Zakariya Calligraphy

History & Development

The Scripts

In the great age of proportioned calligraphy, there were six styles, or scripts (or pens, as they were frequently called): Muhakkak, Reyhan, Sulus, Tevki, Rika’, and Nesih. Of these only Sulus, Rika’, and Nesih are still in constant use. Some scripts have large, monumental versions, which were originally called jalil (grand, magnificent) and in Ottoman times were called celi (clear, conspicuous), as in Celi Sulus (Sulus Celisi).

Unfortunately, images of the script styles aren't available yet.

Many other script styles were invented in addition to these, especially in the scribally adept bureaucracies of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates and their successors and competitors. Most of these scripts—now long abandoned—were size variants of the six listed above or complex versions of them. Others were simplified versions that came to be called “broken” (in Turkish kirma) styles, which involved irregularities designed to make them quick to write. One such style was the Persian Shikaste, which means broken. The most extreme was Siyakat, a script so impressionistic that only a specialist could read it. Although its origins were early, it was used extensively in the Ottoman ministry of finance. It has no artistic application.

Not all scripts are suitable for all texts; see Script Considerations, below.

The Major Scripts

Taken together, the following examples of scripts make up the text of the Hilye-I Saadet (see The Hilye of the Prophet Muhammad (PDF)). Here I must reiterate my debt to my two teachers, Hasan Celebi and Ali Alparslan of Istanbul. Since 1984, they have worked very hard to make me a good calligrapher. So far I have reached only my present level of proficiency; my shortcomings are mine, not theirs.

Muhakkak Script

Example: The Besmele in Celi Muhakkak

Muhakkak is originally an Arabic word (Muhaqqaq) signifying in calligraphy “having the true, simple, unequivocal letter forms and combinations.” Its celi form, as in the example above, is often used to write the Besmele: “In the name of God, the merciful to all his creation, the merciful to his believers.” Normal sized Muhakkak was used to write some of the most magnificent Korans in the world, especially in the Abbasid caliphate and its successor states, in Persia, and in the Seljuk and Mamluk domains.

Many illustrious calligraphers specialized in this script, such as Yakut al-Mustasimi and his six students, especially Ahmed Ibn as-Suhrawardi, Abdullah as-Sayrafi, and Abdul-Haqq Shirazi, later known as Amanat Khan, calligrapher of the Taj Mahal. It was also used by the Mamluks, such as Ibn as-Saigh and Muhammad at-Tibi, and by Yahya Sufi. The Ottoman Ahmed Karahisari attempted to revive Muhakkak in a spectacular way, but the renaissance was short lived. This regular, quick, eminently legible, and readable script had some use in the Ottoman period, but never got the attention it deserved and became nearly obsolete.

Example: Normal Muhakkak Script

Reyhan or Reyhani Script

This is a small Muhakkak. It is written with a single pen (unlike Muhakkak and Sulus, which are written with two or more sizes of pens—a basic one for the script and smaller ones for the vowels and other markings). Reyhan bears the same proportional relationship to Muhakkak as Nesih does to Sulus, so it is often the partner to Muhakkak. One of Yaqut’s six students, Ergun Kamili, is renowned for his skill in this style, although his Reyhani is a bit on the large side. Ibn al-Bawwab’s famous Koran in the Chester Beatty Museum in Dublin, erroneously identified as being in Nesih, is actually in a very tight early Reyhan, with all its characteristics. In the Levant, late versions of Rika’ were called Reyhani, as was Muhakkak.

Example: Reyhani

Sulus Script

Called the mother of calligraphy, Sulus (Arabic Thuluth) is the script par excellence. It was the main script form in the early period, aside from Muhakkak, to attract the interest of innovative calligraphers, and tens of scripts derive from its principles. Its visual line excites; it draws the mind into contemplation of its texts and calls the attention of the eye in the same way a tuning fork draws the attention of the ear. Sulus is a visual music. The most visually powerful and versatile of all of the scripts, it features many alternate letter forms.

Example: Sulus Script

Celi Sulus Script

The large style of Sulus was called Jalil es-Sulus. Now it is called Celi (Jeli) Sulus. The word celi means big, clear, and unequivocal. Sami Efendi (d. 1912) said that if someone does not understand celi, he does not understand calligraphy. Its best and most modern form began with the work of Mustafa Rakim (d. 1826). Celi Sulus has the grandeur to be read from a distance and the capacity like no other to be used in complex compositions. It is one of the two most difficult scripts, the other being Celi Talik.

Example: Celi Sulus

Tevki Script

Tevki (Arabic Tawqi) was originally used for royal documents. It is based on Sulus but smaller and proportionally more compact. It is also less elaborate and features less vowelling and more dramatic action. The incredible seven-volume Mamluk Koran, written for the soon-to-be Sultan Baybars by Ibn al-Wahid (d. 1311), is in a version of this script written in gold, outlined with black hair-lines. It is the most spectacular example of Tevki ever written. The script is now obsolete, except as a tour de force.

Example: Tevki

Rika’ Script

Rika’ (Arabic Riqa’, plural of ruq’a, small scrap) is a small Tevki, even simpler. It evolved into the Ottoman script Icaze, which was used for writing icazets, or licenses, and other formal documents. In this version it has many vowels and decorative marks, giving it a “foggy” look.

Example: Rika

Nesih Script

Nesih (Arabic Naskh) is the last of the six scripts. At one time, scholars of Islamic art used the baseless term “naskhi” to indicate any script not “Kufic” or Nestalik based, which led to a lot of misinterpretation. Nesih probably found its first great advocate in Abu Abdillah Ibn Muqla. Refined by Ibn al-Bawwab, it became a script of texts, Korans, and many other uses. A brisk, bright, clear, and legible script, Nesih is often partnered with Sulus. It is the book script of choice. It has been called “the Servant of the Koran” since it is at its best in that use; indeed, most recent Korans are written in Nesih. Persian Nesih, in contrast, is stultifyingly dull and immobile. Nesih is deceptively hard to write well; it must not look forced or contrived, but natural and organic. It was said of Kadiasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi’s Nesih that it resembled in its naturalness a flight of butterflies.

Example: Nesih

Talik Script

Talik is the Turkish simplification of the Persian name Nestalik. This script originated in Iran. A colorful story says it was invented by Mir Ali Tabrizi (d. 1420) when he dreamed of a flight of ducks, woke up, and applied his vision to writing. This is, if not factual, a good description of the script. It was brought to a high degree of excellence by the Persian masters, especially the tragic figure of Mir Imad El-Hasani (d. 1615), who was assassinated at the instigation of Shah Abbas. It is the most original and unique of all the scripts. In the Ottoman state, Yesari Mehmed Esad (d. 1798), a handicapped left-handed master, revised the script and—with the subsequent work of his son, Yesarizade Mustafa Izzet Efendi—perfected Ottoman Talik in its normal and celi forms. It is so different from the Persian variety that it is really a different script and should not be judged by the same standards. Minuscule Persian Nestalik is extraordinary and unsurpassed. The script must never be written with vowelling, except an occasional hamza and shadda.

Example: Talik

Celi Talik Script

Ottoman style Celi Talik has no peer in beautiful writing. Its line is sinuous, muscular, tense as a serpent. It is low and flat, leaning back toward the right as if resisting the wind of its left-ward advance. It is nearly impossible to master, and there are few who can write it well. It is a terrific script for large public inscriptions. The modern Persian version looks sloppy, droopy, and impressionistic in comparison.

Example: Celi Talik

Other Common Scripts

The rest of the commonly used scripts have less artistic potential, yet are nevertheless of interest.

Divani Script

Divani (Arabic Diwani) developed out of the obsolete Persian and Arabic Old Talik, which was a script for writing glosses in margins. It developed further within the Ottoman Chancery, although many early Ottoman books were also written in it. The modern form of the script was realized in the 19th century. Relatively easy to learn and write, the script now has many uses and can be very stylish.

Example: Divani

Celi Divani Script

Celi Divani is a direct outgrowth of the original Ottoman Divani. They were once one script but then diverged, Divani moving toward less complexity and Celi Divani toward an almost extreme use of vowels, reading signs, and decorative marks. It became so dense that the text is almost hidden within the decorative elements. Normally Celi Divani is written in lines that slant up as they move to the left and swoop up at the end, terminating with a single-line stroke that descends into a sharp pointed resolution. It was developed for writing Ottoman fermans, berats, and mensurs (proclamation scrolls).

Example: Celi Divani

Rik’a Script

Rik’a (Arabic Ruq’a) is a newish development from the late Ottoman bureaucracy. It took its name from being written on small bits of paper (just as Rika’ did). The script of correspondence and general use, it was once taught all over the Ottoman and Arab worlds. Rik’a is constructed from short strokes and subtle pen motions. It is not as easy as it looks but it is easier than all the others (except the so-called Kufic styles). For that reason, it is a good script for beginners.

Example: Rik&Rsquo;A

The Scripts of North Africa and Spain

Somewhat outside this whole arena are the scripts of North Africa and Spain. They originated from a mixture of pre-proportioned styles and share certain characteristics. For example, they are normally written with brown ink, often on parchment, later on paper. Usually the vowelling and reading marks are in other colors to leave the main text (in brown) in its original form. The pens have blunt tips, and the letters sit flat on an imaginary horizontal line.

These scripts are easy to read and write and there are many styles, but the names of the styles are confusing. These scripts have very different yet entirely Islamic artistic values, and they have traditionally featured a different type of illumination. At best they are incredibly beautiful and subtle, very well adapted to the orthography of the Koran in the Warsh transmission. The scripts are still used, though their use is declining. Sadly, they are most often written today with the “Eastern” chisel-cut pen, which destroys their grace. Here is a sampler of them:

  1. Andalusian Koran Script

  2. Moroccan (Maghribi) Koran Script

  3. Three Moroccan Book Scripts

  4. Sulus-Maghribi Style

  5. West African

  6. History and Development

The development of scripts in Islamic history is a source of never ending wonderment. The script concept flourished in a culture that was to a large degree based on the precepts and values of the Islamic religion. It was a culture in all times and places concerned with the look of things. In its formative period, calligraphy, with its multiplicity of scripts, was the pride of the Arabs, who gifted subsequent non-Arab Muslims with the aesthetic. The caliph Al-Ma’mun (r. 833-842) was led to remark on this phenomenon: “If the foreign kings brag to us of their proverbs, we shall boast to them of what we have of the styles [scripts] of calligraphy, because of the nobility of the art.”

As classically understood, each script has its appropriate use or uses which contributed to the eloquence of the text by beautifying and organizing the layout of the pages. The art of calligraphy truly began as a book art, and for the major part of its historical progression remained so. Only in the last two centuries has calligraphy become an art to be displayed as independent framed works.

When movable type began to find acceptance among Muslims in the 18th century, the only script to become successfully adapted to a type face was Nesih. The rest could not make the transfer. Yet type design began to deteriorate in the mid 20th century. This decline was accelerated by the advent of computer printing, most of which is painfully ugly and agonizing to read. People with no sense of the nature of Arabic alphabet aesthetics, nor of the rules of letter arrangement, spacing, and layout, but armed with computer savvy have all but destroyed the beauty of the Arabic, Ottoman, or Persian book. Even the invariable use of snow-white paper goes against the traditional preference for the softer tones of tan, pink, and light yellow paper. Designers have lost the fine art of page design to such a degree that they stick every gimcrack in the box unto the page and print over clashing horrid patterns and blocks of color, reducing legibility and jinxing the joy of reading.

Some firms, especially Thomas Milo’s Decotype in Amsterdam, with years of effort, are discovering some interesting and promising solutions to the problem of creating an aesthetically pleasing and calligraphically sound computerized Arabic script type. But to use such tools well, one still has to develop the eye and the taste—a taste that must be at the same time both classic and ultra modern. In reviving the essence of Islamic art, one must not be a reactionary nor obsessed with the past. A few really good calligraphers have this taste, a resource that should not be ignored.

One might hypothesize that the sad state of the calligraphic culture is responsible for the general chaotic look of contemporary print design in Muslim societies. All one has to do to visualize this problem in a different perspective is to look at that brilliant calligraphic culture, Japan, to see what that nation’s calligraphy-inspired taste made possible, and to see what could be possible.

Script Considerations

A well-known California politician once wanted to commissioned me to do a work for his office. He had a text that he wanted in a certain script. I told his office that that script was both dishonorable to the text and visually inappropriate. But he would not consider my advice, he would not budge. In the end, to everyone’s satisfaction, I refused the job. It is a free country. Nobody gets rich doing calligraphic art. We calligraphers accept that.

Now let us look at appropriateness. When one wishes to write a work using a part of the Koran as its text, it is important to select a script and a layout that suits the status of that text’s holy aspect, it being the word of God. Since these Koranic works are essentially earthly transcriptions of a text that does not originate in this world, special care is required to produce such a work, such statements of faith.

The script must have grandeur, grace, impact, legibility, and magnificence. For this reason, the most majestic scripts have been favored. At present, the choice of experts is Celi Sulus, which has all the qualifications; moreover, history supports its enduring appropriateness. In spite of an early appreciation of the largely illegible angular Kufic, Celi Sulus in its many versions has been the odds-on favorite for mosque inscriptions since Abbasid times. Celi Talik, Ottoman style, is also a perfect match for Koranic quotations, although its use in mosque interiors is rarer. On the other hand, large panels in Celi Talik adorn many mosques, madrasas (schools), and tekkes (Sufi lodges). Its stark simplicity, power, and subtlety make it especially effective in gold against a dark background.

There are other considerations. Which spelling system of the Koran does one use? This can be a very vexing question. When I do a quotation in Celi Sulus or Celi Talik, it is what is called an independent quotation (mustaqill). In these I prefer to use the common spelling, which is not the same as the Othmanic spelling. The common spelling has a very long pedigree and has been accepted since Abbasid times. For calligraphy, it is simply more legible. To insist on Othmanic spelling in these usages is unfortunate and goes against historic practice. The wheel does not have to be re-invented—especially if one re-invents it square. Celi Sulus and Celi Talik inscriptions in the Othmanic spelling are less legible and the consonant strings are so long that the compositions look awkward.

When one writes Hadiths, both of the above scripts are appropriate. However, smaller scripts—such as normal Sulus, normal Talik, Nesih, and Reyhani—also provide good vehicles to express these texts. Wonderful formats exist for Hadiths, including levhas (large panels), kit’as (small panels), and murakkas (albums).

The production of works of a sacred nature includes an aspect the observer never sees. The calligrapher must never use materials that, according to the Sheriat (the pathway; the formulations of Islamic law) are not clean or proper. I strictly control this aspect of the art by making my own inks, paints, paper preparations, and adhesive, using good, clean materials—no blood, wine, or pork products. (No pig-hair brushes get near the work.) The gelatins used are fish products, which by nature are Halal.

In addition to sacred texts, my repertoire also includes sayings of the great thinkers of Islam from the formative ages, such as the Prophet’s companions. Hilyes are of this kind. Also I like to quote Malik Ibn Anas and the other Imams. Works of this kind are good in Celi styles, Sulus, Talik, Nesih, Tevki, Rika’, and, for effect, dramatic forms of Divani.

The treasure chest of Arabic poetry is a great place to locate great texts for calligraphy. I don’t care about their structure—meaning is what concerns me. The same goes for Ottoman poems, which are also very appealing, especially if they are witty, ethical, and profound. Arabic has certain visual characteristics, with lots of vertical strokes, whereas Ottoman is more horizontal. For both Arabic and Ottoman poetry I like Celi Talik, Talik, Tokca Sulus (a slightly larger Sulus than normal), normal Sulus, and occasionally Tevki. I do not do modern poetry.

Finally one should consider the appropriateness of the setting where such works are to be displayed. Once I saw a calligraphic work hung in a bathroom. Bad idea. Also, since the works are not waterproof (I never use a fixative), it’s important to make sure they are not exposed to moisture, fog, or steam. If sunlight is a problem, the right choice of glass can provide UV protection. Regarding glass, I advise normal or UV protecting picture glass. Non-glare glass looks tacky and hides the subtlety of a work.

In my work, I prefer short quotations. Some requests just have too many words for my taste. I like a text that is short and to the point, one that has a good turn of phrase. In order to be potent, long texts need be broken down into visual compartments so the meanings will not become lost in a sea of verbiage. A look at a Hilye levha can illustrate one way to solve this problem. Another solution is to make a long text into an album that opens out like a concertina or page by page, like a book. Each page is a kit’a formed from a portion of the text. These albums must be consistent within themselves, made to go together. They can have from two to more than 100 kit’as. These jewel-like books are portable exhibitions; they are rarely made today because of the difficulty and expense of producing them. Yet what a thrill it is to pull one off the shelf, stretch out, and admire it—so many aspects of art and meaning, so full of gold, color, script, and texture.

Scripts are the calligrapher’s greatest tool. With them, used judiciously, the hattat (calligrapher) has a full range of expressions available, from thunderation, to the flight of ducks, to butterflies, to the subtlest wisp of innuendo.

Copyright 2002, Mohamed Zakariya. This text may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form without permission from the author.