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What Is Arabic Calligraphy?

Arabic calligraphy is the artistic practice of handwriting in the Arabic script with harmony, symmetry, and grace. This ancient art form transcends mere writing, encapsulating cultural identity and spiritual dimensions. Each stroke tells a story, weaving tradition with contemporary expression. Discover how this timeless craft continues to captivate and inspire—what will it reveal to you?
J.E. Holloway
J.E. Holloway

Arabic calligraphy, also called Islamic calligraphy, is a form of writing which has become an important traditional art form in the Muslim world. Calligraphers produce elaborate designs using Arabic script. Arabic calligraphy often has a religious or devotional theme, and often includes prayers or passages from the Qur'an, Islam's sacred text. The shahada, or Muslim profession of faith, is a common subject.

Calligraphy has a special place among the arts in the Muslim world because of the traditional prohibition against representative art in religious contexts. Islam prohibits the worship of images, and many Muslim cultures extend this prohibition not only to images of Allah but to all religious figurative art. As a result, non-figurative art forms such as calligraphy have a high degree of importance in Islamic culture compared to the cultures of Western Europe. Arabic is the language of the Qur'an, giving Arabic calligraphy a special status even in Muslim cultures where Arabic is not the dominant language.

Arabic calligraphy is a traditional art form in the Middle East.
Arabic calligraphy is a traditional art form in the Middle East.

Over the long and varied history of Arabic calligraphy, a number of different styles developed in different regions. For example, the early Kufic style is highly linear, with sharp angles and straight lines. A later calligraphic style, the Nash or Naskh script, is much more fluid.

The traditional instrument of Arabic calligraphers is a type of pen called a qalam, made from a reed with a shaped and notched tip. This type of pen has a long history in the cultures of the Middle East. In other parts of the world, the primary instrument is different. This is the case in the Chinese Muslim community, where brushes are the standard tool.

A traditional quill may be used in calligraphy.
A traditional quill may be used in calligraphy.

Inscriptions in Arabic calligraphy appear in a wide variety of contexts. Calligraphic designs are common in books, particularly sacred texts, but they also occur on pottery, coinage and other objects. Inscriptions in Arabic calligraphy are an important part of the decoration of many mosques. These inscriptions are combined with geometric decoration to create a visually striking effect. In some mosques, the passage from the Qur'an chosen for the inscription relates to the part of the mosque it adorns.

Passages from the Qur'an are often written out in Arabic calligraphy.
Passages from the Qur'an are often written out in Arabic calligraphy.

One unusual type of Arabic calligraphy is the calligram. In a calligram, the calligrapher uses the words of the inscription to create a picture. The picture is often related to the text of the inscription, creating a visual pun. Calligrams are a form of popular calligraphy and do not usually appear in mosques or other high-status contexts.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the historical significance of Arabic calligraphy?

Brushes and ink are used in Chinese Muslim calligraphy.
Brushes and ink are used in Chinese Muslim calligraphy.

Arabic calligraphy is deeply rooted in Islamic culture and is considered an art form that dates back to the 7th century. It was initially developed to transcribe the Quran and has since evolved into various styles. Its significance lies in its role as a means of preserving the Arabic language and Islamic heritage, as well as its use in architecture, decoration, and communication. Arabic calligraphy is not only an aesthetic expression but also a reflection of spirituality and intellectualism in Islamic societies.

What are the main styles of Arabic calligraphy?

The Koran is the major religious text that Muslims follow and interpret.
The Koran is the major religious text that Muslims follow and interpret.

There are several prominent styles of Arabic calligraphy, each with unique characteristics. The most notable ones include Naskh, which is known for its clarity and is widely used in print; Thuluth, recognized for its elegance and often used in mosque decorations; Diwani, characterized by its complex curves and used in Ottoman documents; Kufic, one of the oldest forms with geometric patterns; and Ruq'ah, the most common handwriting style in modern Arabic. These styles showcase the versatility and artistic depth of Arabic calligraphy.

How does Arabic calligraphy differ from other forms of calligraphy?

Arabic calligraphy is distinct in its use of the Arabic script, which is written from right to left and consists of 28 letters that change shape depending on their position in a word. Unlike Latin-based scripts, Arabic calligraphy places a strong emphasis on the horizontal axis, where letters are elongated and connected in fluid and intricate ways. The art form also incorporates a high level of abstraction and complexity, often integrating calligraphic pieces into geometric and vegetal designs, known as arabesques.

Can Arabic calligraphy be considered a form of religious expression?

Yes, Arabic calligraphy can be considered a form of religious expression, particularly within the context of Islam. Since the depiction of human and animal figures is often discouraged in Islamic art due to the prohibition of idolatry, calligraphy has become a primary means of artistic expression. It is used to convey religious texts, most notably verses from the Quran, and is imbued with spiritual significance. The art of calligraphy is seen as a way to honor the divine word and is often incorporated into religious architecture and artifacts.

What is the process of learning Arabic calligraphy?

Learning Arabic calligraphy is a disciplined process that requires patience, practice, and a deep understanding of the script's form and rhythm. Students typically begin by studying the basic strokes and shapes of individual letters, gradually progressing to more complex compositions. Mastery of calligraphy involves learning under a skilled calligrapher, understanding the proportions and spacing of letters, and becoming proficient with traditional tools such as the qalam (a reed pen) and ink. As with any art form, becoming a skilled calligrapher takes years of dedicated practice.

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Discussion Comments

candyquilt

I saw a lot of Arabic calligraphy when I was in Egypt. I could read many of them but some of them were so complex and intricate, that it was difficult. Aside from their meaning, Arabic calligraphy is extremely beautiful. Sometimes I just stare at it and wonder how they made something like this. The way the letters connect and form designs is very interesting. It's truly an art. I hope to learn it someday and make my own calligraphy.

discographer

@fBoyle-- Those are some great questions. Of course, not all Muslims know Arabic but all Muslims recite prayers in Arabic. These are prayers taken from the Qur'an and the hadith. Muslims memorize them and recite them. Even if Arabic is not their native language, most Muslims read Arabic Qur'an and/or Qur'an in their own language and know what the prayers mean. Moreover, in most Muslim countries, Qur'an classes are offered where children and adults can learn to read and write in Arabic so that they can recite the Qur'an.

I've never seen Islamic calligraphy in a language other than Arabic but I could be wrong. Most people purchase Arabic religious calligraphy and hang it up in their homes and workplaces for blessings. For example, we have one in our home which says "bismillahirahmanirahim." It means "in the name of Allah, the most merciful, the most compassionate." It is a blessing and good luck to start everything by reciting this first.

fBoyle

So do all Muslim nations have Arabic calligraphy? Don't they make any religious calligraphy in their own language? But how do they understand what it says? Not all Muslims know Arabic as far as I know.

kandil

Nice article, as I am an Arabic calligrapher. I make use of it.

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    • Arabic calligraphy is a traditional art form in the Middle East.
      By: TRITOOTH
      Arabic calligraphy is a traditional art form in the Middle East.
    • A traditional quill may be used in calligraphy.
      By: Andrzej Solnica
      A traditional quill may be used in calligraphy.
    • Passages from the Qur'an are often written out in Arabic calligraphy.
      By: Orhan Çam
      Passages from the Qur'an are often written out in Arabic calligraphy.
    • Brushes and ink are used in Chinese Muslim calligraphy.
      By: JeremyWhat
      Brushes and ink are used in Chinese Muslim calligraphy.
    • The Koran is the major religious text that Muslims follow and interpret.
      By: Eray
      The Koran is the major religious text that Muslims follow and interpret.