The History of Arabic Calligraphy - an Essay on its greatest Artists and its Development

Essay, 2010

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0





Ibn-Muqla and his life's work

Ibn al-Bawwäb

Al-GuwaynT and Yäqütal-Musta'simT.

Calligraphy during the Ottoman Age

Modern Arabic calligraphy





In this Essay I will give a general overview of the development of Arabic Calligraphy from its beginning till today. The reader will soon learn that the evolution ofthis elaborate and complex art was always closely linked to great personalities. Artists that, in its early times, formed and systematized this art, later brought it to its peaks and in the last centuries revised and modernized it. Writing about the History of Calligraphy will therefor be writing about a line of persons that, step by step, on succeeded by another, defined Arabic calligraphy in their time and, in its whole, brought it to where it is today.

As Calligraphy is the art of elaborated writing it is of course closely linked to script and language. The Arabic language developed already before the coming of Islam1, but Arabic calligraphy as an art with different styles, uses and a certain place in society, was a phenomena that appeared in the time of the first great empires. That is why I will focus on the development in and after this times. That means I'm not gonna investigate preislamic Arabic calligraphy or look at the development of the Arabic language and its aesthetic aspects (fields that would provide enough material for interesting researches for its own). The tools Arabic calligraphy is and has been created with, are quite simple and didn't change a lot during the century: the reed-pen and natural ink (applied on quality paper, known since the 7th century in the Arabic world, or on other fine materials). As well didn't the mere techniques of calligraphy: few basic teachings on posture of body and hand, the crafting of pens and the mixing of inks and rules for the clean application of the fluid. But it is the great amount of clearly or sometimes less clearly defined styles and the variety of fields (literature, lyric, architecture, crafts...) where calligraphy is used that make it a complex and demanding subject to study. An art that takes years to learn and a live-time to master it. To better understand the art ofArabic calligraphy I made myselfat last reasonable familiar with its rather basic techniques and tried to produce some calligraphy works by myself. Building the tools and performing Calligraphy is indeed very interesting, rewarding and calming and I can only recommend it to everyone who feels love for the Arabic language.

As the art I will write about has been performed for many centuries and in a great extend, there are many old and new works in display around the work. In the appendix some of them will be shown, to give examples and make this essay a little more than just a historical investigation.

The system oftransliteration I will use is the generalized one used in Germany in Arabic studies2. So let us now take a look on the development ofArabic calligraphy, from its beginnings during the early ages of Islam, till today.


Ifwe are looking for the first real calligraphers, we have without doubt to look at the people that first recorded the message of the prophet Muhammad in written form. The first qur'an- scripts are carefully composed in the beautiful cufic style, a style that already was defined, providing some rules to guide the writer.3 HäUd b. AbTl-Haggäg and others like him manufactured thefirst copys ofthe qur'an in the VII and XIII centuryand itwastheir beautiful writing that precluded them for this task.4 AbTl-Haggäg was soon named Copyist by Caliph Abd al-Malik himself and entered the services of the Omayads. Others followed and calligraphic works where soon highly valued by rulers and court officials. Beside the religious works, a kind of state-calligraphy emerged, offering employment and the possibilities of social advancement for calligraphy artists and therefor made this occupation attractive to more people. The paper and ink production started to flourish and a general desire for books and learning developed in the first big cities of Islam. In this new market it was possible for artist to just live from writing and copying scripts. The first four styles came into existence, their creation is often attributed to Qutb al-Muharrir, an other secretaryof Caliph Abdal-Mal/k.Thesestyleswhere:

tümär, a variation of the Cufic style (see Appendix I, page 14) with rounder edges which was used for the first copies ofthe qur'an in Medina, galll, named “the magnificent”, tulut, formed with rounder and balanced strobes and difficult to learn (see Appendix II, page 15) and tulutayn, similar to the former but only used for official documents. More styles soon where invented, often the name oftheir creator is known, but sometimes various personalities claimed to be their originator although in different sources, they are attributed to different people.

All these tendencies continued when power shifted to the Abbasid and it was in this time that the first calligraphy schools where founded.5 More scribes where trained, some of whom only worked as copyists with simple fast styles and others that became artists that furtherformed Calligraphy.

The greatest of these was Ibn-Muqla (886-940), who would later be seen as a great father figure of Arabic Calligraphy.

Ibn-Muqla and his life's work

„La caligraphia (hatt) de Ibn-Muqla se pone de ejemlo porsu hermosura (husn), puesto que es la mäs hermos de las caligrafias del mundo (ahsan hutüt al-duniyä), y nadie ha narrado, caligrafia alguna que se le asemeje, ni que tan indiscriptible ni magica (sihr) sea.6

Seen as the first great climax of the most of the sources, Ibn-Muqla was mentioned often alongside the greatest poets, philosopher and theologians of his time. Still little is known about his actual live and various versions of his his biography are transmitted.7 One states that he descended from a family of calligraphers and worked as an official, which made it possible for him to become friend with the vizir Ibn al-Furät. He revived professional education in his service and soon his skills would developed to the full extend.

An other version describes him as a merchant involved in the trade with Persia that becomes vizir himself later and the is accused of various conspiracies and plots which finally leads to his death in prison.

Anyway, various sources attribute the invention ofthe cursive styles (like tuluf) to him, aclaim that often was denied, even by himself during his lifetime.8 His great legacy is indeed an other:

Ibn-Muqla was the great systematizer ofArabic calligraphy, he introduced geometrical principals for defining clearly the aesthetic conceptions of calligraphy and therefor provided the theoretical basis for this art. His main-work, known as Risäla ff Um al-hatt wa-l-qualam (see Appendix III, page 16for exerpt), summarizes his teachings on eight pages, containing nine chapters (three copy's ofthis document still exist, but only one ofthem contains the last three chapters). Each ofthe chapters is dedicated to a certain aspect of calligraphy: Chapter one describes a recipe for what is the best ink in the eyes of Ibn- Muqla. Chapter two is about the proper crafting of pens from raw reeds. Chapter three describes the very basics and possibility's of drawing points and lines in various orientations. Chapterfour is on posture and the right mannerto hold the pen. Chapterfive finally is dedicated to the aesthetic and geometric conceptions used to “write beautiful”, which are further explained in the last four chapters (about the letter älifand its interaction with other letters, the beginning and ending ofthe letters, general rules during writing and prolongation of letters).

It is not clear if Ibn-Muqla created this guidelines by himself, more likely he condensed general conceptions of calligraphy already predominant in his epoch into a geometric system (probably inspired by the reception of Greek philosophy in his hometown Baghdad during this time)9.

Nevertheless his words soon yielded great influence and he was known all over the Arabic world. Arabic calligraphy was now seen as a high-art, like music, defined by “ideal proportions” and taking its place in a cosmic, mathematical order. Therefor the guidelines of Ibn-Muqla are still standard teaching in all classic calligraphy-schools that remain in today's world.

Ibn al-Bawwäb ([Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten] 1022)

No existe, de entre quienes le [Ibn al-Bawwäb]predicediron, o le sucedieron, quien caligrafiase (kataba) igua que el[Ibn al-Bawwäb], o que nisiquiera se le aproximara. (...)”10

While we can be sure that Risäla fT Um al-hatt wa-l-qualam has been written by Ibn Muqla none of his actual works of calligraphy is can be attributed to him with absolute certainty. His styles and technique are described as being of greatest beauty, but no works from him remain intact for us to be admired. Quite the contrary when the opus of Ibn al-Bawwäb is concerned, a great amount of books and calligraphy-works written by him are still preserved in museums and institutes around the world. While Ibn Muqla is admired for his theoretical deeds even more than for his actual works, Ibn al-Bawwäb is simply known all around the Arabic world for the great perfection of his calligraphy. Born at an unknown date he was indeed, like his name says, the son of a porter.

In his early life he worked as a house painter, book decorator as well as ornament painter. He then became a scholar of Muhammadb.Asad, a faithful man who himself was a direct student of Ibn Muqla. With him, Ibn al-Bawwäb became well educated, also in religious matters and further in grama, rhetoric and lyric. All this different kinds of knowledge together gave him the skills to visually express words in beauty ofthe greatest kind. And all that at a time when the Bagdadi Abassids where at the very peak of their power and splendorwhich gave artists like him even more possibilities ofemployment and freedom of expression. During his lifetime, Ibn al-Bawwäb created hundreds of elaborated calligraphy's, let alone sixty-four complete copy's of the Qur'an as well as various decoration works and wall-paintings. He came to true glory only after his death, which rapidly let the prices of his works rise and encouraged faking. Ibn al-Bawwäb would forever be known as a truly great calligrapher, the best of his epoch.


1 compare Marcel Cohen, Jean Sainte Fare Gamot,: La escritura y la psicologia de los pueblos (siglo veintiuno editores sa, Madrid, 1971), 255

2 see Günther Krahl, Wolfgang Reuchel, Eckehard Schulz: Lehrbuch des modernen Hocharabisch (Langenscheid Verlag Enzyklopedie; Leipzig, Berlin, München, 1995) 26

3 compare Jose Miguel Puerta Vilchez: La aventura del Calamo, (Edilux S.L. 2007) 32

4 compare Vilchez: La aventura del Calamo, 72

5 compare Vilchez: La aventura del Calamo, 78

6 quote from Bahnasi, Mu'yam, p. 4 in Vilchez: La aventura del Calamo, 85

7 compare Vilchez: La aventura del Calamo, 86

8 compare Vilchez: La aventura del Calamo, 91

9 compare Vilchez: La aventura del Calamo, 100

10 10 quoted from Yäqüt al-HamawJ Mu 'gam al-udabä’ (Dictionario de literator) V, ed. Ihsan 'Abbäs, Beirut, Dar al- IslamJ, 1993, p 1196in Vilchez: La aventura del Calamo, 105

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The History of Arabic Calligraphy - an Essay on its greatest Artists and its Development
Historia y Cultura Árabo Islámica
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Kalligrafie, Arabisch, Ibn-Muqla, Ibn al-Bawwāb, Kufi, Thuluth
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Stefan Widany (Author), 2010, The History of Arabic Calligraphy - an Essay on its greatest Artists and its Development, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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