International exhibition at Sharjah museum showcases evolution of Arabic calligraphy

The works selected from the collection of Sharjah Calligraphy Museum shed light on how Arabic calligraphy evolved over 1,400 years.
Saturday 31/08/2019
Artworks on display at the Sharjah Calligraphy Museum. (Sharjah Museums Authority)
Beautiful styles. Artworks on display at the Sharjah Calligraphy Museum. (Sharjah Museums Authority)

SHARJAH - Exploring Arabic calligraphy and how it evolved through history is the theme of an exhibition at the Sharjah Calligraphy Museum to mark World Calligraphy Day.

Titled “Evolution Stages of Arabic Calligraphy,” the exhibit, which runs through October 18, features more than 40 artworks by artists from across the Middle East and other regions.

The works selected from the collection of Sharjah Calligraphy Museum, the only museum devoted to calligraphy, shed light on how Arabic calligraphy evolved over 1,400 years.

From being a communication medium, calligraphy blossomed into an art form boasting approximately 80 different scripts. The exhibition focuses on six main Arabic styles of writing: Al Kufi, Al Thuluth, Al Naskh, Al Ta’liq, Al Diwani and Al Maghribi.

A solitary work that serves as a window to the exhibition is a quote from the Quran “Mankind and Daybreak” written in a combination of Al Thuluth, Al Diwani and Al Ta’liq scripts.

The first section of the display focuses on tools used by calligraphers, including bamboo and feather quill pens, special sharpening knives, pen caps, cutting board, inkpots made of glass, silver and copper, as well as various pen holders and boxes.

Iraqi calligrapher Adnan Al Sheerefi, the museum’s Arabic calligraphy instructor, stressed the daunting task of mastering the art.

“It requires six hours of practice for many years to become a professional calligrapher and each work requires patience allied to skill and may take up to six months to complete. To transcribe the Quran, it may take many years of work,” Sheerefi said.

Arabic calligraphy is mainly inspired by the Quran, Hadiths, inspirational quotes and poetic verses.

Sheerefi said the oldest calligraphy style that derived from Al Naabati writing, which was commonly used in the North Arabian Peninsula in the pre-Islamic period, emerged approximately 700AD. It was developed by calligraphers in Kufah, Iraq, and became known as Al Kufi script.

For 500 years, Al Kufi was the only style used to copy the Quran after which other scripts, such as Al Thuluth and Al Naskh, were employed.

Al Kufi script developed over three phases, Sheerefi said. The first was devoid of dots, accents or other symbols while the second utilised red dots with the position of the point above, below or in front of a character symbolising vowel sounds. The last phase used black dots to distinguish letters that have the same basic form but different sounds.

Al Kufi is widely used on monuments but Sheerefi said he prefers Al Thuluth and Al Naskh.

He said Al Thuluth is one of the most beautiful of the Arabic scripts and the most difficult to write. It is the origin for many of Arabic scripts and the standard by which the creativity of a calligrapher is measured.

In Al Thuluth, one-third of each letter slopes, from which its name (“a third” in Arabic) is derived, shedding the decorative motifs found in Al Kufi.

Al Naskh script, invented during the Abbasid era and improved by Ibn Muqlah, is closest to Al Thuluth and could be considered a variety of Al Thuluth. “It is a simpler and less difficult style used to make copies of the Quran and has become the script for printing,” Sheerefi said.

The official script used for government correspondence by heads of state is Al Diwani, considered by calligraphers to be an adaptable script that flows easily due to its rounded forms.

The Diwani Jali script was invented by the Ottomans. It was used in royal decrees and letters addressed to foreign countries because of its clarity. It can be mistaken for musical notes in the way it flows up and down and can be fashioned into inanimate forms.

Widespread in Persia in the 13th century was Al Ta’liq script, easy and clear, with thin and extended letters. Al Ta’Iiq script is divided into several types, such as Al Nasta’liq, known in Iran and Afghanistan and Shakista in the Safavid era.

Shakista means “broken” and is called so because of the calligrapher’s speed in writing as a result of which some of the letters appear broken.

Another beautiful calligraphic style to emerge was Al Maghribi, popular in Andalusia and Kairouan (Tunisia) during the 14th and 15th centuries.

Manal Ataya, director-general of the Sharjah Museums Authority, said the exhibition “aims to generate more awareness about calligraphy and calligraphers as an art form that continues to evolve.”