A Brief History of Arabic Calligraphy

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 two thousand-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.

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. 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.

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. Kufic, named for the city of Kufah in Iraq, was the first universal script, and it dominated Arabic calligraphy from the seventh to the eleventh century, 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 thirteenth 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, nested 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 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.   Image courtesy of  The Asian Art Museum

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.

Image courtesy of The Asian Art Museum

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.

 Work by Ibn al-Bawwab that is considered one of the earliest examples of a Qur'an written in cursive script still in existence. Image courtesy of  The Chester Beatty Library .

Work by Ibn al-Bawwab that is considered one of the earliest examples of a Qur'an written in cursive script still in existence. Image courtesy of The Chester Beatty Library.

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, but one 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 even as the city below was being ravaged.

 A pilgrimage guide/prescriptive text attributed to Yaqut al-Musta'simi. Image courtesy of  the World Digital Library .

A pilgrimage guide/prescriptive text attributed to Yaqut al-Musta'simi. Image courtesy of the World Digital Library.

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 to further reaches of the globe, and along with it Arabic calligraphy. 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.

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