Islamic calligraphy, the skilled practice of writing letters so artfully that they become decorative art in themselves, is a beautiful creative form that is tightly intertwined with Islam as a whole. The art has developed and transformed over the course of many centuries, but maintains strong ties to the very beginnings of Islam. In part, Islamic calligraphy flourished because the religion prohibits the depiction of animate objects, meaning that artists are forbidden to draw humans or animals. This limitation inspired creativity amongst Muslim visual artists, who set themselves to task developing a high art based around writing words with extra detail and flair. 


Calligraphy is all the more central to Islam because writing was so crucial to the establishment of the religion. An old Arabic saying teaches that “Purity of writing is purity of the soul.”[1] The act of writing is considered sacred in Islam, because the writing down of the Quran was what enabled the word of God to be carried to new corners of the world.[2] Originally, most calligraphy therefore involved copying the Quran – considered an highly honorable activity – but over time calligraphy became an art in its own right. It has grown to include the artful writing down of other texts, including hadith texts, poetry, literature, and even official documents.[3]  


People usually point to two main styles of Islamic calligraphy: Kufic and Naskh. Both of these styles have been around for hundreds of years, but Kufic seems to have been more popular in the early days of calligraphy.[4] This may be because of the kinds of tools that were used in the early period of Islam – the 7th century – when calligraphy first blossomed. At the time, artists used hard materials like leather, bone, stone, and bark when working on their calligraphy.[5] The lines of the Kufic style are quite harsh, rigid, and geometric, and good Kufic calligraphy would therefore have been easier to accomplish with these hard objects. In contrast, letters written in Naskh style are much more soft, rounded and flowing.[6] Naskh may have only come into being around the year 900, a few centuries after the start of Islam, and didn’t truly become popular until later.[7]


At times, the style of a particular piece of calligraphy would impact how the text had to be presented. Some of the early Kufic styles, for example, were so complex that only 3-5 lines of the Quran could fit onto each page. To solve this problem, the text of the Quran was divided into 30 parts and each part was delivered in a small metal box that was also decorated with its own set of beautiful calligraphy.[8] Indeed, calligraphy was not only written on vellum (paper made from animal skin) or papyrus, but also carved or pressed onto other materials like stone, metal and mirrors. Those who could afford it might even request the production of special fabrics with personalized calligraphy woven into them – a form of ancient, haute monogramming![9]


Even when written on simple paper, Islamic calligraphy is extremely challenging because the artist has to follow many tricky technical instructions. Traditionally, the calligrapher sits holding the paper in his left hand. The paper rests gently on the left knee so that it is flexible enough to bend and move a bit when the pen touches it. The pen itself, cut from a reed, has to be cut and prepared in precisely the right way. The ink has to be made from scratch using ingredients like soot and ox gall – though many of these ingredients are secret, known only to practicing calligraphers.[10]


In the 10th century, Ibn Muqla, then the vizier of the Abbasid caliphate, established a set of concrete standards for the art of calligraphy. He based everything on very precise measurements of the letters, and on the proportions between different parts of the letters, which meant that calligraphers had to pay even more attention to technical details as they painted.[11] Later on down the line, other influential leaders stepped in and single-handedly shifted the trends in calligraphic style – Ibn Hilal al-Bawwab, for instance, pushed the art towards a softer and more elegant style than what Ibn Muqla popularized years before.[12] One of the most amazing things about Islamic calligraphy, however, is that the influence of individuals spread so successfully across the entire Muslim world. This was certainly true of the shift that took place in the 13th century: it was at that point that Kufic became less prevalent and Naskh truly entered the spotlight.[13] Softer and generally easier to read than Kufic script, historians observe that while the favoritism of Naskh probably began in Baghdad, it rapidly spread across the entire Muslim world – so rapidly that when we look back on them, the developments seem almost simultaneous.[14] 


In that sense, Islamic calligraphy can genuinely be imagined as a symbol of unity across the Muslim world. Not only is it a product of the Islamic tradition itself, but also for centuries it has unified millions of people across the globe by filling their world – books, official documents, palace and mosque walls – with a familiar set of exquisite designs. 


A popular story tells that once while traveling, the Turkish calligraphic master Hafiz Osman forgot his purse while en route from Istanbul to Cskudar. With no money, he was almost unable to board the ferry home. Fortunately, thinking on his feet, he successfully paid the ferryman with a beautiful calligraphic drawing of just one letter of the Arabic alphabet.[15] This tale demonstrates well the beauty and value of Islamic calligraphy, as well as the impression even one lone letter can make on the beholder. Perhaps it is also significant that Osman was travelling when the incident took place, carrying the art of calligraphy with him and helping – quite literally – to spread the word around the Muslim world. 


[1] Schimmel, Annemarie and Barbar Rivolta. “Islamic Calligraphy.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 50.1 (1992) 1+3-56. 
[2] Ibid.
[3] Dutton, Yasin. “Islamic Calligraphy by Sheila Blair.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 70.2 (2007) 421-3. 
[4] Schimmel, Annemarie and Barbar Rivolta. “Islamic Calligraphy.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 50.1 (1992) 1+3-56. 
[5] Ali, A.K.M. Yaqub. “Muslim Calligraphy: Its Beginning and Major Styles.” Islamic Studies, 23.4 (Winter 1984) 373-9.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Qijano, Felipe. Journey Through Art History: Islamic Calligraphy. Google Sites, n.d. Web. 28 April 2013. 
[8] Schimmel, Annemarie and Barbar Rivolta. “Islamic Calligraphy.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 50.1 (1992) 1+3-56. 
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid. 
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Tabbaa, Yasser. “The Transformation of Arabic Writing: Part I, Qur’anic Calligraphy.” Ars Orientalis, 21 (1991) 119-48. 
[15] Lings, Martin. “Calligraphy and Islamic Culture by Annemarie Schimmel.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 2 (1985) 199-200.