The Art of Language: Celebrating Arabic Through the Ages

With an estimated 422 million speakers globally, making it the fifth most widely spoken language in the world, and a designation as one of the six official languages of the United Nations, the Arabic language is celebrated today on Arabic Language Day for its richness and cultural diversity.

The United Nations (UN) recognizes six official languages which are used in its diplomacy and operations, at UN meetings, and for official documents. These are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. The first session of the United Nations General Assembly designated the first five of its official languages in 1946. Arabic was not among them. The Arabic language gained recognition as an official UN language more than 25 years later on December 18, 1973.

In 2010, the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established December 18 as Arabic Language Day in order to “celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity as well as to promote equal use of all six official languages throughout the organization.”

Arabic Language Day offers the opportunity to explore the history, culture, and development of Arabic. UNESCO hosted three roundtables in Paris dedicated to this year’s theme, “Arabic Language and Youth.” They focused on the Arabic language and its role in identity, arts, and social media.

The Arabic language includes Classical Arabic (used in the Qur’an), Modern Standard Arabic (used in education, government, and media), and the dialects, which vary by region and country. The Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters and it is written from right to left with most letters connecting with each other. It evolved from the Nabataeans, who used an Aramaic-derived alphabet. After the Romans conquered the Nabataeans, the first inscriptions of Arabic appeared in what is present-day Jordan.

The Arabic alphabet is written in a cursive story script that renders it particularly suited for use in beautiful calligraphy. Although calligraphy has become increasingly less popular in other parts of the world, it is still considered a respected art and widely appreciated in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the rest of the Muslim world. Because depicting the human form is considered haram, Islamic art developed through geometric design, and calligraphy became a prized art form.

Kufic calligraphy originated around the end of the seventh century and featured as the main script for the Qur’an from the eighth to the tenth centuries. Naskh calligraphy developed in the tenth century in Turkey and then became the predominant form of chirography for the Qur’an. Thuluth calligraphy, more complex and difficult to read than Naskh, became mainly used for engravings in mosques and on monuments. These different forms of calligraphy helped develop an art form popular not only for religious writing and in architecture, but also for modern graffiti.

Today, calligraphy has become a part of the modern art movement. Artists use it for tattoos, jewelry, and much more. “Calligraffiti” is a combination of calligraphy and street art. Artists such as El Seed, Yazan Halawani, and Khadiga El Ghawas have created a new form of Arabic calligraphy that appeals to Arab youth.

Halawani began his career as an artist in 2007 doing graffiti in the streets of Beirut. In 2011, he began to incorporate Arabic calligraphy in his art and to drift away from a Western graffiti style. His calligraffiti uses the Arabic letters to make shapes and movements that do not necessarily focus on the meaning of the words. This differentiates it from traditional calligraphy which focuses heavily on the meaning of the words themselves, especially when they appear in a religious or poetic context.

His Instagram:

Similarly, El Seed is a Tunisian-French artist who incorporates Arabic calligraphy into his art. After the Tunisian revolution, he began to use calligraffiti as a form of political expression. In 2012, El Seed completed a project on Jara Mosque in Gabes, Tunisia. He used a quote from a sura in the Quran that encourages mutual respect and tolerance.

Calligraffiti has allowed these artists to create a new art form that connects with a younger community of Arabs. In the past, graffiti has been seen as a form of vandalism, but calligraffiti is changing that image.

His art on the mosque:

The Arabic language has a long history, which has allowed it to develop into an art form, both in literature and poetry and as a tool for creating physical art. Arabic Language Day offers the opportunity to reflect on the important role of Arabic throughout the world.