The Origins of Arabic Calligraphy
According to contemporary studies, Arabic writing is a member of the Semitic alphabetical scripts in which mainly the consonants are represented. Arabic script was developed in a comparatively brief span of time. Arabic became a frequently used alphabet--and, today, it is second in use only to the Roman alphabet.
The early Arabs were basically a nomadic people. Their lives were hard before Islam, but their culture was prolific in terms of writing and poetry. Long before they were gathered into the Islamic fold, the nomadic Arabs acknowledged the power and beauty of words. Poetry, for example, was an essential part of daily life. The delight Arabs took in language and linguistic skills also would be exhibited in Arabic literature and calligraphy. The early Arabs felt an immense appreciation for the spoken word and later for its written form.
Arabic script is derived from the Aramaic Nabataean alphabet. The Arabic alphabet is a script of 28 letters and uses long but not short vowels. The letters are derived from only 17 distinct forms, distinguished one from another by a dot or dots placed above or below the letter. Short vowels are indicated by small diagonal strokes above or below letters.
The Nabataean were semi-nomadic Arabs who dwelled in an area extending from Sinai and North Arabia to southern Syria. Their empire included the major cities of Hijr, Petra, and Busra. Although the Nabataean empire ended in 105 A.D., its language and script would have profound impact upon the early development of Arabic scripts.
Archeologists and linguists have analyzed and studied the Nabataean inscriptions that represent the advanced transitional stage toward the development of such Arabic scripts as the Um al-Jimal, dating from about 250 A.D., and the Namarah of the famous pre-Islamic poet Imru' al-Qays, dating from 328 A.D. Another inscription from Um al-Jimal, dating from the 6th century, confirms the derivation of the Arabic script from the Nabataean and points to the birth of distinctive Arabic writing forms.
North Arabic script was first introduced and established in the northeastern part of Arabia. During the 5th century, Arabian nomadic tribes who dwelled in the areas of Hirah and Anbar used this script extensively. In the early part of the 6th century, the North Arabic script reached Hijaz in western Arabia. Bishr Ibn Abd al-Malik and his father-in-law Harb Ibn Umayyah are credited with introducing and popularizing the use of this script among the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad, Quraysh. Other tribes in nearby cities adopted with enthusiasm the art of writing.
Jazm is the earliest referenced Arabic script. This script is believed to be an advanced form of the Nabataean alphabet. The stiff, angular, and well-proportioned letters of the Jazm script would later influence the development of the famous Kufi script -- the script of Kufa, a small town in Iraq.