Visual Journey through the Art of Arabic Calligraphy – Draft

By Nadia Tobia, Architect

June 2023

The art of Arabic calligraphy (Al-Khatt Al-Arabi) through the passage of time is the theme of this article. It focuses on the visual characteristics and changes that occurred in the application of Arabic calligraphy as an art. It compares and searches for the differences.
To visualize the changes the journey will start with early examples of calligraphy work and ends with most recent applications. .
There has been great interest in classifying and categorizing the way the script has been used in fine art. Several books and articles have been written on this topic and exhibitions curated. Our brief coverage will focus on illustrating the visual aspects that has accrued through time.

The Early Work: 

The early work has set the base for calligraphy as a medium of expression and as an element of aesthetics. It was written on several mediums mainly on raq paper vellum or parchment (originally made from treated animal skins) and on several other materials such as wood, bone, glass, stone, brick.  Around the 8th century the use of paper was introduced and became popular.

Artifacts with Arabic calligraphy included, ornamented Quran pages, manuscripts, ceramic pieces and metal bowls and plates, and calligraphy was engraved on semi-precious stones.  Iconic pieces are exhibited in various important museums around the world.

On a large-scale calligraphy was used widely in Architecture, including facades and interiors of religious and civil buildings.

The early works have set the base for calligraphy as a medium of expression and as an element of aesthetics.

Fig 1, Ceramic Bowl Emulating Chinese Stoneware, 9th Century, Attributed to Iraq, probably Basra, Metropolitan Museum Collection, New York (Public Domain) .

Fig 2, Metal Ewer with Inscription, Horsemen, and Vegetal Decoration Maker: `Umar ibn al-Hajji Jaldak, A.H. 623/1226 CE, Iraq, probably Mosul, Metropolitan Museum New York (Public Domain)

Fig 3, Section from a Qur'an Manuscript, A.H. 588/ 1192–93 CE, Iraq, Baghdad, Metropolitan Museum New York, Public Domain.

Fig 4, Folios from an `Abbasid Qur'an Calligrapher, Iraq (probably) Production date: 800-900 Arabic (language) Script type: Kufic script, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Ireland.

Maqamat Al Hariri, 1237 Baghdad, Iraq, drawing by Yahya bin Mahmoud Al-Wasiti, 243X261mm, National Library Paris, France.

Mustansiriya Madrasa It was established in 1227 AC and was named after and built by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustansir in Baghdad, Iraq . Detail of brick at main gate, an inscription describing the buildings patron, Al-Mustansir.

The Script: 

The Origin

There is no certainty on the various influences that together were responsible for the beginnings of the Arabic writing. The most common repeated theories are:

The Arabic writing was probably developed in the 4th century AD as a direct descendant of the Nabataean alphabet, its origins and early history are vague. Some scholars believe that the earliest extent example of Arabic script is a royal funerary inscription of the Nabataeans dating from 328 AD.

Other research support that the Arabic writing has developed from Phoenician and  Aramaic decent, and most recently it has been linked to the Musnad Script from the Arabic Peninsula. Although all these civilizations are linked and they overlap with each other. To find the origins is still a task in process.

Image of Namra (Syria) Incription in Nabatean Script 320-330 , dicovered in 1901. Lovre Museum, Paris, France.

René Dussaud's Tracing and Reading of the Namara Inscription

While the Arabic calligraphy existed couple of centuries before Islam. The birth of Islam, gave the writing an unparallel significance, elevating, developing and wide spreading the writing in several geographic regions. Various cultures eventually influenced the style of the Arabic writing from as far as India and China.
Today both terms Arabic Calligraphy and Islamic Calligraphy are used in literature by writers, scholars and researchers. The term Arabic Calligraphy is more local to the area where the population speaks the Arabic language on daily basis. While Islamic Calligraphy is universal covering the Islamic world.

The Development of the Script

Two major developments has been recorded:

  • The first development by Ali bin Mohammed bin Muqalla (died on 929 AD) who has established for the first-time a geometric relation and a rule between the letter and a circle.
  • The second development by Ibn Al Bawwab (died in 1032 AD), who created a proportional relation between the letter and a diamond shaped dot.

Script Styles

Al Muqalla Development, Image Source Massoudy, Hassan, Calligraphie Arab Vivante.

Al Bawabb Development, Image Source Massoudy, Hassan, Calligraphie Arab Vivante.

Al Muqalla Development, Image Source Massoudy, Hassan, Calligraphie Arab Vivante.

Traditional Calligraphy

The traditional calligraphy work, is a fully written script that follows the rules with a controlled degree of freedom. These works are often quotations from the Quran, poetry and popular proverbs. Two main collections can be seen; the classical styles with the decorative and ornamental elements and the freer style where calligraphers have used the classic elements in a newer look. the creators of these pieces are usually highly trained and professional calligraphers.

Fully written script that follows the rules with a controlled degree of freedom. 

Ghani Al-Ani, B1937, Iraq

Yousuf Thanoun Al-Naimi, (1931-2022) Iraq, Composition boat shape 38 x 65, 1981.

Hashem Al-Baghdadi (1917-1973) Iraq. Composition, Style Jeli Diwani,boat shape.1957.

Mohamed Saggar (b1934Iraq -2014 France). Compsition in boat shape.1978

yousef Thanoun 38 x 65 1981 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Mohamed Saggar (b1934Iraq -2014 France), ``Call thou unto thy Lord's path with wisdom and goody exhortation``(Qur'an).1984

Mohamed Saggar (b1934Iraq -2014 France), ``East West home is best`` Poem by Shawqi liberally translated, 1984

Fine Art Calligraphy: The Pioneer 

Calligraphy took its new approach when artists started to use letters and script in their work. This change started in the fifties and since then a number of approaches have emerged. Calligraphy no longer obeys the rules and applications and are only limited to the artist’s imagination. This move is considered influential and is called “Al Hurufiyya”. The creator of such pieces are no longer only calligraphers, but also artists with no formal training in calligraphy.

Calligraphy no longer obeys the rules and applications are only limited to the artist’s imagination.

Madiha Umar, (b1908 Syria- 2005 Jordan), active in Iraq and USA, ``Concert`` 1948. xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Shakir Hassan Al-Said, Iraq (1925 - 2004), ``Writing on a wall`` 1978, Acrilic/oil on wood, 100x90cm

Fine Art Calligraphy: Forms and Patterns 

The calligraphy dominates visually the art work, forming shapes and patterns.  The text weather is one letter or words is symbolic and could be legible or not, pushing its esthetics to the limit. Naturally the text does not obey any rule and the artist is not necessary a calligrapher.

Calligraphy dominate visually the art work, forming shapes and patterns.

Dia Al-Azzawi (b1939), lives UK , Seven Golden Odes 1978, silkscreen on paper 100x700.

Hassan Al -Massoudy (b1944 Iraq), lives in France. ``Lbrete`` .

Calligraphy becomes aesthetic symbols
or collectively immersed
in colours creating intense beauty 

Hussein Zenderoudi b1937 Iran.``Crowns of Love``1972, oil Canvas 413/4x56 3/4inch. AWS

Nja Mahdawi b1937, Tunisia. Calligram on Malamine V 2009. 120x 120 cm . AWS

Dia Al-Azzawi (b1939 Iraq). ``Manuscript ``1980 - Gauache on paper 38x70 cm.

Mehdi Qotbi (b1951Morocco), Portee, 1985, mixed media on paper, 64X44 cm

Kamal Boullata, (b 1942 Palastine - 2019 Germany), ``Revolution`` 1978.

Rachid Koraichi (b 1947 Algeria) etching ``good morning majid``1984, poetry by Mahmoud Darwish supported callegraphyby Hassan Massoudy.

Yousef Ahmed, b1955, Qatar, ``Calligraphy`` 1980 etching,

Nja Mahdawi b1937, Tunisia

Etel Adnan (1952 Lebenon - 2021 France,

Hassan Al -Massoudy (b1944 Iraq), lives in France.

Ahmed Mustafa (b1943 Eygept ) ``composition based on Surat Al-Ikhlas``, 1983 silk screen print

Fine Art Integrated with Calligraphy 

The Arabic Calligraphy is integrated with fine art elements and is not the major visual attraction nor it is the dominating element. The calligraphy is part of other fine art elements, it merges and melts together.

The calligraphy is mostly legible. The artist collaborates with the literature such as poetry and writings, illtreating and rewriting them into fine art elements.

Fine art and calleigraphy is creativley integrated.  Poems are rewritten by fine arts elements.  

Dia Al-Azzawi, (B1939 Iraq) Living in UK. ``The Crane 1990. text by Halim Barakat. Hand -Coloured Lithograph 38x55cm

Suad Al-Attar (b 1940 Iraq) Lives in UK. ``If i can only reach mom my love`` 1991 pen on paper 5x7 inches.

Rafa Al Nassari (1940 Iraq-2013 Jordan), ``Natural Visions`` 1981, acrylic/canvas

Dia Al-Azzawi, (B1939 Iraq) Living in UK. ``Al Jawahiri Verses`` 1989. Hand coloured lithograph

Rachid Diab b 1957, Sudan. `` Memorey of Echoes`` 1998.

Rafa Al Nassari (1940 Iraq-2013 Jordan), ``Book of 7-From the Distant Land -6`` 2008, Poem by May Muthafar.

Mohamed Melehi 1936-2020 Morroco. ``Untitled`` 1982

Post 2000: Emerging Artists and Trends 

The popularity of fine art calligraphy continued after 2000 if not flourished further. The appreciation of the art by private sector, collectors and the support of art organizations and museums had its affect on its popularity. The well established museums increased their collections, while new museums were established in the Middle East.These establishments are nourishing and supporting the art including the fine art calligraphy.

The social media has its role spreading the work. Accessibility and awareness have increased almost every established and emerging artist have their own website, Facebook, Instagram…etc.

The artists are no longer only calligraphers or fine art artist, they are designers of various media, brand designers, interior designers, working in multi fields at the same time.

Post 2000 Artists further enriched the movemnt of Hurufiyya. 

Muiz Anwar


Fatima Al Sharshani Qatar. ``Never Ending / Endless Mural`` 20021. Part of a larger project: 2021 Qatar-USA Year of Cultur .

Mater Bin Lahej b1968, UAE. Museum of Future opened 2022 Dubai, UAE. Architect Killa Design.

Behman Panahi 1967 Iran, Musicalligraphy Vibration Acralic on Canvas 2018, 145x175 cm

Malik Anas Al-Rajeb b1976 Iraq,

Mater Bin Lahej, 1968 UAE, ``Love`` custom hand made carpet in collaboration with Illulian.

Khalid Shaheen bXXX Jordan lives in UAE, Strangers poem by Mahmoud Darwish, 2021

Ghada Amer, b1963 Eygpt, lives in US. ``35 Words of Love`` 2011, Bronze Sculpture. AWS

Khalid Shaheen , bxxx Jordan lives in UAe. ``synoyms of Love in Arabic , Gharam -Hob, 2020 .

The Word Love is Emerging and Being Used Frequently

Cover Image

Dia Al-Azzawi (b. Baghdad 1939), Addonis,1990. Lithograph 1100x385mm


The article is based on a short abstract created with the guideness of Dia Al-Azzawi in 1992 as a proposal for an exhibition.


  • Artists web sites
  • Artists exhibition catalogues and booklets
  • Al Massoudy, Hassan “Calligraphie Arab Vivante”,1981
  • Ettingghausen, Richard, “Arab Paintings”, 1973, published by the Minstry of Information, Baghdad, Iraq.
  • Al Haidari, Bouland, “Arabic Calligraphy”, 1981
  • Unit 2 The Metroplitain Musuem of Art, New York, ” the Arabic Script and the Aart of Caligraphy”
  • Porter, Venitia, “World into Art. Artists of the Modern Middle East” Dubai 2008
  • The Royal Society of Fine Arts, edited by Ali, Wijdan, “Contemporary Art from the Islamic World”1989

Fig 1, Ceramic Bowl Emulating Chinese Stoneware, 9th Century, Attributed to Iraq, probably Basra, Earthenware; painted in blue on opaque white glaze, H. 2 3/8 in. (6 cm) Diam. 8 in. (20.3 cm). The Arabic word ghibta (happiness) in Kufic script , is repeated twice in cobalt blue at the center. Metropolitan Museum Collection, New York (Public Domain). This bowl, made in Iraq, is an example of the earliest Chinese-inspired vessels produced in the Near East.

Fig 2, Metal Ewer with Inscription, Horsemen, and Vegetal Decoration This lavishly decorated object is inscribed around the neck ,Maker: `Umar ibn al-Hajji Jaldak. Date: dated A.H. 623/1226 CE. Geography: Attributed to Iraq, probably Mosul. Medium: Brass; inlaid with silver and black compound. Dimensions: H. 14 1/2 in. (36.8 cm), W. 12 1/16 in. (30.6 cm), Diam. 8 3/8 in. (21.3 cm),

Fig 3,Title: Section from a Qur’an Manuscript, Date: dated A.H. 588/ 1192–93 CE, Geography: Made in Iraq, Baghdad, Medium: Ink, gold, and opaque watercolor on paper, Dimensions: H. 8 3/16 in. (20.8 cm), W. 5 11/16 in. (14.5 cm), Often Qur’ans were divided into thirty sections, each called juz’. This manuscript represents portions of the twenty‑ninth juz’ of such a set. A colophon survives on another section, providing the date. The text blocks on its pages consist of only five lines of muhaqqaq script, providing a sense of monumentality. Gold kufic script within illuminated frames and margin medallions distinguish the chapter headings, and gold illuminated disks mark the verses.

Fig 4, Folios from an `Abbasid Qur’an Calligrapher and production place: Unknown Iraq (probably) Production date: 800-900 Dimensions: 134 mm x 211 mm x 10 mm (height x width x depth) Material: Parchment (material)Pigment (material)Ink (material)Gold Language: Arabic (language) Script type: Kufic script.


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