While Caliph Uthman is credited with compiling and disseminating the authoritative version of the Qur’an, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph (died 661), is considered the first calligrapher and illuminator. Furthermore, Ali, who was also the cousin and a son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, is identified as the inventor of angular kufic, the first formal script for copying Qur’anic manuscripts.
By the eleventh century, kufic was replaced by six rounded cursive styles that became known as al-aqlam al-sitta (The Six Pens). The art of embellishing and illuminating the Qur’an also dates to at least the eighth century. Since images in the Qur’an are believed to distract worshipers from God, illuminators over the centuries developed a repertoire of non-figurative motifs to mark text divisions and to heighten the beauty of the Divine Message.
Chroniclers in sixteenth-century Iran, Turkey, and India discuss the development of calligraphy by tracing the lineage of its leading practitioners. Starting with Ali ibn Abi Talib, they list masters and students as well as describe their contributions to the tradition as it spread throughout the Islamic world. Works by many of these luminaries are seen in this section.