The five steps to learning Arabic Calligraphy

Learning arabic calligraphy in the traditional method is an artistic custom passed on through generations. It is about the development of an unique bond between the teacher and student. The teaching process dates back to the 11th century and has developed over the years, without losing its foundational core. Traditionally, arabic calligraphy is taught in five distinct steps. Many of the traditional teachers use most aspects of these foundational steps.

1. The student typically visits the teacher weekly. The student then stands or sits next to the teacher and scrupulously observes the teacher writing a model line or lesson (mesk) to study and copy. The student watches every aspect of the teacher’s techniques including the movement of the teacher’s pen and hand.

2. The student then takes the lesson (mesk) home and diligently copies the line, often spending long period of time to in order to copy as close to the original as possible. This practice is called taklid.

3. The student takes the lesson back to the teacher, who corrects the lesson using a red ink, using dots and annotating on any letter or words that didn’t meet expectation, or their approval. This process is called cikartma in Turkish, or extraction.

4. Novices are first taught mufrefat (singles), which typically includes 15 to 20 lessons. The first lesson customarily involves a short prayer, “Lord, make it easy for me, and not difficult, and Lord, make the end well” in both Thuluth and Naksh scripts. And after satisfactory completion of this level, the student starts writing murekkebat (compounds), including poems, odes, prayers and sayings. The compound exercises helps the student understand composition. Students who make steady progress can pass these stages in three to five years.

5. Finally, upon successful completion of these exercises, it is time for the student to receive his/her diploma, which now gives them the permission to sign and produce their own work. From the earliest days, it was important for a calligrapher to obtain a formal permission his/her teacher to practice the art, which is called ijazah (Arabic) or icazetname (Turkish).

As Alexander the Great once said, “I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well.” Masters and teachers of this art are highly regarded and play a big role in development of the artistic skills of the student. So much so, that the Ottoman sultan, Beyezid II (1481-1512) used to hold the inkwell of his royal scribe and teacher, Seyh Hamidullah, while he wrote.

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