Even though the style of writing that is present in the Qur’an took several centuries to develop, most Arabs were illiterate up until just before Islam’s initiation. This is mainly dues to the large number of nomadic Arabs during these early centuries preceding Islam. This nomadic lifestyle resulted in few examples of written language from this specific group, up until a few centuries before the beginning of Islam. However, there was the presence of what may be considered as oral cultural traditions, rather than those of written. There are several examples of pre-Islamic oral poetry that are still known of today.
The writing system of Arabic that developed just before the initiation of Islam is written from right to left and consists of a system characters that are considered a cursive script, based on an alphabetical writing system. This script is believed to have been originated from the Aramaic form of writing, which was also a cursive style. The Aramaic form of writing, as well as several Western forms all were originally derived from the Phonecian alphabet. This cursive style was adopted by the Nabataeans around the 2nd Century BCE, and would later develop into the Arabic alphabet that is present in the Qur’an.
One of the characteristics of the Arabic cursive script is that individual characters have the ability to change slightly, depending on whether or not they are located at the beginning, end, or even the middle of a word. The letters represented by these cursive characters are only consonants. Vowels in Arabic are created by using accent-like marks, known as diacritical marks, above or below the consonants that they appear next to in words. This characteristic is also found in other Semitic languages, such as Hebrew.
There are two distinct types of script in the Arabic writing system. The earlier style of Kufic script consists of more simple, stylized lines. It is believed that these letter forms were easier to carve into stone. Naskhi is the type of script that is used today and consists of more curvilinear forms than the earlier version, called Kufic. Out of the Naskhi style of script Arabic calligraphy developed as one of the Arabic culture’s foremost forms of art.
One of the major reasons as to why calligraphy developed at the forefront of art, is mainly due to the influence of Islam. Due to the fact that Muslims are forbidden to use imagery to depict their god, the art developed to provide a way for bookmakers to decorate their works, especially the book of the Qur’an. However, calligraphy also came to be used to decorate buildings such as the examples found on the Qutb Minar, in India from 1192. Today calligraphy continues to be a major form of art and also a major source of inspiration for Arab artists.