Calligraphy: Islamic Calligraphy

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Calligraphy occupies the highest rank among the arts of Islam: according to the tradition of the Prophet, the calligrapher, who knows how to pen in beautiful letters the word of God or even a fragment of the Qurʾān, will certainly go to Paradise. The art of calligraphy developed at an early stage of Islamic history, and soon the ungainly characters of the Semitic alphabet were transformed into decorative letters. An angular, hieratic script developed for the preservation of the Qurʾān; although several early styles existed, it is generally called Kūfī or Kufic (from the city of Kufa in Iraq), and in pious tradition certain features of it are ascribed to ʿAlī ibn Abī ālib, considered the patron of calligraphers. Early Kufic lacks the diacritical marks that were added after 685, as were the signs for vocalization (both in color). A cursive hand was also used, as numerous papyri show. This was developed into several styles for chancelery and copying purposes when the use of paper (introduced from China) became common in the Islamic world after 751. Early Kufic Qurʾāns are written on vellum with a reed pen; the format of the books is oblong, and only from about the tenth century was the normal book format adapted for Qurʾāns, apparently first in the eastern Islamic world. With this change of format, the lettering too changed: the broad, very impressive early Kufic assumed a taller, more graceful stature, and its developed forms are still used for decorative purposes.

The cursive hand was transformed into true calligraphy by the Abbasid vizier Ibn Muqlah (d. 940), who invented the system of measuring the letters by circles and semicircles, with the first letter, alif, becoming the measure for the other twenty-seven letters. As alif is basically a straight vertical line with the numerical value 1 and is used in mystical speculation as a symbol for Allāh (God), the formation of the letters "in the shape of alif" corresponds in a mystical way to the shaping of Adam "in his, God's, form." The rules of Ibn Muqlah were refined by Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1032). Along with the circles, the square dots produced by the tip of the reed pen served as measuring units: an alif could be five, seven, or nine points high, and all the other letters had to be formed accordingly. Sūfī interpretation saw here the primordial dot from which everything created developed. Cursive writing replaced Kufic first in books and documents (in early days usually written as scroll), then, in the thirteenth century, also in epigraphy, where the angular letters had grown, between 800 and 1250, into multiple forms of floriated, foliated, and plaited Kufic, which became barely legible but formed exquisite geometrical ornaments. In Iran, a "hanging," slanted cursive developed from grammatical exigencies; it was refined according to Ibn Muqlah's rules to become the "bride of Islamic writings," nastaʿlīq, the ideal vehicle for copying Persian, Turkish, and Urdu poetry.

Calligraphy can be exercised on every material: vellum, papyrus, and paper (paper mills are found from Spain to India); it is woven into silk and linen, embroidered on velvet, used in metalwork and wood, on glass and ceramics, on stones and tiles. Brick and tile compositions result in "square" Kufic, where the names of God and the Prophet (and in Iran, ʿAlī) or religious formulas can cover whole walls in geometrical design. Calligraphy on paper (which includes the patterns for the other types of writing) is written with a reed pen; only very rarelyin early days in Central Asia and Indiaa brush may have been used. The trimming of the pen in distinct angles and the preparation of the various types of ink belong to the arts the calligrapher has to learn, as he has to study the shape of each and every letter for years before becoming a master who is allowed to sign works with his katabahu, "has written." Only in North Africa did pupils write whole words immediately, which accounts for the less "calligraphic" quality of the so-called Maghribi style.

Later calligraphers liked to form tughrā soriginally the elaborate signature or handsign of a ruler at the beginning of a document. Subsequently the word is applied to all kinds of artistic shapes: mirrored sentences, pious formulas in the shape of birds, lions, or other creatures, faces made of sacred names, or harmonically elaborated calligrams of invocations, prayers, or divine names. The imagery of calligraphy permeates Islamic poetry, and the interpretation of letters according to their numerical value and their "mystical" qualities was, and still is, widespread.


Numerous publications on calligraphy have been issued recently, most of which are devoted to aesthetic rather than historical purposes. A good brief introduction is Yasin H. Safadi's Islamic Calligraphy (Boulder, 1979). Martin Lings's The Qurʾanic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination (London, 1976) is excellent because it dwells upon the religious character of writing. Ernst Kühnel's small but weighty book Islamische Schriftkunst (1942; reprint, Graz, 1972) is still very valuable for its all-around approach and interesting examples. I have provided a brief introduction to the subject in Islamic Calligraphy (Leiden, 1970) and delved at greater length into the history, the social situation of the calligraphers, and the uses of calligraphy in Sufism and in poetical parlance in Calligraphy and Islamic Culture (New York, 1984).

Annemarie Schimmel (1987)