The early history of Arabic writing is obscure, and what historical records do exist are controversial. Here is what we know for sure: The Arabic language is very ancient, but it was not a written language until perhaps the third or fourth century C.E. What the earliest written forms looked like we can hazard only a barely educated guess. Inscriptions on stone suggest both unconnected and connected letter alphabets were in use. The connected letter alphabet is recognizable as the true Arabic alphabet.
We also know that a small number of people in the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime knew how to read and write. We know the Prophet had secretaries, or scribes, to write for him, as he was unlettered. What did this writing look like? I believe the preserved letters of the Prophet may be of greater help here than early Koran manuscripts. The letters are either authentic or copied from originals in look and content, while the dates of the early Korans cannot be demonstrated. I doubt the authenticity of the available copies of the Koran from the caliph Uthman’s time—the calligraphy is too well developed. The letters, on the other hand, must represent contemporary writing practice and may even be in the hand of some of the scribes who made the first complete mushaf under the caliph Abu Bakr. But too much early material is simply gone forever, and we will never be certain.
(Note: The Koran, or Qur’an, in Arabic, refers to the revealed text as received by the Prophet; a mushaf refers to the physical book that contains the text.)
From what little we know, a picture emerges of a practical, crude writing system that was available to the scribes. It was a cursive, “soft,” or layyin script, produced with a blunt pen tip. Just possibly another version existed for very special uses—a hard, “dry,” or yabis script, which would have been written with a chisel-edged pen on prepared animal skin (parchment or vellum). Evidence from petroglyph inscriptions suggests that this script, too, was known in the earliest Islamic period. The script would soon be used for copying the Koran, though the date is uncertain. The Andalusian Koranic scholar Abu Amr ad-Dani (d. 1052 C.E.) describes seeing many early Korans, but he does not mention the script or page materials, only the spelling and contents.
In any case, at a very early Hijri date, a dichotomy was born: a swift, practical script for daily use, and a formal—soon to be calligraphic—script for special or formal occasions. The first would eventually evolve into the modern calligraphic styles, the second into the broad-pen Koranic calligraphic scripts that, for lack of authenticated terminology, we conveniently label “Kufic.”
The Arabic language spread with the Islamic religion, and with it, the Arabic alphabet: 29 letters (including Lam-Alif) written from right to left like Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and other languages from the same family. Other languages—such as Persian, Turkish, and Spanish—soon came to be written in versions of this versatile alphabet as well.
It seems clear that soon the concept of calligraphic correctness—that is, legibility and repeatability—began to emerge among the scribes (katibs). This can be observed in probable first-century Koranic texts and the papyrus texts of correspondence between early Muslims. Two concepts of writing coexisted—one slow and formal, one fast and practical; the first, calligraphic and the second, scribal.
In the first Islamic century, the art of calligraphy was born, and with it the trade or art of the calligrapher. The first formal scripts to emerge were from the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula, most likely from the city of Medina. Well-written examples of these early “Kufic” Koranic scripts are truly spectacular, with a stately verticality and regularity that sets them above less carefully written work.
A related script that emerged during the Umayyad caliphate, which ended in 749 C.E., is a compact and flat script of wonderful subtlety and economy. The name of this script is not known, and it is generally, though incorrectly, called Mashq. A particularly nice example can be found in the Beit al Qur’an Museum in Bahrain. Records suggest that other scripts were also beginning to find favor among writers of non-Koranic texts.
We can trace to this period the first evolution of writing into an esthetically mature calligraphy. The grand inscription belt in the Dome of the Rock is the lasting testimony of those first-century concepts—something totally new in world art. Executed in mosaic tiles, this band of calligraphy is a perfectly legible, fully artistically realized monumental form of the earliest Koranic script. To be that good, that confident and exuberant only seven decades after the Hijra, is really impressive. The concept of the belt of calligraphy as an architectural component is still used today, in fresh ways.
In the late Umayyad period and early Abbasid period, names and a little information about some of the great calligraphers, such as ad-Dahhak Ibn Ajlan and Yusuf Ibn Hammad, begin to show up in the Arabic source literature. So far no signed examples of their work have been found, and we can only guess what their calligraphy was like.
A fair number of manuscripts written in the second and third centuries A.H. have been partially or wholly preserved, such as those in the Sanaa collection in Yemen. For the calligraphic historian, however, the problem remains: We have the names of scripts, such as Jalil, Ma’il, Mashq, Kufi, etc., but no way to actually attach them to known examples. For instance, we simply do not know the name of the thin angular script that became ubiquitous around the end of the ninth century. The scholar of early scripts Francois Deroche wisely calls it “the new script.”
How could such a thing happen? Why was so much lost? Without dated, signed, examples, or at least some kind of clue, everything is mere conjecture. We may have to get used to the fact that we will never know. Good detective work can go only so far.
In any case, by the end of the third century, the whole edifice of calligraphy in the Islamic domains was essentially in place. Korans were copied in huge numbers with varying degrees of skill. The stationer’s trade was practiced, as was the government scribal trade, and art materials were being produced. The art itself was discussed and found to be beautiful, necessary, and valuable. There were libraries, customers, professionals and amateurs, a connoisseurship, a market.
The plentitude of scripts was recognized as the glory of the art. The thick, straight, flat Koranic scripts held sway for writing the Koran. They came in many sizes, from quite large to minuscule. Once paper was introduced and sizing and burnishing were developed, a new angular Koranic script (Deroche’s “new script”?) emerged from an earlier non-Koranic style. Massive gilding and illumination styles came into fashion. The use of parchment and vellum died out, along with their characteristic scripts, in regions where calligraphers took up the more versatile paper.
We can hypothesize a great number of scripts being developed and then abandoned for non-Koranic usage. These were indispensable for writing the books that a bright, intellectually open, and exploring culture demanded. These scripts were swift to write and tailored to specific uses. There were scripts for government documents, dictation, letters, shopping lists, and even pigeon-post.
When the Dome of the Rock was restored by the order of the Caliph Al-Ma’mun (reigned 813-833 C.E.), something new was added. A barely visible narrow belt consisting of verses from the Koran was written in an unmistakable early Sulus script (Thuluth in Arabic). Obviously Sulus—eventually to become the most important script in calligraphy—has ancient origins. Just as obviously, we can see it emerging from the “soft” non-Koranic scripts. Remarkable even in the age of the great Kufi Korans, Sulus was seen to have monumental potential. It was the harbinger of all the great scripts that were to follow.
Beginning around the 10th century C.E., things get a bit clearer for the historian. There were religious, social, and political events that shaped the development of the calligraphic and book arts. For a good study of them I recommend the work of Yassir Tabbaa.
Baghdad was the great fermenting yeast-bowl of Islamic calligraphy. In the over 500-year history of the Abbasid Caliphate, this city saw the consolidation of the art of calligraphy as a fine art (in the classical sense) and the rise of the great founding teachers and their followers. The newer styles began to achieve ascendancy over the older more rigid ways of writing. This is usually expressed as happening in three stages.
The first stage was the work of the Vezir Abu Ali Ibn Muqla (d. 940), a statesman, poet, and calligrapher, and his brother Abu Abdullah Ibn Muqla (d. 949), a religious professional who was also a calligrapher. The three-time vezir, a man of ethical subtlety and nuance, was eventually framed by his lesser court rivals, disgraced, tortured, and left to die in the caliph’s dungeon. None of the two brothers’ work remains, unfortunately, so we have to rely on the testimonials of later observers. Nevertheless, their influence was immense. Their most important contribution was recognizing the need for a system of proportion that would make the scripts replicable as well as more legible and more elegant. Although the brothers’ own attempts to create such a system were not entirely successful, the concept of the “proportioned writing” is associated with them. Also associated with them is the selection of the famous “six scripts”: Muhakkak, Reyhan (later called Reyhani), Sulus, Tevki, Rika, and Nesih), which became stable scripts that were the base for most of the improvements to come.
The next great innovator of Baghdad was Ali Ibn Hilal, known as Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1022). He was a craftsman in his youth and also became an important religious figure. It may well be that he was the first significant visual artist in Islam. He refined the methods of the Ibn Muqlas and may be responsible for developing the contemporary method of maintaining intra-script proportion by using as a unit of measurement the dot made by the proper pen for the script in question. He was a skilled interior painter, which led him not only to develop his talent as a calligrapher, but also to illuminate most of his own work, which was rarely done by calligraphers. He had an iconoclastic, possibly even irascible, temperament and affected odd get-ups, such as yellow turbans and an excessively long beard. Because of his humble origins, he was teased and taunted by the toffs and wags of high society. A famous mosque preacher, he is said to have copied 64 mushafs and taught many students, who perfected and spread his method. Only one of his Korans is known—the famous one written in Reyhan (not, as claimed, in Nesih) script, which is in the Chester Beatty Collection in Dublin. The authenticity of other works said to be by him is contested, but some are likely his, or by his students closely following him.
The third great master was Yaqut al-Mustasimi (d. 1298), a house slave of the last caliph of the Abbasid line in Baghdad, al-Mustasim Billah. He was a eunuch, possibly of Anatolian origin. He wrote, it is said, 364 mushafs and survived the sack of Baghdad by Hulagu Khan in 1258. He radically altered the method of Ibn al-Bawwab and brought a new consistency, fluency, and elegance to the art. Yakut’s “seven students” (the most famous among the many who studied with him) took his versions of the six styles, made their own versions, and spread them over the central Islamic domain, making them the standard. He has left a multitude of authenticated works to study.
One student (not one of the seven) was Muhammad Ibn al-Wahid from Damascus. (d. 1311) He learned Yaqut’s new method and went to work in Mamluk Egypt. There Yaqut’s style was not appreciated; the Mamluks clung to Ibn al-Bawwab’s evanescent but locally popular style. Alledgedly a man of dubious character, Ibn al-Wahid was said to be lazy (probably by the envious), yet was liked in high places. More important, he was an incomparable calligrapher, leaving the greatest masterpiece of Mamluk calligraphic art—the seven-volume Koran in gold Tevki script, now in the British library. He wrote a very fine, sensitive commentary on Ibn Al-Bawwab’s wonderful poem “Rhyming in R,” full of calligraphic advice. The last important work in Ibn al-Bawwab’s style was written by Muhammad at-Tayyibi (or at-Tibi) in 1503 in Egypt, a veritable Rosetta stone for early calligraphic scripts and styles.
These are only a few of the prominent artists of the pre-Ottoman period, part of a continual stream of calligraphers. Calligraphy was both a court-sponsored enterprise and a cottage industry, involving a large supporting cast of paper makers, stationers, pigment and ink makers, gold beaters, and the like. The art had its own rules, etiquette, and literature and its own jargon of words and concepts. Most of the Arabic terms have been lost, but many of the Persian and Turkish terms seem to have survived, along with the concepts.
From the time of Yaqut until 1480 or so, the calligraphic art continued to mature, but it did not make the huge leaps of progress it had in the Baghdad period. The exception was the development of the Nestalik script in Persia. This was to become very widespread, in many varieties, and one of the most important and beautiful scripts in the artists’ repertoire.
Outside the central Islamic region, other zones saw the development of divergent traditions. The most different and unique was the North African-Andalusian-West African method. This style group, often called Maghribi, consists of many specific scripts, although their names are a bit problematic. They are commonly written with a blunt pen, usually in brown ink. The illumination styles differ as well. This is still a living tradition.
Chinese Muslims also devised a method of writing that contrasted with the main line. The work is done with a brush, rather than a pen, and the aesthetics are definitely Chinese. This too remains a living tradition.
Around 1480, a calligrapher known as Seyh Hamdullah from Anatolia had an inspiration from el-Hizir (a spiritual being alluded to in the Koran who exists outside of time) to totally reform the art of calligraphy, which he did in a couple of years. The rest is history, and is basically the subject of this website (see, for example, “Music for the Eyes”), so I will not dwell on it here.
But let me turn briefly to the early 19th century and imagine a period that extended to the 1920s. This was the age of fulfillment for the art. Works were done that eclipse all that had preceded them and all that came later. The all-time standard was set.
This phenomenon is nicely described by the late Mahmud Yazir, the Turkish scholar of calligraphy:
“Within the Muslim community,” he wrote, “it was not only the Arabs, but the Turks, Persians, Egyptians, Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, Andalusians, Afghans, Central Asians, Indians, Javanese, Kurds, Laz, Bulgarian Pomak Muslims, Bosnians, Albanians, and Circassians who brought forth calligraphers. These and so many more peoples and nations brought up countless illustrious artists; male and female slaves, men, women, poor, rich, religious savants, philosophers, painters, musicians, composers, singers, physicians, rulers, sheikhs, theologians, judges, muftis, kadiaskers, sheikhulislams, vezirs, ministers of state, pashas, generals, shahs, and emperors, all exhausting their lives and ruining their eyesight producing masterpieces of calligraphy.”
Yazir later alludes to the place of Istanbul in this grand scheme: “The city of Istanbul became an exhibition of beautiful calligraphy for all humanity, not just the Turks and the Islamic world. It became a glorious university of esthetics.”
This artistic flowering continued through the final tortuous end of the world’s last Islamic state—the Devlet-i Aliye, or Exalted Empire. Amazingly, amid the chaos of the late Ottoman Empire, the art of calligraphy blossomed and bloomed.
The quotation from Mahmud Yazir is from his Kalem Guzeli, edited by M. Ugur Derman. Used with permission from the editor; translation by Mohamed Zakariya.