Arabic and Hebrew writing are both derived from the Phoenician alphabet. But the exact origins are unclear. The Arabic alphabet includes 18 letters which, when associated with dots, add up to 29. At the beginning of our era, the Nabataeans of northern Arabia had developed a form of writing that was no longer strictly speaking Phoenician, but had not yet evolved into Arabic. The first real Arabic inscriptions were found in Syria in a trilingual (Greek, Syriac and Arabic) dedication dated 512 AD.
The Muslim era began in 622 with Muhammad’s flight to Medina. Inspiration for the first Koranic texts came ten years earlier, but they were not transcribed into Arabic until c.650. As Islam spread across the world, so did Arabic. It was therefore not surprising that Arabic script eventually took root in North Africa, Asia Minor, India and Eastern China. During the Middle Ages, Arabic and Latin were the two main cultural languages.
Writing is sacred for Muslims. The Word of God was dictated by the Prophet Muhammed directly. Even today, in Koranic schools in Africa and Asia where other languages are spoken, the Koran is still taught in its original Arabic script.
Because Islam forbids the portrayal of God and the Prophet, calligraphy was used to decorate mosques and other monuments. It is also at the heart of arabesque art – the great advantage of Arabic writing being that it can take on many different shapes and forms.
It was also relatively easy for calligraphers to create different styles according to the demands of the time and local trends. As a result, Arabic writing has greatly evolved over time, adapting to different writing materials and demand.
Persian manuscripts are an exception. They are often exquisitely illustrated with miniatures portraying people. The Persian language is of Indo-European, and not Semitic, origin but is transcribed into Arabic script.
The main forms of Arabic writing include:
Kufic script (from the town of Kufa in Iraq): angular and geometric. Often used for stone engravings. The Bodmer collection owns several documents written in Kufic script, including a Koran dated 850 AD (CB 540)
Nashki style: graceful and rounded. Used to copy manuscripts. Is now the most common style of writing for books and newspapers. The Bodmer collection houses a 16th-century paper manuscript of the Koran from Shiraz that was written in nashki script.
Maghribi script: used in the Maghreb, Spain and the Sudan. The al-Bukhari manuscript dated 1456, is a magnificent example (Al Sahih, 11th book describing Muhammad’s traditions, CB 537).
The elegant style Persian calligraphers created for literary texts is called Farsi. The Bodmer library owns several Persian manuscripts in the Nastaliq script, including one by Helali finished in 1539-1540 (CB519): Châh v a Dervich (the King and the Dervish). The copy, which includes three paintings, was handwritten by Mahmoud b. Ali.