Arabic calligraphy: Ancient craft, modern art

By Iain Akerman/Arab News

The art of Arabic calligraphy has been enhanced and developed over the course of a millennia. It has written the word of God, helped preserve human knowledge and understanding, and borne witness to the destruction of Baghdad. It has been codified, stylized, and lent itself to abstraction. It has even struggled with the modern world and found renewed life in both art and typography.

Nowhere is calligraphy more revered than in Islam. According to Islamic tradition, God “taught with the pen, taught man that which he knew not” (Qur’an 96:4). No wonder the art of writing is both admired and cherished as a visual expression of faith.

Now it is being celebrated in all its forms, with Saudi Arabia extending the Year of Arabic Calligraphy into 2021 and UNESCO registering the art form on its Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Arabic calligraphy is taking its rightful place at the heart of Arab identity. As the Iraqi calligrapher Wissam Shawkat says: “This is the one thing that is pure for us.”

Tracing origins

On the banks of the Euphrates river, roughly 170 kilometers south of Baghdad, lies the Iraqi city of Kufa. Once renowned as a center of learning during the Islamic Golden Age, it has now been all but consumed by Najaf.

Kufa is the city that gave its name to Kufic, the earliest example of a universal calligraphic style and a favored script for transcription of the Holy Qur’an. Many of the earliest extant copies of the Islamic holy book, including the Blue Qur’an — a 9th-century manuscript believed to have been produced in Spain — and the Topkapi manuscript, the oldest near-complete Qur’an in existence, were written using this foundational script.

The Blue Qur’an — a 9th-century manuscript believed to have been produced in Spain — was written in Kufic script. (Getty Images)Arabic calligraphy:
Ancient craft, modern art.

Kufic’s geometric elegance also meant it was well suited to architectural decoration, with one of its earliest known examples found in a 240-meter-long Qur’anic inscription inside Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. The oldest, however, dates from 644 CE and is engraved on a rock near AlUla in Saudi Arabia, according to the Kingdom’s submission to UNESCO’s Memory of the World register. Known as The Inscription of Zuhayr, it is situated on an ancient trade and pilgrimage route between Al-Mabiyat and Madain Saleh and states the date of death of Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, the second Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate.

However, the exact origins of Kufic and the scripts that preceded it are unclear. The Arabic alphabet is believed to have evolved from Nabataean, an Aramaic dialect used by a semi-nomadic Arab people who inhabited northern Arabia, the southern Levant and the Sinai Peninsula from around the 4th century BCE. Today, the Nabataeans are best known for the architectural wonders they bequeathed the world, including Petra in Jordan and Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia. What is less appreciated is their pivotal role in the formation of the Arabic script.

A Nabataean inscription in AlUla in Saudi Arabia. The Arabic alphabet is believed to have evolved from this Aramaic dialect. (Getty Images)

The Nabateans used a form of writing that flowed from right to left and had strong similarities with Arabic, including its cursive nature and its reliance on bodies of text that consisted largely of consonants and long vowels. How Nabataean evolved into Arabic is not precisely clear, but in 2014 a joint Saudi-French archaeological team discovered what is, at present, the oldest known inscription in the Arabic alphabet. Dating from 469 to 470 CE, it was found 100 kilometers north of Najran in Saudi Arabia and is written in a mixed text known as Nabataean Arabic. The discovery, described at the time as the ‘missing link’ between Nabataean and Arabic writing, helps explain why Nabataean is considered the direct precursor to the Arabic script. Prior to this, the earliest extant Arabic inscription was from Namara in modern day Syria (dating from 328 CE), but it is written solely in Nabataean characters.

The earliest form of Arabic script is known as Jazm, which in turn developed into a number of differing styles, including Hiri, Anbari, Makki and Madani. These styles were named after the cities or regions from which they emerged (for example, Makki and Madani were from Makkah and Madinah respectively) and were particular to their time and location. Madani and Makki are also linked together under Hijazi, the collective name for a number of scripts from the Hijaz region. Ma’il, another Hijazi script used in a number of the earliest Qur’anic manuscripts, is believed to be the direct predecessor of Kufic. The so-called “Birmingham Qur’an,” from the 7th century CE, is a wonderful, albeit incomplete, example of the Hijazi style.

A composite image featuring examples of Madani script, which was developed in Madinah from the earliest form of Arabic script known as Jazm. (SPA)

Why Kufic emerged as a dominant calligraphic style during the 7th century is open to debate, but its significance lies in the preservation of the Qur’an, the Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries, and its geometric beauty. As both Islam and the Arabic language spread across North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula, so the importance of the Arabic script intensified, with the need for an authoritative script that could combine aesthetics with readability. Over time, variations of Kufic would emerge, with Eastern Kufic (created by the Persians), the Maghrebi script (developed in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula), and plaited and square Kufic epitomizing the evolution of a calligraphic style.

“The Kufic script is considered very important and still relevant today because it was the first script to be used to write the Holy Qur’an,” Saudi calligrapher Nasser Al-Salem explains.

“Kufic is a fascinating calligraphic style because it’s so varied and rich,” adds Bahia Shehab, an artist, historian and professor of design at the American University in Cairo (AUC). “You have the simple square Kufic, you have the early Kufic of the early Qur’ans, you have the Kufic from the East, the Kufic from the West, you have the floriated Kufic, the foliated Kufic, the knotted Kufic. You might think it’s only one style of script, but it’s so rich and varied and I love the geometry of it — the structure of it.”

This bowl from around 900 CE hails from present-day Iran and features an example of knotted Kufic script. (Alamy)

Early versions of Kufic did not include the dotting that later distinguished letters from one another, nor did they have any signs to display the correct pronunciation of words. A correct interpretation of the text would depend on the skill of the reader, who was assumed to have the knowledge to decipher words that were left with unmarked vowels and without consonant points. This did not change until Abu Al-Aswad Al-Du’ali, considered the father of Arabic grammar, invented a system of consonant differentiation called i’jam and vowel indication (tashkeel) in the second half of the 7th century.

That system was further developed in the 8th century by the philologist and grammarian Al-Khalil Ibn Ahmad Al-Farahidi, who wrote the first Arabic dictionary and introduced a system of short vowel marks known as harakat. Both Al-Du’ali and Al-Farahidi lived and worked in Basra, Iraq.

Writing cursive is much faster than writing geometric script, and if you want to grow an empire, you want to spread your message and you want to write more books.

Professor Bahia Shehab

Although Kufic would remain in use until the 12th century, its popularity waned, primarily because of the emergence of more legible cursive scripts such as Toumar, Muhaqqaq and, in particular, Naskh, which was easier and faster to write and would go on to become the preferred script for books and administrative documents within the Abbasid Caliphate.

“There are many theories about why Kufic went out of use, but the most logical one I’ve read so far is speed,” says Shehab. “Writing cursive is much faster than writing geometric script, and if you want to grow an empire, you want to spread your message and you want to write more books. And writing with a cursive script is faster than writing with a more angular geometric script that needs more precision and time.

“But Kufic never fully disappeared. It has always had revivals. For example, during the Mamluk period, Kufic started reappearing on Ayah headings in the Qur’an and in the famous Sultan Hassan Mosque. There’s an elegance in its geometry and Kufic will forever be used, although we still need to discover what its secret is.”

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