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From Your Hand to Heaven: Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Calligraphy Sheets at the Library of Congress – Part 1

(The following is a post by Muhannad Salhi, Arab World Specialist, Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division. This is the first installment of a three-part series.)

An Ottoman calligraphic panel, framed calligraphic inscription called a Levha in Ottoman Turkish, in Arabic script. Written in Nasta'liq script.

Levha, 18th-19th centuries. Ottoman calligraphic panels (qit’a), framed calligraphic inscription called a Levha in Ottoman Turkish, In Arabic. Written in Nasta’liq script and common to Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Persia. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Whomever with a beautiful hand shall the name of God recount
Enters Heaven with no account

One of the most important artistic forms in Arabic and Islamic culture is calligraphy and calligraphic design. Generally referred to as khaṭṭ, the artistic craft of calligraphy pervades all manner of art, architecture, the adornment of mosques and buildings, decoration, coin design, not to mention religious, poetic, formal and literary writings. The importance of writing is first emphasized in the Qur’an itself, as the first revelation of the Qur’an stated:

Recite and your Lord is Most Generous (96:4); who taught by the pen (96:5)

The “pen” therefore denotes God teaching man the art of writing as a means of propagation, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge. In other words, had He not inspired man with the art of the pen and knowledge of writing, man’s intellect would have stagnated and not been able to expand and progress.

The mastery of writing thus becomes one of the most important vehicles to artistic expression, eventually leading to the development of many calligraphic styles and forms over the centuries throughout the Muslim world where the Arabic alphabet was and continues to be used. As Islam spread to vast regions of the globe, many of these areas would create, develop, and refine their own unique styles of calligraphy.

One of the earliest calligraphic scripts was known as the Ḥijāzī script, attributed to the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula from which the Prophet himself hailed, and was quite possibly used prior to the rise of Islam. Calligraphy would be polished and improved in the Levant and Iraq as they became the centers of power under the Umayyads and Abbasids respectively.  Styles such as the Kūfī script, one of the earliest extant Islamic scripts, has often been attributed to the city of Kufah in Iraq, perhaps due to its perfection in that city.  Although used in the preceding Umayyad period, this script would develop and flourish in Abbasid Baghdad, a major center of culture and learning during the classical Islamic age. Further, the Kufi script would develop many variations in style over the centuries. These include: thick, square, Maghribi, Mashriqi, Piramuz, Ghaznavid, Khurasani, and Fatimid among others.

It is worth noting that in neither the Hijazi nor the early Kufi scripts did the letters have the distinguishing dots (nuqāṭ) and diacritical marks (tashkīl) which were only added at a later stage of development in Kufi and other scripts. The inclusion of these distinguishing marks has been credited to the famous poet and grammarian Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali (603-689) and later improved by the philologist and writer of the first Arab dictionary, al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi (718-791). One of the primary reasons for adding these distinguishing dots and diacritics was the expansion of the Islamic faith and hence the conversion of many non-native speakers. The inclusion of these distinguishing marks would therefore facilitate all Muslims’ ability to read and recite the Qur’an, as well as pronounce the letters and words correctly.

Qur'anic verses 10-11 of the 48th chapter of the Qur'an entitled Surat al-Fath (Victory), written in the Kufi script in the D.I style, on parchment, during the 9th century.

Image 1 of Qur’anic Verses, 9th century. Qur’anic verses 10-11 of the 48th chapter of the Qur’an entitled Surat al-Fath (Victory), written in the Kufi script in the D.I style, on parchment, during the 9th century. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

The beautiful though difficult angular Kufi script would eventually give way in popularity to the more cursive, legible and rounded Naskh script, thereby relegating Kufi increasingly to the realm of ornamentation. Derived from the verb nasakha—to copy, this script would become more commonly used in administrative documents and the transcribing of books. The politician and famous master calligrapher, Ibn Muqlah (855-941), was known for the standardization of this script, among others, with his writing system known as al-khaṭṭ al-mansūb, which provided guidelines that enabled the letters in any given style to be in proportion with one another. Ibn Muqlah was thus known for codifying and standardizing the six primary scripts – al-aqlām al-sittah – in Arabic calligraphy which included: Naskh, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Tawqi’, Riqa’, and Rayhan. This system was further developed by master calligrapher Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1022), famed for transcribing the first complete text of the Qur’an on paper, and later refined and enhanced by the famous Yaqut al-Musta’simi (1221-1298).

Below an illuminated rectangular panel is a folio that includes part of the last verse of the Qur'an's first chapter entitled al-Fatihah (The Opening).

Image 1 of al-Baqarah (The cow), 11th-13th centuries. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Thulūth (“one-third”), whose name probably refers to the style being based on the principle of the sloping of each third letter, or perhaps the size of the pen being used being one third of those used for larger scripts. Thulūth is one of the longest surviving of Ibn Muqlah’s aqlām al-sittah and is still in use today. Possibly one of the most ornamental scripts, Thuluth, with its curved style, is known for its use in calligraphic inscriptions, titles, headings, and colophons. Developed under the Umayyads, Thuluth reached the height of its refinement in the Ottoman Empire under Shakh Hamdullah in the 15th Century.

Arabic calligraphy sheet. This line of text reads: "Annahu la yastalim ila al-hajar al-aswad wa-al-rukn al-yamani" (He does not permit (it) except (at) the Black Stone and the Yemenite Corner).

Hajj directions, 13th century, by 13th-century calligrapher Yaqut al-Musta’simi (d. 696/1296), active at the ‘Abbasid court in Baghdad and in the Thuluth script. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Muḥaqqaq (translated roughly as “fully realized” or “established”) is a highly refined, majestic script known for the angling of the left corner of letters. Gaining its widest usage during the Mamluk era (1250-1517), this script was initially used to copy long format Qur’ans as well as frames. It has been alleged that no one can claim to be a real calligrapher unless he has mastered Muhaqqaq. A very difficult script to execute, Muhaqqaq would be later restricted to ḥilyas (literally “ornament” used in religious art particularly in the Ottoman Empire) and the writing of basmallahs (the phrase Bismillāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm—in the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful).

Quranic page in the Muhaqqaq script in the "Baysunghur" style, made either in Herat or Samarqand ca. 1400 A.D.

Qur’anic verses, 15th century. Qur’anic page in the Muhaqqaq script in the “Baysunghur” style, made either in Herat or Samarqand ca. 1400 A.D. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Rayḥānī (attributed to the fragrance of the aromatic smell of basil) was a smaller version of Muhaqqaq, initially used for copying Qur’ans, and, like Muhaqqaq, it would gradually go out of circulation in favor of Naskh.

A Qur'anic page that contains the Bismillah and Qur'anic verse (81:1-14). In Rrayhani script, probable location of 13 century Iran.

Bismillah and Qur’anic verse (81:1-14), 14th century. In Rayhani script, a Qur’anic page, probable location of 13th-century Iran. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Riqā’ (derived from the Arabic noun “ruq’ah”—a piece of cloth), whose invention has been attributed to al-Fadl ibn Sahl (d. 818), was used primarily in personal correspondence, as well as non-religious works such as stories and epics. It would later develop into a new script Riq’ah under the Ottomans, which, though not really considered an art form, is the most commonly used handwritten scripts in the Arab World.

Tawqī’ (derived from “waqqa’ah”—to sign) is not mentioned in Ibn Muqlah’s six styles. This script is a variation on Thuluth with more compressed and rounded letters and is a larger version of Riqa’. As the name suggests, this script was mostly used in the signatures by rulers or sultans, or for copying a scribe’s name in the colophon of a manuscript.

Maghribī, attributed to the “Maghrib,” which refers to the regions of North Africa and Muslim Spain, this script and its variants were used in North Africa, Muslim Spain, and Bilad al-Sudan (the West African Sahil). A variant of the Kufic style, this script was known for its descending strokes with large bowls and sweeping loops and was used in both religious and non-religious texts throughout those regions. The Maghribi script developed a variety of subscripts which include Fasi, Qayrawani, Andalusi, and Sudani. The Maghribi script would go on to influence writing in a number of African regions, the Sudani variation alone developed several subscripts which include: Suqi, Fulani, Hausawi, Mawritani Baydawi, Kanimi, and Saharan.

This fragment contains Qur'anic verses 68-69 of the 5th chapter of the Qur'an entitled al-Ma'idah (The Table), written in the Maghribi script during the 13th-14th century.

Qur’anic verses, ca. 1250-1350. Qur’anic verses 68-69 of the 5th chapter of the Qur’an entitled al-Ma’idah (The Table), written in the Maghribi script during the 13th-14th century. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

These scripts were considered the basic, founding scripts in Arabic calligraphy and would go on to have a fundamental influence on other styles and scripts that would later develop in various regions of the Islamic world. The Library of Congress has an extensive collection of calligraphy sheets in which most of these styles and others are represented. This calligraphy sheet collection has been digitized and is available for viewing at the Library of Congress website.

Some suggested further reading:

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