Islamic Calligraphy

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Battle from the Shahnameh with calligraphy

Calligraphy has traditionally been regarded as the noblest and most revered form of artistic expression because most of the Arabic words and expressions that are written come from the Qur’an which is regarded as the word of God and thus should be expressed as beautifully and with as much care as possible. The act of making calligraphy is regarded as an act of worship. It has been said that what the “human body has been to Western art, the word has been to Islamic art.”

Calligraphy often repeats passages from the Qurʾan in a stylized script that may employ arabesques or geometric patterns as borders or other embellishments to the artwork. John L. Esposito wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: In Islamic visual art concerns about idolatry have led historically to bans on the representation of human beings. Thus, the Islamic art that is most cherished is based upon the use of Arabic script in calligraphy (the art of beautiful writing) or of arabesque (geometric and floral) designs. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

A hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad says that one who beautifully writes the phrase "In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate," the first words in the opening chapter of the Qur’an, will enter paradise.

Websites and Resources: Islamic Art and Architecture: CalligraphyIslamic, lots of Islamic calligraphy ; Islamic Arts & Architecture / ; British Museum Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers ; Architecture of Islam ; Images of mosques all over the world, from the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT ; Islamic Images ; Victoria & Albert Museum ; Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar

Books: Blair, Sheila S. Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. Grabar, Oleg. The Mediation of Ornament. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Written Arabic

Arabic is written with a flowing Arabic script read from top to bottom and right to left (as opposed to left to right like English). According to one joke Arabic is read right to left rather left to right because of a mix up: those martyred expecting 72 virgins upon their arrival to heaven were presented with one 27-year-old virgin. Numerals are written from left to right. Arabic has also been written with the Hebrew, Syriac and Latin scripts. Arabic script has been used to write Persian, Ottoman Turkish, Urdu and a host of other languages, It has been used to write languages without scripts in Central Asia, and other places.

First Surah of the Koran

The Arabic alphabet is believed to have been influenced by the Phoenician alphabet, which also provided the basis for Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets, and the language of the Nabataeans, the inhabitants of Petra. The current Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters that are made from 17 basic forms that consist of simple vertical and horizontal strokes. All the letters are basically consonants. Vowels are indicated by marks above and below the letters. These marks are usually omitted except in school textbooks and the Qur’an.

Written Arabic is psychologically and sociologically important as the vehicle of Islam and Arab culture and as the link with other Arab countries. Two forms are used: the classical Arabic of the Quran and dialectical Arabic. Classical Arabic is the essential base of written Arabic and formal speech throughout the Arab world. It is the vehicle of a vast religious, scientific, historical, and literary heritage. Arabic scholars or individuals with a good classical education from any country can converse with one another. [Source: Helen Chapan Metz, ed. Algeria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

The ambiguities of the Arabic language itself facilitates plays on words and the varied interpretations that result. These multiple meanings contribute to the enjoyment of both unchanging and variable insights and thus represent part of the appeal of Islamic literature. As the direct word of God, the Qur’an is viewed as religious literature as well as a perfect literary document.

Passages and Words Used in Islamic Calligraphy

Most calligraphy consists of scriptures from the Qur’an, sayings of the Prophet and prayers written in Arabic but can also be used in secular expressions. With the use of figures and animals and plant motifs limited by Islamic restrictions, the written word of the Qur’an became an important source and element of Islamic art. Some Arabic calligraphy looks like abstract designs. The Arabic script can be twisted and shaped into all sorts of elaborate geometric and curvilinear designs. The single word Allah has been transformed into labyrinthine designs with hundreds of lines.

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Arabic calligraphy originated from the desire for a script worthy of divine revelation in copying the Qur’an. Because of its association with the Qur’an, calligraphy assumed a sacred character and became the highest form of art. Since Islamic art does not represent human forms, calligraphy is used to capture and symbolize meaning and message. Thus, for example, Allah written in calligraphic form became a powerful symbol representing the divine. It is also common to see the names of Allah and Muhammad, or of Allah, Muhammad, and Ali, written in calligraphy as religious symbols, whether on paper, in plaster on walls, or on such ornamental objects as plates or medals. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Popular phrases include the shahadah (“There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God”, the basic statement of Muslim belief), Allahu Akbar (“God is great”) and Ya Rabb (“the Lord). A common statement featured in Islamic calligraphy is: "God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The likeness of His light is a niche wherein is a lamp." Such calligraphic expressions adorns walls and buildings throughout the Islamic world.

Styles and Scripts of Islamic Calligraphy


In the early days of Islam, Arabic was written in two scripts: “Naskhi”, the everyday cursive form, and “Kufic”, a decorative, rectangular form named after the Iraqi city of Kufa. Kufic was commonly used in calligraphy.

Over time six cursive styles became widely used: 1) “thuluth”, 2) “muhhaqqaq”, 3) “naskh”, 4) “rayhani” , 5) “tauqi” and 6) “riqa”. They were used for both religious and secular texts. Some were favored by poets. Among the most highly valued forms of calligraphy were “museelsel”, in which an entire phrase was rendered without lifting a pen; and “makil kufi”, the angular script written in a square format.

John L. Esposito wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: The belief that God's direct words in the Qur’an should be written in a manner worthy of divine revelation has led to the development of calligraphy in many styles and forms. Calligraphy sometimes uses the stylized lettering of Qur’anic quotations or religious formulas to reflect animal, flower, or even mosque figures. Today interest in calligraphy remains high, as is evidenced in its varied use as decorations for holiday cards, announcements of important events, and book covers. Computer programs have been developed that can create decorations from Arabic script. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Calligraphy in Islamic Art

Islamic calligraphy can be found in all kinds of art forms and objects: manuscripts, vases, plates, silver plates, silk robes, pottery, coins and a variety of object de art. Some of the most beautiful calligraphy is on glass and metal vessels. Mosques are feature huge room-size medallions with calligraphy on them. Some of the most gifted calligraphers made imperial Qur’ans and “tugras” (sultan signatures) for the sultans and architectural inscriptions for great mosques. Their work is sometimes executed with gold on a background of lapis lazuli.

Hilye-i serif (Muhammad's physical form)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “ Calligraphy is the most highly regarded and most fundamental element of Islamic art. It is significant that the Qur’an, the book of God's revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, was transmitted in Arabic, and that inherent within the Arabic script is the potential for developing a variety of ornamental forms. The employment of calligraphy as ornament had a definite aesthetic appeal but often also included an underlying talismanic component. While most works of art had legible inscriptions, not all Muslims would have been able to read them. One should always keep in mind, however, that calligraphy is principally a means to transmit a text, albeit in a decorative form. [Source: Department of Islamic Art,Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Objects from different periods and regions vary in the use of calligraphy in their overall design, demonstrating the creative possibilities of calligraphy as ornament. In some cases, calligraphy is the dominant element in the decoration. In these examples, the artist exploits the inherent possibilities of the Arabic script to create writing as ornament. An entire word can give the impression of random brushstrokes, or a single letter can develop into a decorative knot. In other cases, highly esteemed calligraphic works on paper are themselves ornamented and enhanced by their decorative frames or backgrounds. Calligraphy can also become part of an overall ornamental program, clearly separated from the rest of the decoration. In some examples, calligraphy can be combined with vegetal scrolls on the same surface though often on different levels, creating an interplay of decorative elements. \^/


Some of the the most beautiful Islamic calligraphy is found in the Qur’an. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The Qur'an is Islam's holiest book. Revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel, it is considered by Muslims to be the written record of the word of God. In the year 610 A.D., the Prophet frequently visited a mountain cave called Hira', located outside of Mecca, to meditate and pray. On one such visit, Gabriel asked him to recite the first five verses of the Qur'an. He commanded: "Read in the name of your Lord who created; Created man from an embryo; Read, for your Lord is most beneficent; Who taught by the pen; Taught man what he did not know" (Sura 96). [Source: Maryam Ekhtiar, Julia Cohen, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

The divine revelations continued over the course of the next twenty years, first in Mecca, and then in Medina following the migration (hijra) of Muhammad and his followers in 622 A.D. (equivalent to the first year of the hijri calendar). Toward the end of his life, Muhammad began to create a physical copy of the revelations, but he was unable to complete this project before his death in 632 A.D. In the following years, his most trusted companions undertook the task of collecting them from written and oral sources.

9th century Quran

The final codified consonantal form of the Qur'an is thought to have been produced during the reign of 'Uthman (r. 644–56 A.D.), the third of the four "rightly guided caliphs" (al-khulafa-yi al-rashidun). The text has remained almost unaltered to the present day. Because of its divine nature, the Qur'an has been considered by Muslims to be the "mother of all books," or the Umm al-Kitab, and its impact on the arts of the book in the Islamic world has thus been indelible. \^/

The Qur'an is composed of 114 suras (chapters) arranged in order of descending length excluding the first. Many manuscripts, however, are divided into thirty sections, or juz', of equal length (37.142). In this format, the entire Qur'an can be read over the course of a thirty-day month (usually during the month of Ramadan), with one volume being undertaken each day. Other less common units of division, the manzil and the hizb, divide the text into seven or sixty parts, respectively. \^/

Arabic is written with twenty-eight letters of only eighteen distinct forms; dotting above and below these primary forms distinguish between otherwise identical letters. Early Qur'ans often left out these markings (i'jam) as well as short vowels that appear as symbols above and below letters, assuming that the text would be used as a memory aide for recitation by readers who were already familiar with its content. \^/

Calligraphy and Craftsmanship of Early Qur'ans (8th–early 13th Centuries)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The earliest Qur'ans were written in the hijazi or mayil ("leaning") scripts. These scripts—mayil being the transitional script before kufic came into use—slope toward the right (1979.201). The calligraphic style kufic, so named after its origins in the city of Kufa in present-day Iraq, is characterized by more static and angular upright letters that were well suited to writing on parchment as well as to use in architecture and decorative objects. During the Abbasid period, Qur'an manuscripts were produced on horizontally-oriented parchment to match the style of kufic script in which letters were usually extended to create justified margins (37.142). In some cases, individual words were even split across two lines for aesthetic reasons. Simple verse markers composed of stacked diagonal lines or in the form of rosettes were used to guide the reader, but words were typically left unvoweled and without consonant points (i'jam).[Source: Maryam Ekhtiar, Julia Cohen, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

folio from an 8th or 9th century Qur'an

“While early single-volume Qur'ans were often large and even monumental for use in recitations (2004.87), others were miniature in scale (62.152.2) and may have been used as talismans. Regardless of size, great attention was paid to preparing the parchment to receive ink and to the calligraphy itself. In some cases, the parchment was dyed a rich color, further elaborating on the already complex process of preparing the ground (40.164.1a). This practice was first employed in Christian Byzantine manuscripts, which were sometimes dyed purple and written on with gold or silver ink, perhaps inspiring one particularly luxurious manuscript now known as the Blue Qur'an (2004.88). \^/

As paper was imported along trade routes from China to the Middle East, Qur'ans were produced in this new material, which was more economical and easier to prepare than parchment. The introduction of paper into the region allowed for the production of far more Qur'ans than had previously been possible. In North Africa and Al-Andalus, however, parchment continued as the preferred medium for Qur'ans until the fourteenth century (42.63). Despite a continued conservative use of this material, these manuscripts were stylistically very different from earlier kufic Qur'ans, instead employing the maghribi (western) script, characterized by fine spidery lines whose full curves descend deeply below the line of text. Ornate verse markers in the shape of medallions, together with other decoration, further differentiate these later parchment Qur'ans from their predecessors. These illuminated elements not only beautify the Qur'an, but they also serve a primary purpose of aiding in recitation and prayer. \^/

In other regions, Qur'ans were produced on paper in the "new style" script, sometimes referred to as "Eastern kufic" or "Broken kufic" (2007.191). This script, with taller letters and more variation in line thickness, marked a shift to vertically oriented Qur'an manuscripts. The difference between tall and short letters is highly exaggerated in "new style" script, where the letters alif and lam extend far above the main line of the text (29.160.23). Qur'ans from this period often include more ornate decoration and diacritical marks than earlier Qur'an manuscripts (40.164.5ab). \^/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Conversation, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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