Practice is Everything: The North Star of Abbasid Calligraphy Yaqut al-Musta’simi (13th Century AD)

“Practice is everything,” is an ubiquitously used motivational phrase. In the year 1258 when Baghdad was attacked by the Mongols, Yaqut al-Musta’simi took practice to the next level. As the Mongol horde attacked, Yaqut took refuge in a minaret within one of the Baghdad mosques to continue his strict regime of practicing calligraphy. Can you imagine? While the city was being ransacked, the 13th century Abbasid calligrapher was sitting on a top of minaret and secluded himself from the chaos down below with his pen, ink and paper to practice the art. 

I found his action to be surprising and highly inspiring at the same time. I can barely practice in a quiet, sequestered office room at my own home, let alone in a war trodden city. But, Yaqut not only practiced when the Mongols were at the doors of Baghdad, he was also known to practice daily otherwise by copying two sections of the Quran, which is approximately 40 pages of calligraphy a day! 

His full name was Abu'l Majd Jamal al-Din Yaqut ibn Abdallah. He served under the last Abbasid Caliph Musta’sim and hence is named al-Musta’simi. He spent most, or all, of his life in Baghdad. He studied under a leading abbasid court calligrapher. However, he is known to have also studied with a distinguished woman calligrapher, Shuhda Bint Al-Ibari, who studied in the direct line of another famous calligrapher Ibn al-Bawwab. 

During his lifetime, Yaqut refined the six original arabic calligraphic scripts (naksh, thuluth, muhaqqaq, rayhani, riqa and tawqi) set by Ibn al-Bawwab. And, legend has it that he trained six students to master each of the six scripts. Yaqut also systemized the dot system, which is used today for proportional measurement of the letters. 

Yaqut was an innovator and reformer. He was the first calligrapher to cut the reed pen nib in an oblique angle, a break from the previous masters. Today, just about calligrapher around the world cut their reed pens in a slant. It has become an essential practice of arabic calligraphers. For Yaqut, this improved the clarity and beauty of writing. His unique style resulted from a combination of even spacing and careful copying of each letter and word. In fact, he came up with a Yaquti  style of writing, which was a more elegant version of the thuluth script, and he further developed the naskh script. He has known to have completed two full volumes of Quran each month, and an impressive of 1,001 copies in his lifetime.

Sixteenth century biographer, Qadi Ahmad describes Yaquts’s accomplishments, saying “..he altered both the rule and the writing... for this reason his writing is preferred to that of Ibn Bawwab for its fineness and elegance... in these styles of writing Yaqut showed solidity, beauty, and clarity - none better than he has ever been found. He wrote in these six styles of writing with extreme elegance and beauty." 

Yaqut’s style of calligraphy has been studied and followed by both the Persian and Ottoman calligraphers. He is a legend of arabic calligraphy. So, I thought I’d share his story with you. Yaqut was later given the honorific title, “cynosure (the North Star) of calligraphers.”

The Art of the Quran
Sotheby’s Auction of Yaqut’s Manuscript