The lines of calligraphers have neither beginning nor end as they constantly link and unlink. The calligrapher’s work lies in search of the absolute; his aim is to penetrate the sense of truth in an infinite movement so as to go beyond the existing world and thus achieve union with God.
– Salah al-Ali (quotes in Musee d’art et d’histoire. „Islamic Calligraphy: Sacred and Secular Writings”. Catalog of an exhibition held at the Musee d’art et d’histoire, Geneva and other locations 1988-1989, p. 30)
Calligraphers were dedicated to their work. David James writes in Sacred and Secular Writings (1988, p.22) that calligraphers often wrote, not at a small table but seated on the floor, holding the paper on their knees and supporting it with a piece of cardboard. Calligraphers had to be trained from a young age, sometimes from childhood; they studied examples called mufradat which had the letters of the alphabet written out singly and in combination with other letters.
The great calligraphers could write perfectly even without the proper tools and materials. Although a calligraphic master might be deprived of the use of his preferred hand either as a punishment or in the battle field, he would learn to write equally well with his other hand. When the other hand failed him, he would astound his admirers by using his mouth or feet to hold the pen.
An aspiring scribe would observe his predecessors’ art very carefully. To perfect his touch, sharpen his skills, and find a style of his preference, the scribe would imitate the masters of calligraphy with a diligent hand. Welch (1979, p. 34) cites the following quote from the Sultan Ali’s treatise on calligraphy:
Collect the writing of the masters,
Throw a glance at this and at that,
For whomsoever you feel a natural attraction,
Besides his writing, you must not look at others,
So that your eye should become saturated with his writing,
And because of his writing each of your letters should
become like a pearl.