Farhad Alavi-Mehr
Cache directory "/hermes/bosweb/web063/b634/whl.alavimehr/www/wp-content/plugins/ttftitles/cache" is not writable.History of Calligraphy
April 11th, 2010 at 1:40 pm

The history of calligraphy cannot be separated from the history of Islam. Yasin Hamid Safadi in his book, Islamic Calligraphy writes: “Although Arabic is only second to the Roman alphabet in terms of widespread use even today, the Arabic script was developed at a much later date. The reason for this late development was that the Arabs were mainly a nomadic people and mistrustful of the written word. They relied to a very great extent on oral tradition for the retention of information and for communication. In pre-Islamic times, and especially in the sixth century, which was the heroic age of literature for the Arabs only the seven Odes (or Ghasideh) called Al-Muallaqat, which were considered absolute masterpieces, were committed to writing and especially honored by being inscribed in golden letters and hung on the walls of the “Kabah” at [the city of] Mecca.”

After the advent of Islam in the seventh century CE, the Odes were replaced on the walls of the Kabah as people hung verses from the Quran in much the same way that their ancestors had done in the past with Al-Muallaqat. As Islam spread, Arab Muslims forced defeated nations to adopt their Arabic language and its alphabet as the official language of the people. For a time the whole Muslim world spoke one language: Arabic. This is why Iranian scientists and philosophers like IbnSina or Zakaria Razi, living during this period are sometimes called ‘Arabs’. Centuries later, Iranians gradually went back to their pre-Islamic language while using the Arabic alphabet. This trend started in the eastern provinces of Persia and continued westward up to the border of the Persian territory now known as Iraq. The western part of Persia (Iraq), southern provinces of Byzantium and Egypt, and the northern parts of Africa have all remained Arab-speaking countries to this date. Persian territories that found their independence as sovereign countries used the Arabic alphabet to write their local languages, adopting them as national languages. Turkey, however, under the leadership of president Mostafa Kamal Pasha took a different approach. Beginning in 1923, he began attempts to Westernize Turkish society in order to forge closer links to the European continent. The most damaging change was the adoption of the Latin alphabet in preference to the Arabic.  This change brought to an end that Muslim country’s tradition of Islamic civilization, including an end to the use of the beautiful Diwani and Toghra scripts.  87 Years later, Turkey is still not a full member of the European Union, but the damage to Turkey’s Islamic cultural heritage has been done. Today Islamic treasures of Turkey are as strange to an ordinary Turkish citizen as they are to a tourist coming from east or west. Ironically, Kamal Pasha was honored as Ata Turk (father of the Turks) in 1934 by Parliament for his reforms!

Iranians has always played a great role in the history of Islam. The first Arabic dynasty, known as the Umayyad, was established by Muavieh in 661 CE in the city of Damascus, after the assassination of his rival Ali Ibn Abutaleb, the Prophet Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law. The Umayyads were overthrown by the Iranian Abbasid dynasty in 750CE. They named themselves after the Prophet Mohammad’s uncle, Abbas, and moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad in Persia, a small city near the last Persian capital Ctisphon (56km north west). For a time, the Abbasids ruled the largest country known to mankind, reaching from the Atlantic shores of Marrakesh and Spain to the borders of China and India. Nomadic Arabs could have never controlled or managed such a vast territory without the help of experienced Persians. Persian industries, such as ceramic, glass, and metal works, as well as architecture, science, and technology traveled from the east to the west of the Abbasid Empire. Today pieces of these industries are proudly and respectfully kept as artifacts in the museums of the world. In arts such as painting, for example, it was Persians who popularized their style in the Muslim world. Mani (214-277 CE) a Persian prophet or messenger and the founder of “Manichaeism”, was a nonpareil painter, who used painting to spread his religious message. Although none of his paintings have survived to our time, they were well recorded by historians, including Arab historians. Persian manufactured articles and products that have survived to this date, are so vast and numerous that if you were to remove them from the museums and private collections of the world, little would remain for the rest of the Islamic countries.

History of Arabic Scripts

Before the invention of the “Kufi” script the Arabs had several other scripts whose names derived from the place of origin, such as “Macci” common in Mecca, “Hiri” in Hira, or “Madani” in Madina. Tumari was another script, which was formulated by the direct order of Muavieh and became the royal script of the Ummayad dynasty. Kufi was invented in the city of Kufa in Persia in the second decade of Islamic reign, taking its name from its city of origin. Kufa is some 150 km south of Ctisphon. From the end of the eighth century, thanks to its beauty and complicity, Kufi spread throughout the Muslim world and for centuries it was the major script used to write the Quran. Kufi evolved into different forms and shapes and was used on not just paper and animal skins but things like tissue, ceramic, metal, and even on the walls of mosques or castles. The evolution of Arabic script did not stop with Kufi. Several different other scripts or pens were invented and disappeared, but six of them known as the six pens or Shish Ghalam have survived to this date.

They are known as: Thuluth (Sols), Naskhi, Rayhani, Mohaqqaq, Reqa and Towqi. These six pens are very near to each other and sometimes a calligraphic writing of these six pens is hard to be named. There is no clear distinction especially between Thulus, Mohaqqaq and Rayhani. It seems that they are one script written using different skills. These six pens reached the height of their beauty and popularity in the fourteenth century CE during the rule of the Mongol Il-khanids in Persia. For example in 1304 Uljaito, commissioned a Quran in Mohaqqaq by calligrapher Ahmad Sohrevardi and in 1313, another Quran in Rayhani was commissioned by Abdollah Mohammad Hamadani. The other important script, which became a native script especially among Iranians, Turkish and Muslim Indians was Taliq. Its invention is attributed to an unknown calligrapher from Isfahan called Tajol Salmani, but Shah Tahmasb (1502-24A.D.) founder of Safavid dynasty (1502-1736 CE) ordered the calligrapher Astarabadi to lay down the way Taliq should be written and to popularize it among Iranian people. In the fifteenth century Mirali Sultan Tabrizi, developed another delicate and elegant script based on Taliq. This script, Nastaliq, has since been adopted as the Persian national script. Mirali Tabrizi died in 1416 CE.

In the 17th century a more cursive form of Nastaligh was produced called Shekasteh which needed practice and familiarity for reading. At the same time that the Safavid ruled in Persia, the Ottoman Empire oversaw a golden age of Turkish art, history, and culture. Around 1500, Turkish calligraphers invented a style called Diwani (ministerial) which, like the Persian Shekasteh was difficult to read. In order to set governmental or ministerial documents apart from ordinary documents, they made this script the official script of the Ottoman sultans. The other invention of Turkish calligraphers was a beautiful and decorative shape of twisted letters called Togqra, which was used to form the name the Ottoman emperor, and was employed to  authenticate the Sultan’s orders. Meanwhile in the western part of the Muslim world, the story is not the same as in the east. After the invention of Kufi script in Kufa and the spread of it throughout the Muslim world, the western part of the Islamic world experienced no equivalent of these eastern calligraphic developments. In Arabic, Maghreb means west and the region stretching from the west of modern Egypt to the Atlantic shores of Morocco, including the whole of North Africa, used to be called Maghreb. It consisted of modern Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and even the whole of Spain. Its cultural capital was Kairouan in Tunisia. It appears that a cultural separation occurred between Maghreb (west) and Mashregh (east) in the Islamic world. This separation is quite visible in terms of calligraphic development. So we have a beautiful Kufiin script called Maghrebi Kufi and others like Kairouani, Sudani and Fasi.

Methods of Writing

There are three methods of writing Islamic calligraphy: 1) Designing 2) Writing with quill or bamboo stem or stalk, (Ghalam). 3) Brush

  1. Designing is a method which the artist will design the whole text with pencil and then fill the words or letters with color or gold using a brush on paper or parchment, or raw glaze if on ceramic. In this method the artist has to calculate the size of the letters and the surface, which will place the writing.
  2. For thousands of years bamboo stem has been the most common tool used to write Islamic calligraphy. Quill may have been used in very early days but bamboo stem has long been commonly used. The size of the writing usually corresponds to the thickness of the bamboo stem.
  3. Brush is used when the work is done on ceramic and before final cooking of the tile or pot. Most of the time the artist has to design the calligraphic painting before execution. Sometimes very simple work helps the artist to use the brush directly on the material and no prior design is necessary.