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Islamic Arts History: Calligraphy in Islamic Arts

Middle east studies  Islamic art history. Or (Middle East Islamic History)

Qur’anic verse “To God We Belong” written in Arabic calligraphy in a Tomb Headstone

Islamic calligraphy provides a good example of what it means to think through an image. By critically exploring calligraphy we can be able to understand its history, significance and what it represents. For instance, the above image is a tomb headstone incorporating a Qur’anic verse “To God We Belong” written in Arabic calligraphy. This image epitomizes a fundamental aspect of Islamic arts. While thinking through this image we may be able to understand a fundamental aspect of Islamic arts and what it epitomizes. Since the 19th century, Islamic arts has been the subject of study by many Western Scholars. However, in the past three decades it has begun to receive special attention as a unique form of art. A significant number of articles and books have been devoted to examining and analyzing the meaning and significance of different forms of Islamic arts (Nasr 1990). As Heidegger (1993) observes overtime a serious preoccupation with philosophy and its questions has emerged when it comes to understanding issues and art forms in the real world. This has called for a new pattern of thinking that goes beyond the surface and seeks to understand the elements, history, significance and meaning that espouse a particular issue or art form.

As previously noted by Heidegger (1993) thinking through an image calls for in-depth analysis of the elements of the image. One of the highly examined elements of Islamic art is calligraphy. Calligraphy is a think through image mainly because of its cultural connotations and underpinnings. As evident in tomb headstone image, calligraphy is a decorative visual art related to handwriting. It can be considered as one of the most evident and fundamental elements of Islamic arts. According to Ward (2010) artforms are multidimensional and require different approaches to understand it. Taking into account social, cultural and individual factors can play a critical role in effectively understanding how to think through this art. In reference to Ward’s (2010) sentiments it may be essential to consider these factors in order to effectively analyse the tomb headstone with calligraphic inscriptions. Therefore, thinking through calligraphy as the chosen art form may require one to take into account its history, social-cultural context and individual aspects in which it is created and used.

The history of using calligraphy in tomb headstones as seen in the above image, can be traced backto the 10th century during development of the first calligraphic styles known as Kufic style which was named after the Kufah city in Iraq. This form of calligraphy was primarily used in early inscriptions and Qu’ran manuscripts. With time, more angular styles that include fancy variants such as floriated Kufic decorated with flower and others decorated with curling leaf shapes) begun to emerge. This type of Kufic styles was used in varied contexts of Qu’ran manuscripts, architectural inscriptions, decoration of ceramics and coinage (Victor & Albert 2011).

The way caligraphy is embedded in tomb head stones varies in regions, periods and designs. In the above tomb headstone, calligraphy has been used as the main element in decorations. The artist has employed the natural possibilities of Arabic script to create the decorative writing in itself as the ornament. In this case, the texts in its entirety has provided the impression of random brushstrokes. The calligraphic text on the tomb headstone has been enhanced by using a decorative background and frames. Moreover, the together on same surface as the background but on different levels thus creating an interplay of decorative elements (Metropolitan Museum of Art 2001). vinscripted calligraphic texts in the tomb headstone has formed a part of a general ornamental format, openly separated from the rest of the decoration. The text has also been enhanced with

The art of calligraphy is highly connected to the Arabic language. Arabic as a language is held in high esteem within the Islamic culture mainly because it is the language the Qu’ran was transmitted to the Prophet Muhammed in the 7th century. Due to the Qur’an’s holy status, Caligraphy holds an important place within the Islamic culture. Generally, calligraphic inscriptions in Islamic arts are often comprised is texts such as quaranic quotations, religious texts, aphorisms, poems and texts written in praise of rulers. These types of text are evident in almost all art forms in Islamic culture (Victor & Albert 2011). For example, the tomb headstone above has an inscription of a Qur’anic verse meaning “To God We Belong”

It is worth noting that the art of calligraphy has evolved alongside the Arabic language. Moreover, it can be closely related with geometric Islamic art often seen in tiles, ceiling and walls of mosques. In modern time, Islamic artists employ the heritage of calligraphy abstractions and inscriptions. As opposed to calligraphy being solely viewed as spoken or written word within the Islamic world it is often regarded as an expression of the highest form of art for the spiritual world. It is plausible to argue that calligraphy is the most celebrated form of Islamic art mainly because it offers a close connection between Islam and languages used by many Muslims (Victor & Albert 2011).

The Qu’ran is seen to have played a significant role in the development of the Arabic language and in extension the art of calligraphy. During the Ottoman era, Islamic calligraphy significantly developed due to the creation of open exhibitions halls for different types of calligraphy used in houses, mosques, schools and public buildings. The manifestation of calligraphy in the Islamic culture is often considered to embody some sense of divine design. Thus calligraphy is consideredto possess some spiritual significance as seen in the Quaranic image of an inkpot and a pen. Caligraphy has also continued to be practiced consciously within the Islamic culture to symbolize human emulation of divine act. Moreover, within the Islamic culture, calligraphy is based on a precise science of geometric rhythms and forms with each representing a number in a specific mathematical function (Nasr 1990). In the social context, calligraphy is used to convey texts such as quaranic quotations and religious texts as evident in tomb headstone above (Victor & Albert 2011). Caligraphy is often preferred design mainly because it epitomizes a superiority in artistry and elegance.

Ward (2010) notes that the type of ideas that occur to individuals in the course of developing art often differ depending on the modes that they thought they employ. In most cases, there are thematic relations between an individual’s thought processes, their environment and the art that they produce. Individual preferences when it comes to the choice of material and design also plays a key role in understanding calligraphy.

The calligraphic inscription in the tomb headstone above offers some insights on the thematic relations between the artist’s thought process, context and the art produced. Foremost, as compared to other calligraphic inscriptions that are enhanced using decorations and different colours. The tomb headstone above is very simple and has only functional details that show the inscribed calligraphic text “ To God We Belong”. This perhaps indicates the solemn nature of the art and its intended spiritual nature. In this case, the calligraphic inscriptions in tomb headstone, does not interfere with the clarity of the message. This perhaps symbolizes the reverence accorded to the Qu’ranic texts as the word of God by the artist.


Heidegger, M, 1993, What Calls for Thinking? In Heidegger, M, Basic Writings: from Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964). pp.369-391, Routledge & Kegan, London.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, Caligraphy in Islamic Art, viewed August 9, 2016 <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cali/hd_cali.htm>

Nasr, S.H. 1990, Islamic Art and Spirituality. SUNY Press, New York.

Victor & Albert 2011, Caligraphy in Islamic art: beyond pen and paper. Viewed August 10, 2016 <http://islamic-arts.org/2011/calligraphy-in-islamic-art/>

Ward, T. B., 2010, “Cognition and Creativity”. In Sternberg, Robert J., The Cambridge handbook of creativity, pp.93-112. Cambridge University Press, New York.