Arabic calligraphy as a typographic exercise

By Julia Kaestle

Arabic Calligraphy’ is a hybrid English term. ‘Calligraphy’, taken from the Greek kallos (beauty) and graphe (writing), is literally understood in the western perception as ‘beautiful (hand) writing’ of the Arabic language. Yet the Arabic term for what we call calligraphy invites closer inspection. Within the Arabic language the transliterated word ‘Khatt’ (خط) is derived from ‘line’, ‘design’, and ‘construction’. The philological connotations get lost in the translated term ‘calligraphy’. From a type design perspective I think this rather an astonishing difference.

Arabic Calligraphy


Western type is related to calligraphy, but not in the same way. The artistic practice of western calligraphy is nowadays clearly remote from the technical construction of digital type on screen. Still, calligraphy has come a long way, as has the development of type. In the beginning traditional type design took its cue from  the calligraphic writing techniques that punchcutters were imitating in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (see Fred Smeijers’ Counterpunch). Then, much later, came the counter-movement: a palette of non-calligraphic influenced typefaces that distanced themselves from the influence of the pen stroke; ultimately finding their expression in the Sans Serif types. And today we observe anew the calligraphic influences in Sans Serifs of the twentieth century (see Keith Tam on typeculture.com).

Kufic Calligraphy

Typography nowadays enjoys a considerable public awareness, and numerous typographic techniques are accessible through scores of applications, but the calligraphic origins are differentiated. Still, we have a choice of calligraphic or non-calligraphic influences on typefaces. In cultures that have a writing system based on cursive scripts (and graphemes, such as Chinese characters) the calligraphic practice is the model for type design. These cultures have little choice to distance themselves from the scribes. Arabic, as one of the Semitic languages, is part of these cultures. Yet, at least the philological indication of Arabic’s terminology on calligraphy is marked by design and construction and a determining pre-step to Arabic type. Recognizing these distinguishing philological connotations illuminates the western traditional view on calligraphy’s significance in typeface development.

Within the Islamic culture the art of Khatt is understood as the art of the pen and an expression of the sacred. Though the common perception is connected with handwriting, the practice of Arabic calligraphy resembles, in many ways, more a type of lettering. Khatt is inspired and driven by religious contemplation and reverence. Figural representation of shapes in any form was ‘religiously’ banned, and so creative expression streamed forth in alternative forms — mostly concentrated on the word — decorating any kind of object.

Historically Arabic script has undergone different reformations, as well as influences of regional and epochal writing styles — mainly as the result of conquests, and conversions to Islam. Today the main styles have been categorized into six types. Details on the styles’ development can to be found here: islamicart.com, sakkal.com, and in the book Arabic Typography by Huda Smitshuijzen Abifares.

The modern market of global branding is today claiming the different calligraphic styles for reasons of typographic hierarchy. Thus the writing styles are not just calligraphic styles anymore, but have been absorbed into typography and are now also type classifications. At the same time the religious traditions of Islam still motivate and support the practice of decorating the holy word of the Qur’an.

***

The Kufic script (the name comes from Kufa, a city in Iraq) developed in the late 8th century, marking a clear traceable typographic approach within Islamic history. Kufic is still a common script, geometrically constructed with compass and ruler. Since it needs very accurate planning its calligraphers were and still are more like architects of the layout, the lettering and decoration — similar to the letter artists in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century who painted posters and facades.

Kufic is still considered a script of lettering, known for the lengthy time to ‘write’ it. Fourteen centuries ago, with the rise of Islam, a script was needed to fit the pace of conversions, and the cursive and more handwritten scripts developed. Yet one should not believe that the cursive, rounder scripts are written so much faster than the constructed Kufic. If one is a trained master calligrapher the writing might flow quickly and easily, but the training to be one can easily take ten to twenty years.

Nashker

Developed in the 9th century:
It is known as the script of the Qur’an and is the most ubiquitous; therefore, at times it is mistakenly referred to as the Arabic script. Writing this requires a round thin device, such as a point pen. A medium expansion of the hand movement follows above and below the writing line.

Arabic Calligraphy naskher

The script has voweling dots and all the letters follow beside each other from right to left.

Riq’a

Derived from a mixture of Thuluth and Nashker, 9th century:
It is a handwritten style still commonly used. The writing occurs only above the writing line. Certain consonants are written above each other before they hit the baseline.

Riq'a

The writing device should be wider and flatter than the one used for Naskher. Voweling lines, though no dots, indicate the pronunciation, but the letter shapes can alter significantly from Naskher.

Thuluth

Developed in the 10th century, is still common:
This script (philologically related to ‘one third’) was an offspring of Nashker, and was developed as a display script to decorate in particular scriptural objects. Its most important letter is the Alif, the letter dedicated to Allah. The script has an x-height of one third of the reoccurring patterns of the long stems/verticals (Alif).

The letters are placed mostly beside each other, with accompanying broad letter spacing. A medium size bamboo pen and a patient hand will lead to true Thuluth shapes.

Diwanii

Developed in the 10th century, its peak was in the 17th century:
It peaked owing to the Ottomans, who highly admired it and used it extensively. It is easily recognized by its distinguished curves. This script is not written with dots, but rather it shapes different forms for each letter’s recognition. The consonants can be arranged beside each other or on a tilted axis of 45°.

A beautiful curviness contributes to the extended flexibility. A slim reed or bamboo pen works well with this script.

Tal’iq | Farsi

Developed in the 9th century, had its peak in the 14th / 15th century:
Tal’iq came from Persian culture (having a whole history before the influence of Islam), and was absorbed through religious conversion. Tal’iq has the most significant recognition in the long drawn letter shapes extending the word image. Tal’iq (meaning ‘hanging’) is written tilted towards the right along a baseline, only rarely crossing it.

taliq

Another hallmark of the script is its rhythmic pattern of wide-shaped horizontals and slim and narrow-drawn verticals. The writing tool should be a broad-nip pen or bamboo pen.

***

My motivation to study Arabic calligraphy was solely a typographical one — in a sense a typographic exercise. I exposed myself to a foreign script, language, and reading habit to train the eye, challenge my perception and examine the outcome. I focused mostly on the essential: the practicing of Arabic scripts. I studied the historic and scholarly aspects of Khatt a little, but I learned the different writing styles and measurements of letters, and found myself quite capable of reproducing these. The experience was unique: I was able to observe consciously the type of learning process a preschool child would go through. In order to learn the handwriting I had to copy letterforms whose meanings and sounds I understood only afterwards.

The interesting fact about Arabic writing, as I experienced it, is that although the script is so flexible (see Calligrams), it is many times precisely measured with equivalents of drawn dots in between the white space of the letter forms. Too little white space between the letters will be considered illegible and therefore not a valid shape. The slowness of calligraphic writing is equally caused by the many moments of lifting the pen to draw a transition, outlining the shape first, and filling in the ink later (especially in the case of Farsi) — reminiscent of lettering design.

love

Calligraphic writing is not just a contemplative art or simply an historical and psychological exercise. It requires not just an accuracy of measurements and the knowledge of alphabets. Calligraphic writing leads to the understanding of shapes and forms. Following the fact that one sees only what one knows, the calligraphic practice certainly causes one to look closely.

My typographic exercise made me look from the Arabic calligraphic practice to the European interrelationship of calligraphy and type. The outcome has left me with an interest in other calligraphy traditions and their influences on inter-linguistic type.

In the Islamic culture the respect for calligraphers is, by far, greater than its awareness of type designers. Similarly so in the Chinese culture. Likewise a related phenomenon occurred in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the transition from calligraphic handwriting to punchcutting and letterpress printing occurred. I see Arabic type design in a similar context to the interwoven development of type design and calligraphic influence.

Arabic Typography, which ultimately builds upon calligraphic writing styles, nowadays receives more attention. Though the broad public shows little awareness, the modern development of Arabic type has caused a new interest in the future state of its typography. Having a remarkable relation to its cultural embedment in design and construction, the shift and merge from traditional calligraphy to a mature typography will be a most interesting development to observe.

end note divider
[ After completing her Graphic Design Diploma in Germany, Julia studied Arabic Calligraphy for six months in Egypt. This coming fall she will begin the MA Typeface Design program at the University of Reading. ]

Further reading:
29 letters
khtt.net
arabictypography.com
An interview with type designer Nadine Chahine


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  1. rob

    Guys, you might enjoy the posters this guy made:

    http://www.mehdisaeedi.com/

    It made me try for some time to learn arabic just for the sake of understanding them!

    r

  2. That was a fascinating read. Arabic calligraphy is not only beautiful but it’s very organic, it flows so nicely, like a quiet river.

    It was very interesting to read about all those different Arabic scripts. Thanks, Julia.

    Rob, thanks for that link. Those posters are ammmmmazing!

  3. MP

    Thanks Rob, I really like the way Mehdi combines contemporary and traditional approaches to his designs. This issue of Print has an article by Roanne Bell featuring Mouneer El-Shaarani, an awesome calligrapher based in Egypt. It’s a shame it’s not online yet, it fits this post so well. I’d recommend picking a copy of Print up, just for that.

    -MP

  4. Enea

    Fantastic, you’re might intersted also in this link: http://www.arabictypography.com/ an arabic typography platform, designed and maintained by the libanese designer Tarek Atrissi…

  5. al-batriq

    Thanks for the excellent writeup. I just have a few things to nitpick.

    Naskher should read naskh. (I thought maybe it was called naskher in German, but Google came up with very few hits.) Also diwani does not typically include a second i when transliterated into English.

    It’s interesting that you talk about ta’liq rather than nasta’liq. My understanding is that ta’liq was abandoned in the 14th century in favor of the naskh and ta’liq hybrid.

    May I ask where you studied in Egypt? I’d love to study there someday.

  6. Emme

    Outstanding article.

    Posts like this one are exactly why I return again and again with pleasure.

    Thank you.

  7. Thank you for this marvellous article. Arabic writing forms are beautiful, so I read your analysis of the different styles with great interest. Keep up the good work, iLT!

  8. Fascinating and wonderfully-written article. That was really a pleasure to read. I’ve been interested in the affects and practices of multi-cultural design and the use of non-english languages, in particular ones that read from right-to-left. There aren’t many high-profile blogs or articles out there that touch on this topic, so it’s great to finally have something satisfy my interest.

    Thanks for posting!

  9. Thanks a lot for this article. It was a really interesting analysis and it’s great to learn about a topic that rarely comes up.

    It would be great to see future articles on other scripts, e.g. Sanskrit and sino-based languages, which I also find very beautiful and mysterious.

  10. This is a important article, I’ve been waiting for this some time - it makes a good counterpunch on how western typography developed, compared to arabic.

    After reading this article, I won’t complain about the hazel to kerning a western font again.

    Julia I seriously hope you will write more articles on the subject, both because its interesting to have something to compare western typography with, but also for the times we are living in.

    Thank so much for your insights

  11. Mostafa

    I just say a big thank you!

  12. Excellent article, Julia. Good luck at Reading in the fall! I hope you’ll be posting regularly throughout your master’s program with updates of your progress…

  13. nice article about arabic calligraphy
    and always interested to see non-Arab designers learning the arabic language and script…

    one point:
    the spelling of the style mentioned after Kufi would be
    NASKH and not Nashker

    all the best for you MA at Reading

  14. julia

    hi everybody,

    thanks a lot for all the positive response.
    this certainly encourages more reporting from Reading…

    rob:
    thank you, I liked the link, the posters look great.

    al-batriq:
    ta’liq rather than nasta’liq:
    I read so many different sources, historically the origins are really debated about, even my calligraphy teacher solely referred to the style as ‘Farsi’. At last I stuck with the source of ‘Arabic Typography’ by Huda Smithshuijen AbiFarès, saying Tal’iq just never got popular outside of Persia, Turkey and India. I studied in a small Language Institute call Al-Diwan under Mr. Shamel.

    pascal zoghbi:
    about the spelling I apologize.

  15. Oh John, a very interesting post, as usual :) i wish if you could attend my Arabic Calligraphy workshop, here in Amman:

    http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=19337568868

    or

    http://www.khtt.net/artefact-5703-en.html

  16. sorry, i mean John & Julia :D

  17. Aj

    wow, that is awesome post.

    nice header :) i really like it.

  18. Hi Julia… i love that your article, really you research about that, i believe.
    now modern arabic calligraphy have lots of new style.

    i am inviting you all to visit my personal website, you can see one new style in arabic calligraphy, that i am calling ‘Anatomic Arabic Calligraphy’.
    Anatomic calligraphy is a style in which the portrait of a person is drawn using the person’s name in Arabic or the words describing any other specialties of the person.

    My site http://www.worldofcalligraphy.com

    please send me your comments to my mail : kchemnad@gmail.com

  19. I always thought Arabic calligraphy was beautiful. Really nice article, thanks Julia.

  20. wes

    Wow, great read I was always interested in learning new iconography languages. I tried learning Urdu a while back, but now I think I will put more effort.

  21. I think Arabic calligraphy is the best or one the bests. I enjoyed reading the article. Thanks and I even subscribed!

  22. Ryan

    Hi Julia,

    This was a fascinating article. I’m no designer, but I’ve been studying Arabic for two years, and I absolutely love its calligraphy. I was wondering what you meant when you said Riq’a and Diwani don’t use dots. I took that to mean that they don’t use the dots that differentiate the letters that have the same body shape, like ‘bā’, ‘nun’, and ‘yā’ or ‘qāf’ and ‘fā’. In the Riq’a picture, the first word is ‘hunā’, which I can read because it has the vowel lines and the dot above the ‘nun’. Without the dot, it could be ‘huba’ ‘huta’ and so on. I’m not good at reading Diwani script, but the letters clearly have their dots, too. Thank you, I absolutely loved this article!

  23. Rush

    As said a fascinating article.
    Though a photographer, i have always missed regional/traditional scripts on titles in design..
    An article by the website on how to design a entire font set for other language such as devnagri (Hindi/sanskrit/marathi) etc would be very helpful to tap the new digital artist sprawling across india.
    There is no material for designer on how to develop fonts. And hence a rich tradition of scripts in india still lie hidden & untapped by artists worldwide.
    Time for a tutorial on such leading TYPO sites i guess :) !!!
    I would volunteer to translate if anyones intrested …

  24. Very interesting article. Thank you John and Julia!

    Just a few extra notes:

    Kufi (also written Koufi, Kufic) encompasses a range of many different styles such as the Early Kufi, Bent Kufi, Eastern Kufi, and Maghribi, to name a few. The first is written with a reed, the 2 middle are quite geometric, and the last is written with a round brush. Unfortunately, many scholars use this term indiscriminately and it is usually best to use the terms: squarish styles (for everything referred to as Kufi) and the round styles for Naskh, Thuluth, Diwani etc… Or to specify which Kufi one is referring to.

    > Today the main styles have been categorized into six types.

    The Arab calligraphers in the 10th century (Ibn Muqla followed by Yaqut Al-Mustasimi and later the Ottomans) formulated what is referred to as Al-Aqlam Assitta (the 6 hands) and those are: Naskh, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Rayhani, Tawqi’, and Riqa’.

    I only wanted to add this as the article shows 6 styles but they are not the usual 6. Actually, Arabic calligraphy has a quite large number of different styles and it makes for a very fascinating topic to dive into.
    There’s an interesting article here:

    http://memory.loc.gov/intldl/apochtml/apocfragments.html

    It’s great to see so much interest in Arabic!

    Julia, good luck for Reading. I’m sure you’ll have a great time :)

  25. julia

    Ryan,
    I just wanted to get back to your question.
    Apparently I was mixing too many details in one sentence. With ‘no dots’ I was getting more at the fact that the pair of dots are joined to become lines. The single dot itself stays, but also some letter shapes can be written without dots: In Riq’a exists a written form of the ‘nun’ that does alter significantly from the regular one, leaving out the dot above it. So thanks for pointing that out.

    Nadine,
    Also thank you. Your much more advanced insights tell us about the complexity of the topic. I appreciate that.

    Thanks everybody (again) for all the ongoing feedback.

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