Citation for Calligraphy and Epigraphy

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Schimmel, Annemarie . "Calligraphy and Epigraphy." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 25, 2022. <>.


Schimmel, Annemarie . "Calligraphy and Epigraphy." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 25, 2022).

Calligraphy and Epigraphy

The art most cherished by Muslims throughout history has been calligraphy. A saying attributed to the Prophet claims that a person who writes beautifully the Basmalah, the formula “In the name of God the Merciful the Compassionate,” will enter paradise. The feeling that the Qurʿān, being Godʾs own word, should be written in a style worthy of its contents has led to the development of different calligraphic styles. The ancient Qurʿāns were written in the heavy script called Kufic on vellum in broad format; the letters had neither diacritical marks nor vowel signs. Kufic became the favorite epigraphic style, and its most complicated forms, called floriated, foliated, or plaited Kufic, appeared on tombstones, buildings, and utensils. One style called square Kufic is used to this day for decorative purposes.

Nonreligious texts were first written on papyrus, but when the Muslims learned the art of papermaking from the Chinese after 751 CE, numerous styles developed in the cursive hand generally termed naskh. The shapes of the letters were standardized by Ibn Muqlah (d. 940) in a refined system of triangles, circles, and semicircles and measured by dots according to the breadth of the reed pen. This system was further developed by Ibn al-Bawwāb (d. c.1020) and reached its apogee in the writing of Yāqūt al-Mustaʿṣimī (d. 1298).

In Iran, a “hanging” style prevailed (with a strong tendency to accentuate the writing toward the lower left), influenced by the character of the Persian language. This style also was standardized according to Ibn Muqlahʾs system around 1400 and was then called nastaʿlīq. It is well suited to poetic texts in Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and Urdu. In later times, nastaʿlīq was “simplified,” and the letters were connected in ways that seem illegible to the uninitiated, although strict rules prevail. This style was called shikastah (broken); it is used to this day in Iran and sometimes in the Indian subcontinent.

Special attention was given to the scripts used in chancelleries such as the large, complicated tawqīʿ, the Ottoman dīvānī, and the musalsal (the “chainlike” script) so that no one would be able to imitate or fake the text of important documents. The Maghribi script, which does not follow the rules of Ibn Muqlah, was restricted to North Africa and Andalusia where writers often used colorful ornamentation of the pages. A similar development can be observed in the Bihari script used in India from the Middle Ages for Qurʿānic texts. These are the basic classical styles of writing that were used through the centuries, with regional variants, wherever Islamic culture prevailed.

The traditionalism of calligraphers was and still is so strong that it seems next to impossible to distinguish between a calligraphic page (lauḥah) written by the great Turkish calligrapher Shaykh Hamdullah (d. 1520) and one composed by one of his spiritual heirs Hâfiz Osman (d. 1689) or ʿAzīz Rifāʿī (d. 1934); as in other Islamic arts and sciences, the silsilah (chain of transmission) that leads back to the founder—or ideally to the Prophet or ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib—is of central importance. Calligraphers still boast of their connections with the earlier masters of the craft. Hence, innovative trends developed not so much in copying the Qurʿān or hadīths but, rather, in architectural epigraphy and the decoration of ceramics, metalwork, and the like. Here the inventive power of the artists—almost all anonymous—could show itself from the beginning.

Different types of mirrored script (even fourfold mirroring occurs) are particularly strong in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ottoman Turkey and the countries under her influence. To write Qurʿānic texts in circular forms, as one often sees them around the apexes of mosques in Turkey, inspired a number of modern artists to create circular sets of invocations or of the divine names. Such calligrams, which have proliferated throughout the Muslim world during the past two or three centuries, are usually called tughrā. The tughrā originated in the elaboration of the rulerʾs handsign that was placed at the top of a document. The true Ottoman tughrā is easy to recognize: two oval loops to the left and three vertical strokes are the basic ingredients; these are drawn around the name of the ruling sultan and then decorated according to the taste of the era. In the nineteenth century, such tughrās were used on banknotes, postage stamps, and coins; many good calligraphers in both the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim states of India invented fine tughrās for these purposes and thus kept the tradition alive. Later tughrā-like writings using the traditional forms were added. These appeared, for example, on title pages of books showing the publisherʾs name or place. They are often formed from pious invocations, prayer formulas, or saints’ blessings; typical is a tughrā made for Mawlānā Rūmī in Turkey, which was turned into a fine piece of jewelry. A great many tughrās contain the Basmalah. The term tughrā was frequently employed from the nineteenth century for any artistic form of calligraphy, however different it might be from the original style. An increasing interest in meaningful “pseudo-tughrās” is visible in this period, when books on the construction of such forms were published, for instance in India.

The last Mughal emperor, Bahādur Shāh Ẓafar (d. 1862), was not only a fine poet in Urdu but also a skilled calligrapher who produced, as did many of his contemporaries, faces, flowers, and trees formed from sentences. To write an invocation to ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib in the shape of a lion was particularly admired by Shīʿīs because ʿAlī is called Asad Allāh, “God's lion.” The art of forming faces and even human figures from letters seems to have developed especially in Turkey, mainly among the Bektāshī Ṣūfīs whose convents were adorned with figures and faces made up from the names of the Panjtan (the “five persons” of Muhammadʾs family) or other important persons. Calligraphers even tried to write entire sūrahs in animal or flower shapes in both Turkey and India; horses and elephants appear there, and even more common are different kinds of birds, especially for the Basmalah. Falcons and storks are among the most frequently used motifs, but recently a Malaysian artist created a lovely kingfisher from the Basmalah. Somewhat earlier, the perfect semicircular endings of Dīvānī script were used to construct a blessing formula for an Ottoman ruler.

Calligraphy does not consist only of these delightful games with letters. All over the Muslim world, artists began to create new or at least less traditional forms of writing. A fine example is Iran, where the masters not only excelled in superb nastaʿlīq and even in classical naskh (as did Nairīzī, the leading master of the eighteenth century) but also produced a remarkable renaissance of calligraphy in recent decades. Some Persian calligraphy of the late nineteenth century appears to be influenced by Art Nouveau. The classical style of Mīr ʿImād (d. 1615), with its sharp distinction between the thick and thin lines in nastaʿlīq, is still an unsurpassable model, but it was modernized when Mirzā Riz‥ā Kalhor (d. 1893) wrote somewhat thicker hairlines as an adaptation to reproduction by lithography. ʿImād al-Kuttāb (d. 1936) continued Kalhorʾs style and deeply influenced the present generation.

Contrary to the classical rule of writing a page with perfectly black or monotone ink, modern Persian calligraphers instead let the ink flow irregularly to achieve a livelier effect; by using different colorful inks they produce calligraphic “paintings” of great beauty. Recent exhibitions of Shams Anwari-Alhosseiny (Cologne) or the new publications of Jalīl Rasūlī clearly show the possibilities of this style, which attracts a number of young artists. Other trends range from the “telling” calligraphies of artists such as Adharbod to the sculptures of Parvīz Tanāvulī, who uses words such as hīch (nothing) in various positions in his metalwork. Many approaches are found in Iran, where the art of calligraphy is strongly encouraged. Some modern calligraphers in both Turkey and Pakistan have striven to invent styles that in a certain sense conflict with the classical ideals. In the 1950s in Turkey, they used a “flame script” in which the letters are strangely bent; some artists from the Indian subcontinent try to modernize the time-honored forms by introducing weird angles and sharp edges into the letters.

More convincing are attempts to use square Kufic for decorative purposes. This style was often used in the Middle Ages to decorate walls—the Iranian and Central Asian mosques are good examples—because the rectangular shape of glazed tiles lent itself readily to square forms, and Arabic formulas with their comparatively high frequency of tall letters like alif and lām could be well reproduced in this style. It was used also, though rarely, for book decoration. Recently, many leading artists have developed different types of decorative square Kufic; the letters may be written in a square and then cut by diagonals, parts of which are then differently colored. They can be used to form cubes or dodecahedrons; they may appear on ceramics or batik on silk (as in the Iraqi Wasmaa Chorbachiʾs work); or the artist (e.g., the Iraqi ʿIṣām al-Saʿīd) may use traditional motifs in new techniques such as embossing and color etching. Among the best-known modern calligraphers is Aḥmad Muṣṭafā, an Egyptian living in London, who writes a perfectly classical naskh-muḥaqqaq but produces (often in silkscreen technique) fascinating works using mirrors and reflections yielding highly pictorial yet legible color calligrams.

Very different are the works of the Iraqi Hassan Massoudi in Paris, whose most recent publication displays new techniques with what appears to be a dry brush, contrasting one large and artistically shaped word or brief sentence with a background of smaller letters. The artist, who—like several other contemporary calligraphers—was trained in Western arts, often uses brown and blue hues. Some of his large letters remind the spectator of Chinese Arabic calligraphy, whose beauty has only recently been discovered: there the artists produce a style resembling the Chinese script with a large brush, and only at a second look does one realize that the characters are indeed Arabic. This unusual style may well influence some modern artists.

In much modern calligraphy (aside from Qurʿānic manuscripts, which continue to be written in the classical style), the border between calligraphy and painting is often blurred. An exhibition in Karachi in 1975 showed many different approaches to calligraphy in Pakistan alone. Almost every major artist had produced some painting in which calligraphy was used to form a picture or in which calligraphic fragments and pseudocalligraphy appeared—the letters becoming graphic forms devoid of literal meaning. Some pictures resembled graffiti on walls; others ventured to combine Mughal architectural structures with a “Kufiesque” style (as Aslam Kamal put it). The attempts of the Pakistani painter Sadiqain to produce a version of some sūrah by forming calligraphic pictures has been criticized by both calligraphers and orthodox Muslims. However, one example from this series of paintings is worthy of mention. This is his illustration of the Qurʿānic phrase kun fa-yakūn, “Be! and it becomes,” in which the round endings of the letter n form a spiral nebula out of which the whole universe emerges. The work of the Pakistani artist Guljee also contains some calligraphic pictures and interesting bronze structures; his masterpiece, however, is the miḥrāb of the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, which he shaped like a large book of marble, inscribed in a medieval style of Kufic with parts of sūrah55, al-Raḥmān.

Artists have become increasingly interested in using abstract letterforms in their work. Good examples are Nja Mahdoui from Tunis, who does not attempt to write something meaningful but uses letters in isolated and combined forms simply to achieve a fine work of art. Similarly, the Lebanese Ḥusayn Māḍī uses letters in an innovative way, without deeper meaning. Likewise, Wajih Hakleh tries, as his critics claim, to “transcend” pure calligraphy.

Everywhere, interest in calligraphy is increasing. Even Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which use scripts other than the Arabic for their languages, seem to be interested in turning back to the traditional Islamic features of calligraphy and are producing both modern interpretations of traditional forms and calligraphic paintings. The same holds true in Turkey, where a revival of the calligraphic arts can be observed, thanks largely to the activities of the International Research Center for Islamic Culture and Art (IRCICA) in Istanbul, where competitions in classical calligraphy are held. Many Turks, deprived of the Arabic alphabet since the introduction of the Roman script in 1928, feel that they would like at least to read the beautiful inscriptions on mosques or the tombstones of their ancestors, and so attempts are being made to introduce young people to Arabic letters, and a few young calligraphers may continue the tradition of a country famed for its outstanding calligraphy.

The general interest in the art of writing is visible in the increasing tendency to decorate cards for Muslim festivals such as the two ʿīd, or announcements of important events with calligraphic text—some of it truly beautiful and some merely well meant. Even UNICEF has added some classical and modern Arabic calligraphic works to the motifs on their holiday cards. Many books printed in Islamic countries have calligraphy of varying quality on their covers, and European or American books on Islamic topics are more often than not decorated with classical or modern calligrams. There are even computer programs offering different styles of Arabic writing. Recently there have appeared computer-generated calligraphy or letter-combinations that, although not “real” calligraphy, show the possibilities of the Arabic script for decorative purposes. These may contribute to further interest in the calligraphic tradition and may perhaps inspire artists to even more innovative experiments.


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