You are here

The Living Art of Islamic Calligraphy
Shaila Abdullah
2 February 2008
  • Zakariya`s work depicting “O true God.” A symmetrical composition in Jeli Sulus script. Photo: Courtesy Mohamed Zakariya
    Zakariya`s work depicting a phrase meaning “O true God.” A symmetrical composition in Jeli Sulus script. Courtesy Mohamed Zakariya

    Of all the Islamic art forms, calligraphy, the age-old art that combines the written word with visual imagery is perhaps the most revered. The Quran-e Shariff itself emphasises the importance of the written word endowing the art with transcendent significance. Over a span of 1 400 years, Arabic calligraphy has evolved to include many different scripts and styles, appearing not only in the written form but also adorning architecture, sculpture, ceramics, textiles and glassware.

    The Ismaili Council for the Southwestern United States in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Asia Society, Texas Center, hosted an educational programme entitled, “The Living Art of Islamic Calligraphy” on 28 October 2007. World-renowned master calligrapher, Mohamed Zakariya, who embraced Islam at the age of 19, spoke about the historic roots and religious significance of the art of calligraphy. Over the last five decades Zakariya, a native of California, has traveled extensively in the Muslim world in pursuit of the venerated Islamic art form that became his métier. He has studied with A.S. Ali Nour in Tangier, Morocco, at the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture; and in Istanbul with two celebrated Turkish calligraphers, Hasan Celebi and Ali Alparslan.

    Zakariya demonstrating the art of calligraphy during the workshop session. Photo: Shiraz Maher Ali
    Zakariya demonstrating the art of calligraphy during the workshop session. Shiraz Maher Ali

    Zakariya spoke at length about the early development of the Arabic language and its calligraphy, highlighting the influences of various geo-political forces on the development of the different Arabic scripts: Kufic, Thuluth, Naskhi, and Maghribi. He also noted that Arabic, in its written form, was distinguishable in both a rough form used for daily purposes and a more formal and embellished art form which later developed into calligraphy.

    “Proper calligraphy is supposed to expand your heart to the meaning of a text,” clarified Zakariya, as he went on to show that the form of a word should follow the course of the speaker's breath. "The writing should flow in a way that is natural and easy to read. The challenge is to present the great truths in a manner that, while remaining loyal to the traditions of the past, is new, fresh and vital. In this way, the ancient texts can speak for themselves, revealing their meanings spontaneously to the viewer - sometimes gently, sometimes grandly,” he mused.

    Recite, in the name of Your Lord…
    …Who taught by the pen.

    (Surah al-Alaq) The Chapter of the Ovum Cell, The Holy Quran

    The event drew a diverse audience from various cultural and religious backgrounds eager to learn more about this often under-represented tradition of embellishing the written word. “Listening to Zakariya describe the centuries-old Islamic art of calligraphy in such exquisite detail was as much a spiritual experience as it was a glowing tribute to the historical patronage and evolution of this great art form,” observed Dr. Ahmad Durrani, a professor at Rice University. “I believe that there is no better way to promote trust and understanding of Islamic values than through the universal languages of music and art.”

    Zakariya`s artwork on a US stamp commemorating Eid. Photo: Courtesy Mohamed Zakariya
    Zakariya`s artwork on a US stamp commemorating Eid. Photo: Courtesy Mohamed Zakariya.

    The reed and pen of Islamic calligraphy are imbued with manifold spiritual meanings, creating a direct link between the divine inspiration of the holy word and the writer as the agent through whom that word is made manifest. Hence the calligrapher's tools are as important as the skill of the writing itself. Zakariya therefore, true to the traditions of the ancient masters of Baghdad, Cairo, Herat and Istanbul, takes the time to make his own instruments, thereby heightening the intimacy and strength of his composition. He carves his own pen and mixes the inks in his backyard. He believes that pen, ink, and paper should all be in harmony with the artist to create compositions that are truly sacred forms of art. Zakariya, who also designed the USA Eid stamp issued in 2001, is currently based in Arlington, Virginia, where he teaches calligraphy and holds workshops and exhibitions across the country.

    During a reception held after the workshop, audience members who had been inspired by the creative spirit of the talk, had an opportunity to try their hand at calligraphy; others mingled while they observed the master calligrapher at work. The keen interest, curiosity, and reverence shown by the audience proved to be solid testimony to the belief that art transcends cultural barriers.