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Cursive Scripts


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The six hands

By the 11th century six basic styles of writing were in common use. These were referred to as the Aqlam al-Sitta (the six hands) and given technical terms: Naskh, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Rihani, Tauqi, and Riqa.

cursive scripts - thuluth, naskh, muhaqqaq, rihani

'In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate'
Left from top: thuluth , naskh
Right from top: muhaqqaq, rihani


In Seljuk Iran, naskh was used for ordinary correspondence and the production of literary works. It has a regular and balanced appearance.

Ibn Muqla (died 939), a native of Shiraz and a minister of the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad was the key calligrapher responsible for its development. His contribution to the art of calligraphy was not the invention of a new script but the application of systematic rules to the informal naskh hand. Ibn Muqla's system utilised the dot as a measuring unit for line proportions, and a circle with a diameter equal to the alif's (the tall vertical within the Arabic script) height as a measuring unit for letter proportions.

naskh script by Ibn Al-Bawwab

Naskh script used in the opening chapters from a Koran - Bagdad 1001.
The only authentic example of the master-calligrapher Ibn Al-Bawwab (died 1002).

naskh script by Ahmad-i Nayrizi

Naskh script by Ahmad-i Nayrizi - dated March 1713

This proportioned script of Ibn Muqla was brought to perfection by Ibn Al-Bawwab (died 1022), a house decorator who turned his hand to calligraphy.

At some time in the 10th century naskh was used for writing the Koran, and this art never died out in Persia. However, it is Mirza Ahmad Nayrizi, in the early 18th century who is regarded as the last great master of naskh.


Thuluth is more impressive than naskh and was often used for titles rather then lengthy text.

It has rounded letters and may be written in lines so close to one another that elements of the letters intersect. Its form evolved over the centuries and many variations are found on architectural monuments as well as metalwork, textiles and glass.


Imamzadeh Mahruq, Neishabur
Thuluth is frequently used in the decoration of mosques; the best examples are those of the Safavid calligrapher Ali Reza Abbasi, which can be seen in Isfahan and Mashhad.

Muhaqqaq is less round than thuluth, and rihani is similar to a smaller version muhaqqaq. Riqai, a miniature version of tauqi, was used mostly for everyday writing.

In addition to these styles we must add two more which were invented in Iran: ta'liq and nasta'liq. The Iranian forms did not appear until 14th century, but by 15th and 16th centuries these were the predominant styles in Iran.



Extract from a 1372 Koran.
There are three lines in black muhaqqaq jali script outlined in razor sharpness with gold and gold roundels as verse deviders.

Ta'liq & Nasta'liq


Four sections of a ziyarantnameh (letter of recommendation)
from the shrine of Imam Riza written in ta'liq script. Dated July 1533

When Iran began to recover from the Mongol devastation of the 13th century and Timur's invasion of the 14th century, ta'liq (hanging script) and its derivative nasta'liq emerged.

Ta'liq seems to have been formalised in the 13th century, though it had been in existence for several centuries prior to this and was in fact claimed to be derived from the old script of pre-Islamic Sassanian Iran.

Ta'liq was written with a thick pen obliquely cut and looks quite different from the earlier scripts. Basically it is the combination of short thin verticals with broad horizontals whose natural length is exaggerated whenever possible, especially at the ends of words.

In the 14th century Mir Ali Tabrizi developed nasta'liq out of the ta'liq style. This was a fluid style, which was used extensively in copying romantic and epic Persian poetry. Mir Ali is said to have dreamt of a flight of geese whose wings and movement inspired the shapes of letters. Numerous copies of Persian literary manuscripts, among them the famous edition of Ferdawsi's Shah-namah were produced at the Timurid court, and it was here that nasta'liq was perfected.


Four lines of poetry in nasta'liq script, signed by Muhammad Qasim ibn Shadishah.
Tabriz first half of 16th century.


In the 17th century the final calligraphic development in Iran was invented by Sayyid Shafua of Herat. This was a personalised nasta'liq called shikastah or broken script.

Shikastah is really an elaborate, romantic form of handwriting in which, contrary to its implied meaning, the natural pauses between the letters and words are blurred by the writer joining up the normally empty passages of the verse or sentence. In the 18th and 19th centuries Shikastah became so involved as to be totally incomprehensible.



Example of shikastah script
Iran 18th century.


Hafiz Osman (1642-1698) who was a master of thuluth and naskh is credited with the invention of the hilyah ( description of the Prophet ). This script creates a 'word picture' where a word or phrase can be written in the form of a bird or animal.

Human face made 
up from the words, Allah, Muhammad, Ali, Hasan and Husayan

A human face made up from the words, Allah, Muhammad,
Ali, Hasan and Husayan. - 19th century

A bird made up from the words...
In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful

'In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful'
in the shape of a bird - 19th century


It is not surprising that the calligraphic tradition has remained alive in Persia and the countries under its cultural influence. Contemporary calligraphy in Iran reveals the traditional ideals of beauty as well as creative pictorial writing.


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