(The following is a post by Muhannad Salhi, Arab World Specialist, Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division. This is the second installment of a three-part series. Click here for Part 1.)
As Islam spread across the globe, different styles and scripts of Arabic calligraphy began to manifest, evolving either out of the classical styles or unique to certain regions of the Muslim world thereby becoming associated with the domains from which they developed. One of the areas with the most unique, innovative, and influential styles of Islamic calligraphy was Persia and the Persian speaking lands. While Persian calligraphers were known for mastering Ibn Muqlah’s standardized six scripts—al-aqlām al-sittah, they would go on to develop their own uniquely Persian styles of calligraphy whose influence would spread far and wide to many parts of the Islamic world. In turn, those areas would go on to create their own variants of these scripts and use them as their own. Some of the most prominent Persian styles were Ta’līq, Shikastah, and Nasta’liq.
Ta’līq (suspension, hanging together) refers to this unique style of writing with its rounded and curved letters and the tendency of the words to drop down from the preceding ones. In order to make this style more legible, there is usually a tendency to allow larger space between the lines which was perhaps disadvantageous when writing longer documents. Developed in the 11th and standardized in the 13th centuries, its invention has often been attributed to Hasan ibn Husayn ‘Ali al-Farisi (10th century). Ta’liq is believed to be a compound of Tawqi’, Riqa’ and Naskh. The script itself is said to satisfy the specific needs of the Persian language.
Shikastah (literally meaning “broken”) can be applied to Ta’liq or Nasta’liq. Developed in the 14th century, its purpose was to write down the Ta’liq (or later Nasta’liq) script very rapidly for the purposes of longer documents, communication and official proclamations, in addition to poetry. More intricate than the simpler Ta’liq, its invention is often attributed to Taj Salmani al-Isfahani (d.1491). Until the advent of Nasta’liq, Shikastah Ta’liq became favored over the original Ta’liq (ta’liq-i asl) and was often simply referred to as Ta’liq. Shikastah Nasta’liq, on the other hand, was a more cursive and systematic form of Nasta’liq with lighter strokes and smaller letters, rendering it useful for non-calligraphic purposes.
Nasta’līq: Perhaps the most famous and influential of the Persian styles, it is believed that Nasta’liq gets its name from a combination of Naskh and Ta’liq. It is said to have been developed in the 14th Century by Mir ‘Ali Tabrizi, allegedly due to a dream he had of a flight of geese, whose wings and movement inspired the form of its letters. A more refined form of Ta’liq, Nasta’liq was both fluid and flexible, with short verticals and long horizontal strokes, and was deemed the most preferable to Persian tastes. As such, its beauty, lightness and elegance resulted in it becoming the most common form of calligraphy used in poetry and literary works, including, for example, Firdawsi’s famous “Shah Namah” and Nizami’s “Khamsah,” among other epics and classics. Nasta’liq’s influence was hardly limited to Iran, however, being used widely in Afghanistan, South Asia, Central Asia, as well as the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, many languages such as Urdu, for example, rely almost exclusively on this style for their writing.
Siyāh Mashq (literally “black practice”): Initially Siyah Mashq was basically an exercise sheet which calligraphers used to practice and develop their styles. As such, it had words and letters repeatedly written both upwards and downwards without any overall meaning. Due to the beauty of the end result, this “style” would develop into its own genre.
The Persian styles and scripts of Arabic calligraphy, therefore, evolved and developed a life of their own, influencing many regions of the Islamic world to this day. The Library of Congress has an extensive collection of Arabic, Persian and Ottoman 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.
For more information about this collection and for reference assistance, contact the African and Middle Eastern Division via Ask A Librarian.
Some suggested further Readings:
- The rise of the north Arabic script and its Ḳurʼānic development, with a full description of the Ḳurʼān manuscripts in the Oriental institute, by Nabia Abbott. Chicago, Ill., The University of Chicago press 
- Islamic calligraphy / Sheila S. Blair. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, c2006 (2007 printing)
- Calligraphy and Islamic culture / Annemarie Schimmel. New York : New York University Press, 1984.
- The aura of Alif : the art of writing in Islam / edited by Jürgen Wasim Frembgen. Munich ; New York : Prestel, c2010.
- The splendour of Islamic calligraphy / Abdelkebir Khatibi, Mohammed Sijelmassi. London : Thames and Hudson, c1976.
- Islamic calligraphy / Yasin Hamid Safadi. London : Thames and Hudson, 1978.
- Dirāsāt fī tārikh al-khatt al-ʻArabī / Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Munajjid. 
- The splendour of Islamic calligraphy / Abdelkebir Khatibi, Mohammed Sijelmassi ; [translated from the French by James Hughes]. New York : Rizzoli, 1977, c1976.
- Brocade of the pen: the art of Islamic writing / edited by Carol Garrett Fisher. East Lansing, Mich. : Kresge Art Museum, Michigan State University, c1991.
- Kitāb al-Fihrist / li-Abī al-Faraj Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq al-Nadīm ; qābalahu ʻalá uṣūlihi wa-ʻallaqa ʻalayhi wa-qaddama la-hu Ayman Fuʼād S Ayyid. London : Muʼassasat al-Furqān lil-Turāth al-Islāmī, 2009.
- Beyond Timbuktu: an intellectual history of Muslim West Africa / Ousmane Oumar Kane. Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 2016.
- The trans-Saharan book trade : manuscript culture, Arabic literacy, and intellectual history in Muslim Africa / edited by Graziano Krätli, Ghislaine Lydon. Leiden ; Boston : Brill, 2011.
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