Introducing the art of Arabic, Ottoman, & Persian calligraphy

History of script development

Early development

In the 4th century A.D., the Arabic language had two written scripts. One was an unnamed cursive (or rounded) script used for correspondence and other practical purposes. The other was a formal, angular script used mostly for writing the Qur’an. This second script and its variants are commonly referred to as the Kufic script.

The “Six Scripts” in Baghdad

Kufic was widely used among calligraphers until the 10th century, when a host of new “cursive” scripts were developed in Baghdad during the ‘Abbasid caliphate (750-1258). These scripts were more rounded, followed specific rules of proportion, and were much easier to write than the angular Kufic.

The great calligrapher Ibn Muqla (885-940) selected six scripts (al aqlam al-sitta) that became the foundation for the practice of calligraphy to come. These scripts were:

Two other influential calligraphers, Ibn al-Bawwab (late 10th century-1022) and Yaqut al-Musta‘simi (early 13th century-1298), built upon the work of Ibn Muqla. Together, these three calligraphers created the basis of the modern calligraphy tradition. (Of the original six scripts, only Thuluth, Naskh and Riqa‘ are regularly used today.)

Persian calligraphy

Persian calligraphers adopted the six scripts and adapted them to better fit the needs of the Persian language. Since Persian has a higher proportion of curved to straight letters than Arabic, the great Persian scripts are characterized by elongated descending strokes and short ascenders. Persian calligraphers influenced calligraphy traditions as far away as Pakistan and India, where their scripts were adapted to write other languages.

In the 14th century Mir ‘Ali Tabrizi (1360-1420) developed the Nasta‘liq script, which became the script par excellence for writing Persian poetry. One of its best practitioners was Mir ‘Imad al-Hasani (1554-1615). Other important Persian scripts were Ta‘liq and Shikaste.

Ottoman calligraphy

There is an expression in the Middle East: “The Qur’an was revealed in Mecca, recited in Egypt, and written in Istanbul.” During the Ottoman empire (1281-1924), Arabic script calligraphy reached its zenith. The calligrapher Şeyh Hamdullah (1436-1520) refined the basic shapes of the six scripts to give them new grace and elegance, and many other calligraphers such as Hafiz Osman (1642-1698) carried on the tradition by teaching students, devising new scripts and refining the old. Calligraphy is still actively taught today by artists such as Hasan Çelebi (born 1937) and the students he has trained, such as Mohamed Zakariya (born 1942).

To read further about the history of calligraphy, visit the resources page.

Note: The development of calligraphy scripts was not a linear process, and exact dates, places and attributions are often difficult to pinpoint. If you find mistakes or inconsistencies on this website, please contact the author using the link in the footer below.