Classical Calligraphy by Nawaf Soliman


Classical Calligraphy

Calligraphy is more than beautiful Arabic handwriting. It is the imaginative expression of individual creativity, the area of aesthetics where skill meets genius.

Primarily a means for worshipping the Creator, the Arabic language is organically linked to the Qur’an. Thus both words and the forms of words take on power greater than their individual entities. It is from this that ornamental calligraphy stems.

Verses of the Qur’an, hadith, poetry, seals, inscriptions, proverbs, and abstracted letterforms follow. Vast libraries of ancient manuscripts contain everything from administrative documents, historical and scientific treatises, to travelers’ tales, and genealogies. Leaping off the page and onto marble and stucco walls, brass trays, tiled entryways, silver jewelry, embroidered textiles, calligraphy became the major decorative element of Islamic culture.

The Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters, consonants and long vowels, written from right to left. Short vowels are indicated by the placement of diagonals above or below the letterforms. Dots are also placed above or below some letters to distinguish them from others with similar forms.

While some letters have one unchangeable form, most have three variations, depending on their place in the word, whether at the beginning, middle, or end. A single character is comprised of three elements, known as the head, body, and tail.

While rules of proportion vary among calligraphic styles, all styles consist of letters divided into two main groups, the perpendicular and the horizontal. Subsequent proportions depend upon the size of the first letter of the alphabet, the alif.

It is in this that the hand of the calligrapher is first seen. To determine the scale of the alif, the calligrapher begins by creating a square dot, formed by pressing the tip of a specially cut reed pen, called a tomar or qalam, to paper so as to separate the two sides of the nib. The dimensions of this dot varied according to the method of cutting the pen, the calligrapher’s traditions, and the content of the text.

This dot determined the height of the alif, ranging from three to twelve dots, and the width, equivalent to one dot. With the proportions of his script established, the calligrapher chooses a style of script appropriate to his subject, or in the case of ancient calligraphy, to his era.

Designs vary according to the creativity of the calligrapher. Letters can be extended to emphasize the contrast between horizontals and verticals. A single letter can be enlarged, emphasized and repeated, the negative space inside filled with decoration. Shapes can be formed by writing verses from right to left and then left to right, creating fruits, birds, mosques, boats, or abstract geometry. Mysterious rhythms of curves and lines embody the very messages they are meant to convey.


Calligraphic Styles

Since the 7th century Arabic writing has been codified into a number of styles, designed by renowned calligraphers in responses to the needs and tastes of their eras. Each of these major styles has many variations.


Developed in the 7th to 9th century. A cursive, ornamental style with linked letters, used for architectural inscriptions, titles and decorative headings. Riq’a, a simplified variant of Tuluth is the preferred handwriting script in the Arab world.


Established in the 8th century by the caliph Umar b. al Khattab. An angular script with extended horizontal and low vertical lines, Kufic script’s geometrical construction might have had its roots in the angular bricks used in building the city of Kufah. This dynamic script is seen on all materials from silk textiles to mosques at Samarkand and to Ottoman gravestones, as well as on tiles, metal, glass, wood, and ivory. There are many variations, including Al-Kufi al-Handasi, intertwining geometric shapes with words, and Al Kufi al Mukhammal, where the script is superimposed over a background pattern of floral and geometric designs.


From 10th century Tunisia a lighter, free-flowing Kufic style spread to Northwest Africa and Muslim Spain. With cursive downstrokes that touch the text below, this graceful “Western” style has Andalusian variations.


Developed in the 9th century. Used extensively by Persian, Indian and Turkish calligraphers, especially in copying scripts for miniatures and literary epics.


One of the earliest scripts, Naskh became popular in the 10th century. With its rhythmic line and depth almost equal above and below the median, Naskh is relatively easy to read. Its elegance makes it the most desired script for copying the Qur’an.


Developed between the 15th and 17th centuries, this Ottoman script features decorative and unconventional elements that made it desirable for the highly ornamental writings favored by the Turkish chancellery. Ottoman sultans also favored a calligraphic device called a Tughra for their emblems.


Other Calligraphic Techniques

Gulzar:  In this fashion large letters are filled in with ornamental flowers, geometric patterns, scenes and portraits, and other motifs. A variant is zoomorphic calligraphy in which text forms the shapes of birds and animals.

Muthanna:  This is the art of mirror writing, in which the text on one side reflects the text on the other.

Ghubar:  The art of diminutive writing, producing tiny complete Qur’ans, worn as amulets. Modern calligraphers have miniaturized the text of the Qur’an, 77, 934 words, onto the shell of an egg, for example.

Exhibition runs February 26— March 18, 2016

Meet the Artist

Nawaf Soliman

Nawaf Soliman, Calligrapher

Palestinian, from Nablus

From when I was in my teens, I was exposed to the world of calligraphy and developed a strong passion for it. I lived in Kuwait for 20 years, where I established a great relationship with master calligraphers. These masters of art revealed to me the secrets of the script through practice, which paved the way for my success in the art arena. Years later, I worked in the art of graphic design for a few advertising agencies. There I used the art of calligraphy, as it was one of the most required talents in developing advertising campaigns before the age of computers. When I arrived in the United States in 1990, I developed my own style of mixing techniques between hand writing and computer graphics. All my current work reflects my passion for this art, classic yet modern. I plan to continue working on developing other styles, utilizing my skills and enhancing my knowledge.