Islamic calligraphy

From Free Islamic Calligraphy

Al Talaq
Al Talaq

Meriem Marsli

Edited and extended from Wikipedia

Islamic calligraphy, is the artistic practice of handwriting and calligraphy, based upon the alphabet in the lands sharing a common Islamic cultural heritage. It includes Arabic , Ottoman, and Persian calligraphy. It is known in Arabic as khatt Islami (خط اسلامي), derived from the word ‘line’, ‘design’, or ‘construction’.

The development of Islamic calligraphy is strongly tied to the Qur’an; chapters, and excerpts from the Qur’an is a common and almost universal text upon which Islamic calligraphy is based. Deep religious association with the Qur’an, as well as suspicion of figurative art as idolatrous has led calligraphy to become one of the major forms of artistic expression in Islamic cultures.

As Islamic calligraphy is highly venerated, most works follow examples set by well established calligraphers, with the exception of secular or contemporary works. In antiquity, a pupil would copy a master’s work repeatedly until their handwriting is similar.

The most common style is divided into:

1. Kufic: oldest angular style

2. Naskh (نسخ nasḫ): cursive style . With variants Thuluth (ثلث ṯuluṯ)  Ruq‘ah (رقعة ruqʿah)

With the spread of Islam, the Arabic script was established in a vast geographic area with many regions developing their own unique style. From the 14th century onward, other cursive styles began to developed in Turkey, Persia, and China.

3. Nasta‘liq (نستعلیق nastaʿlīq) developed in Persia

4. Diwani (ديواني dīwānī) developed in Ottoman Empire

5) Sini is a style developed in China. The shape is greatly influenced by Chinese calligraphy, using a horsehair brush instead of the standard reed pen. A famous modern calligrapher in this tradition is Hajji Noor Deen Mi Guangjiang.

Instruments and media

The traditional instrument of the Islamic calligrapher is the qalam, a pen normally made of dried reed or bamboo; the ink is often in color, and chosen such that its intensity can vary greatly, so that the greater strokes of the compositions can be very dynamic in their effect. Some styles are often written using a metallic-tip pen.


Islamic calligraphy is applied on a wide range of decorative mediums other than paper, such as tiles, vessels, carpets, and inscriptions. Before the advent of paper, papyrus and parchment were used for writing. The advent of paper revolutionized calligraphy. While monasteries in Europe treasured a few dozen volumes, libraries in the Muslim world regularly contained hundreds and even thousands of books.

Coins were another support for calligraphy. Beginning in 692, the Islamic caliphate reformed the coinage of the Near East by replacing visual depiction with words. This was especially true for dinars, or gold coins of high value. Generally the coins were inscribed with quotes from the Qur’an.

By the tenth century, the Persians, who had converted to Islam, began weaving inscriptions onto elaborately patterned silks. So precious were calligraphic inscribed textiles that Crusaders brought them to Europe as prized possessions. A notable example is the Suaire de Saint-Josse, used to wrap the bones of St. Josse in the Abbey of St. Josse-sur-Mer near Caen in northwestern France.

Kufic – Iraq

9th century Qur’an, an early kufic example from the Abbasid period

Bowl with Kufic Calligraphy, 10th century.Brooklyn Museum


Kufic is the oldest form of the Arabic script developed around the end of the 7th century in the areas of Kufa, Iraq, from which it takes its name. It was the main script used to copy Qur’ans from the 8th to 10th century and went out of general use in the 12th century when the flowing naskh style become more practical, although it continued to be used as a decorative element to contrast superseding styles.

The Archaic Kufi consisted of about 17 letters without diacritic dots or accents. Afterwards, dots and accents were added to help readers with pronunciation, and the set of Arabic letters rose to 29.

There were no set rules of using the Kufic script; the only common feature is the rigid, angular, linear strokes and shapes of the characters – a modified form of the old Nabataean script. Through use in different regions, countries and calligraphers, the style later developed into several varieties, including floral, foliated, plaited or interlaced, bordered, and squared kufi.Common varieties include square Kufic, a technique known as banna’i. Contemporary calligraphy using this style is also popular in modern decorations.

Decorative kufic inscriptions are often imitated into pseudo-kufics in Middle age and Renaissance Europe. Pseudo-kufics is especially common in Renaissance depictions of people from the Holy Land. The exact reason for the incorporation of pseudo-Kufic is unclear. It seems that Westerners mistakenly associated 13–14th century Middle-Eastern scripts as being identical with the scripts current at the time of Christ, and thus found natural to represent early Christians in association with them.


Muhaqqaq script in a 14th-century Qur’an from the Mamluk dynasty.

The use of cursive script coexisted with kufic, but because in the early stages of their development they lacked discipline and elegance, cursive were usually used for informal purposes. With the rise of Islam, new script was needed to fit the pace of conversions, and a well defined cursive called naskh first appeared in the 10th century. The script is the most ubiquitous among other styles, used in Qur’ans, official decrees, and private correspondence. It became the basis of modern Arabic print.

Standardization of the style was pioneered by Ibn Muqla (886-940 A.D.) and later expanded by Abu Hayan at-Tawhidi (died 1009 A.D.) andMuhammad Ibn Abd ar-Rahman (1492–1545 A.D.). Ibn Muqla is highly regarded in Muslim sources on calligraphy as the inventor of the naskh style, although this seems to be erroneous. However, Ibn Muqla did establish systematic rules and proportions for shaping the letters, which use ‘alif as the x-height.

Variation of the naskh includes:

  1. Thuluth is developed as a display script to decorate particular scriptural objects. Letters have long vertical lines with broad spacing. The name reference to the x-height, which is one third of the ‘alif.
  2. Riq’ah is a handwriting style derived from naskh and thuluth, first appeared in the 9th century. The shape is simple with short strokes and little flourishes.
  3. Muhaqqaq is a majestic style used by accomplished calligrapher. It was considered one of the most beautiful scripts, as well as one of the most difficult to execute. Muhaqqaq was commonly used during the Mameluke era, but the use become largely restricted to short phrases, such as the basmallah, from the 18th century onward.


A cursive style developed in the 14th century by Mir Ali Tabrizi to write the Persian language for literary and non-Qur’anic works. Nasta’liq is thought to be a later development of the naskh and the earlier ta’liq script used in Iran. The name ta’liq means ‘hanging’, and refers to the slightly steeped lines of which words run in, giving the script a hanging appearance. Letters have short vertical strokes with broad and sweeping horizontal strokes. The shapes are deep, hook-like, and have high contrast.

Nasta’liq calligraphy by Mir Emad Hassani, perhaps the most celebrated Persian calligrapher.

In the 17th century Morteza Gholi Khan Shamlou and Mohammad Shafi Heravi created a new genre called cursive Nastaʿlīq Shekasteh Nastaʿlīq. Almost a century later, Abdol-Majid Taleqani, who was a prominent artist at the time, brought this genre to its highest level. This calligraphic style is based on the same rules as Nas’taliq. However, cursive Nas’taliq has a few significant differences: it provides more flexible movements, and it is slightly more stretched and curved. Yadollah Kaboli is one of the most prominent contemporary calligraphers within this style.


is a cursive style of Arabic calligraphy developed during the reign of the early Ottoman Turks in the 16th and early 17th centuries. It was invented by Housam Roumi and reached its height of popularity under Süleyman I the Magnificent (1520–1566). Spaces between letters are often narrow, and lines ascend upwards from right to left. Larger variation called djali are filled with dense decorations of dots and diacritical marks in the space between, giving it a compact appearance. Diwani is difficult to read and write due to its heavy stylization, and became ideal script for writing court documents as it insured confidentiality and prevented forgery.

List of calligraphers

Some classical calligraphers:

Ottoman era

How to do it

Emigre Magazine

Emigre magazine was a graphic design magazine published by Emigre Graphics between 1984 and 2005; it was first published in 1984 in San Francisco, California, USA. Art-directed by Rudy VanderLans using fonts designed by his wife, Zuzana Licko, Emigre was one of the first publications to use Macintosh computers and had a large influence on graphic designers moving into desktop publishing (DTP). The first eight issues were concerned with boundaries, international culture, travel accounts and alienation (as the issues’ titles suggest).

  • The magazine began in 1984 with a focus on the émigré. The first eight issues also incorporated a dynamic aesthetic that caught the attention of designers and led to the next stage in the magazine’s evolution.
  • Beginning with Issue 9 — devoted to the art of Vaughan Oliver at 4AD — the magazine explored design in itself, devoting issues to Cranbrook, the Macintosh, type design and individual graphic designers. In two issues in 1992 and 1993, the magazine chronicled the work of David Carson and Raygun.
  • Increasingly, Emigre became a platform for essays and writings on design. This aspect of Emigre came to the forefront with issues in 1994 and the magazine changed its format in 1995 from its oversized layout to a text-friendlier format that debuted with Issue 33. The magazine retained this character through Issue 59 in 2001.
  • Emigre then took a sharp turn with four re-formatted issues in 2001 and 2002 that included one DVD (“Catfish,” an experimental documentary film on the work of designer and performance artist Elliott Earls) and three compact discs (featuring the music of Honey Barbara, The Grassy Knoll and Scenic).
  • In its fifth and final incarnation, the last six issues of Emigre were co-published by Princeton Architectural Press as small softcover books. The last issue, The End, was published in 2005.

Its variety of layouts, use of guest designers, and opinionated articles also had an effect on other design publications.

Robert Massin

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Robert Massin is a French graphic designer, art director and typographer who is notable for his innovative experimentation with expressive forms of typographic composition. Massin stopped using his first name in the 1950s.

Biography (Wikipedia)

Massin was born in 1925 in Bourdinière-Saint-Loup, a commune in the Eure-et-Loir department in north-central France. He began working as a designer following World War II. Massin’s immediate influence in the 1950s was innovative French book designer Pierre Faucheux. Faucheux emphasized the idea that each new book should be a new object determined by type choice, proportion and déroulement, the development of a visual concept over several pages. Faucheux also emphasized the idea that the choice of typeface should have some relationship to the meaning of the text. These ideas are apparent in much of Massin’s most famous work. For over twenty years Massin acted as art director of Éditions Gallimard, one of the leading French publishers of books.

Writing in Eye magazine in a review of a book on Massin, Jan Middendorp credited La Cantatrice and La Lettre et l’Image as follows: “These two masterpieces of typographic eccentricity became hot items among designers and art directors on both sides of the Atlantic, and were especially influential in America, where they helped trigger the post-functionalist approach of graphic design that eventually culminated in the eclecticism of the late 1980s and 1990s.”

A 2007 major monograph of his work, Massin, written by Laetitia Wolff and published by Phaidon, was the first Massin monograph to appear in English.


Notable books designed by Massin:

  • Exercices de style, by Raymond Queneau, Gallimard, 1963. A book of 99 retellings of the same story, each presented different graphically.
  • La Cantatrice chauve, by Eugène Ionesco, Gallimard, 1964. (translated asThe Bald Prima Donna or The Bald Soprano). The book presented the dialogue of a single play through hundreds of pages of innovative graphic compositions. Different characters took on different typefaces. He used mixtures of typefaces and new compositional methods to present dialogue, he also formally manipulated dialogue by stretching and bending. He used black pages to capture silence on stage.
  • Délire à deux, by Eugène Ionesco, Gallimard, 1966.
  • Conversation-sinfonietta, by Jean Tardieu, Gallimard, 1966.
  • Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel, by Jean Cocteau, Hoëbeke, begun in 1966 and published in 1994.

Notable books written by Massin:

  • La Lettre et l’Image, Gallimard, 1970.

Concrete poetry

Source: edited from Wikipedia. References to be followed up and expanded as part of my exploration of experimental typography.

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You Tube

Concrete, pattern, or shape poetry is an arrangement of linguistic elements in which the typographical effect is more important in conveying meaning than verbal significance. As such, concrete poetry relates more to the visual than to the verbal arts and there is a considerable overlap in the kind of product to which it refers.

It is difficult to define:”a printed concrete poem is ambiguously both typographic-poetry and poetic-typography” (Houédard). Works cross artistic boundaries into the areas of music and sculpture, or can alternatively be defined as sound poetry, visual poetry, found poetry and typewriter art.

Despite blurring of artistic boundaries, however, concrete poetry can be viewed as taking its place in a predominantly visual tradition stretching over more than two millennia that seeks to draw attention to the word in the space of the page, and to the spaces between words, as an aid to emphasising their significance.



Shaped poetry was popular in Greek Alexandria during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE.

15th and 16th Century church

Jewish and Islamic calligraphy

creation of images of natural objects without directly breaking the prohibition of creating “graven images” that might be interpreted as idolatry.

  • Micrography: Hebrew-speaking artists created pictures using tiny arrangements of Biblical texts organized usually on paper in images which illustrate the text used.
  • Islamic calligraphy.

France 19th and 20th century

  • ‘poems’  simplified to a simple arrangement of the letters of the alphabet.
  • Louis Aragon, for example, exhibited the sequence from a to z and titled it “Suicide” (1926)
  • Kurt Schwitters’ “ZA (elementary)” has the alphabet in reverse
  • Catalan writer Josep Maria Junoy (1885-1955) placed just the letters Z and A at the top and bottom of the page under the title “Ars Poetica”
  • Dutch typographer H.N. Werkman in 1920s progressed to using the typewriter to create abstract patterns (which he called tiksels), using not just letters but also purely linear elements.
  • ‘typestracts’ of the concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houédard during the 1960s.

Post-war concrete poetry


During the early 1950s two Brazilian artistic groups producing severely abstract and impersonal work were joined by poets linked to the São Paolo magazine Noigrandes who began to treat language in an equally abstract way. Their work was termed “concrete poetry” after they exhibited along with the artists in the National Exhibition of Concrete Art (1956/57). The poets included Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos and Décio Pignatari, who were joined in the exhibition by Ferreira Gullar, Ronaldo Azeredo and Wlademir Dias Pino from Rio de Janeiro. In 1958 a Brazilian concrete poetry manifesto was published and an anthology in 1962.


Houedard: inspired by 1962 publication in The Times Literary Supplement of a letter from the Brazilian E.M. de Melo e Castro. His work was  produced principally on the typewriter but approximates more to painterly and sculptural procedures.

Ian Hamilton Finlay :Ian Hamilton Finlay’s concrete poetry began on the page but then moved increasingly towards three dimensional figuration and afterwards to site-specific art in the creation of his sculpture garden at Little Sparta.

Ian Hamilton Finlay sculpture in Stuttgart, 1975; the word schiff (ship) is carved in reverse and can only be decoded when it floats reflected on water (Wikipedia)

Edwin Morgan Edwin Morgan’s experiments with concrete poetry include elements of found poetry ‘discovered’ by misreading and isolating elements from printed sources. “Most people have probably had the experience of scanning a newspaper page quickly and taking a message from it quite different from the intended one. I began looking deliberately for such hidden messages…preferably with the visual or typographical element part of the point.”

Eugen Gomringer considered that a poem should be “a reality in itself” rather than a statement about reality, and “as easily understood as signs in airports and traffic signs”.

Henri Chopin’s work was related to his musical treatment of the word.

Kenelm Cox (1927-68) was a kinetic artist “interested in the linear, serial aspects of visual experience but particularly in the process of change,” whose revolving machines transcended the static page in being able to express this.

Bob Cobbing, who was also a sound poet, had been experimenting with typewriter and duplicator since 1942. Of its possibilities in suggesting the physical dimension of the auditory process, he declared that “One can get the measure of a poem with the typewriter’s accurate left/right & up & down movements; but superimposition by means of stencil and duplicator enable one to dance to this measure.”

American Minimalist artist Carl André, beginning from about 1958 and in parallel with his changing artistic procedures.

Tom Phillips  visual artist, who uses painterly and decorative procedures to isolate them on the page. In A Humument he explores unintended concordances of meaning.



Experimental Typography

The medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan

Do not mistake legibility for communication

David Carson

Tripwire online magazine Experimental Typography 

Cargo collective experimental typography

Design Beep

Webdesigner Depot


Experimental typographers

Alex Trochut

Meriem Marsli

Notes from Teal Triggs The Typographic Experiment: Radical Innovation in Contemporary Type Design

Experimental means ‘a valid means of rational investigation, of taking risks and viewing those risks as crucial to the development of the overall design process’ p007

  • Identified usually with avant-garde – rejecting existing traditions or canons of style but it may also take forward ideas and develop original positions. But avant-garde moves quickly to mainstream in the search for the next ‘new thing’.
  • Communication with the audience is also constantly renegotiated as they become quickly accustomed to ‘the new’.
  • Expressive – the way language is articulated through the use and arrangement of type to enhance communication. Distinct from emotive or illustrative treatment of letterforms which often eclipses the clear presentation of the message.

The Medium is the Message

Mapping Meaning and Defining Spaces

Typo-anarchy and the DIY of Design

Visual Poetry

Small Screen (Bigger Picture)


Concrete and Visual poetry: Aldus Manutius pattern poems, Appolinaire’s calligrammes, Stephane Mallarme, Finlay

Marinetti dadaists and futurists

Robert Massin 1960s

Emigre magazine


Wolfgang Weingart

Daniel Friedman

April Greiman


Katherine McCoy

Fuse Magazine

Neville Brody

(to be completed)

See also Typographic Art

Here the image made by the type is the main aim, the meaning of the text is subordinated to this.