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What Is Arabic Calligraphy?

Arabic calligraphy is a traditional art form in the Middle East.
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  • Written By: J.E. Holloway
  • Edited By: Rachel Catherine Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 12 April 2014
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Arabic calligraphy, also called Islamic calligraphy, is a form of writing which has become an important traditional art form in the Muslim world. Calligraphers produce elaborate designs using Arabic script. Arabic calligraphy often has a religious or devotional theme, and often includes prayers or passages from the Qur'an, Islam's sacred text. The shahada, or Muslim profession of faith, is a common subject.

Calligraphy has a special place among the arts in the Muslim world because of the traditional prohibition against representative art in religious contexts. Islam prohibits the worship of images, and many Muslim cultures extend this prohibition not only to images of Allah but to all religious figurative art. As a result, non-figurative art forms such as calligraphy have a high degree of importance in Islamic culture compared to the cultures of Western Europe. Arabic is the language of the Qur'an, giving Arabic calligraphy a special status even in Muslim cultures where Arabic is not the dominant language.

Over the long and varied history of Arabic calligraphy, a number of different styles developed in different regions. For example, the early Kufic style is highly linear, with sharp angles and straight lines. A later calligraphic style, the Nash or Naskh script, is much more fluid.

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The traditional instrument of Arabic calligraphers is a type of pen called a qalam, made from a reed with a shaped and notched tip. This type of pen has a long history in the cultures of the Middle East. In other parts of the world, the primary instrument is different. This is the case in the Chinese Muslim community, where brushes are the standard tool.

Inscriptions in Arabic calligraphy appear in a wide variety of contexts. Calligraphic designs are common in books, particularly sacred texts, but they also occur on pottery, coinage and other objects. Inscriptions in Arabic calligraphy are an important part of the decoration of many mosques. These inscriptions are combined with geometric decoration to create a visually striking effect. In some mosques, the passage from the Qur'an chosen for the inscription relates to the part of the mosque it adorns.

One unusual type of Arabic calligraphy is the calligram. In a calligram, the calligrapher uses the words of the inscription to create a picture. The picture is often related to the text of the inscription, creating a visual pun. Calligrams are a form of popular calligraphy and do not usually appear in mosques or other high-status contexts.

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