The Language and The Script

Arabic belongs to the group of Semitic alphabetical scripts in which mainly the consonants are represented in writing, while the markings of vowels (using diacritics) is optional. The earliest-known alphabet to mankind was the North Semitic, which developed around 1700 B.C. in Palestine and Syria. It consisted of 22 consonant letters. The Arabic, Hebrew, and Phoenician alphabets were based on this model. Then, around 1000 B.C., the Phoenician alphabet was itself used as a model by the Greeks, who added letters for vowels. Greek in turn became the model for Etruscan (c. 800 B.C.), whence came the letters of the ancient Roman alphabet, and ultimately all Western alphabets.

1. The Arabic Alphabet has 28 letters. The shape of these letters changes depending on their position in the word, whether isolated; in the beginning of the word (initial); in the middle (medial); or at the end (final).


The North Arabic script, which eventually prevailed and became the Arabic script of the Quran, relates most substantially and directly to the Nabatian script, which was derived from the Aramaic script. Old Aramaic, the language of Jesus and the Apostles, dates from the 2nd millennium B.C., and some dialects of which are still spoken by tiny groups in the Middle East.

Arabic script still shares with Aramaic the names of the alphabet letters (Alef, Jeem, Dal, Zai, Sheen, etc.); similar graphic representation for phonetically similar letters (Sad and Dad, Ta and Tha, etc.); connections of letters in the same word and several forms of each letter depending on its location in the word, except for letters that cannot be connected to the letters which come after them (Alef, Dal/Dthal, Raa/Zai, Waw). The Arabic alphabet contains 18 letter shapes, by adding one, two, or three dots to letters with similar phonetic characteristics a total of 28 letters is obtained. These contain three long vowels, while diacritics can be added to indicate short vowels.


2. Several letters in the Arabic alphabet share the same shape, and are differentiated only by the number and placement of dots on the letters.
Of the basic 18 shapes, 2 are used for three letters, 6 are used for two letters, and the remaining 10 are used for one letter each.

2.1. In addition to the basic letter forms in figure 2, there are two additional forms of letters that are needed when writing Arabic:
The first is called the Hamza (19). It is a different representation of the letter Alif (1).
The second is called Lamalif (20). It is a required ligature that combines the letters Lam (13) and Alif (1).


With the spread of Islam, the Arabic alphabet was adapted by several non-Arab nations for writing their own languages. In Iran Arabic letters were used to write Farsi, with the addition of four letters to represent the phonetics that did not exist in Arabic: p, ch, zh, and g. The Ottoman Turks used the Arabic alphabet until 1929 and added still another letter. This alphabet was also used to write other Turkish languages and dialects, such as Kazakh, Uzbek, etc. Several other languages used the Arabic alphabet at one time or another, including Urdu, Malay, Swahili, Hausa, Algerian Tribal, and others.

From its simple and primitive early examples of the 5th and 6th century A.D., the Arabic alphabet developed rapidly after the rise of Islam in the 7th century into a beautiful form of art. The main two families of calligraphic styles were the dry styles, called generally the Kufic, and the soft cursive styles, which include Naskhi, Thuluth, Nastaliq and many others.


3. The Arabic and Phoenician alphabets, along with several other alphabets such as Hebrew and Aramaic, are based on an early model called the North Semitic. The Phoenician alphabet was adapted by the Greeks, then the Etruscans and Romans, and eventually became the Western alphabet as we know it today.

A Brief History

Islam in Arabic means “submission” and derives from a word meaning “peace,” for it is in submitting to God’s Will that human beings gain peace in their lives in this world and the hereafter. Islam is a universal message revealed in the sacred book, the Quran, through the Prophet Muhammad, and shares with the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity, their ethical teachings and the belief in the One God. Islam is both a religion and a way of life.

For Muslims the Quran is the actual Word of God revealed through the archangel Gabrielle to the Prophet of Islam during the twenty-three year period of his prophetic mission. It was revealed in the Arabic language, which became therefore the language of Islam even for non-Arab Muslims.


Early calligraphic developments

The North Arabic script, which was influenced by the Nabatian script, was established in north-eastern Arabia and flourished in the 5 th century among the Arabian tribes who inhabited Hirah and Anbar. It spread to Hijaz in western Arabia, and its use was popularized among the aristocracy of Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad, by Harb ibn Ummayyah.

Although early Arabic sources mention several calligraphic styles in reference to the cities in which they were used, they generally fit into two broad categories with some minor variations, these are the “dry styles,” the early predecessors of Kufic, and the “moist styles,” the early predecessors of the cursive family or scripts.


4. Al Khalil ibn Ahmad al Farahidi devised a tashkeel system to replace Abu al Aswad’s. His system was universally used since the early eleventh century, and included six diacritical marks to indicate the small vowels attached to Arabic letters. 


With the increasing number of non-Arab Muslims, there was a greater need for facilitating reading and learning of Arabic. Since several letters of the Arabic alphabet share the same shapes, and since vowels are not clearly indicated, some reform was needed to avoid confusion, and a system of Naqt or I’jam (letter-pointing), and Tashkeel (vowel indication) was developed.

Abul Aswad al Du’ali (d. 688) was the legendary founder of Arabic grammar, and is credited with inventing the system of placing large colored dots to indicate the Tashkeel. It was used with the Kufic scripts, but proved to be somewhat cumbersome to use with smaller scripts, or in ordinary writing.

The Ummayad governor al Hajjaj ibn Yusuf al Thaqafi enforced a uniform system to distinguish letters by using dots, which he asked two of al Du’ali’s students to codify.

Al Khalil ibn Ahmad al Farahidi (d. 786) devised a tashkeel system to replace Abu al Aswad’s. His system was universally used since the early eleventh century, and included six diacritical marks:

Fathah (a), Dammah (u), Kasrah (i), Sukun (vowelless), Shaddah (double consonant), and Maddah (vowel prolongation) which is applied to the Alef.


5. The measuring system of Ibn Muqlah is based on a circle with a diameter that equals the height of the letter Alef. It controls the correct proportions of the letters by comparing them to the circle, and by diagonal dots written with the calligraphy pen.


Development of cursive scripts

Cursive scripts coexisted with Kufic and date back to before Islam, but because in the early stages of their development they lacked discipline and elegance, they were usually used for secular purposes only.

Under the Ummayads and Abbasids, court requirements for correspondence and record keeping resulted in many developments to the cursive scripts, and several styles were devised to fulfill these needs. Abu Ali Muhammad Ibn Muqlah (d. 940), along with his brother, became accomplished calligraphers in Baghdad in an early age. Abu Ali became a Vizir to three Abbasid caliphs, and is credited with developing the first script to obey strict proportional rules. His system utilized the dot as a measuring unit for line proportions, and a circle with a diameter equals to the Alef’s height as a measuring unit for letter proportions.

Ibn Muqlah’s system became a powerful tool in the development and standardization of cursive scripts, and his calligraphic work elevated the previous cursive styles into a place of prominence, and made them acceptable as worthy of writing the Quran.


The Kufic styles

The city of Kufah was established in Iraq in the year 641 A.D. It flourished in a short time from a soldiers’ camp into an urban center with vital cultural activities. Among these activities was the refinement of the Arabic script into an elegant and rather uniform script, which came to be known as Kufic or Kufi. It had a combination of square and angular lines on one hand, and compact bold circular forms on the other hand. The vertical strokes were short, while the horizontal strokes were long and extended. As Kufic reached perfection in the second half of the 8 th century, it superseded other earlier attempts of improvement of Arabic calligraphy, and became the only script used for copying the Holy Quran for the next three hundred years.

6. Samples of Kufi Styles of Arabic calligraphy. From top to bottom:
Early Kufi, Eastern Kufi, Foliate Kufi, Knotted Kufi, and Square Kufi.

When the cursive styles were becoming popular and refined in the 10 th century, Kufic responded by overemphasizing many qualities of the cursive scripts in a geometrical style called ‘Eastern Kufic,’ where slender vertical strokes and oblique strokes animate the more rigid early Kufic. This style was mainly a book calligraphy rather than architectural calligraphy style, but was very popular on ceramics.

On architectural monuments, serifs were added to simple early Kufic since the 8 th century, and leaf-like vegetal ornaments appear as early as 866 at the ends of vertical strokes. These ornaments were later added to round strokes, and the Foliate Kufic became the most popular style for architectural inscriptions since the 10 th century.

In the 11 th century the letters themselves started to be modified and used as ornaments, and new geometric elements started to appear in the form of plaiting, knotting, and braiding2. The exaggerated use of such ornaments created complex compositions, which were difficult to decipher at times.

During the 13 th and 14 th centuries, Square Kufic developed out of the use of calligraphy in buildings. Its simple forms contrast with the trend to develop more complex calligraphic compositions. It was the only calligraphic style used to cover entire buildings, a practice unique to Islamic architecture.


The Cursive style

The cursive script dates back at least to the first decades of the Muslim era. The early examples, however, lacked elegance and discipline and were used mainly for secular and practical, rather than aesthetic, purposes. In a slow but continuous process, older styles were perfected, while new styles were invented to meet the demands of different occasions.

Naskh, which means “copying,” was developed in the 10th century, and refined into a fine art form in Turkey in the 16th century. Since then it became generally accepted for writing the Quran. Naskh is legible and clear and was adapted as the preferred style for typesetting and printing. It is a small script whose lines are thin and letter shapes are round.

Thuluth is a more impressive, stately calligraphic style which was often used for titles or epigrams rather than lengthy texts. Its forms evolved over the centuries, and many variations are found on architectural monuments, as well as on glass, metalwork, textiles, and wood. Mamluk Thuluth of the 14th century was heavy and large, while the Ottomans preferred the simpler more refined version still practiced today.

7. Samples of Cursive Styles of Arabic calligraphy. From top to bottom:
Naskh, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Nastaliq, and riq’a.

The traditional classification of the main styles includes in addition to the above Muhaqqaq which is less round than Thuluth; Rayhani which is similar to a small Muhaqqaq; Tawqi which has many ligatures, and a miniature version of it called Riqa’ used mostly for personal and informal occasions. All these styles are now obsolete and rarely used.

Nastaliq developed in Iran in the 14 th and 15 th centuries. It is the most fluid and expressive of the scripts presented here, and is used extensively in copying romantic and mystical epics in Persian. Nastaliq has very short verticals without any “serifs,” and deep curved horizontals. It slants to the right in contrast to all the other styles which slant to the left.

Riq’a, the simpler style of everyday writing is very economical and easy to write. It replaces the above mentioned Riqa’, and is popular for writing both Turkish and Arabic.

There are still many other styles used in different places and times that can’t be all mentioned in this limited space, but they combine to form a fantastic wealth of artistic creativity and ever renewing vigor.

By : MAMOUN SAKKAL from HIS website





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