Calligraphy In Islam
Muslims have always deemed calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing, the noblest of the arts. The ﬁrst chapters of the Quran revealed to the prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century (suras 96 and 68) mention the pen and writing. Writing in Arabic script soon became a hallmark of Islamic civilization, found on everything from buildings and coins to textiles and ceramics, and scribes and calligraphers became the most honored type of artist. We know the names, and even the biographies, of more calligraphers than any other type of artist. Probably because of the intrinsic link between writing and the revelation, Islamic calligraphy is meant to convey an aura of effortlessness and immutability, and the individual hand and personality are sublimated to the overall impression of stateliness and grandeur. In this way Islamic calligraphy differs markedly from other great calligraphic traditions, notably the Chinese, in which the written text is meant to impart the personality of the calligrapher and recall the moment of its creation. Islamic calligraphy, by contrast, is timeless.
The reed pen (qalam) was the writing implement par excellence in Islamic civilization. The brush, used for calligraphy in China and Japan, was reserved for painting in the Islamic lands. In earliest times Muslim calligraphers penned their works on parchment, generally made from the skins of sheep and goats, but from the eighth century parchment was gradually replaced by the cheaper and more ﬂexible support of paper. From the fourteenth century virtually all calligraphy in the Muslim lands was written on paper. Papermakers developed elaborately decorated papers to complement the ﬁne calligraphy, and the colored, marbled, and gold-sprinkled papers used by calligraphers in later periods are some of the ﬁnest ever made.
Almost all Islamic calligraphy is written in Arabic script. The Quran was revealed in that language, and the sanctity of the revelation meant that the script was adopted for many other languages, such as new Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and Urdu. Unlike many other scripts that have at least two distinct forms of writing—a monumental or printed form in which the letters are written separately and a cursive or handwritten form in which they are connected—Arabic has only the cursive form, in which some, but not all, letters are connected and assume different forms depending on their position in the word (initial, medial, ﬁnal, and independent). The cursive nature of Arabic script allowed calligraphers to develop many different styles of writing, which are usually grouped under two main headings: rectilinear and rounded. Since the eighteenth century, scholars have often called the rectilinear styles “Kuﬁc,” after the city of Kufa in southern Iraq, which was an intellectual center in early Islamic times. This name is something of a misnomer, for as yet we have no idea which particular rectilinear style this name denoted.
Scholars have proposed various other names to replace kuﬁc, including Old or Early Abbasid style, but these names are not universally accepted, in part because they carry implicit political meanings, and many scholars continue to use the term kuﬁc. Similarly, scholars often called the rounded styles naskh, from the verb nasakha (to copy). The naskh script is indeed the most common hand used for transcription and the one upon which modern styles of typography are based, but the name is also something of a misnomer, for it refers to only one of a group of six rounded hands that became prominent in later Islamic times. As with kuﬁc, scholars have proposed several other names to replace naskh, such as new style (often abbreviated N.S.), or new Abbasid style, but these names, too, are not universally accepted.
Medieval sources mention the names of many other calligraphic hands, but so far it has been difficult, even impossible, to match many of these names with distinct styles of script. Very few sources describe the characteristics of a particular style or give illustrations of particular scripts. Furthermore, the same names may have been applied to different styles in different places and at different times. Hence it may never be possible to link the names of speciﬁc scripts given in the sources with the many, often fragmentary, manuscripts at hand, especially from the early period. Both the rectilinear and the rounded styles were used for writing from early Islamic times, but in the early period the rounded style seems to have been a book hand used for ordinary correspondence, while the rectilinear style was reserved for calligraphy. Although no examples of early calligraphy on parchment can be sensitively dated before the late ninth century, the importance of the rectilinear style in early Islamic times is clear from other media with inscriptions, such as coins, architecture, and monumental epigraphy. The Fihrist by Ibn al-Nadim (d. 995) records the names of calligraphers who worked in the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, and both coins and the inscriptions on the ﬁrst example of Islamic architecture, the Dome of the Rock erected in Jerusalem by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik in 692, show that from earliest times Umayyad calligraphers applied such aesthetic principles as balance, symmetry, elongation, and stylization to transform ordinary writing into calligraphy. Calligraphers in early Islamic times regularly used the rectilinear styles to transcribe manuscripts of the Quran. Indeed, the rectilinear styles might be deemed Quranichands, for we know only one other manuscript—an un-identiﬁed genealogical text in Berlin (Staatsbibliotheque no. 379) written in a rectilinear script. None of these early manuscriptsof the Quran is signed or dated, and most survive only in fragmentary form, and so scholars are still reﬁning other methods, both paleographic and codicological, to group and localize the scripts used in these early parchment manuscripts of the Quran.
The major change in later Islamic times was the gradual adoption and adaptation of round hands for calligraphy. From the ninth century calligraphers transformed the round hands into artistic scripts suitable for transcribing the Quran and other prestigious texts. The earliest surviving copy of the Quran written in a rounded hand is a small manuscript, now dispersed but with the largest section preserved in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin (ms. 1417). It bears a note in Persian saying that the manuscript was corrected by a certain Ahmad ibn Ali ibn Abu ’l-Qasm al-Khayqani in June 905, and it is tacitly accepted that the rounded hand was developed in Iran or nearby Iraq, heartland of the Abbasid caliphate. In the ensuing centuries calligraphers continued to develop and elaborate the rounded style, and from the fourteenth century virtually all manuscripts of the Quran were written in one of the six round scripts known as the Six Pens (Arabic, al-aqlam al-sitta; Persian, shish qalam). These comprise three pairs of majuscule-miniscule hands, thuluth-naskh, muhaqqaq-rayhan, and tawqi-riqa, and calligraphers delighted in juxtaposing the different scripts, particularly the larger and smaller variants of the same pair.Variousexplanations have been proposed for this transformation of rounded book hands into proportioned scripts suitable for calligraphy ﬁne manuscripts. These explanations range from the political (e.g., the spread of orthodox Sunni Islam) to the socio-historical (e.g., the new role of the chancery scribe as copyist and calligrapher), but perhaps the most convincing are the practical. The change from rectilinear to rounded script coincided with the change from parchment to paper, and the new style of writing might well be connected with a new type of reed pen, a new method of sharpening the nib, or a new way that the pen was held, placed on the page, or moved across it. In the same way, the adoption of paper engendered the adoption of a new type of black soot ink (midad) that replaced the dark brown, tannin-based ink (hibr) used on parchment. From the fourteenth century calligraphers, especially those in the eastern Islamic lands, developed more stylized forms of rounded script. The most distinctive is the hanging script known as nastaliq, which was particularly suitable for transcribing Persian, in which many words end in letters with large bowls, such as ya or ta. Persian calligraphers commonly used nastaliq to pen poetic texts, in which the rounded bowls at the end of each hemistich form a visual chain down the right side of the columns on a page. They also used nastaliq to pen poetic specimens (qita). These elaborately planned calligraphic compositions typically contain a Persian quatrain written in colored and gold-dusted inks on ﬁne, brightly colored and highly polished paper and set in elaborately decorated borders. The swooping strokes of the letters and bowls provide internal rhythm and give structure to the composition. In contrast to the anonymous works of the early period, these calligraphic specimens are frequently signed and dated, and connoisseurs vied to assemble ﬁne collections, which were often mounted in splendid albums.
Calligraphy continues to be an important art form in modern times, despite the adoption of the Latin alphabet in some countries such as Turkey. Some calligraphers are trying to revive the traditional styles, notably the Six Pens, and investigate and rediscover traditional techniques and materials. Societies teaching calligraphy ﬂourish. The Anjuman-e Khushnvisan-e Iran (Society of Iranian Calligraphers), for example, has branches in all the main cities of the country, with thousands of students. Other artists are extending the calligraphic tradition to new media, adopting calligraphy in new forms, ranging from three-dimensional sculpture to oil painting on canvas. More than any other civilization, Islam values the written word.