Introducing the art of Arabic, Ottoman, & Persian calligraphy

How to read calligraphy

Arabic letters are not only beautiful; when arranged into words, they communicate meaning. If you are able to read the Arabic script, you should be able to read calligraphy. All it takes is a little time and practice.

Letters in a calligraphy composition are often interwoven, making them more challenging to read than printed Arabic. The Arabic fonts used for printing are often based on the Naskh script. Arabic script calligraphy, on the other hand, employs a number of different scripts. The best way to begin reading calligraphy is by familiarizing yourself with how the letter shapes appear in each of the different scripts.

Reading tips

  • Arabic is read from right to left
  • If the letters of a composition are interwoven, there may not be a clear horizon line (the invisible horizontal line upon which letters sit). Sequential letters might be placed above or below each other, making words difficult to read. The best way to decipher this type of composition is by trying to recognize whole words
  • If a composition is circular or teardrop-shaped, start reading in the lower right-hand corner. Lines in this type of composition are stacked vertically. Start in the lower-right hand corner and read from right to left, working your way up the page. (A few circular or teardrop-shaped compositions start at the top, but this pattern is rare)
  • Look for a key word. Certain phrases are repeated over and over again in calligraphy. Often if you can read the first few letters, the rest of the phrase becomes apparent. An example of a phrase that is commonly written is the bismillah, an Islamic phrase used when embarking on significant endeavors, meaning, “In the name of God, most gracious, most compassionate.” Often a few letters or words are all that is needed to decipher these well-known passages or sayings
  • Be patient. Sometimes it takes years to be able to decipher a composition. Meanwhile, you can enjoy its aesthetic beauty. A certain amount of ambiguity is part of the delight of this art form

How to read Arabic script calligraphy

In this video New York-based calligrapher Elinor Aishah Holland and Arlington, VA-based calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya give tips on how to read Arabic script calligraphy.