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With simple beginnings in the pre-Islamic period, Arabic script developed rapidly after the rise of Islam into not only a writing system but also an art form. The writing and reading of Arabic has a central role in Islam. Because the revelations of God to Muhammad were in Arabic, it became the language of Islam and has a central role in the religion. In the first chapter of the Koran, God is described as “most generous, teaching by the pen” (96/3-4), and God is often described in Islamic poetry as the eternal calligrapher.
The versatility of Arabic can be attributed to the fact that it is a phonetic language. Its alphabet consists of 28 letters (three of which are long vowels) that can be easily adapted by many other languages. Similar to the English and Spanish language that share the Roman alphabet, the Ottoman Turks adopted the Arabic alphabet with the addition of diacritical marks, such as dots and slanting dashes above and below letters, to distinguish vowels and double consonants. Another characteristic of Arabic letters is that they change form ever so slightly depending on their position in a word: initial, beginning, middle, or final. Arabic is only written in cursive form and traditionally has no capital letters. Each letter of the alphabet corresponds to a numerical number based on the 28 lunar stations. The letter, associated number, and the combination of these letters and numbers are believed to hold talismanic properties.
Because of its religious significance, and perhaps because of an early Islamic prohibition against the depiction of animals and people, Arabic script took on an important role as decoration.
Audio by Qamar Adamjee, Malavalli Family Foundation Associate Curator of Art of the Indian Subcontinent.