Reform of Arabic writing

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The Reform of Arabic writing

As the teachings of Islam spread beyond the boundaries of the Arabian Peninsula, an enormous number of people worldwide became Muslims. The new Muslims interpreted the art of writing as an abstract expression of Islam, each according to their own cultural and aesthetic systems. The influx of this cultural diversity led to two major events: the birth of regional calligraphic schools and styles such as Ta’liq in Persia and Deewani in Turkey, and the need to reform of the Arabic language. A clear and universal language with legible script was needed if the non-Arab Muslims were to learn Arabic and become part of the Islamic melting pot.

The first movement to reform the Arabic language and writing system came during the Umayyad era. Abul Aswad ad-Du’ali was the prophet and legendary founder of Arabic grammar and is credited with the invention of placing diacritical points to distinguish between certain identical consonants such as the ‘gaf’ and ‘fa’ in the Arabic alphabet. This system of diacritical marks is known as Tashkil (vocalization). Different colors also were introduced to differentiate between these marks–black for the diacriticals and red or yellow for the vocalics.

The powerful and energetic Umayyad viceroy al-Hajjaj Ibn Yousuf al-Thaqafi (694-714), took on the responsibility of solving problems concerning diacriticals. He commissioned Nasr and Yehya to refine the Tashkil system. They introduced the use of dots and certain vowel signs as differentiating marks. The dots were placed either above or beneath the letter, either single or in groups of two or three.

Unfortunately, for many people and scribes, the system was unclear and confusing. A more sophisticated system was needed. The second reform movement was undertaken around 786. Khalil Ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi, the famous Arab philologist, and lexicographer was entrusted with devising a new Tashkil system. Al-Farahidi introduced vowel signs inspired by the initial shape or parts of certain letters. The sign ‘hamza,’ for example, is part of the letter ‘ayn’ (without its end-tail).

The new system gained wide popularity throughout the Muslim world. And Arabic calligraphy acquired the characteristics of beauty, sanctity, and versatility. Arabic calligraphy was used administratively, on architecture, on coins, to pen impressive epistles, and to produce elegant books, especially the Holy Qur’an, miniatures, and other literary works.


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