Calligraphers & Scientists

Calligraphers & Scientists

Learn about some of the most famous Calligraphers and Scientists in the Tareq Rajab Museum

Yaqut Al-Musta’simi was born Abu’l Majd Jamal al Din Yaqut in the late 12th or early 13th century. He was born in Anatolia, in the region of Amasya, a town in north-central Anatolia and was likely of Greek descent. While his origins are unclear, at a young age he was either captured or sold into slavery and transported to the court of the Abbasid Caliphs. What occurred imminently following this is also unclear; however Al-Musta’simi, likely a result of his brightness and intelligence received an education at the Caliph’s court. He was educated by Safi Al Din Al Urmawi, who was a very celebrated musician, composer and writer on the theory of music and who was working in the Abbasid court at the time. Yaqut was fortunate to also study under the calligrapher Shuhda Bint Al Ibri, who had a significant influence on his work and future.

Yaqut learnt through the “chain of transmission”, where the script of one calligrapher generation is passed down to the next using the scripts of Ibn Muqlah and Ibn Al-Bawwab as his models. Once he had become a master of calligraphy and his work began taking on a creativity of his own, he developed the yaquti script, which is an especially attractive and elegant form of thuluth. By this time, he had reached his writing maturity in all the scripts and he achieved an excellence that even surpassed ibn al Bawwab.

As a master, he refined the six scripts to a level of beauty not achieved before. It is said that he had had a vision in which the naskh script was revealed to him in the form that it needed to be taken and subsequent to having this vision, he worked tirelessly to achieve what he had seen in the vision, constantly re-working and refining his work. Yaqut was also famous for having redefined the pen nib, going from the standard, straight and flat pen (Jezm) to the angled or oblique nib (Moharrif). This was thought to produce a much more elegant style of writing. Yaqut was ultimately in the service of the last Caliph, al Musta’sim, from whom he received his formal name, Yaqut al Musta’simi. Striving for the favour of the Caliph and for it to include his students, he wrote ceaselessly and would bring his works to present to the Caliph on a daily basis. Al-Musta’simi also became the Chief Librarian of the famous Mustansiriyya College in Baghdad. This was a college founded in 1227 AD by the Caliph al Mustansir and in which many disciplines such as the sciences, mathematics, literature, philosophy and religion were taught.

During the Mongol seige of Baghdad in AD 1258, it is widely believed, based on later reports, that Yaqut took refuge in the minaret of a mosque and that, while the city was being ransacked and the population massacred, he kept his sanity by practising calligraphy. He was fortunate enough to be taken prisoner rather than being killed and in fact, under Mongol patronage, his career actually flourished even more. When Hulagu appointed Ala aldin Jouini as governor of Iraq,  Yaqut was kept by this governor and was appointed the treasurer of the Mustansirriya Library. He is reported to have written 1001 copies of the Quran in his fine hand and his school of writing became a style and model followed by calligraphers for centuries.

Abdullah Sayrafi is one of Islam’s most distinguished calligraphers of the the 14th century AD, following the school of Yaqut Al-Musta’simi. Sayrafi completed much of his monumental work in Tabriz, and is considered to have played a major role in bringing Al-Musta’simi’s style of calligraphy to the Eastern Islamic world. Sayrafi showed great interest in writing very early on in his life and began to study calligraphy at a young age. His mentor and teacher was a Sayid Haidar Gandah Nafis who himself, was a student of the famous Yaqut Al-Musta’simi. Through the consistent encouragement of his father, Sayrafi eventually became a master calligrapher, mastering both muhaqqaq and thulth scripts. As a result of his work on inscriptions for buildings, he became most well known for his monumental inscriptions. 

During the 15th century AD, the work of Abdullah Sayrafi was held in a very high regard and was copied by later celebrated calligraphers and artists including Ja’afar Tabrizi, who was a teacher to both Abdulla Haravi and a mentor to Prince Baysanghur. Sayrafi died in AD 1345/46 and was buried in Tabriz.

Ya’qub Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi was born and raised in Kufa in the 9th century AD. Fortunately for Al-Kindi, not only was his father the governor for the city of Kufa, but Kufa also happened to be the centre for Arab culture and learning, allowing him to obtain the best education possible at the time. However, while receiving his education in Kufa, he moved to Baghdad to complete his studies, becoming very well known for his scholarship. As a consequence, Al-Kindi was brought to the attention of the Abbasid Caliph at the time, Caliph Al-Ma’mun, who was in the process of establishing Baghdad’s “House of Wisdom”, where many Greek philosophical and scientific works were translated, studied and improved. It was through this consistent exposure to Hellenistic philosophy, which Muslim scholars referred to as “The Philosophy of the Ancients”, that Al-Kindi began to synthesise, adapt and promote Hellenistic and Peripatetic philosophy to the Muslim World.

The study of these philosophical and scientific works ultimately lead Al-Kindi to write hundreds of original treatises of his own, with the subjects of his writing ranging from metaphysics, ethics, logic and psychology, to medicine, pharmacology, mathematics, astronomy, astrology and optics. He even wrote about more practical fields such as perfumes, swords, jewels, glass, dyes, zoology, tides, mirrors, meteorology and earthquakes. Within the field of mathematics, Al-Kindi played an important role in the introduction of Indian numerals to the Islamic world and subsequently, Arabic numerals to the Christian world, alongside AL-Khwarizimi.  

Upon the death of Caliph Al-Ma’mun, Al-Kindi’s position continued to improve, when the new Caliph, Al-Mu’tasim appointed him as a tutor to his son. However, with the ascension for the next two Caliph’s, Al-Wathiq and especially Al-Mutawakkil, Al-Kindi fell from grace. The reasons for this are not clear, with some often citing deep scholarly rivalries within the House of Wisdom as the reason. Others suggest that it was Al-Mutawakkil’s often violent persecution of unorthodox Muslims. It is even recorded that at one point, he order Al-Kindi to be beaten, before confiscating his library. 

In AD 873, Al-Kindi died alone and his philosophical works rapidly fell into obscurity. Al-Kindi’s work was lost even to later Islamic scholars and historians. Today, very little of Al-Kindi’s work is known to exist. Aside from the later destruction of countless libraries by the invading Mongols, one of the major reasons for the lack of Al-Kindi’s work today is likely the fact that his writings were never particularly popular with later philosophers that followed after him.

Qusta ibn Luqa Al-Ba’albaki (born Costa ben Luca) was a Syrian Melkite Christian physician, philosopher, astronomer, mathematician and translator who worked in Islamic world during the 9th century AD. Al-Ba’albaki was renown for his scientific achievements, especially in medicine, and his reputation extended far and wide. He is reported to have collected many Greek scientific manuscripts from Byzantine territory, translating them into Arabic and making revisions that he thought fit. Al-Ba’albaki’s scientific career was centred in Baghdad and was associated with a great number of patrons who were responsible for establishing a chronology of his work. Among these patrons are a number of members of the ruling Abbasid family, government officials and even a Christian patriarch. 

Born in the 15th century AD, Sheikh Hamdullah Al-Amasi is considered the founder of the Ottoman school of calligraphy. Although Ottoman calligraphy had already become established before Sheikh Hamdullah’s time and was based on the Baghdad school of calligraphy, it was Sheikh Hamdullah who gave the Ottoman school its distinct character. Sheikh Hamdullah studied calligraphy under both Khairuddin Marasi and his own father, Mustafa. By chance, at one of his fathers assemblies, Hamdullah met Prince Bayezid, an Ottoman prince who later became the future Sultan of the Empire. Being a scholarly man, Bayezid appointed Hamdullah as a calligraphy instructor. However, it was not until AD 1481, upon Bayezid II’s enthronement, that Sheikh Hamdullah was brought to Istanbul where he was appointed writing instructor to the court scribes and servants, also receiving two properties to live and work in. 

Bayezid held Hamdullah is extremely high regard and the two developed a close relationship. With the encouragement and the patronage of Bayezid II who had an artistic vision, Hamdullah built on the Abbasid forms of calligraphy resulting in, eventually, an innovative and distinct style that would be associated with the Ottomans. Bayezid wanted to create a new identity for his dynasty, for the Ottoman Empire, and that calligraphy was one of the areas that this would be done. Hamdullah was tasked with this undertaking and, working on the nashki and thulth forms, started creating a new identity for Ottoman writing. According to the Ottomans, after Hamdullah, the Musta’sami style was virtually abandoned in the Muslim world in favour of Hamdullah’s style. However, this was really only true for the Ottoman Empire itself.

Hamdullah’s students included the Sultan himself, princes, senior officials, scholars and poets. His own son Mustafa, later also a well-known calligrapher, was a student of his, along with his son-in-law Shukrallah Khalifa. Sheikh Hamdullah died in AD 1520 and was buried in a cemetery near Uskudar, a cemetery where many famous Ottoman men and women had been buried. Funeral prayers were said for him in the Hagia Sofia Mosque in Istanbul. Al-Amasi is considered one of the seven masters of Ottoman Calligraphy. Others include Karahisari and his son, Mustafa Dede.

The son of the muezzin (the official who proclaims the call to prayer) of the Haseki Sultan mosque, Hafiz Osman (born Osman Den Ali)  was a calligrapher born in Istanbul in AD 1642. Due to this position, Osman spent much of his time when growing up, in the household of the Grand Vizier Mustafa, and this brought the family much prestige, protection and indeed, privilege. Osman acquired the name ‘Hafiz’ after memorising the Qur’an at a very young age. Noting his talents, the Grand Vizier Mustafa Pasha was keen that Osman receive the best possible education and it was through the Grand Vizier, that Osman was able to study under Mustafa Al-Ayyubi, qualifying and becoming a teacher by the age of 18. He is considered one of the most important Ottoman calligraphers, coming only second to  Sheikh Hamdullah Al-Amasi. He had a distinctive style of writing the naskh script with his work being based on the styles of both Yaqut Al-Musta’simi and Sheikh Hamdullah. 

Hafiz Osman was famed for his exquisite accomplishment of the six styles of writing and as his fame grew, students who were not of his school were quitting their styles to emulate his own. One of Hafiz Osman’s most notable creations was the Ottoman ‘Hilye‘, which is a calligraphic work of art containing text that describes the Prophet Muhammed’s (PBUH) attributes and appearance. He formalised the design and this subsequently became the standard. At the age of 40, as a result of the enormous amount of work that Hafiz Osman was undertaking on a daily basis, he became paralysed. Fortunately, after some treatment he regained his health and his writing had lost none of its beauty. However, he was paralysed again, three years before his death and was buried in the Koca Mustafa Pasha Cemetery.

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