The delicate swirls and bold, expressive strokes of the brush leap out from the frames in vivid hues of blue, black, gold and red to create an impressive visual imagery. There is dynamism and movement in every letter; each seamlessly in sync with the next, as if strung together in a musical rhythm. Heavily embellished dots and diacritical marks take up the spaces in between, while arabesque forms emerge from the margins, blurring the lines between text and imagery. And yet, each letter is perfectly balanced and proportional, and together, the words on the page resonate with a pulsating energy.

Despite not being able to read the script or comprehend its meaning, it is easy to get drawn to the emotions and deeper meaning conveyed by these beautifully arranged words and sentences in Arabic calligraphy. Many of these are artistic iterations of Quranic verses; others breathe poetry and philosophy, while some take the abstract route, interpreting letters and symbols in highly stylised artistic forms.

This harmonious, symbiotic relationship between religion, art and culture is powerfully illustrated at Sharjah’s Calligraphy Museum, located in the heritage quarter referred to as the Heart of Sharjah. In a traditional heritage home featuring a large, open quadrangle framed by smooth, rounded pillars on all sides, the sophisticated art form of calligraphy, a fundamental characteristic of Islamic art, gains renewed emphasis as the Museum prepares to celebrate World Calligraphy Day on August 14.

Through an exhibition detailing the varied stages of the evolution of Arabic calligraphy, more than 40 masterpieces representing both male and female artists shed light on its transformation from a communication tool to a highly sophisticated art form.

‘Developed over 14 centuries in various regions around the world, Arabic calligraphy holds pride of place in Islam as writing has always been seen in the Islamic world as a gift from God,’ says our guide Fatima Al Mazrooqi, as she leads us into the exhibition gallery that focuses on the six main Arabic styles of writing. ‘Arabic calligraphy is therefore a visual expression of one’s reverence for the spiritual faith.’

[Sharjah's gateway to Islamic culture and art]

We are joined by Shouq Al Hammadi, Administrative Assistant at the Museum, who informs us that over the course of 1,400 years, as Islam spread across the globe, new scripts and styles were developed in different regions, each reflecting the distinctive regional character of where it took root. ‘Until the seventh century, the Word of God was communicated orally to followers of Islam but with the shift towards a written culture, it became imperative to develop a script worthy of the Holy Quran,’ she explains. ‘Faced with the challenge of having to avoid figurative art in all sacred contexts, the script naturally grew into a work of art. Also, as it involved transcribing the Word of God, it soon attained the status of spiritual art, merging geometry, aesthetics and written text to create complex and artistic forms.’

Calligraphy is today an integral part of the Arab identity and adorns the holiest Islamic sites. In time, it transformed into a dominant element in the decoration of monuments, mosques, libraries and other important edifices of daily life as the inherent possibilities of the script were adapted to ornamental forms and techniques. Today, it can be seen all around us, in shop signs, newspapers and books.

Sharjah Calligraphy Museum is located in the heritage quarter referred to as the Heart of Sharjah
Sharjah Calligraphy Museum

‘One of the oldest Arabic scripts is Kufi,’ elaborates Fatima, ‘and is so named because it was calligraphers in Kufa, Iraq, who adopted and developed the script. Characterised by angular shapes and long vertical lines, Kufi was based on strict geometric principles. For almost 500 years, it remained the only style used to record the Holy Quran.’

As the Kufi script continued to be in use through different dynasties, three important stages have been recorded in the development of calligraphy in this script, she adds, drawing our attention to three historic paintings that depict these major phases of change. ‘In the first phase of the Kufi script, there are no dots, accents or other symbols to help the reader identify vowel sounds, long and short letter sounds or to identify words that look similar but are pronounced differently,’ she says. ‘Towards the end of the seventh century, vowels were introduced into the text in the form of red dots placed above or below characters to show proper pronunciation. In the final phase, black dots began to be used to distinguish letters that have the same basic form but different sounds. The current standard for Arabic diacritics was thus introduced during this phase.’

Featured in the Kufi gallery are works on different types of paper created by both regional and well-known international calligraphers, demonstrating the complexity of this art form. Syrian artist Mohammad Amien’s ink on paper artwork in black and white demonstrates the script’s adherence to geometric patterns and proportional measurements, while Egypt’s Nuha Al Mansouri’s verse from the Quran in two shades of blue divides the work into two equal halves, each a symmetrical image of the other.

The angular Kufi style gave way to the 11th-century Thuluth (meaning ‘a third’ in Arabic) as one-third of each letter slopes and also in reference to the width of the pen used to write it. ‘This script is called the king of calligraphy,’ says Fatima, ‘as it is not only the most beautiful of all scripts but also the most difficult to write. It is considered to be the origin for many Arabic scripts and has become the standard with which the creativity of the calligrapher is measured.’

This cursive script lends itself to compositional techniques, and is characterised by its playful intertwining and interlocking of letters, she adds.

One of the prominent works exhibited in this gallery is Iraqi artist Hameed Al Sadei’s representation of the last verse of the Holy Quran that was revealed to Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

The style that remains dominant to this day and which is noted for its clarity in both reading and writing is the Naskh that was developed during the Golden Age of Islam in the Abbasid era, says Shouq Al Hammadi. ‘Naskh, which means "copy," was traditionally used to transcribe the Quran and other books, especially long texts. It has become the modern printing script thanks to its legibility.’

Several works by Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi artists are on display here, which apart from the fine, intricate writing has been further enriched with a profusion of incredibly detailed ornamental patterns and decorative art around the text.

It was in 13th-century Persia that the next style of script called Al Ta’aliq, which means ‘suspended’, took its final shape, says Fatima. ‘This script is known for its curvy, thin and ornate, sloping letters. Due to its decorative nature, it had to be written with large spaces between the lines.’

This script was later replaced by its more refined versions, and together, has left its mark on Persian art and architecture.

A calligraphic variety that was developed during the reign of the early Ottoman Turks (16th to early 17th century) and which reached its height of popularity under Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent (1520–1566), is Diwani, which comes from the word diwan – the name of the Ottoman chancery, explains our guide. ‘With its beautiful curved letters and rounded forms, it has a high artistic value and this was the script used for official correspondence by the kings, caliphs and heads of states.’

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What makes it unique, she adds, ‘is that since the rules of this script were known only to its masters and leading calligraphers, it was the ideal script for the writing of all royal decrees, endowments, and resolutions as it could not be deciphered if it fell into the wrong hands.’

In Diwani, letters are often shaped into inanimate forms, and examples abound of boat-shaped representations at the Museum.

Veering away from the scripts developed in the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula is the Maghribi from North Africa, which is still in use in Spain and western North Africa, particularly in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Several calligraphic works by Moroccan artists at the exhibition reveal letters of uniform thicknesses that makes it very easy to read. ‘It is today used as decorative elements in architecture and even on tiles,’ adds Fatima.

Although this art form may appear effortless to the viewer or even be seen as a series of random brushstrokes, Arabic calligraphy is governed by geometric principles and adheres to strict rules of proportion, says Shouq. ‘Each letter and diacritical mark that adds legibility and beauty is the result of painstaking measurements. What makes a particular piece beautiful therefore is the visual harmony of the lines, the natural ease of flow of the letters and words, and the adherence to correct measurements. The right positioning of other ornamental decorative devices including the date and signature further enhance the overall visual impact of the calligraphic piece.’

There are three main elements that together form the basis for proportion in Arabic calligraphy, she explains. ‘The first rule is based on the height of alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. Alif is a straight, vertical stroke and can comprise of three to 12 dots.’

The Arabic dot, she adds, ‘is the basic unit of measurement in calligraphy, and is a square impression formed by pressing the tip of the reed pen to paper. The dimensions of the dot are dependent on the way the pen has been cut and on the pressure exerted when writing. So, the style of script and the technique of the calligrapher determine the number of dots that make up the alif.’

The second element is decided by the width of the alif, which is equivalent to one dot, she adds. ‘The third element is the imaginary circle drawn around the alif. All letters should fit within this circle.’

We now enter the Hurufiyya gallery, where several works have used acrylic on canvas, and also combined calligraphy with drawing, striking colours, a variety of materials and different techniques. Hurufiyya is an art movement that is used to describe paintings and artworks that are inspired by the Arabic alphabet, says Fatima. ‘Although it may initially seem indistinguishable from calligraphy, the two are fundamentally different as it blends Western art concepts with Islamic culture and heritage.’

Making a complete departure from the styles and rules of proportions in classic calligraphy is Al Hur which, she adds, is not a script but a writing style. ‘Here, there is freedom in forming the letters and connecting them to each other, and artists often use normal pens to write.’

In the works of Bibi Trabishi from Italy titled Love, Omani artist Mohammad Bin Mahdi Bin Jhawad’s grid-like representation of ‘Allah’, and Chinese artist Mohammad Yaqoub Mashitoo’s rendition of a Quranic verse, we see that although the rules of classical styles and formal geometric codifications have not been observed, the movement and essence of the flow of letters has been maintained.

The art of Islamic calligraphy is a lifelong learning that is often initiated under the tutelage of a master calligrapher where the student learns how to marry theme and text, colour, paper, size of lettering, and so on. ‘The master-pupil relationship is a strong tradition that has been practised since ancient times and which continues to this day,’ says Shouq. ‘Students often stay and learn under the masters in Turkey, Iran, Morocco, and other regions.’

The Sharjah Calligraphy Museum also hosts a collection of the various tools used by calligraphers, including broad and thin bamboo pens whose angles and edges are sharpened with special knives. ‘Inkpots are made of glass, silver or copper; and calligraphers sometimes add a hint of fragrance such as musk or camphor to enhance the smell, says Fatima. ‘A wad of silk fibre or natural wool is generally placed at the bottom of the inkpot to control the amount of ink that goes into the pen. The ink itself is a mixture of natural materials such as, for instance, coal for black and tea, saffron or pomegranate for the colour red.’

A variety of burnished paper that ‘allows the ink to glide on it’, and high-quality gold paper are also on display.

Calligraphy is a craft that calls for immense commitment to the art, precision in form and shapes, and a high degree of aesthetic creativity, says Shouq. ‘Artists often say that apart from imbibing the skill from their masters, the practice of calligraphy also teaches them the values of patience, humility and self-discipline.’

Know before you go

The exhibition Evolution Stages of Arabic Calligraphy is on at the Sharjah Calligraphy Museum until October 18, 2019.

A calligrapher will be present to demonstrate the art of writing calligraphy at the Museum.

Timings: 8am to 8pm daily; Fridays from 4pm to 8pm