold about one letter’s worth of ink. This is preferred over a pen with a metal tip, because the flexibility of the natural material allows for a greater range of motion while writing.

Yaqut Al-Mustasimi, a great calligrapher, said: “Calligraphy is a spiritual geometry – manifested by a material tool. If you shape your pen well, you will do your calligraphy well. But if you neglect your pen, you will have neglected your calligraphy.”

2)      Ink

Calligraphy ink is made from soot, dissolved gum Arabic and water. This ink is water-soluble, and mistakes can be easily removed from the paper with a wet cloth. In the past, the soot used was scraped from inside the Masajid’s lamps, thus imparting a spiritual blessing to the writing.

3)      Paper

Until the tenth century, calligraphy was written on papyrus (made from fresh-water reeds) or parchment (made from the skin of an animal). In the tenth century, paper was introduced in the Middle East. It gradually replaced papyrus and parchment because it was cheaper and easier to produce. Before a piece of paper is used for calligraphy, it is usually dyed, coated with a starch mixture and then burnished with a tool that gives it a smooth finish.


The art of Arabic script calligraphy has been passed down from the masters to students for centuries. A master calligrapher is someone who has achieved a high level of skill in one or more scripts.

There have been countless master calligraphers throughout history. Starting in the early seventh century with ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib (rta), the fourth caliph of Islam, we can trace the transmission of calligraphic skills to the present day through a living ‘chain’ of calligraphers. Masters taught students, who then became masters and taught others. Different schools developed within this chain, each of which was found by a leading and innovative calligrapher and followed by others, who refined and clarified the founder’s work.

The Traditional Learning Method

To learn Arabic script calligraphy in the traditional way, you first find a master calligrapher with whom to study. Though resources exist to help you learn calligraphy on your own, you will be most successful if you study one-on-one with an artist. The script you study depends on your background and interests. Many beginning students start with a smaller and simpler script. Once you have mastered it, you can move on to more complex scripts.

The curriculum of calligraphy was established centuries ago and consists of three stages:

  • Mufraddat (detached letters) – independent and paired letter forms
  • Murakkabat (assembled letters) – words and phrases
  • Ijaza (license) – certification

The entire process can take many years to complete, depending upon the amount of time you devote to practice, the availability of a teacher and your natural skill level.

Modern Calligraphy

Today, all kinds of artists use calligraphy in their work: sculptors, painters, graphic designers, graffiti, digital, silkscreen artists, etc. Despite these artists’ wide range of styles and their use of vastly different materials, all somehow incorporate calligraphy into their work. Much of this art is far removed from the traditional calligraphy of using pen and paper to write according to a set of rules.

In recent decades, digital technology has enabled the creation of new typefaces that represent the Arabic script accurately. Typographers have developed many high-quality typefaces for the Arabic script and we are likely to see significant progress in Arabic type design in the coming years.


Hiba is offering calligraphy classes for beginners (teenagers and ladies). Interested individuals are requested to call the office for details (0213-5343757; Monday-Friday; 9 am – 1 pm)

Learning to Lead

Learning to Lead

In the Light of the Quran and the Sunnah

By Binte Aqueel, Hina Jamal, J. Samia Mair and Sadaf Farooqi

While Muslims often complain about having a crisis of leadership, paradoxically, there seems to be no dearth of self-proclaimed leaders – people, who think they have everything required to lead the community and are ready to fight for it.

Today, countries, groups, organisations and Masajid have become mired in an ugly struggle for power. Often, a person stands up to fill an essential leadership void in the community, considering himself/herself best fit for the role. Campaigning, electioneering and lobbying are often followed by dirty politics, mudslinging and rivalry. Soon, all those involved in the noble bid to provide a good leadership seem to have lost their goal somewhere in the fight for power. All that matters now is their or their party’s winning at any cost.

Sounds familiar? Sadly, this is the dilemma many countries and organisations face. The quest for good leadership often brings out greed and lust for power not only in country politics but also in the college and work life groups. Everyone wants a leadership position, and they are prepared to go to any lengths to acquire it.

Seeking Leadership

Interestingly, Islam discourages the practice of seeking leadership. In Islam, leadership is an Amanah (trust) and a huge responsibility. The early Muslims used to cry, when they were given a position of authority, out of fear of not being able to discharge it properly.

The Prophet (sa) is reported to have said that anyone, who seeks leadership, is not fit to assume it. Once, two men entered upon the Prophet (sa). One of them said: “O, Allah’s Apostle! Appoint me as governor,” and so did the second. The Prophet (sa) said: “We do not assign the authority of ruling to those who ask for it, nor to those who are keen to have it.” (Bukhari)

Abu Hurairah (rta) has narrated that the Prophet (sa) said: “You people will be keen to have the authority of ruling, which will be a thing of regret for you on the Day of Resurrection.” (Bukhari)

The Prophet (sa) advised Abdur Rahman Ibn Samurah (rta): “Do not seek to be a ruler, for if you are given authority on your demand, you will be held responsible for it, but if you are given it without asking for it, then you will be helped (by Allah) in it. If you ever take an oath to do something and later on you find that something else is better, then do what is better and make expiation for your oath.” (Bukhari)

This is not to say, however, that taking up a leadership role is wrong or discouraged. Indeed, the Prophet (sa) encouraged his followers to take up a responsibility, when it was entrusted to them. He said: “Whoever is given responsibility of some matter of the Muslims but withdraws himself, while they are in dire need and poverty, Allah will withdraw Himself from him, while he is in dire need and poverty on the Day of Requital.” (Abu Dawood)

It is discouraged to seek a leadership position out of greed and desire for power. Actions are based on intentions, and we must not doubt anyone’s intentions.

Empowerment and Delegation

Life is an ongoing cycle of events, one of which is that all leaders are eventually replaced. For such transitions to be as smooth as possible, a leader should prepare his subordinates to be able to efficiently take on leadership roles in the future, which bring added responsibilities, require the ability to make critical decisions, and need excellent interpersonal skills to win over hearts of people.

Some leaders tend to follow autocratic and dictatorial leadership styles, thinking that these cast greater awe over a workforce and thus attain better performance.

Clearly, this methodology is in clear contradiction to the style of leadership of Prophet Muhammad (sa), who was an exemplary leader. He was humble, mild-mannered, friendly, approachable and easy to talk to. Moreover, he empowered his close companions to be capable enough to carry on his mission after his demise.

I would like to elaborate on his style of ‘Empowerment and Delegation’ in the light of Ahadeeth regarding the appointment of Muadh Bin Jabal (rta) as the governor of Yemen.

Ibn Abbas has narrated: “The Prophet sent Muadh (rta) to Yemen and said: ‘Invite the people to testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and I am Allah’s Apostle, and if they obey you to do so, then teach them that Allah has enjoined on them five prayers in every day and night (in twenty-four hours), and if they obey you to do so, then teach them that Allah has made it obligatory for them to pay the Zakat from their property and it is to be taken from the wealthy among them and given to their poor.’” (Bukhari)

According to another narration: “When Allah’s Messenger (sa) sent Muadh to Yemen, he went out with him whilst Muadh (rta) rode his riding beast and Allah’s Messenger walked beside him giving instructions. When he finished, he said: ‘Perhaps, Muadh, you may not meet me after this year, but perhaps, you may pass this Masjid of mine and my grave.’ Muadh wept from grief over the departure of Allah’s Messenger. The Prophet then turned facing Madinah and said: ‘Those nearest to me are the pious, whoever they are and whenever they are.’” (Mishkat)

These Ahadeeth make the following points clear:

  1. When a delegation is going off on a long journey, the leader should personally see them off.
  2. The leader should give simple, concise and role-related instructions to the delegate during their final meeting, as reminders of what work lies ahead for the delegate and its importance.
  3. The leader is humble, i.e., he does not mind walking or standing at a lower level than his delegate.
  4. The leader must be honest, when expressing his emotions to his subordinate.
  5. The leader should console his subordinate, when the latter is expressing grief.
  6. There should be love and compassion between a leader and his subordinates, especially in careers related to Dawah and religious instruction.

We can see how perfectly our Prophet (sa) combined the delegation of a leadership role to a subordinate with human compassion, empowering a future leader while simultaneously expressing his love and humility as a leader. He was, perhaps, the only man in history, who brought about the greatest of change in mankind in the shortest time period.

Best Religious Leaders – Close to People

Have you ever tried to contact a qualified, respected Islamic scholar or religious authority figure for some personal issue? These scholars have busy schedules of delivering talks and lectures in institutions and homes, travelling abroad often for conferences and, hence, are often hard to reach. When the common man endeavours to get in touch with them, more often than not, it is an uphill task involving numerous phone calls and/or unanswered emails. Private counsel with them is elusive – no more than a fleeting Salam or handshake following their Dars, before they hurriedly whiz off to their next engagement.

We must remember that a religious leader is a human being just like us. He or she needs time to rest, relax, leisurely hang out with family, sleep, attend to personal errands, read, study, respond to correspondence, plan itineraries and meet relatives. If they were to give private counsel to anyone, who wants to talk to them at any time during the day, they would be constantly pre-empted. Moreover, idleness and over-socialization is common in our culture. People tend to linger to chat about useless topics long after having discussed the required issue. If a religious leader were to give in to every lay-person’s demands on their time, it would not be long before they would not be able to continue their Dawah work.

It is, therefore, all about maintaining a critical balance between work and human compassion. Could it be that religious organizations’ leaders today have allowed themselves to become so overburdened with commitments, that they do not have time for even genuine requests for a sympathetic ear? Is this not against the Sunnah of our Prophet (sa)?

I find this food for thought. Why do our leaders move around with entourages and employ assistants for trivial personal tasks such as ironing clothes, whereas the best leaders of our Ummah, who had to juggle many more balls in the air, such as planning battle strategies, meeting foreign dignitaries and catering to multiple spouses/children, never hired personal assistants?

The proof of the Sahabas’ humility is the way they’d roam the streets at night alone, in their positions as Ameer-ul-Mumineen, to see what was going on at ground level. Prophet Muhammad (sa) never sat at a level higher than his company, except to ascend the pulpit for a sermon. His clothes made him indistinguishable from his companions to a newcomer, who set eyes on him for the first time.

Is this not something worth pondering over?

Here are a few tips that might restore the Sunnah of compassion for laymen for our leaders:

  1. Gain knowledge of the Prophet’s (sa) life and how he handled situations.
  2. Cut down on commitments, so that you have a few days a week with nothing on the agenda.
  3. Spend time with your family – every day.
  4. Play and converse with children randomly.


Our Prophet (sa) and those of his companions, who later became leaders, were always accessible to the common man, even poor old women or slaves, who stopped them in their tracks with personal complains. Let us endeavour to emulate their example, when and if we ever occupy a leadership role in our lives, because they were the best of our Ummah.

Leaders in the Business World

The unfortunate situation arising in the United States – and I suspect in other non-Muslim populated countries as well – is that when given the choice between conducting a transaction with a business run by a Muslim and a business run by a non-Muslim, many Muslims (and others) choose the non-Muslim business. And even when there may not be a choice – such as a Halal food store – it is only out of necessity that Muslims frequent it. Why are Muslim-run businesses not always the first choice? In one word-leadership.

A good leader runs a business that has courteous, hard working employees, quality products and services and satisfied customers. The leader sets the tone for those underneath him or her. If the leader is hardworking, ethical and fair and expects the same from the employees, the business will have a good reputation. If the leader does not demonstrate these qualities, or if the leader does have them, but does not require the same of employees, the business will not.

There is no excuse for a Muslim not to be a good leader in business. The Quran and Sunnah give ample guidance on what constitutes a good leader. And unlike many other systems of belief, Islam sets forth what is ethical, responsible and Islamically acceptable in the business context. For example, a multitude of Ahadeeth provides guidance on this issue, including these few:

“The merchants will be raised up on the day of resurrection as evildoers, except those who fear God, are honest and speak the truth.” (At-Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, Darimi and Baihaqi)

“God show mercy to a man, who is kindly when he sells, when he buys and when he makes a claim.” (Bukhari)

“If anyone sells a defective article without drawing attention to it, he will remain under God’s anger.” (Ibn Majah)

“If anyone keeps goods till the price rises, he is a sinner.” (Muslim)

More generally, as Muslims we are expected to exhibit excellence in everything we do -“Allah has made excellence obligatory for everything.” (Muslim) Our businesses should set forth the paradigm of business practices. Business schools should teach case studies on Muslim-run businesses to their students. Our business leaders should be highly sought after for advice. Indeed, Allah (swt) tells us that we set the example for others: “Thus, We have made you a just nation, that you be witnesses over mankind and the Messenger be a witness over you.” (Al-Baqarah, 2:143)

The sad reality is that many of us, in the business context and elsewhere, do not rise near to the level of conduct that Allah (swt) expects from us. Even worse, many of us do not even try. And by not doing so, we miss a great opportunity for Dawah – something that is incumbent upon all of us.

Despite some popular misconceptions, Islam was spread by Muslims, who followed the Sunnah and the guidance of Allah (swt) – those, who showed what it truly means to be human. Their exemplary and just conduct as merchants in the market-place set forth a brilliant example for the non-Muslims of the time. In a world so preoccupied with international commerce and making money, business affords us an incredible opportunity not only to better ourselves but to pass the Message onto others.

May Allah (swt) guide the Muslim community and its leaders towards what is right, Ameen.