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On the Wings of a Flight of Geese: Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy Sheets at the Library of Congress – Part 2

(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.

Protocol of address. 17th-18th centuries. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

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.

On the lovers’ passion. 17th-18th centuries. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

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.

Quatrain by Rumi. Mir ‘Ali. 1500-1550. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

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.

Siyah Mashq. 17th-19th centuries. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

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:

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