Pathways of Faith

'Calligraphy' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

Styles and history of Islamic calligraphy  are described in this article reprinted from The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


[Calligraphy is] The art of fine writing with pen or brush and ink, frequently used as a means of artistic expression and decoration as well as written communication.

The calligrapher and his art were central to Islamic culture. The Koran, the word of God revealed in Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad, gives the art of writing a special place in Muslim thought and life. The script in which the Koran was recorded spread to all areas where Muslims were found and became the badge of identity for the Muslim community. The Arabic script was adopted for writing Persian and Turkish; to change to the Latin alphabet, as Kemal Atatürk did in Turkey in 1928, signaled a break from this religious and cultural tradition. The earliest Arabic books were written on parchment in angular scripts, often known as kufic (see §II, B below). By 900 parchment began to be replaced by Paper and the angular scripts by cursive hands. These had long been used for everyday writing, but they were codified and made suitable for the copying of books. After 1400, calligraphers in the Iranian lands developed new scripts particularly suited to Persian poetry. Despite the impact of printing and lithography after 1800, calligraphy remains the pre-eminent art form in the Islamic world and has moved into such new media as painting on canvas and sculpture. Writing also appears prominently on virtually every other medium of Islamic art in different styles according to the nature of the material. These epigraphic scripts often degenerated because many craftsmen were illiterate and merely copied designs prepared by master calligraphers. Pseudo-inscriptions often appear on metalwork, ceramics and woven fabrics, especially carpets, testifying to the symbolic importance of writing in Islamic art.

I. Introduction

The central role of writing in Islamic culture is stated unequivocally in the Koran. It speaks of the “well-preserved tablet” and the “celestial pen” and states that God “taught man by the pen” (Sūrat al-balad (“The city”; 90:3). “Nūn. By the pen,” the first verse of the chapter entitled Sūrat al-qalam (“The pen”; 67), is often understood as an allusion to the exalted status of writing. Angels sit on everyone’s shoulders to record their actions in the book of works that will be presented on the Day of Judgement (Sūrat al-infiṭā r (“The cleavage”) 82:10–12). When the Koran was revealed the text was initially scribbled on various materials such as bovine shoulder blades, leather and parchment in an ungainly script that represented only the consonants and long vowels in angular characters. It was soon considered important to write the word of God in clear, beautiful letters, which helped the reciters (Arab. qāri῾) and at the same time had an iconic quality. Cursive scripts for daily use always existed alongside the more formal scripts, and the burgeoning bureaucracy necessitated specialists for various types of chancellery scripts. These scribes (Arab. kātib) co-existed with copyists (warrāq; often also booksellers) and calligraphers (khaṭṭāṭ). Calligraphers underwent arduous training and often achieved high rank. From early Islamic times connoisseurs eagerly collected specimens of master calligraphers, preserving many early works and encouraging copying; forgeries are also known from an early date. Biographical dictionaries, which mention anyone noted for fine handwriting in a certain style, and numerous treatises on calligraphy, are other sources of information.

A. Forms, materials and equipment.

Like Hebrew and Syriac, Arabic is written and read from right to left. The Arabic alphabet contains 28 letters, of which three can represent consonants or long vowels. Short vowels are not usually written; sometimes they are represented by small marks above or below the consonant. There are only 17 letter forms to represent the 28 letters, and small dots called diacritical points are placed above or below the consonant to distinguish different consonants of the same form. Most letters can be connected to those around them by means of ligatures, or connecting strokes; six can be connected only to preceding letters. The letter forms change according to their position in a word; the free-standing form is usually distinct from the initial, medial and final forms. Most letters sit on an imaginary base-line; some, such as alif and lām, which together form the common definite article al-, are vertical strokes, while others, such as the tails of sīn, nūn and yā ῾, descend below the line. A combination of the letters lām and alif is often recognized as the 29th letter of the alphabet. Persian, Ottoman, Urdu, Sindhi, Pashto, Malay and other languages add extra diacritical points or marks to represent additional consonants.

The art of calligraphy comprised many parts. A system of proportion was developed by Ibn Muqla in the early 10th century to regularize the shapes of individual letters as well as the relations between letters. The rhombic dot produced by a short stroke of the traditional reed pen was used as the proportional module: letters were measured in numbers of dots (see §C below). Different letters connect in different places: mīm, for example, connects to the preceding letter on the top right and to the following letter on the bottom left. The letters of a word with several mīms, such as Muhammad, could be stacked along a line oblique to the page. The calligrapher had to anticipate the requirements of the script, and often used the ligatures to display his skill and inventiveness. The extension of the rhombic dot produced by the reed pen into the vertical stroke representing alif, the first letter of the alphabet, and the importance of alif for the proportion of all other letters, offered Sufis a symbol for the creation of the world out of the One: alif, the first letter of Allah (God), stands for his unity and uniqueness.

Parchment was the favored material for manuscripts during the first centuries of Islam, and it was produced in various qualities. Copies of the Koran (Arab. muṣḥaf ) on parchment were gathered in boxes or bound volumes, not kept in scrolls as was typical of books in Classical antiquity. Some copies were very large, with a broad format and only three to five lines per page; others were miniature, the smallest known measuring 40×70 mm (e.g. Cambridge, MA, Sackler Mus.). After the conquest of Egypt in 641 papyrus became a common material used primarily for secular writings, such as official correspondence, legal documents, registers, tax receipts and the like. The great revolution in material came after the Muslims became acquainted with paper, following their conquest of Central Asia in the late 7th century and early 8th. Paper-mills were soon established in various parts of the Islamic world. The introduction of paper, which was cheaper than parchment and much easier to handle than papyrus, seems to have had a considerable effect on the shape of books and the evolution of styles of writing. The earliest surviving book written on paper (866–7) is a fragmentary copy of Abu ῾Ubayd’s work on unusual terms in the Hadith (Leiden, Bib. Rijksuniv.); the earliest surviving Koran manuscript on paper (971–2; Istanbul, U. Lib., A. 6778) has a rectangular format instead of the broad, horizontal one of earlier parchment copies. As a result of the change in format, vertical letters became more elongated and the crouching lower letters more distinct from the slim taller ones. As paper was smoother than papyrus, the single letters could be drawn with greater fluidity. Colored papers, like colored parchment, were used for important texts. Paper was usually treated with a kind of starch (Arab. ahar) and burnished with a round stone, preferably an agate. A blind-tooled ruler (Arab. masṭā r, misṭā r) was sometimes used to mark the lines lightly before writing. It consisted of a frame with cotton or silk threads drawn between its borders and was inserted between two sheets of paper and rubbed so that it left a fine imprint. Until the 15th century the margins of the page were usually left unmarked; in later manuscripts the text block was surrounded by fine lines, and in luxury manuscripts marginal decorations were often as elegant as the calligraphy itself.

The standard writing instrument was the reed pen (Arab. qalam; cf. Gr. kalamos). The best reeds came from Iraq, Egypt and Shiraz in Iran. Trimming the pen correctly was as important as knowing the rules of writing, for each style of script required a nib trimmed to a different shape. The prepared reed was placed on a small (c. 100 mm) tablet made of a hard material such as bone, ivory or tortoiseshell, often beautifully decorated. The nib was cut to the desired shape with a sharp penknife, and a small incision in the nib guaranteed an even flow of ink. To secure blessing, pious calligraphers preserved the cut-off pieces of pens with which they had copied the Koran or hadith to heat the water for their funeral baths. The pens of great masters were collected by connoisseurs. Quills were rarely used; in later times a few calligraphers used steel pens. Chinese Muslims and some early Indian calligraphers used brushes.

The preparation of Ink (Arab. ḥibr, midād) was often a trade secret. The ink used on early parchment manuscripts was made from gall-nuts and metallic salts; it stained the support and often appears brownish. Black carbon ink, used on papyrus and paper, was made of soot and could be washed off easily (hence the common allusion by poets to their tears of repentance that might wash off the record of their black sins). Ottoman calligraphers sometimes collected the soot produced by the oil lamps in the Süleymaniye Mosque for their ink, again to ensure heavenly blessing. Colored ink was used in documents and Korans where gold letters highlighted important words such as the name of God. The ink was kept in an inkwell (Arab. dawāt), which often formed part of a pencase. These were made of various materials ranging from brass to porcelain and were richly decorated. To control the amount of ink picked up by the pen, loose threads of raw silk or cotton (Arab. līqa) were placed inside the inkwell.

Special techniques of writing included découpage and “fingernail script” (Pers. khaṭṭ-i nā khun), in which the letters were scratched with a fingernail into the reverse side of the paper so that they appeared in relief and were often colored or gilded.

B. Calligraphers and their education.

The Turkish saying “Calligraphers are destined for Paradise for copying the Koran, while painters will most probably go to Hell” shows the central role of calligraphers in Islamic art. “I could not grasp the forelock of calligraphy easily,” said Mir ῾ali tabrizi, the 15th- century calligrapher, and indeed learning this art was, and is, a long and complicated process. Guidance by a master is essential. The calligrapher resembles the Sufi, entrusting himself to a master who not only teaches him the outward skills, such as the correct position for writing with the right hand, ink preparation, pen trimming, paper burnishing and repeating the individual letters thousands of times with the paper resting on his left knee, but also introduces him to the etiquette demanded of calligraphers, who should be modest and soft, who should maintain a state of ritual purity (as required for reciting or writing the Koran) and who must never cease practicing small letters during the day and large letters in the evening. The master often instructed disciples in the secrets of letters according to the mystical tradition: each letter of the alphabet had not only an outward form and a numerical value but also an inner meaning, and Sufi thought often used metaphors drawn from the calligrapher and his art.

Students should be apprenticed at a young age because an elderly person rarely became a true master. The methods were sometimes harsh: pupils studied “under the rod of the master.” To disobey him was a terrible breach of etiquette, and stories abound of unfortunate disciples who were cursed by the offended master and developed wounds in their fingers that never healed, or even turned blind. The master charged a fee in cash or kind, although some calligraphers gave free lessons to talented but needy children. Family members were often instructed by their elders, and thus a number of women such as Shuhda (d. 1178) were instructed in the art. In later centuries many Muslim rulers, especially from Iran, the Indian subcontinent and Ottoman Turkey, but also from the western Islamic world, excelled in calligraphy. Some made a living from copying and selling the Koran so as not to use moneys from the public treasury.

After many years of instruction and practice copying classical works, the calligrapher received his ijāza, permission to sign his pages using the formula “so-and-so has written it” (katabahu …). The practice sheets of good calligraphers became collectors’ items because of the elegant shapes, even of meaningless combinations of letters. A calligrapher’s speed varied between 50 and 500 lines of Persian poetry per day. Some boasted of writing one-thirtieth of the Koran daily; others needed a year to complete a fine copy. If a calligrapher was appreciated by his patron he received a good salary and grants of property; in Iran and India he was sometimes honored by such lofty titles as “golden pen” (Pers. zarrīn qalam) or “one with jewel-like letters” (Pers. jawāhir raqam) and attained a high rank.

C. Treatises.

The interest in calligraphy led to the composition of numerous treatises on the subject, including rhymed instructions in both Arabic and Persian. One of the first known special treatises is the ῾Umdat al-kuttā b (“Staff of the scribes”) by the Zirid ruler al-Mu῾izz ibn Badis (r. 1016–62). This book describes the preparation of pens, inks, dyed papers and bookbindings. Other treatises were written for the Mamluk sultans of Egypt (r. 1250–1517). They themselves were hardly masters of the craft, since many were illiterate, but they commissioned magnificent copies of the Koran for their charitable foundations. There are also numerous handbooks for secretaries containing remarks on literary style, protocol and calligraphic techniques, such as Adab al-kuttā b (“Etiquette for secretaries”) by al-Suli (d. 946). The most comprehensive is Ṣubḥ al-a῾shāfī ṣinā ῾at al-inshā ῾ (“The morning of the nightblind person in the technique of official writing”) by al-Qalqashandi (d. 1418), which includes a good introduction to the calligraphic styles (in vol. 3). Some artists told their life stories and the secrets of their art in lengthy Persian poems, as for example Majnun of Herat (d. after 1503) and Sultan ῾ali mashhadi whose poem is included in the compendium on calligraphy compiled in early 17th-century Iran by Qazi Ahmad ibn Mir Munshi (“the secretary”). Similar studies were written in Ottoman Turkey, where Mustafa ῾Ali composed his Manāqib-i hunarvarān (“Wonderful deeds of the artists”) for Sultan Murad III (r. 1574–95), a noted connoisseur and calligrāpher himself. An important 18th-century work, Mustaq imzade’s Tuḥfat-i khaṭṭāṭīn (“Gift of the calligraphers”), enumerates hundreds of masters in various styles and, like the works mentioned above, includes personal remarks about the author῾s colleagues. At the end of the 19th century the first printed edition of a treatise of this kind appeared, the small but frequently used compilation by Habib, Khaṭṭu khaṭṭāṭān (“Calligraphy and calligraphers”).


    Enc. Islam/2: “Dawāt” [inkwell], “Kāghad” [paper], “Kalam” [reed pen], “Khaṭṭ” [writing]
    Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya al-Suli: Adab al-kuttāb [Etiquette of secretaries] (c.946 CE); ed. M. Bahjat (Baghdad, AH 1341/1922)
    Al-Mu῾izz ibn Badis: ῾Umdat al-kuttāb [Staff of the scribes] (c. 1060); Eng. trans. by M. Levey as “Mediaeval Arabic Bookmaking and its Relation to Early Chemistry and Pharmacology,” Trans. Amer. Philos. Soc., n. s., lii/4 (1962) [whole issue] Shihab al-Din Ahmad al-Qalqashandi: Ṣubḥ al-a῾shā fī ṣinā ῾at al-inshā ῾ [The morning of the nightblind person in the technique of official writing] (c. 1418); ed. M. A. Ibrahim, 4 vols. (Cairo, 1931–2)
    Mustafa Ali: Manā qib-i hunarvarān [Wonderful deeds of the artists] (1587); ed. İ. M. Kemal (Istanbul, 1926)
    Qazi Ahmad ibn Mir Munshi: Gulistā n-i hunar [Rose-garden of art] (1606); Eng. trans. by V. Minorsky as Calligraphers and Painters (Washington, DC, 1959)
    Mustaqimzade Süleyman Sadeddin: Tuhfet al-hattatin [Gift of the calligraphers] (c.1780); ed. İ. M. Kemal (Istanbul, 1928)
    Habib: Hatt u hattatan [Calligraphy and calligraphers] (Istanbul, ah 1306/1888–9)
    B. Moritz: Arabic Palaeography (Cairo and Leipzig, 1906)
    C. Huart: Les Calligraphes et les miniaturistes de l’Orient musulman (Paris, 1908/R Osnabrück, 1972)
    E. Kühnel: Islamische Schriftkunst (Berlin and Leipzig, 1942/R Graz, 1972)
    J. Pedersen: Den arabiske bog [The Arabic book] (Copenhagen, 1946); Eng. trans., ed. R. Hillenbrand (Princeton, 1984)
    F. Rosenthal: “Abū Ḥaiyān al-Tawḥı-dı- on Penmanship,” A. Islam., xiii–xiv (1948), pp. 1–30
    A. J. Arberry: Specimens of Arabic and Persian Palaeography (London, 1949)
    G. Vajda: Album de paléographie arabe (Paris, 1958)
    F. Rosenthal: “Significant Uses of Arabic Writing,” A. Orient., iv (1961), pp. 15–23
    J. Sourdel-Thomine: “L’Ecriture arabe et son évolution ornementale,” L’Ecriture et la psychologie des peuples (Paris, 1963), pp. 249–61
    A. Grohmann: Arabische Paläographie, 2 vols. (Vienna, 1967–71)
    N. Zayn al-Din: Muṣawwar al-khaṭṭ al-῾arabī [Atlas of Arabic calligraphy] (Baghdad, AH 1388/1968/R AH 1394/1974)
    A. Schimmel: Islamic Calligraphy (Leiden, 1970)
    M. Lings: The Quranic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination (London, 1976)
    The Qur῾ā n (exh. cat. by M. Lings and Y. H. Safadi; London, BM, 1976)
    Y. H. Safadi: Islamic Calligraphy (London, 1978)
    Calligraphy in the Arts of the Muslim World (exh. cat. by A. Welch; New York, Asia Soc. Gals; Cincinnati, OH, A. Mus.; Seattle, WA, A. Mus.; St. Louis, MO, A. Mus.; 1979)
    G. Endress: “Die arabische Schrift” and “Handschriftenkunde,” Grundriss der arabischen Philologie, ed. W. Fischer, i (Wiesbaden, 1982), pp. 165–97, 271–96
    A. Schimmel: Calligraphy and Islamic Culture (New York, 1984)
    M. Bayani: Aḥvā l va ā sā r-i khwushnavīsān [Biographies and works of calligraphers], 2nd edn. in 4 vols. (Tehran, Iran. Solar 1363/1984–5)
    From Concept to Context: Approaches to Asian and Islamic Calligraphy (exh. cat. by S. Fu, G. D. Lowry and A. Yonemura; Washington, DC, 1986)
    Islamic Calligraphy/Calligraphie islamique (exh. cat., Geneva, Mus. A. & Hist., 1988)
    A. Khatibi and M. Sijelmassi: The Splendour of Islamic Calligraphy, trans. J. Hughes and E. J. Emory (London, 1995)
    N. Safwat: The Harmony of Letters: Islamic Calligraphy from the Tareq Rajab Museum (Kuwait, 1997)
    M. U. Derman: The Art of Calligraphy in the Islamic Heritage (Istanbul, 1998)
    F. Déroche, ed.: Manuel de codicologie des manuscripts en écriture arabe (Paris, 2000),
    J. M. Bloom: Paper Before Print (New Haven, 2001)
    A. Gacek: The Arab Manuscript Tradition: A Glossary of Technical Terms and Bibliography (Leiden, 2001)
    B. Gründler: “Arabic script,” Encyclopaedia of the Qur῾ā n, i (Leiden, 2001), pp. 135–44
    S. S. Blair: Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh, 2006) [extensive bibliography]
    C. Sirat: Writing as Handwork, a History of Handwriting in Mediterranean and Western Culture (Turnhout, 2006)

II. Before 900

This was the period in which the plain writing of Arabic was transformed into a calligraphic script, one of the most sublime products of Islamic civilization. The genesis of the Arabic alphabet probably began in the second half of the 4th century and was complete by the beginning of the 6th, when the fundamental and distinctive marks of Arabic writing seem to have been fixed. The development of Arabic writing in the first century of Islam (early 7th century to early 8th) can only be gleaned from various papyri and inscriptions. But the development of the arts of the Arabic book, and particularly its calligraphy, can be traced confidently from the period when the Abbasid caliphs ruled at Baghdad (749–1258).

A. Early evidence.

Reconstructing the early history of Arabic script requires prudence. According to certain Arabic texts, which depend on late 8th- and early 9th-century sources, the Arabic alphabet originated in Mesopotamia, to the west and south of Baghdad, in the ancient cities of al-Anbar and then al-Hira (both on the Euphrates), and from there it spread to the Hijaz (western Arabia) at the end of the 6th century. Epigraphic evidence, however, points to the frontier between Arabia and Syria. The oldest examples of Arabic writing, dating between 512 and 568, are three inscriptions from the south and southeast of Damascus and the trilingual inscription (Brussels, Musées Royaux A. & Hist.) found to the southeast of Aleppo at Zabad (Zebed). The most commonly proposed hypothesis connects the ductus, or general shape of the letters, used in these inscriptions with Nabataean script, particularly that found in late inscriptions of the 3rd and 4th centuries. The most important of these is from al-Namara in southwest Syria (328), and is an Arabic text written in Nabataean characters. Another hypothesis, which fits fairly well with textual accounts, sees Syriac, as written at al-Hira, as the prototype from which the Arabic alphabet developed. But there is no physical evidence to support this view.

The Arabic system of writing belongs to a northwest Semitic alphabet, the history of which began in the second half of the 2nd millennium BCE. The Arabic alphabet basically records consonants like its predecessors, but it differs from them in several important ways. Arabic did not maintain a monumental form, in which the letters are separated from each other, alongside a cursive form, in which the letters are connected; instead Arabic writing is characterized by ligatures between letters. Therefore “cursive” can only be used in describing Arabic writing to distinguish styles derived from the natural movements of the hand from other styles, the execution of which is more studied. Arabic also had more consonants than other northwest Semitic languages, and introduced diacritical points to expand the limited repertory of 17 different characters to record its 28 phonemes. (See also §I, A above.)

When Muhammad began to preach Islam, in the early 7th century, writing was already practiced in the Hijaz and the rest of Arabia: pre-Islamic poetry makes numerous references, both direct and indirect, to writing. In the Koran the message transmitted by Muhammad is called a writing or a book (Arab. kitāb), and the text abounds with technical terms such as reed pen and tablet. Finally, the diverse accounts relating to Muhammad, including the hadith, biographies of him and lists of his secretaries, show that knowing how to write was in no way exceptional. The Koran speaks of al-nabī al-ummī (Sūrat al-a῾rāf (“The ramparts”) 7:158), which is read by traditionalists as the “unlettered Prophet” and is taken as evidence that Muhammad did not know how to read or write. Western Orientalists, however, often interpret this phrase as the “Prophet of the common folk.” Whatever the case may be, the revelations of the Prophet began to be written down during his lifetime, well before the third caliph ῾Uthman (r. 644–56) had a definitive recension of the Koranic text made and copies distributed to the important centers of the Muslim lands. Unfortunately none of these manuscripts has been preserved. Sources have, however, preserved the names of calligraphers and even vague biographical information about them, but their styles of writing are described too summarily to allow a reconstruction of the history of calligraphy on this basis. For example, Khalid ibn Abu῾l-Hayyaj is recorded in the Fihrist (“Index”) of al-Nadim (late 10th century) as a calligrapher and epigrapher for the Umayyad caliph al-Walid (r. 705–15): he was the first to calligraph the Koran, and he also designed the Koranic inscription that once decorated the mihrab in the mosque of Medina, but the nature of his work remains a mystery.

The only evidence of Arabic writing in the 7th century is provided by early (and rare) papyri and some inscriptions, which date between 642 and 677. The papyri, although ungainly, show a utilitarian cursive close to standard Arabic script. This cursive, often called naskh (from the verb “to copy”), is clearly connected to pre-Islamic prototypes, as are the inscriptions, although these are stylized, regularized and geometricized. The caliph ῾Abd al-Malik (r. 685–705) imposed Arabic as the official language of the chancellery, and the rough scripts used earlier were transformed into codified systems of calligraphy. The inscription on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is stunning proof of the new style of writing. Historical and literary texts suggest similarly that styles of writing began to multiply, rules of usage to be defined and the position of the calligrapher to be elevated.

Calligraphy was naturally applied to the copying of the Koranic text. At first the script used in Koran manuscripts remained relatively close to the standard hand; this style, succinctly described in the Fihrist as that of Mecca and Medina, was identified by Amari in the middle of the 19th century and renamed ḥijāzī by Abbott in the 20th. The salient characteristic of this script, which is basically cursive, is that the stroke of the alif leans towards the right and has a lower return; it is found in manuscripts executed in a variety of styles. Each ḥijāzī manuscript is internally consistent, reflecting the independence of the copyists from any imposed uniformity. Ḥijāzī is found on many fragments datable to the 7th century (e.g. Paris, Bib. N., MS. arab. 328a) and was common in the 8th, showing that the use of this style, which was identified with the most sacred moments in Islamic history, was maintained despite the introduction of other more elaborate styles. This style of writing is not found in any of the Koran manuscripts traditionally attributed to the caliph ῾Uthman (e.g. Istanbul, Mus. Turk. & Islam. A., MS. 457) or to the fourth caliph ῾Ali (r. 656–61; e.g. Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., E.H. 2), which are actually later manuscripts of the 8th or 9th century. Distinct variants of ḥijāzī also existed, one of which is known as mā῾il (“sloping”). It is distinguished by a staff-like alif without a lower return (e.g. London, BM, Or. MS. 2165). These variants may reflect the influence of later non-cursive styles; on the other hand, these later non-cursive styles may have been adapted to the canons of ḥijā zī indeference to it.

B. Early Abbasid.

The following phase in the history of Arabic calligraphy is traditionally discussed under the rubric “kufic,” referring to Kufa, a city in southern Iraq and intellectual center in the first centuries of Islam. Historical sources do not describe the characteristics of the term kufic but use it imprecisely to designate all ancient scripts. Orientalists began to use the term at the end of the 18th century, but by the beginning of the 19th they realized that it was inadequate to describe the astonishing variety of scripts used. It is preferable, at least as far as manuscripts are concerned, to use the term “early Abbasid scripts” for those used from the second half of the 8th century to the first half of the 10th. This period coincides with the height of Abbasid sovereignty, although the origins of some scripts are to be found earlier. Cursive hands were still used in daily affairs, but the art of calligraphy sought its inspiration elsewhere.

Calligraphy flourished during this period, to judge from surviving manuscripts. These are primarily Korans), but several non-Koranic specimens (e.g. Paris, Bib. N., MS. arab. 2047) might suggest a more generalized use of these scripts. Production was essentially anonymous: signed and dated works are exceptional. Lacking such precise indicators, the chronology, localization and even classification of manuscripts and styles are problematic. These manuscripts can, however, be tentatively classified on palaeographic grounds. Early Abbasid scripts developed in connection with a new format: while most of the ḥijāzī Korans have a vertical format, those of the 8th to 10th centuries were generally copied on horizontal pages. The reasons for this break with tradition, whether aesthetic or ideological, are obscure. Texts indicate that styles of script were defined by their size, and the study of manuscripts reveals the close connection between a style of script and a fixed module. Two styles of the 9th century, which Déroche (1983–5) labeled BII and DI, demonstrate that the shapes of letters combine with features relative to their size. In manuscripts copied in BII style (e.g. Paris, Bib. N., MS. arab. 340f), each line occupies c.4–6 mm, whereas in DI (e.g. Dublin, Chester Beatty Lib., MS. 1407), each line occupies between 11 and 22 mm.

After the formative period, in which verticality was the most striking characteristic, calligraphers favored relatively “thick” scripts in which horizontality dominated. The horizontality is emphasized by the ligatures and the letters that follow the line (e.g. ṣād or dāl ); it is reinforced by the teeth of such letters as bā ῾ and sīn and by the circular forms of the letters fā῾ and mīm. In early Abbasid scripts the ductus is balanced between the vertical and horizontal axes. Apart from such forms as the isolated alif, or the final jīm or ῾ayn, developed curves are relatively rare, but it cannot properly be called angular. The horizontal elongation of the body of the letter (Arab. mashq) is quite common, whether for convenience or because of the artist’s desire for a particular effect. The calligrapher was still relatively free to do as he pleased: he could cut off words at the end of a line, something unthinkable later, superpose letters, create geometric motifs over the whole page, juxtapose inks of different colors, or even make the text stand out by using a tinted ground. For example, the dispersed Blue Koran (9th or 10th century; e.g. Tunis, Mus. N. Bardo) has gold letters and silver markers on vellum dyed deep blue with indigo. The calligrapher had total latitude to create hybrid styles and could mix the letter forms of different styles or use a style in a smaller or larger module than usual.

In the late 9th century and early 10th there was a return to manuscripts in the vertical format. This change may have been connected to the substitution of paper for parchment as the primary writing surface. The aesthetic that had dominated most of the 9th century was gradually abandoned, and a vertical tension is discernible in the styles designated by Déroche as D Vb (e.g. Paris, Bib. N., MS. arab. 373a) and D Vc (e.g. London, N. D. Khalili priv. col., MS. KFQ91; see Déroche, 1992, no. 58), in which the vertical letters are much more elongated. At the same time certain less elaborate styles (Déroche group E) seem to approach cursive. Early Abbasid scripts differed considerably from the scripts used in daily life and were difficult for the untrained to read, so old forms began to be replaced by cursive ones.


    al-Nadim: Fihrist [Index] (987–8); Eng. trans., ed. B. Dodge as The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: A Tenth-century Survey of Muslim Culture, 2 vols. (New York, 1970)
    M. Amari: “Bibliographie primitive du Coran,” annotated by H. Dérembourg, Centenario della nascita di M. Amari, i (Palermo, 1910), pp. 5–22
    G. Bergsträsser: “Zur ältesten Geschichte der kufischen Schrift,” Z. Dt. Ver. Bwsn & Schr., v–vi (1919), pp. 54–66
    G. Bergsträsser and O. Pretzl: Geschichte des Qorans, iii (Leipzig, 1936)
    N. Abbott: The Rise of the North Arabic Script and its Kur῾anic Development (Chicago, 1939)
    A. Grohmann: Einführung und Chrestomathie zur arabischen Papyruskunde, i (Prague, 1955)
    A. Grohmann: “The Problem of Dating Early Qur῾ans,” Der Islam, xxxiii (1958), pp. 213–31
    S. Y. al-Jabburi: Al-khaṭṭ al-῾arabī wātaṭawwuruhu fī῾l-῾uṣūr al-῾abbā siyya fī῾l-῾Irā q [Arabic script and its development in the Abbasid period in Iraq] (Baghdad, 1962)
    J. Sourdel-Thomine: “Les Origines de l’écriture arabe: A propos d’une hypothèse récente,” Rev. Etud. Islam., xxxiv (1966), pp. 151–7
    S. al-Munajjid: Dirāsāt fī ta῾rīkh al-khaṭṭ al-῾arabī mundhu bidāyatihi ilā nihā yat al-῾aṣr al-umawī [Studies on the history of Arabic calligraphy from its origin until the end of the Umayyad period] (Beirut, 1972)
    F. Déroche: “Les Ecritures coraniques anciennes: Bilan et perspectives,” Rev. Etud. Islam., xlviii (1980), pp. 207–24
    R. G. Khoury: “Papyruskunde,” Grundriss der arabischen Philologie, ed. W. Fischer, i (Wiesbaden, 1982), pp. 251–70
    F. Déroche: Les Manuscrits du Coran: Aux origines de la calligraphie coranique (1983), I/i of Manuscrits musulmans, pt. 2 of Catalogue des manuscrits arabes, Paris, Bib. N. cat. (Paris, 1983–5)
    Masā ḥif Ṣan῾ā ῾ [The Koran manuscripts of San῾a] (exh. cat., Kuwait City, Mus. Islam. A., 1985)
    J. M. Bloom: “The Blue Koran: An Early Fatimid Kufic Manuscript from the Maghrib,” Les Manuscrits du Moyen-Orient: Essais de codicologie et de paléographie, ed. F. Déroche (Istanbul and Paris, 1989), pp. 95–100
    F. Déroche: “A propos d’une série de manuscrits coraniques anciens,” Les Manuscrits du Moyen-Orient: Essais de codicologie et de paléographie, ed. F. Déroche (Istanbul and Paris, 1989), pp. 101–11
    E. Whelan: “Writing the Word of God: Some Early Qur῾ān Manuscripts and their Milieux, Part I,” A. Orient., xx (1990), pp. 113–48
    F. Déroche: The Abbasid Tradition: Qur῾ans of the 8th to the 10th Centuries AD (1992), i of The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, ed. J. Raby (London, 1992– )
    Y. Dutton: “Red Dots, Green Dots, Yellow Dots and Blue: Some Reflections on the Vocalisation of Early Qur῾anic Manuscripts,” J. Qur῾anic Stud., i/1 (1999), pp. 115–40 and ii/1 (2000), pp. 1–24
    F. Déroche: “New Evidence about Umayyad Book Hands,” Maqā lā t wa-dirā sā t muhdā h ilā al-Duktūr Ṣalā ḥ al-Dīn al-Munajjad (Essays in Honour of Ṣalā ḥ al-Dīn al-Munajjad ) (London, 2002), pp. 611–42
    S. S. Blair: Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh, 2006), pp. 77–140

III. 900–1400

The most important development in this period was the replacement of so-called angular scripts by round hands. The latter, which had long been used for daily affairs, were codified and regularized and became suitable for copying the Koran and other manuscripts. Even before 900 early Abbasid scripts had begun to show more cursive features: the New Abbasid style that developed was transformed in the western Islamic lands (Arab. maghrib) into a group of distinctive regional scripts, known collectively as maghribī, while in the central and eastern Islamic lands six prominent round hands were canonized as the classic scripts, known collectively as the Six Pens.

A. New Abbasid style.

In the 9th century, the different types of writing—from everyday cursive hands to more studied calligraphic styles—began to come together in what Déroche (1983–5) has called the New Abbasid style (NS). This movement may have been the work of a particular individual or the result of many disparate efforts. Sources preserve the names and contributions of many calligraphers in the chancelleries, but their works have not survived. At most, textual information only supports what can be observed in the manuscripts: the relations between one script and another, the role of the module (see §I, A above) and the size of the support. Various terms have been used to refer to this new style: eastern kufic, broken kufic, western kufic and kufic-naskh. This last succinctly characterizes the new style: a cursive hand, the most elaborate versions of which preserve vestiges of early Abbasid styles. Early Abbasid scripts long co-existed with the new style, and influences were reciprocal. The new scripts were widely used to copy a great variety of manuscripts: they were popular because they were elaborate calligraphic variants of common cursive hands.

The new style, a vertical and elongated script with an accentuated angular character and deliberate contrast between thick and thin, was used from the second half of the 9th century (e.g. Dublin, Chester Beatty Lib., MS. 1417) to the beginning of the 13th (e.g. Mashhad, Imam Riza Shrine Lib., MS. 84). It was used over a wide area: the same style is found in the 10th century at Isfahan (e.g. Istanbul, Mus. Turk. & Islam. A., MSS 453–6) and Palermo (London, N. D. Khalili priv. col., MSS QUR261 and QUR368, dated 982–3; see Déroche, 1992, no. 81). It was also used for a variety of purposes, from personal writings and humble manuscripts (e.g. Milan, Bib. Ambrosiana, MS. 56/X) to luxury books, such as the so-called Qarmathian Koran (dispersed, e.g. Dublin, Chester Beatty Lib., MS. 1436; Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., E.H. 12; Berlin, Mus. Islam. Kst) and the Kitāb al-diryāq (“Book of antidotes”; 1199; Paris, Bib. N., MS. arab. 2964). The basic repertory of calligraphic letter forms is found in the script that Déroche has termed New Style I (NS I), which could be transformed by the pen of a master into a display of talent. Far from hiding the line traced by the pen, as had been the case with early Abbasid scripts, the new style made the ductus visible. The use of angular elements and the striking contrast between thick and thin give NS I a stately formality. The role of the calligrapher is clearly evident.

The apogee of NS I was the 11th century, although a mannerist tendency already appears, filling the letters with flourishes or flowers (e.g. Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., E.H. 42). This tendency may show the influence of epigraphy on calligraphy, for floriated scripts had long been common for monumental inscriptions. At the end of the period legibility seems again to have become more important, to judge from the small-scale examples that have survived. The marked contrast between thick and thin is relegated to second place in NS III (e.g. Paris, Bib. N., MS. arab. 382a), a less polished and more rounded script. By the 13th century, New Style scripts had been totally supplanted by round hands (see §C below) and relegated to book titles and chapter headings in Koran manuscripts. The letters were transformed into deliberately complex forms, closer in character to those used in monumental epigraphy. Finally, New Style scripts degenerated into the “kufic” of 20th-century typographers.


    S. Y. al-Jabburi: Al-khaṭṭ al-῾arabī wa-taṭawwuruhu fī῾l-῾uṣūr al-῾abbāsiyya fī῾l-῾Irāq [Arabic script and its development in the Abbasid period in Iraq] (Baghdad, 1962)
    F. Déroche: Les Manuscrits du Coran: Aux origines de la calligraphie coranique (1983), I/i of Manuscrits musulmans, pt. 2 of Catalogue des manuscrits arabes, Paris, Bib. N. cat. (Paris, 1983–5)
    B. St. Laurent: “The Identification of a Magnificent Koran Manuscript,” Les Manuscrits du Moyen-Orient: Essais de codicologie et de paléographie, ed. F. Déroche (Istanbul and Paris, 1989), pp. 115–24
    F. Déroche: The Abbasid Tradition: Qur῾ans of the 8th to the 10th Centuries AD (1992), i of The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, ed. J. Raby (London, 1992– )
    S. S. Blair: Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh, 2006), pp. 143–94

B. Maghribi scripts.

Scripts used in the western Islamic lands between the 10th and the 15th century were long thought to have derived from kufic scripts (see §II, B above), but their origin can be traced instead to the New Abbasid style (see §A above); the appearance of maghribī should be seen as one facet of the trend that brought cursive to the fore. Certain peculiarities of the New Abbasid style were maintained throughout the long history of maghribī: the incurving and the upper swelling of the shafts in medium and large scripts, a hook or spur at the bottom of the final alif, the sloping shafts of ṭā῾ and kāf and ligatures with indentations. At the same time the angularities of the New Abbasid style were replaced in maghribī by curved and circular forms, such as the sweeping curve and deep bowl of the final nūn and other letters, the final form of which can be extended in this way (e.g. lām, mīm, rā῾ ). The letters fā῾ and qāf, which in eastern Islamic lands have respectively one and two dots above the letters, have in maghribī script a single dot below and above the letter.

Although the major features of maghribī script were already in place by the late 10th century, calligraphers still seem to have used the New Abbasid style for their finest efforts, to judge from the Nurse’s Koran, a manuscript copied and illuminated in 1020 by ῾Ali ibn Ahmad al-Warraq (“the paperseller”) for the nurse of the Zirid ruler al-Mu῾izz ibn Badis (dispersed, e.g. Kairouan, Mus. A. Islam.; Tunis, Mus. N. Bardo). Later manuscripts show certain peculiarities that have been tentatively named after the three great centers of civilization in the western Islamic lands. Manuscripts in a small script with fine and clear letters are called andalusī (Andalusian). This style was maintained at least from the 12th to the 15th century (e.g. Istanbul, U. Lib., A. 6754; 1304, Paris, Bib. N., MS. arab. 385). The characteristics of the idiosyncratic qayrawānī (from Kairouan in Tunisia) and the larger and less compact fāsī (from Fez in Morocco) are not as precisely defined. This situation resulted either from the lack of systematization similar to that which took place in the East under such masters as Ibn Muqla (see §C below) or from a different system of apprenticeship. The term maghribī has therefore been used in a general fashion for scripts of medium and large size with the same features as the small script. Within the general rubric maghribī, a certain evolution can be traced in such contorted forms as the hook-like terminals of rā῾ or ṣād (e.g. Paris, Bib. N., MSS arab. 438–40) that were added to the simple script inherited from the prototypes. Despite a certain conservatism, marked for example by a prolonged attachment to parchment and to the old system of noting vowels with colored marks, the calligraphic versions of maghribī integrated new features that reflected the vitality of a style of writing deeply rooted in daily practice. The particular aesthetic of the western Islamic lands also transformed the eastern styles, such as thuluth, that were adopted in the region. Maghribī script was further developed only in sub-Saharan Africa, where the sūdānī style of writing is distinguished by coarse, rough forms and frequent irregularities (e.g. Dublin, Chester Beatty Lib., MS. 1599), which might reflect older practices in North Africa.


    O. Houdas: “Essai sur l’écriture maghrébine,” Nouv. Mél. Orient., 2nd ser., xix (1886), pp. 85–112
    A. D. H. Bivar: “The Arabic Calligraphy of West Africa,” Afr. Lang. Rev., vii (1968), pp. 3–15
    A. Brockett: “Aspects of the Physical Transmission of the Qur῾an in 19th-century Sudan: Script, Decoration, Binding and Paper,” MSS Mid. E., ii (1987), pp. 45–67
    N. van den Boogert: “Some Notes on Maghribi Script,” MSS Mid. E., iv (1989), pp. 30–43
    A. Khatibi and M. Sijelmassi: The Splendour of Islamic Calligraphy, trans. J. Hughes and E. J. Emory (London, 1995)
    S. S. Blair: Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh, 2006), pp. 221–8

C. Six Pens.

By far the most important development during this period in the eastern Islamic lands was the canonization of six prominent calligraphic styles as the classic scripts, known collectively as the Six Pens (Arab. al-aqlā m al-sitta; Pers. shash qalam). The six consist of three sets of majuscule–minuscule pairs: thuluth–naskh, muḥaqqaq–rayḥān and tawqī῾–riqā ῾. All six are round hands, and for normal uses they totally supplanted the angular scripts (see §§II, B and III, A above), which were then relegated to ornamental uses in frontispieces and chapter headings. The distinctions among these scripts are minor; there are almost no radical differences in letter shapes or forms among the various classic styles, although the tawqī῾–riqā ῾ pair allows for connections between letters that must be separated in other styles.

Scripts of the thuluth–naskh group are the most curvilinear. The descending tails of the letters nūn, sīn and ṣād are continuous curves, which can be more or less open, and the alif is a straight stroke tapering towards the base. Muḥaqqaq script is characterized by a narrow zone below the base-line, so the bowls of such descending letters as lām and nūn are quite shallow. Such letters as rā῾ and wāw generally end in straight, sharp tips without upturn. The top of such letters as initial alif and lām has a characteristic barb or hook (Arab. irsāl). Tawqī῾ script is characterized by distended final nūns, often indistinguishable from rā῾. The alif in the alif–lām pair dissolves into a small horizontal stroke leading into the lām, the initial hā῾ is distorted into a wavy line and numerous unorthodox connections are made, such as alif to dāl and rā῾ to jīm.

Naskh became the calligraphic norm for the copying of ordinary books and small-scale Koran manuscripts. Thuluth was often used for chapter headings in Koran manuscripts. It replaced the angular script for the calligraphic ornamentation of architecture, particularly in tile, a medium in which the curvilinear thuluth script could be easily executed. Naskh and thuluth were taken as the exemplars for modern typography and are the most familiar and legible to ordinary readers. Muḥaqqaq became the almost exclusive vehicle for large-scale manuscripts of the Koran, such as the enormous 30-part copy bequeathed by the Ilkhanid sultan Uljaytu (r. 1304–17) to his mausoleum at Sultaniyya in Iran (1306–13; dispersed, e.g. Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., E.H. 234, 243, 245; Leipzig, Ubib., xxxvii, K1). The more fluid tawqī῾ and riqā῾ scripts, developed for use in chancellery documents, were generally employed for colophons in manuscripts and for calligraphy in carved plaster.

According to tradition, muḥaqqaq was the first round style to emerge, and it was muḥaqqaq that the Abbasid vizier Ibn muqla, in the early 10th century, defined by the use of circles and rhomboids. Although his definitions were not as precise as the geometric definitions of the Roman alphabet, they served to establish the various proportions in terms of the rhombic “dot” created by one stroke of the nib. For example, the height of the alif measures eight dots in muḥaqqaq, seven in thuluth and six in tawqī῾; the maximum length of a horizontal bowl measures seven in muḥaqqaq and six in thuluth. These proportions give muḥaqqaq a more slender and elongated line than thuluth. Tradition also credits Ibn Muqla with the definition of thuluth and naskh. No examples of his calligraphy are known to exist.

The system established by Ibn Muqla was refined by Ibn al-bawwab. Attempts have been made to re-create his “well-proportioned script” (Arab. al-khaṭṭ al-mansūb), but interpretations vary widely since the term itself means only “fine script.” The only example of Ibn al-Bawwab’s handwriting to survive is a small manuscript of the Koran copied in Baghdad (1000–01; Dublin, Chester Beatty Lib., MS. 1431). It is the earliest surviving Koran manuscript in cursive script on paper, but there were undoubtedly earlier efforts. Written in a regular, bold naskh hand, the letters, words and lines are set closely together without sacrificing clarity. The lines of the script are meticulously straight and parallel and show no evidence of the use of a blind-tooled ruler. The decoration of the manuscript, with chapter headings, verse markers and geometric and floral arabesques in the margins and on the frontis- and finispieces, is executed in gold and a restrained palette of black, blue and white and is as remarkable as the calligraphy itself.

This system was perfected in the late 13th century by the master calligrapher Yaqut al-musta῾simi. He replaced the straight-cut nib of the pen with an obliquely cut one, thereby creating a more elegant ductus. For this he earned the epithets “sultan,” “cynosure” and “qibla” of calligraphers. He is reported to have copied two Koran manuscripts each month, but few genuine examples have survived (e.g. 1289, Paris, Bib. N., MS. arab. 6716 (for illustration see Yaqut al-must῾simi); 1294, Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., E.H. 74). His work was prized by later calligraphers and collectors, and some of his manuscripts were later refurbished with splendid illumination under the Ottomans and Safavids (e.g. 1283–4, Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., E.H. 227; 1286–7, with 16th-century illumination on the opening pages, Tehran, Archaeol. Mus., MS. 4277). Despite their small size, these Koran manuscripts are notable for the spaciousness of the layout. This is achieved in part by the fineness of the rayḥān calligraphy, characterized by the shallow but broad bowls of the descending letters and by the extension of the ligatures between letters.

These figures were the most notable exceptions to a tradition of anonymity, for in the early centuries of Islam calligraphers were seldom known by name and rarely signed their works. In the 14th century, however, master calligraphers emerged from the obscurity of nameless artisanship as they increasingly signed their works, and their names are preserved in literary and historical sources. Calligraphy in the 14th century was dominated by the students of Yaqut, known collectively as the Six Masters. The group comprised Nasrullah al-Tabib (Nasr al-Din Mutatabbib; fl. 1328–35), Ahmad al-Suhrawardi, often called Shaykhzada (fl. 1301/2–28), Arghun ibn ῾Abdallah al-Kamili (fl. 1300–52), Mubarakshah ibn Qutb Tabrizi (fl. c.1323), Haydar and Yusuf Mashhadi. The Six Masters are known for the splendid Koran manuscripts they penned.

Ahmad al-suhrawardi is best known for a large 30-part Koran manuscript produced at Baghdad (1302–8; dispersed, Dublin, Chester Beatty Lib.; Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib.; New York, Met.; Tehran, Archaeol. Mus.). This stunning manuscript, probably produced under royal auspices, has pages with five lines of majestic muḥaqqaq script without the least speck of color. Each line has its own visual harmony, yet is conceived as part of the page as a whole. The distinctive quality of the script suggests that Ahmad was responsible for the most splendid but unsigned manuscript of the Koran produced for the Ilkhanids, the one endowed to Uljaytu’s mausoleum at Sultaniyya. A more modest example of his work is a one-volume manuscript copied in a careful naskh hand (Nov. 1318; Istanbul, Mus. Turk. & Islam. A.). Mubarakshah ibn Qutb is known for a small single-volume manuscript of the Koran in naskh (1323; Baltimore, MD, Walters A. Mus.). Arghun al-Kamili, one of the finest exponents of rayḥān, signed two medium-sized copies of the Koran (Oct. 1320, Istanbul, Mus. Turk. & Islam. A.; 1329–30, Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib.). These calligraphers also prepared inscriptions for execution in other media. Haydar, for example, who was often known as kanda-navīs (“writer in large/cut characters”), is named in superb carved stucco inscriptions at Natanz (1309) and Isfahan (1310) in Iran. Specimens of calligraphy by the Six Masters were avidly collected, particularly by the Timurid prince and bibliophile Baysunghur (1397–1433; see Timurid, §II, G), who had examples of their work put together in the oldest known album of calligraphy (Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., H. 2152).

The Six Masters in turn passed their traditions to their pupils in Iran. Yahya al-sufi is known for Koran manuscripts in naskh (1338–9, Istanbul, Mus. Turk. & Islam. A.; 1339–40, Dublin, Chester Beatty Lib.), as well as a larger one in rayḥā n script (1344–6; Shiraz, Pars Mus.). ῾Abdallah sayrafi was a pupil of Haydar and, like his master, designed architectural inscriptions in glazed tile. He was known as the Yaqut of his age and penned a short treatise on calligraphy (Berlin, Staatsbib. Preuss. Kultbes., Orientabt., MS. or. oct. 48). ῾Umar Aqta῾ (literally “one-armed”) was a rare left-handed calligrapher. He is said to have presented Timur (r. 1370–1405) with a tiny copy of the Koran in minuscule ghubā r (“dust”) script. Timur refused to accept it as he found it too small, whereupon ῾Umar penned another copy, in which each line was at least a cubit in length. Having finished, decorated and bound the manuscript, the scribe tied it on a barrow and took it to Timur’s palace, where the sultan received him in state.

In Syria and Egypt, which became the center of Arab Islamic civilization after the Mongol conquests of Iraq in the mid-13th century, the styles of writing established by Yaqut and his pupils flourished under the patronage of the Mamluk sultans, who ordered large multi-volume manuscripts of the Koran copied in muḥaqqaq script for their charitable foundations. In comparison with the Iranian world, the names of few calligraphers are known, although the quality of the work is extremely high. Sharaf al-Din Muhammad ibn Sharaf ibn Yusuf, known as Ibn al-Wahid (d. 1311), is one of the few exceptions: born in Damascus, he studied under Yaqut in Baghdad, where he mastered all scripts. He then went to Cairo, where he worked for Baybars al-Jashankir (r. 1309), producing an unusual seven-volume Koran in gold thuluth script outlined in black (London, BL Add MSS 22406-22412). The tradition of Yaqut was continued by Mubarakshah ibn Ahmad al-Dimishqi al-Suyufi, known for his superb rayḥān hand (e.g. a one-volume manuscript of the Koran, 1344; Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., Y. 365). Perhaps the finest manuscripts of the Koran produced under the Mamluks are associated with the patronage of Sha῾ban II (r. 1363–76) and his mother. Six enormous manuscripts, mostly in single-volume format, are written in superb muḥaqqaq script. Considering the exceptionally high quality of the script and illumination, it is surprising that most of the calligraphers chose to remain anonymous.


    Qazi Ahmad ibn Mir Munshi: Gulistān-i hunar [Rose-garden of art] (1606); Eng. trans. by V. Minorsky as Calligraphers and Painters (Washington, DC, 1959)
    D. Sourdel: “Le Livre des secrétaires de ῾Abdallah al-Bağdā dī,” Bull. Etud. Orient., xiv (1952–4), pp. 115–63
    D. S. Rice: The Unique Ibn al-Bawwab Manuscript in the Chester Beatty Library (Dublin, 1955/R Paris, 1972) [with facs.]
    S. al-Munajjid: Al-kitā b al-῾arabī῾l-makhṭūṭ ilā ῾l-qarn al-῾ā shir al-hijrī [Arabic manuscript books until the 10th century of the Hegira] (Cairo, 1960)
    H. Fadayili: Aṭlas-i khaṭṭ: Taḥqīq dār khuṭūṭ-i islāmī [Atlas of scripts: examples of Islamic scripts] (Isfahan, Iran. Solar 1350/1971)
    N. Zayn al-Din: Badā ῾i῾ al-khaṭṭ al-῾arabī [Splendours of Arabic calligraphy] (Baghdad, 1972)
    The Qur῾ā n (exh. cat. by M. Lings and Y. H. Safadi, London, BM, 1976) Y. H. Safadi: Islamic Calligraphy (London, 1978)
    P. P. Soucek: “The Arts of Calligraphy,” The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, 14th–16th Centuries, ed. B. Gray (Boulder, CO, London and Paris, 1979), pp. 7–34
    D. James: Qur῾āns of the Mamlūks (London and New York, 1988)
    Y. Tabbaa: “The Transformation of Arabic Writing,” A. Orientalis, xxi (1991), pp. 119–48 and xxiv (1994), pp. 119–47
    Y. Tabbaa: “Canonicity and Control: The Sociopolitical Underpinnings of Ibn Muqla’s Reform,” A. Orientalis, xxix (1999), pp. 91–100
    Sultan Baybars’ Qur῾an, London, BL (London, 2002)
    S. S. Blair: “Yā qūt and his Followers,” Manuscripta Orientalia, ix/3 (Sept. 2003), pp. 39–47
    S. S. Blair: Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh, 2006), pp. 194–237
    S. S. Blair and J. M. Bloom: “Timur’s Koran: A Reappraisal,” Sifting Sands, Reading Signs: Studies in Honour of Professor Geza Fehérvári, ed. P. Baker and B. Brend (Bristol, 2006), pp. 15–24
    M. Fraser and W. Kwiatkowski: Ink and Gold: Islamic Calligraphy (London, 2006)

IV. 1400–1800

The distinctive maghribī scripts continued to flourish in North Africa, and large manuscripts of the Koran continued to be produced in the central Arab lands, but the center of creativity in all the arts of the book shifted to the Iranian world as Persian became the language of literature and art, even in the Ottoman and Mughal empires. Although written in a script developed for the Arabic language, the distinctive requirements of Persian allowed the development of new calligraphic styles, particularly more fluid scripts. These scripts were known by many names, and confusion and duplication of terminology abound. Connoisseurs began to collect specimens of fine handwriting and assemble them in albums; calligraphers began to produce calligraphic exercises in which they displayed their skill by juxtaposing several scripts or by arranging the letters and words in unusual ways. The names of many more calligraphers are known because they signed many more works and were included in biographical literature.

A. Old scripts.

The arts of the book had been taken to new heights of refinement and lavishness in the second half of the 14th century under the sponsorship of the successors to the Ilkhanids in the great centers of book production and illumination at Baghdad and Tabriz, but the most splendid manuscripts were those produced for the Timurid princes at Herat in western Afghanistan during the 15th century. The tradition of the Six Pens perfected by the Six Masters in the early 14th century (see §III, C above) continued in the early 15th. Ahmad ibn Mas῾ud, known as al-Rumi (from Anatolia), for example, was a master of the Six Pens who worked in Herat under the patronage of the Timurid prince Baysunghur (1397–1433; see Timurid, §II, G), a great patron of the arts of the book and an accomplished calligrapher himself. Ahmad Rumi used naskh to copy the first manuscript associated with Baysunghur’s patronage, al-Juzjani’s history of the Mu῾izzi Mamluks of Delhi, Ṭabaqāt-i Nāṣirī (1411–12; Berlin, Staatsbib. Preuss. Kultbes., MS. Peterman I, 386). He may well have instructed the prince, for a calligraphic exercise in which Baysunghur and his companions copied a phrase that Ahmad had executed in riqā῾ is included in the prince’s album of calligraphy (Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., H. 2152, fol. 31v). Other masters of the Six Pens who worked at Herat during the reign of Baysunghur’s father, Shahrukh (1405–47), included ῾Abdallah Tabbakh, Shaykh Mahmud Haravi, Abdallah “Murvarid” Bayani and Shams al-Din Baysunghuri.

Thuluth (Turk. sülüs) and naskh (Turk. nesih) became the primary scripts in the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, for clarity and artistic discipline the productions of Ottoman calligraphers have never been surpassed. The most famous early Ottoman calligrapher was şeyh Hamdullah, who worked for Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512). He is particularly known for his calligraphic exercises that juxtapose a line of large script with several lines of smaller script, together with panels of painting and marbled paper, the whole enclosed within a ruled frame (e.g. a page in muḥaqqaq and rayḥā n, Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., E.H. 2078). He and his followers in the 16th century were known as the Seven Masters of Anatolia. They included his son and pupil, Mustafa Dede Shaykhzada (d. 1539–40), Abdullah of Amasya, the brothers Jalal and Jamal of Amasya, Ibrahim Sharbatchizade of Bursa and Ahmad karahisari, who was the most famous calligrapher during the reign of Süleyman.

In addition to the Six Pens, Ahmed is known for his practice of the musalsal (“chained”) method, where an entire phrase was written without lifting the pen from the page, such as the well-known frontispiece with the basmala (invocation of the name of God) written in musalsal between two panels of square writing (Istanbul, Mus. Turk. & Islam. A., MS. 1443, fols. 1r–2v). This tradition was refined by Hafiz osman, the finest Ottoman calligrapher of the 17th century. He evolved an apparently simple style of naskh based on the principles of Yaqut (see §III, C above) and Hamdullah that epitomizes the clarity and elegance of Ottoman scripts (e.g. a Koran manuscript, 1663–4, Istanbul, U. Lib., A. 6549; and a calligraphic specimen, Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Mus., 3655).

B. New scripts.

1. 15th–17th centuries.

In 15th-century Iran the increase in lavishness in the production of fine Persian manuscripts was accompanied by the development of a new script called nasta῾līq, a contraction of naskh and ta῾līq. It combined the principles of naskh, the round hand used for common copying, and ta῾līq, a stylized chancellery script with more curved and elongated forms than in tawqī῾-riqā῾. Words are written with a distinct diagonal slant to the lower left, which creates a sense of forward movement on the page. The alif is shorter than in naskh, and other letters, especially sīn and tā῾, are elongated to conform to the flowing lines of the script and intensify the visual effect. The invention of nasta῾līq is universally attributed to Mir῾ali tabrizi.

The first generation of practitioners of nasta῾līq about whom any detailed knowledge exists and whose works survive in numbers are described in the sources as the students of Mir ῾Ali. Most of them were active in Herat during the first third of the 15th century and were associated with Baysunghur’s patronage (see §A above). Ja῾far and his student Azhar (fl. 1421–72), both accomplished calligraphers of the Six Pens, introduced the nasta῾līq style to Herat. Ja῾far supervised 40 calligraphers in Baysunghur’s scriptorium, and examples of his writing in the classic styles of thuluth, naskh and muḥaqqaq are preserved in an album (Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., H. 2153, fols. 27r, 58r and 160v). His nasta῾līq hand, as in the manuscript of the Shāhnāma (“Book of kings”; 1430; Tehran, Gulistan Pal. Lib., MS. 61), which he penned for Baysunghur, already shows the characteristic placement of individual graphic units at a 30-degree angle to the horizontal base-line and is extraordinary for the discipline of rhythm and spacing. The nasta῾līq hand of his pupil Azhar is even more elegant, as seen, for example, in a manuscript of Nizami’s Haft paykar (“Seven portraits”; New York, Met., 13.228.13). Azhar is reported to have been the calligrapher who began one of the most superb illustrated manuscripts of the 15th century, a copy of Nizami’s Khamsa (“Five poems”) commissioned by the Timurid ruler Abu῾l-Qasim Babur (r. 1449–57), which then passed to several Qaraqoyun lu, Aqqoyunlu and Safavid princes ( Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., H. 762).

In the next generation the eastern variety of nasta῾līq was given its classical “Khurasanian” form by Sultan ῾ali mashhadi, who spent most of his career in Herat working for the major bibliophiles Husayn Bayqara (see Timurid, §II, H) and ῾Alishir nava῾i. His script, more fluid and spacious than that of Ja῾far, is found in some of the most luxurious illustrated manuscripts of the period, such as a copy of ῾Attar’s Manṭiq al-ṭayr (“Conference of the birds”; 1483; New York, Met., 63.210) and a copy of Sa῾di’s Būstān (“Orchard”; 1488; Cairo, N. Lib., Adab Farsi 908), which is the only manuscript with illustrations undisputedly by Bihzad, the master of Persian painting. In 1514, when he had retired to Mashhad, he wrote a verse treatise on calligraphy that was later incorporated in Qazi Ahmad’s biography of calligraphers and painters (see §I, C above). It contains both practical and autobiographical information and demonstrates the close association between religious discipline and the practice of calligraphy.

Mir ῾ali husayni haravi worked in Mashhad and Herat for the Timurids and Safavids until 1529, when he was taken to Bukhara by the Uzbeks. His nasta῾līq lacked some of the discipline and formality of that by Sultan ῾Ali. His Persian poetry is written on the diagonal with a thick ductus (stroke); some of the diacritical dots are omitted, and he never added the stroke to distinguish gāf from kāf. Professional calligraphers considered him an autodidact lacking the discipline of rigorous training, and in his own day his art was not universally appreciated. Later connoisseurs, however, avidly collected his manuscripts and calligraphic specimens, which they incorporated in albums with elaborate marginal decoration. Virtually all the calligraphy in the Kevorkian Album (New York, Met.; Washington, DC, Freer) and the Berlin Album (see Illustration, §VI, D), prepared for the Mughal emperors of India, bears the signature of Mir ῾Ali. The nasta῾līq tradition was continued under the Safavids (r. 1501–1732) by such masters as Shah Mahmud Nishapuri (1487–1564/5) and Mir ῾imad. Nasta῾līq was rarely used for copying the Koran, but a notable exception was prepared by Shah Mahmud in 1538 (Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., H.S. 25). Like Mir ῾Ali, Mir ῾Imad favored the single folio with Persian poetry written on the diagonal (e.g. his signed folio, St. Petersburg, Acad. Sci., Inst. Orient. Stud., E/14).

Nasta῾līq, practically from the time of its inception, became the preferred script of Persian, because it differs from Arabic in its proportion of straight and curved letters. Furthermore, Persian lacks the common paired verticals of the Arabic definite article, whose upright alif and lam give vertical emphasis to Arabic script. In Azerbaijan and western Iran, the land of its birth, a slightly different style of nasta῾līq was cultivated by ῾Abd al-Rahman Khwarazmi (fl. 1430s–60s) and his two sons, ῾Abd al-Rahim and ῾Abd al-Karim (fl. 1460s–90s). Variations in the width of the ductus were produced by a different cut of the nib, and, compared to the standard of Ja῾far, the style is somewhat impulsive, with some letters crowded together while others are exaggerated. This can be seen in the Khamsa of Nizami copied by ῾Abd al-Rahman in Shiraz (1435–6; London, BL, Or. MS. 12856). The unusual canon of proportion is continued in the work of ῾Abd al-Karim (e.g. a page of poetry, Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., H. 2153, fol. 32r). Often called Iraqi nasta῾līq, because western Iran was known as Persian Iraq, this style was taken in the 16th century to Ottoman Turkey, where it flourished as a minor style under the misnomer ta῾līq, and to the Indian subcontinent, where it became the model for Indian nasta῾līq, which developed an ever thicker horizontal stroke and became the standard script for Urdu. This thick horizontal stroke is also found in a style called bihārī, which has wedge-shaped letters, thick round bowls for endings and wide spaces between words. It was developed in India specifically for manuscripts of the Koran; the script is first documented in a small copy of the Koran (1399; Geneva, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan priv. col., MS. 32; see 1979 exh. cat., no. 75) and continued to be used for copying the Koran long after the classical styles had been adopted for other works. Manuscripts in bihārī script are reminiscent of those in maghribī script in the unbalanced ratio of one letter to another and in their colorfully decorated margins and frontispieces.

Calligraphy reached its zenith in India under the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) and his successors when the court and such art-loving nobles as Mirza ῾Abd al-Rahim Khan-i-Khanan attracted master calligraphers from Iran and Central Asia. Outstanding calligraphers of Akbar’s period include the painter ῾Abd al-samad and Muhammad Husayn Kashmiri, acclaimed by later artists and critics as the most talented nasta῾līq writer of India. Other masters of the early 16th century included ῾Abd al-Rahim ῾Ambarin-Qalam (“Musky Pen”) and ῾Abd al-Rashid Dailami, nephew of the celebrated Mir ῾imad of Iran, whose name became a byword among later generations of Indian nasta῾līq writers, practiced in the early 16th century. The tradition continued under Awrangzib (r. 1658–1707), and the names of many calligraphers are known from Ghulam Muhammad Warith’s treatise composed c.1822–3, Tadhkirat-i khushnavīsān (“Biography of calligraphers”; composed c.1822–3, pubd. Calcutta, 1910). Rulers of provincial capitals also commissioned exquisite specimens of calligraphy from Iranian and local artists, but few specimens on paper survive.

Another script popular in Iran during the period was ta῾līq, the “hanging” script, a highly ornamental form of tawqī῾-riqā῾ which revels in the use of extraneous loops and unorthodox connections and is extremely difficult for the uninitiated to decipher. Tradition credits various individuals with its invention, including Taj al-Din Salmani (d. 1491), but the classic definition of eastern ta῾līq was given by Khwaja ῾Abd al-Hayy (d. 1501), chief secretary to the Timurid sultan Abu Sa῾id Mirza. Ta῾līq was practically limited to the production of diplomatic correspondence and letters of patent and congratulation. A western variety was developed for the Aqqoyunlu chancellery in Azerbaijan and Iraq. Under the Ottomans ta῾līq was transformed into dīvānī, a highly elaborate and decorative script in which firmans (edicts) were written until the end of the empire (e.g. firman of Sultan Ahmed II, 1694; Washington, DC, Freer). It was also brought to the Mughals in India.

2. 18th century.

Shikasta nasta῾līq developed in 18th-century Iran, and is to nasta῾līq what ta῾līq is to tawqī῾-riqā῾, that is, it adds numerous ligatures and contractions to the letter forms of the base-script. Words and phrases may be written at all angles to each other and are often surrounded by reserve panels to set them off from the surrounding page. Of all forms of classical calligraphy, examples of shikasta nasta῾līq are the least constrained by convention, and many of the superb specimens produced by Iranian calligraphers in the 18th and 19th centuries resemble abstract designs in which the eye revels in the overall composition without having to decipher individual words, which in many cases is all but impossible. One of the greatest masters of shikasta nasta῾līq was ῾Abd al-Majid Taliqani (d. 1771). In rare cases the script was used for administrative documents, such as the plea for tax relief written by Mirza Kuchik Khan (1795–6; Cambridge, MA, Sackler Mus.). The individual lines, eight of which are upside down and record the successful outcome of the plea, are unified by the parallel sweeping curves of the script.

Zoomorphic calligraphy of the 18th century and later shaped words and phrases into the forms of birds, animals and human faces. It differed from the zoomorphic script that had been used in Iranian metalwork of the 12th century, where the individual letters had been decorated with or transformed into humans and animals (see Metalwork, §I, E). The texts generally chosen for incorporation into zoomorphic calligraphy were the basmala and the names Allah, Muhammad, ῾Ali, Hasan and Husayn. For example, Ibn Hajji Muhammad ῾Ali of Isfahan penned the basmala in the form of a bird and presented it to the Safavid prince Mahmud Mirza (Springfield, MA, Mus. F.A.). Lions, the symbol of ῾Ali, the “Lion of God,” are often used in Shi῾ite invocations. Zoomorphic calligraphy flourished particularly among the Bektashi dervishes of the Ottoman Empire (e.g. a verse by ῾Attar in the form of a lion killing a serpent, 1795; Munich, Staatl. Mus. Vlkerknd.) and in India (e.g. the Throne Verse, Koran 2:255, in the shape of a horse, late 16th century; see 1979 exh. cat., no. 77). Another calligraphic tour de force is the black exercise (Pers. siyāh mashq), which consists of a given letter, group of letters or word in nasta῾līq script written repeatedly, each time slightly to the left, so that the entire page may be almost completely blackened with ink, hence the name of the style. Initially a calligraphic exercise, the siyāh mashq of master calligraphers became in time an end in itself, and specimens were avidly collected by connoisseurs.

Unpublished sources

    Istanbul, Topkapı Pal. Lib., y.y. 599 [Majnun al-Rafiqi: Rasm al-khaṭṭ (“Illustration of scripts”)]


    Mustafa Ali: Manā qib-i hunarvarā n [Virtues of artists] (1587); ed. İ. M. Kemal (Istanbul, 1926)
    M. Ziauddin: Muslim Calligraphy with 163 Illustrations of its Various Styles and Ornamental Designs (New Delhi, 1936/R 1997)
    Qazi Ahmad ibn Mir Munshi: Gulistā n-i hunar [Rose-garden of art] (1606); Eng. trans. by V. Minorsky as Calligraphers and Painters (Washington, DC, 1959)
    Muhammad ibn Hindushah Nakhchivani: Dastūr al-kātib fī ta῾yīn al-marā tib [Instruction of scribes in the establishment of degrees]; ed. A. A. Alizade, 2 vols. (Moscow, 1964–76)
    M. İzzet: Khuṭūṭ-i ῾uthmāniyya [Ottoman scripts] (Istanbul, AH 1309/1891–2)
    İ. H. Baltacıoğlu: Türklerde yazı sanatı [Calligraphy among the Turks] (Ankara, 1958)
    A. A. Ivanov, T. B. Grek and O. F. Akimushkin: Album indiskikh i persidskikh miniatur XVI–XVIII vv [Album of Indian and Persian miniatures, 16th–18th centuries] (Moscow, 1962)
    A. Alparslan: “Écoles calligraphiques turques,” İslâm Tetkikleri Enst. Derg., v (1973), pp. 265–78
    M. A. Chughtai: Pak wa Hind min islāmī khaṭṭā ṭī [Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan and Hindustan] (Lahore, 1976)
    L. Fekete: Einführung in die persische Paläographie: 101 persische Dokumente, ed. G. Hazai (Budapest, 1977)
    A. Rahmani: Barr-i saghīr Pak wa Hind min khattā tī [Calligraphy in the Indo-Pak subcontinent] (Lahore, 1978)
    P. I. S. M. Rahman: Islamic Calligraphy in Medieval India (Dhaka, 1979)
    P. P. Soucek: “The Arts of Calligraphy,” The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, 14th–16th Centuries, ed. B. Gray (Boulder, CO, London and Paris, 1979), pp. 7–34
    Calligraphy in the Arts of the Muslim World (exh. cat. by A. Welch; New York, Asia Soc. Gals; Cincinnati, OH, A. Mus.; Seattle, WA, A. Mus.; St. Louis, MO, A. Mus.; 1979)
    H. Lowry: “Calligraphy: Hüsn-i hat,” Tulips, Arabesques & Turbans: Decorative Arts from the Ottoman Empire, ed. Y. Petsopoulos (New York, 1982), pp. 169–92
    M. Bayani: Aẖvā l va ās–ār-i khwushnavīsā n [Biographies and works of calligraphers], 2nd edn. in 4 vols. (Tehran, Iran. Solar 1363/1984–5)
    Hakkak-zade Mustafa Hilmi: Mizânül-hatt [Scale of scripts] (Istanbul, 1986)
    Z. A. Desai: “Islamic Calligraphy in India,” India (Moscow and New Delhi, 1987), pp. 185–91
    S. C. Welch and others: The Emperors’ Album (New York, 1987)
    D. James: After Timur: Qur῾ans of the 15th and 16th Centuries (1992), iii of The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, ed. J. Raby (London, 1992– )
    N. F. Safwat: The Art of the Pen: Calligraphy of the 14th to 20th Centuries (1996), v of The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, ed. J. Raby (London, 1992– )
    M. U. Derman: The Art of Calligraphy in the Islamic Heritage (Istanbul, 1998)
    M. U. Derman: Letters in Gold: Ottoman Calligraphy from the Sakip Sabanci Collection, Istanbul (New York, 1998)
    M. Bayani, A. Contadini and T. Stanley: The Decorated Word: Qur῾ans of the 17th to 19th Centuries (1999), iv/1 of The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, ed. J. Raby (London, 1992– )
    N. F. Safwat: Golden Pages: Qur῾ans and Other Manuscripts from the Collection of Ghassan I. Shaker (Oxford, 2000)
    S. S. Blair: Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh, 2006), pp. 417–585

V. After 1800

The practice of traditional calligraphy continued into the 19th century: every aspiring calligrapher had to copy classical models before his training was complete. In Ottoman Turkey, for example, the style of Şeyh Hamdullah and Hafiz Osman was continued by such masters as Mustafa raqim). He is renowned for his calligraphic pictures, such as the basmala written in the shape of a bird, and the intertwined letters of the expression: “There is no power and no strength save in God” (Arab. lā ḥawl wa-lā quwwat illā bi῾llāh). This type of calligraphic picture continues to be popular. Descriptions of the Prophet’s inner and outer qualities (Arab. ḥilya) were written in the style developed by Hafiz Osman. The style of nasta῾līq script perfected by Mir ῾Imad and developed by Esad yesari was made into a distinctive Turkish hand by the latter’s son, Mustafa Izzet Yesarizade (d. 1849). Modernization created new opportunities for calligraphers, who were called on to produce inscriptions for coins, postage stamps and banknotes. After 1928, however, when the new Turkish republic replaced the Arabic script with the Roman alphabet, calligraphy became an art form separated from everyday life since fewer people were able to read the script. ῾Aziz Rifa῾i (1872–1934), the leading exponent of the Hafiz Osman tradition, left Turkey for Egypt, where he produced luxury copies of the Koran and trained a new generation of calligraphers. Despite attempts to maintain a high standard, their work was rendered largely superfluous by the printing press, since even the finest calligraphy could be reproduced mechanically, particularly by lithography.

Calligraphers therefore looked for new ways to use their skills. Some (for example, the Turkish calligrapher İsmayil Hakki Baltacıoğlu) ventured into new forms such as the Flame script, in which the letters resemble flames, or the Crown script used in some Arab countries. After World War II a new feeling of Islamic identity caused many artists who had formerly imitated European painting to turn to calligraphic pictures because the substitution of letters for living figures seemed more in tune with Islamic ideals. Some artists reinvigorated the tradition of square writing formerly used for tiles, walls and other architectural settings. The Pakistani artist Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928–85), for example, achieved Mondrian-like effects using a single, geometrized Arabic letter as his main motif. Other artists arranged texts in circular form. These circular calligraphies were sometimes inspired by the decoration on ceramics produced under the Samanid dynasty (r. 819–1005) in the eastern Islamic world. They were also turned into mandala-like forms in which circles, sometimes combined with octagons or plaiting, are filled with hundreds of minute repetitions of a single phrase such as “There is no god but he” (Arab. lā ilā ha illā huwa). Other calligraphers devised word pictures. The Iranian artist Adharbod (b. c.1917), for example, created paintings in which the letters of the word “war” (Pers. jang) were composed of images of bones and skulls. Color, produced with such non-traditional techniques as batik, color etching and screenprinting, is particularly important for modern calligraphers and is used to highlight the message of their paintings. In contrast, traditional calligraphers generally restricted color to border decoration, opening pages and the like. Only rarely did color become a means in itself for the calligrapher, for example in the work of the North African master al-Qandusi (d. 1861), who elaborated on the more outspoken coloration of manuscripts in maghribī script.

This new form of calligraphic painting is practiced throughout the Islamic world. Calligraphic pictures from Malaysia and India daringly transform letters into almost organic forms, while the highly refined calligrams of Hassan Massoudy and his group in Paris capture the best spiritual dynamics of this art. In Pakistan experimentation has been especially strong, although traditional writing styles are still used and some young artists have tried to develop new variants. The artist Sadequain was a painter rather than a traditionally trained calligrapher, who even illustrated verses of the Koran. The letters grow, not always convincingly, into palm trees, cityscapes and sailing boats, but his most inventive composition is the depiction of the Koranic phrase “Be! And it becomes” (Arab. kun fayakūn, e.g. Sūrat al-baqara (“The cow”) 2:117) with two extended round endings to the letter nūn in the shape of a spiral nebula out of which emerge suns, stars and galaxies. His younger colleague Aslam Kamal (b. 1935) kept to strictly geometric forms in a stylized angular script, combining religious sentences with Mughal architectural silhouettes. The work of another artist, Rashid Ahmed Arshad (b. 1937), has been described as “scribbling on the canvas like a doctor’s prescription in shikasta,” and one wonders to what extent these younger artists were influenced by such European painters as Paul Klee (1879–1940), some of whose paintings were themselves inspired by Arabic lettering. The calligraphies of the London-based Egyptian Ahmad Moustafa (b 1943) display an inexhaustible imagination and a skillful use of modern technology. Sculptors have also turned to calligraphy. Sculptures repeating the word “God” (Arab. Allā h) are comparatively easy to form because of the three vertical shafts of the letters, and the Iranian sculptor parviz Tanavoli has created delightful works from the word “nothing” (Pers. hīch).


    İ. M. K. İnal: Son hattatlar [The last calligraphers] (Istanbul, 1954/R 1970)
    İ. H. Baltacıoğlu: Türklerde yazı sanatı [Calligraphy among the Turks] (Ankara, 1958)
    H. von Halem, ed.: Calligraphy in Modern Art (Karachi, 1975)
    H. Massoudy: Calligraphie arabe vivante (Paris, 1981)
    A. Moustafa: The Attributes of Divine Perfection (Jiddah, 1991)
    J. -P. Sicre: Hassan Massoudi (Paris, 1991)
    S. S. Blair: Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh, 2006), pp. 417–585
    V. Porter: Word into Art, Artists of the Modern Middle East (London, 2006)


"Calligraphy." In The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture edited by Jonathan M. Bloom, Sheila S. Blair. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #230: 'Calligraphy' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", January 19, 2018