The Arabic Calligraphy

Arabic Calligraphy…A Universal Art

Toughra - Turquie - 19ème siècle
Coran - 18ème siècle

Calligraphy is the art of beautiful writing akin to drawing or painting. It embellishes the text and adds some interpretative value. The Qur’an played a major role in the development and evolution of Arabic writing, and thus, the Arabic Calligraphy.

If it was initially used for the Qur’an, it rapidly extended to administration, architecture and ceramics. Calligraphy was no longer limited to books; it has conquered monuments and ornamented objects. This art gained momentum in the Arab-Muslim world. It became prestigious and a symbol of this civilization, along with the art of illumination. They are both wide-spread in both manuscripts & architecture where their musical qualities, both rhythmic and melodic stir amazement and wonder.

Calligraphie et architecture Médersa Attarine - Fès Maroc
Coupole de la Mosquée "Selimiye" à Edirne, Turquie (16ème siècle)
Calligraphie de Hassan Musa
Calligarphie et enluminure Ghani Alani

Islam and Art

The theory that says: “As Islam prohibits any depiction of God, the Prophets and living things, the development of calligraphy has circumvented this precept by a stylized writing” remains controversial. Indeed, to refute these allegations it is easy to recall that the forbidden has never been able to stifle a means of expression. This art, which is calligraphy, reached its apogee in a nation that glorified the verb. This evolution may be partly explained by history and environment. The Arabs were people of oral tradition, arpentators of arid nature, travelers; they had always lived with poetry, their art of predilection. The word materializes the image in a kind of ephemeral materiality combining declamatory musicality and meaning. Later, when the writing took its place in this culture, calligraphy was a natural extension.

Versets du Coran en styles Muhaqaq et Thuluth

The school of Baghdad

Many schools of arabic calligraphy were created, each drawing from the wealth of local arts. Thus Persian, Turkish, Andalusian-North African schools were founded… each characterized by their own style. Some of these schools were influenced by styles that emerged in the golden age of Islamic civilization from the eighth to the thirteenth century, where one of the great schools, that of Baghdad, was marked by three great masters. Each of them worked the letter as a raw material which bears the imprint of his knowledge in painting, architecture or philosophy.

The first, Ibn Muqla (886-940), who made of this art an exact science using the notion of perfect proportions to establish the rules of calligraphy. This principle was also applied to all arts, it was based on the union of beauty and utility. Taking advantage of his position as vizier, Ibn Muqla introduced calligraphy in the form of ministerial writing in administrations. Over a century later, a new dimension was given to the letter by another master of the School of Baghdad, Ibn Bawab (12th century). He perceived in the letter the image of a human being divided into head, body and leg … Then a third great master, Mustaâsimi (13th century) from the same School, endowed the letter of its spiritual dimension, so that henceforth we see in calligraphy an architectural form that embraces the soul of the letter.

Calligraphie, mesures et proportions
Versets du Coran en caractère coufique - Iran - 11ème siècle
Calligraphie en style Nasta'liq - 1575


There is a wide variety of calligraphic styles contingent upon the era, the materials, and the calligrapher. Also according to the needs and desires, and the type of the written document: calligraphy intended for the Qur’an, or comment thereof, that of poetry, administration etc…. Two styles may be distinguished in Arabic calligraphy: the Kufic (straight) and the cursive (round). The first cursive writing dates of the first years following the advent of Islam. The copyists would transform this first irregular form of writing and make it more harmonious. The first Arabic calligraphic style, the Kufic, named after the Iraqi city of Kufa, combines lines and circular shapes, while remaining a style dominated by horizontality. Different trends are marked according to the uses and supports, creating new styles: square Kufi, leafy Kufi, floral Kufi, etc…

Alongside the Kufic style, we find the cursive calligraphic styles characterized by the fluidity of the line. The gestures, movements and dynamics are characteristics and factors that determined the emergence of new styles such as the Diwani (Diwan style, Ottoman chancery). In this variety of styles, one can also cite the Thuluth, the Farsi or the Naskh.

In the western reaches of the Muslim world, the Maghreb and Andalusia, inspired by the shape of the ancient Kufic, gave birth to novel free forms not subject to strict rules. One can still admire the elegance of their creation, under the name of Andalusian-Maghrebi, both in manuscripts and architecture. As for the Persian school, it was characterized by three main forms: the Ta’liq, the Nasta’liq and the Cheekasté. The Turks also created several forms: the Tugra, the Diwani, the Ruqaa and many others … As for African Muslims who were inspired by the Andalusian-style, they created new styles to transcribe their languages ​​such as Swahili… The Chinese Muslims in the meanwhile, invented a new form known as the “Chinese Style”.

It is interesting to note that in this area, unlike the West, the East never partitioned the different knowledge, they have never given this art qualifiers such as classical, modern, futuristic … Time has never been considered to describe a style; And the oldest, the ancient Kufic has been best suited to new technologies; when discovered, some considered it as a style of avant-garde.

Toughra du Sultan ottoman Selim III Calligraphie en style Diwani 16ème siècle
Manuscit Style Andalou-maghrébin Maroc
Versets du Coran en caractère coufique sur parchemin teint en bleu - 10ème siècle.
Calligraphie Latine "Arabisante" de Julien Breton

The influence of Arabic Calligraphy on the West

Today, the West reckons the obvious influence of the Islamic civilization, including arts. In this regard Henri Loyrette, curator of the Louvre, confirms: “The influence of the Arts of Islam in our culture is pregnant and continuous.” Calligraphy, as an integral part of Islamic Art, has inspired both Arab and Western artists, and especially fascinated European artists in the twentieth century as can be seen in Alechinsky, or Dotremont Michaux example. The art of beautiful writing becomes an excuse for the exploitation of new forms and fluid dynamics. Thus Kandinsky in his research seems to fit into the continuity of the work already undertaken by the great master calligraphers of the East. Matisse acknowledges the influence exerted by the Arab art on his lines and colors. He says, speaking of “expansive will,” that he drew this notion from the East: “the revelation came to me from the East or, more precisely from Islam. This art affected me, especially during the extraordinary exhibition in Munich … because this art suggests a wider space, a veritable plastic space”.

We, the Orientals, and our relationship with our Art

It is understandable that the sensitivity of a Western artist would leave them spellbound by these letters and lead them to use them in their works; any exchange is rewarding in that it is not a denial of its own cultural ancestry. But we see the curious attitudes on the part of Arab artists that address the letter as a subject newly emerging in the world of art. They could easily tap into their own culture to find the way to work with the letter. Yet some turn away to adhere artificially to other cultures. Such a rejection result in insipid works. This seems dangerous and open to criticism! Indeed calligraphy is and has always been a great Art producing masterworks. No need to be credentialed by using concepts that belong to other cultures.

Today, some wonder about this legacy: while some ignore this art deliberately, others reproduce it without any will of change as if the traditional forms should stay immutable. These two attitudes are inadequate, the art of the lines is not dead, and it lives and must continue to evolve. This art is like modeling clay in the hands of the Arab or Muslim artist to give it a new boost.

Calligraphie de Hassan Massoudy

The Word of the End

Today, calligraphy has become the art form most revered in the Islamic world, because it bridges the gap between the literary heritage of Arabic language and Islam. The result is an artistic tradition of extraordinary beauty, and extremely rich. The universalism of this art is predominant in the Far East, the Middle East and in the West as well where its revival appears as a revenge of a writing thought to be confiscated. It is common today to see exhibitions, artists, photographers, artists…rubbing shoulders with painters and artists calligraphers.

Arabic Calligraphy has regained its true meaning of universal language.

"Ya-Rahim", par le calligraphe chinois Noor Deen Mi Guanjiang
Timbre U.S. réalisé par le calligraphe américain Mohamed Zakariya
Habillage extérieur d'avion réalisé par Nja Mahdaoui

Sources :
 Calligraphie Arabe et enluminures (G. Alani – Conférence Mai 1995 – Les amis de l’université)
 La Calligraphie Arabe et splendeur Ottomane ( F. Bernardi – Chroniques – mémoires 2002)
 Le Louvre honore les Arts de l’Islam (A. Colonna-Césari, M. Leloup – L’Express du 03/11/2005)