Calligraphy is a Greek-origin word that means ‘beautiful handwriting’. Islamic calligraphy, therefore, is writing of the verses of the Holy Quran in a beautiful, visually appealing manner. The primary, original purpose of Islamic calligraphy was to transcribe the Word of Allah, which was received by the Prophet (peace be upon him) via the angel Gabriel, in the form of a book. The Arabic script was improved in a way that would make it easier for Muslims to read the Quran. Over time, the tradition of Islamic calligraphy art also came into being, and consisted of writing the verses of the Quran not so much for the purpose of reading but to adorn the walls and domes of Islamic monuments, as well as to decorate wall hangings and artefacts.
Here, we shall observe the origins and development of Islamic calligraphy art.
After the death of the Prophet (peace be upon him), the need was felt to transcribe Quranic verses in the form of a book in order to help current as well as future-generation Muslims read, understand and memorise the Quran. Thus began the tradition of Islamic calligraphy.
The first Arabic font in which the Quran was written was the Kufic font, and was developed in Kufa, Iraq. At the time, the Arabic script had only 17 letters with no symbols indicating vowel sounds. Over time, the Arabic alphabet expanded to include 28 letters. The Kufic font was characterised by long angular strokes and round letters with small counters. It was a highly aesthetic font but was not too legible especially for non-Arabs who began converting to Islam and were not familiar with Arabic. Thus evolved the Naskh font which was cursive and easier to read, and most importantly, had symbols to indicate vowel sounds. Till today, the Quran is printed in Naskh font, which is also used in Arabic newspapers and government documents.
Alongside the development of Islamic calligraphy for purposes of reading, it also began being used for the purposes of art, and herein lies the origin of Islamic calligraphy art. Since Islam forbade human and animal imagery, which are the mainstay of fine arts such as paintings, artists began finding expression in Islamic calligraphy itself. New, artistic fonts such as Thuluth emerged which were characterised by grand vertical strokes and emphatic dots and vowel sounds. Thuluth is the font used in Islamic calligraphy on the Taj Mahal, for example.
In Ottomon Turkey, the Diwani style of writing developed which was extremely ornate, with slanted letters and decorative dots. It was difficult to read and was also employed in writing confidential court documents. Its elaborate and intricate nature made it very suitable to be used in Islamic calligraphy art.
In northern India, figurative calligraphy, informally referred to as Tughra, came into being where words were written in the shape of flowers, trees or other objects.
The above forms of Islamic calligraphy art, though rooted in history, are very much in use in modern times. Mosques, buildings, and homes are still often adorned with Islamic calligraphy.