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.
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.”
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.
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.
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)