Calligraphy is one of the fundamental element in Islamic aesthetic, and considered one of the three elements in the Islamic Decorative Canon. It is employed in the writing of the holy scripture of the Muslims, the Al-Quran and decoration of monumental buildings throughout the Islamic World.
Islamic Calligraphy is based on the Arabic script for obviously Arab Muslims. Non Arab Muslims also employ the script to write in their own languages for example for writing the Urdu language of the Indian Subcontinent or Jawi of the Malay Archipelago . It is specially revered by the Muslims since it is one of the means of the preservation of the Al-Quran – that is, by writing and copying the sacred texts.
The Islamic Calligraphy flourish and develop from a square and angular script, into a cursive decorative script, to the point that it is lavishly decorated alongside Geometrical shapes and/or vegetal Arabesques. The main reason that the art of calligraphy in the Islamic world develop so rapidly is that for one it is the main way to write the Al-Quran, and since “God is beautiful and loves beauty”, as noted by the prophet Muhammad, Islamic scribes quickly develop ways to make the scripts more aesthetically pleasing and more beautiful. Another reason is being human or animal representation is fundamentally forbidden in Islam, as it may be idolatrous, Islamic artists find their way to channel their creativity and Calligraphy is one of them, alongside Geometry patterns and Arabesques.
Apart from the usage on holy scriptures and as decorative elements on major secular or religious building, it is also used for official matters in the Islamic world, particularly in Arabic states- state decrees and laws, diplomatic letters, certificates, signatures of Muslim rulers and even marriage decree was, and sometimes, still is, writ in beautiful calligraphy and decorated. This clearly shows that Islamic calligraphy is not just for religious matters and for decoration of monuments and buildings,but also appreciated in daily life.
In a wider sense, Arabic script calligraphy is not exclusive to the Muslims and the Islamic world, but also to devotees of other religions in the Middle East, particularly Arab Christians and Jews. They use the script developed by their Muslim peers for their own scriptures, buildings etc. for example, there is a wooden cross, belonged to a Protestant Church in Lebanon, National Evangelical Church of Beirut, that have a carving of John 3:16 that uses the angular Kufic script and using Arabic language in the center of the said crucifix. Another instance are the Egyptian Copts ; they use both their native Coptic language and Arabic for their scriptures and buildings.
There are many types of Arabic/Islamic Calligraphy, and we shall attempt to look into each one in accordance of its time of introduction, and according to the two main styles :-
1) Geometric Style – Refers to angular, square style of Islamic Calligraphy. It is the earliest style of calligraphy, and mostly used the the 7th Century to the 10th Century as the preferred style of writing the Al-Quran, before it slowly decline in usage and become a style of decorative calligraphy, for monuments or buildings.
- Hijazi script . Developed in the Hijaz area, that includes the Holy city of Mecca and Medina, hence the name. It is an Arabic script style that is angular and squarish, but still have some slight curves to it. It is the earliest form of Arabic calligraphy, already being used in the emergence of Islam. It is also known as the Ma’il Script (sloping)
- Kufic script – The name of the script derived from the name of the city of Kufa in Iraq, derived from the old Nabatean script. This script is used for the first copies of the Al-Quran. It was the preferred script to be used in the 8th-10th Century. As with Hijazi, the main characteristic of this script is that is is angular and squarish in shape. There are two further variants of the Kufic script – Maghribi and Andalusi. These two script still retains the angular characteristics, however it is less rigid with more curves.
- Flowering Kufic, where the script is merged with vegetal and floral motifs.
- Geometric Kufic, where the script is styllized to resemble a geometric shape, a square for example.
2) Cursive Style – First appearing in the 10th century, it quickly replaces the Geometric style as the preferred method of writing, as they were more easier to be read and written.
There are six important scripts under the Cursive style, called the “six cursive scripts”, being the ideas of Ibnu Muqla, a noted Abbasid calligrapher in 939AD, refined by his successors Ibnu al-Bawwab and Yaqut al-Mustacsimi. The six canonical scripts are –
- Nasakh/ Naskhi script, meaning to copy, or to abolish. Called as such because it replaces the preferred Kufic script used before, and faster and easier copying of the Al-Quran. A simple, day to day cursive script. Its uses ranges from correspondence to the copying of the Al-Quran later . One of the most popular script, because of its eligibility.
- Thuluth script , meaning one-third, because each letter of the Arabic alphabet used in this style slopes in one-third. An elegant and large script, It is mainly used for monumental decoration, and for heading of each surah (chapter) of the Al-Quran.
- Tawqi’ script, derived from Arabic waqa’a, meaning to sign. Called as such because it is the preferred script to be used in signatures by rulers. It is most often used in diplomas, royal documents and other official letters. However, it is rarely utilized for other matters, making it a little used script. It is characterized by elongated verticals and wide curves, and most often, when the letter alif (a) and lam (l) meets, the two characters are enjoined with an upward curve.
- Riqa’ script, taken from the Arabic word ruq’a meaning a piece of cloth. Named as such because it is often the script used for petitions to royalties written on a small pieces of paper. Very similar and a companion of the Tawq’i script, it is essentially its miniature version. Used for personal correspondence, stories and letters in it’s early stage to official documents and correspondence. Like Tawq’i, it is also a minimally utilized script.
- Muhaqqaq script, meaning fully realized, or strongly expressed. This is true when you look at the script – large, very cursive script with precise angles and upright letters, descending strokes at the end in straight sharp points , and round descending letters encircle the following letters. All of the characteristics defines a sense of strength in the script. Mainly used for large Al-Quran and for monumental writing.
- Rayhani script, meaning having a fragrance. Mainly used for copying Al-Quran, and like Riqa’ script, is a miniature version of the Muhaqqaq script.
Other than these six canonical cursive scripts, there are other scripts developed in other lands such as Persia and Turkey.
- Ta’liq script, meaning suspension or hanging together. Called as such because the letters appear to connect with each other with very little spaces between words. Curves are more pronounced and descending strokes become loops. Mainly used for official correspondence and non-quranic works. It is also sometimes used in literary works such as poetry and books.
- Nastaliq script, it is called the Farsi script in the Arab world. The word Nastaliq is thought to be the amalgamation of two scripts, Nasakh and Ta’liq script. Originally created to write the Persian language, it is utilized in Central Asia for writing of literary , poetry and non-quranic works.
- Shikaste script, meaning broken in Persian, because it is a “broken” version of the Nastaliq script. It is a preferred script to use in long documents and correspondence because of its fluidity and easiness of writing, and used for poetry and other literary works because of its beauty and flowery visual style. However, it is hard to read and almost eligible to the untrained eye.
These three scripts are mainly developed and used in the Central Asian countries, mainly Persia (Iran and Iraq), India, Pakistan and other South Asian Muslim communities.
- Diwani script, or otherwise spelled Divani. The name is derived from the word Divan, the Ottoman Royal Chancery. It is mainly used by the Ottoman court for official documents. It is rather simillar to Nastaliq script, being fluid and flowery. However, it is more stylized, having dots as decorative details. Sometimes the decoration are very fancy it loses its eligibility. There is two types of this script, that is Riq’a Diwani, a straightforward style with no decoration and straight lines, and Jeli Diwani , a more elaborate style with lots of decorations and the letters are intertwined, making the script less eligible and harder to forge.
The Diwani Script is developed and used mainly by the Turkish court, or at that time, the Ottoman court.
- Sini script, derived from the word in Arabic for Chinese. It is developed, as the namesake tells, from China. It has distinct influences for the Chinese calligraphy. It is rather squarish and angular, but have the fluidity of Chinese calligraphy.