The typical tools of the trade for a calligrapher included reed and brush pens, scissors, a knife for cutting the pens, an ink pot, and a sharpening tool. The reed pen, writes Safadi (1978), was the preferred pen of Islamic calligraphers. According to Safadi, the reed pen -- called a qalam -- remains an essential tool for a true calligrapher. "The traditional way to hold the pen," writes Safadi, "is with middle finger, forefinger, and thumb well spaced out along the (pen's) shaft. Only the lightest possible pressure is applied."
The most esteemed reeds were native to the coastal lands of the Persian Gulf. Qalams were valued objects and were traded across the entire Muslim world. An accomplished and versatile scribe would require different qalams in order to achieve different degrees of fineness. Franz Rosenthal notes in Abu Haiyan al-Tawhidi on Penmanship (1948) that shaping the reed was one of the significant skills acquired by the scribe: "Make your knife sharper than a razor; do not cut any thing else with it but the calamus (qalam), and take very good care of it. Let your miqatt be the toughest wood available, so that the point may come out evenly."
The standard length of a qalam ranged from 9.5 to 12 inches with a diameter of about a half-inch. David James notes in Sacred and Secular Writings (1988) that these reeds were cut in the marshes and left to lie there for weeks until they had become supple. Then they were gathered, sorted, cut, and trimmed.
Calligraphers had thorough knowledge on how to identify the best cane suitable for a good pen, how to trim the nib and cut the point, and how to split the cane exactly in the center so that the nib had equal halves. A good pen was cherished and, sometimes, was even handed down to another generation. Other times, it was buried with the calligrapher when he died.
Ink was of many colors including black, brown, yellow, red, blue, white, silver, and gold. Black and brown inks were often used, since their intensities and consistencies could vary greatly. Many calligraphers provided instructions on how to prepare ink, while others implied that their recipes were guarded secrets. The ink made by the Persians, Indians, and the Turks would stay fresh for a considerable amount of time. Ink preparation could take several days and involve many complex chemical processes.
David James writes that although techniques varied from one place to another, most inks were based on soot or lamp-black mixed with water and gum-Arabic. Other ingredients are indigo, minced gall-nuts, and henna. The final stage of preparation involved straining the ink through silk. Also, the ink might be perfumed if desired.
Welch (1979) adds that the instruments of writing figure among the very first divine creations and came to serve as ready similes for mortal lives. With its power to preserve knowledge and extend thought over time and space, ink was compared to the water of life that gives immortality, while human beings were likened to so many pens in Allah's hand.
Paper was introduced in 751 from China via Samarqand. That was a turning point in the art of writing. Paper would play a major role in countless subsequent inventions and would reform Arabic calligraphy. This new medium of written communication had a decisive impact on every aspect of Islamic civilization.
Paper was made from cotton, and sometimes from silk or other fibers, but not from wood pulp. The paper was polished with a smooth stone like agate or jade before the calligrapher began to write. Guide lines were inscribed with a point. The script stood on these barely visible lines or sometimes was suspended from them.
When calligraphers developed the idea of independent or original compositions, each one had to be worked out from scratch. Once devised, a calligraphic composition might be copied time and time again by masters in places as far apart as India and Istanbul. As in most of the traditional arts, less emphasis was placed on innovation than on emulation of the great masters -- both contemporary and past masters. Nevertheless, some of the masters were outstanding innovators.