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Volume 15, Number 4July/August 1964

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A Noble Art

To the Arab world calligraphy is more than handwriting. It is a "spiritual technique" that beaches out with grace and elegance to engage the eve, mind and soul...

Written by Kamel Al-Baba

In a broad sense, calligraphy is merely handwriting, a means of recording and transmitting information, sometimes clearly, sometimes not, but in most instances hastily and with little regard for its appearance. In the Arab world calligraphy is something more. It is an art—indeed the chief form of visual art—with a history, a gallery of great masters and hallowed traditions. It is an art of grace and elegance which inspires wonderment for its appearance alone.

What distinguishes calligraphy from ordinary handwriting is, quite simply, beauty. Handwriting may express ideas, even great ideas, but to the Arab it must express, too, the richer dimension of aesthetics. Calligraphy to the Arab is, as the Alexandrian philosopher Euclid expressed it, "a spiritual technique," flowing quite naturally from the influence of Islam.

For thirteen centuries the dominant influence in the Arab world has been the Islamic religion. Its sacred book, the Holy Koran, as the word of God revealed to Muhammad in the Arabic tongue, has inspired generations of calligraphars who have sought to reproduce its words with a perfection of style worthy of its contents. Islam has exerted also a more subtle, a more indirect influence on the development of calligraphy: by discouraging the graphic representation of human beings and animals it channeled the creative energies of Muslim artists toward other decorative arts, especially calligraphy. Because the Koran itself has always been the most widely owned and widely read book in the Muslim world, the incentive to produce beautiful transcripts of the work has been powerful and constant. And because the final product was portable and relatively durable, the art acquired status among a people with nomadic origins.

Historians disagree on both the birthplace and the birth date of Arabic writing, but the most widely accepted theory is that it developed from Nabataean, one of the many west Aramaic dialects which served as the international language of the Middle East from about the 4th century B.C. until the 7th century A.D. In that period, however, the vigorous tide of Muslim expansion flooded the Middle East, and the Arabic of the Arabian Peninsula quickly supplanted Aramaic as the lingua franca of the area. So thorough was the Arab conquest of the vast Nabataean empire that today only the "rose-red city" of Petra remains, the silent tomb of a city in the Jordanian desert.

Of the two styles of Nabataean script—Early and Late—the Early style is characterized by its angularity and straight strokes; it is the precursor of kufic script. The Late style developed from commercial need. The Nabataean nation, astride the crossroads of the Orient, required a fast, flowing writing style to record its transactions, and the smooth and cursive naskhi was the natural result. The kufic and naskhi styles were the first to be used by the ancient Arabs. For inscriptions on stones, kufic script proved to be at once the easiest to incise and the most majestic in appearance. The impressive style was carried over to record sacred works on parchment.

As the oldest Arabic script, kufic was used during the early Islamic period for copying the Koran. But the Prophet Muhammad's scribes themselves favored naskhi when they wrote letters and other everyday communications. One of the scribes, a Companion of the Prophet, named Zaid ibn Thabit, who wrote down the first complete version of the Koran, assisted by three members of Muhammad's tribe, produced another in naskhi during the Caliphate of 'Uthman. The latter version superseded, throughout Islam, all earlier transcriptions, which were ordered burned. The revision of 'Uthman, the only standard text of the Koran up to the present day, was immediately copied and distributed in the Arab centers of Mecca, Damascus, Basra, Kufa and Yemen, where regional variations in script in time evolved into other styles.

During the Umayyad era (661-750) of Damascus, shortly after the death of the Prophet, Arabic calligraphy flourished. Late in the Umayyad period the celebrated Katabah—the Scribes—began the modification of kufic script, which became the form employed today in calligraphic decorations. The Katabah are also credited with the invention of thuluth script. Another famed penman, Khalid ibn al-Hajjaj, who was well known for his elegant copies of the Koran, wrote the 91st and subsequent suras (chapters) of the Koran in letters of gold in the prayer niche of the Prophet's Mosque in Medina. Unfortunately, this work flaked off bit by bit through the centuries, until today there is nothing left.

In the 'Abbasid era, which followed the Umayyad dynasty, Vizier Abu 'All ibn Muqlah (d. 940) achieved great renown by completing the development of kufic from its ancient forms into modern forms, and his elegant new style was copied throughout Islam. After Ibn Muqlah, leadership in the art of calligraphy passed to 'AH ibn Hilal, better known as Ibn al-Bawwab ("Son of the Doorman") (d. 1022), who perfected the rules of penmanship and conceived a number of variations of thuluth script. Most calligraphers who followed him carried on his concept of design until the Caliphate fell to the Ottoman Turks and Arab creativity declined in the East.

Three types of contemporary script are thus wholly of Arab origin: kufic, naskhi and thuluth. Of these the kufic style is unquestionably the greatest achievement in Arabic calligraphy. Its beauty and majesty make it ideal for ornamental purposes. With the spread of Arab conquests in the East and West, and the building of new places of worship, palaces and homes, the people felt the need to embellish the structures with ornamental designs. But because Islam discouraged the depiction of the human body, the Arabs turned to other sources of design to decorate their utensils, ceilings and walls. Kufic script supplied artists with another medium of expression, which was and is widely used for the decoration of building spandrels and entablatures.

The Arabs of medieval times used interlaced geometric lines derived from the kufic style to adorn the walls of palaces and mosques, and the name of this decoration—arabesque—is a constant reminder of its cultural origins. Arabic calligraphy forms a central part of the ornamentation of the Moorish palace of Alhambra, in the province of Granada, Spain. This famous citadel, overlooking the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the Great Mosque of Cordoba, also in southern Spain, are monumental examples of decoration which combine kufic and arabesque.

The Moors of Spain enlisted the services of their Christian compatriots to apply arabesque designs. Some of these so-called dhimmis, or protégés of Islam, had no knowledge of Arabic and made designs in kufic script without the slightest understanding of what they were writing. As a result, some old Andalusian vases exist today with ornamental inscriptions which make no sense whatsoever. The letters were merely strung together by an artist intent on creating something beautiful, rather than meaningful.

It was during the 17th century, under the Ottoman Empire, that Arabic calligraphy attained its highest development. The Ottoman sultans who acceded to the Caliphate showed high regard for their court calligraphers who, among other commissions, executed the royal insignia. Called the "Imperial Monogram," it consisted of tiny, exquisite interlaced writing in the thuluth script, denoting the names of the reigning sultan and his father. The monogram was stamped on imperial orders and royal decrees, and appeared on coins of the realm in the same way that, elsewhere, a monarch's likeness is used. Similar monograms are still in use in Iran today by ordinary citizens.

Two great 17th-century Turkish artists—al-Hafiz Osman and Mustafa Rakim—are especially worthy of mention. Osman received fame for his naskhi writings and for the many copies of the Koran which he penned in ink and gilt. Mustafa Rakim rebelled against the lifeless conventionalism which characterized much Arabic calligraphy up to his time. He was always seeking ways to bring a more dynamic beauty to the art, even to the extent of sometimes drawing his characters to resemble the form or features of a woman. The suggestion of a tall figure could be seen in his alif (ﺍ), the letter in Arabic which corresponds to the letter "A" in the Roman alphabet. His 'ain (ﻉ) was often drawn to resemble a provocative arched eyebrow.

Happily, Rakim was able to enjoy the appreciation and admiration of his contemporaries. It is on record that Sultan Mahmud II used to stand before him, as a pupil before his teacher, holding his inkstand while the master drew. It is not surprising that the sultan should show such admiration, for he himself was a noted penman—an expert who recognized expert performance.

The Ottomans, however, were not content merely to improve the types of script which they inherited from the Arabs. They also added to the calligraphers' repertoire the dizaani script, with its two variants, and the ruq'ah script which, because of its stenographic simplicity, is now used by most Arabs for their everyday writing.

The use of Arabic script continued in Turkey until the last days of its Ottoman rulers, but lost status with the demise of the Empire at the end of World War I. During the presidency of Kemal Atatiirk, father of modern Turkey, Arabic characters were replaced by the Roman alphabet, slightly modified, which continues in use today. The magnificent calligraphic legacy of the scribes of former times can still be seen in the mosques, museums and palaces of Istanbul, and even now calligraphers throughout the Middle East regard Istanbul as the spiritual home of their art.

When the great days of Ottoman calligraphy passed, Egypt fell heir to the role of protector and preserver of the art of Arabic writing. In 1921, King Fuad I called the famous Turkish calligrapher, Muhammad 'Abd al-'Aziz ar-Rifa'i to Cairo, where he transcribed the Koran and gilded the result. Soon afterward King Fuad founded a school to pass on the learning and artistry of the finest calligraphers of our time. This school is still in existence. Urdu, Kurdish and Persian are among the languages which still use an Arabic script, even though genetically they are more closely related to English than they are to Arabic. Yet there is little likelihood that these language groups, or the Arabs, will exchange their writing system for the Roman alphabet, though this has often been urged for the sake of uniformity, simplicity and adaptability to printing devices such as typewriters. With four forms possible for each of the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet, any mechanical means of printing is relatively costly and complicated. But cultural as well as religious pressures argue against the adoption of any such system. Not only is the Holy Koran written with a script which is, for all practical purposes, the same as that used in daily life, but the vast treasury of Arabic poetry, which every Arab reveres, is inseparably associated with the script in which it was originally written.

Kamel al-Baba, one of Lebanon's leading professional calligraphers, studied under Najib Hatoawini, former calligrapher to the Royal Court of Egypt. Mr. al-Baba lives and works in Beirut.

This article appeared on pages 1-7 of the July/August 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1964 images.