Calligraphy – the art of writing – is a unique feature of Islamic art in that it has been used in astonishingly varied and imaginative ways. The written word appears not just in pen and paper but across all art forms and materials, often giving rise to works of great beauty.
The genius of Islamic calligraphy lies not only in the endless creativity and versatility, but also in the balance struck by calligraphers between transmitting a text and expressing its meaning through a formal aesthetic code.
Presenting the words of the Qur'an – the central religious text of Islam – with precision and clarity, is of great importance to Muslims, as it is believed to be the literal Word of God. For most of Islamic history, the Qur'an has been preserved in manuscript. By the 8th century a distinctive manuscript form had been established and this style continued until the 10th century, when a series of changes in materials, script and format made copies of the Qur'an more like other fine manuscripts.
From about the same time, more fluid styles of script were developed and by the 13th century these had replaced the older hands in the Qur'an production. A gradual process of refinement occurred and eventually gave rise to distinctive regional or dynastic styles. By the late 19th century reproduction of the text by mechanical printing techniques was permitted, but even then the text to be printed was written out by a scribe working in the traditional manner.
As well as being written with great elegance, there were many ways in which calligraphy could be enhanced by adding decoration. The words themselves could be written in gold, or in colours other than black. Letters and words could also be outlined or could lie against a background pattern. Calligraphers also combined different sizes, colours and styles of text for different phrases or sections of text (but always sticking to the rules of proportionality within each section). These Qu'ran folios show how calligraphers could make functional details of formatting and punctuation into beautifully designed elements.
Interpreted as the Word of God, it was important that decorated frames and background patterns of Qur'an manuscripts were carefully produced so they did not interfere with the clarity of the script, or distract from the content of the text.
While the Qur'an's holy status provides an explanation for calligraphy's importance, by no means is all Arabic calligraphy religious in content. In general, calligraphic inscriptions on works of art can also include poems, praise for rulers, and aphorisms (general truths or principles).
Despite calligraphic designs appearing in many different materials, they often imitate the technical effects of pen on paper.
Explore a selection of objects from our collection that carry calligraphic inscriptions in the slideshow below.