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A Brief History of Arabic Calligraphy

Arabic Calligraphy

In this article, explore the origins, history, and beauty of Arabic calligraphy

Calligraphy is one of the oldest and most respected forms of art. Although interest in the art may have declined in other parts of the world, Arabic-speaking countries did not forget this two-thousand-year-old tradition.

When people think of Arabian calligraphy, they tend to think that it’s synonymous with Islamic calligraphy; however, the Arabian Peninsula was home to various Semitic languages before the spread of Islam. In fact, Cuneiform calligraphy was decorating the monuments of kings as far back at the 6th century B.C. And if we dig even deeper into the history of the Arabian Peninsula, archaeologists have found Arabic calligraphy letters that are closely related to early scripts such as those of the Canaanite and Nabataean alphabets that date back to the 14th century B.C.

Islam contributed to the spread of Arabic caligraphy


Nonetheless, Islam did play a big role during the “Golden Age” of Arabic calligraphy. Under Islam, the countries of the Middle East united through the Arabic language. However, Arabic calligraphy’s early development was not a straight on process. A wide variety of Arabic calligraphy names and Arabic calligraphy fonts rose and fell in popularity. Some regions were as far-off as Baghdad, Damascus, Morocco, and even Spain. Kufic calligraphy, from the city of Kufah in Iraq, was the first universal script. It dominated Arabic calligraphy for four hundred years starting in the 7th century A.D. However, it was still rudimentary and unorganized. It was obvious, especially when compared to the organization it would undergo during the “Golden Age” of calligraphy. That lasted about 300 years starting in the 11th century A.D.

The “Golden Age” of caligraphy

In 762, Baghdad was created out of Abbasid Caliph Mansur’s desire to build a glorious new capital for his empire. Carefully-constructed, this majestically-walled city nestled against the Tigris River and almost immediately became the cultural center of the Middle East. It was here that the “Golden Age” of Arabic Calligraphy began thanks to a succession of three great calligraphers.

Visier Ibn Muqla


The first was Visier Ibn Muqla. He is perhaps most famous for establishing the rules and principles of calligraphy that calligraphers use until now. This also includes his theory of proportion which launched what is known as the rhomboid dot and the length of the alif stroke as the units of measurement by which all letters in a particular script are measured.

Ibn Al-Bawwab

Next came Ibn Al-Bawwab, who lived during the time of the Buyid dynasty. Along with refining and preserving several of Ibn Muqla’s scripts, Ibn Al-Bawwab reinvented the cursive scripts of Rayhani and Muhaqqaq. Unfortunately, however, none of these have survived to the present day.

Yaqut al Musta’simi

The third celebrated calligrapher of the Golden Age was a royal court scribe by the name of Yaqut al Musta’simi. He further standardized the method of proportional measurements. Al Musta’simi also began the practice of cutting the pen nib at an angle. This was an outwardly minor change, but one which created a major change in the aesthetic and methodology of Arabic calligraphy. The stories say that Yakut took refuge in a Baghdad minaret while the Mongols sacked the city. He continued laboring over his work in calligraphy throughout the siege.

Indeed these three calligraphers are the most famous. Their work creating six notable Arabic calligraphic scripts – sulus, nesish, muhakkak, reyhani, tevki, and rika; however, although these three are perhaps the most famous, their disciples carried on the tradition of Arabic calligraphy. Many women also became renowned for their calligraphic skills.


In every new empire and culture that Islam spread to, the art of Arabic calligraphy spread with it. A few would be the Mongol Empire, the Mughal and Mamluk dynasties in India and Egypt and finally the Ottoman Empire. Additionally, the practice of Arabic calligraphy and Arabic calligraphy art designs got expanded and refined by the artists who practiced it.

Today, a remarkable assortment of calligraphic scripts has become part of the precious heritage of Arabic calligraphy which continues to be passed along. Now, even you can try your hand at it online.

It’s refreshing to know that, in today’s culture, Arabic calligraphy has a strong and appealing presence.

In conclusion


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