Contexts for Calligraphy

Following the advice of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (died 661)—son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, fourth orthodox caliph, and first Shi‘ite imam—a wide range of individuals took up the pen, whether artists of high merit, professional scribes, talented amateurs, or collectors and connoisseurs. The deep value that Muslims invested in writing by hand inhibited the adoption of mechanical means for reproducing texts. Long after the printing press had made scriptoria obsolete in European countries, the vast literature of the Muslim world was still perpetuated mainly through hand-copying. The thousands upon thousands of official documents generated by governments across the Islamic lands were produced by cadres of very busy scribes.

Proficiency in production and a legible hand were essential traits for a professional scribe, whether employed by a royal scriptorium or a bureaucratic institution, or working to meet the demands of the market. The most capable secretaries and scribes in government service mastered the conventions and standardized protocols of official correspondence. Special scripts were also used for official texts, including ta‘liq, nasta‘liq, divani, shikasta, and tughra’i. While easier to write quickly, these scripts were difficult to read for those not trained in their usage.

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