The art of Islamic calligraphy: ‘revered above painting’

From the earliest days of the Qur’an, calligraphy has elevated the written word to an art form across the Islamic world. Specialist Sara Plumbly untangles the complexities of a fascinating blend of spiritual devotion and aesthetic beauty — illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

A pink Qur'an folio, Nasrid Spain, 13th c, at Christie's in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds including Rugs and Carpets

A pink Qur'an folio, Nasrid Spain, 13th century (detail). Folio: 12 x 9 in (30.4 x 22.8 cm). Sold for £37,800 on 25 April 2024 at Christie’s in London

Calligraphy, the art of beautiful handwriting, has a long and rich history in Islamic culture. It played a significant role in conveying the beauty and power of the word of Allah, and was used to decorate everything from religious texts to architecture.

Islamic calligraphy has a dual significance, since the manuscripts in which it appears are both religious documents and objects of beauty. Collectors admire the skill and mastery required to create the intricate and elegant designs, as well as appreciating their spiritual meaning and cultural significance. These enduring qualities continue to captivate people all over the world.

Here, Christie’s specialist Sara Plumbly offers advice for prospective collectors.

Pay attention to the work’s condition

The lot below is a volume from a seven-part Qur’an copied in North Africa or Spain around the year 1300. At some point it has lost the first and last folios, and been given a new binding. As was common in manuscripts from this early period, the text is written not on paper but on parchment, made from treated animal skin. Although parchment can become creased and warped with age, this is one of the exciting and unusual aspects of this manuscript: in its use of vellum and the way it has been bound, it is similar to manuscripts produced in Spain by Christian and Jewish scribes.

A Maghribi Qur’an section, probably Morocco, circa 1300. Folio: 8 x 7 in (20.1 x 18 cm). Sold for £315,000 on 25 April 2024 at Christie’s in London

The crisp gold and cobalt-blue illumination enhances the vigorous calligraphic style known as maghribi. This refers to a loosely related family of Arabic scripts that developed in the Maghreb (North Africa), Al-Andalus (Iberia) and Bilad as-Sudan (the west African Sahel). Maghribi is directly derived from the kufic script, characterised by rounded letter forms, extended horizontal features, and final open curves below the baseline.

In its beautifully preserved condition, this manuscript allows us to experience first-hand what it was like to open a lavishly decorated Qur’an manuscript in the 14th-century Maghreb.

Use angles and curves as clues to identify scripts

Through the ages, calligraphy masters have attempted to formally establish, or codify, a number of different types of script. The main division is between angular scripts — traditionally reserved for early Qur’ans and architectural decoration — and curved ones.

Qur’an, signed Sulayman al-Isfahani, Safavid Iran, late 16th century. Folio 10⅛ x 7½ in (25.8 x 19.1 cm). Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds including Rugs and Carpets on 25 April 2024 at Christie’s in London

Among these curved scripts are the famous ‘Six Pens’ — six styles known as rayhan, muhaqqaq, naskh, thuluth, ta’liq and nasta’liq. Sometimes these scripts could be combined: the above manuscript, for example, is written in an elegant naskh script. The sura (or chapter) headings, however, are written in thuluth, a more intricate and rounded script. The headings are also written in white against a gold illuminated cartouche, drawing the reader’s attention more closely to the new sura they are about to begin.

Remarkably, although these scripts were codified in the medieval period, they have endured, and remain the main calligraphic styles today.

Calligraphy can appear anywhere — from monumental inscriptions to domestic objects

Muhammad’s first revelation — in which he was visited by the archangel Gabriel — is recorded in the Qur’an in Arabic, which was a key factor in calligraphy becoming the most revered of all art forms in the Islamic world. Monumental inscriptions, such as those of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, appeared on mosques and shrines from as early as the 8th century.

However, although they were primarily used for decorating religious manuscripts and artefacts, fine scripts quickly found their way onto secular objects, being valued for their aesthetic qualities even in non-religious contexts.

The above carpet, for example, has a border decorated with elegant inscriptional cartouches. One would not expect to find Qur’anic inscriptions on carpets, since it would be considered highly sacrilegious to put the word of Allah on the floor, and even more so to walk on it. The inscriptions on this rug are taken from the poetry of Sa’di (d. 1291-92).

A refined script can be as valuable as gold

The candlestick below is a masterpiece. The inscription, written around the body in thuluth script, is finely executed, and retains much of its original silver inlay. The inscription is large and clearly legible, yet carefully arranged so that the ascending letters like lam and alef are evenly spaced to lend a regular rhythm to the inscription.

The inscription itself refers to the candlestick’s patron. Though not identified by name, the patron is referred to as an officer of the Mamluk sultan al-Malik al-Nasir (r. 1293-1341). A candlestick of this impressive size would have been displayed in one of the mosques and foundations that were built in Cairo during his reign.

Stylised text can become a form of abstract art

When Nishapur pottery was first discovered in the first half of the 20th century, excavators were astonished by its bold simplicity. It seemed to have more in common with the Art Deco designs that were popular at the time than with anything you would expect to find in 10th-century Iran.

A Nishapur bowl, North-east Iran, 10th century. 12⅛ in (30.2 cm) diam. Sold for £8,820 on 25 April 2024 at Christie’s in London

Though even a native speaker of Arabic might find it hard to make sense of the text on this bowl, the motif in the centre roundel, which is repeated around the rim, is actually the word yumn — ‘good fortune’. Other ceramics from the same period exhibit a similar stylised treatment of the word baraka — ‘blessing’. The original owners may have believed that these inscriptions would bring them luck.

Look out for signatures

Because calligraphy was traditionally revered above painting and illumination, we have extensive records of calligraphers and their biographies, particularly from the 15th century onwards. Works signed by eminent court calligraphers, often richly embellished with illumination, are highly sought-after today. Even if they are not well known, a scribe’s name can help connect them to other manuscripts, and to a place where they may have worked.

The Khamsas of Nizami (d. 1209) and Amir Khusraw Dihlavi (d. 1325), 1624-26. Shiraz, Iran. Folio: 11½ x 7¼ in (29.3 x 18.3 cm). Sold for £2,944,000 on 25 April 2024 at Christie’s in London

The above manuscript was copied by a scribe who signs himself Muhammad Husayn Dar al-Marzi. It includes the khamsa (five main poems) of the poets Nizami and Amir Khusraw Dihlavi. Dates throughout the manuscript show that the scribe finished the first poem on the 28 Dhu’l-Qa’ada A.H. 1033 (11 September 1624 A.D.), and completed the fifth and final poem just under two years later on 1 Dhu’l-Qa’ada A.H. 1035 (25 July 1626 A.D.), an impressive speed for a manuscript so fine.

His signature also appears on manuscripts in the John Rylands Library in Manchester and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Although his name, Dar al-Marzi, would seem to indicate that he came from Gilan in north-west Iran, the illumination suggests that this manuscript was in fact copied in Shiraz in the south.

A calligraphic composition, signed Bahadur Shah Zafar, Mughal India, mid-19th century. Folio: 11 x 8½ in (28 x 21.5 cm). Sold for £25,200 on 25 April 2024 at Christie’s in London

Signatures can also surprise us: the calligraphic composition above is signed at the bottom in red by Bahadur Shah Zafar. The final Mughal emperor, he was deposed by the British following the Indian Rebellion of 1857. He was also an accomplished poet and — as this composition demonstrates — a skilled artist.

A signature, or tughra, can help to date a piece

The tughra is an important form of calligraphic signature, or seal, used extensively in the Islamic world. This form of seal — with highly sophisticated overlapping letters restricted to a confined area — developed into an elaborate signature for rulers throughout the eastern Islamic world, being used by the Mughal, Safavid and Ottoman emperors.

A large royal Ottoman firman of Sultan Abdülhamid I (r. 1774-89), Turkey, 1786. 3 ft 10 in x 20½ in (117 x 52 cm). Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds including Rugs and Carpets on 25 April 2024 at Christie’s in London

Formed from the name and titles of each ruler, the tughra was an elegant and individual mark of imperial authority. Such marks, appearing across a variety of artworks, can be vital when dating pieces — particularly those of the Ottoman empire. The above document, for example, was written to entrust a certain Haseki-Bashi Mustafa bin Huseyn with the great responsibility of becoming one of the sweepers (fersahet) of the Prophet’s Tomb.

Sign up for Going Once, a weekly newsletter delivering our top stories and art market insights to your inbox

Look out for modern masters

The tradition of learning calligraphy from a master started as early as the 10th century and continues today. An example from the 20th century is this calligram signed by a Baha’i scribe, Mirza Husayn Isfahani, and dated 1902. He left the employment of Nasir al-Din Shah to follow the new religion being preached by Baha’ullah, eventually settling in Palestine and spending the remainder of his life producing calligraphic compositions such as this one.

Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds including Rugs and Carpets is on 25 April 2024 at Christie’s in London. On view from 20 to 24 April

Related departments

Related lots

Related auctions

Related content