The Cultural Weight of Arabic Calligraphy

by Najib Chowdhury
Fall 2021

Arabic calligraphy was born in reverence to writing the Qu’ran but has grown in its life outside the holy text. It exists beyond the page and is found on the domes of mosques, the gates of cities, and even in the carvings of furniture. It is more than just a script: it is a tool of design. In a five-part video series done in partnership with the American University of Beirut’s Center for Arts and Humanities (CAH) and renowned product designer Iyad Naja, the history of Arabic calligraphy and its union with design are explored to showcase its incomparable legacy.

Iyad Naja is a Lebanese multidisciplinary artist who has worked in academic spaces, the marketing industry, and as a product design artist. He is known for his innovative use of Arabic calligraphy in his pieces, making him uniquely positioned to discuss the topic. In the video series, Iyad walks us through the various forms of Arabic calligraphy and their unique cultural histories and demonstrates how calligraphy expresses a desired intention to the audience. His in-depth knowledge shows how Arabic calligraphy is “a form of art and beauty, and more than just a form of legible script, with so much wealth of knowledge that it can’t be settled down into something just to read.” Arabic calligraphy aims to be pleasing to the eye, but it also carries a cultural and historical weight. Its form has evolved from its original state, when it lay solely on the pages of the Qu’ran, and has survived because of its transformations by artisans.

“The idea was to promote arts that are indigenous to the Arab region and culture.” This is how Professor Abdulrahim Abu-Husayn, director of CAH, describes the conception of this video series. Arabic calligraphy continues to be a form of indigenous art that has thrived for over a millennium. CAH, thanks to a grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is working to highlight and preserve the unique art of the Arab community. In a region undergoing radical transformation, sustaining and expanding the commitment to the arts and humanities is more essential than ever. As cultural legacies and traditions are at risk of being eroded, there is a desperate need for spaces and works created in the Arab world.


Kufi script
Kufi script was one of the earliest calligraphic scripts to gain prominence in the late 7th century through the Qu’ran. It was also used to adorn portable works of art.

Thuluth script
In the 10th to 13th centuries, calligraphy artists moved away from straight, angular lines to explore curved and oblique lines. From this evolution came the Thuluth script, which was used heavily in architectural facades during this period.

Nasta’liq script
Nasta’liq is a flowing script originating from Iran and Central Asia during the 14th century and popularized in poetry writings. Unlike other calligraphic scripts, Nasta’liq is not used in architecture, the Qu’ran, or portable works of art. It is predominantly used in writing narratives due to its pleasing, flowing lines.

Diwani script
Designed solely for use by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, Diwani is a calligraphic script that appears on official Ottoman documents and is characterized by legibility and its complexity of lines within the letters.

To watch the CAH video series on Arabic calligraphy, visit AUB’s YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLPZFxeutK7wNTOd_cIw-pkMymvhkhTAzk