The Significance of Paper for the Development of Islamic Calligraphy in Qur’anic Manuscripts

The Islamic world occupied the seat of learning in a number of disciplines such as science, mathematics, engineering, and religion for a number of centuries (Nanji, 2006). Paper, one of the most frequently used materials in present-day life, was invented in China presumably as early as the 2nd century BCE (Bloom and Blair, 2009). According to legend, the art of paper-making was discovered by Abbasid forces following the capture of Chinese prisoners during the Battle of Talas in 751 A.D. (Stefan A, 2017). Realising the importance of this material, the Islamic world began manufacturing and distributing paper on a large scale. The earliest centres of production were situated in Samarkand and in the region of Khorasan in north-eastern Iran (Bloom and Blair, 2009).
Before paper was introduced to the Islamic world, the book was mainly used for bureaucratic purposes (Cotter, 2001). Arabic, under Islamic rule, rapidly became a language of royal administration, which led to the creation of the administrative bureaucracy by Muslim leaders. By gathering materials such as parchment and papyrus, imperial records could be kept (Bloom, 2001). With the coming of paper, however, the art of the book underwent major developments. As this essay argues, replacing parchment and papyrus with paper furthered the logocentric culture in the Islamic world and increased the expression of Islamic visual culture.
The rise of paper can be attributed to several factors. Unlike parchment, paper was easy to prepare, easily bound, smooth, and above all, cheap. Its plentiful availability meant that new styles of Islamic calligraphy, illustrations, and decorative motifs could be assimilated into scientific manuscripts, military manuscripts, literary manuscripts, and so forth. All these factors contributed to paper’s central importance to the art of the book – particularly Qur’anic manuscripts, the main focus of this essay. Given that the Qur’an refrains from including illustrations – particularly figurative illustrations – this essay will focus primarily on the development of Islamic calligraphy and decorative motifs in early Qur’anic manuscripts.
The difficulties presented by parchment should not be underestimated as a contributing factor to the rise of paper. The first copies of the Qur’an, the primary text of Islam, which Muslims believe is God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad, were recorded on parchment – a pale, durable, and somewhat rigid material made from animal skins that have been scraped or dried under pressure.
Whilst it is true that the early Qur’anic manuscripts on parchment look appealing to the eye, it is worth noting that the material was and still is very difficult to prepare. For the percamenarius or parchment maker, collecting large quantities of sheets of the same size and colour would often be an issue. In addition to this, parchment was hard to glue together which meant that producing long scrolls was a difficult task (Carr, 2017). Aside from this, parchment was also expensive. Most manuscripts – including the Qur’an – made from parchment might have needed one cow or sheep skin to create a folded sheet of two to four pages (Black, 2014). Moreover, parchment was a difficult material to bind. All in all, it is clear that parchment was not an ideal material to use for the development of the art of the book and in this context, for the development of Qur’anic manuscripts.
With the coming of paper, however, some important changes were soon underway. As stated, paper was easier to prepare than parchment and also cheaper. Techniques in paper milling meant that even sizes could be made in suitable quantities at the lowest price possible. Moreover, the resulting paper was smooth and more easily bound. These distinct qualities not only allowed for Qur’anic manuscripts to be manufactured in greater numbers than had formerly been possible but also allowed for new styles of Islamic calligraphy and decorative motifs to be assimilated into Qur’ans.
Before secretaries, identified in Arabic as kuttab (“writers”), became aware of paper, early manuscripts of the Qur’an were written in the Hijazi script and in one of many angular scripts, known as Kufic, on horizontal-format (“landscape”) parchments (Bloom, 2001). The “Blue Qur’an” (fig. 1), one of the most lavish Qur’ans ever produced, is an example of an early Qur’anic manuscript to be copied in the Kufic script. On each page of this manuscript are fifteen lines of gilded Kufic text on indigo-dyed parchment. The text is characterised by straightforward geometrical shapes, pleasant sizes, and wide spacing between clusters of attached letters.
Whilst one cannot deny the beauty of the “Blue Qur’an”, there are a few issues concerning the use of the Kufic script. First, the unvaried spacing of the script causes confusion in terms of understanding where one word ends and where another begins. Second, the omission of diacritical marks and vocalisations makes it difficult to distinguish one word from another. Both of these issues can create difficulties in following the text. That said, the complexity of the Kufic script suggests that the “Blue Qur’an” and other examples of Kufic Qur’ans were only meant to be read by those who had already learned the Qur’an by heart
By the late ninth to early tenth century, the eastern Kufic script – a development of Kufic – came into use by calligraphers. This was a result of the adoption of paper (Bloom, 2001). By tradition, the development of the new script is credited to the Abbasid vizier, Ibn Muqla (Evans and Ratliff, 2012), who codified six scripts that became the basis for the practice of Islamic calligraphy. Unlike Kufic, the eastern Kufic script has an emphasised angular character. A large eastern Kufic Qur’an leaf (fig. 2) shows that the script is characterised by the use of both thick and thin strokes and by the drastic lengthening of tall letters, particularly alif, lam, and kaf. In contrast to figure 1, the spaces between the disconnected letters of a word are distinguished from one another by diacritical marks in red and blue. Thanks to paper’s smoothness, these developments meant that the eastern Kufic script could be written and read more easily and that calligraphers could experiment with the connection of the text to the page altogether.
  Even though the eastern Kufic script continued to be used for a number of centuries, its success led the way for the development of proportional cursive scripts (Naskh, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Rayhani, Tawqi, and Riqa) from the tenth to the thirteenth century. Due to the availability of paper, Ibn Muqla was able to establish a clever system of measuring the dimensions of letters based on the rhombic dot produced when the tip of a reed pen was applied to the surface of paper. This new method of Islamic calligraphy, which came to be known as the “proportioned script”, paved the way for less complex ideas such as circles. Usually identified as naskh, this group of associated scripts quickly became the preferred script for transcribing the Qur’an. The reasons for its preference include legibility and the fact that it is quick to write (Jani, 2011).
Although no authentic examples of Ibn Muqla’s writing are known to have survived (Bloom, 2001), his skill in writing was pursued by Ibn al-Bawwab, who refined the “proportioned script”. Using the naskh script for the text and the thuluth script for chapter headings, Ibn al-Bawwab’s Qur’an (fig. 3) is a true work of art. The text in naskh is characterised by thin and round letters, making it a more elegant and disciplined script than the earlier scripts used to copy the Qur’an. Moreover, the letters, which are of uniform thickness, are properly spaced. Unlike earlier scripts, the naskh script has the added advantage of allowing for the dispersal and evolution of vocalisations and diacritical notations. Using these cursive scripts, scribal practices could now be converted into an “active pursuit of “beautiful writing” (husn al-khatt)” (Gruber, 2009).
Paper also allowed for the development of decorative motifs in Qur’anic manuscripts. If we look back at figure 1, the decorative features of the “Blue Qur’an” are both simple and austere. The only decorative motifs found on most of the pages are circular silver markers (George, 2009), without any elaborate or extravagant detail. However, in figure 2 and figure 3, significant decorative developments can be seen. In the eastern Kufic Qur’an leaf, for example, each verse is punctuated by rosettes and motifs of coloured dots enriched with gold. Also noticeable on the margins are stylized gold medallions to mark every fifth verse. With regard to the Ibn al-Bawwab Qur’an, the rosettes’ and medallions’ stylistic features are slightly more emphasized. Also present are stylized palmettes that extend into the margin.
Thanks to paper, more detailed backgrounds could also be incorporated. A folio from a non-illustrated manuscript (fig. 4), for example, has a very elaborate background garnished with vegetal motifs and naturalistic-looking flowers and gold intercolumnar rules. The intricacy of the background suggests that paper allowed for a remarkable eruption of creativity and vital modifications in the way artists thought and worked. All things considered, these decorative developments combined with the development of Islamic calligraphy illustrate how paper helped create the overall look that became a unique characteristic of Islamic visual culture.
To conclude, it can be said that the use of paper was highly important for the development of Qur’anic manuscripts. Because paper was easy to prepare, easily bound, smooth, and cheap, it allowed for experimentation, new styles of Islamic calligraphy and the development of decorative motifs. The early Qur’anic manuscripts written in scripts like Kufic had very complex characteristics, making it difficult for readers to follow the text. Once paper was adopted, however, modifications to the Kufic script could be made. The result was the eastern Kufic script which came into use by the late ninth to tenth century. Compared to the earlier Kufic Qur’ans, the eastern Kufic script was coherent and therefore easier and faster to write.
As writers continued to use paper to further their skills, a more proportional set of scripts came into use from the tenth to thirteenth century. The naskh script, for example, became an extremely popular script to use for copying the Qur’an because it was highly legible and easy to write. Through these new cursive scripts, calligraphers such as Ibn Muqla and Ibn al-Bawwab could discover the aesthetic elements of calligraphy, thereby giving the Qur’anic manuscripts a much more artistic appeal.
As for the development of decorative motifs in Qur’anic manuscripts, paper played an important role. Unlike the simplicity of decoration of the Kufic Qur’ans on parchment, the decoration on paper manuscripts of the Qur’an were far more elaborate and extravagant. In addition to this, paper also allowed for more intricate backgrounds. All things considered, one can argue that whilst the production and consumption of paper is a commonplace staple in today’s world, the production and use of paper was vital for the artistic development of Qur’anic manuscripts centuries ago.
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