Study – Evolution of the Kufic Script

I have featured to a certain extend the Kufic script as a part of a general study of Islamic/Arabic calligraphy, and as one of the subject featured on Imagining Islamic Aesthetics. Now I would like to feature this subject again to look deeper and attempt to study the history of this one particular script.

The Kufic script is said to be derived from the old Nabatean script in Central Asia, and the name ‘Kufic’ is taken from the name of an Iraqi (Persian) city of Kufah. The scripts characteristic is that it is sharp and angular, and very geometrical. The script lacks annotations that is prevalent in more modern scripts, for example the dot below the letter ‘Ba/ﺏ’ (the B) or the letter ‘Ya/ﻱ’ (the Y/E) or the Fathah/Dhammah/Kasrah lines (the lines and symbols which are added either on top or bottom of every letter to aid non-Arabs to correctly pronounce each letter and hence each word).The script was already been used even before Islam. The importance of this script to the Islamic world is that it is used for the first copies of the Al-Quran, the sacred text of the Muslims.

The Early Form of the Kufic Script

The  Kufic script was not originally used just for Islamic sacred texts, as one would logically think. It was as noted above in fact used during the pre-Islamic times as the script for letter writing and diplomacy. There was no special decoration or embellishment to the script, just the letters that is sometimes not joined with each other, unlike the current Arabic script. There was no, as aforementioned, annotations or any kind of help with proper pronunciation to each of the words. this is mainly because that the Arabic script then was only used by the Arabs and hence there is no use of help of any kind for proper pronunciation since it would be perfectly understandable. Virtually all Al-Quran that were made and written in the 7th or 8th Century, under the command of one of the Rashidien Caliph, Caliph Uthman, were writ in Kufic. Since then the script evolved from a simple undecorated style that were straightforward into an elegant and elaborate calligraphy.

An Early Qur’anic Manuscript in The Topkapi Museum, Istanbul, Turkey. Script: Monumental Kufic. It is extensively dotted perhaps by a later hand.

Changes in the Kufic Script

During the 1000’s, as Islam grew and expanded its empire, and as people of different nationalities and cultures ans well as different languages embraced Islam as their way of life, the need of help for proper pronunciation of texts (particularly the Al-Quran) written in the straightforward Kufic emerges. Red dots were used to annotate and differentiate letters that were almost similar to each other (such as the Ba/Ta/Tha – ﺏ ﺕ ﺙ). One story has it that the need for these annotations arise when a Caliph sent a letter to a governor regarding the fate of a prisoner. The governor asked the advice of the Caliph regarding the prisoner, whether to set him free or to pass a fatal judgment. The Caliph replied, but to the surprise of the Governor the Caliph told him to “kill the man”. Knowing that there might be error, he replied back to asked why would he be adviced to do as such, since he knows that the Caliph is a forgiving person. It is then discovered that the Caliph meant “free the man” but misread as “kill the man”, due to the absence of annotations. This clearly tells that the Arabic language written in the Kufic script can be very easily confused and mistaken from one meaning to another very opposite one. By time the red dots, instead of being a separate mark in the text, turn into a part of the letters themselves.

Differences By Region

While the Kufic calligraphy has the common angular look, styles and decorations differ between say, the Kufic script in the Arabian Peninsula and the North African Region. The older, Arabian Kufic is more straightforward and angular, while Moroccan Kufic while still retaining the straight angular lines, features more curves, particularly on letters such as Noon, Wau, or Ra (ﻥ ﻭ ﺭ). Iranian and Central Asian ones are thinner and written in an angle, and some of them features floral decorations on the ends. Meanwhile, the Kufic script in Egypt are thicker, and features sharper points.

from Smithsonian” Folio from a Koran ,11th century ,Ink, color, and gold on paper ,Iran

Fall of Usage in Texts, Rise of Usage in Monuments

As early as the 11th Century, the usage of Kufic calligraphy in texts falls out of favour to the more recent, curvier texts. This is particularly because lines of Dhammah/Fathah/Kasrah, noted above that further help non-Arab in their pronunciations of Arabic texts can be introduced easily using the newer curvier calligraphy than the old Kufic texts that can only offer dots. however, while it is no more the preferred calligraphy of written texts, became prominent as decorative texts on monuments. This can be seen on the Egyptian Mamluke Dynasty monuments such as the Sultan Hasan Mosque in Cairo. It also enjoys a change in aesthetics,  as it is also combined with Arabesques and sometimes Geometrical patterns.

Fragment of a frieze bearing a floriated Kufic inscription: the ayat al-Kursi, or Throne verse from the Qu’ran. Aleppo pine, with carved, painted and gilded decoration. Fatimid Egypt, end of the 10th century.

Modern Usage

While it is still used as decorative element on religious buildings, the Kufic script in present times used for logos and such in Arabic or other Islamic countries that uses the Arabic scripts or its modifications (such as Urdu in India and Pakistan and Jawi in the Malay Peninsula). It is also found on flags such as the flag of Iraq and the flag of Iran.


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