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The History of Arabic Calligraphy

posted on: Jun 29, 2022

The History of Arabic Calligraphy
Quran Manuscript in new style kufic from Eastern Iran/Present-day Afghanistan, Photo: The Met Museum

By: Caroline Umphlet / Arab American contributing writer


Arabic calligraphy is more than just writing Arabic in an elegant way. It is better described as a culturally rich art form that expresses the beauty of the Arabic language into a visual form. 

The exact origins of the Arabic manuscript are widely debated, whether it stems from writing in the early languages of Aramaic, Nabatean, or Syriac. The first use of the actual writing can be traced to the 6th century mostly preserved from papyrus in Egypt. The manuscript was originally developed for the purpose of communicating ideas and theories across the Arab world and far and wide Islamic civilizations. A large amount of what is preserved is graffiti from the Arab World or coins or engravings. However, the script was not widely used because of the common tradition to pass down stories orally.

The development of the actual art of calligraphy dates back to the 7th century, where the deep devotion to the words of the Quran were translated into a beautiful transcription. There are strong ties to Islam given the common belief that the most pure and original form of Arabic (FusHa/فصح) comes from the Quran. After the spread of Islam, calligraphy was used to preserve the Quran in written form. Consequently, scholars argue the title “Islamic Calligraphy” is more appropriate than “Arabic Calligraphy” considering its deep-seated roots to religion and development in Persia, Turkey, and other non-Arabic-speaking regions.

Comparing Arabic letters with proportions, Photo Credit: The Met Museum

Visier Ibn Muqla is known for his theory of proportion in Arabic calligraphy. It is very important to keep a consistent size among all the letters. Calligraphers will use the dots or naqta as units of measurement. Muqla’s theory established seven dots as the proper length of an Alif, the first letter of the alphabet. However, there have been further developments and changes with different scripts.

The Khamish or reed pen, Photo Credit: Nomad out of Time

The tools and materials used for Arabic calligraphy are essential to the quality of the product. Calligraphers learn to create their own pens (Qalam/قلم) in order to personalize them for different uses. Traditionally, the reed pen has been used because of its flexibility but bamboo is a sufficient substitute. The Java pen is noted for its hard and sharpe edge. The ink is usually soot-based and water-soluble with a variety of colors used. The paper used for calligraphy can vary, but Ahar paper, handmade in central India, is specifically made for Arabic/Islamic calligraphy. It has a barrier between the paper and air so that it does not absorb the ink. This is so the artist can make corrections and erase mistakes.

Styles of Calligraphy

There are six main styles of Islamic Calligraphy, not including slight variations of each. The Kufic style has been found in pre-Islamic Arabic writing from 512 A.D. in Iraq and is known to be the oldest form. Kufic is mostly found as engraving on architecture and buildings. The first Arabic writing did not even use the dots (Nuqta/نقطة) that we use in Arabic writing today that distinguish certain letters. The letter was rather assumed based on its position in the word and the context of the sentence. The dots were later added to help readers understand and pronounce the words easier. There are also different variations of Kufic that developed into their own style.

Neskh Script, Photo Credit: Arab News

Another main style is called Neskh, which appeared in the 10th century. This was a more uniform version of the script that was used in official documents. For example, in letters between governors and rulers and writing of the Quran. The Neskh style was used to decorate ceramics and metalwork. 

Inscriptions on the Taj Mahal which uses the Thuluth style, Photo Credit: Smashing Magazine
Quran Manuscript in the Muhaqqaq style, Photo Credit: The Met Museum
Verse from the Quran written in the shape of a horse, Photo Credit: Egypt Today

Other variations include Thuluth, which means “one-third” referring to the size of pen used and is known for being easily readable. Muhaqqaq is a very angular style. Rayhani is simply a smaller version of Muhaqqaq. Tawqi is a smaller version of Thuluth. The Dawani and Riqa forms were developed in the Ottoman Empire period. Dawani is known for forming complex shapes and figures so it tends to be used with shorter scripts. Riqa was written on small pieces of paper or cloth but is great for long texts. There is even an entire category for calligraphy in the shape of animals: Zoomorphic.

Of course, there are regional variations of Islamic calligraphy, as per usual with the Arab world and Islamic civilizations. The Maghrabi (Western-North Africa) writing is specific to Morroco, other North African countries, and Spain. There are also unique styles in Eastern Asia that diverged from other styles.


Arabic/Islamic calligraphy is a mesmerizing craft with a rich history to tell. This delicate and intricate art is still practiced today and definitely takes a substantial amount of practice over many years to master. Professionals understand the importance of precise corrections of their students and perfecting their technique in order to pass down the art in a respectful manner. Islamic Calligraphy continues to visually capture the beautiful language of Arabic and inspire people from all around the world.

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