What is Khat?

A Brief Introduction to Khat

Pronounced: “Heart / Hart”, without or silencing the “R”


“Khat” is an Arabic term used to define Arabic calligraphy. It is about the art and the way of Arabic writings or Arabic scripts. While the term “khat” primarily means “line”, it is actually about the art of understanding the line (khat) and its manipulation into letterings. In these letterings, it is about the art of cultivation and refinement of strokes manifested into figures or symbols that behave as reading characters. In this context, reading has taken into a visual art of silent communication.

The history and evolution of Arabic calligraphy has come a long way through various discoveries and resources. Tracing the phases of change through the evolution, it is truly a remarkable form of manifestation that took place in the art of visual communication.

Through a source, the origins evolved back to the Phoenician alphabets (circa 1000 BC) through which Aramaic script was born. At that point of time, Aramaic script was used as the leading commercial writing language of the Ancient East by the Nabataeans. This script then expanded into Neo-Nabataean script which eventually settled down in the land of Hijaz of the Arabic Peninsula.

Through another source, the Musnad script – also known as ‘proto-Arabic script’, deems to be the oldest form of calligraphy over a long period of time, which may be even way older than 1000 BC. This script was not only found in the Arabic Peninsula, but also marked its presence in Greece and Egypt as well. Around 100 BC, the Musnad script transformed into Nabataean script when the Nabataean kingdom dominated the Arabic Peninsula. Until eventually, it settled down in the land of Hijaz. It was thence, the archaic-Arabic scripts took its recognition through which modern Arabic calligraphy took its evolution from.

Through a religious source, the genesis of Arabic script came a long way through a concept called ‘tawqifiyah’. This concept implies the origin of Arabic scripts being handed down to the prophets either repeatedly or hereditarily. Adam a.s. was suggested to be the originator to receive this script apart from all forms of writings and over 700 languages. Followed by Ismail a.s., whom received the book of Arabic script after the big flood. Other opinions suggested other series of prophets that could be the originator of the Arabic script as well. This includes Idris a.s., Nuh a.s., and Hud a.s. This context of ‘tawqif’ implies the act of handing down of the Arabic language and script onto various prophets since Adam a.s. and prophet Muhammad p.b.u.h. is the last prophet to receive his revelation in this Arabic language.

The used of khat has been a heritage in the transcription of the holy Al-Quran. The origin of the compilation of mushaf Al-Quran began in the period of the 3rd Caliph – Uthman bin Affan r.a. It was written in archaic Kufi script – a script that was adapted from the land of Hijaz which was reformed by the people of Kufa – a city in Mesopotamia of ancient Iraq (17AH/638AD). This Kufi script held its premier glory for about 300 years and was recognized as the imperial text in the transcription of Al-Quran. When the Abbasids (circa 132AH/750AD) found Baghdad as the capital of Islam, the development of the civilisation has perfected the art of calligraphy. It was in this period when the Arabs learned about the art of paper from China and Egypt whereby the usage extended throughout the Islamic empire for daily domestic use. This is when the Naskhi script took its form which literally took its meaning as transcribing.

It was Ibnu Muqlah who codified the calligraphy system for the Naskhi script. By elevating the script into an ultimate refined writing system, Ibnu Muqlah is recognized as the prophet of khat through time. Later, his disciple Ibnu Al-Bawab further refined and improvised the Naskhi script. It was at this point where Naskhi script flourished to its highest degree during the period of Atabek, Turkey (545AH/1150AD). At this junction, the Naskhi script supersedes the Kufic scripts thus displacing the Kufic scripts of Al-Quran. It was from here, the art of The Six Pens or famously known as Al-Aqlam Al-Sittah began its evolution.

Well-known to established calligraphers, the Thuluth script is recognized as the ‘King of Calligraphy’ in the Arabic scripts. The term ‘thuluth’, literally means: a-third, holds to be known as the most difficult script which demands a high degree of discipline. Such discipline involved meticulous measurements such as precision, finesse, high malleability, versatility, adaptability and elasticity. With such qualities, the Thuluth script has been well-recognized as a monumental script.

The Six Pens or Al-Aqlam Al-Sittah otherwise known as Shish Qalam, marks a historical significance as the prime classics in the evolution of Arabic scripts in a particular period of time. The 6 glorious scripts namely: Thuluth, Naskhi, Muhaqqaq, Rayhani, Tawqi’ and Riqa’ left behind only 2 scripts: Thuluth and Naskhi that retain its glory till today. While the rest were practiced only by very few calligraphers as an honourable acknowledgement.

Along the way through the 15th century AD onwards modern scripts began to take into new forms of new evolution in its own kind with its own purpose. This is an addition that took its mark as among the most significant scripts that further evince the glory of Islamic civilisation. Such significant scripts includes Diwani, Ta’liq and Riq’ah and its variations of its own family forms. To date, there are probably over 100 different scripts to be recognized ranging from the ancient to the modern hand-written scripts. Untill today, the presence of these scripts and the tradition of practicing it, had never ceased to be endlessly admired.




Wallahua’lam bisawab

faizal somadi / 11 january 2009 / 14 muharram 1430

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