An Introduction to Persian Calligraphy

An Introduction to Persian Calligraphy

On our blog this week we have invited Keramat Fathinia, a practising calligrapher, to give us a brief introduction to Persian calligraphy and its history. Born in Iran, Keramat has been teaching calligraphy for over 17 years and has received a distinguished certificate in both Nasta’liq and Shekasteh Nasta’liq styles from the Iranian Calligraphers Association (ICA) in Iran. He has had several exhibitions, workshops, and demonstrations in both Iran and the UK, including at SOAS, Cambridge University, the British Institute of Persian Studies, and the Courtauld Gallery. Most recently he has been teaching an online course in Persian calligraphy with the Iran Heritage Foundation, which we hope to run again for its 5th term in the autumn of 2021.

Calligraphy, the art of writing, is a distinctive feature of Islamic civilization and its history goes back as far as the 7th century CE. The Arabic language and its script, as the means of preservation for the Qur‘an, have always carried great significance in Islamic culture, and so very early on this script developed from a practical means of writing into a highly refined form of art. In Islam, where the depiction of humans and animals is often avoided, the importance of calligraphy as a form of art was emphasized even further, and a great effort was put into the decoration and proportions of individual scripts to make them worthy of preserving the word of God. Calligraphy was used to decorate the walls and façades of buildings, as well as objects made in various media, such as coins, where it was the main—even the only—element of decoration. That distinctive relationship between calligraphy and the Arabic script survives to this day, even as the script has travelled and been adopted by various languages, such as Persian. Over this long and geographically broad history many styles have flourished, each with their own contexts, rules and characteristics which have ultimately influenced the way people in Iran and across the Islamic world still write today. What follows is a brief overview of some of these styles and the figures associated with them, and especially those associated with Persian.

Kufic

Kufic/كوفي as the earliest known calligraphic style, was the highest form of liturgical script and is therefore intimately associated with the transcription of the Qu’ran. Styles of calligraphy are often subdivided into two categories: rectilinear and curvilinear. Rectilinear scripts are angular with straight movements and rigid flat descending strokes below the line; curvilinear scripts are rounded and characterised by the curvature and softness of their strokes—as you can see in the image below, Kufic in its earliest forms is clearly recognisable as a rectilinear script. As Islam spread and took with it the Arabic script, however, we begin to see new more rounded styles of Kufic emerging with various names such as ‘New Style’, ‘Eastern Kufic’, ‘Persian/Iranian Kufic’, and ‘Western/Maghribi Kufic’ each according to the geographical boundaries of the Islamic lands in which the manuscripts were transcribed.

Early Kufic script from the 8th or 9th century (Surah 48: 27–28) Qur'an

The Six pens of Abū ibn Muqla Bayzavi Shirāzi

One of the most significant developments from these later round scripts are the so-called six styles, or pens, (aqlām al-sittah/الأقلام السته) invented by the Persian calligrapher Abū ‘Ali ibn Muqla Bayzavi Shirāzi (886-940) which were widely used all over the Islamic lands. These ‘pens’, muaqqaq/ محقَّق, rayan/ ریحان, thuluth/ ثُلُث, naskh/ نسخ, riqā’/ رقاع, and tawqi’/ توقيع, despite their general similarities, each have their own principles and can be differentiated from one another by the proportion of flat and round movements in their forms.

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Six pens (all reading bismillah/ بسم الله‎)

While rayan is a rectilinear script it bears many resemblances to the curvilinear naskh; the most distinguishing feature is in the ‘tail’ of the ra/ ر, waw/ و, mim/ م, ya/ ی, and other descending letters the gentle curve of which in rayan contrasts with the upward hook-shaped endings in naskh. Rayan is the smaller counterpart of muaqqaq, in which unconnected letters are kept rigidly separate and so this script was grouped as ‘derived’ (far’/ فرع) as opposed to ‘principle’ (aṣl/ اصل) by Mamluk authors and practitioners. Thuluth is the plumpest and most rounded script of the six pens with svelte curves. Riqā’, also the smaller counterpart of tawqi’, is said to have originated from thuluth due to its joined unconnected letters (raر and wawو for example, run over or touch the following letter).

The beauty of the writing of ibn Muqla was praised by several contemporary admirers during the 10th century. He was the vizier of the Abbasid court and he has even been called a prophet in the field of calligraphy for the fundamental role he played in laying down a comprehensive system of basic rules. These rules derive from the concept of a square-shaped/rhombic dot drawn by whichever pen a calligrapher is using.

Letters alif (ا) and ain (ع) measured by the proportional system based on dots
The measurement of letter nun (ن) in nasta‘liq style

As this dot or nuqta/ نقطة‎ becomes the measurement unit for sizing all calligraphic forms, including the connecting strokes between characters, all forms are kept in proportion with the width of the line. There are several aphorisms about ibn Muqla’s writing the most famous of which is perhaps: ‘writing was poured upon his hand as if it was revealed to the bees making their hexagonal honey cells.’

A century and a half later, ibn Bawwāb (d. 1020) made further refinements to the calligraphic rules, but elegant cursive writing reached perfection under Yāqut al-Musta‘simi (d. 1298), who served the last ‘Abbasid caliph and earned his epithet, yāqut/ یاقوت—meaning ‘ruby’, from the caliph al-Musta‘sim billah. He was the most important calligrapher of his time and became a cult personality, who developed the rules for the six pens and canonized them to become the main scripts in Iraq and Iran.

Yaqut al-Musta‘simi, muḥaqqaq, National Library of Iran

The Hanging Scripts of Iran

The influences of various Persian genres such as lyric poetry during the Mongol rulers of the 13th century led to the development of two new and distinctive hanging scripts: ta‘liq تعلیق (meaning suspension or hanging) attributed to Taj al-Din Salmāni, and nasta‘liq/ نستعلیق‎ attributed to Mir ‘Ali Tabrizi. These scripts existed and had evolved much earlier over a long period of time but were standardized and refined in the hands of these distinguished calligraphers. They spread to Turkey and the Indian subcontinent, where they became the model for a local variety used for Persian manuscripts in India, and for both Persian and Turkish in Turkey, but they never became popular in the Arab countries of the region, and thus were rarely used for writing Arabic texts.

For several centuries, since the Mongol period and particularly after the 15th century, ta‘liq and also shekasteh (broken) ta‘liq/ شکسته تعلیق—in the format of widely spaced lines ascending from right to left in a curved shape—were the main chancery scripts typically used for decrees (firmans/ فرمان), letters of recommendation (ziyaratnāmeh/ زیارت‌نامه), permissions, diplomatic correspondence, and other official documents in Iran and Turkey. Aqqoyunlu scribes took ta‘liq to Istanbul from western Iran where it was transformed into divāni/ دیوانی by Ottoman calligraphers. Khaje Ekhtiar Munshi is the most renowned scribe of this pen from the Safavid era and is still well-known today.

Khaje Ekhtiar Munshi, Safavid era, ta‘liq script

Since its birth, nasta‘liq has been the literary script for transcribing manuscripts, and it is the national script of present-day Iran. Although it was first claimed that nasta‘liq was a combination of naskh and ta‘liq, according to extant documents and studies, it has now been proved that nasta‘liq originated from naskh only. The fluidity of nasta‘liq was seen as particularly suitable for the writing of ghazals/ غزل, a genre of Persian poetry dealing with love and romantic subjects. The invention, or at least the standardization of nasta‘liq, was credited to Mir ‘Ali ibn Hassan al-sultani Tabrizi, who died around 1415. Then, Sultan ‘Ali Mashhadi, who was active in Herat at the Timurid court between 1453-1520 gave a disciplined and classical form to this script.

Some have argued that the hanging styles that we associate with Iran bear similarities to the Avestan and Pahlavi (Middle Persian) scripts. It may well be that when Persian communities first adopted the Arabic writing system, some stylistic features of their old writing systems survived and were incorporated into this new script, helping to form the distinctive Persian styles of calligraphy we know today, but so far this theory remains hypothetical.

Avestan script, Yasna 28.1, Ahunavaiti Gatha, Bodleian Library

Persian Calligraphy from the Safavid empire to the Qajar Dynasty​

The Safavid empire was an important period for art, including calligraphy, as many significant calligraphers appeared and many artistic works were produced during this time. It is the reign of Shah ‘Abbas, which has come to be considered the most productive period for these arts compared to his successors. The calligrapher Ahmad Neyrizi regularized and transformed the naskh script into a fine calligraphic style, which is still known as the Iranian style of this script and is used extensively for the copying of religious texts including the Quran. His style has since been used by other distinguished calligraphers such as Visal-i Shirāzi (Muhammad Shafi) during the Qajar period and to this day.

Ahmad Neyrizi (left) and Visal Shirazi (right)

Other prominent calligraphers of the Safavid era, who refined nasta‘liq script are Mir Ali Heravi (1476-1544), who penned many chalipā qata‘āt/ قطعات چلیپا (quatrain pieces) and manuscripts, and designed architectural inscriptions; Shah Mahmud Nishapuri (active between 1520s and 1540s in Tabriz); MirImād (1554-1615), a prolific artist and the most important calligrapher of his time and the chief rival to Ali Riza Abbasi (1565-1635), who was a renowned master-painter of Safavid miniatures and also a master calligrapher. Ali Riza’s artistic activities were similar to Mir ‘Ali Heravi and included the inscription designs in thuluth script on the mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah (1603-17), the Shah Mosque (1616-17) in Isfahan, and on the gate of the Ganj ‘Ali Khan complex (1559) in Kerman, Iran.

Thuluth inscription, ‘Ali Riza ‘Abbasi, Sheikh Lutfullah Mosque, Isfahan
Thuluth inscription, ‘Ali Riza ‘Abbasi, Ganj ‘Ali Khan complex in Kerman

One of the most influential calligraphers of the 19th century in the style of nasta‘liq was Kalhor, who tried to write the words based on a smaller dot size than the full size dot (nuqta-ye shesh dangi) previously used. Therefore, the strokes and connectors became shortened, leading to condensed structures and calligraphic compositions. Although this method significantly influenced contemporary practitioners and became the prevailing method of practice to date, in recent years, some calligraphers have reassessed Kalhor’s Qajar predecessors such as Mirza Qulamreza Isfahani, Mir Hussain Khushnevisbash. These two artists are known for their unique style in siyah-mashq format and it is believed that this genre of calligraphy (which was introduced by Mir Imad in the Safavid period) reached its apogee in their works.

The need to write faster in the 17th century forced calligraphers to streamline and adapt nasta‘liq to suite this purpose, just as ta‘liq had already been adapted, transforming it into shekasteh-ye ta‘liq. Consequently a new script, shekasteh-ye nasta‘liq/ شکسته نستعلیق (broken nasta‘liq) was developed, in which the forms become recumbent, denser and more connected, often executed with a single stroke. It is at the same time more challenging to read. Muhammad Shafi‘ (Shafi‘ā) and Murtada-quli Khan Shamlu were two pioneers of this style during the 17th century, but it reached its perfection in the 18th century in the hands of the genius artist, Darvish Abd al-Majid Taliqani, who died at the age of 35 in 1771. Almost a century later, Sayyid ‘Ali Akbar Golestaneh, born in Isfahan in 1858 produced many albums and calligraphic pieces (qata‘āt). His method is current among the contemporary practitioners and they still refer to his works together with Darvish’s oeuvre as authentic sources

Darvish ‘Abd al-Majid Taliqani
Sayyid ‘Ali Akbar Golestaneh

Calligraphy and Handwriting in Iran Today

Generally, these scripts invented, developed and refined by calligraphers over the centuries have also inspired normal handwriting in Islamic countries. The educational system in every country may follow a different approach in the writing of school books, not always fully adhering to calligraphic styles and sometimes using a combination of one or two scripts to facilitate reading and understanding. Traditionally in Iranian books, the kitābi/ کتابی style was used, itself inspired by naskh scripts. However, in recent years the hanging script of nasta‘liq has begun to replace it in student textbooks and accordingly these days people are more familiar with this script. While everyday handwriting does not always follow these trends, and a personal preference or approach is what we see in the handwriting of ordinary people these days, Iranians who have learned nasta‘liq techniques in private institutions, as many have, often try to follow the fundamental principles of this style and particularly shikasti-nasta‘liq as a faster alternative in their daily handwriting—so, an acquaintance with these various calligraphic styles is not just a historical curiosity, but is important for any student of Persian who wants to read Persian well.

 

Keramat Fathinia

edited Leonard Gethin

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