128. The Calligrapher’s Craft

A collection of Calligraphers’ and Illuminators’ implements
Ottoman Turkey, 17th–19th century

20 calligraphers’ knives (kalamtras)
14 burnishing tools (muhur)
7 cutting plaques (makta)

The elegant inscription on a 10th-century Nishapur bowl in the Louvre describes knowledge as being something which is bitter to the taste at first, but later sweeter than honey. The same description could well be applied to Islamic calligraphy. It is certainly difficult to appreciate for anyone brought up outside the culture, but its study reveals an art-form of unusual fascination and refinement. It is the quintessential artistic expression of Islamic culture, and yet it also has many peculiarities not found in the other arts. The anonymity, which envelopes almost all other categories of Muslim artists, does not apply to calligraphers, whose lives and achievements are recorded in numerous detailed biographies. Signed works by many of the masters have survived. Literary treaties in both Arabic and Persian give an unparalleled insight into the ideas embodied by calligraphy. Unlike other Islamic art forms, it did not decay after the 17th century, but continued to be developed and refined right up until the beginning of the last year. The sharpened tip of the calligrapher’s pen was like the apex of a great pyramid of human endeavour. It involved, beyond the calligrapher and the tradition he inherited, many separate groups of specialised craftsmen, who made, dyed, varnished, polished and cut the paper, mixed the ink, ruled the margins and provided illuminations. A variety of implements relating to calligraphy also required the skills of craftsmen in metal, glass, ivory, wood and leather. For Muslims, the Qur’an is literally the Word of God. This belief undoubtedly encouraged scribes to seek to develop suitably beautiful means of transmitting the Word in writing.

The relationship between calligraphy and religion is readily apparent. Apart from manuscripts, many of the panels of writing contain excerpts from the Qur’an, Traditions of the Prophet or sayings of spiritual teachers. Copying the Qur’an was considered a pious act, and the discipline required to achieve proficiency in writing was deemed to produce results in the character of the person, which were wholly compatible with the aims of religious life. ‘If a man writes Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim [the opening phrase of the Qur’an], and writes it very well and carefully, God will pardon him’, is a Tradition attributed to the Prophet. And in the words of Sultan Ali Mashhadi ‘The foundation of the art of writing consists of the practice of virtue.’ Less obvious than this overtly religious aspect is the close relationship between the art of calligraphy and Sufism. All of the arts and crafts of Islam have been connected in some way with Sufism, but in the case of calligraphy, the evidence of, and to a certain extent the reason for, this relationship are much clearer. It is as if the traditional institution for the teaching and practice of this art was a mirror-image of the pattern of spiritual teaching employed in so many different guises by the Sufis. Firstly, there was the teacher-pupil relationship, characterised by the immense respect accorded by the pupil to his master. This was not some kind of typically Eastern peculiarity, as some would see it, but rather the way of aligning a pupil correctly to a situation in which he could learn. The respect implied in the actions of rulers, such as Abu Said B. Oljeytu, who went on foot to the house of the calligrapher Sharaf al-Din, and refused to let him stand in his presence, or Sultan Bayezid who sat holding Shaikh Hamdullah’s inkwell, was surely respect paid to a spiritual man, rather than to an artist. ‘Purity of writing is purity of soul’ seems to reflect the implicit recognition that real mastery of the art of writing required spiritual qualities also. The Sufi teacher who gathered students around him, traditionally orientated them around an activity which had nothing obviously spiritual about it, but was the vehicle by which much could be taught indirectly. This was perhaps the vessel in Rumi’s phrase ‘To boil water you need an intermediary – the vessel.’ An artistic school was an ideal framework, and moreover fulfilled another essential criterion, which was to have a sufficient number of people involved together. Again, in the words of Rumi, ‘The load that can be pulled by forty men cannot be sustained by one man alone.’ The concept of the Silsila, or chain of transmission through which the student was linked with previous masters to the founder of the order or school, was common to both Sufis and calligraphers. The intense discipline and constant practice were undoubtedly conducive to eliminating many of the problems, which Sufis have traditionally insisted must be dealt with before any progress can be made. The Sufi presence among calligraphers is understood by many names, such as Pir Yahya Sufi, Shaikh Suhrawardi (son of the founder of the Sufi order of that name), Maulana Dervish Abdullah, Dervish Ali, etc. In the remarkable versified treatise on calligraphy, written by the great 15th-century master Sultan Ali Mashhadi, he describes how it was an encounter with an Abdal (a ‘changed one’ in Sufi parlance) who was a possessor of Hal (the mystical state), which put him on the path to mastering the art of writing. It is also interesting to note how many of the works of literature which exercised the talents of both painters and calligraphers, such as the poetry of Nizami, Saadi, Hafez, Rumi and Jami, are Sufi texts.

‘Freedom is the absence of choice’ is a Sufi saying that may appear contradictory, but which seems to indicate that when a deeper level of perception is open to a person, it is possible to know what to do, and so be free from the uncertainties involved in the process of choosing. A similar shift in focus is helpful to understand calligraphy, because, far from being preoccupied with self-expression, so valued in our culture, the artist’s aim was primarily self-perfection, in order to act as a channel to express something higher than ‘himself’. This is not to say that there was no individuality in what a calligrapher wrote, but the development that he underwent, coupled with the discipline and technical mastery which he acquired, gave him access to the sacred, and the ability to translate it.


Samarqand became the first centre of paper production in the Islamic world, after the battle of Thalus in 751 ad, where Arabic forces captured some Chinese paper-makers. Before that, vellum and papyrus were more commonly used, although a restricted amount of paper was imported from China. The Barmekid vizirs of Harun al-Rashid established paper mills near Baghdad in the late 9th century and the industry spread to Cairo, Sana’a and Spain in the course of the next century. Linen and hemp in the form of rags and rope formed the basis of all Islamic paper-making. Inevitably, the requirements of calligraphy led to the manufacture of extraordinarily fine paper, which provides one of the delights of perusing an Islamic manuscript. The highly burnished surface was achieved by sizing the paper with vegetable starch or gum to fill in the pores and by polishing on a board. In Mughal India, a broad-ended pestle was used, while in Turkey a glass egg or a bar with a stone fixed to it were preferred. The sizing and burnishing was mainly carried out by the paper dealers or the calligrapher himself. Faint lines to guide the scribe were impressed into the paper by a device called a mastar, a sheet of card stretched with fine silk threads at the desired intervals. The high value given to paper is shown by accounts of calligraphers being rewarded for fine work, by gifts of paper.


The Islamic calligrapher’s most precious implement was his reed pen, and therefore the minutest variations of quality in reeds were of great interest. The best were brown reeds, fine and light, with a hard outer skin and tender inner fibre, which came from the marshes of Wasit in Iraq, India, Egypt and the shores of the Caspian. They needed to be firm to last throughout a long text. Each master had his own technique of cutting, which had four phases, and which varied slightly for writing different scripts. First, the reed was ‘opened’ with a diagonal cut, giving the basic shape to the nib, which was then split. The length of the split depended on the hardness of the reed and ‘weight’ of the writer’s hand. The split was situated either centrally, or at four-tenths across to compensate for wear on one side. The sides were then trimmed and finally the nib-end was cut. This was done straight down or diagonally, either to let the hard skin overlap which increased clarity, or to allow the inner fibre to protrude which absorbed ink better. It is said that by cutting the nib obliquely instead of straight across, Yaqut al-Musta’simi added the final ingredients of grace and elegance to the perfect proportions of the letters established by Ibn Muqla. Reed pens were the subject of extravagant poetical metaphors (‘cypresses in the garden of knowledge’), and the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir is said to have made a collection of pens from famous calligraphers.


A variety of different recipes existed for producing lustrous black ink, which did not fade. The basic ingredient was soot, added to a heated mixture of water, salt, gum-arabic, grilled gall nuts, iron sulphate and honey. When honey was used to help dissolve the soot, the addition of myrrh was recommended to repel insects. In Turkey, the most prized ink was made with soot from the vents of the Suleymaniyya Mosque, which, apart from its fine quality, was considered to bring with it the Baraka of the place itself. Coloured inks were made with the addition of different metal oxides or arsenic in the case of yellow, while the so-called recipe of ‘Kufa’ produced dried ink pellets, which were suitable for travel. A wad of raw silk or cotton was placed in the inkwell to absorb the ink and prevent the pen from overfilling. Great artistry was lavished on the production of inkwells, as indeed on everything to do with calligraphy. Glass, pottery, precious metals and jades were used, but particularly of note are the cylindrical bronze inkwells inlaid with silver and sometimes with gold, which appear from the 13th century onwards.


A good knife was important to the calligrapher, as its tempered steel blade needed to be razor-sharp to cut with the required precision. The examples here come from Istanbul, where in the 18th and 19th Centuries a whole street was occupied by the masters of this craft. The blades are usually stamped with the maker’s signature, sometimes set into a gold or brass lozenge. The highly decorative handles are made of ivory, walrus tusk, horn, agate, jade, wood, tortoiseshell, steel or silver, and some are hollow to contain a much smaller knife for slitting the nib. The narrower blades were designed for cutting thin pens for very fine scripts.


The ‘open’ reed pen was laid on a plaque called a makta, where a raised groove held it in place while the nib was cut. They are usually made of ivory, walrus tusk, tortoiseshell or mother-of-pearl, materials that are hard but will not damage the blade of the knife. Many of the makers were affiliated to the Dervish Orders, as shown in many Turkish examples by the presence of Mevlevi and Bektashi turbans in the decoration, and inscriptions invoking Rumi. Some bear the signatures of makers, the best being Fikri, Rasmi and Dede.


Gold and paper burnishers are among the most attractive implements, remarkable for the way they fit into the hand. Examples from Turkey, of the 17th–19th Centuries , are in agate, glass, jade or cornelian, and the handles are of equally diverse materials.