Qur’anic History and the Role of Islamic Calligraphy

  • Qur’anic History and the Role of Islamic Calligraphy part 1

Calligraphy holds, perhaps, pride of place as the foremost and most characteristic of the modes of visual expression in Islam. Read the first part in a two-part article on the fascinating art and history behind Islamic calligraphy.

Calligraphy is a fundamental element and one of the most highly regarded forms of Islamic Art.

The word calligraphy comes from the Greek words kallos, meaning beauty, and graphein, meaning writing. In the modern sense, calligraphy relates to “the art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious and skilful manner.”1 Islamic calligraphy is one of the most sophisticated in the world and is a visual expression of the deepest reverence to the spiritual world.

The Holy Qur’an mentions, with regard to the revelation of the Holy Qur’an “And we have arranged it in the best form.”2

In this verse, the phrase “in the best form,” indicates the putting together of parts to form a strong, integral, consistent whole. Therefore, the Arabic word tartil is translated as a reflective, measured and rhythmic recitation.3  The Islamic scholar Hafiz Fazle-Rabbi has elaborated that this word, when used in the context of writing, can refer to calligraphy, as a means of beautifying the writing.4

It is narrated by Hazrat Amir Muawiyara that the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa said,  regarding the correct style of Qur’anic writing: “O Muawiya, keep the correct consistency of your ink under the inkpot, make a slanting cut  to your pen, write the ‘Ba’ of Bismillah prominently, also sharply write the corners of the letter ‘Seen’, do not make an incorrect eye of the letter ‘Meem’, write the word Allah with great elegance, elongate the shape of the letter  ‘Noon’ of the word Rahmaan, and write Raheem beautifully, and keep the pen at the back of your right ear so you will remember that.”5

Here tthe letters Ba, Seen, Meem and Noon

The act of calligraphy is intriguing in that it leaves a tangible trace of a physical act. But that written trace does not merely record an action. In some Muslim areas, calligraphy was actually considered to leave clues as to the calligrapher’s moral fibre. Indeed, the quality of the calligraphy was believed to hold clues as to the character of the calligrapher. The tools used in calligraphy: the paper on which it was written, the writing implements, the gold leaf used in illumination—all required a diverse set of skills.6

Calligraphy holds, perhaps, pride of place as the foremost and most characteristic of the modes of visual expression in Islam. After years of practice, calligraphy becomes second nature to a master calligrapher. However, the dots always allow for a quick assessment as to whether or not the proportions are correct.

It is mentioned in Kanzul-Ummaal, (Treasure of the Doers of Good Deeds) as narrated by Saeed ibn-e-Sakina, that Hazrat Alira saw a person writing Bismillah and then said, “you have to write it in a beautiful manner, because if you do this, then Allah will bless and forgive you.”7

The great Egyptian writer, Taha Hussein, once said: “Others read in order to study, while we have to study in order to read.”8 His complaint was more than justified. The intricacies of calligraphy can take years to master.

In Praise of Calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy was not only acclaimed by the Muslim world, it was also considered a great artistic mode of visual expression.

Pablo Picasso was so inspired by Islamic calligraphy that he said: “If I had known there was such a thing as Islamic calligraphy, I would never have started to paint. I have strived to reach the highest levels of artistic mastery, but I found that Islamic calligraphy was there ages before I was.9

 

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, started his creative career inspired by geometry and the art of calligraphy. In his biography it was mentioned that calligraphy workshops influenced Apple’s graceful, minimalist aesthetic. These experiences, Jobs said later, shaped his creative vision.10 Indeed, in his Stanford commencement address in June 2005, Jobs said: “If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”11

Martin Lings, also known as Abu Bakr Siraj ud-Din, was an English writer and scholar who also penned a biography of the Holy Prophetsa.  His teaching has guided and inspired the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation in all its work with the sacred arts of the Holy Qur’an. Lings believed that the pinnacle of Islamic art was Arabic calligraphy, which transmits the verses of the Holy Qur’an into visual form.12

Indeed, the history of Arabic calligraphy is inextricably linked with the history of Islam. There is also a close relationship historically between each Arabic script and its common usage. According to the history of written language, Arabic is only second to the Roman alphabet in terms of widespread usage today.13

Pre-Islamic Arabs relied heavily upon oral traditions for the retention of information and for communication. Later, calligraphy became an invaluable tool for communication.

The Alphabet Family Tree

It is very hard to trace the origins of Arabic script, but there is evidence that it was very well-known to the Arabs in Arabia although they did not widely use the script and actually depended instead on verbal and oral traditions. It is believed that the recent Arabic Script was most likely developed from the Nabataean script, which was itself derived from the Aramaic script. It should be noted that all of these Semitic languages (Phoenician, Canaanic, Aramaic, Nabataean, etc.) were not more than slang versions of Arabic which had become separate languages with the passage of time due to limited communication with central Arabia. But Arabia preserved pure Arabic, especially in remote areas. The most interesting and mysterious phenomenon was that Arabic was an incredibly rich language, in stark contrast to the primitive Arabs who used it, indicating that they themselves did not create the Arabic language. This phenomenon supported the theory that the language was not man-made but actually a result of divine revelation. Arabia provided the perfect environment to preserve it because it was less influenced by external factors, unlike other parts of the world. While the Arabic language is very ancient, it was not known to be a written language until perhaps the third or fourth century C.E. Some studies claim that the written scripts of Arabic were known much earlier, around 2500 B.C., but on a smaller scale, as the Arabic language at that time was exactly the same Arabic at the advent of Islam.

Bearing in mind that all of the Semitic civilisations in Levant and ancient Iraq were Arab civilisations, and had been inhibited by Arabs since time immemorial, it is hard to identify exactly when and where the Arabic alphabet originated.

-Comparison of letter forms in Nabatean, Arabic, Syriac, and Hebrew. en.wikipedia.org | Released under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

History, then, suggests that it was not Muslims who created the alphabet at the time of the advent of Islam due to the needs of the time. The very fact that the Holy Qur’an was recorded and successfully disseminated in Levant and Iraq without any language barriers posing problems, at the time of the Holy Prophetsa and then the Caliphs after his demise, proves that the Arabic language and alphabet predated them.

However, while there is solid evidence that the Arabic language and script are quite ancient, the accuracy of tracing the history of this rich language is very difficult; especially due to the biased studies and research of many orientalists and scholars who vehemently tried to deny the existence of the Arabs as a nation due to their distinct enmity towards Islam.

The Early Development of Arabic Scripts

If we look into the history of the Arabian Peninsula and the origin of the Arabic language, archaeologists have found inscriptions that show a close relationship between Arabic scripts and some earlier scripts such as the Canaanite, Aramaic and Nabataean alphabet, that were found in the north of the Arabian Peninsula. These inscriptions were dated as far back as the 14th century B.C.E.

Arabic Musnad

The first Arabic script, Arabic Musnad, which probably developed from the above-mentioned languages, does not possess the cursive aesthetic that most people associate with modern Arabic scripts. Discovered in the south of the Arabian peninsula in Yemen, this script reached its final form around 500 B.C.E. and was used until the 6th century. It did not look like modern Arabic, as its shapes were very basic and resembled the Nabataean and Canaanite alphabets more than the Arabic shapes.14

During the sixth and seventh centuries, the revelation of Islam had a major impact on the development of Arabic calligraphy. The Arabic alphabet is written from right to left like Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and other scripts from the same linguistic family.

Early Calligraphic Script: Al-Jazm

The first form of an Arabic-like alphabet is known as the Al-Jazm script, which was used by northern tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. Many researchers think the roots of this script originate from the Nabatean script, and yet the early Arabic scripts also seem to have been affected by other scripts in the area, such as the Syriac script.

A panel showing ancient Arabic Musnad script dating back from around 700 B.C.E. around Yemen.

Funerary inscription about the pre-Islamic poet Imrul-Qays, ca. 328 C.E.

The Al-Jazm script continued to develop until the early Islamic era in Makkah and Madinah in the west of the Arabian Peninsula.

In the first Islamic century, the art of calligraphy was born. The first formal scripts that emerged were from the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula, most possibly from the city of Madinah. Those are early “Kufic” Qur’anic scripts and with a stately verticality and regularity in them called ma’il.

Other scripts, such as the Mukawwar, Mubsoott, and Mashq scripts, did not survive the progression of Islam, even though they had been used both before and during the early days of Islam.15

An example of Al-Jazm script.

Other Known Early Islamic Scripts

Over the course of their development, different Arabic scripts were created in different periods and locations.

For example, before the invention of the Kufi script the Arabs had several other scripts, the names of which were derived from their places of origin, such as Makki from Makkah, Hiri from Hira and Madani in Madinah.

It has been narrated by Abu Hakima Abdi, that he used to write various books in Kufi. Once, Hazrat Alira should say after, fourth successor to the Holy Prophetsa saw him while he was writing, and said: “Try to write boldly and in a prominent manner, also try to make your pen beautiful,” so Abu Hakima cut his pen and started writing again. Hazrat Alira continued to stand beside him and then  said “use the best ink with the writing pen and make the writing beautiful just as Allah has revealed his beautiful message.”16

Tumari was another script, which was formulated by the direct order of Muawiya, and became the royal script of the Ummayad dynasty.

Kufi Script

Kufi was invented in the city of Kufa (currently in Iraq) in the second decade of the Islamic reign, taking its name from its city of origin and, as mentioned earlier, was derived from an earlier script call Ma’il.

Kufic script from the 9th-10th centuries.

As a calligraphic historian, the problem remains of identifying calligraphy without dated, signed specimens. While we have the names of scripts such as Mukawwar, Mubsoott, Mashq, Jalil, Ma’il, etc., there is no way to definitively link them to known examples.

In the early stages of its development, the Kufic script did not include the dots that we know from modern Arabic scripts. If we examine Kufic script inscriptions, we notice particular characteristics such as angular shapes and long vertical lines. In addition, the script letters were wider originally, which made writing long content more difficult. Still, the script was used for the architectural decoration of buildings, such as mosques, palaces and schools.17

The grand impression in the Dome of the Rock is one example of early Arabic script—this monument, with the earliest examples of Qur’anic script and which was created only seven decades after the Hijra, was inspirational.

Kufic script from the Holy Qur’an, 11th century. Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art.

The Kufic script continued its development through different dynasties, including the Umayyad (661 – 750 C.E.) and Abbasid (750 – 1258 C.E.) dynasties. On this page, are some examples of Kufic scripts and their different developmental stages:

During the third century, the whole structure of calligraphy in the Islamic domains changed dramatically. Qur’ans were copied in huge numbers with various degrees of artistic skill. The thick, straight, flat Qur’anic scripts were introduced. Once paper was introduced, the use of parchment and vellum died out, along with their characteristic scripts.

Islamic Dirham from the Abbasid period with Kufic scripts on both sides.

When the Dome of the Rock was restored by the order of the Caliph Al-Ma’mun (reigned 813-833 C.E.), a barely visible narrow belt of inscription was added in Thuluth script. This was eventually to become the most important script in calligraphy.

The Baghdad Period

For the historian, facts were better documented at the beginning of the 10th century C.E. Baghdad became the greatest city in terms of art, knowledge and sciences related to Islamic calligraphy. In the over 500-year-history of the Abbasid Caliphate, this city saw the emergence of the art of calligraphy as a fine art and the rise of the great founding teachers, admirers and their followers.

Ma’mun’s vizier Umar ibn Musida stated, in praise of Arabic calligraphy: “The scripts are like a garden of the sciences. They are a picture whose spirit is elucidation. The body is swiftness. The feet are regularity. Its limbs are skill in the details of knowledge. Its composition is like the composition of musical notes and melodies.”18

Pioneers of Islamic Calligraphy and Writing

Writing was very important during the early years of the evolution of Islam.

Some of the captives of the Battle of Badr could not afford to pay ransom to be freed but they could read and write. The Prophetsa told them that they would be freed if they each taught ten Muslim children to read and write. This was beneficial for both the captives and the Muslims. As a result, the captives taught the Companions to read and write in a very short time. By virtue of this initiative, the number of those who were literate in Madinah increased tremendously.19 Among them was Zayd bin Thabitra, who became one of the primary scribes to write down revelations to the Holy Prophetsa and worked on compiling the pages of the Qur’an. Although only a child at the time, the Messengersa of Allah appointed him to write down revealed verses, which allowed him to later fulfil the duty of the compilation of the Qur’an, enabling the Qur’an to be formatted in the book we see today. 20

Now in a very brief introduction, I will consider three major calligraphers’ work and their contribution to Islamic calligraphy.

Ibn Muqlah

Abu ‘ali Muhammad Ibn ‘ali Ibn Muqlah Shirazi hailed from Iran and was a statesman, poet, and calligrapher living in the late 9th century. In addition, he served as the vizier, or prime minister, several times under the reign of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad.

Letter proportions in Arabic calligraphy

One of his most important contributions to calligraphy was recognising that a system of proportion was needed that would allow people to easily copy and replicate scripts, while also making them easier to read and more elegant. His first script, therefore, obeyed strict proportional rules. In his system, the dot that we know today was used for measuring the proportions of the lines, and a circle with a diameter equal to the alif’s height as a measuring unit for letter proportions.

Ibn Muqlah’s system was incredibly important in the standardising of the cursive scripts. Moreover, his system made prominent cursive styles of writing, making them acceptable—and even worthy—for use in the writing of the Holy Qur’an.

Proportions in Arabic calligraphy.

Three elements together form the basis for proportion in Arabic calligraphy. The first is the height of the alif, which is a vertical, straight stroke that can comprise of between three to twelve dots. The second element pertains to the width of the alif, which is formed when the calligrapher presses the tip of their pen to the paper. The square impression left on the paper determines the width of the alif. The final element consists of the hypothetical circle that could be drawn around the alif, with the alif as its diameter. All Arabic letters should fit within this circle.

Ibn Al-Bawwab  

Ibn al-Bawwab was an Arabic calligrapher and illuminator of the 11th century, and lived in Baghdad. He came from a common lineage and was a craftsman in his youth. In time, he also became an important religious figure. It is possible that that he was the first really significant artist in Islam. A skilled painter, he also pursued his artistic talents by both writing the scripts and illuminating his own works, which was rarely done by calligraphers of the era. Not only did he refine the methods of Ibn Muqlah, he also taught many students and is believed to have produced at least 64 written and calligraphied copies of the Qur’an.

The Ibn al-Bawwab script at Chester Beatty Library is the earliest example of a Qur’an in a cursive script.

In addition, Ibn al-Bawwab also was credited with the invention of both the Muhaqqaq and Rayhani scripts. Because of the consistency and beauty of the scripts, those penned by Ibn al-Bawwab were considered quite valuable and were sold for high prices even while he was alive. Working in all six styles, he is considered to have improved all of them, especially the Naskh and Muhaqqaq scripts.

Ibn al-Bawwab brought an elegance to Ibn Muqlah’s system and, while retaining the mathematical accuracy and precision of Ibn Muqlah, added artistic flourish and flair to the system. In this way, he was in part  responsible for promulgating the contemporary method, in which the script maintains internal proportion by using the dot—made by the proper pen for the script—as the unit of measurement. Although Ibn al-Bawwab is said to have penned a large number of secular works in addition to the copies of the Qur’an he produced, only fragments of his secular work remain. As far as his Qur’ans, only one—written in the Reyhan script—has survived, which is in the Chester Beatty Collection in Dublin, Ireland.

Yaqut al-Mustasimi

The third great calligrapher was Yaqut al-Mustasimi, from the thirteenth century, also from Baghdad, who was a slave in the house of the last Abbasid caliph, al-Mustasim Billah.

An example of Thuluth script thought to be by Al-Mustasimi.

The caliph was so inspired by his work that he gave his surname to him so that when, in the future, people praised his work, they would also remember him.

It is said that he wrote 364 written copies of the Qur’an. He transformed calligraphy yet again, bringing even more elegance to Ibn al-Bawwab’s method. Moreover, his “seven students”—the most famous seven of the many that he taught—are said to have disseminated his style (and their own versions of his style) far and wide, thereby making it the new standard. Unlike with Ibn al-Bawwab, he has left a multitude of authenticated works to study.

Committed to his work during the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258, he took refuge in the minaret of a mosque so he could finish his calligraphy practice. Several copies of his work still exist and are highly prized by collectors.

Other New Scripts

Around 1500 C.E, nearly two hundred years after Mustasimi, Turkish calligraphers invented a style called Diwani which was rather difficult to read. In order to set governmental or ministerial documents apart from ordinary documents, they made this script the official script of the Ottoman sultans. The other invention of Turkish calligraphers was a beautiful and decorative shape of twisted letters called Tughra, which was used to form the name of the Ottoman emperor, and was employed to authenticate the Sultan’s orders. It was used essentially as a seal or signature.

After the invention of Kufi script in Kufa and the spread of it throughout the Muslim world, the western part of the Islamic world did not experience any equivalent developments on par with the eastern area.

The western region in the Islamic world, including the whole of North Africa, used to be called the Maghreb, consisting of modern Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and even Spain.

It appears that a cultural separation occurred between Maghreb (west) and Mashregh (east) in the Islamic world. This separation is quite visible in terms of calligraphic development. So we have a beautiful Kufi script called Maghrebi Kufi and others, called Kairouani, Sudani and Fasi.

Six Major Scripts

Kufi (Place of development)

Thuluth (Width of the pen)

Naskh (Usage for Qur’an)

Deewani (Writing of the Court)

Riqa (Daily simple use)

Ta’liq (Hanging style script)

Kufic Script

The Kufic script is derived from the Hijazi Script, whose origin may be traced to Hirian, Nabatean and Ma’il, and as mentioned above, derives its name from the city of Kufa in Iraq.

Kufic is noted for its proportional measurements, angularity, and squareness.  Kufic is one of the earliest styles to be used to record the word of God in the Qur’an. One of the early Kufic inscriptions can be seen inside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Ceramic bowl decorated with calligraphy.

During the first three centuries of the Islamic period (7th-9th century C.E.), the Holy Qur’an was written and recorded in Kufic script.

Plaited Kufi script.
Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division.

Thuluth Script

The name “Thuluth” (meaning “a third” in Arabic) refers to this style because one-third of each letter slopes and because it refers to the width of the pen used to write the script.

This script is called the king of calligraphy; it was first formulated in the 7th century C.E. and fully developed in the 9th century. Thuluth is a more imposing and impressive style. Not often used for long texts or the body of a work, it most suited titles or epigrams. As it evolved over the centuries, examples of its many forms can be found on architectural monuments of all sorts.

Naskh Script

Naskh means “copy” in Arabic. It is one of the earliest scripts, redesigned by Ibn Muqlah in the 10th century C.E., using the comprehensive system of proportion mentioned above. It is noted for its clarity in reading and writing, and was used to copy the Qur’an. In contrast to the Thuluth script, Naskh script would be used in longer body text.

Diwani Script

The name of this script derives from “Diwan,” the name of the Ottoman royal chancery. Created by Housam Roumi, this script was used in the courts to write official documents (as mentioned above) and reached the height of its popularity under Suleyman I the Magnificent in the sixteenth century.

Developed during the 16th century, it reached its final shape in the 19th century.

An example of Diwani script.

Another example of Diwani script. Mehmet Izzet al-Karkuki | Public Domain

Ta’liq Script    

                        

Ta’liq means “hanging” and refers to the shape of the letters. It is a cursive script developed by the Persians in the early part of the 9th century. It is also known as Farsi (Persian).

The letters are rounded and have a lot of curves. While this makes it less legible, the script is often written with a large distance between lines to give more space for the eye to identify letters and words.

Nasta’liq Script

The Nasta’liq is a refined version of the Ta’liq script. Nasta’liq is the most popular contemporary style among classical Persian calligraphy scripts. Indeed, it is known as “bride of the calligraphy scripts.”

Shekasteh script

In the 17th century a more cursive form of Nasta’liq was produced called Shekasteh.

Riqa Script

The word Riqa means “a small sheet,” which could be an indication of the medium on which it was originally created. The Riqa style of handwriting is the most common type of handwriting. It is known for its clipped letters composed of short, straight lines and simple curves.

Riqa is a style that has evolved from Naskh and Thuluth.

Other Calligraphic Styles

Signature of an Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magni cent. metmuseum.org.

Tughra was used by the Ottoman sultans as their signature.  It was supposed to be impossible to imitate. For this reason, then, the tughra was often used as a stamp of authority and the royal emblem of the sultan. The genius of the tughra was that it was difficult to forge, and that meant that it could be used to authorise and legitimise anything from royal decrees to official coins of the realm. The official emblem would often include the name of both the sultan himself, and that of his father, along with the phrase “eternally victorious.”

These calligraphic symbols were so difficult to make that they required a special artist, employed by the court, to design and execute the tughra. An illuminator would then add colour, scroll designs and gold leaf, essentially “decorating” the tughra.

From the use of the first tughra in 1324, these forms became increasingly ornate and elaborate. The tughra shown above belonged to the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-566). It contains three vertical shafts and a number of concentric loops in complex, graceful, flowing lines.

About the Author: Razwan Baig is a scholar, collector, philanthropist and Islamic art critic and researcher. His Islamic art collection includes items as diverse as textiles and ceramics to Qur’anic manuscripts,and has been shown in several major art museums and international exhibitions. His interest in Islamic calligraphy began at age 12 and has run workshops and presented on the art of calligraphy since 1994. He completed his BA (Hons) History of Art & Archaeology of Islamic world, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He also has obtained extensive training in Arabic calligraphy in different styles from Birkbeck College, University of Sunderland as well as from some of the foremost calligraphers from Turkey, Baghdad and Pakistan. He will be exhibiting a portion of his collection this summer at The Review of Religions exhibition at the 50th annual convention of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community on August 12-14, 2016. As one of the largest private collectors of Islamic manuscripts in the U.K., he is also currently showing portions of his collection at the Art of Islam festival at Buckinghamshire County Museum through the end of September 2016.

Endnotes

1.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calligraphy

2.Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Furqan, Verse 33.

3.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarteel

4.A Beginner’s Guide To Andalusi Calligraphy: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Gc_fn-7M0S4.

5.Allama Ala wud Din Ali Bin Husam ud Deen, Kanzul-Ummaal, (Treasure of the Doers of Good Deeds), p486 and ref. no. 29566.

6.http://asiasociety.org/new-york/exhibitions/traces-calligrapher-islamic-calligraphy-practice-and-writing-word-god-calligrap. Accessed June 2016.

7.Allam Ala wud Din Ali Bin Husam ud Deen, Kanzul-Ummaal, p486 and ref no. 69558.

8.http://www.interlinkbooks.com/interlink_schami.pdf

9.Jurgen Wasim Fremgen, The Aura of Aliph: The Art of Writing in Islam, (New York: Prestel, 2010).

10.Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011).

11.http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/oct/09/steve-jobs-stanford-commencement-address

12.http://www.spiritilluminated.org/SacredArt.htm

  1. Yasin Hamid Safadi, Islamic Calligraphy, Thames and Hudson, London, 1979

14.http://darwinpapasin.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/taking-closer-look-at-arabic-calligraphy.html

15.http://people.umass.edu/mja/history.html. Accessed June 2016.

16.Allama Ala wud Din Ali Bin Husam ud Deen, Kanzul-Ummaal, p.486 and ref no. 29559.

17.http://darwinpapasin.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/taking-closer-look-at-arabic-calligraphy.html

18.http://mohamedzakariya.com/essays/criticism-in-islamic-art/

19.http://darwinpapasin.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/taking-closer-look-at-arabic-calligraphy.html

20.http://www.resulullah.org/en/teacher

  • Qur’anic History and the Role of Islamic Calligraphy part 2

Elements for Making Calligraphy

The Qur’an is the eternal word of Allah, and as such, Muslims became very focused on developing and furthering the art of calligraphy.

Paper was introduced to the Islamic world in the first century. Before this time, most Qur’anic calligraphy was found on papyrus, parchment (goat skin), stones, or leaves.

The regard with which the art of calligraphy was held also led to scientific developments. The eleventh century Tunisian scientist, Ibn Badis, wrote in his book, ‘Umdat al-Kuttab (Staff of the Scribes), about many topics, including on how to prepare different types of inks, how to produce different colours of ink, how to produce mixtures, and on the art and science of secret writing and on how to make paper.1

Qalam: The Reed Pen, Bamboo Roses Stem, Kamish and Java Pens

A reed pen or “Qalam” in Arabic, is the traditional tool used for writing calligraphy.

Qalams can be made from a variety of materials—while thicker pens often are made from bamboo, thinner ones can be fashioned out of rose stems. These can range from 24-30 cm in length, with the width determined by what kind of script the pen will be used for. After this, they are “seasoned” for up to four years. They are then cut by placing the pen on a flat surface called a makta, which is often made of ivory or wood. An angled cut is then made to reveal an oval opening in the reed.2

Illustration of the end of a calligraphy pen which is pointed and has distinct characteristics which enables elegant writing with precision and grace.

 

 

This tongue is then split so that the opening can hold the ink needed. Finally, the tip of the tongue is cut at an oblique angle. For very fine scripts, the nib is cut to an angular chisel-edge and slit mid-way to facilitate the flow of ink in right-to-left strokes.3

The smallest end of reed or bamboo in diameter is cut. Reeds and bamboo grow in such a way that the base is always wider, the top narrower. This narrower part also tends to be harder, which makes it better suited for calligraphy. For that reason the narrower end is cut.4

The width of the pen and the angular cut specifies which script will be written with the pen. For example, Naskh and Thuluth have a more acute angle then Ta’liq, around 30 degrees, while Ta’liq is nearly flat, with only a slight incline of about 10 degrees.

Hazrat Alira said to Ubaid ullah bin abi Rafay: “Get the ink right in your inkpot and make sure that the nib of the pen is long, that there is adequate distance between the lines, words should be close to each other and the shapes of the alphabets should be vibrant.”5

Hard Stone or Surface for Cutting a Pen

A hard surface or plain stone should be used when cutting the nib of a reed pen. Once the angle and placement of the cut is known, the pen is held steadily against the makta. The knife is firmly pressed into the pen until it makes one single crack.

Ink

Ink is mostly made organically, using vegetable, stones, tree bark, etc.

Arabic calligraphy is traditionally written with a black ink made from dissolved gum arabic and water that is called “soot”. This ink is water-soluble so that any mistakes can be easily removed from the paper with a wet cloth. In olden times, the soot used was scraped from inside the antique mosque lamps, thus adding an element of spiritual blessing to the Arabic calligraphy.

One interesting hadith states: “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” Perhaps ink is referring to the longevity of ink versus blood. The scholar’s ink is a reference to writing, particularly recording history and significant events, etc. Thus, writing can become an invaluable medium for recording things almost indefinitely.6

Traditional Lamp Black Calligraphy Ink

This kind of ink was used by Ottoman and Arab calligraphers for generations and because of its simplicity and purity of ingredients, is impervious to light, and archival and permanent.

Lamp black ink got its name through the way the pigment is created. When kerosene lamps are burned, they leave behind a black carbon coating on the lamp. This “black” can also be captured by holding a ceramic plate over the flame of a kerosene lamp and collecting the soot. Whatever the method, this material is mixed with gum arabic and distilled water.7

The consistency of the ink can be improved by adding egg white and honey drops to the gum Arabic.

In any case, the ink is made by mixing the gum arabic powder and water together until it forms a thick syrup. After that, the syrup is mixed with the lamp black, usually in a mortar and pestle of some kind. After that, it can take up to an hour to moisten all the powder. Once all of the powder is wet, more pigment is added until it becomes a thick and sticky paste. This paste needs to be stirred up to thirty more hours until it becomes completely smooth. It is then blended with some distilled water until the consistency thins out to that of milk, when it is able to be used on paper.8

Inkpot

In Chapter 68, verse 2, the Holy Qur’an states: “By the inkstand and by the pen and by that which they write.

A brief commentary in reference to these verses by Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh stated that this chapter began with the letter “Noon”, one meaning of which is inkpot. He continued that the writer who writes with a pen always desires knowledge and that all enlightenment of human knowledge started with the kingship of the pen. If writing were eliminated from the development of human knowledge, then man would regress to the dark ages and remain ignorant.9

 

Preparing Paper for Calligraphy

After the Battle of Talas, which was fought in 751 AD between the Chinese Tang dynasty and Muslims, the Chinese prisoners revealed the secret of papermaking to the Muslims. From this basic art, the Muslims developed it into a major industry.

Birmingham University has found fragments of potentially the world’s oldest Quran. Radiocarbon analysis has dated the parchment on which the text is written to the period between 568 and 645 CE.

Paper was easier to manufacture than parchment, less likely to crack than papyrus and could absorb ink, making it difficult to erase and ideal for keeping records.

For calligraphy on paper, specialised materials and techniques are required to dye and coat with aged starch. This is then varnished with several coats of ahar (a liquid composed of egg whites mixed with alum). The coated papers are highly burnished, using an agate burnishing stone and then aged for at least a year.10

Various qualities of paper were produced in the Islamic world. Many of the major cities had paper mills which produced good paper. Papyrus or parchment (goat skin) was initially used for copies of the Holy Qur’an. But ideally, calligraphy paper should have a smooth glossy surface in order for the pen to glide

Ever since it was created, paper has been treated using a variety of different elements, such as onion water, gesso, gum arabic, and honey. Tea was sometimes also used to colour it. Paper is made with live organisms and requires air to preserve it for longer periods.

 The Persian Language and the Use of the Latin Alphabet

Many centuries after Islam had been introduced to the Persians, they began to start using their pre-Islamic language while still using the Arabic alphabet. Starting from the eastern side of Persia, this trend traveled west towards Iraq.11 Although the area that comprises modern-day Iraq has occasionally been ruled by Persia, that area itself is not actually Persian.

Interestingly, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, the Promised Messiah, in his book Minan ur-Rahman, has argued that the Torah supports that there was only one original language in the world which began to diversify at Babel in the region of present-day Karbala, Iraq. This could be another reason for the prevalence of the Arabic alphabet there.

Iraq, Egypt and North Africa are still Arab-speaking countries. Some Persian territories used the Arabic letters to pen their own local languages. In contrast, Turkey, under the direction of President Mustafa Kamal Pasha, did just the opposite. Instead of adopting the Arabic alphabet, he tried to “westernize” Turkish language by using the Latin alphabet as opposed to the Arabic alphabet to write Turkish. And as a result, the change eroded some of the country’s ties to Islamic civilization—including an end of the rich calligraphic tradition that included the Diwani and Tughra scripts.12

Arabic is the Mother of All Languages: 1895

A brief treatise on philology (the science of the structure and development of languages) by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and the Promised Messiah, written in May 1895, revealed that Arabic is the first language taught to man by Allah Himself and the mother of all languages, or Ummul-al-Sinnah. He highlighted certain peculiarities of the Arabic language, which he claimed could not be found in any other language. For example, he described the system of Mufradaat [the basic roots of words] in the Arabic language had a unique scientific organisation and a system unknown in any other language. He described the five peculiarities of Arabic and claimed that all other languages of man were derived from Arabic.

One unique characteristic is that even single letters could contain rich and extensive meanings.13 For example, فِ (fi) would indicate “Be faithful”, while لِ (li) would mean “Come nearer”, and عِ (‘I) “Call to mind.” In addition, the Promised Messiahas explained that sometimes even small words can have longer, richer meanings than might first be assumed. For example,  (araztu) means: “I have roamed about Makkah, Medina, and all the habitations around them”, while (Tahfaltu) means: “I eat and have determined always to eat millet bread.”

Quoting from the Torah, Genesis 11:1, he writes: “And the whole earth was one lip and speeches identical.” Hazrat Shaikh Muhammad Ahmad Mazharra, a renowned philologist, further researched the connection between other languages and Arabic and traced the words of 60 languages as derivatives of Arabic.

Coins of King Offa of Mercia

The first full translation of the Qur’an into English was done by George Sale in 1736, a lawyer and languages enthusiast from Kent. (Commonly Called the Alcoran of Mohammed)

 

 

 

 

The United Kingdom has a long association with Islamic art and Qur’anic calligraphy. Among the most mysterious discoveries of Anglo-Saxon archaeology is the golden coinage of King Offa of Mercia

This gold coin of O a, king of Mercia in England, imitates a gold dinar of Al-Mansur, the caliph regarded as the founder of the Abbasid Caliphate (reigned 654 – 775 AD).

 

Further analysis of the coin reveals that the Bismallah is inscribed along with the Shahada, (the Muslim Declaration of Faith) and Surah al-Ikhlas,(a Qur’anic chapter)

His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaba, worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (centre), at The Review of Religions Exhibtion at the Annual Convention of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK 2015. Razwan Baig (left) had his unique private collection on display and here shows old copies of the Quran and other ancient artefacts to His Holiness.

This gold coin of Offa, king of Mercia in England, imitates a gold dinar of Al-Mansur, the caliph regarded as the founder of the Abbasid Caliphate (reigned 654 – 775 AD).

Sir Winston Churchill’s book, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples mentions this coin and considers it to be amongst the first coins of Britain.

The coinage, struck in Kent, was issued in perfect Arabic Kufic script. It bore Qur’anic verses referring to the fundamentals of the Islamic faith along with the name of King Offa of Mercia.

Conclusion

Islamic calligraphy is a sacred art that has largely been defined and shaped by religion.

The Arabic language and writing was uniquely suited to preserve Arab ethnic heritage beyond its borders and in fact promulgated it far beyond Arabia itself.14 Calligraphy’s role was as a way to preserve sacred language recording profound truths. The need to record and hand down to succeeding generations every syllable of the Qur’an with exactitude made it impossible to rely on anything so fallible as human memory alone. Martin Lings writes, “These people were in love with the beauty of their language and with the beauty of the human voice. There was absolutely no common measure between these two summits on the one hand and the ungainliness of the only available script on the other.”15 In a way, he continues, it was as if they thought: “Since we have no choice but to write down the Revelation, then let that written record be as powerful an experience for the eye as the memorised record is for the ear when the verses are spoken or chanted.”16 Thus, calligraphic art became the most noble of the arts, because it gave visible form to the revealed word of the Holy Qur’an.

Martin Lings said once that “The calligraphy is the geometry of the spirit.” 17

One can conclude that beautiful writing enhances a unique spiritual dimension and helps the expression of profound concepts in any art form.

About the Author: Razwan Baig is a scholar, collector, philanthropist and Islamic art critic and researcher. His Islamic art collection includes items as diverse as textiles and ceramics to Qur’anic manuscripts,and has been shown in several major art museums and international exhibitions. His interest in Islamic calligraphy began at age 12 and has run workshops and presented on the art of calligraphy since 1994. He completed his BA (Hons) History of Art & Archaeology of Islamic world, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He also has obtained extensive training in Arabic calligraphy in different styles from Birkbeck College, University of Sunderland as well as from some of the foremost calligraphers from Turkey, Baghdad and Pakistan. He will be exhibiting a portion of his collection this summer at The Review of Religions exhibition at the 50th annual convention of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community on August 12-14, 2016. As one of the largest private collectors of Islamic manuscripts in the U.K., he is also currently showing portions of his collection at the Art of Islam festival at Buckinghamshire County Museum through the end of September 2016.

Endnotes

 

  1. http://alfutuhat.com/islamiccivilization/Chemistry/Alternative.html. Accessed June 2016.
  2. http://education.asianart.org/explore-resources/background-information/islamic-calligraphy-materials-and-tools. Accessed June 2016.
  3. Ibid.
  4. https://josh-berer.squarespace.com/s/Cutting-the-Pen-yy2b.pdf. Accessed June 2016
  5. . Allama Ala wud Din Ali Bin Husam un Deen, (p486 and ref no.29564)
  6. . https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090811080408AAqHjgJ and http://www.islamicity.org/6580/the-pleasures-of-seeking-knowledge/
  7. https://joshberer.wordpress.com/2010/04/28/lamp-black-calligraphy-ink/. Accessed June 2016.
  8. Ibid.
  9. . Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh, A Brief Commentary of the Holy Qur’an, Surah Al Qalam
  10. http://www.nuriaart.com/mat.asp?id=2. Accessed July 2016.
  11. http://alavimehr.com/articles/history-of-calligraphy/. Accessed July 2016.
  12. Ibid.
  13. . Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, Manan ur Rahman, pp.10-11: http://www.alislam.org/library/books
  14. Vincent J. Cornell, Voices of Islam (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007), 20.
  15. Martin Lings, “The Art of Qur’an Calligraphy,” in Voices of Islam, ed. Vincent J. Cornell (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007), 33.
  16. Ibid.
  17. http://www.spiritilluminated.org/SacredArt.htm

 

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