Calligraphers are the most highly regarded artists in Islamic culture. The art of calligraphy was passed down from master to student, often within the same family. In order to become a master calligrapher and acquire a formal license, a student had to train for years by copying models to perfect his or her skills.
Training to become a calligrapher was a long and rigorous process. Most calligraphers were highly educated and some came from the upper echelons of society. Many rulers received extensive calligraphic training from the best court masters and became accomplished calligraphers in their own right. While most calligraphers at the time were men, some wealthy women practiced calligraphy too. Today, the art of calligraphy is widely practiced by both men and women.
Tools and materials affected the quality of the final product. Every calligrapher learned how to prepare pens, inks, and paper. Pens (qalam) were often fashioned from reeds due to their flexibility. First, hollow reeds were harvested and left to dry; the calligrapher then cut a tip in the shape, width, and angle that best matched the particular script he or she planned to use. Inks were made of natural materials such as soot, ox gall, gum Arabic, or plant essences. Manuscripts were written on papyrus and parchment (animal skin) before paper was introduced to the Islamic world from China around the eighth century. Because of the status of calligraphy as an art form, the tools associated with it—shears, knives, inkwells, and pen boxes—were often elaborately decorated and sometimes made of precious materials.