The Evolution of Islamic Calligraphy

Late 8th century Quran manuscript Islamic Kufic calligraphy.
ID 46264723 © German Vogel | Dreamstime.com

There are various kinds of calligraphy in the world but none can compare with Islamic calligraphy. Apart from its excellence, elegance, and sheer functionality, its evolution is an exciting topic for everyone. Also called Arabic calligraphy sometimes, the origin of the first Arabic alphabet in the written form can be traced back to the year 512 BCE. The development of the alphabet was done in the cities of Medina and Mecca even though the person behind it remains a mystery. What is certain though is that many intellectuals and poets took part.

It is also interesting to know that the first kind of alphabet then does not have the cursive aesthetic design seen in the modern Arabic text. Fast forward to the 7th century (650), the first official script of Islamic calligraphy as we know it was established by the Muslims. Because it was done in Kufa, Iraq, it was called the Kufic script.

The Kufic script was adopted by the Muslim rulers and in no time, it gained widespread use. The Kufic script is known for long horizontal and short vertical strokes. The lines also differ in the thickness and this adds to the overall elegance of the script. By 900, Ibn Mulqa transformed everything by setting the basis for all kinds of Islamic calligraphy. He was a scribe under the Abbasid caliphs in the 10th century and it is to his credit that there is a system based on proportion for the Arabic letters.

Ibn Mulqa came up with the circle guide which is also called alif. It is this circle guide that every letter of the calligraphy is developed upon. Each letter has to be created in a way as if there is an illusory circle that is responsible for the direction of the strokes of the calligrapher. All the other scripts that came up later all depended on the works of Ibn Mulqa.

By 940, there was the Maghribi script which stemmed from the northern nations of Africa like Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. It was also used in parts of Spain and it is known for its decorative style. 1001 came with the Thuluth script which was fully developed in the middle of the 10th century. It was adopted all over the Islamic Empire and is known for its cursive with bigger strokes and its oscillating thicknesses. It was around that time that it became the regular practice to have the Thuluth script used for the decoration of mosques and transcriptions of the Holy Quran.

Later on, other scripts like the Naskh, Nastaliq, Taliq, Diwani, and the Riqa were all developed. Each of these had its unique characteristics but all blended to become part of Islamic calligraphy. Just as its name implies, this kind of calligraphy is one that adheres to the principles of Islam. That explains why its development was done closely with inspiration and guidance from the Quran itself and it is not devoted to the glorification of humans.

Today, Islamic calligraphy is still highly valued as a form of art worldwide – a testimony to the fact that Muslims can achieve anything and still promote Islam in the process. May Allah (SWT) reward all our efforts bountifully, aameen.