In Islam, the significance of writing stems from the essence of the religion. According to Islamic teachings, the instruction given in the very first Qur’anic revelation received by the Prophet Muhammad was: “Recite in the name of thy Lord … Who has taught (the writing) by the pen” (from Surah 96, al-A’laq, 1-4). Welch (1979) notes that the written form of the Qur’an is the visual equivalent of the eternal Qur’an and is humanity’s perceptual glimpse of the Divine. The holiness of the Qur’an lends a special aura to all forms of the written word.
When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, the Qur’anic revelation stopped. The content of the Holy Qur’an was passed from lip to lip by huffaz — those who memorized and recited the contents of the Qur’an by heart. Many of the huffaz were killed in the battles that followed the death of the Prophet. This event alarmed the Muslim community. Omar Ibn al-Khattab, one of the disciples of the Prophet Muhammad, urged the Caliph Abu Bakr to put the Holy Qur’an in writing.
Zaid Ibn Thabit, who served as a secretary for the Prophet, was assigned to compile and collate the revelations into a book. The first versions of the Qur’an were written in the scripts of Makki and Madani. These scripts were variants of the Jazm script and were named for cities–Makki for Mekka, and Madani for Medina. Although the scripts had different names, they were not particularly distinct from one another.
Only two scripts with distinctive features were maintained. They were Muqawwar which was cursive and easy to write, and Mabsut which was elongated and straight-lined. These two scripts had their impact on the development and creation of new styles, the most important being Ma’il (slanting), a kind of primitive Kufic script; Mashq (extended); and Naskh (inscriptional). The Ma’il script failed to achieve relative celebrity and was replaced by the angular Kufic script. On the other hand, the Mashq and Naskh were used extensively after considerable technical improvements.
The development of Arabic calligraphy did not follow a linear movement. A number of various forms appeared simultaneously, especially at auspicious times of intense creative activities within the field of writing. The very early versions of Arabic scripts lacked elegance and discipline and were used mainly for secular purposes. The systems of al-Hajjaj Ibn Yousuf al-Thaqafi and al-Khalil Ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi were incorporated into and became part of both the cursive and the Kufic scripts.
The intense and dramatic early development of writing ended with the rise of the Umayyad dynasty (661-755). According to Safadi (1978), the Umayyad caliph Abd-Al-Malik Ibn Marwan (685-705) was the first to legislate the compulsory use of Arabic script for all official and state registers.
Damascus was the Umayyad capital and was an important political and cultural center. During the Umayyad era, two new Arabic scripts appeared, Tumar and Jali. These scripts were invented by the famous calligrapher Qutbah al-Mihrr. Later, Ibn Jlan and Ibn Hama developed and improved the Tumar and Jali scripts during the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258).
Tumar was formulated and extensively used during the reign of Muawieyah Ibn Abi Sufyan (660-679), the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. Tumar became the royal script of the succeeding Umayyad caliphs.
Calligraphy entered a phase of glory under the influence of Abbasid vizier and calligrapher Ibn Muqlah. According to Welch (1979), Ibn Muqlah is regarded as a figure of heroic stature who laid the basis for a great art upon firm principles and who created the Six Styles of writing: Kufi, Thuluth, Naskh, Riq’a, Deewani, and Ta’liq.
The first of a triad of geniuses, Ibn Muqlah (886-940) was followed by Ibn al-Bawwab in the 11th century and Yaqut al-Musta’simi in the late 13th century. The latter two men built upon Ibn Muqlah’s achievements so well that to scribes, connoisseurs, and literati from the 14th through 18th centuries, these three calligraphers appeared to be the sole creators of the ‘modern styles,’ and the three men assumed the roles of semi-legendary figures personifying the developments that took place over many centuries by a number of scribes. Each of the three men came to be viewed as an exemplar of certain admirable personal characteristics or as a model for necessary calligraphic skills.
Reaching near levels of perfection, the cursive scripts, especially Thuluth, continued to evolve very distinctive and elegant ornamental versions. The beauty of these new versions of Thuluth set them in a position to compete with Kufic script within the field of epigraphy. Moreover, the scripts were, and still are, used in copying the Holy Qur’an, as well as in secular manuscripts.