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Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem

Published on 8th February , 2003

Calligraphy - A Significant Islamic Heritage

By Siddiqua Shahnawaz



Any architectural work has both a functional and an artistic dimension, which are :

  1. An immediate physical context that determines the style, and

  2. A wider social, cultural and economic frame of reference that gives it meaning.

For example, in the case of a Masjid, the prayer hall must be suitable for its purpose in accordance with the liturgy of Islam, but the building itself must also 'speak' to the local community, providing both spiritual upliftment and an anchor for the community's identity.

Calligraphy, known as 'khatt' in Arabic, is an outstanding example of such blending of form and function. From the grandest of Masjids with their expertly carved stuccos to the simplest of rural Masjids with few Qur'anic verses painted on their walls, one can see the strong influence of Qur'anic calligraphy that has attached itself to the expression of Islamic art.

A passion for the written script constitutes one of the fundamental traits of Islamic culture. For Islam, the Arabic script is not merely a tool invented by human beings, but a gift of God. As Allah says in the Qur'an:

 "Recite, and thy Lord is the Most Honourable! 
Who taught (to write) with the Pen, 
taught man what he knew not"
(Surah al-Alaq, verses 3-5). 

Innumerable Hadeeth of the Prophet ('s) and his Ahlul Bayt ('a) distinctly convey the importance of gaining knowledge and emphasize the value of the written word. For example, the Prophet has said "the ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr". 

In general, Qur'anic texts are selected for inscriptions in Masjids, but quotations from the Hadeeth and other pious phrases are also found.

Thus, calligraphy serves as an ornamental purpose along with conveying the word of God and sayings of the Holy Prophet ('s) and his noble Ahlul Bayt ('a).
Origin of Islamic Calligraphy


In the words of Dost Muhammad of Gawashwan, a sixteenth century writer, "it is etched on the minds of the masters of the arcane that the garden of painting and illumination is an orchard of perfect adornment; and the arrangement and embellishment of the Qur'ans, which bespeak the glorification of the word of the exalted, are connected to the pen and bound to the design and drawing of the masters of this noble craft".

It has been recorded that the first person to adorn with painting and illumination the writing of the word that is necessarily welcomed was The Prince of the Faithful and Leader of the Pious, the Conquering Lion of God...Ali Ibn Abi Talib ('a), and the gates of this commodity were opened to this group by the key of that Majesty's pen. A few leaves (barg), known in the parlance of painters as Islami, were invented by him." (translated by Thackston in 'A Century of Princes').

Furthermore, Mir Sayyid Ahmad Mashhadi, in the preface to the Bahram Mirza Album says; "by the teaching of him to whom honour is incumbent, the tutor of the garden of nobility, sweet-tongued preacher in the realm of the imamate... Guided by the inscription of the register of the city of knowledge, of which Ali is the gate,..."everyone is commanded to strive to attain this noble and honourable craft (calligraphy) when he said, "have beautiful writing, for it is among the keys to sustenance." Thus, calligraphy has always enjoyed a special status in Islam.
Early Islamic Calligraphy in Architecture


The first example of the use of calligraphy in Islamic architecture is the mosaic inscription which winds around the summit of the octagonal arcade in the dome of the rock. It presents an angular script with perfectly calibrated letters which follow each other on a rigorously horizontal path. Early Masjids were restricted to the angular lettering, also known as 'kufic', since it was the only style of Arabic script in general use during the early Muslim period. Later on, with the development of round hands and the definition of calligraphic proportions leading to the canonization of the classic round scripts in the tenth and eleventh centuries, 'thuluth' became more and more the calligraphic style par excellence for Qur'anic inscriptions and epigraphy, particularly in monumental settings. 

Angular kufic with its myriad variations was always retained, but over time it became more and more ornamental with the incorporation of foliation, floriation and knotting into the letters.

Islamic calligraphy has varied from as simple as possible, with no extraneous ornamentation of the writing, to the indescribably ornate. A good early example of utter, stark simplicity is the Great Masjid at Sousse, Tunisia (850ad), which has a single unornamented band of Qur'anic Arabic in kufic script running around the courtyard. 

In later times perhaps nowhere has calligraphic starkness been used to such effect as in the Eski Cami, Edirne, where an entire bay is filled by the single word 'Allah'. It is as stark and striking - and as modern-looking - as anything one is likely to find.

The elaborate Masjid is typified by the Friday Mosque in Samarqand, which is completely covered inside and out with writing in brickwork and on tiled surfaces. Another, but very different type of ornate writing can be seen on the interior walls of the Ulu Cami in Bursa (completed in 1400), which are covered with masterful, and sometimes rather playful specimens of calligraphy, particularly of the 'aynali' (mirror image) type which was popular in later centuries.
The Role of Calligraphy in Architecture


The Qur'an, or any part thereof, in and on a Masjid provides the viewer with a message and focus of meditation. It may incidentally be ornamental or decorative, but a Qur'anic inscription has value in and of itself. Inscriptions are always in some sense appropriate to the locations in which they are found.

A good example of agenda in the selection of Qur'anic inscriptions is found on the Buland Darwaza, the huge ceremonial gateway into the Masjid Complex at Fatehpur Sikri built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar c.1575. Carved in low relief, the Thuluth inscription consists of Surah 39:73-75, 41:53-54 and 41:30-31. The first section includes phrases like 'and the gates thereof shall be ready set open' and across the top of the gateway is 'hereafter we will show them our signs in the regions of the earth' (41:53) - all particularly appropriate for a monumental gateway.

Many Mihrabs contain one of two Qur'anic quotations containing the word 'mihrab', either 3:37 ('whenever Zacharias went into the mihrab') or 3;39 ('while he stood praying in the mihrab'). Other popular inscriptions for Mihrabs are the Qur'anic imperatives to perform prayer, example, 11:114 ('pray regularly morning and evening; and in the former part of the night'), as in the congregational Masjid at Bistam, Iran (1302).

 Crypt Cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal, Taj Mahal, IndiaTomb Masjids often have Sura 36, 'Ya Sin', which is also recited at funerals. An example is the Taj Mahal: across the four arches of the main building extends Surah 'Ya Sin' in its entirety. On the Crypt Cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal is inscribed verse 3:185, so markedly appropriate for graves:

"every soul shall taste of death, and ye shall have your reward on the day of resurrection; 
and he who shall be far removed from hell fire,and shall be admitted into paradise, shall be happy; but the present life is only a deceitful provision."
Regional Influence in Islamic Calligraphy


Calligraphic inscriptions in Masjids occur not only in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, but also sometimes in the local vernacular. For example, a modern inscription in the prayer hall of the Great Masjid, Xian, China (13th-17th century), identifies the building as Qing Jin Si (mosque of true purity).

Some Masjids have a strong regional influence in their inscriptions. An example of this is a panel below the ceiling of the Masjid Jami Ayn Al Yagin'guri, Gresik, Java, Indonesia, which repeats the names 'Allah' and 'Mohammad' around a central point. In this Masjid, dating from 1556, there are a number of such panels, in which the patterning was possibly influenced by the form of the Indian mandala.
Various Styles of Classical Arabic Calligraphy


Classical Arabic calligraphic styles can be broadly defined in the following categories - 

Mashq - an early script, first developed at Mecca and Medina during the first century of the Muslim era


Mashq - an early calligraphic script

Square Kufic - developed at Kufa, this script had by the ninth century become more ornamented and was the most influential in Islamic calligraphy generally

Square Kufic Calligraphy Style

Eastern Kufic - a more delicate version developed in the late tenth century, notable for extended vertical upstrokes

Eastern Kufic Script

Eastern Kufic Calligraphy Style

Thuluth - fully developed by the ninth century, this script became the most popular for ornamental inscriptions

Thuluth Calligraphy Style

Naqshi - being relatively easy to read and to write, this became the most frequently used script for writing Qur'ans after it was redesigned in the tenth century

Naqshi Calligraphic Style

Muhaqqaq - another popular script for writing Qur'ans featuring shallow sub-linear curves with a pronounced flow from right to left

Muhaqqaq Calligraphy Style

Rihani - combines characteristics of Thuluth and Nakhshi, the diacritical marks always being written with a finer pen than that used for characters

Rihani Calligraphic Style

Taliq - this 'hanging' script, developed by Persian calligraphers in the ninth century, continued to be used for monumental purposes even after a more refined variant - 

Taliq Calligraphic Style

Nastaliq - was introduced in the fifteenth century and became the most generally used script for Persian documents. In the Indian subcontinent, Nastaliq has been adapted as a script for the language of Urdu.

Nastaliq Calligraphy Style

Each and every script, with is varied styles and decorative patterns, plays a vital role in the enrichment of the culture of Islam. Like threads of varying colours and textures, they beautifully weave into the kaleidoscopic fabric of Islamic heritage.


Author: Siddiqua Shahnawaz
Photographer/Artist: Unknown
Chief Editor: Hj Nurzaynab El-Fatah
Production: Hj S. Abidin
Published Date: 8th February , 2003

Modification Date: 13th January 2009/ 16th Muharram, 1430
Publication ID: 03calligraHeritage.
 Calligraphy - A Significant Islamic Heritage
Copyright: Victory News Magazine, 2010


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