Arabic Type is My Type
This article discusses the evolution of Arabic calligraphy to highlight the current state of Arabic typography. It talks about the importance of Arabic language to Muslims, as it is the language of Quran; the holy book sent by God. The appreciation of Muslims of their religion is reflected in the development of Arabic calligraphy; Kufic as well as cursive scripts are highlighted in order to manifest the progression of Arabic calligraphy during the rise of Islam. The light is shed on Latin typography in order to compare its progression with Arabic typography. Lastly, the demand for contemporary typefaces that serve the current contexts, and needs is also discussed in this article.
Calligraphy is among the oldest and most precious arts in Islam. It grew and flourished through different eras during the Islamic civilization. The Arabic writing was in a moderate state before Islam and evolved into astonishing maturity after the rise of Islam. At the time of Quranic revelation, Arabs had a set of well-shaped yet primitive representation of their alphabets. During the rise of Islam, Muslims considered calligraphy as the art of a linear graphic, it restructures ones perception of language. It beautifies the word, and obeys to the geometry of the spirit it is created in. According to Muslims, Arabic calligraphy, combines the bodily and the spiritual through the knowledge of its proportion (Khatibi,A, Sijelmassi, 2001). As the Muslim Arabic scholar, Hassan Bin Al- Haitham (965-1039) states " calligraphy is not beautiful unless its letters are proportionately arranged in their forms, dimensions, positions and order"(George, A. P.109).
The pre Islamic language and script of Arabia can be divided into two main families: Ancient /north arabian (e.g. Taymanic, Dadinitic and Dumaitic) and ancient South Arabian ( Sabaic, Madhabic and Himyaritic) (Macdonald, 2000, P. 29-37). The analysis of their alphabet shapes holds interesting character. The script is organized in three main features: the Ligature; the horizontal line that connects the letters together, the tall letters are slanted to the right while the shorter letters are slanted to the left.
The English school claims that Arabic was originated from the Nabatean script in the /Huran are in Jordan. While the Arab and French historians state that Arabic was derived from the Syriac script from the region of Al Anbar in south of Iraq (Smitshuzen Abifares, 2001), from there to Hira and from Hira to Meccan and Madinah. According to the similarities between Arabic and the Syriac script, it is more likely that the Arabic language was derived from the Syriac and not from the Nabatean script.
The Importance of Arabic calligraphy to Muslims
The Muslim community is based on their shared faith in One Almighty God. His final revelation to mankind, the Qur'an, was sent over 1400 years ago in the Arabic language. Arabic thus serves as an important language among this diverse community of believers. Muslims early on, realized the importance of their language as it unites them with their religion, which eases their understanding of the depth of the Quran. According to Muslims, calligraphy is the face of language and Arabic is the language of Islam. As Khatibi, A., Sijelmassi, M. (2001) stated that glorifying the language of Quran means beautifying the unseen face of Allah.
The state of Arabic writing evolved radically after the rise of Islam, where there was a new political, religious and cultural situation and thus created new needs. According to Islam, the Quran was first memorized by the prophet Muhammad through Jibrael (the angel) sent by God, and from the prophet it was memorized by his companions. By then, the Quran was written on leaves white stones, camel bones, and palm stalks. The letters at the time looked similar to the Syriac writing as it evolved from the Syriac and both the two writings were written on the similar type of materials like stones, which affected the geometric shape of the alphabets.
After the prophet Muhammad's death, there was the danger of losing the Quran in the chests of Muslims, as 450 of them were dead in the battle of Yamama. According to (Ibid. p.47,) After the battle, Abu Bakir sent for Zayd Bin Thabet and said Umar came to me and said " Many Quran reciters were killed at Yamama and I fear that the heavy casualties will cause much of the Quran to be lost. I think that you should collect the Quran". And that was the beginning of the Muslim interest in the writing of the Quran.
The Development of Arabic Calligraphy Through the Early History of Islam
As Muslims started writing the Quran, their attention to the words of God lead them to be innovative not only in the decorative feature of design but also to the structure of their alphabet. Additional characters were added to the Arabic writing to match the needs of writing the words of the Quran more legibly, the first was using the diacritical marks; these signs were not manifested in pre-Islamic inscriptions parsimonious. The second development in writing was the introduction of ta'a (ta'a marbuta)- final ta. The third advancement was the long sound a in the middle of the word. These additions were added to serve the words of the Quran. Hence, the development of the language was still in progress to serve the new function, which is the writing of the Quran. Also calligraphy witnessed a great improvement in the shape of the letters to serve the historical, political and ideological thoughts of the period the text was written in. It was also designed to create high legibility with the highest standards of grid system and structure of the letters for the people living in the time to match the beauty and the greatness of the book of Allah- God.
The first Arabic script was the Meccan and then the Medinian, which were known as the Hejazi writing, then the Basran and Kufan. The difference between the Hejazi and the Kufic script is that the Kufic is more structured while the Hejazi include more individual variables within the same text.
As the script of the earliest Quran evolved, it progressed through age that every script was developed based on the previous text written before where scribes influenced the writing according to their background. The use of geometrical decorations used in the beginning of a new chapter was taken from the Syriac writing before Islam. Furthermore, the Quran included some Christian techniques within the text. According to (George, A. 2010) One implication is that some of the famous scribes in the early decades of Islam were Christians. Another suggestion would be because some of the Muslim scribes were Christian before they were Muslim and this idea would influence the writing of the Quran.
The birth of the Kufic
The birth of the Kufic during the end of the 7th century, created a radical reform in Arabic writing. The mature rules of the script were based on precise definitions and they remained the same throughout its lifespan 11 century, whereas the Hejazi script was changing constantly according to the scribe. It included 17 main Kufic styles, which are based on six broad families. The text box of the Quran during the Kufic writing was laid out with fixed proportions in width and height. It included 11 lines in each page. Each line of text was written based on a base line and 7 interlines within the two base lines. The interline system of kufic does not find a trace in any earlier tradition. It was developed to create systematic proportions to letters. For example, the top of some letters like Waw, fa', Qaf, ha', mim and initial of ain were placed on the third interline. The remarkable characteristics of Kufic script such as, the use of consistent text boxes, the absence of visible rulings and the precise justification of text was not only absent in Hejazi script but also in previous scribal traditions.
During the eleventh century, there was a move from Kufic towards proportional cursive handwriting. As the previous development from Hejazi towards Kufic, the new cursive approach was evolving as a groundbreaking evolution rather than a revolution. It was Ibn Muqla who took the Kufic system and brought it to the cursive style while Ibn Al-Bawwab was the scribe who simplified the script and beautified it.
As (George, A. 2010) states in his book named the rise of Islamic calligraphy, Ibn Muqla (886-940) was the vizir (minister) of the Abbasid caliphs Al-Muqtader. He and his brother Abu Abdallah were famous for their beautiful handwriting. When Abu Hayyan Al-Tawhidi, the author of The Risala fi ilm al-kitabat a source that talks about the story of calligraphy, he said about Ibn Muqla:
"He is a prophet in the field of handwriting. It was poured upon his hand, even as it was revealed to the bees to make their honey-cell hexagonal" (George, A. 2011) .
Ibn Muqla played a great role in setting the rules of Arabic calligraphy. "He codified the six scripts that became the foundation for the practice of calligraphy. Furthermore, he founded a proportional writing system that used a circle with the diameter of the letter Alif as its basis"( Islamic-Arts Team, 2011 ).
The State and Calligraphy
The observer of the relationship between the sate and calligraphy would wonder, does the state have any influence e on the evolution of calligraphy? In the work of the Sunni revival and its impact on the arts, Yasser tabbaa argued that the rise of the new style was related to the endorsements of the seven readings of Ibn Mujahid and Ibn Muqla( George, A. 2010, P. 138): the appearance of cursive calligraphy was part of the reassertion of Sunni orthodoxy by the Abbasid, remarkably the caliph al-Qadir; the Fatimids, in turn developed a distinguishing approach which was marked as a rejection of the current trends. As the Fatimids ideology in their state was to be unique in their approach to their practice of Islam, their philosophy was reflected in their calligraphy.
Brief History of the Evolution of Latin Typography
According to Lupton, E. (2010) throughout the history of Latin typography, there was always a tension between the hand and the machine, the organic and the geometric, the human body and the abstract system. Therefore, in Latin typography, the first typefaces designed were based on handwritten scripts such as Blackletter (which was named after the ink used to be written by). Later fonts, like Bodoni and Didot were designed more towards geometric shapes. At the time, they were considered dehumanized. With the rise of industrialization and mass production/ consumption, there was a need for big, bold typefaces to serve the machine of advertising. Fonts of astonishing heights, width, and depth existed- expanded, shadowed, and fattened. Whereas in books, italics fonts were economical as they were designed to save space on the page.
At the Bauhaus, Herbert Bayer and Josef Albers rejected historical forms and constructed letters based on geometric forms- the circle, square and the triangle. Furthermore, Wim Crouwel, published fonts based on straight lines, rejecting ages of typographic convention. He proposed a design methodology that was systematic.
Arabic Typography Evolution
As Latin typography evolved at the end of the 15th century, Arabic typography was encountered with its progression for political, religious, and technical constraints. The Ottoman Sultan did not allow printing in Arabic as it was considered a threat to their power. The second reason was religious as it was debatable for a long period of time to have the Quran printed rather tan written by hand. Furthermore, some technical problems, like the ligature used in Arabic to connect letters was an additional difficulty to design movable type. The delay of typing in Arabic caused Latin typographers to work with Arabic typography, which lead to legibility problems caused by cultural barriers. According to (Kampman, F. 2011), In 1706, the first printer in the Middle East was found in Aleppo. The first printed books included difficulties in Arabic typography as the fonts designed were assimilating calligraphic writing as Latin type but the outcomes were bad in quality. A lot of designers tried to simplify Arabic type by creating several solutions by limiting ligatures or working with limited ascenders and descenders in order to simplify Arabic type.
Today's Challenge; The need for new typefaces
As the Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun stated, calligraphy can only flourish when a civilization is at the peak of its cultural activities and prosperities (Abi fares, 2001, p. 28). Thus, calligraphy/ typography, like any other form of art/ design is a reflection of its context. The context could be culture, politics, religion and science that could be involved in the evolution of its creation. Therefore, writing in the shape of calligraphy and typography can be affective mostly when it is reflecting the context it is rising from.
The difference between written and spoken language, is that in spoken language, there is the voice of the speaker, personal and idiosyncratic punctuation, regional accent, localized use of phrase, identities of class, gender, age and emotions. Through the rigid structure of typography, a lot of these features are sacrificed, like speed, rhythm, geography and the historical and social context as well as the psychological emotion. Latin typography showed more progress in the field than Arabic Type. There was an effort to design typefaces that reflect emotions, identities while using technology. Multiple examples of Latin type were designed as a reflection of its context or needs. The first example was Blackletter, which was designed, based on the same handwriting used in that era in order to be closer to the voice and style that the people were used to. The invention of this typeface triggered a revolution in typography and printing. It is known that Gutenburg alone printed around 180 copies of the Bible during his life span.
The role in Arabic typography is still primitive to design fonts for a contemporary need. It stopped following the methodological development of the Muslim ancestors in calligraphy and the progression of the great achievement of Latin type. Today, Arabic fonts are created to be adaptable to old historical scripts or Latin typography. They are designed based on an old ideology that match a historical era or a western taste or fashion rather than creating a strong methodology that matches the contemporary use of technology and within a contemporary context to match today's needs. What Ibn Muqla did in his time was considered a revolution in Arabic calligraphy as he set a guideline that calligraphers follow until today to simplify calligraphy. Today, when contemporary Arabic typographers design a typographic poster, they still place the dots and circle that Ibn Muqla has set centuries ago without understanding the history and meaning behind it. It is becoming like a superficial approach to type design to appeal to the greatness of Arabic calligraphy without touching the essence of it.
Categories of Today's Typefaces (Latin Vs. Arabic)
Typography generally can serve to create an identity, a character, emotion, age, gender and even class. As the typographer and graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook designed typefaces of Bastard, Torette, Mason and many others to reflect an ideology or a reflection on society. When talking about Arabic type, not only are we talking about the previous characteristics, but Arabic type can also express the dialect of the country or the culture of a certain region in the Arab and Muslim world. It can manifest a conflict in the Middle East or the Arab World to reflect its own ideology and current state, the same as what the Fatimids tried to portray in the calligraphy during their ruling era. Type was first initiated to express and communicate. Therefore, type design should echo the content and the context in which it is serving. For instance, the Arab world is today witnessing a change in its nature. It is no longer the obedient submissive old man. Youth are the trigger for its political change. The new spirit of challenge and innovative open ideas reflect society and therefore, typographers should apply the same. The Arab/ Muslim context is very different than that of the west through its history, language, culture and political nature. Hence, visual communication should reflect its current situation. Social media and digital applications are creating new needs for new typefaces. The new speed of technology creates a new need for fonts that are simple yet highly legible.
Today, when designers choose a typeface, they consider history, the current connotation as well as the visual qualities (Lupton, 2010, p. 32). Their aim is to find a link between the design of the visual communication and the intended message to serve the audience and the intended function. Part of the contemporary function that type could serve is not only to reflect its own culture but it can also be as wide as adaptive to communicating with other cultures, which leads to bilingual typography. Some Arab type designers like Nadin Shahin, Pascal Zughbi, and Huda Abi Fares worked on Arabizing Latin type like Helvetica Arabic but the problem with adaptation is that Arabic type looks western. And the questions that will rise: does modernizing Arabic type means westernization? Furthermore, how far will the Arabic type adapt to the Latin while still preserving the Arabic characteristics? And is it acceptable for Arab designers to start forming unique Arabic typefaces that has an Eastern origin and start adapting the Latin accordingly? Will the Latin type in that case look more Eastern than the way it looks?
Adapting calligraphy into type design could be an initial stage to develop typography, which occurred in the history of Latin and Arabic typography. However, This may lead to limiting the aesthetics of calligraphy because of the rigidity of typography vs. the fluidity of the brush stroke in calligraphy. It is not enough for Arabic type to be adaptive to its calligraphic origin or the contemporary Latin typography. What Arabic type design need today is to search for a middle ground between Latin and Arabic in order to serve both language rather than serving one in the favor of the other. We need groundbreaking, radical ideas that reflect its context, whether it is designed for documentation, or conceptualization, like in advertising or a social issue that reflects society. Also, it could be constructed based on analytical approach to visualize a piece of information design or even for an expressive method where clarity is not the main concern. Either one of the mentioned approaches, type design and typography should reflect its context and needs. As form follows function, it is vital to consider context and content while designing in order to have an effective function.
Baines, P. , Haslam, A. (2002). Type & Typography: London: Laurence King.
George, A. (2010). The rise of Islamic Calligraphy: The Rise of Islamic Calligraphy. London: Saqi.
Ibid, Ibn Kathir’s Al-Bidaya wa al-Nibaya. Retrived from:
Islamic Art Team, ( 2011). Ibn Muqla- Master Calligrapher. Islamic Art and Architecture. retrived from:
Kampman, F. (2011). Arabic Typography, its past and its future. (BA, Thesis). Retrieved from:
Khatibi, A. , Sijelmassi, M. (2001). The Splendour of Islamic Calligraphy. New York: Thames & Hudson.
Lupton, E. (2004). Thinking With Type: A Critical Guide For Designers, Writers, Editors & Students. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Smitshuizen AbiFares, H. (2001). Arabic Typography: A Comprehensive Book. London: Saqi.
Hejazi Script image: