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The Alif as calligraphy's unit of proportion

Geometric principles play an essential role in Arabic calligraphy. As Khatibi and Sijelmassi write in The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy, the legibility of a text and the beauty of its line require rules of proportion.

These rules of proportion are based upon the size of the alif. The first letter of the Arabic alphabet, the alif is, in essence, a straight, vertical stroke. Before we look further at the alif, we must consider the Arabic dot which is the unit of measurement in calligraphy. Khatibi and Sijelmassi refer to the dot as the calligrapher's working unit.

The dot is a square impression formed by pressing the tip of the calligrapher's pen to paper. The dimensions of each side of the square dot, write Khatibi and Sijelmassi, depend on the way the pen has been cut and on the pressure exerted by the fingers. Khatibi and Sijelmassi state that the pressure had to be sufficiently delicate and precise to separate the two sides of the nib, or point, of the pen.

The calligrapher's reed pen, known as a tomar, consisted of 24 hairs of a donkey. How the pen was cut depended upon considerations like the calligrapher's usage, the traditions of his native land, and the type of text being transcribed.

Depending on the calligrapher and the style of script, the height of the alif varied from three to 12 dots. The width of the alif was equivalent to one dot. "The important thing," write Khatibi and Sijelmassi, "was to establish the height for each text. Once the calligrapher had his alif odule, he would draw it in the same way throughout the text. This was the general geometric principle, although in practice the calligrapher introduced variations. The arrangement of these variations is of great interest."

The alif also was used as the diameter of an imaginary circle within which all Arabic letters could be written. Thus, three elements -- that were chosen by the calligrapher -- became the basis of proportion. These elements were the height of the alif, the width of the alif, and the imaginary circle.

In Naskh script, for example, the alif is five dots high. In Thuluth script, the alif is nine dots high with a crochet or hook of three dots at the top. A single character, which is the fundamental element in calligraphic writing, has a head, body and tail. The characters of calligraphic script also are interrelated with relationships of position, direction and interval. An interplay of curves and uprights, write Khatibi and Sijelmassi, articulate the words, vowels and points.

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