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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 10    Issue 08   01-15 September 2015

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Arabic calligraphy with its diverse and richly textured scripts represents one of the highest forms of cultural and aesthetic expression in Islamic civilization. It enshrines in fact one of the finest manifestations of the world’s legacy of visual arts. Calligraphers, artists and architects have used Arabic calligraphy, especially the Thuluth, Naskhi and Kufi scripts, for a wide range of mediums and forms. The script, in which the earliest copies of the Quran and the letters of the Prophet Muhammad (of which five have survived the vicissitudes of time) were written, was an adapted and refined form of the Nabatean script, which was introduced in Arabia in the 6th century CE.

In later years, a more refined and angular form of the Nabatean script, known as Kufi, named after the town of Kufah which was established by Caliph Umar in 638 CE, was developed. In the course of time, other distinctive styles or forms of the Arabic script, such as Thuluth, Naskhi, Rayhani, Maghrabi, Muhaqqaq, Riqa and Nasta’liq, were developed by master calligraphers. Abu Ali Muhammad ibn Muqla (d. 940 CE), a renowned calligrapher of Persian descent who was an official of the Abbasid caliphate, is credited with the creation of the Naskhi, Thuluth, Rayhani, Muhaqqaq and Riqa scripts. The Maghrebi script developed in North Africa and Spain. The Kufi, Naskhi and Thuluth scripts are widely recognised for their amazing elegance and elasticity and are often used for writing the Quran as well as in inscriptions on architectural monuments, tombstones, glass and marble.

The development of Arabic calligraphy in the Muslim world was accompanied by the evolution of a distinctive culture, which included the transmission of this art form from generation to generation through a chain of masters and their disciples, a tradition of direct learning and tutelage under the supervision of a master, a certificate of authorization issued by the master to the disciple, and unswerving dedication and perseverance in the pursuit of calligraphy. In the Muslim world, a substantial part of biographical material deals with the transmission of calligraphic instruction and certification over several centuries. It is significant to note that, over the past several centuries, calligraphy has been taught and transmitted through generations regardless of the distinctions of gender, class, descent, occupation and social and economic status. Calligraphers have thus included men and women, kings and members of the aristocracy as well as commoners and descendants of slaves, townsfolk and villagers.

Female Calligraphers

It is erroneous to assume that Muslim women have always been confined to the home and the hearth in Muslim societies across the world and in all ages. Throughout much of Islamic history, women have been actively involved in wide-ranging activities in different fields of life, including Islamic learning and teaching, writing and poetry and penmanship and calligraphy. There have been scores of accomplished calligraphers in the annals of Arabic calligraphy.

Hilal Kazan, an acclaimed Turkish calligrapher, has published Female Calligraphers: Past and Present (2010), which provides biographical profiles of dozens of prominent female calligraphers in the Muslim world from the early centuries of the Islamic era to the present. These include Umm al-Darda al-Sughra, who lived in the 8th century, Gulsum al-Attabi (d. 835), Muzna (d. 969), Fatima (10th century), Safiyyah bint Abd al-Rabb (d. 1026), Fatima bint Zakariya bint Abdullah al-Shebbarp (d. 1036), Fatima al-Baghdadi (d. 1087), Zaynab Shahda bint Ahmad bint al-Faraj al-Abri (d. 1170), Sayyidah al-Abdariyah (d. 1249), Fatimah bint Quraymazan (d. 1558), and Asma Ibret (d. 1780). Al-Nuddar, who was an accomplished poetess and calligrapher, was attached to the palaces of Muslim kings in Spain in the 10th century. Lubna (d. 1003 CE), the secretary of the caliph Al-Muntasir, was a poetess and an accomplished calligrapher.

During the Ottoman era, which witnessed a remarkable efflorescence of the art of calligraphy, a number of women made their mark in the field of calligraphy. These included Zahidah Salma Khanum, Sharifah Aishah Khanum, Silfinaz Khanum, Faridah Khanum, Khadijah Fuzaydah Celebi and Nukah Khanum.

In present times, quite a few women, mostly of Turkish descent, have earned a reputation as accomplished calligraphers. The names of Hilal Kazan, Nuria Garcia Masip and Soraya Syed are particularly note-worthy. Dr. Hilal Kazan, who was born in Istanbul, obtained her Master’s and doctoral degrees from Marmara University and learned calligraphy under the tutelage of Muserref Celebi and Hasan Celebi. She has conducted workshops on calligraphy at several universities and has taught calligraphy at the University of California.

Soraya Syed was born in London in 1976 to a Pakistani-Turkish father and a French mother. She has participated in numerous calligraphy exhibitions and conducted workshops on Arabic calligraphy. Her website “Art of the Pen” features her work as well as participation in calligraphy exhibitions and workshops.

Calligraphy in Ottoman Turkey

Islamic calligraphy attained spectacular heights during the Ottoman era. The Ottoman sultans were great patrons of artists, architects, calligraphers, poets and men of letters. Sultan Bayezid II, who was a connoisseur of art and a great patron of calligraphy, encouraged and supported Sayyid Hamdullah, a gifted calligrapher who introduced systematization as well as reforms and innovations in the Thuluth script. The calligraphic masterpieces that adorn the walls and domes of mosques, madrasas, caravanserais, palaces and public buildings across Turkey testify to the creative genius of Turkish calligraphers. There is a popular saying to the effect that the Quran was revealed in Makkah and Madinah, recited in Egypt and written in Turkey.

Ottoman Turkey produced a galaxy of distinguished calligraphers, including Sayyid Hamdullah (1429-1520), who founded the Ottoman School of Calligraphy, Ahmet Karahisari (who lived in the 16th century), Hafiz Osman Efendi (d. 1698), Mehmet Esad Yesari Efendi (d. 1798), Kadiasker Mustafa Ezzat Efendi (d. 1876), Mehmet Sevki Efendi (d. 1887), Sami Efendi (d. 1912), Hamid Aytac (d. 1982) and Halim Ozyazici (d. 1964). Sami Efendi was the official inscriber and teacher of calligraphy at the Ottoman court.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of Turkey as a republican and secular state in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk sought to abandon the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, launched a state-sponsored project of Western modernity and secularisation and introduced sweeping changes in Turkish society. The education system was overhauled and modern subjects replaced the traditional system of Islamic learning. The Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar and Islamic family laws were substituted by the Swiss Code. Sufi orders were banned and Sufi lodges (tekkes) and Islamic madrasas were closed down. The Arabic script of the Turkish language was changed to Latin. The wearing of veils and headscarves in all public institutions, including schools, universities, courts, Parliament, government offices and public hospitals, was banned. The replacement of the script of the Turkish language from Arabic to Latin seriously undermined Turkey’s cultural heritage, particularly the cherished tradition of Arabic calligraphy. However, a small but dedicated group of Turkish calligraphers, led by Hamid Aytac, Necmeddin Efendi (d. 1976) and Halim Ozyazici, kept the tradition of Arabic calligraphy alive.

Revival of Calligraphy in Post-Kemalist Turkey

There has been a remarkable revival of Arabic calligraphy in post-Kemalist Turkey. The Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA), a subsidiary of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), has played a highly important role in the preservation, promotion and dissemination of Turkey’s calligraphic legacy. It has published a series books, albums and documentaries on the masterpieces of Turkish calligraphy, especially those of Hamid Aytac, Mustafa Halim Oyzazici and Mehmet Sevki Efendi. IRCICA has published An Annotated Bibliography of Calligraphy (2002), Masterpieces of Calligraphy in Islam (1992) and The Art of Calligraphy in Islamic Heritage (in English, Turkish, Arabic, Malay and Japanese languages). Since 1987 IRCICA has been organising international calligraphic competitions every three years. The Museum of Turkish Calligraphic Art, located in Bayezid Madrasa in Istanbul, is the world’s largest calligraphic museum.

IRCICA organised a three-day international conference on Islamic calligraphy in September 2014. It was attended by eminent calligraphers from Turkey, Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Syria, Jordan, Britain, Spain and the United States. It organised the International Symposium on Female Calligraphers in Istanbul on June 5-6, 2010. A number of eminent female calligraphers from Turkey, Tunisia, Iran and Europe participated in the symposium.

The greatest among contemporary calligraphers in Turkey and one of the world’s most renowned Arabic calligraphers is Hasan Celebi (born 1937). He learned calligraphy under the tutelage of some of the greatest calligraphers of his time, namely, Halim Ozyazici, Hamid Aytac and Kemal Batanay (d. 1981). He received a certificate in the Naskhi script from Hamid Aytac in 1971 and in Riqa and Taliq from Kemal Batanay in 1980. Hasan Celebi has produced hundreds of calligraphic panels for mosques, academic institutions and conferences around the world and was closely associated with the restoration of calligraphic panels in the Prophet’s Mosques in Madinah, which were set up during the Ottoman era. Celebi’s calligraphic works are inscribed in Quba Mosque, Masjid al-Qiblatayn and Masjid al-Juma’ in Madinah, Juma’s Mosque in Johannesberg, Almati Jumah Mosque in Kazakhstan, Fatih Mosque in Pforzheim in Germany and Islamic Medical Centre in Kuwait. Celebi has held exhibitions of his calligraphic work in several countries.

Celebi is also a renowned teacher of Arabic calligraphy. Since 1976 he has taught and issued certificate of authorisation (ijazatname) to hundreds of students from Turkey, Europe and the US. Some of the prominent calligraphers of present times, including Mohamed Zakariya (US), Hilal Kazan and Nuria Garcia Masip, are among Celebi’s students.

Globalisation of Islamic Calligraphy

The pivotal role played by Turkey in the promotion and dissemination of Arabic calligraphy has led to a growing worldwide recognition and appreciation of this traditional art form. In the past few years, dozens of calligraphers from Europe, USA and other parts of the world have come to Istanbul to learn different scripts of Arabic calligraphy under the tutelage of Turkish masters. They have obtained certificates of authorisation and have returned to their respective countries and are actively engaged in practising and teaching calligraphy.

Several universities and research institutions in Europe, USA, Japan and other countries now offer courses and conduct workshops on Arabic calligraphy, which are attended by Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Eminent calligraphers from Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Europe and USA are invited to give lectures and conduct workshops on calligraphy. The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London offers regular courses and workshops on Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphic exhibitions and competitions on Arabic calligraphy are organised in many countries. Museums in Europe and USA, which have substantial collections of Islamic art objects and calligraphic works, often hold exhibitions on Islamic calligraphy. The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery held an exhibition of Arabic calligraphy “Qalam: The Art of Beautiful Writing” from 2 November 2013 to 26 January 2014. The exhibition was accompanied by lectures and workshops on calligraphy. In September 2009, an exhibition of calligraphic works from Mali, Morocco, Spain and Turkey, along with a seminar and a workshop on Islamic calligraphy, was held in Cape Town, South Africa at the city’s Gold of Africa Museum. The exhibition -- named “From Istanbul to Timbuktu – Ink Routes” -- was jointly curated by Nuria Gracia Masip from Spain and Deniz Oktem Bektas from Turkey. The exhibition showcased calligraphic works in Arabic as well as in some African languages but in the Arabic script and in the traditional calligraphic styles.

Modern information and communication technologies, including the Internet, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, are being increasingly used for the projection and dissemination of Arabic calligraphy. The websites of many well-known museums in Western countries, such as the iconic Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, display the calligraphic works in their galleries. The Belgian-based Museum With No Frontiers runs a website on Arabic calligraphy. Many prominent practitioners of Arabic calligraphy have their own websites, which provide biographical information as well as specimens of their calligraphic work.

The growing worldwide interest in Islamic art, including Arabic calligraphy, in Europe, USA and other parts of the world should be seen in the context of the increasing interest in Islam and the legacy of Islamic civilization despite the resurgence of Islamophobic sentiments in recent years. It should also be seen in the wider context of the growing disenchantment with the forces of late modernity and globalisation. The growing interest in the legacy of Islamic civilization in the West reflects a deep yearning for meaning, purpose and identity in a world that has increasingly become distant, abstract and impersonal. It reflects a search for a worldview that is infused with deeper meaning, inner peace and tranquillity, aesthetic and moral sensibility and harmony.

Nuria Garcia Masip

Nuria Garcia Masip, a well-known calligrapher of Spanish descent, was born in Ibiza, Spain in 1978. She spent her early years in Spain and the United States. She completed her B. A. in French and Spanish Literature at George Washington University in 1999. She then travelled to Morocco, where she came face to face with the vibrant legacy of Islamic art and calligraphy. She received training in the Maghrebi script of Arabic calligraphy from an eminent Moroccan calligrapher, Belaid Hamidi. In 2000 she learned Arabic calligraphy under the tutelage of the well-known American calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya. Her deep interest in calligraphy took her to Istanbul, where she learned the various scripts and styles of Arabic calligraphy from Hasan Celebi and Davut Bektas. In 2007 she received a certificate in the Thuluth and Naskhi scripts.

Nuria currently lives in Paris, where she produces her calligraphic work and teaches courses on Arabic calligraphy. She has participated in several international calligraphic exhibitions and won prizes, including a prestigious prize at the international calligraphy competition held in Istanbul under the auspices of IRCICA in 2011. She regularly conducts workshops on Arabic calligraphic at universities in Europe and other countries and has curated calligraphic exhibitions in Spain and South Africa.

Nuria represents the Ottoman School of Calligraphy and her calligraphic works prominently reflect the elegance and majesty of calligraphic styles that are distinctively associated with Turkish masters.




Surah Al-Rum, 30:20-27
Thuluth and Naskh scripts

Surah Al-Nisa, 4:78
Thuluth script

Surah Al-Waqia’
Thuluth and Naskh



Names of Prophet Muhammad

24: 35

3: 26-27

Surah Al-Rahman 55
Thuluth and Naskh

Surah Al-Qasas, 28:85

Sural Al-Baqarah, 2:152

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