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Calligraphy is one of the world’s most ancient and respected art forms. In many parts of the world, the practice and importance of calligraphy has waned, but in Arabic culture, the more than 2,000-year-old tradition remains as vibrant and revered as ever. At a moment in contemporary culture when the ubiquity of words seems to decrease their value, Arabic calligraphy offers a strong and appealing contrast by treating writing and the written word as sacred things.
Read on as we review the history of calligraphy, as well as the tools used for Arabic calligraphy art, and explore how to learn the Arabic cursive art yourself.
Origins of Arabic Calligraphy
Traditionally, Arabic tribes preferred to memorize text and poetry and orally pass it on from generation to generation. However, that changed with the spread of Islam and the growing importance of preserving the Quran in written form. Below, we outline the history of Arabic script and calligraphy.
The Spread of Islam
Before the spread of Islam, the Arabian Peninsula was home to a variety of early semitic languages, and the discovery of calligraphic artifacts in these early languages prove that the practice of calligraphy predates Islam. Ancient Persia, for instance, was using cuneiform calligraphy to adorn the monuments of kings as early as 600–500 B.C.1 Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly the spread of Islam that ushered in a great age of calligraphy throughout the ancient Middle East because of how it unified the region under the Arabic language and because of its veneration of the written word.
The Golden Age of Arabic Calligraphy
Arabic calligraphy’s early development was not a linear process. A wide variety of scripts rose and fell in popularity in regions as far-flung as Damascus, Baghdad, Morocco, and Spain.2 Kufic, named for the city of Kufah in Iraq, was the first universal script, and it dominated Arabic calligraphy from the 7th to the 11thcentury, but it was still rough and relatively unsystematized, especially in comparison to the systematization it would undergo during the “Golden Age” of calligraphy, which began around 1000 B.C. and lasted until the middle of the 13th century.
In 762, the Abbasid Caliph Mansur set out to construct a glorious new capital for his empire. The result was Baghdad, a meticulously constructed and majestically walled city nestled against the Tigris river. Baghdad almost immediately became the cultural center of the Middle East. It would also become the setting for the greatest period of advancement yet in Arabic calligraphy. The “Golden Age” of Arabic calligraphy is typically mapped along a succession of three great calligraphers: Ibn Muqla (886–940), Ibn al-Bawwab (believed to have lived from 961–1022), and Yakut al-Musta’simi of Amasya (d. 1298).
Visier Ibn Muqla
Visier Ibn Muqla is famous for codifying the principles of calligraphy, including his theory of proportion, which calligraphers use to this day. His theory of proportion established the rhomboid dot and the length of the alif stroke as the units of measurement by which all letters in a particular script are calculated.
In Ibn Muqla’s theory of proportion, an alif is measured by seven rhomboids. A circumference is established based on the length of the alif, and all other characters are calculated from that circumference.
Ibn Muqla was followed by Ibn al-Bawwab, who refined several of Ibn Muqla’s scripts, and is purported to have invented the cursive scripts of Rayhani and Muhaqqaq. Ibn al-Bawwab is also known to have preserved many of Ibn Muqla’s original manuscripts, though, sadly, none of them have survived to the present.
Yaqut al Musta’simi
The third famed calligrapher of the Golden Age, Yaqut al Musta’simi, was a scribe in the royal court who further systematized the method of proportional measurements and began the practice of cutting the pen nib at a slant, a seemingly minor change that forever changed the aesthetic and methodology of Arabic calligraphy. Yakut lived through the Mongol sack of Baghdad and is said to have taken refuge in a minaret, where he continued laboring at his work as the city below was ravaged.
These three calligraphers are history’s best known, but countless disciples studied under them, including, notably, several women who achieved renown for their skill. The work of all of these artists during the Golden Age yielded the six major scripts: sulus, nesish, muhakkak, reyhani, tevki, and rika.
Islam continued to spread rapidly. The conversion of Ghazan, leader of the Mongol Empire, the muslim Mughal and Mamluk dynasties in India and Egypt, and, eventually, the Ottoman Empire, all pushed Islam—and along with it, Arabic calligraphy—to further reaches of the globe. In every new empire and culture, the practice of Arabic calligraphy was both expanded and refined by the artists who took it up. Today, a remarkable array of calligraphy scripts have become part of the precious heritage of Arabic calligraphy, which continues to be passed along.
Evolution of Arabic Calligraphy
Beyond the expansion of Arabic calligraphy across geographic locations, the art form evolved in its main applications. Originally, Arabic calligraphy was a tool for communications and preserving the word of God through the Quran. However, over time, it also became an important element in architecture, decoration, and coin design.
In addition, Arabic calligraphy also evolved over time into two distinct families: Kufic and rounded scripts.
Very early Arabic script was rarely used, because of the culture’s strong oral tradition. However, when the Quran needed to be preserved during the spread of Islam, the Arabic language became much more important. As a result, the script was made purposefully beautiful. This version of the script is called Kufic.
Today, there are several styles of Kufic, but overall, it is characterized by angular, rectilinear letterforms and a horizontal orientation.
While Kufic became standard for sacred texts, there developed a need for a script that was quicker to write and better suited for documents of a smaller scale, like letters. These types of script, now called round scripts, are considered formal. Ideally, rounded script should not look like a human hand has written it, so there’s little to no room for creative expression when writing in this style.
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Tools Used for Arabic Calligraphy
The tools used for Arabic calligraphy differ from the tools used for traditional or modern calligraphy. While traditional calligraphy involves a nib, nib holder, and ink, Arabic calligraphy pens are much more commonly made from reeds and rigid wood. Below are some of the most common implements and supplies used in Arabic calligraphy:
The most common pen for Arabic calligraphy is the Qalam pen, which is made from a cut, dried reed. This pen is considered a symbol of wisdom in Islam.
Also known as a reed pen, a khamish pen is typically used by Arab, Turkish, and Iranian calligraphers. It is made from reeds that grow along rivers, but it requires a lengthy curing process before it is ready to be used for calligraphy.
The bamboo pen is one of the oldest calligraphy tools in the world. Bamboo is the ideal material for Arabic calligraphy because its rigid edge allows calligraphers to achieve the full spectrum of pen movements, but it also offers a level of flexibility.
Java pens are made from a type of Javanese thorngrass. They’re known for their rigidity and ability to produce a sharp edge for letterforms. This type of pen is especially well suited for smaller scripts.
One of the most versatile pens for Arabic calligraphy, the Handam pen is available in a range of different sizes, from a large 10mm variety to a sub-1mm micro nib. This makes it suitable for a range of different types of scripts. In addition, it offers a high level of durability: you don’t have to cut or sharpen it nearly as frequently as you would a Khamish pen.
The Celi pen is made for large-scale Arabic calligraphy. The nibs are made from bamboo and include built-in reservoirs for ink.
While many different types of paper can be suitable for Arabic calligraphy, there is a type of paper made specifically for the art form. Ahar paper is handmade in central India. It is coated with a combination of starch and a sizing made from alum and egg whites. This glossy coating prevents the ink from penetrating the paper; instead, the ink sits on top of the coating, which allows calligraphers to erase and make corrections.
Traditional Arabic calligraphy ink is soot-based and water-soluble, so you can remove any mistakes with a wet cloth. While black is the most traditional color for the ink, a variety of ink colors are now available and widely used.
Modern Arabic Calligraphy
While Arabic calligraphy is heavily grounded in tradition, it serves as inspiration for modern art. In fact, many contemporary artists have developed their own style and techniques for Arabic calligraphy. Modern artists may put their own spin on traditional letterforms and mediums, incorporating calligraphy into jewelry and digital designs, or using paint on canvas, rather than ink on paper.
Learning Modern Arabic Calligraphy
There are two general approaches to learning Arabic calligraphy.
The first is the traditional method, which is comprehensive but time-intensive. Traditionally, Arabic calligraphy is an art form that’s passed down from generation to generation, typically taught through in-person meetings between the teacher and the student.4
Much of this type of instruction relies on observation and imitation. The student watches the teacher’s precise movement and techniques, and over time, the student learns how to make those same movements. In addition to this face-to-face time, the student will typically practice at home for extended periods of time, and then bring those practice sheets back to the instructor for him to review and correct. This is a process that can span years.
Alternatively, you can focus on learning Arabic calligraphy for the purposes of creative expression. While you likely won’t master the art form in the traditional way mentioned above, you can certainly learn the basic letterforms and capture the beauty of the language. For example, by starting with learning how to write the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet, you can practice writing words, phrases, or even your name in Arabic calligraphy.
Arabic calligraphy is deeply rooted in tradition, and it can take years to master. However, if you’re interested in pursuing this art form, there are ways to embrace it with a contemporary spin.
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