Preserving the past: Exploring Saudi Arabia’s Madani calligraphy

Exploring Saudi Arabia’s Madani calligraphy. (SPA)
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Updated 22 March 2020

Preserving the past: Exploring Saudi Arabia’s Madani calligraphy

  • In light of The Year of Arabic Calligraphy, we explore the roots of the art form and why it’s such an integral part of Arab identity

DUBAI: Calligraphy, a practical means of communication, has evolved into a distinctly cultural proponent that is as contextual as it is decorative. Multifaceted and complex, calligraphy is a tradition that simultaneously reveals and shrouds layers of history, meaning and cultural value.

Though calligraphy dates back to Sumerian cuneiform around 3,500-3,000 B.C., the spread of the Islamic religion from the 7th century saw a more definable form of Arabic calligraphy that gave birth to numerous standardized and regional styles.




Madani, one of the oldest Arabic fonts, was named after Al-Madina Al-Muwara in Saudi Arabia. (SPA)

Each style contains a unique function, time stamp, patron, audience, context and place of origin — details which are discerned by analyzing, for example, letters such as Alif or Laam.

However, first and second Hijri century calligraphy leaves ample room for the adventurous scholar. Many fragmented surviving documents exclude era indicators such as colophons, dates and authors, relying instead on carbon-14 dating to extract a document or object’s investigative launch point, or resources like Ibn Al-Nadim’s 10th-century “Kitabh Al-Fihrist,” which reveals the four first calligraphic varieties to be Makki, Madani, Basri and Kufi.




Madani was used to transcribe the Holy Qur’an and Al-Sunnah, in addition to correspondence between kings. (SPA)

With no clear linear progression and strong stylistic similarities, in the 18th and 19th centuries the various monumental, angular and unpointed Arabic scripts typically used for writing the Qur’an in the first to third Hijri centuries were grouped under the blanket term “Kufic.” Makki and Madani were further linked under “Hijazi” — early handwriting from western Arabia — that in recent years Saudi Arabia has sought to protect.

“Madani is one of the oldest Arabic fonts that was named after Al-Madina Al-Muwara in Saudi Arabia, where it first emerged and was used to transcribe the Holy Qur’an and Al-Sunnah, in addition to correspondence between kings,” explains Fadhel Al-Ali, Sharjah Calligraphy Museum assistant curator. It is understood as a localized variant of the pre-Islamic Jazm script, borrowing from Himyar Musnad cursive and Nabatean script from the regions of southern Syria and Jordan, northern Arabia and the Sinai Peninsula.




Madani is characterized by the integrity and flexibility of its letters. (SPA)

“Madani is characterized by the integrity and flexibility of its letters. This a distinctive feature,” says calligrapher Abdulaziz Al-Rashidi.

Noted for its roundness and rightward slope and shape of the final ya, which turns backward to underline the preceding letter — a common Hijazi characteristic — Madani is a foundational font bearing a visual through line from which later styles sprung and are connected. Its specific functions dictated its characteristic compactness or elongated strokes, with dashes above the letters to differentiate consonants and a lack of dots or diacritical marks to indicate vowel sounds.

In the Qur’an, it was presented in singular columns on vertical pages of animal skin parchment, and the lack of consonant points suggest that at that time the Qur’an was memorized rather than read. In the context of royal correspondence, Madani employed technical complexity to reduce the risk of forgery, which enhanced its bold, stately aesthetic.




The font employed employed technical complexity to reduce the risk of forgery, which enhanced its bold, stately aesthetic. (SPA)

But Madani is no reliquary tradition. “It is still relevant because it is an important visual reference of the classical origins of calligraphy,” explains Al- Rashidi.

Following King Abdul Aziz’s interest in the preservation of Arabic calligraphy, documents and manuscripts at the King Salman Center for Restoration and Conservation of Historical Materials at the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center, Prince Faisal bin Salman, governor of Madina, has worked to protect the Madani script by showcasing it in exhibitions.

In 2018, the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an launched an initiative to digitalize the ancient font, while libraries including the Egyptian National Library, Paris National Library, the Leiden University Library, the University Library of Birmingham, and the Berlin Library hold Madani Qur’ans in their collections.

“The art of calligraphy is our identity and heritage,” says Al-Ali. “By preserving calligraphy, we are in fact preserving our identity as Arabs.”


Nasab club to provide 30 businesses with complimentary workspaces

Updated 1 min ago

Nasab club to provide 30 businesses with complimentary workspaces

  • Dubai’s sleek, creative workspace launches the Nasab Recovery Programme to help local businesses in a post-COVID environment

DUBAI: Located in the lush environs of Al Barari, a twenty-minute drive from Downtown Dubai, Nasab by KOA is an artfully designed workspace and social club with a vision to change the way creatives work and innovate. Founded by Mohammed Zaal, CEO of real estate company KOA, Nasab launched in February 2019, back when the current turmoil wrought globally by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was unthinkable.

Designed by architect Tarik Al-Zaharna and featuring the sleek interiors of British designer Fran Hickman, an office at Nasab provides business owners with an inspiring place to work, surrounded by nature, along with a host of creative initiatives allowing them to connect easily with like-minded individuals.

Nasab by Koa was designed by architect Tarik Al-Zaharna and features the sleek interiors of British designer Fran Hickman. Supplied

“We have spent the last few weeks liaising with our members on a one-to-one basis, as we believe that it is businesses who take care of their customers that will survive this most difficult of times,” said Zaal to Arab News. “We know that what is in our control is how we extend practical compassion, warmth and support to the wider entrepreneurial community.”

The COVID-19 situation has had a devastating impact on the UAE’s business community. To counter the negative impact, the Nasab Recovery Programme provides up to 30 eligible businesses with complimentary offices and workspaces for 6 months.

An office at Nasab provides business owners with an inspiring place to work, surrounded by nature. Supplied

“Our main aim throughout the development of Nasab has been to provide a space where creatives, entrepreneurs and like-minded individuals have a place to set up homes-away-from-home,” Zaal said. “We want to keep this spirit alive through the Nasab Recovery Programme. Our hope is that the program provides a much-needed space for those who shape and contribute to the creative industry: entrepreneurs, leaders in tech, art, design and fashion. The team have worked extraordinarily hard to create an incredible space; we can’t wait to now see the community grow within it.”

Nasab believes that growth of the UAE’s economic and cultural fabric is dependent on homegrown businesses.

Nasab by KOA is an artfully designed workspace and social club with a vision to change the way creatives work and innovate. Supplied

“We were the first members club to close down, having done so voluntarily before the full stay-at-home order,” added Zaal. “We were more cautious than others, and we feel it was the right thing to do, to put people over profits.”

Applications for the program are now open and should be submitted by July 15, 2020. Please visit: https://nasabdubai.com/recovery/