The origins and early development of Arabic calligraphy.
Arabic calligraphy began with the emergence of Islam in the 7th century when preserving the accuracy of God’s revelation gained a particular importance for Muslims.
Before the emergence of Islam, the largely nomadic inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula lived in a predominantly oral culture. Writing was only occasionally used and the origins of early Arabic script are vague. The advent of Islam changed the relationship of Arab people to the written word. The new Islamic empire placed script at the heart of its identity and used it not only as a means of communication, but also as an outlet for creativity.
The Qur'an and Calligraphy
The Qur’an is the holy book of the Islamic faith. For more than one billion Muslims around the world, it is the exact record of the words God spoke to the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) in Arabic through the intermediary of the archangel Gabriel in the early 7th century. Copying the Qur’an is a deeply meaningful and spiritual act and the scribe must write God’s word correctly, skilfully and beautifully.
The divine revelation which the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) received over a period of more than 22 years is arranged in the form of chapters (‘suras’) and verses (‘ayas’). The full text of the Qur’an consists of 114 chapters of varying lengths. Generally, these are arranged by length rather than in the order in which they were revealed. The start of each chapter is often marked by an illuminated heading. This includes the title and the city, either Mecca or Medina, in which the chapter was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.). Usually, the end of each verse is marked by a small gold roundel or rosette, intended to guide the reader visually through the text.
The above Qur’an fragment is one of the earliest existing records of the divine revelation. It is written with a reed pen or ‘qalam’ in an early form of Arabic script known as ‘hijazi’. This form of writing is named after an area of the Arabian Peninsula, which includes the cities of Mecca and Medina.
‘Hijazi’ script is close to individual handwriting. Originally, it lacked vowels or any other spelling symbols that distinguish between letters of similar shape. This form of writing acted as a prompt for the reader who had already memorised the text.
Papyrus, made from a plant growing along the river Nile in Egypt, was a common writing material in the first centuries of Islam. It was primarily used for official letters or legal documents. Unusually, the above papyrus fragment bears a quotation of Qur’anic text and was recently discovered by researcher Alba Fedeli. She identified the text as a Qur’anic quotation of sura 4 (al-Nisa, ‘The Women’), verses 69–70.
Most scribes preferred to copy the Qur’an on the smooth and slightly waxy surface of parchment, which was made from specially treated animal skins. Because parchment was very expensive, it was common practice to reuse old sheets by washing off the original ink. Such recycled pages are known as 'palimpsests'. Sometimes this reuse of parchment reveals the earlier text, as over time the original writing may become visible as a ghostly underlayer.
In the mid-8th century, the Chinese craft of papermaking spread to the Middle East. Paper gradually replaced papyrus and parchment and was used for both secular and religious books.
The above manuscript contains collections of sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.), known as ‘hadith’ or ‘Traditions’. Each individual Tradition consists of two parts: the ‘hadith’ itself, and the chain of authorities that traces the saying back to the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.). This collection of Traditions, originally compiled by the 9th-century scholar al-Bukhari, is highly revered and considered a major source of religious law and moral guidance.
With the emergence of an Islamic empire, the basic form of Arabic writing evolved. By the 8th century, a particular script was developed for religious and official purposes. The Qur’an (as seen on the photo above) was now written on parchment in angular scripts once referred to as ‘kufic’. The letter shapes and page layout followed a complex system of proportion and geometry.
From the 10th century onwards, angular scripts began to merge with a rounder style used for secular writing. Six new scripts were established, in which each letter’s shape is determined by a fixed number of diamond-shaped dots. One of them, called ‘muhaqqaq’, was almost exclusively reserved for large-scale Qur’ans like the one above.
Another script called ‘naskh’ was widely used for copying small-scale Qur’ans like the one above and has remained perhaps the most popular script in the Arab world.
Distinctive scripts were developed in particular regions. From the 11th century, the 'maghribi' script (seen on the photo above) evolved in the Western Mediterranean. Written with a blunt pen, this calligraphic style features sweeping strokes and elegant curves. It was used to copy the Qur'an and all other types of text. Although calligraphers still employ forms of 'maghribi' script, its use is in decline.
While some regional scripts remained local, others were used more widely and specifically adopted for writing non-Arabic languages. In the above manuscript, the Arabic text is written in 'naskh' script, while the Persian translation in black ink appears in ‘nastaʿliq’ script. This writing style, with its distinct diagonal slant, emerged in 15th-century Iran, but soon spread eastward and also became popular in Mughal India and Ottoman Turkey.