Calligraphy in Islamic Art: Definition, Styles & Uses

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  • 0:04 What Is Calligraphy?
  • 0:42 Calligraphy in Islamic Art
  • 1:42 Islamic Calligraphy Styles
  • 3:48 Uses of Islamic Calligraphy
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever written a letter with decorative flourishes? Can writing be art? In this lesson, explore a type of Islamic art called calligraphy. Find out how it is used and learn about different styles.

What is Calligraphy?

How's your handwriting? Have you ever written a letter or poem using decorative penmanship to make the words look beautiful? If so, then you've come close to a type of decorative writing called calligraphy.

Calligraphy is the art of writing created for beauty as well as to convey ideas. It is an ancient art and one that is ornamental, elaborate, and also practical. You'll find calligraphy in the art of many Asian cultures, including Japanese and Chinese. Some of the most spectacular examples of calligraphy in history are found in Islamic art, work created by artists in geographic areas where Islam was the predominant faith.

Calligraphy in Islamic Art

Calligraphy in Islamic art began in the 7th century in the Near East with the development of a new religion called Islam. Those who followed Islam were said to be of Muslim faith. The holiest book of Islam is the Quran, in which the words of Islam's founder, the Prophet Muhammad, are conveyed in Arabic.

Throughout the growing Muslim world, a distinct artistic style developed based on calligraphy. The idea of beautiful writing was connected to the divine because, after all, it was believed that the word of God (or Allah) had been transmitted through Muhammad. Also, Islamic art does not portray figures of animals or people for religious reasons. Instead, calligraphy became an important means of decoration and a highly creative art form.

Document done in Islamic calligraphic script
Islamic calligraphic script

Islamic calligraphy had strong connections to religion, but its use was not restricted to religious texts. Secular poems and writings, as well as praise for leaders, was also rendered in calligraphy. The artists who practiced calligraphy were highly skilled, and they trained for years to master their art.

Islamic Calligraphy Styles

The first calligraphy style developed during the end of the 7th century. Called Kufic, it was named for the city of Kufa in southern Iraq and was based on early 3rd- or 4th-century Arabic scripts. It was the first calligraphy used for the Quran, though it wasn't easy to use when writing long texts. It had angular letters with short vertical strokes and long horizontal strokes.

Over time, many other calligraphic styles developed in the Muslim world. Some were used for specific purposes. Some were highly decorative. Others were easy to read, which made them appropriate for books and documents. The other scripts included Naskh or Naskhi, a script that developed in the 10th century that was easily readable with small balanced letters made from curving, fluid lines. Naskh eventually replaced Kufic as the script of choice for the Quran.

Another script was called Thuluth. It also developed in the 10th century. Thuluth was more elegant and decorative than Kufic or Naskh and was used for architectural decorations. It had strong left-slanting vertical strokes and deep curving horizontal lines that often interlaced within letters.

More script variations developed as Islam spread to other parts of the world. Nasta'liq was developed in the 15th century for calligraphic writing based on the Persian language. It was used in Persia (present-day Iran) and in areas of India and Pakistan. Nasta'liq had short, vertical strokes and was often used for secular works like Persian poetry.

Another style that arose due to geography was Maghribi, which developed during the 10th century in parts of Spain and North Africa. The word ''Magrhribi'' means ''western,'' and these areas were some of the westernmost parts of the Islamic world. Maghribi had strong, thick, vertical strokes with wide curves.

Example of the Maghribi style of calligraphy
Example of Maghribi script

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