An Introduction to Islamic and Ottoman Calligraphy
“Read!” That was the first word of God’s divine revelation to the Prophet Muhammad. Ever since, the written word has held a position of primacy in the Islamic religion. The divine revelation is called the Quran, which, in written form, is about the length of the New Testament. It is considered to be the direct word of God, preserved in Heaven and transmitted to Muhammad over a period of some 20 years. Beautiful writing—calligraphy—celebrates the sounds and meanings of this sacred text and preserves its accuracy.
To write the Quran, or sections of it, is an act of religious devotion and merit. In this we can witness the continuity of revelation, from the ancient Hebrew scribes to the Biblical copyists of monastic Europe, to the calligraphers of Islam. In the deepest sense, they would have understood each other, linking, as they do, the three religious traditions in their search for authenticity, truth, and beauty.
The Arabic language was at once the vehicle for the revelation, the language of the first Muslims, and the lingua franca of all learned Muslims. Arabic writing itself was believed to have something of a sacred nature. As Nabil Safwat put it in The Harmony of Letters, “… from the very beginnings of Islam, the sacredness of the Arabic language played a central role in the development of Arabic script, and writing came to be considered as possessing divine power.” Given the revelation and this attitude toward language, then, it was only natural that writing should develop into the major visual art form of the young religion. In the Islamic context, writing—especially calligraphy—became a kind of worship, a religious event that one prepares for as for prayer. For serious or religious art, pictorial representation was irrelevant or even abhorrent. (In stylized form, however, representation has been ubiquitous in Islamic ceramics, sculpture, metalwork, woodwork, and textiles.)
All literate cultures have some form of calligraphic art, although the status of the art varies with the culture. Before the age of printing, scribal writing was universal. Printing liberated calligraphy from the drudgery of scribalism, freeing calligraphers to concentrate their talents on art, rather than simple text.
In the Islamic world, of course, calligraphy had always been as much an art as an occupation, and men of letters delighted in coining phrases to describe it. “If it was a flower,” one early writer said of calligraphy, “it would be a rose; if a metal, gold.” Another said, “The pen is the ambassador of intelligence, the messenger of thought, and the interpreter for the mind.” But perhaps the best of these classical Arabic metaphors is this: “Calligraphy is music for the eyes.”
Words are the raw material of calligraphy, which is never divorced from meaning. But like music, true calligraphy also works on a wordless level, the level on which all great art functions. Together, the semantic cooperates with the aesthetic to enhance meaning; or, as another classical aphorism puts it, “Calligraphy gives to truth more clarity.”
For Muslims, the function of calligraphy is to support and strengthen the spiritual edifice of faith. The art can be said to be successful if this is its effect; if it diminishes faith, it fails. This is a weighty responsibility, but calligraphy is not a ponderous or brooding art; rather, the finest calligraphy is light and uplifting.
Though its origins are obscure, the Arabic alphabet predates the Islamic religion by some centuries. By the time of Muhammad (570-632 A.D.), Arabic was a practical though simple means of writing. Like other Semitic alphabets, it is written from right to left. There are nineteen basic letter shapes, including the lam-alif, which combines two letters—L and A. These basic shapes are used to convey a total of twenty-nine letters.
Originally, the short vowels were not written; nor were the pronunciation marks, such as the shadda, the sign for doubling a consonant. As Islam spread to non-Arabic speakers, however, this writing system was revised. Dots, or diacritical marks, were added to distinguish different letters that use the same shape, and pronunciation marks and short vowels began to be used consistently to avoid ambiguity. By 750, the script had been forged into an accurate writing tool and had already acquired aesthetic associations.
The division of Arabic writing into styles or scripts is a crucial factor in the development of calligraphy. Originally, there were two modes of writing: simple and formal. Simple writing, used for every-day utilitarian purposes, was soft and fluid, written with a blunt pen. For formal uses, a script was employed that was written with a chisel-cut reed pen, which gave the writing a predictable body and proportion, a prerequisite for calligraphy.
As the early Islamic governments grew in power and reach, they became more sophisticated in the ways of statecraft. The original simple script became the trunk from which branched a variety of scripts used in government chanceries, religious and educational institutions, and for business and personal communication. The formal script evolved simultaneously, and by the time the Abbasid caliphate was established in 750, it had become a stately, balanced script for writing the Quran. So it remained until the tenth century. The original name of this formal script is unknown; until the correct nomenclature is discovered, the script is customarily called Kufi or Kufic.
The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of the oldest surviving Islamic monuments, includes an early calligraphic masterpiece in the form of a magnificent mosaic band of formal script, dating to 691, that stretches around the interior walls. By this early date, calligraphy had already leapt off the page and onto the walls of mosques and other religious buildings, conferring on them an atmosphere of Islamic meaning and sentiment and marking them as specifically sacred spaces.
The Kufi script was gradually supplanted by a script that developed from the chancery scripts. It was used to write the first Qurans on paper, which appeared in the tenth century. Although it used to be called Eastern Kufic, Francoise Deroche’s term “new script” is much more apt.
By the beginning of the ninth century, the center of calligraphic activity had moved from Damascus to Baghdad. The Kufi/new style continued to be used for writing Qurans, but the other chancery scripts began to receive concentrated attention as well, leading to their development as progenitors of the modern scripts. During the twelfth century, the new script began to be abandoned for copying Qurans, though it remained in use as an ornamental script. Waiting behind the scenes, as it were, was a whole new group of scripts, which began to appear in abundance.
Eight of these so-called proportioned scripts were prominent. The names of these scripts were derived from their size or use: tomar, the giant script used for scrolls; muhakkak, which means the fully realized script; reyhani, a small muhakkak; sulus, called the one-third script because it is written with a pen one-third the size of the pen used for tomar; tevki’, the script used for imperial correspondence; rika’, the small version of tevki’; nesih, the copyist’s script; and gubari, the micro-script used for, among other things, pigeon post. Tomar and gubari were gradually sidelined, becoming mere historical curiosities. The remaining six scripts have been the medium for Islamic calligraphy ever since.
Three calligraphers from this period are especially significant: Ibn Muqla (d. 940); Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1022); and Yaqut al-Musta’simi (d. 1298). Though radically different in lives and personalities, each of these men was a landmark figure. Notably, Ibn Muqla conceived the idea of proportional measurement, but it was Ibn al-Bawwab who refined and developed this proportional system, measuring and regularizing letters using the dot made by the nib of a chisel-cut pen. Collectively, the three perfected the six styles into a supple, expressive approach to writing still in use today. This transmission was made possible by a chain of scholarship that began with Yaqut’s students, who spread his method to the main areas of the Muslim world.
Persians also worked in the six scripts, following the method of Yaqut. Indeed, Persian calligraphers never progressed beyond Yaqut’s method in these six styles, and their work gradually became stereotypical and static.
The great Persian contribution came from a calligrapher named Mir Ali Tabrizi (d. approximately 1420), who one night dreamed of flying geese. Inspired by this vision, he developed a hybrid script called nesta’lik. This simple, fluid, and artistically powerful script reached its zenith in Persia at the hands of Mir Imad al-Hasani, whose life was tragically cut short when he was assassinated by jealous rivals in 1615.
Many great Persian calligraphers emigrated to India, where they taught and produced works on paper and inscriptions on monuments. Among them were Mir Khalilullah (d. 1626), who was a master of nesta’lik, and Abdul Haqq of Shiraz, later known as Amanat Khan (d. 1644), who worked in the six scripts. Masters such as these established a tradition that grew into the contemporary Indian/Pakistani school of calligraphy, known for its unusual illumination and naturalistic border paintings.
Meanwhile, in the so-called Islamic West (the Maghrib, or North Africa and Spain), calligraphy took a different turn. Elements of the original simple script were blended with the new style, producing a powerful and distinctive style of writing that is easy to read and write. Maghribi calligraphy remains today a living tradition. To the East, the Muslim minority in China devised a totally different way of writing Arabic, using brushes instead of reed pens and taking inspiration from the ancient Chinese calligraphic tradition.
In the heartlands of the Islamic world, however, the calligraphic arts had reached stasis by the fifteenth century. Fine work was done, but the fire of invention had dimmed. Illumination was exquisite but predictable, a stereotype of blue and gold. Calligraphy was still the king of Islamic art, but like many kings, it had grown cautious. Self-satisfied, it asked little of its practitioners and patrons.
After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottomans, that city became the capital city, as well as the religious and cultural center, for the expanding Ottoman Empire. With the encouragement of the new state, the arts, too, began to flourish there as nowhere else at that time.
The torch of Islamic calligraphy had, in effect, been passed to the Ottomans, and two contemporary calligraphers were to decide the fate of the art.
Around 1480, a 50-year-old calligrapher named Seyh Hamdullah had a visionary experience that led him to redesign completely the structure of the six scripts—especially sulus and nesih, which became the Ottoman scripts par excellence. With the encouragement of his friend and mentor Sultan Bayezid II, he forever changed calligraphy and the way we look at it. Studying the work of older masters, he sifted and tested to find the best letter shapes and invented a system of imaginary slanted horizon lines along which to arrange each letter, imparting motion, tension, and energy to the writing. He also refined the measurements of the letters and regularized the spacing between letters and words, giving the text a more open, lighter feel. Seyh Hamdullah’s reforms provided a critical tool for distinguishing good calligraphy from bad.
At around the same time, the young Ahmed Karahisari brought Yaqut al-Musta’simi’s style of writing to its apex. Karahisari outlived Seyh Hamdullah by 36 years, but it was the sheikh’s style that would prevail.
In the Ottoman teaching tradition, knowledge was passed on individually, face to face, from teacher to student. In a practice called taklid, or imitation, students copied the mesks, or lessons, written for them by their teachers. After completing these studies successfully, a student received a document called an icazetname, in essence enrolling the novice in the ranks of the professional hattats (calligraphers).
Most Ottoman calligraphers were teachers, and the Ottoman teaching tradition allowed their influence to spread like ripples in a stream. Among the most notable were Seyh Hamdullah; Hafiz Osman Efendi (d. 1698); Ismail Zuhdi Efendi (d. 1806); his brother, Mustafa Rakim Efendi (d. 1826); Mahmud Celaleddin Efendi (d. 1829); Kadiasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi (d. 1876); and Mehmed Sevki Efendi (d. 1887). These were the founding artists of the Ottoman method for the six scripts, of which only sulus, nesih, and rika’ were used extensively.
The large sulus script, celi sulus, is essentially the invention of Mustafa Rakim, whose reforms salvaged monumental writing from rigidity and stasis and made it viable.
Kadiasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi—a religious and legal thinker, musician, and composer as well as a calligrapher—designed the largest piece of calligraphy in the world: the 23-foot roundels executed in gold in the Ayasofya Mosque in Istanbul.
The Ottomans achieved a new version of nesta’lik (or ta’lik, in Ottoman usage) at the hands of Mehmed Es’ad Yesari Efendi (d. 1798). Born paralyzed on his right side and palsied on his left, Yesari Efendi nevertheless excelled in that script, which was perfected by his son Yesarizade Mustafa Izzet Efendi (d. 1849). Yesarizade also perfected the large version of the script, celi ta’lik, and his work is still studied by calligraphers today. The great Sami Efendi (d. 1912) was an exponent of this style; his works in the zer-endud (gold painted) method are world famous. Sami was the teacher of Necmeddin Efendi (d. 1976), who taught Ali Alparslan, the last living exponent of the style.
When the Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic in Turkey in 1928, five centuries of achievement were seemingly brought to a close. But a dedicated group of Turkish artists managed to keep the art alive. Among them were Hamid Aytac (d. 1982) and Necmeddin Okyay (d. 1976). Hasan Celebi, Hamid Aytac’s most successful student, is among the leading lights of the expanding calligraphy scene today, one of a number of calligraphers, illuminators, and marblers who strive to bring the art to a growing audience.
Outside of Turkey and Morocco, the present state of the art is problematic. In many places, calligraphy has been demoted from the status of art and pressed into service for sign painting, advertising, or, worse, political indoctrination. Experiments with computerized calligraphy have, with few exceptions, produced unimpressive results. And although some artists have produced interesting work incorporating letters or words, the writing is not a vehicle for meaning and, as such, cannot be considered calligraphy.
A hopeful direction has been taken by the Research Center for Islamic History, Art, and Culture (IRCICA) in Istanbul, which established a triennial international calligraphy competition in 1985. The competition has attracted entries from around the world, encouraging aspiring calligraphers, offering them constructive criticism, and reinforcing the high standards necessary for the perpetuation of the art.
Calligraphy cannot be appreciated without an understanding of the tools and techniques of the art. Chief among the calligrapher’s tools is the kalem, or reed pen. Specially grown and seasoned river or marsh reeds produce a light yet strong stem that the calligrapher cuts to his or her own specifications. The size of the tip determines the size of the script, and different scripts require tips of different angles. For tiny scripts, calligraphers often use so-called Java pens, whose tips are made from the hard thorn of an Indonesian palm. The largest pens, used for the large celi scripts, are carved from wood.
Ink (murekkeb) is made of specially prepared soot, which is mixed with gum arabic and ground for more than 30 hours before adding water. The ink is kept in an inkwell (hokka) in an absorbent wad of raw silk called a lika. Pens and ink may be carried in special containers called kuburs or divits.
Paper is put through a complex process of dying, sizing, burnishing, and aging to prepare it for calligraphy. To aid in laying out the text, the calligrapher puts the paper on a mistar—a cardboard panel strung with evenly spaced threads—and presses with the index finger, leaving faintly visible raised lines on the paper.
Other calligraphy tools include penknives, scissors, and small cutting boards called maktas, used when cutting pens, as well as burnishers for smoothing paper and gold.
Calligraphic works are decorated with illumination, or tezhib, using gold and gouache. The gold is usually prepared by pulverizing gold leaf to make ink, although sometimes the gold leaf itself is applied. Styles of illumination varied as times and tastes changed, from the delicate traceries of classical styles to the so-called Baroque designs of the nineteenth century. From Seyh Hamdullah’s time, the best Ottoman illumination can be characterized as simple and bold and in striking colors.
The uses of calligraphy are as varied as the styles, but the primary application is the manuscript book, especially the Quran, which was copied in toto as a mushaf or in separate sections, used for memorization and recitation. The opening double-page spread of illumination found only in Qurans is called the serlevha. Other, shorter books were also calligraphed, including the Dalailu’l-Hayrat, a popular devotional work about the Prophet that usually included miniatures of Mecca and Medina.
Another common calligraphic work is the kit’a, a small panel, generally a horizontal rectangule in shape. A typical kit’a is composed of two scripts, usually sulus and nesih; the work is pasted onto a cardboard backing, and the empty spaces called koltuks (armpits) are often illuminated. The borders can be left plain, decorated with marbled paper, or illuminated. Styles of illumination include baroque (inspired by 17th- and 18th-century European design), halkari (gold ink wash outlined in heavier gold), and zer-efsan (sprinkled gold.) Kit’as can be assembled into albums called murakkaas, which can be assembled like a book or like an accordion.
Other types of calligraphic works include the levha, or single panel of celi sulus or celi ta’lik; the hilye, a levha that includes a written description of the Prophet Muhammad and is one of the most prized works of calligraphy; and the istif, a composition in which the letters interlace. A spectacular type of istif is the musenna, in which the text is written backwards and forwards, with the left side reflecting the right. To replicate an istif, a stencil (kalip) is made by piercing tiny holes along the contours of the writing. The composition is transferred to its final surface by pouncing the stencil with charcoal powder or chalk dust.
Of the non-paper applications of calligraphy—which include ceramics, metalworks, and textiles, among others—by far the most important is its use in architectural or monumental settings. In the interior of mosques, for example, calligraphy can be cut in stucco, tile, or marble in low relief, then painted and gilded, or it can be painted and gilded directly on the wall in long bands around the tops of the walls, inside the domes, or over the mihrab niche. The use of calligraphy in a mosque conveys a spiritual meaning to believers, a message that this place is dedicated to God. Similarly, the use of calligraphy on gravestones is a powerful reminder of the Islamic concept of a life well lived, from beginning to end.
Regarding a work of calligraphy, the experienced observer sees both writing and meaning, considered within the work’s historical context. The observer is also, in a sense, witnessing the creative moment and sharing in the artist’s struggle to “get it right,” to honor traditional precedents, to rise to high standards, to meet both subjective and objective criteria for excellence.
Observe first how the letters are shaped and connected. Are the strokes flowing and smooth? Are the letters crisp and not ragged? Is each line of text balanced in terms of dense and open letter placement? Do the lines have energy and vitality?
Now observe the page or composition as a whole. Is there a unity about it? Unlike Western art, a work of Islamic calligraphy should have no single focal point; rather, every part should have equal visual value.
The illumination and decoration should harmonize with the calligraphy but not overpower it. Bad calligraphy cannot be saved by lavish illumination. Beautiful calligraphy, on the other hand, can be troubled, but never ruined, by bad or inappropriate illumination.
Up until the eighteenth century, the evolution of Islamic illumination tended to involve refining and simplifying classic styles. In the mid-1700s, however, Ottoman illuminators began to adapt Western decorative principles for their own use, in a style that came to be known as Ottoman Baroque or Rococo. This style, though not widely appreciated, can be genuinely effective. In contemporary Turkey, the Baroque style has been abandoned for a style that harks back to the classical period in its delicacy and complexity.
The works represented in the Sabanci Collection exemplify the stylistic evolution of calligraphy as well as illumination. One of the most comprehensive private collections of Ottoman calligraphy in the world, the Sabanci Collection provides an opportunity to study the full range of Ottoman works, from the time of Seyh Hamdullah to the twentieth century.
Language can prove to be a superficial barrier to enjoying Islamic calligraphy. Yet just as one can appreciate Italian opera without understanding Italian, so can one appreciate Islamic calligraphy without understanding Arabic, Turkish, or Persian. Knowledge of the language enriches one’s appreciation, of course, so a translation can be helpful. But much of the communication between artist and observer is on a deeper, wordless level. At its best, Islamic calligraphy creates a visual harmony that resonates within the spirit.
Reproduced with permission from Music for the Eyes: An Introduction to Islamic and Ottoman Calligraphy, a brochure published in conjunction with the exhibition “Letters in Gold: Calligraphy from the Sakip Sabanci Collection,” organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Copyright 1998, Museum Associates, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. All rights reserved.