‘Qalam’: The Arabic word for pen has important cultural significance

Its surprising origin is connected to its purpose

Qalam is the Arabic for writing instrument, which can mean pen or pencil
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The English satirical poet John Oldham is credited with having said: “I wear my pen as others do their sword.”

The quote reflects the idea, which many other writers and thinkers have expressed throughout history, that the pen and its function to record one's thoughts, is a powerful and noble tool.

This universal concept is embedded in a facet of the meaning in this week’s Arabic word of the week.

Qalam has at least two main meanings in classical Arabic.

The first is any cylindrical instrument that is sharpened and used to write with. The second specifically refers to a wooden instrument that has been carved into cylindrical shape that is filled with lead or graphite – a pencil. Colloquial in Arabic, qalam is used interchangeably between pen and pencil.

A qalam can be used to write or draw with and refers to any kind of writing instrument, from a fountain pen, to a colouring pen, a ballpoint, a felt pen, a calligraphy pen to a pencil. Various pencils or pens are differentiated from one another with the word following qalam. For example, qalam rasas refers to a pencil and qalam hibr refers to an ink pen.

Qalam also refers to a number of other things in classical Arabic. It can mean the stem of a flower and also the arrow in the roulette wheel on a gambling board.

Made up of the three Arabic letters, qaf, lam, meem, qalam is derived from the verb Qalama which has several meanings. The main one is to sharpen, cut, clip, prune, trim, snip, cut back or cut down. The second meaning is to fine tune something, particularly a musical instrument. In fact, a pick that is used to strum on an oud or guitar can be referred to as a qalam at times.

It may seem strange that qalam, the word to describe a writing instrument, is derived from qalama, a verb that means to prune, trim or fine tune. However, the evolution of qalam to mean a writing instrument can be connected to the idea that one uses writing to sharpen and fine tune their thoughts through the writing process.

While not officially proven, some academic research suggests that the word qalam may come from the Ancient Greek word kalamos, which refers to the reed. The tall grass-like plant has been used as a writing tool from as far back as the time of the Sumer and Mesopotamian civilisations.

Qalam is also used to refer to a writer’s voice or style.

To be specific, in Arabic the qalam is considered as the second tongue, another way in which an individual expresses their thoughts and uses their voice. So one might refer to any piece of writing as one that is expressed through the qalam of that particular writer.

The different styles and fonts of calligraphy also have qalam in their name. For example, qalam kufi is an old Arabic script that was used in early writings of the Quran and as architectural decoration, or qalam al naskh, which refers to the naskh font, a smaller, round, more legible script.

Qalam has has strong cultural significance in Islam. To start there is a surah, also known as a chapter, in the Quran named Al Qalam (The Pen). This 68th chapter consists of 52 verses and covers the themes of responding to those who object to faith, a warning to disbelievers, encouraging patience, and emphasising the importance of charity and performing good deeds. The qalam is also seen as a symbol of wisdom and education in Islam.

Updated: November 17, 2023, 6:02 PM