While many religions have made use of figural images to convey their core convictions, Islam has instead used the shapes and sizes of words or letters. Because Islamic leaders saw in figural arts a possible implication of idolatry, Islam's early theocracy looked to the artistry of calligraphy for religious expression. In Islamic and Arabic cultures, calligraphy became highly respected as an art -- the art of writing.

Scholar Yasin Hamid Safadi (1978) writes:

The primacy of the word in Islam is reflected in the virtually universal application of calligraphy. Writing is given pride of place on all kinds of objects--objects of everyday use as well as entire wall surfaces, mosque furniture, the interiors and exteriors of mosques, tombs, and al-Ka'ba, the most famous sanctuary of Islam. But like the icons of most other faiths, script also represents power. Its preeminent use is the writing of the divine message of the Qur'an, of course, which endowed it with extraordinary strength and transcendent significance. From this world's manifold possibilities, Allah had chosen Arabic as the vehicle for his final revelation.

Arabic calligraphy is a primary form of art for Islamic visual expression and creativity. Throughout the vast geography of the Islamic world, Arabic calligraphy is a symbol representing unity, beauty, and power. The aesthetic principles of Arabic calligraphy are a reflection of the cultural values of the Muslim world. A thorough investigation into the aesthetic differences between Arabic and non-Arabic calligraphy might provide an approach for understanding the essential spirit of each culture.

Anthony Welch (1979) writes that the primary reason for the chronological, social, and geographic persuasiveness of the calligraphic arts in the Islamic world is found in the Holy Qur'an.

Welch cites the following quote from the Qur'an:

Thy Lord is the Most Bounteous,
Who teacheth by the pen,
Teacheth man that which he knew not.
-- (Surah al-Alaq, 96:3-5)

This verse refers to the attainment of knowledge in general, and particularly to that gained from revelation as found in the Qur'an. The written form of the Qur'an is the visual equivalent of the eternal Qur'an and is humanity's perceptual glimpse of the Divine. The Holiness of the Qur'an lends a special aura to all forms of the written word.

Contemporary scholarship stipulates that Arabic belongs to the group of Semitic alphabetical scripts in which mainly the consonants are represented. Arabic script is derived from the Aramaic Nabataean alphabet. It is a script of 28 letters and uses long but not short vowels. The letters are derived from only 17 distinct forms, distinguished one from another by a dot or dots placed above or below the letter. Short vowels are indicated by small diagonal strokes above or below letters. When written without dots and diacritical points, Arabic script can look flat and barren. But when the dots and diacritical points are added, the script comes to life like a garden in spring.

Writes Welch: "Written from right to left, the Arabic script at its best can be a flowing continuum of ascending verticals, descending curves, and temperate horizontals, achieving a measured balance between static perfection of individual form and paced and rhythmic movement. There is great variability in form: words and letters can be compacted to a dense knot or drawn out to great length; they can be angular or curving; they can be small or large. The range of possibilities is almost infinite, and the scribes of Islam labored with passion to unfold the promise of the script.

Moreover, technical aspects were not separated from aesthetic and even personal criteria. Inscriptions are found incorporated in the decoration of almost every Islamic work, and in that of a large number of objects as well."

Arabic lettering has achieved a high level of sophistication, and Arabic scripts can vary from flowing cursive styles like Naskh and Thuluth to the angular Kufi. On a traditional Islamic building, a number of different writing styles may appear on, for example, the walls, windows, or minarets. Most of the inscriptions are not only from the Qur'an but also the Hadith (the Prophet's words) and are in harmony with the religious purposes of the building. An inscription can give meaning to the building by clarifying its function.

Arabic calligraphy is a symbol representing power and beauty. Its history is the integration of artistry and scholarship. Through the abstract beauty of the lines, energy flows in between the letters and words. All the parts are integrated into a whole. These parts include positive spacing, negative spacing, and the flow of energy that weaves together the calligrapher's rendering. The abstract beauty of Arabic calligraphy is not always easily comprehended -- but this beauty will slowly reveal itself to the discerning eye.

Arabic calligraphy is not merely an art form but involves divine and moral representations -- from which calligraphy acquires its sublime reputation.

Final Note
The main purpose of these web pages is an attempt to create balance in people's understanding of one of the world's great cultures. The scope of Arabic calligraphy is vast and diffuse. What I am presenting is a small sample of the aesthetic, cultural, and scholarly wealth available. Although some of the inscriptions are repetitive, they nevertheless do reveal something of the variety and richness of Arabic calligraphy.

Any researcher owes a debt to the findings and writings of others, and I could not have done this project without the scholarly contributions of many authors including Nabia Abbott, Adolph Grohmann, Martin Lings, Franz Rosenthal, Yasin Hamid Safadi, Annemarie Schimmel, and Anthony Welch who have greatly contributed to scholarship on calligraphy. Without their writings, I would not be able to offer this presentation.


Khalid Mubireek
March 2000

  Origins of calligraphy
  Reform of Arabic writing
  Noble calligraphers
  Early development
  Late development
  Writing instruments
  Alif as unit of proportion
  Unique calligraphic works
  Major calligraphic styles
  Calligraphic collection


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