Arab language as calligraphy art, 1 July 1998

In contrast to other ancient civilizations such as Babylon, ancient Egypt, and China, whose writing systems date back thousands of years, the Arabs were late comers indeed.

Although Arabic is only second to Roman alphabet in terms of widespread use even today, Arabic script was developed at a much later date. The reason for this late development was that the Arabs were mainly nomadic people, mistrustful of the written word. They relied to a very great extent on oral tradition for the retention of information and for communication.

According to the Arab literary tradition, only the seven odes, called al-Muallaqat, were considered absolute masterpieces, committed to writing and especially honored by being inscribed in golden letters and hung on the walls of the Kabah at Mecca.

Nevertheless, when they recognized the necessity of committing their language to writing, they surpassed the world in the art of beautifying their script. They produced in a relatively short time an astonishing calligraphic development, transforming the Arabic script into an artistic medium that best reflected their genius and attracted their best talents.

The earliest reference to Arabic script proper is with the name Jazm. The Jazm's still and angular characteristics and the equal proportions of its letters no doubt influenced the development of the famous Kufic script (after the name of the city Kufa in Iraq), which followed some time later, and in which these same qualities predominate.

It must be emphasized that the Koran has always played a central role in the development of Arabic script. Several calligraphic variants were developed from the Jazm script, each being called by a name relating to its locality, such as the Hiri of Hirah, the Makki of Mecca and Madani of Medina, but these different names did not imply that the variants had developed very distinctive characteristics; on the contrary, the available evidence points to the existence of only three main styles, which correspond to those known at Madina as Mudawar (rounded), Muthallath (triangular) and Tim (twin i.e. composed of both triangular and rounded).

Of these three, only two styles were maintained, each with distinct features; one was cursive and easy to write, called Muqawwar, and the other called Mabsut, was angular and consisted of thick straight strokes forming rectilinear characters. These two main features governed the development of the early Meccan—Medinan scripts, and led to the formation of a few styles, the most important of which were Mail (slanting) and Naskh (inscription). It is interesting to note that these three styles were current in Hijaz when Kufic script was being developed in Kufah, and endured until after the major reform of the Arabic script which was carried out in this city.

In the early decades of the Abbasid period two Syrian calligraphers, al-Dahhak Ibn Ajlan and Ishaq Bin Hamad, deserve to be especially mentioned. Their fame, however, rests more on their apparently outstanding artistic abilities than on their inventive skills. Ishaq was singled out for his achievements in introducing a greater degree of lightness and elegance to the Thuluth, and for popularizing their use. His pupil Youssef al-Sijzi, who died in 825, created two more delicate varieties of these scripts, which came to be called Khafif al-Thuluth (one third) and Khafif al-Thuluthayn (two thirds).

The Memluk period was an age of great cultural achievement, and there is general agreement that Arab calligraphy attained its ultimate perfection in Egypt and Syria during their rule. The first century of Memluk rule gave rise to special styles of Thuluth and Naskhi, which have ever since been associated with this period.

An extremely important calligraphic development took place during the reigns of Shah Ismael and his successor Shah Tahmasp (1524-76). Under their encouragement the Taliq (hanging) script was properly formulated and developed into a widely-used native script, which later led to the development of Nastaliq (compounded from the names of Naskh and Taliq).

Taliq script, according to some Arabic sources, was developed by the Persians from an early and little-known Arabic script called Firamuz