The message of Islam was delivered to the Prophet Muhammad in the Arabic language and recorded in the Koran in Arabic script. Arabic calligraphy, therefore, derives its great prestige in Islam from the fact that it is the chosen vehicle for the Word of God.
As rich examples at the World of Islam Festival suggest, Muslim calligraphers, who consider it an act of piety and merit to copy the Koran and to make the copy as beautiful as possible, have lavished their taste and talents on both the lettering and the illumination of the page. They have, indeed, raised the art of the book to heights of dignity and refinement seldom achieved elsewhere.
As the shapes of Arabic letters are essentially abstract, geometric, two-dimensional and rhythmic, they have much in common with other forms of Islamic art. Quotations, therefore, are used decoratively on metal-work, pottery and textiles, carved in wood, marble, stucco and ivory, and applied to the walls, domes and minarets of mosques.
But the quotations are more than decoration; like the icons of the Eastern churches and the statues and holy pictures of the West, they act as reminders of the Word of God, an affirmation of the faith. And although the calligraphy is often so elaborate that it can hardly be read, it suggests to the pious Muslim a well-known text or familiar phrase, letting his memory and imagination supply the rest.
Broadly speaking there are two scripts used in Arabic calligraphy, the Kufic and the Naskhi. Kufic—a name apparently derived from the town of Al Kufa in Iraq—is square and monumental and dates from very early Muslim times or even earlier. Naskhi —meaning "copying,'' that is, writing quickly—is more cursive and began to replace Kufic in the 12th century.
Although the earliest example of the Koran still in existence was written in a pre-Kufic script, most of the earliest Korans were written in Kufic. They were inscribed on vellum, often on horizontally oblong pages, and are only sparsely decorated, with a solemn dignity. It is impossible to tell where they originated but many of them are now in Tunisia, in the collection of the Great Mosque of Kairouan.
Egypt is rich in Korans of the Mamluk period—the 14th to the 16th century—highly illuminated in gold and colors and often of great size. The Iranian collections contain not only Persian Korans, but also Mongol and Timurid Korans of great richness and beauty.