The basic understanding of Arabic calligraphy starts with the right tools. This is part one of a series about calligraphy.

A guest article by Miho Sato from Tokyo, Japan

Miho Sato, born in Japan, studied Arabic in Syria for five year. There she started to appreciate the beauty of Arabic calligraphy. She has studied calligraphy under Shukri Omar Kharsho (Syria), Mohamed Zakariya (USA), and Efdaluddin Kılıç (Turkey). Miho has received a Master’s degree from Columbia University, USA.

The etymology of the word calligraphy

Calligraphy, which means beautiful writing in Greek originally, has been recognized as a sort of art in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Arabic calligraphy, sometimes equally referred to as Islamic calligraphy, is a unique Islamic art form that is centuries old.

Calligraphy has been developing since the dawn of Islam. Arabic writing vitally combines with Islam. Reading the Qur’an ( القرآن ), the Holy Book of Islam, required reforming parts of the spelling system, devising the structure of the Arabic language, and developing calligraphy.

This article will also show the differences to Japanese calligraphy.

Japanese calligraphy is called shodō (書道). Early Japanese calligraphy was originated from Chinese calligraphy. Many of its principles and techniques are very similar, and it recognizes the same basic writing styles:

The Basics

Calligraphy requires three tools; pen, ink, and paper. Many people pay slight attention to the function of these tools, instead, they focus on the work of calligraphers or the historical aspects. It is, however, crucial to reconsider these utensils.

The writing tools provide the individuality of handwriting and embody the idea of creators. Moreover, they are developing under the influence of the social situation and the historical changes in those days.

The Abbasids became rich with agriculture and established trade businesses based on the honorable and stable administration of the provinces. The power of the state rendered the writing tools practicable. Therefore, the implements express the important side of calligraphy.

The pen

The pen of Arabic calligraphy uses the common giant reed or ditch reed (Arundo donax or Phragmites). Bamboo is, sometimes, a replacement.

Iraq is considered to be one of the best countries for reeds. All calligraphers must learn how to carve pens. In the book BROCADE OF THE PEN: THE ART OF ISLAMIC WRITING, you will find the following information:

“This requires a special razor-sharp knife and a hard surface (makta) to cut against; often a bit of fine sandpaper or a fine file for touching up is also required.

The pen blank is opened, the sides carved, the top scraped a little. It is then split and the business end clipped to the correct angle, which depends on the size and style of calligraphy for which it will be used.”

SOURCE: “BROCADE OF THE PEN: THE ART OF ISLAMIC WRITING“, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS, 1991

The reed is solid and sharp, and it is less flexible than the animal brush.

Consequently, that feature of the pen produces a sharp gradation of line, and it enables the thickness of vertical and horizontal lines to change spectacularly and suddenly with the flick of fingers.

Pens for Japanese calligraphies

On the other hand, the pen for Japanese writing is an animal brush. The animal brush creates soft strokes with thick and thin lines because of the suppleness.

The pen made of reed

On the assumption that Arabic writing was drawn with the animal brush, the soft brush would create over curvaceous strokes, and the lines would be gaudy. As a result, the sharp lines of the calligraphy would disappear. It is important to notice that the reed pen must be suited to the feature of the Arabic characters.

Each of the characters is connected to become a word, and they are written from right to left; in contrast, a word in Chinese characters is independent, and the writing system is from top to bottom. Therefore, the reed pen allows Arabic writing to continue to join characters.

The ink

What is it made of?

At the beginning, tannate was used which is the salt or ester of tannic acid. During the Abbasids, the ink shifted from tannate into Midad (الْمِداد) made with soot. Artists themselves or specialists used to make ink, and it was soot or soot and iron with water and several chemicals.

Black ink is popular; in concurrence, other different inks are used as well. The inks made in India or China were never applied. However, not a few modern calligraphers use the ink made in Japan or China.

Features of the ink

The suitable ink for Arabic calligraphy is neither thin nor thick, but the particles are fine. Also, it is smooth to spread well on the paper. A little bit of ink is the nib of the reed pen, and the pen flows.

Differences to Japanese calligraphy

Regarding the ink of Japanese calligraphy, the conditions are almost the same. However, the amount of ink depends on the quality of the paper. The paper used for Japanese calligraphy absorbs ink which displays the dynamic and soft line. Even so, stumble and fade are acceptable for Japanese calligraphy under certain circumstances.

What you need to know about Arabic calligraphy - an introduction (part 1) 7

On the other hand, Arabic calligraphy considers to stumble and fade as a failure.

The paper

A short history on paper

Paper is one of the notable inventions of China, and it has contributed Arabic calligraphy to produce remarkably diverse styles and to spread over many areas rapidly. Before the paper replaced the writing material, either parchment or papyrus had been used.

Importing paper from China had started from the end of the 6th century. It is said that the man who prepared the paper came from China to Samarqand as a prisoner of Zayd ibn Salih (زيد ابن صالح). Board of Trustees explains:

“The battle of Talas between the governor-general of Samarqand and the Tang Chinese occurred in July 751.

The Arab troops of Ziyad ibn Salih won and captured about 20,000 prisoners, who were taken to Samarqand.”

Source: “BROCADE OF THE PEN: THE ART OF ISLAMIC WRITING“, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS, 1991

In 795, the first paper mill was created in Baghdad.

By the tenth century, paper factories were built in Iran, Iraq, Arabia, and Egypt. Since the paper is more beautiful, agreeable, flexible to use, it superseded both parchment and papyrus.

The two main currents: Diwany and Kufi

The appearance of paper leaded calligraphy into two currents:

  • One was characterized by curved and rounded lines like Diwany (الديواني). Diwany is a cursive style and developed during the Ottoman Empire. One very famous example is the logo of al-Jazeera.
  • The other was distinctive of elongated and straight styles like Kufi (الكوفي). Kufi is the oldest style and derives its original from Kufa, Iraq. It consists of straight lines.
al-jazeera
The logo of Al-Jazeera (TV channel).

The straight styles were the mainstream at the time of the Umayyad rule while the curved styles were used for the unimportant documents for business in the inception.

Conversely, the curved and rounded styles replaced the straight styles because the worldwide trade required to record a great number of documents as quickly as possible. Moreover, paper is light to transport, even a carrier pigeon carried.

Which paper is suitable for calligraphies?

The paper, which is used for writing Arabic calligraphy, is often hand-made or Western manufacture nowadays. The suitable one for Arabic calligraphy must be so sealed and smoothed that the pen can go smoothly against the grain without snagging.

Besides, sealing the paper also ensures that the ink sits on the surface rather than sink in.

What you need to know about Arabic calligraphy - an introduction (part 1) 8
The calligraphy says: Ozu Yasujiro, a famous Japanese film maker.

Paper for Japanese calligraphy

Japanese calligraphy usually uses specific paper, which is called Washi, and the paper is created for the sake of Japanese calligraphy. Unlike the one for Arabic calligraphy, Washi absorbs ink.

Final thoughts

The mixture of the characteristics of the Arabic language and the tools have inspired the writing. Through a process of survival of the fittest, these implements remain. Besides, the power of the empire enabled people to gather and to develop all the utensils.

Under the circumstances, calligraphers struggled with the devices so that they created a new style and originated their lines.

Note: This page was last updated on Nov 4, 2019 @ 0:32.

Picture credit: Miho Sato and pixabay (Pexels)

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