Daily Archives: 05/08/2013

History – The Kufic Script

Alhamdullilah, I have a little bit of time to spare to write a small article for this blog, which I accidentally abandoned last month. Due to the recent popularity of the Kufic script, I would like to write an article about the history of this ancient Arabic script. I probably had written this a few times before, but I would like to explore a little more on this topic, plus take a look on some of the different versions of the script throughout the time.

The Kufi script is the oldest calligraphic type of the Arabic script, which derived from an old modified Nabatean script. The Kufic script was developed around the seventh century CE, where it was extensively and exclusively used to copy the Qur’an by the orders of one of the Rashidien Caliph, Uthman bin Affan, until the eleventh century, to be replaced with more cursive script such as Nasakh and Thultuh scripts. The Kufic script is believed to be developed in the town of Kufa in Iraq, hence the name.

In addition of being used as the script for Qur’an copying, it is also used for monuments and decoration of buildings, because of the rigidity of the script and its ease  for execution as carving on stones or using tiles or bricks. It can also be found in coins of the Seljuks and the Ottomans.

As noted before, the Kufic script generally is angular, comprising of solid lines to form the characters of the Arabic script. during the first few centuries in Islam, Arabic was written without any vowel marks or dots as how the Arabic script can be seen today. This is because there are no need for these helping markers ; the early Muslims were Arabs, and thus can read the Qur’an without any help. However this changed when Islam became a multinational and multiracial religion, the need of vowel marking and dots to denote different sounds and establish difference between similar looking characters were raised and they remain today in the Qur’an. The Kufic script dots are sometime done in red ink. It is believed that a scribe named Abdul Aswad were the one first using these markings in 1310 CE

There were no set rules of using the Kufic script ; the only common feature is the angular, linear shapes of the characters. Due to the lack of methods, the scripts in different regions and countries and even down to the individuals themselves have different ways to write in the script creatively, ranging from very square and rigid forms to flowery and decorative. The nibs of the pens  used to write may even be different, resulting in different forms, shapes and sizes.The Kufic script can form many different shapes from squares to circles to domes and minarets, according to the writer’s need and creativity.

The earliest form of the Kufic script can be found in the early copies of the Qur’an, in which the script was used. The script was done in a very straight penmanship with occasional small curves for some of the characters. A thick pointed pen was used, resulting in bold, thick script.

The Uthman Quran from Uzbekistan, also known as the Samarqand Quran. The above page from the book shows the thick Kufic script, devoid of any vowel markings or dots.

The Magribi (Moroccan or Western) Kufic script is a slight modification of the above Kufic script. The Maghribi Kufic script is still rigid, linear and thick, however it features a significant amount of curves and loops as opposed to the original Arabic Kufic script. loops for the characters such as the Waw and the Meem are pronounced and perhaps more exaggerated.

A page from an Abbasid Qur’an, from North Africa. Some characters are rounder, and the vowel marks and dots can be seen here in red ink

A thinner, cursive and decorative form of Kufic can be found as the Kufi Mashriqi Script. The nib of the pen used to write in this form of Kufi is thinner than the one mentioned above, and it is more cursive some of the characters were given long, cursive strokes. However, it is still within the angular vocabulary of the Kufic script.

A page from a Qur’an written in the Kufi Mashriqi script.

In Iran, in addition to the Kufi Mashriqi script (which was also referred to as the Piramouz script), there is also more forms of the script known as the Ghaznavid and Khourasan scripts. The scripts was mostly used for monument decoration and also for coinage, as well as daily items. The Khourasan script is as thick as the Original Arabic Kufic script, but added with a simple flair for each character.  The Ghaznavid Kufi has elongated vertical lines and rounded ends with decoration around the characters.

The exterior of the Minaret of Jam. The blue-green calligraphy is done in a Kufic script.

The Fatimi Kufi is prevalent in the North African region, particularly in Egypt. Since the script is very stylized and decorative, this form was mainly used in the decoration of buildings. a Fatimi Kufi script (or sometimes known as Eastern Kufi) can be seen with decoration among the characters such as the inclusion of the Endless Knot of vegetal motif both in the character itself and as a background motif. The characters are written in thick lines, very straight and angular with the exception of loops and short curves for the characters such as the Ra’ or the Waw.

A carving in Kufic script in the Sultan Hasan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. Heavy ornamentation decorate the bands above and belove the inscription as well as the background.

Decorative Kufic script is mainly used for the daily items such as plates, bowls, vases or ewers. Too often, the inscriptions  done in this script are barely readable, because of the heavy decorating. A letter may disappear in the extensive decorating that could include turning the letters into vegetal forms such as vines and leaves., or written very thinly with exaggerated vertical lines and curves. these compromises are often to fit the individual vessels these scripts decorate.

San Antonio Museum of Art. 4th floor Iranian collection. Bowls enscribed with Kufic script. Nishapur, Iran. 10th century.

The Square Kufi or the Murabba’ Kufi is very popular these days, because the simple lines are very fitting in the modern decoration. However, the Murabba’ Kufi is not a modern invention. The Kufi Murabba’ is absolutely straight with no decorative accents or curves shown. Due to this absolute rigidity, this type of script can be created using square tiles or bricks. It is popular in Iran and in Turkey, where in the latter, was popular as a decoration of buildings during the Ottoman empire.

Right part of a double-page frontispiece to a manuscript of religious texts, penned for Süleyman I. The two square calligraphy are made using the Murabba’ Kufi.

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