The Passion of the Pen – Arabic Calligraphy
Arabic calligraphy is a centuries-old art form that is still practised today. Steeped in tradition, to learn about Arabic calligraphy is to learn about world history and cultural heritage.
Lexigo spoke to Omran Omer, a Melbourne-based calligrapher who has travelled the world to study and share his art.
Arabic calligraphy is believed to have developed from the writing of the Nabateans, the poetry-loving nomads of the Arabian Desert. Arabic is the language in which the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century, so the first Muslims documented their holy book using Arabic calligraphy. This led to a desire to beautify it.
The Qu’ran was first written in the Kufic script, a boxy and elongated style with no dots. The dots tell the reader the exact sound of each letter, but they knew their language well enough to understand it without them. Named after the city of Kufa in Iraq, the Imam (master in Arabic) Ali Ibn Ali Talib, is credited with its development.
As Islam spread, different styles of Arabic calligraphy evolved. Today there are six distinct fonts that reflect the time and culture in which they developed.
Kufi: some styles of this script are more square and geometric, but there is also floral kufi.
Naskh: this easy-to-read script is what the Qu’ran is published in today. It was developed under the Umayyad dynasty as Kufi was difficult to read and write.
Thuluth: also formulated under the Umayyad dynasty, this elegant and grand style can be found in Mecca and the Taj Mahal. It is one of the hardest fonts to master.
Diwani: this very cursive style began in Ottoman times. It’s flowing and visually appealing and allows the calligrapher to innovate.
Riqa: this simple font was also developed under the Ottoman empire and is used by contemporary Arabic speakers in day-to-day writing
Farsi: the font used for Persian, the language of Iran.
Each font has its own rules which must be followed and respected. While some contemporary calligraphers break them, it’s not considered proper calligraphy, although still art. Classic Arabic calligraphy includes passing on the history, which is embodied in the rules.
The letters can be written in a straight line, or used to create a shape. Normally Arabic is written right to left, but calligraphers can also write from the bottom up, especially if drawing a shape. Calligraphers add decorations which have special placements that they study, such as strokes that look like little birds.
The dots, which look like diamonds because of the shape of the pen, represent the sound of a letter. One, two or three dots make a character a different letter. Vowels are represented by lines above and below the letter.
There’s also symbolism, for example, if you write Allah, it’s always on top to show respect. You’d never write the name in the middle or bottom of a piece.
It takes a lifetime of study to master Arabic calligraphy. Mr Omer first encountered it when he travelled to Medina in Saudi Arabia to visit his grandfather. He saw the Prophet’s mosque beautified with calligraphy. He found the Diwani script the most attractive and the easiest to write when he was younger. His personal connection to this style inspired him to name is calligraphy business after it.
Mr Omer met his teacher, Hasim Selmo, when he came to Australia in 2017 to design a mosque in Sydney. From him, he learnt the proper way to sit, hold the pen, and look after his tools. He also learnt the spiritual aspects of calligraphy – how to find flow and connect with the letters.
Mr Omer says writing calligraphy is meditative:
It’s powerful when you take time and put your mind to it. You must push away all distractions. Create a clear, clean space, ensure your tools are right, then you create beautiful art. It’s really emotional, joyful. You think about your thoughts, if you’ve had a bad week, it will come out on the paper. It’s a way to express emotions. It’s a very deep art. It’s a never-ending journey.
Buddhist temples or Christian churches have statues of their sacred figures. In Islam, it’s forbidden to draw the Prophet and his disciples, so they write about him. Arabic calligraphy can be seen in mosques and historic buildings around the world.
Andalusia in southern Spain has buildings adorned with kufi scripts. Alhambra Palace is one of the most visited sites in the world. There’s also the Cordoba grand mosque, which locals dubbed a Mesquita because, over time, it’s been used as a mosque and a cathedral. It was a mosque in the Andalusian period, then when Christianity took over, they respected Muslims and the building, so they built the church inside the mosque. Arabic calligraphy has been preserved alongside Christian paintings.
In the holy Muslim city of Mecca, the Kaaba, the building pilgrims walk around, is covered in black cloth with golden stitching with Qur’anic texts – 15 kilos of it! Also in Saudi Arabia, Medina has some of the most classical pieces of Arabic calligraphy.
Today Istanbul in Turkey is the hub of Arabic calligraphy. It’s the place to see it in its highest form. It’s mixed with other art forms such as pottery and tiles. It’s everywhere, especially in famous sites such as Topkapi palace and Blue mosque.
As soon as you talk calligraphy, you talk the same language.
Mr Omer finds he also has a lot in common with calligraphers of other languages. When he sells his works in markets around Melbourne, Japanese and Chinese calligraphers share their stories with them. They find connections in their respective cultures. He also sometimes uses Japanese calligraphy pens and ink.
Arabic calligraphy is a spiritual act that has come to life physically.
While lots of Arabic calligraphers aren’t Muslim, for those who are, it’s impossible to separate their art from their faith. Mr Omer creates religious pieces as well as poetry, quotes and names.
The Qur’an was revealed during the holy month of Ramadan – it’s called the month of the Qur’an. Calligraphers will try to write as much of the Qur’an as possible, dreaming of writing all 30 chapters during the 30 days of Ramadan.
Mr Omer explains:
During Ramadan, the day is for fasting and the night is for prayer. At night, every calligrapher agrees, is when you do your best calligraphy. Writing is a type of prayer. It’s as close as can be to prayer. We see this connection to Allah in our writing, we see the beauty in his nature, his creation, how people react to each other, all aspects of our lives have connections.
For anyone wanting to learn Arabic calligraphy, Mr Omer advises to start by writing the separate letters of the Riqa font. It’s also important to learn how to cut the bamboo pen properly. He runs beginner classes in Melbourne. More serious calligraphers travel to Istanbul to study from the masters.
Omran Omer is a personal trainer and calligrapher. He has been studying Arabic calligraphy since childhood, and under the tutelage of Hasim Selmo since 2017. He travels to Turkey annually to study with Mr Selmo and runs classes at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Follow his journey through his Facebook and Instagram pages, @diwanistudio. Contact him directly for details of his up-coming beginners' calligraphy course.
Written by Sophia Dickinson, Lexigo: Sophia is a writer and communications consultant with 10 years’ experience in public service for both federal and state governments. She has also taught English in France and spent a year working at a local NGO in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She is passionate about writing, intercultural communication and languages (she speaks French, Indonesian and is learning Spanish). Read more about her experiences at sophiadickinson.com.au