Arabic calligraphy: a written revolution
Calligraphy and Arabic are sisters of the same marrow, one did not exist without the other. Since the beginning of written Arabic, long after an era of oral tradition, the scrolled lettering of taffy has been the basis of religious and historical documentation, mosque walls and tapestries design. The art of calligraphy cannot ideologically – or practically – be thought of as separate from Arabic.
Writing Arabic is an art of scriptwriting.
Arabic script is a form of calligraphy, by virtue of flow and form.
The first written form of Arabic surfaced in the 4th century CE, evolving from what was then known as Nabataean: a pre-Arabic civilization that saturated the Levant and northern Arabia . This was a time before Islam, when Arabic was a recited tradition rather than a written art. For centuries, especially after the revelation of the Quran in the early seventh century CE, the Arabs were speakers rather than scribes; they were poets and rhymers in verse, quick-witted and fierce.
With the advent of the religion and the need to document what was now a widely growing faith, Islamic scholars began to write Quranic verses, qasa’id (long odes), and much of their poetry. Arabic script flourished with the spread of Islam, although it was present for centuries before it. Shortly after crossing North Africa, he became the source of the art rather than just its inspiration.
The word calligraphy in Arabic is khatt: derived from line, design or construction term; it’s an apt name, “because one of the most striking features of the script is its use of lines, whether flowing with sweeping curves or bold and angular.”
By nature, Arabic script is cursive – meaning the letters are joined in a tail depending on the form the word takes. Naturally, this means that each letter of the Arabic alphabet has a minimum of two forms and more than four (beginning of the word, middle, end, not joined).
Al Qalam, or “the feather” used for Arabic calligraphy is traditionally made of dried reed or bamboo. Although this staple has long since evolved; Arabic is no longer printed on papyrus or parchment, but rather when the Islamic Empire was at its height, calligraphy was everywhere: vessels, carpets, building inscriptions and coins; there was not a facet of mundane society in which sewn Arabic was not integrated.
This continues to be true today as well. Egyptian houses are decorated with Koranic verses, handwritten or carved in wood, cafes adorned with stanzas of poetry and genre mashallah. Arabic teachers will shoot ink pens and government officials will sign papers in stunning, liquid handwriting – effortlessly. Letters are joined and repeated in patterns and mosaics at historic sites, and handwritten street signs are a staple of older neighborhoods.
It’s safe to say that Arabic is more than a national language, but an art form designed to exist as a masterpiece of design and calligraphy – not just as documentation.
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