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Writing Implements

Pens, cutting slabs, and penknives

A calligrapher’s closest ally, his reed pen or qalam (Turkish: kalem), is most important to his craft and itself has to crafted with the utmost care. A calligrapher must be familiar and proficient in creating his own pen. Reed (kamış) is the most common material for typical pens, while bamboo and wood are used for larger pens that produce oversize lettering not usually seen in manuscripts. Reed pens must first be cured (sometimes in manure) for up to four years before being cut; an improperly cut pen means imperfect calligraphy. The pen is cut with the help of a cutting slab (makta) whose main component is its bone or ivory grooved piece on which the calligrapher sets the end of the reed. The calligrapher then cuts a nib with one single stroke with his penknife and then adding a slit down the nib’s middle with a second stroke. This slit creates a repository for the ink. Then the nib is trimmed according to the specific script desired by the calligrapher.

Inkwells and pen cases

The calligrapher’s inkwells and pen cases can become some of the most highly ornamented objects in his workshop. Separate inkwells exist as well as inkwells attached externally to pen cases. Some pen cases can also have small built-in inkwells. Pen cases can be made from a wide variety of materials including metals, woods, and papier-mâché; and most commonly decorated with shell inlay, metal overlay, or lacquer.


Early manuscripts were most commonly written on parchment (animal skin) until the 10th century, at which time rag paper became the writing material of choice. Paper was favored over parchment because of its relative lower cost. The paper used in traditional Islamic manuscripts tended to be a tone of beige or light brown as it was believed to be easier on the eyes than a pure white color. However, paper was available in many other colors that cold be arranged in a given manuscript in various ways, such as by chapter. Gold flecked and marbled papers were also very popular throughout the centuries. While both could be used as frames for calligraphic panels and single sheet works destined for albums, they were also widely used within the sphere of manuscript production. Gold flecked papers were often used for illustrations, and marbled paper for doublures or bindings.

Calligraphic Scripts and Practices


The Arabic language and its attendant script, chosen by God as a means of communication with the Prophet Muhammad, is considered to be the language of the Creator and as such holds a special place in Islam. For instance, in order to preserve the original text of the Qur’an, translations are considered simply “interpretations.”

Creating and viewing qur’anic calligraphy is considered to bring one spiritually closer to God. As figural imagery is mostly absent within religious arts, calligraphy serves as an abstraction and mystical art form that has the potential of “depicting” God without creating an idolic image. Calligraphy thus holds a prominent place in mosque architecture and books arts.


A calligrapher’s training begins early in his life. The teacher-pupil relationship is one of utmost importance since such relations create silsilas or literally “chains” that record their pedigrees. A calligrapher was not permitted to sign his name on any given work until his training was complete and after having received his diploma (ijaza), signed by his teacher and displaying usually two or more scripts that have been mastered. Calligraphers were trained usually in a number of different styles of the Arabic script, many of which are currently on display. There are styles of calligraphy specific to some regions and types of texts. For instance, the most commonly used script for qur’anic manuscripts is naskh: it is a round and easy-to-read script while the “hanging” script nastaʿliq was preferred to transcribe poetic verses in greater Iran. A calligrapher—before and after his training—must continue to practice his scripts throughout his career to keep his hand familiar with their various forms and intricacies. Practice sheets thus have the potential to be beautiful artistic works, as well as windows into the training of calligraphers.


Illumination (tadhhib) has been a major part of Islamic book arts, observable in the earliest of Qur’an manuscripts from the 9th century. Illumination refers in particular to the application of precious materials such as gold and silver (although silver has always been less favored because of its tendency to tarnish). It is also a term used loosely to describe decorative ornamentation that includes gold, lapis lazuli (dark blue), red, light blue, white, green, and pink pigments.

Often calligraphers and painters learned the art of illumination, but specialists in the art of illumination often were called upon to decorate manuscripts. A variety of elements within the book were commonly illuminated, particularly with painted or applied gold leaf. A variety of examples of illuminated details can be found in this exhibit: these include illuminated borders, verse dividers, chapter headings, bindings, marginalia, calligraphy, and paintings with gold painted decorations.