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20 March 2023

The Diversity of Arabic scripts

We recently had the pleasure of hosting a visit from Dr Borna Izadpanah, Lecturer in Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading, together with his students, to look at some of the incredibly diverse materials in our collections. Here Borna highlights some of the items we looked at which not only provide a source of inspiration but also act as a brief history of the development of Arabic script typography.

1. Typology visit 9 March 2023
Borna Izadpanah, his students and Asian and African Collections staff. Photo credit Hidetaka Yamasaki

My aim in this session was to highlight the stylistic and linguistic diversity in the Arabic script world through a selection of manuscripts and publications from different periods and regions. My notes below aim to summarise significant aspects of individual items contextualising them from a historical and stylistic perspective.

The handwritten script

2. Or.6573 Qur'an 11th-12th century
Qurʼān. Iran or Iraq, 11th or 12th century (Or.6573, ff. 3v-4r)

Starting with manuscripts, the earliest displayed item was Or.6573, an 11th or 12th century Qur’ān written on paper with a commentary in Persian. It demonstrates the effective use of two writing systems to create a dynamic and well-defined text hierarchy. The Qur’anic verses are highlighted in the Qarmatian style of eastern Kufic script, and the more compact Persian commentary is composed in a consistent and – even today a perfectly legible – naskh hand.

3. Beginning of Surat Maryam. Daghestan  19th century
The beginning of Surat Maryam, with the 'mysterious letters' framed on the left-hand page. Qur’ān, Daghistan, ca. 19th century (Or. 16058, ff. 274v-275r)

This 19th-century Daghistani Qur’ān in several different naskh styles represents a creative approach to manuscript production. It displays a remarkable level of artistic impressions using bold and intertwined text compositions and a particular use of colours and ornaments.

4. IO Islamic 383 Majnun Layla copied by Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi
The opening to Majnūn va Laylā by Amir Khusraw. Copied by Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi. Herat? 1506 (IO Islamic 383, ff.1v-2r)

This copy of the well-known romance of Layla and Majnun by the 13th-14th century poet Amir Khusraw contains exquisite illuminations and specimens of nastaʻlīq script by one of its greatest masters, the ‘King of Calligraphers’ (Sulṭān al-Khaṭṭātīn), Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi who worked in Herat and Mashhad in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. This is a luxurious rather than a reading copy which was designed to impress through uncompromising illuminations and outstanding penmanship.

5. Add MS 26139 Rasm al-khatt
A volume containing three works on calligraphy by the early 16th century poet Majnun ibn Mahmud al-Rafiqi. 17th century  (Add MS 26139, ff. 36v-37r)

In this treatise on the rules of the ‘six-pen’ calligraphic styles (aqlām-i shishgānah) and Persian penmanship, a more casual nastaʻlīq hand and minimal decorations produce a good reading copy. The marginal sketches illustrating the writing styles and letterform characteristics are of particular interest.

6. Or.11042 Sabab-i taqviyat
Sabab-i taqviyat al-taḥṣīlva najāt-i tasnīʻ al-vaqt, by Muhammad al-Bulghari. Kazan?, 19th century (Or. 11042)

This 19th-century Chagatai-Persian-Arabic glossary was intended to assist ‘Bulgarian,’ i.e. Tartar, students traveling to Bukhara to learn the arts of rhetoric and translation in Arabic and Persian. It displays a complex text arrangement in those languages composed in a regional flavour of the nastaʻlīq style and demonstrates the effective use of rubrication to distinguish terms in different languages. Also, note that the marginal commentaries are easily identifiable with their diagonal configuration.

7. Risalat hukum kanun  the Malay code of laws. Singapore  1821. Add MS 12397  f. 1v
Risālat hukum kanun, the Malay code of laws. Singapore, 1821 (Add MS 12397, f 1v)

This 19th-century Malay Risalat hukum kanun in the fluid and beautifully composed jawi script represents a fine example of one of Southeast Asia's regional flavours of modified Arabic script.   

Some examples of Arabic script printing

Kitab salat al-sawai title page
Kitāb ṣalāt al-sawā'ī. Fán 1514 (Or.70.aa.11)

We move from written forms of the Arabic script to early printed forms with movable metal type. Exploring exquisite examples of writing styles is helpful to better situate the printed forms in Arabic incunables, beginning with the earliest printed Arabic book with movable metal type Kitab salat al-sawaʼi with its crude and highly irregular characters.

9. T6547 Alphabeticum 1592
Alphabetum Arabicum. Rome, 1592 (T 6547)

A highpoint of 16th-century Arabic type-making is displayed in the publications of the Medici Oriental Press, where the renowned French punchcutter Robert Granjon produced various fonts of Arabic type based on the hand of the Director of the Medici Press, Giovanni Battista Raimondi. Alphabetum Arabic is a specimen of the Medici Press’s Arabic types and a testament to Granjon’s refined skills.

10. 306.46.A.18 Psalmi Davidis regis 1614
Liber psalmorum Davidis Regis. Rome, 1614 (306.46.A.18)

Another highlight of early Arabic type-making in Europe is the Liber psalmorum Davidis regis which uses the somewhat hybrid naskh/thuluth type of François Savary de Brèves. This type and the Arabic types of the Medici Press were later used to print Arabic text in Egypt when the first Arabic presses were established during Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign in 1798–1801.

11. 306.40.A.26. Fables de Loqman 1799
Fables de Loqman surnommé Le Sage. Cairo, 1799 (306.40.A.26)

Fables de Loqman is an example of the latter types used to print Arabic texts in Egypt.

12. Or.80.b.11 Tarih ül-Hind ül-Garbî
Flora and fauna of Hispaniola including mermen and their pearls. Tarih ül-Hind ül-Garbî ül-müsemma bi-Hadis-i Nev, by Mehmet İbn Hasan el-Su'udi. Istanbul, 1730 (Or.80.b.11)

The Tarih ül-Hind ül-Garbî (History of the Western Indies) is one of the most famous publications of the printing press of Ibrahim Müteferrika in Istanbul and contains several interesting woodblock illustrations. Credited as the first Muslim printer, Müteferrika produced an Ottoman naskh type, setting a new standard in Arabic script type-making.

13. 14999.h.2 Cedid atlas tercümesi – 1804
Cedid atlas tercümesi compiled by Mahmud Raif Efendi. Istanbul, 1804 (14999.h.2)

The Cedid atlas tercümesi is a benchmark of Ottoman printing and typography. It is printed with superbly engraved and detailed copperplate maps and the Ottoman naskh type of the Ottoman/Armenian punchcutter Bogos Arabyan. The latter was the most widely used type of the 19th-century Istanbul printing establishments and one of the most successful and well-executed Ottoman naskh types. 

14. ORB.30:445 Hikayat Abdullah SIngapore 1849
Hikayat Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi. Singapore, 1849 (ORB.30/445)

One of the most important chapters in the history of Arabic script printing was the introduction of lithography which allowed the faithful reproduction of written forms. Lithography became the preferred form of printing in several languages, including Malay language in jawi script, of which the Hikayat Abdullah with its chromolithograph illuminations is a fine specimen.

15. ORB.30:8207 Divan-i Mashrab
Divan-i Mashrab. Tashkent, 1900 (ORB.30/8207)

Another lithographic publication on view was the Divan-i Mashrab  in Chagatai, a fine specimen of printing from Central Asia in tightly composed nasta’liq style. Interestingly, the title page of this publication shows European motifs and ornaments resembling letterpress publications, giving a feel of the two printing techniques on the same page. 

16a. ITA.1986.a.1043 Birjan čal mynyn 16b. ITA.1986.a.1602 Qazaq maqaldary
Birjan čal mynyn aqin saraniñ aytusqani. Kazan', 1912 (ITA.1986.a.1043) and Qazaq maqaldary by Meyram Ersay Isqaq Balasy. Kazan', 1914 (ITA.1986.a.1062)

These early 20th-century Central Asian Kazakh and Kyrgyz/Kazakh publications in modified Arabic script with movable type were the most recent items on display. In contrast to the Divan-i Mashrab, these impressions clearly show the transformation of the highly developed written forms to abstracted and simplified formats of mechanical text compositions.  

 Borna Izadpanah, Lecturer in Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading

Further reading

Nemeth, Titus (ed)., Arabic Typography: History and Practice. Salenstein: Niggli, 2022