Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Brief History of Qur'an Calligraphy

On Wednesday I attended a lecture at the Museum of Islamic Art on calligraphy in early Qur’ans. It turned out to be very good lecture and enlightened me as to the background of some of the calligraphic styles in the Qur'an pages on display in the Museum.

In order to share it with you I decided on Friday to go to the Museum to take some photos of the exhibits for this blog post -- it won't make much sense without pictures!

The earliest writings were a hajiri script, essentially handwriting:

This was followed shortly thereafter by a formalized style, a block text called “kufic”.

Kufic represented the first Qur’an calligraphy to start to have a formalized artistic style, where the writing became art in-and-of itself. Kufic would dominate the calligraphy of the Qur’an for the next 300 years, becoming more and more artistic, to the point where in some cases a page would only contain about a dozen or so words.

This made for some very big Qur’ans. Which meant reading them became more difficult. The largest of these Qur'ans was in Samarkand. Check out the size of the stone lecturn:

Anyway, compare kufic with the style typically used in a modern Qur’an:

Does something seem to be missing in the kufic text? A lot of dots and slash marks and little symbols around the words.

Apparently in kufic script the scribes only used the dots if it would be ambiguous what letter it was, if it was clear from the sentence what word it must be than they did not bother putting dots with the letters. This must've been confusing, for example the difference between the letters ‘h’, ‘j’ and ‘kh’ is whether there is a dot and its position (if there is no dot then it's an ‘h’)

The other slashes and symbols are used to indicate the short vowels, but writing out those vowels was not used until later. The speaker said it developed around the 10th century during the Abbassid Caliphate but another wiki article says it occurred earlier, with the development of the first Arabic dictionary.

Kufic was likely used in the first Qur’ans but it is difficult to determine. The Prophet Mohammed died in 632 A.D. and the first “official” Qur’ans, the Uthman Qur’ans, were compiled by the third caliph Uthman during his reign from 644-656 A.D. and copies were distributed to major cities throughout the Islamic empire. There's some debate as to whether any of the original Uthman Qur’ans survive. The oldest Qur’ans are believed to be the Topkapi Qur’an and the Samarkand Qur’an. Both claim to be from the original compilation of Uthman, and are in kufic script, but there is some debate as to whether or not they were written shortly afterward. Unfortunately Caliph Uthman ordered all previous writings of the Qur’an destroyed (so that there would be no textual conflicts with the one he compiled), and carbon dating will give an error of +/- 30 to 40 years, so there is no easy way to determine if kufic was definitely used in the first Uthman Qur’ans.

It is known that a large kufic inscription was included in the Dome of the Rock, which was built from 688-691 A.D., so kufic was definitely used before that.

But then in the 10th century Abbasids decided to use a script called Muhaqqaq, which quickly became the standard in the East

As you can see it has curve and flow to it similar to modern Arabic. Calligraphy quickly moved away from the “blockiness” of kufic into calligraphy styles with flowing lines. From there other styles developed:


Maghribi, used in Morocco and Spain by the Ummayyeds

Eventually developing into a more modern style, such as from this 17th century Chinese Qur’an:

I believe that over the centuries there have been over a dozen different styles of Qur’an calligraphy, though the lecture mostly touched on the earliest.

All-in-all one of the more interesting lectures I’d been to at the Museum.

[July 2013 update: I went to another museum exhibit on Qur'an Calligraphy, click here to read more.]

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