Adam Jussila: Calligraphy: The Art of Andalusia and Maghreb

For the Islamic people, calligraphy is more than a means of communication. It is an art form, a way to connect with and honor the divine, which has been widely practiced for over a thousand years. The first words that the angel Gabriel said to the prophet Muhammad were, “Recite: In the name of thy Lord… Who taught by the pen… “(Qur’an, 96:1-4). Quotations like this one highlight the importance of reading and writing within Islamic culture. In addition, God’s choice of Arabic as his language of communication bestowed upon it a measure of sacredness to the Muslim people.[i] It is unsurprising that in light of this, early Muslims took up the practice of creating art from their holy language in the name of their Lord. Early Arabic calligraphy was largely focused on copying the Qur’an, which was considered a sacred and important practice, though calligraphy was also frequently used when writing the poetry that Muslim people are so well known for to this day.[ii] From its conception, calligraphy has been a way for the people who write it to express themselves spiritually and artistically, leading to wide diversity in scripts across the Muslim world from India to Spain. The early Kufic script, which spread widely across the Muslim world, gave birth to more varied offshoots including the Maghrebi and al-Andalusi scripts of North Africa and Spain. On the Iberian Peninsula, Arabic calligraphy found its way into the everyday life of the Muslim people as it did across the entire Muslim world, but it even sustained a lingering presence after the fall of the Umayyad rule. It took a new shape in Spanish calligraphy, both Arabic and non-Arabic scripts, and many other facets of their art, such as the Mudéjar ornamentation, that persist today.[iii]

Calligraphy has existed in the Nabatean and Syriac scripts well before the Muslims adopted it, though Arabic calligraphy itself was born in the late 7th century in Kufa, Iran.[iv] There is much debate about its exact origins, though it seems most likely that it was adapted from the Syriac script due to the tendency for Kufic script to be shorter and wider. One such example is the North African “Blue Qur’an,” created in the 9th or 10th century. It displays the precise and elongated Kufic style, with minimal curves. One can see the extreme lengths that the artist went through in order to make this a work of art and not just a simple piece of writing. Initially, this script was primarily for religious purposes, often creating works of art that families would save as prized possessions. For the first few centuries that it was used, this was true, though as other scripts emerged, there were exceptions. The Kufic script is characterized by straight, thick lines and hard angles, which are not often found in present day calligraphy to the same degree. Some think this was done in order give the impression of an invisible barrier around the page.[v] Kufic script is unique in the way that it is relatively well contained, not extending into the sublinear space (the space below the line) as much as later scripts, and being much wider than it is tall. In addition, the diacritics (small symbols that modify a character) above letters are often done in color, which is not commonly done in other calligraphic scripts. The colors used and their placements vary slightly by region.[vi] Separately from the early Kufic script, there emerged the flowing Naskhi script, which was not used exclusively for religious purposes in the same way that the Kufic script often was. This script was more decorative. Initially, however, the Kufic script was widely used, extending into North Africa and spreading with the Umayyad rulers into Spain. The Kufic script was used for many centuries in these regions, and thus it is unsurprising that Western Muslims were the only people to create a cursive script directly originating from the original Kufic (perhaps in part because of their separation from the rest of the Islamic world).

While the eastern half of the Islamic world moved towards scripts such as the Naskhi mentioned above, North Africa and Spain actually maintained use of the Kufic script much longer than many other regions- well into the 11th century. The Kufic script of North Africa and Spain was known for the way in which it began to use the curves and circles characteristic of later cursive scripts like Maghribi. The western Kufic appears to be something of an intermediary between the Maghribi, named after the region in which it was created, and the early Kufic. Because of this, the distinction between them is very small and often hard to notice. It is these intermediate scripts that give a beautiful bridge between one region’s calligraphy and another, often showing a nearly step-by-step transformation over the period of a century or two. An interesting example of this is shown in the Qur’an Manuscript from the early 10th century belonging to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.[vii] Immediately, this work stands out due to its swooping curves and lettering that are nearly as tall as they are wide. Simultaneously, there are elements in it that are very characteristic of Kufic works such as the way that some of the letters are very elongated horizontally, and red dots are used as diacritics. There are hundreds of beautiful works like this that illustrate this transition phase of Western Muslims into their own unique scripts.

Maghribi script and al-Andalusi script (which is debatably an offshoot of Maghribi script) were the two major scripts used in Spain and North Africa after the 11th century saw the decline in use of Kufic scripts. The Maghribi script became commonly used throughout Spain and North Africa around the 10th century, coming into popularity very quickly. This was likely due to the fact that local lords and rulers would write laws and important messages in it, making it something of a standard script within the Andalusia and Maghreb regions.[viii] Unlike many of the other more regional scripts of Western Islam, many manuscripts and works of art have been preserved from Maghreb, most likely due to the fact that they didn’t experience the same forced conversion that Spain did in the 15th and 16th centuries. One beautiful example of this can be found in a North African Qur’an manuscript from the late fifteenth century in which one can see the distinctive swooping curves of this script (in Sura 27:1-5).[ix] As they descend into the sublinear space, some characters nearly touch subsequent characters, giving the impression of a natural flow to the words. This seems to take the emphasis away from the individual letters, making the manuscript appear as a beautiful progression from one word to the next. The words are written with a thinner pen than in many Kufic scripts, seemingly losing the harsh, horizontal lines and exaggerated elongations of previous centuries’ calligraphy. Also, we see again the colored diacritics, though they are delicately drawn, giving the impression of precise movements. Lastly, the page is decorated with gold patterning and minimal ornamentation, though it is deceiving in its simplicity. When the viewer looks closer, the exquisite intricacies become apparent, showing the care and importance placed upon creation and replication of these holy texts.

When comparing specifics of the technique in the drawing of individual characters, the Maghribi script has a few primary differences to note. A few such differences are that the final alif is drawn from top to bottom, and that the alif, lām, lām-alif and tā/zā characters have a small cleft along their top left point. These are just a couple of specific differences that close examination of manuscripts and Qur’ans from these regions can reveal.[x] Within Maghribi scripts, there were variants such as Thuluth and Qurdobi which each had their own small changes to the structure of each character. As time progressed, so did the scripts, though the Maghribi script never completely lost its standing in the Western Islamic tradition. It is sometimes still used today. When the Islamic empires in the West fell to Christian rulers, the Muslims were slowly forced to convert and to abandon their religious traditions, including calligraphy to a large degree. Unsurprisingly, there was resistance among Spanish Muslims, leading to the rise of a group known as Moriscos.

Moriscos were Muslims who were forced to convert to Christianity. As one would expect, when practice of their religion was outlawed, they took to the shadows, still maintaining their faith in private. This practice led to the creation of Qur’anic manuscripts in a new, never before seen style called aljámiado. This word is derived from the word ajamiyah, the practice of using the Arabic alphabet to transcribe romance languages. Through use of calligraphic Arabic translations of the Qur’an, small groups of Moriscos were able to preserve the art of the Islamic tradition in Spain during the Christian rule. Unfortunately, there are very few surviving examples of this type of calligraphy. This is likely because the government destroyed any copies that were found, rejecting any non-Christian beliefs. There are a couple of famous example, which survived, though they are often anonymously authored in order to protect the identity of the author. If they were caught copying the Qur’an, they would likely be imprisoned or killed. As the Moriscos were gradually forced out of Spain, their culture and religion banished from their homes, there lingered traces of the calligraphy and art that the Islamic world as a whole is so well known for. Situations such that of the Moriscos in Spain are a testament to the artistic and creative genius of calligraphy, as it persists in the face of a regime that rejects almost every other idea and belief that the Muslim culture has to offer. An additional example of this type of artistic persistence appears in Spanish architecture. The Mudejar style, which is still very popular today, uses highly patterned designs, often interwoven with Qur’anic verses and poetry in calligraphy. In addition, in the 16th century other cultures began to develop their own calligraphies, and, unsurprisingly, the Spaniards were inspired and probably even directly influenced in some instances by the beautiful, elegant script of the Muslim people.[xi]

The Islamic calligraphy is described as having a “gallardia,” or a certain stylistic elegance, by Spaniards.[xii] This was a word often used to describe dramatic, elaborately ornamented signatures in Spanish calligraphy. The close proximity of the two cultures allowed for intermingling between the Spanish calligraphy and the Islamic calligraphy, most noticeable when looking at the dramatic loops and swoops of the pen, with their words dropping well into the sublinear space, much like the maghribi script does. The constraints of the alphabet obviously make the comparison difficult, as the diacritic marks are nonexistent in the Spanish alphabet, but there is a certain elegance that seems likely to have been inspired by the Muslim people. In addition, both cultures found writing to be highly important, and therefore it would make sense that they both maintained an interest in calligraphic style.[xiii] In fact, the Moorish people were so well known for their paper production that it was said that at times, it was easier for one to get paper than food.[xiv]

The calligraphy of North Africa and Spain is closely tied to the people who lived in those areas at any given time. It tells the story of the Muslim people, and often gives insights into people who are not of Muslim origins as well. Arabic calligraphy started as a means to honor God through writing, but as it spread, it morphed into one of the main forms of art for the Islamic people. Spreading into Africa and Spain, it took on a new style, which still exists today. After centuries of coexistence with the Christians, the Muslims left their marks on the Spanish, and their calligraphy was certainly no exception from this. No matter where it spread, the flowing Arabic scripts captured people’s attentions and maintained them. This is true throughout the entire Maghreb, Andalusia, and well beyond. It is not even contained to a single language; the idea of aljamiado is actually something that appears in literature of many cultures, though under a different name. Examples of it are seen in Hebrew and Spanish writings in Arabic letters, among others.[xv] This calligraphic influence appears to be almost universal, seen across the Muslim world, and also seen seeping into the lives of the Islamic borderlands throughout the centuries. After all, it would not make sense that calligraphy only adapted within the Muslim culture and Muslim tradition. Just like the Muslims built off of the idea of even earlier scripts, cultures today will continue to take the best ideas of previous generations, whether it is in art, music, literature, or religion, and try to perfect and perpetuate them.

[i] Dodds, Jerrilynn Denise, N.Y., Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, and Patronato de la Alhambra. Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. Pg 115-20.

[ii] Mahallati, Jafar: Lecture Note 10/26. Edited by Adam Jussila.

[iii] Doyle, Gerald P., Beaumont Art Museum, and San Jacinto Museum of History. Calligraphy on the Spanish Borderlands: An Exhibition Organized by the Beaumont Art Museum and made Possible through the Generous Assistance of the Mobil Foundation, Inc., and the Texas Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal Agency, Beaumont Art Museum, January 9-February 15, 1976, San Jacinto Museum of History, March 2-April 30, 1976. Beaumont, Tex: The Museum, 1976. 22-23.

[iv] Roxburgh, David J., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Asia Society. Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur’An. Houston; London; New Haven: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2007. 7.

[v] IBID 14.


[vii] Dodds, Jerrilynn Denise, N.Y.), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, and Patronato de la Alhambra. Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. Pg 122.

[viii] N. van den Boogert. “Some Notes on Maghribi Script.” (1992): 7-11.

[ix] Blair, Sheila. Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. Pg 398.

[x] N. van den Boogert. “Some Notes on Maghribi Script.” (1992): 1-5.

[xi] Doyle, Gerald P.,Calligraphy on the Spanish Borderlands: An Exhibition Organized by the Beaumont Art Museum. 20-22.

[xii] Yeandle, Laetitia. The American Archivist 41, no. 1 (1978): 54-55.

[xiii] Doyle, Gerald P.,Calligraphy on the Spanish Borderlands: An Exhibition Organized by the Beaumont Art Museum. 21.

[xiv] Menocal, María Rosa, Raymond P. Scheindlin, and Michael Sells. The Literature of Al-Andalus. Cambridge University Press, 2006. 55-59.

[xv] IBID