Arabic Calligraphy Course at Harvard University

I just received word of this course; if you’re in the Boston area, you may be interested in attending!

Arabic Calligraphy Course, Harvard University

Taught by Huda Totonji, MFA, PhD

Winter 2013 | STAR E-118 (23881) Introduction to Arabic Calligraphy, 4 Credits

Course Description:
This course will cover the history of Islamic calligraphy, its origins, tools, styles and art history. Major scripts covered: Riqa, Naskh, Deewani, and Thuluth. Various works by master calligraphers and contemporary artists.

Detailed Description:
Islamic civilization is replete with a genuine heritage which found its roots in the dictates of the Islamic religion; Islamic art is one of the important facets of this heritage which was passed on to us across generations and which encompasses versatile areas such as architecture, illustration, ceramics, metals, ornamentation, and Arabic calligraphy. Islamic calligraphy is one of the finest and most subtle of arts created by Muslim artists who found inspiration in nature for their ideas, designs, and ornamental and shaping components which they put together to create distinguished art. This is in addition to creating numerous aesthetically appealing shapes for Arabic letters, working from ornamental and geometrical bases. This course will introduce students to the most renowned forms of Arabic scripts which include: Nasskh, Ruqa`, Deewani, and Thuluth styles. It will also cover the historical evolution of Islamic ornamentation and Arabic calligraphy.

Course Duration:
January 3 – 24, 2013. Class Times: 1-4 pm, beginning Thursday, January 3
Week 1: Th. | Week 2: M, T, W, Th. | Week 3: M, T, W, Th. | Week 4: T, W, Th.

1 Story St, Cambridge, MA 02138. Room # 304, across 51 Brattle Street

Registration begins December 3rd, 2012. No prerequisites for this course

Course Tuition:
noncredit $665, undergraduate credit $995, graduate credit $1,950

To register:
(617) 495-4024 – | |

Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World

Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World


I am posting belatedly about a film aired on PBS on July 6th, 2012, entitled Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World. The documentary film was narrated by Susan Sarandon, and includes some fabulous footage and interviews with the calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya.

You can view clips of the film on the website, or purchase a DVD of the film on

Introducing Arabic Calligraphy Stock Video!

I’m pleased to announce that Elinor Aishah Holland and I are collaborating on a series of stock video clips featuring Arabic calligraphy. Our first collection—Arabic Calligraphy Letterforms—features Ms. Holland writing each of the eighteen basic shapes in the Arabic alphabet.

The video clips are available for purchase through We plan to create other clips and collections in the future, so leave a comment below if you have a specific Arabic word you’d like to see written in calligraphy (and captured on video.)

Book review: The Calligrapher’s Secret

The Calligrapher's Secret

The novel The Calligrapher’s Secret by Rafik Schami is a passionate love story involving an acclaimed calligrapher, his beautiful wife, and a lively young apprentice. The book is set in Damascus, Syria in the early to mid-1950s.

The plot has more to do with political and religious intrigue and the factions that existed (and exist) in Syria in the 1950’s than with calligraphy, but there are a few gems interspersed in its pages regarding the culture and art of Islamic calligraphy. Here are a few of the best snippets:

On the calligrapher’s pen (Note: I’m not sure how historically accurate this information is, but it’s still interesting!):

The calligraphers made the simple act of letter-writing into a cult of secrets. They wrote letters to husbands or wives with a copper pen, letters to friends and lovers with a silver pen, letters to particularly important persons with a golden pen, letters to a promised bride with the beak of a stork, and to enemies and adversaries with a pen carved from a pomegranate twig.

The following is a lovely passage about the art of calligraphy, reminiscent of Mohamed Zakariya’s Music for the Eyes:

Arabic script could have been made to be music for the eye. As it is always cursive, the length of the link between the characters plays a large part in the composition. The lengthening or shortening of this link is to the eye like the extension or reduction of the time for which a musical note is held to the ear. The letter A(lif), which is a vertical line in Arabic, becomes a bar line for the rhythm of the music. But as the size of the letter A(lif) itself determines the size of all other letters, according to the doctrine of proportion, it also takes part in the height and depth of the music formed horizontally by the letters on every line. And the different breadth of both the letters and the transitions at the foot, body, and head of those letters, from fine as a hair to sweeping, also influences the eye. Extension in the horizontal and the interplay between round and angular characters, between vertical and horizontal lines work on the melody of the script and produce a mood that is either light, playful, and merry, or calmly melancholic, or even heavy and dark.

And if you want to go carefully about making music with the letters, the empty space between letters and words calls for even greater skill. The blank spaces in a work of calligraphy are moments of rest. And as in Arabic music, calligraphy too depends on the repetition of certain elements that encourage not only the dance of body and soul but also our ability to move away from the earthly domain and rise to other spheres.

On Hafiz Osman (Again, I’m not sure if this is historically correct, but it’s quite interesting):

When Hafiz Osmani died in the year 1110 his pupils granted him his last wish. All his life he had collected and kept the shavings of wood that fell from his bamboo and reed pens as he cut them, ground them down and pointed them. There were ten large jute sacks full of them. His pupils were to boil up the shavings and use the water for the final washing of his body.

On that somber note, I think I’ll wind up this review of The Calligrapher’s Secret. Pick up a copy for yourself to see what happens when the calligrapher Hamid Farsi attempts to modernize the Arabic script, and discover what causes his lovely wife to vanish one night.

Islamic Arts Magazine

I recently found out about the magazine Islamic Arts, which offers a great way to stay current on issues related to Islamic Art and calligraphy. I just subscribed and have yet to finish my first issue, but so far I’m quite impressed with this publication. It’s a digital magazine, so you have to download it to your computer to read it, but I think you will find it well worth the effort.

Arabic Script Calligraphy Course by Elinor Aishah Holland

The Society of Scribes in New York City is holding a class in Arabic Script Calligraphy this spring. To register, visit

Course details:
March 20, 27, April 3, 10, 17
9:30 am – 3:30 pm
$350 Members / $390 Non-members
Skill Level: This course can be taken by beginners or intermediates, people familiar with the Arabic language and those unfamiliar. For more information, e-mail:

Arabic script has a long history and has developed into a highly refined artform. This course is aimed at anyone who is interested in dipping their toe into a vast ocean. We will by no means do more than begin the journey but we will do so in the classical method. Beginning with our eyes, we will view slides of fine samples of work. Using traditional tools we will begin the study of letterforms in Thuluth. Pens and paper will be available for purchase from the instructor. We will introduce techniques for cutting and trimming reed or bamboo pens. The letters are taught first as independent forms, then in connecting combinations. These lessons will be demonstrated and practiced in class and as homework. We will also work on a sentence to understand principals of phrasing and spacing.

Our emphasis will be on developing our use of the pen and ink on paper, to develop flow, followed by an understanding of the letterforms. Of course we will spend time viewing masterpieces of calligraphy throughout each class. We do not anticipate producing finished pieces in this class, but rather to work toward that goal in the future. The joy of being a student will be our inspiration.

Higgins ink,
small (thin) bamboo brush (to be cut into a pen),
soft cushion as a writing surface (leather, packing sheets, large magazine),
pen knife (email instructor for info),
a small, wide mouth jar (meat baby food jars are perfect),
a soft pencil,
ruler, and lots of patience.

Paper and reeds for pens will be available for sale by the instructor for $6 – $12.

E A Holland is a freelance calligrapher and mother living in Rockland County NY. Although she specializes in Arabic calligraphy her work includes a wide range of subjects and styles, from envelopes to advertising, copperplate to brush. Elinor has taught adults and children calligraphy for the past 15 years.

All classes and workshops, except where indicated, are held at :

School of Visual Arts (SVA) Annex
214 East 21st Street, Manhattan
(between 2nd and 3rd Avenues)

Arabic Calligraphy Supplies

For those of you outside the Middle East who struggle to find the right supplies and materials for Arabic calligraphy, I’m happy to share the link to a recently-launched website,

From the site:

We import pens, inks, papers and other supplies required for Arabic and Islamic calligraphy directly from the Middle East. We are the first and only supplier of calligraphy tools specific to Islamic calligraphy in North America.

In addition to pens, inks, papers, and accessories, we also offer complete calligraphy sets, which provide everything you need to get started with Arabic calligraphy.

Happy shopping! listed among “40 Fantastic Calligraphy Blogs”

The website Web Design Schools Guide recently wrote a post entitled 40 Fantastic Calligraphy Blogs, in which they mention as one of the top US-based calligraphy blogs. You may be interested in checking out the rest of the calligraphy websites on their list, at the web address below:

Istanbul, Part Two: IRCICA

During my trip to Istanbul in March, I had the pleasure of visiting IRCICA, the Research Center For Islamic History, Art and Culture. Among the many activities that IRCICA sponsors is a prestigious calligraphy competition held every other year.

IRCICA is located in the Beşiktaş neighborhood, which is easy to get to by ferry from Eminönü or Uskidar. From the ferry port, you walk up Barbaros Boulevard until you see a large park on your right; you can veer to the right through the park (but still going up the hill) until you hit Yıldız Caddesi. Turn right, and the Yıldız Sarayı (where IRCICA is located) will be at the top of the hill. Bring your passport or some sort of ID, because it is required to sign in.

The staff at IRCICA is very friendly, although very little English is spoken. They served us tea and brought out their assortment of calligraphy books upon request.

IRCICA sells a wide variety of calligraphy books, most of which cannot be found anywhere else. These include catalogues of winners plates from their calligraphy competitions, the meshk curriculum books for Thuluth & Naskh and Divani & Riq’a, and classics like The Art of Calligraphy in Islamic Heritage, 1990-1996, which is full of amazing work and sells for over $100 US.

One of the things Aishah and I discovered on our visit is that IRCICA has a new research library. The facility is beautiful and would serve as a wonderful base for visiting scholars. The calligraphy section is fantastic.

The library includes a full archive of all the original calligraphy competition entries, which are such fun to look through. I definitely recommend visiting IRCICA if you’re interested in calligraphy and happen to be in Istanbul.

By the Pen: an Islamic Calligraphy Workshop

I’m excited to announce the upcoming workshop By the Pen: An Introduction to Calligraphy in the Islamic Tradition. This hands-on weekend will allow both beginning and advanced students in Islamic calligraphy to hone their skills and better understand the rich cultural context of this art form. The workshop will be held June 18-20 (2010) at a beautiful retreat center in Stony Point, NY, and taught by Elinor Aishah Holland. Ms. Holland was instrumental in the creation of this website, and her calligraphy is featured both in the Calligraphy Qalam logo, and in the videos throughout the site. Watch this interview to learn more about her own interest and background in Islamic calligraphy, and a bit about her teaching philosophy.

One of the issues those of us who live in the United States and are interested in Arabic script calligraphy constantly encounter is the lack of qualified teachers. Workshops like these offer students of calligraphy the unique chance to pack in several in-depth lessons over the course of an intensive weekend. I am planning to attend this workshop, and I hope to see many of you there!

Below is an embedded pdf with further details about the workshop (click on it to view the pdf full-screen, or download the pdf). To register, visit the Stony Point Center’s website.