Hayley Segall: Calligraphy and Arabesque in Islamic Art

Islamic art and its characteristics, while variant depending on the context and space in which they were created, are highly metaphorical by nature. Art produced by Muslim Persians, Arabs, Indians and others have cultivated techniques deeply engrained in both Islamic tenets and scientific concepts resulting in the formation of a unique genre. With careful attention to detail, texture, shading, and coloring, Islamic art seeks to create complex yet attainable relationships with the mundane and the divine. In every piece of Islamic art, whether it is the architecture of a mosque, the stokes of a miniature painting, or the construction of a Persian carpet, certain characteristics permeate. Calligraphy and arabesque are two clear examples of foundational elements that intermingle to create classical and more contemporary productions of Islamic art.

Calligraphy is a signature and highly perfected feature of Islamic art.  Used to express both the word of God and secularized Islamic poetry, calligraphy, or the art of penmanship, is arguably the most sacred technique within the genre. According to Prophetic tradition, the pen was God’s first creation, for the purpose of codifying the divine revelations[1]. The first revelation of the Quran declares God as the One “who taught by the pen- taught man that which he knew not”[2]. Therefore, calligraphy is often used to create an accepted image of God, Muhammad, and Quranic verses. Yet, it is impossible to isolate calligraphy from the arabesque style, which often determines its expression in art. In order to understand the vast and essential incorporation of calligraphy in Islamic art, one must first understand the significance of its content, and then consider how it is constructed.

The inherent religious implications of calligraphy as the product of God’s first creation, the pen, transforms what is often seen as a humanly mundane activity into a tool for connecting with the divine. As discussed in class, it is against Islamic code to depict Muhammad or God in human form, which would be perceived as idolatry[3]. Therefore, calligraphy is used to imagine an image of the worshipped through teachings and sayings, rather than physical or metaphysical composition. Pious calligraphy is core to the design and detail of Mosques around the world, as observed in the images shown in Professor Mahallati’s lecture[4]. Additionally, as observed in pages of the Quran on display in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, calligraphy adds a component of beautification in the articulation of Quranic verses. Thus, the artist has an opportunity to attempt to communicate the overwhelming awesomeness of the revelations to humankind through illustration. Because of the fundamental character of calligraphy in expressing divine literature is highly sanctified in its creation, there are certain norms and expectations of artists when they create pieces of calligraphy. These norms become especially important when creating pieces that attempt to express the whole Quran, an endeavor pursued at the climax of an artist’s career[5]. Considering the manifestation of calligraphy in the Quran and the Quran as a painting  itself, calligraphers become a type of mediator between the divine and the mundane. There is an integral creative rawness and purity in the fundamental construction of the Qur’anic text itself; such texts become a style of art that devotees spend their lives worshipping and attempting to connect with. In this sense, calligraphers and artists express the art of Quranic text in an accessible way: equally aesthetically pleasing and clear in its dissemination of revelation. This element of connecting the mundane and divine appears throughout the many styles of Islamic art, including in the architecture of mosques in which the design of the space is separated into to three levels of existence: the mundane, the angelic, and the divine[6]. Recognition of the divide is essential in Islam, yet it seems to be equally important for Muslims to reconcile these separations through means of prayer and artistic expression alike.

The use of calligraphy to express both religious and secular Islamic texts and poetry relies largely on the arabesque technique. Arabesque is defined as “ornamental work used for flat surfaces consisting of interlacing geometrical patterns of polygons, circles, and interlocked lines and curves”[7].  The technique is comprised of two methods: geometry and interlacement. Both notions nod to the continuing fascination and incorporation of science and mathematics in design. Yet, these mathematical concepts are hardly quantitative in their effect; such components help construct abstract visuals of the natural world and divine cosmos. Arabesque as a whole serves as a mechanism for breathing life into the calligraphy and designs created in Islamic art. This concept combines a unique meshing of abstract creation and mathematical structure to bring richness and complexity to religious and secular depictions.

Within the context of calligraphy, arabesque manifests in many regional Islamic forms such as Arab/Persian Naskh and the Persian Nastaliq[8]. Arabesque also offers another tactic for expressing the holiness of faith-related calligraphy; as Professor Mahallati discussed, arabesque helps materialize the “luxuriance” of the Arabic language, the holy language of the Quran[9]. Yet, arabesque serves substantive purpose beyond its aesthetic richness: “The patterns of calligraphy, the distended, arched, or rounded letters endlessly reproducing themselves in a harmonious … are symbolic of the order of nature which in always changing is always repeating itself”[10].  The repetitious interlacement and geometry within calligraphy (two concepts fundamental to arabesque) intertwine simplicity of design, the mundane aspect, and complex content, the divine aspect. The infinite seeming calligraphy and shapes emulate the vastness and intangible nature of the cosmos and the divine. Further, the unlimited structure of such patterns references ideals of benevolence and bounty, concepts central to Islamic tenets[11]. Perhaps it is best to understand arabesque as a never-ending composition, where each curve serves as a rhythmed-note accenting the piece: “The arabesque is a sort of dialectic of ornament, in which logic is allied to a living continuity of rhythm”[12]. These continuous rhythms may be viewed in contexts as formal as the mosaics within a mosque, or as informal as Persian rugs found in palaces and homes[13].

The techniques within Islamic Art are deeply interdependent and therefore inseparable by nature. Without calligraphy, the elevation of poetry and the ability to express the divine would be lost. Further, arabesque proves essential to the detailing of calligraphy, in addition to all forms of Islamic artistic manifestation. Every tool and structure utilized functions as both an abstract vision of the natural and divine as well as a mathematical model that transforms shapes and words into a calculated, infinite rhythm. Islamic styling is truly an art of story-telling: from folklores to scientific phenomenon to Quranic revelations. Yet, all of these stories share common characteristics that embed poetry, abstract design, and infinite patterns, binding together to form Islamic art.



[1] Annemarie Schimmel. “Calligraphy and Mysticism”, in Calligraphy and Islamic Culture (New York: New York University Press, 1987) pg 79.

[2] Jafar Mahallati. Islamic Calligraphy. Taken from The Quran. Lecture. 13 November 2017. Q:96-1-5.

[3] Jafar Mahallti. Islamic Calligraphy. Lecture. 13 November 2017.

[4] Jafar Mahallati. Visual Art and Architecture. 15 November 2017.

[5] Jafar Mahallati. Islamic Calligraphy. Lecture. 13 November 2017.

[6] Jafar Mahallati. Visual Art and Architecture. 15 November 2017.

[7] Rabah Soud, “Introduction to Islamic Art”, taken from Chambers Science and Technology Dictionary. Muslim Heritage, 2004.

[8] Jafar Mahallati. Islamic Calligraphy. Lecture. 13 November 2017.

[9] Jafar Mahallati. Islamic Calligraphy. Lecture. 13 November 2017.

[10] Jean Sulzberger. “Some Notes on Arab Calligraphy”, in The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition, e.d. William Chittick. Parabola Anthology Series, 80.

[11] Jafar Mahallati. Islamic Calligraphy. Lecture. 13 November 2017.

[12] Titus Burkhardt. The Spirituality of Islamic Art. pg 518.

[13] As observed in the collections in the Allen Memorial Art Museum (Persian Rug gifted from Qajar Shah to French Empress and Persian Mosaics).