Calligraphy in Islamic Art

See works of art
  • Bowl emulating Chinese stoneware
  • Folio from the Blue Quran
  • Tiraz textile fragment from an ikat shawl
  • Bowl with Arabic Inscription
  • Bifolium from the Nurses Quran (Mushaf al-Hadina)
  • Mirror
  • Folio from a Quran manuscript
  • Mosque lamp for the Mausoleum of Amir Aydakin al AlaI al-Bunduqdar
  • Folio from a Quran manuscript
  • Architectural tile with partial inscription
  • Panel of four calligraphic tiles
  • Section of a Quran Manuscript
  • Turban Helmet
  • Dedicatory inscription from a mosque
  • Mosque-lamp-shaped vessel with Arabic inscriptions
  • Tughra (Official Signature) of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66)
  • Calligraphic roundel inscribed Yaaziz (Oh Mighty!)
  • Calligraphic composition in the shape of a peacock: Folio from the Bellini Album

Works of Art (19)


Calligraphy is the most highly regarded and most fundamental element of Islamic art. It is significant that the Qur’an, the book of God’s revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, was transmitted in Arabic, and that inherent within the Arabic script is the potential for developing a variety of ornamental forms. The employment of calligraphy as ornament had a definite aesthetic appeal but often also included an underlying talismanic component. While most works of art had legible inscriptions, not all Muslims would have been able to read them. One should always keep in mind, however, that calligraphy is principally a means to transmit a text, albeit in a decorative form.

Objects from different periods and regions vary in the use of calligraphy in their overall design, demonstrating the creative possibilities of calligraphy as ornament. In some cases, calligraphy is the dominant element in the decoration. In these examples, the artist exploits the inherent possibilities of the Arabic script to create writing as ornament. An entire word can give the impression of random brushstrokes, or a single letter can develop into a decorative knot. In other cases, highly esteemed calligraphic works on paper are themselves ornamented and enhanced by their decorative frames or backgrounds. Calligraphy can also become part of an overall ornamental program, clearly separated from the rest of the decoration. In some examples, calligraphy can be combined with vegetal scrolls on the same surface, though often on different levels, creating an interplay of decorative elements.

Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2001


Department of Islamic Art. “Calligraphy in Islamic Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2001)

Further Reading

Blair, Sheila S. Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Grabar, Oleg. The Mediation of Ornament. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.