Make your own free website on


Arab Calligraphy
The Arabic script stands second only to Roman script in the world. It is a script which prevails throughout the Islamic world extending from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the East.

With the advancement of Arabic culture, greater refinements of taste in almost all walks of life including calligraphy was noticed in Arabia and other Muslim countries where Arabic script was adopted as the national script. The Arabic calligraphy both in beauty and variety was also influenced by local conditions and a few celebrated calligraphers wrote as many as fifty different Arabic scripts. The earliest monuments of Arabic writings are the trilingual (Greek, Syraic and Arabic) inscriptions of Zebed dated 512 A.D. and the bilingual (Greek and Arabic) inscription of the Harran in the Ledja dating 568 A.D.

During the early period of Islam, the principal material written on was leather. 'Besides this palm leaves, camel bones, flat white stones, wooden tables arrd parchments were also used for writing purposes.

The origin of Arabic script has not been established some think it to be a developed form of stiff angular script called kuJi by the Arabs. Balazuri and many others hold it to have been invented in the state of Lakhmids. Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Khalikan corroborate this view and maintain that 'Art of writing spread from Hira or Anbar'. The Arabic script replaced the prevailing script of the countries conquered by the Arabs-Arabic replaced Syraic in Iraq, Syria and Palestine; Pahlevi script in Persia; Coptic and Greek scripts in Egypt and primitive Berber script in North Africa.

The period of the Abbasid Caliphate is the golden era of Islamic culture, distinguished for the great advancement of Arabic sciences and arts. The Arab calligraphy, too, received great impetus during the Abbasids reign, Hitherto Arab calligraphists concentrated ln the writing of the Quran and on monuments of stone, but now greater refinement and variety was visible in the work of Arab calligrapbists.

Greater attention was now paid to the artistic development of Arab calligraphy. During and before the Abbasid rule a script called Khutut existed which was Used for the writing of the Quran and for profane literature. During the Abbasid Caliphate a number of outstanding calligraphists existed. One of them was Gli Bin Ubaida al-lpihani who invented Rihani script. He was also a prolific writer who lived under Mamrim and died,in 834 A.D. The others were Wazir Ibn Mukla (885--940 A.D.) and his brother Abu Abd

Allah Al-Hassan (881--942 or 950 A.D.). No reliable specimen of their art is available escept an alleged autograph of Mukla preserved in the Khedivial Library, These last two calligraphists are taken to be the reformers of written script. Ibn Khaldun holds that kufic characters were changed by Mukla into the present type of script.
Ibn al-Bawwab who died in 1022 or 1032 A.D. was a celebrated Arab calligrapher called 'Ibn al-Sitri-’ He wrote 64 copies of the Quran. One of them was written in Rihani script which is preserved in the Laleli Mosque of Istanbul to which it was given by Sultan Salim I. The Diwan of the pre-Islamic poet Salma bin Jandal copied by him in a beautiful hand was placed in the library of Aba Sufya. He improved Rihani script and invented Muhaqqi script. He started a school of Calligraphy at Baghdad which lasted upto the time of Yaqut al-Mustasimi.

Yakut aI-Mustasimi, the court calligrapher of Al-Mustasim Billah, the last Caliph among the Abbasids acquired great fame. A script called Yakuri derived its name from him. The two Qurans written by him in 1290 and 1291 are still extant and exhibit the stiff Naskhi of the later Persian period. Yaqut's signature is written in a kind of Suls. According to a western critic, "He owes his fame more to fashion than to anything else".

On the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate, the centre of Arab culture shifted fo Egypt, the largest Muslim country where the Fatimids had formed their Caliphate, During the first half of the 6th Century Hijrah, the round Script was greatly developed and used in books by Arab calligraphers in Egypt. Under the Ayyubid dynasty of Egypt it was mostly used on stone monuments, e.g, Saladin's incriptions on the arch and minbar of the Mosque Aqsa in Jerusalem. During Mamluk rule of Egypt very beautiful designs of round Arabic script were developed by calligraphers and specimens are found in Qurans written for the Sultan and Amirs of Egypt of that period.

During the rule of the Abbasid, Fatimid and other Egyptian dynasties much attention was paid both by government departments and by private individuals to calligraphy. Kalkashandi in the second volume of his great work enumerates 6 different types of official scripts:--
(1) Al-Tumar aI-Kamil (in several variations, used for official correspondence of monarchs).
(2) Mukhfasar al-Tumar (in two variations - al-Muhakkak and al-Thulth).)
(3)AI-Thulih (in two forms--al Thaqil and AI-KhafiS)
(4) Al-Tawki (in three forms).
(5) Al-Rika (in three forms).
(6) AI-Ghubnr (in one form).

During the Mamluk period, stone monuments exhibited graceful script--the letters of which were more elegant and slender than any produced up to that period.

After the fall of the Mamluks, the Ottoman Turks too patronised Arabic calligraphy and much attention was paid to it both officially and privately. As late as the XI century A. W. more than 30 different scripts were known. The celebrated Turkish caHigraphers who left behind immortal specimens of Arabic calligraphy were Hamd Allah (died 1530 A.D.) and Hafiz Othman (Usman) who died in 1698--99 A.D.

Arabic calligraphy declined in Arab countries after the 14th century A.D., but it became more refined and artistic in Muslim countries, especially Persia where Arabic script was adopted and verses of the Quran were frequently written in different forms. The Persians developed Arabic calligraphy to a high degree of perfection. The famous calligraphist Muhammad Rawandi called Najmuddin Abu Bakr Muhammad born at Rawand near Kashan could Write seventy different scripts. Another famous calligrapher Muhammad Husain Tabrizi who received the title of Mihin (greatest) Ustad, has left behind numerous examples of the art of calligraphy. His masterpiece was the inscriptions on the Mosque and Khanqah (sanctuary) of Tabriz which was destroyed in an earthquake.

Arabic calligraphy was developed in different centres where Arabs had settled namely North Africa, Spain, Morocco and Timbuktoo (Nigeria). The Arabic script was modified according to local conditions and was named after local places. In North Africa it was called Maghrabi (western) in Spain It was called Andalusian in Morocco it was called Fasi.

Rare specimen of Arabic calligraphy are still to be seen in the big cities of Islamic world. Greater and greater grace is being added to it.

During the regimes of the pious Caliphs who led simple lives like ordinary mortals and had no palaces, or decorations, the arts could make little headway. But soon thereafter, during the Omayyad Caliphate when Caliphs preferred a life of pomp and pageantry the minor arts received unprecedented encouragement and Muslim artisans became pioneers in the sphere of Minor arts too, The Abbasids who were greatly influenced by Persian culture, built grand palaces and distinguished themselves as great patrons of arts and learning. The other countries where Muslim minor arts flourished were Muslim Spain, Persia and Mughal India; 'Islam was the direct heir to many ancient craft traditions unknown to the west", writes A. H. Christiein thelegacy oflslam. "ln much the same way that Muslim scholars transmitted to posterity a large fund of ancient learning, Muslim artisans preserved, developed and spread abroad the traditional workshop practice of arts in the orient, which had either never penetrated Europe, or, if known there in former times, had decayed during the period of storm and stress that ushered in the middle ages"' Islamic art had its beginnings in the mosque. The early mosques were simple constructions without any decorations. But soon mosques were refined and mahrab and minbar were added to them. Decorations in architectral design and furniture were provided in the mosques. The contact of Arab conquerors with the more cultured conquered nations of Persia and Rome enlarged their vision regarding art and architecture which stimulated the development of art in Muslim countries.

The Muslims soon became great builders and produced skilful artisans. 'Their genius realised definite, architectural ideas with acute technical insight'. Their ideological objections to the presentation of human form, prevented the growth of painting and sculptures among them. But, on the other hand they showed great artistic taste and ingenuity in the ornamentation and design of natural objects which surpassed all presentations of their predecessors. The Muslim artists, artisans and craftsmen soon acquired such a reputation that their products were keenly sought in the Royal houses of distant Europe. "The most casual survey of Islamic art will show that ornamental designs must be ranked as the outstanding minor art evolved by Muslim genius", writes a western writer. In place of artistic decoration through presentation of human images in colour or mortar, Muslims evolved another feature of ornamentation by the use of Arabic inscriptions, passages from the Holy Quran and the name as well as date of death were artistically inscribed on the graves of important people. The Arab dalligraphists showed great ingenuity in the artistic renderings of Arabic fetters on stones, paper and wood which immensely popularised this art in Islamic countries. Later, during the closing period of the Abbasid Caliphate and the Mughal Empire of India, passages from the Holy Quran and verses of Persian poets were artistically inscribed on the walls of tombs and mosques. The front arch of the famous Taj Mahal of Agra presents an unique specimen of an artistic inscription from the Holy Quran.

Pottery made of clay and glass were developed to a high standard of perfection in Muslim countries. The chief beauty.of high class pottery manufactured in Islamic countries lay in the floral designs, neat finish, riot of colours and glazed surface. China had been the workshop of high class pottery long before the advent of Islam, but after the 9th century A.D., Muslim potters rivalled and even excelled their Chinese counterparts. According to western writers, 'blue and white' colours were used for pottery in China, but the typical blue was an innovation of Muslim potters and even in China it was known as 'Muhammadan Blue'. This colour was superbly used on certain wares made at Kutahia (Asia Minor) during the 15th and 16th centuries A.D. As regards artisanship, Muslim pottery occupies an outstanding place. The Muslim potters exhibited great originality by inventing new designs. The excavations carried on by archaeologists in Muslim countries have revealed high class glazed pottery in the ruins of Fustat (old Cairo), Samarra (old Baghdad) and Rayy, In the field of lustre or glazed pottery Muslims achieved great success. Pieces of such wares of different varieties used during the IOth century A.D. have been found in North Africa and Spain. Fustat (old Cairo) was a great centre of pottery making from the 9th century to the 11th century A.D. and the famous Persian traveller Nassir Khusrau has described in detail the wares used there during the 9th century A.D.

During the regime of the Abbasids, art and architecture registered phenomenal progress. The excavations at Samarra have brought out exceptionally high class wares used by the Abbasids.

This pottery bears even the date of manufacture and hence is of much historical value. Sa'ad was the most skilled potter who signed his wares. Egypt did not lag behind and lustre painting was an innovation of Egyptian potters,The material used in Egypt was different from the pink and yellowish Baghdad clay.

The Spanish Muslims, too, developed this handicraft to a high degree and created a new tradition known as Hispano-Moresque. Valencia was the centre of painted pottery and specialised in the manufacture of drug jars. The Italians later successfully emulated Spanish lustre pottery. Toledo and Cordova and Malaga made exquisite pottery. The Iranian wares like those of Egypt, were made of a hard white paste with transparent alkaline glaze. But these were of finer quality. Iran which has been the cradle of Islamic culture introduced ornamentation in pottery. Sultanabad in Persia was the manufacturing centre of a special type of dark blue and black wares during the 13th and 14th centuries. Rayy was a great centre of the ceramic industry and made typical miniature wares. The craftsmen in Rayy introduced several novelties. Abul Qasim, a member of a distinguished family of Iranian potters had written a treatise in 1301 A.D. on the technique of pottery making adopted by the Saljuq Turk potters. The manuscript of this treatise is available in the Museum of Istanbul. The Saljuq wares are known for their glaze, wealth of bright colour and hardness. The floral designs were commonly used in the pottery made in Damascus and Persia. But the Persian wares of this type were exceptionally graceful. The chief characteristic of pottery made in Asia Minor was its red colour, which was conspicuous by its absence in Syria.

The ˇgold and silver works of the period of early Islam are non-extant. The earliest extant silver work of Islam is a casket in the cathedral of Gerona which is made of wood sheathed with silver-gilt plating heavily patterned in response with scrolling foliation'. This casket was made by two craftsmen Badr and Tarif for a courtier of Al-Hakam II (961--76 A.D.) the Omayyad ruler of Spain. The Muslim goldsmiths and craftsmen had excelled in metal work. They introduced several novelties in engraving, caring and floral designs. "Other ways of decorating metals besides raising patterns in relief or engraving them were practised by the Muslim craftsmen. They excelled in the art of inlaying designs in gold and silver, in bronze and brass; a process performed in several ways, known as 'damascening'.... In the 15th century the oriental trade established by Italian cities during the Crusades flourished exceedingly. Eastern products became popular in the splendid pageantry of the petty Italian princes, whose workmen adopted them as models and began to emulate their triumphs. In Venice Muslim metal work inspired native craftsmen so profoundly that a distinct Venetian-oriental school arose in which Muslim technique and designs were adapted to the renaissance taste". The Royal palaces in Muslim states bore metal wares of exceptional beauty and designs. The famous Muslim historian al-Maqrizi gives a long list of heirlooms hoarded in the palaces of the Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt which include vases for narcissus flowers and violets, golden birds and trees set with precious stones. The Persian traveller Nassir Khusrau who had a chance to see the Fatimid Palace in 1047 describes a throne kept in the 12th room which bore excellent metal work and was decorated with scenes of a chase. This had a wonderful golden trellis. Among the Abbasid Palaces of Baghdad was one named Dar-us-Shajar. It contained a tree in the middle of a tank made entirely of gold, with birds perched on its branches made also of gold and studded with precious stones. The Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan was of exquisite artistic beauty. It was made of gold set with precious stones. The bronze, brass and copper works of the early Islamic period are extant. One of these is a huge bronze Criffin which stands in Pisa (Italy) which was probably brought from the Fatimid Palace of the 11th century A.D. The inlaid metal work in Muslim countries reached its peak during the 12th century A.D. and Muslim craftsmen were considered by all to be the masters of this art; A specimen of this period is a brass ewer kept in the British Museum. A large number of metal wares and articles with inlaid work made for decorative purposes were introduced by Muslim craftsmen during the 13th and 14th centuries A.D. New designs were invented day after day which could satisfy the refined tastes of cultured and wealthy Muslims. . The Persian craftsmen during these centuries introduced greater refinements in their metal wares compared to Mughal and Egyptian ones. But the devastation, wrought by Mongol hordes in Baghdad, Syria, Persia and Turkistan struck a death blow to the pursuits of arts and scattered their art treasures as well as their artisans.

In wood and ivory works too, Muslim artisans excelled during mediaeval times and introduced several novel features. Floral designs and engraving of letters in wood and ivory works were common features. Several decorative devices in wood wares were used which included assembling of small panels, floral designs, engraving of letters and making figures of birds and animals. Mudejar craftsmen excelled in woodwork, textiles and pottery.

Ivory work, too, was highly developed in Muslim countries. Cordova, the capital of Muslim Spain was a great centre of ivory work and in the 1Oth century A.D. it housed a school of ivory carving, which produced beautiful things of ivory including caskets, toilet, perfume and jewellery boxes, with paintings, representing musical performances and hunting scenes. One of the finest examples of this work is a cylindrical casket kept in the Museo Arguelogico at Madrid which was made in 964 A.D. and was presented as a gift by the Caliph Al-Hakam II to his wife. Another superb example of Muslim ivory work is a remarkable rock crystal ewer in the treasury of Saint Marks, Venice, which bears the name of the Fatimid Caliph, Al-Aziz. "The Arabs in Spain", writes Philip K. Hitti, "carried on almost all the minor and practical arts developed by Muslims in other lands. In metal work involving decoration, raising patterns in relief or engraving them, inlaying with gold and silver and inscribing characters, the Hispano-Moresque School excelled....In the 15th century we find imitations of this Muslim pottery produced as far North as Holland. From Spain the industry was meanwhile introduced into Italy. Its influence is noticeable in the later Spanish vessels, with their pseudo-Arabic inscriptions ˇand Christian heraldic devices. In other forms of ceramics, as well as mosaics, especially tile and blue faince, the Spanish Mulim school distinguished itself. The various kinds of coloured tiles still favourites in Spain and Portugal are a legacy from the Arabs, as the name azulejo, suggests”.

Decorative tiles were used in the walls and floor of buildings in Asia Minor and Syria. During the 16th century A.D. some of the large buildings in Constantinople and Brussa (Ottomail Turkey) had their wells gleaming with beautiful tiles with black outlines and coloured in green, blue and red. The Syrian tiles, on the other hand had floral designs and were distinguished from Turkish tiles. The Kashani tiles which were introduced into Syria from Persia were much preferred for the interior decoration of buildings.
The glass industry thrived in Syria where material for glass manufacture was found in abundance. All sorts of glass wares were manufactured in the Syrian towns of Antioch, Alleppo and Damascus. The process of enamelling and gilding glass was perfected by the craftsmen ofTyres. The Spanish manufactured glass was inferior to that of Syria. The Syrian glass was highly priced in Mediaeval Europe. The Syrian glass wares included lamps, lamp shades and vessels of exceptionally beautiful designs. The museums of Louvre, London and Cairo contain exquisite pieces of pottery, glass and metal wares excavated from the ruins of Fustat and Samarra.

.The Egyptian and Spanish binders excelled in leather binding which was later introduced and copied in Europe. The Persians had specialised in the industry of carpet weaving since the days of early Islam. Even during the present day Persian carpets are considered to be the finest in the world. Hunting and garden scenes were favoured in rug designs. Thus minor arts were developed to a high degree of perfection in Muslim countries during mediaeval times. The wares manufactured in Muslim countries were in great demand all over the civilized world. Writing in Legacy of lslam, A. H. Christie admits, "For more than a thousand years Europe has looked upon Islamic art as a thing of wonder; at first largely because it was closely associated with lands deemed the Christian heritage, but later solely by reason of its own intrinsic beauty....With the Crusades a new era opened. The half fabulous magnificence traditionally ascribed to the Saracens became a reality to astonished Christendom. A host drawn from every part of Europe came suddenly into close contact with a social order that in every respect outraged the harrow limits of their experience. In every activity of life the reactions of this impact with alien progress soon became apparent, and in art its results were by no means the least far reaching. As time went on Italian merchants established direct traffic with Syrian ports, oriental trade became regularly organised and all kinds of rare things from Islamic workshops arrived in European markets. These imports met new-found needs, aroused emulation wherever they went,and opened up lines of development either immediately or in subtle ways destined to mature in the future"