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What Is Arabic Calligraphy?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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Discussion Comments
By candyquilt — On Dec 12, 2014

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.

By discographer — On Dec 12, 2014

@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.

By fBoyle — On Dec 11, 2014

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.

By kandil — On Jul 26, 2014

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

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