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SpeakerChristopher M. Murphy

Institution Library of Congress

Subject Arabic script calligraphy

The Arabic script developed as an artistic/calligraphic medium over a span of approximately 1000 years, from the sixth century of the current era to the sixteenth century of that era. From the humble beginnings of a writing system designed to record commercial data and occasional funerary inscriptions the Arabic script has developed and blossomed into a world renowned vehicle of artistic expression.

With the writing down of the Koran and the beginning of the Islamic religious sciences the Arabic script necessarily began to become refined in order to fulfill the new needs to which it was subjected. The initial forms of the script, for example Hijazi, named for the Hijaz where the cities of Mecca and Medinah are located, had neither vowel markers nor markers to distinguish between letters of a similar shape, for example, the letters ba and ta. Following Hijazi, and the other early forms, is the Kufic form of the script, developed in Iraq during the eighth century of the current era, late second century of the Islamic era. Kufic rapidly developed markers for vowels and distinguishing like formed letters, and the first truly beautiful calligraphic examples of the Koran were created.

In the Central and Eastern Islamic lands on one hand, and in North Africa on the other hand, Kufic followed diverging paths of development. In the West, Western Kufic developed into the Maghribi script used in Islamic Spain and North Africa, and which gave birth to the local West African scripts, commonly called Sudani, which are used there to write Arabic and local, African, languages until the present day. There are many fine examples of calligraphy using the Maghribi script, including large format Korans copied during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of the current era.

In the Central and Eastern Islamic lands during the eleventh century of the current era Eastern Kufic developed into, and was replaced by, six major forms of the Arabic script. These are Naskh, Thuluth, Rayhanni, Muhaqqaq, Taliq and Riqah. All of these scripts are used at the present time and many, if not most, of the greatest monuments of Arabic calligraphy, whether pen on paper or engraving on stone, are written in one of these scripts. Naskh, Thuluth, Rayhanni and Muhaqqaq are all used for copying the Koran, Taliq and Riqah are rarely used. From the four Koranic scripts is derived Musahif, the book script, which has become the most commonly used script to copy the Koran. Riqah has become the modern cursive form of the Arabic script in daily use in the Central Islamic lands.

In Ottoman Turkey, Iran and further East the Nastaliq form of the script is used for copying literary and secular works. This form of the Arabic script was developed in Iran based on a combining of forms of Naskh and Taliq. Its first great master was Sultan Ali Mashshadi who worked at the court of Sultan Husayn Bayqara, King of Herat, in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century of the current era.. Nastaliq is used throughout the Eastern Islamic world, however, it is rarely used to copy the Koran.