The Origins of Arabic Calligraphy

According to contemporary studies, Arabic writing is a member of the Semitic alphabetical scripts in which mainly the consonants are represented. Arabic script was developed in a comparatively brief span of time. Arabic became a frequently used alphabet--and, today, it is second in use only to the Roman alphabet.

The early Arabs were basically a nomadic people. Their lives were hard before Islam, but their culture was prolific in terms of writing and poetry. Long before they were gathered into the Islamic fold, the nomadic Arabs acknowledged the power and beauty of words. Poetry, for example, was an essential part of daily life. The delight Arabs took in language and linguistic skills also would be exhibited in Arabic literature and calligraphy. The early Arabs felt an immense appreciation for the spoken word and later for its written form.

Arabic script is derived from the Aramaic Nabataean alphabet. The
Arabic alphabet 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.

The Nabataean were semi-nomadic Arabs who dwelled in an area extending from Sinai and North Arabia to southern Syria. Their empire included the major cities of Hijr, Petra, and Busra. Although the Nabataean empire ended in 105 A.D., its language and script would have profound impact upon the early development of Arabic scripts.

Archeologists and linguists have analyzed and studied the Nabataean inscriptions that represent the advanced transitional stage toward the development of such Arabic scripts as the Um al-Jimal, dating from about 250 A.D., and the Namarah of the famous pre-Islamic poet Imru' al-Qays, dating from 328 A.D. Another inscription from Um al-Jimal, dating from the 6th century, confirms the derivation of the Arabic script from the Nabataean and points to the birth of distinctive Arabic writing forms.

North Arabic script was first introduced and established in the northeastern part of Arabia. During the 5th century, Arabian nomadic tribes who dwelled in the areas of Hirah and Anbar used this script extensively. In the early part of the 6th century, the North Arabic script reached Hijaz in western Arabia. Bishr Ibn Abd al-Malik and his father-in-law Harb Ibn Umayyah are credited with introducing and popularizing the use of this script among the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad, Quraysh. Other tribes in nearby cities adopted with enthusiasm the art of writing.

Jazm is the earliest referenced Arabic script. This script is believed to be an advanced form of the Nabataean alphabet. The stiff, angular, and well-proportioned letters of the Jazm script would later influence the development of the famous Kufi script -- the script of Kufa, a small town in Iraq.

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

The lines of calligraphers have neither beginning nor end as they constantly link and unlink. The calligrapher's work lies in search of the absolute; his aim is to penetrate the sense of truth in an infinite movement so as to go beyond the existing world and thus achieve union with God.

-- Salah al-Ali (quotes in Musee d'art et d'histoire. "Islamic Calligraphy: Sacred and Secular Writings". Catalog of an exhibition held at the Musee d'art et d'histoire, Geneva and other locations 1988-1989, p. 30)

Calligraphers were dedicated to their work. David James writes in Sacred and Secular Writings (1988, p.22) that calligraphers often wrote, not at a small table but seated on the floor, holding the paper on their knees and supporting it with a piece of cardboard. Calligraphers had to be trained from a young age, sometimes from childhood; they studied examples called mufradat which had the letters of the alphabet written out singly and in combination with other letters.

The great calligraphers could write perfectly even without the proper tools and materials. Although a calligraphic master might be deprived of the use of his preferred hand either as a punishment or in the battle field, he would learn to write equally well with his other hand. When the other hand failed him, he would astound his admirers by using his mouth or feet to hold the pen.

An aspiring scribe would observe his predecessors' art very carefully. To perfect his touch, sharpen his skills, and find a style of his preference, the scribe would imitate the masters of calligraphy with a diligent hand. Welch (1979, p. 34) cites the following quote from the Sultan Ali's treatise on calligraphy:

Collect the writing of the masters,Throw a glance at this and at that,For whomsoever you feel a natural attraction,Besides his writing, you must not look at others,So that your eye should become saturated with his writing,And because of his writing each of your letters shouldbecome like a pearl.

al-Bawwab reproduced the writing of Ibn Muqlah so exactly that his employer, the Buyid amir Baha' ad-Dawlah of Shiraz, could not tell the difference.

Arabic calligraphers integrate inner experiences with their experiences of external reality. By imbuing strokes with life and feeling, an equilibrium of energy flows from all composing elements. A calligrapher's integration of inner and external realities results in a very personalized style and is accompanied by concentrated and unremitting scholarly study. The development of a calligraphy style is as unique as the calligrapher's personality, and its achievement is considered as the representation of the individual's self-cultivation.

It is fascinating to think how great calligraphers such as Ibn Muqlah, Ibn al-Bawwab, and Yaqut al-Musta'simi strove for knowledge and made use of all possible resources from the past.

In almost all of the Arabic scripts, the spacing between lines and words overflows with a sense of freedom and a flexibility that reveals the creativity and spontaneity of the calligrapher. Through the calligrapher's momentum and sense of balance, a tranquil harmony is achieved that immediately appeals to the mind and to the heart.

    The Reform of Arabic Writing

As the teachings of Islam spread beyond the boundaries of the Arabian Peninsula, an enormous number of people worldwide became Muslims. The new Muslims interpreted the art of writing as an abstract expression of Islam, each according to their own cultural and aesthetic systems. The influx of this cultural diversity led to two major events: the birth of regional calligraphic schools and styles such as Ta'liq in Persia and Deewani in Turkey, and the need to reform of the Arabic language. A clear and universal language with legible script was needed if the non-Arab Muslims were to learn Arabic and become part of the Islamic melting pot.

The first movement to reform the Arabic language and writing system came during the Umayyad era. Abul Aswad ad-Du'ali was the prophet and legendary founder of Arabic grammar and is credited with the invention of placing diacritical points to distinguish between certain identical consonants such as the 'gaf' and 'fa' in the
Arabic alphabet. This system of diacritical marks is known as Tashkil (vocalization). Different colors also were introduced to differentiate between these marks--black for the diacriticals and red or yellow for the vocalics.

The powerful and energetic Umayyad viceroy al-Hajjaj Ibn Yousuf al-Thaqafi (694-714), took on the responsibility of solving problems concerning diacriticals. He commissioned Nasr and Yehya to refine the Tashkil system. They introduced the use of dots and certain vowel signs as differentiating marks. The dots were placed either above or beneath the letter, either single or in groups of two or three.

Unfortunately, for many people and scribes the system was unclear and confusing. A more sophisticated system was needed. The second reform movement was undertaken around 786. Khalil Ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, the famous Arab philologist and lexicographer, was entrusted with devising a new Tashkil system. Al-Farahidi introduced vowel signs inspired by the initial shape or parts of certain letters. The sign 'hamza,' for example, is part of the letter 'ayn' (without its end-tail).

The new system gained wide popularity throughout the Muslim world. And Arabic calligraphy acquired the characteristics of beauty, sanctity, and versatility. Arabic calligraphy was used administratively, on architecture, on coins, to pen impressive epistles, and to produce elegant books, especially the Holy Qur'an, miniatures, and other literary works.