The Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait has a large and important collection of Al Qur’an and
manuscripts from all periods and countries (including NW China ) around the Islamic world.
The museum possesses some fine examples of the writings of renowned calligraphers such as
Yaqut Al Musta’simi (d.1293AD) . Although little of his work has survived, his influence
was of outstanding importance to the development of calligraphy.
The purpose of the collection is to illustrate something of the history and development of
Islamic calligraphy, which grew rapidly from insignificant beginnings, into a major art form
the beauty of which has been unsurpassed. Interest in the art of writing was not a feature
of pre-Islamic society. The Arabs were poets and storytellers of high ability who trained
and improved their memories. Competitions were regularly held at which epic poems were
recited and for which prizes were awarded. An alphabetic script had been invented and was
used by the Phoenicians and the Nabateans mainly for the purposes of recording business
The Nabateans were semi- nomadic Arabs who originated from the north of Arabia. They were
famed as traders and went down in history as the founders of the beautiful rock hewn
‘rose-red’ city of Petra in Jordan. Both the Phoenicians and the Nabateans were noted for
their business orientated skills, with the Phoenicians sailing as far afield as Cornwall
in the UK for tin . The Nabateans who dealt in the frankincense trade were also engineers
and architects, but the art of writing was not amongst their interests. A famous pre-Islamic
poet, Imru’al Qais ( 328AD) is said to have compared scenes of destruction on the battlefield
to words that had been scribbled on parchment. Nevertheless that early script did have
considerable effect upon the early development of Arabic writing.
For a short period after the revelation of the Holy Qur’an the Arabs continued to follow
the old oral tradition. It was only when a great number of the ‘Huffaz’ (trained people who
had committed the Qur’an to memory ) were killed in battle that it was realised that memory
alone could never be accurate enough , and the Holy book would have to be written down .
By 651 AD it had been recorded, codified and official copies sent to all centres of Muslim
learning . It was from these copies that every future edition of the Holy Qur’an has been taken.
It was the necessity of recording the Qur’an precisely that played such a central role in
beautifying the writing so that it might be worthy of divine revelations. Islamic teachings
state that the Holy Book was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) in Arabic and so the
language has the status of divine speech. In the following centuries scribes became highly
trained and respected people, with the well-educated person, and that included Sultans and
Emperors, considering it an honour to learn to write under the guidance of an eminent scribe.
There were a number of early Arabian scripts of two main types, a round curved one and a long
straight version. The rounded script was written on materials like leather, while the
straight style could be incised into wood, onto flat stones and camel bones. Because neither
style was particularly attractive they were not considered suitable for recording the Qur’an.
At an early stage no vowel signs were used and so similar shaped consonants could not be
easily differentiated . The Father of Arabic is considered to be Abu’l Aswad Du’ali of
Basra (d. 688AD) . He is thought to have invented the system of coloured dots that indicate
vowel signs. Two of his students continued his work and devised a method of using these
dots to differentiate between consonants and similarly shaped letters.
Important centres of early Muslim learning were Basra in the south of present day Iraq and
Kufa in the north of the country. Calligraphers in Kufa developed a script known as Kufic.
. Kufic was frequently written in gold on vellum, which was a soft , pliable leather
made from gazelle skin. Its appearance though beautiful was strong , perhaps slightly severe ,
and probably reflected something of the highly motivated scholars who competed to produce
suitable outstanding scripts to record the Qur’an. With the passage of time Kufic grew very
ornamental , its shapes plaited, knotted or foliated (leaf-like). Kufic was woven into
textiles, carved onto stones , incised on glass, wood and ceramics. Magnificent examples
can still be found in the mosque in Cordoba and the Alhambra in Granada in Spain. Inspired
by the desire to record the Qur’an in the best possible manner , there grew up intense
intellectual curiosity. Every subject, scientific or artistic came under the scrutiny of the
Muslim scholar. They recorded and translated Roman and Greek learning and contributed their
own discoveries. It was through the Muslims that the Renaissance in Europe came into being.
The art of calligraphy developed rapidly and as one modern writer has put it , "A people not
much given to writing became calligraphers producing masterpieces which have neither been
equalled nor surpassed".
An outstanding scribe mentioned in Arabic sources was Qutbah al Muharrir. He is thought to
have developed the four important styles known as Thuluth, Jalil, Nisf and Tumar. Many people
experimented with different styles but most did not survive the test of time. Those that
did are known as Al Aqlam al Sittah or The Six Pens. These six styles have survived to
this day and are called Thuluth, Naskhi, Rayhani, Muhaqqaq, Riq’a and Tawqi. Naskhi and Riq’a
are taught in modern schools.
The single most important development in calligraphy took place in eight century Baghdad.
Abu Ali Mohammed ibn Muqlah was a Vizir to three caliphs and was not only a talented
mathematician but a calligrapher as well. Using his knowledge of geometry , he designed a
script that was easy to write, perfectly proportioned yet beautiful to behold. He laid down
a set of rules which still apply. He used the rhombic (diamond shaped) dot , the Alif and
circles as basic measurements. Before his death in 940 AD, he had succeeded in devising a
set of scientific rules for calligraphy that could be applied by anyone. Ibn Muqlah is
thought to have used his rules on at least six cursive (free running ) styles . Unfortunately
little of his actual work has survived though the Baghdad museum possesses a few pages of
manuscript that are generally agreed to be in his hand writing.
The next outstanding calligrapher was Ibn Al Bawwab ( d. 1022) who was trained by one of
Ibn Muqlah’s students . Ibn Al Bawwab was not just a calligrapher but also a talented artist.
He gave to writing a new elegance of free flow and beauty. He mastered a number of styles but
was particularly inspired by Naskhi and Muhaqqaq. He is thought to have completed sixty four
copies of the Holy Qur’an , of which one has survived as well as a few pages of his secular work.
There were many talented calligraphers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries advancing the art,
of which Yaqut Al Musta’simi (d. 1298 AD) should be mentioned. He invented a new way of
cutting the reed pens (which are still used in calligraphy classes) and which imparted to his
writing an extra dimension of beauty and grace. Yaqut Al Musta’simi is still remembered as
a strict teacher who made his students practice long and hard. He ‘warmed’ up each day by
writing two sections from the Holy Book. There is a legend about him that says during the
terrible sacking of Baghdad by Ghengis Khan’s Mongols (1258AD) , he climbed to the top of
a minaret clutching a pen and some ink, but no paper. "All he had was a towel of Baalbeki
linen, on which he wrote a few words on the towel in such a manner that looking at them one
is seized with wonder ". A delightful Persian miniature in the Freer Gallery, Washington DC,
shows Al Musta’simi practising the letter Kaf while sitting at the top of the minaret. Such
devotion to ones profession was both expected and essential and there are numerous tales
illustrating such enthusiasm and piety.
As an art form calligraphy could be considered fully developed by the thirteenth century.
It was during this period that many words such Al Kymia (Chemistry) , Amir Al Bahar
( Admiral) , Aljabr (Algebra) etc. passed into the English language. Libraries flourished
in the great cities such as Alexandria (Egypt), Baghdad and Cordoba in Spain. In many places
the wealthy formed their own libraries.
It was considered that to train as a scribe was important and proper. The grandson of
Tamerlane the Mongol, Ibrahim Sultan was an outstanding writer and to this day one of
his works , a Qur’an written in gold Rayhani script (1413 AD) can still be seen. These
numerous productions had the side effect of encouraging bookbinders, artists and
illustrators and a very high standard of work was achieved. This outpouring of fine work
reached into Europe and many artists of that period attempted to copy the designs and motifs.
If paintings from the 13th/15th century are studied , one can see examples of sometimes
readable attempts at Arabic writing , as well as other Islamic motifs used in costume details.
It was during this time that the word Arabesque entered the vocabulary of many a European