The Genius of Ibn Muqlah

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In the year 632 AD the prophet of Islam, Muhammad bin Abdullah, died. This event threw the fledgling Muslim community into a crisis: the revelation was complete, and at the time it existed only in a fragmented and scattered collection of palm leaves, bones, tablets, and in the minds of the believers. The Prophet’s death created a need to collect, codify, and standardize the revelation. An order needed to be agreed upon, and a standardized script needed to be chosen. The personal scribe of the Prophet, Zaid bin Thabit was charged with this task. It took, however, twelve years, until the reign of the third Caliph, Uthman bin Affan, for this to happen. By that time the Muslim world extended throughout the Arabian Peninsula, across North Africa, and into Central Asia, and yet there was still no standardized Quran for the new Muslim communities to use. Uthman assembled a team, and Zaid wrote out copies of the new, standardized Quran to be sent to major cities of the new Islamic empire. Upon arrival, the people were told to burn any copies they had previously, to prevent strife within the Muslim community. Only a very few of these Qurans still exist.

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Prior to Islam, the Arabic language did indeed have a script, but it was markedly different from the one we know today. Many of the letters did not connect in a cursive fashion, nor were diacritical marks typically used to distinguish one sound from another. So the sounds Ba, Ta, Tha, and Na all appeared as a short tooth, and it would have to be inferred from context which sound was correct. In fact, to use diacriticals in a letter was to insult the reader; it would imply he could not understand the meaning from context, and needed to be coddled like a child in school.

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Obviously, when dealing with the word of God, there could not be such confusion, hence the use of diacriticals in all written material following the proliferation of Islam and the more widespread use of Arabic.

alif

However, it wasn’t until nearly two hundred years later, in the early 10th century, that the Arabic language was codified in its written form. It took the work of one man, a mathematical genius from Baghdad named Ali Ibn Muqlah, and it changed how the Arabic script is written forever.

karalama(3)

Ibn Muqlah, whose name translates as son of an eyeball, devised a way to write the Arabic script in such a way that, regardless of the size of the pen the scribe uses, each letter will be proportionate to both itself and every other letter. He simply related every letter to the rhomboid dot drawn by the pen being used. Each letter has a set of predetermined size rules based around these rhomboid dots.

STEPE 2

Now, when a calligrapher is learning a script, the first task is to write each letter out quite literally hundreds of times, and measure them according to Ibn Muqlah’s rules.

saray01

These practice sheets can indeed become works of art in their own right, as shown by Mehmet Ozcay’s work above.

baa

haa

baa2

These are a few examples of letters I wrote out, according to the rules of Ibn Muqlah.

dal

waw

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~ by Josh on October 15, 2009.

7 Responses to “The Genius of Ibn Muqlah”

  1. Certainly, this post reflects the genius of Ibn Muqlah and this blogpost reflects the genius of Josh Berer and Rachael Strecher for preserving this sacred knowledge. Great Job with the post, and the site in general. I’m reading from the Bay Area, California. I would love to discuss all things lettering with you when the time is right. Stay safe. Salaamaat.
    PS–and I really enjoyed the post on al-qamariyyah, too!

  2. BS”D

    Beautiful post, Josh. Lovely script, too – Arabic and Hebrew calligraphy are formed by similar measurements and rules – which is not surprising, since we Jews are cousins to the Arabs. Would love to see more of this in either Hebrew or Arabic, and pictures of the Temoni Sifrei Torah as well 🙂
    ברכות וכול טוב

  3. Hi Josh;
    I love your site! This was a most interesting article. I would call this measuring device a ‘nib ladder.’ In my limited experience, I have never seen a nib ladder in any western/European MSS from the middle ages. Do you know of any examples?

    Clint

  4. I like your website. Very interesting.
    I am interested in Arabic calligraphy, and I don’t know where to get the supplies (Qalam, ink and paper) in the US. Any help in this regard is appreicated.

    Amjad

  5. I want to know more about Ibn Muglah. Can you suggest some sources? This was a very helpful post for someone who knows little about Islamic calligraphy, by the way. Thank you!

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