Master calligrapher Hasan Celebi is a living legend. For many, he is seen as the reviver of Islamic calligraphy of our time. Having started his life as an imam, Celebi's heart was filled with the words of God and His Messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him). He took an interest in calligraphy and has been making history ever since. He granted this interview with Moutasem Atiya of Al-Madina Institute. Many thanks to our dear brother Mehmet Cicek for translating the questions from Turkish and Mustafa Celebi (son of Hasan Celebi) for facilitating the interview.
Moutasem Atiya: The world of calligraphy seems to have gone through a period of limited talent - after the switch to the Latin script - to one where teachers such as yourself have helped revive the sacred art by producing a very large amount of talented calligraphers. Do you think we are going into a period of over-saturation of talented calligraphers?
Hasan Celebi: Yes. However, though it does show signs of going into an over-saturation, we still have long ways of advancement ahead of us. If we keep working, more calligraphers can be developed and brought up and better improvements and developments can occur in this field. I am hopeful in that way. Progress in this field is not a short-term event. Its maturation takes a lifetime of a hundred years. It merely reaches its maturity in 100 years. In today’s norms, human life span is about 60-70 years. If one carries this art for 70 years, the following person must take over and advance it even further. For that reason, there is a long future for this field.
Over your illustrious career you have produced a lot of very beautiful calligraphy. Is there one piece that really stands out in your mind as the pinnacle of your work?
An artist is like a father. Just like a father cannot differentiate between his children, an artist cannot differentiate between his arts. Hence, all of them are very precious. But if I must sort them, my very first piece would be the most precious one. Because that piece that I wrote on that day’s intellect constitutes the very first step to where I am today. If it wasn’t there, none of the following ones would be there. I could not differentiate among the other pieces because a ladder is a whole. Every single step is identical to each other.
How do you impart the spiritual importance of writing the words of Allah and sayings of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to your students? To some the art is just art, while to others it's a spiritual exercise. How do you help instill that spirituality?
Because this art is mainly published central to the spirituality of Islam, it already carries the essence of spirituality within. The quality of the training method in this art inspires spiritual nurturing and induces consciousness in worship. This in itself should be sufficient enough to explain its spiritual value.
Growing up in America we aren't exposed to mosques that have the beauty of what you see around you in Turkey. What caused the Ottomans to so beautifully tie calligraphy into the mosques?
The answer to this question is partially in the previous answer as well. In addition to that aspect, since its inception, the main philosophy of the Ottomans was always in establishing justice in the society, and entrusting the task to the qualified, competent, expert. The proficient ones were always encouraged and protected. We all know of the existence of sultans holding their teachers inkpots as they were teaching. As a result, they advanced in both science and art. It must be [in] these fundamental practices that every single action had its sense of wholeness and coherence. They also did not see art as a tool for other means, but elaborated it with the mental sense of worship due to the spiritual messages that were being produced throughout. Those verses written on the inner walls of mosques are always verses that remind us of the main philosophy, the fundamental essence of Islam, thus relaying the real spiritual message. To those who are capable of understanding, in the present context, it is a visual way to instill the message to the people. Because these features come together in this matter, those who enter the mosques and see the calligraphy, even if they do not understand the meaning, finds themselves in a spiritual presence.
I've noticed the calligraphy competitions that IRCICA (Research Center For Islamic History, Art and Culture) has hosted. Though this can encourage many, do you feel it can have the opposite impact on people when they don't win? Can it discourage people in their personal confidence level in their work if they lose? What advice do you have to those that have entered and lost?
I believe this would in fact increase the earnest desire of those that did not win. It would lead them to improve the way they produce with the hopes of winning it next time. My advice to those who did not win is that, we don’t perform calligraphy because of some competition. We do not do this because of money. This is a value within the Islamic culture. If we will sustain this art, its reward cannot be money or fame.
Though I have not studied the sacred art of calligraphy, I have spent time in the circles of sacred Islamic knowledge. I've observed how powerful knowledge can be, even leading one to feel prideful, if not arrogant. How important is it for students of calligraphy to maintain humility and what advice would you have in this regard?
Humility in Islam is to learn to be humble. Humbleness is the indication of how close a person is to Allah (subhanahu wa taala) with genuine faith and worship. Allah says in Qur'an, if the salah you perform is not restraining you from evil deeds, your efforts are void. Calligraphy is also like this. If the subtlety and the elegance of calligraphy is not softening your soul, and is not leading the person to humbleness, that means that person is not a calligrapher, and I have no advice for that person.
The intention behind the art is to treat the souls of people. Calligraphy, among all the Islamic arts, due to its elaborateness, is harder, more demanding, and visually more beautiful than any other. The beauty of calligraphy is crucial in reflecting its elegance. It is possible to see the purpose behind the art by looking at it. Meaning, art reflects whether it was done with the purpose of material gain, sole beauty, or spiritual gratification.
Of course, they play a major role in performing calligraphy. Primarily, material is very important. A proverb from our ancestors says: “Kem alet ile, kemalet olmaz” – “Evil material cannot produce perfect things”. Meaning, you cannot get good art from bad material. For that reason, the place of pen, ink, and paper has a significant presence in calligraphy. [The] pen must to be hard and straight. Ink must to be thin and flowing. Ink must be the specially prepared “is” ink, it must not be a chemical mixture. Paper is the field where both pen and ink prove their quality. If possible, non-acidic paper with good finishing should be preferred. In addition to these, the mood of the calligrapher is also very significant. Art cannot be called art if it was written when angry, hurried, tired, hungry, and sleepless.
Does age play an important role in learning calligraphy?
Perception and appreciation is more important than age in learning calligraphy. It could be hard to understand the seriousness, holiness, subtlety, and most importantly the patience required in very early ages. But there are always exceptions. After that, age does not matter. There are people who had the urge to learn and perform calligraphy at the age of 65-70 and were successful.
What would be your advice to those who gave their hearts to calligraphy?
My advice to those who would like to learn calligraphy is to not learn and perform this on their own. It requires a good education to perform this professionally. It is possible to learn and continue this duty without giving up, with a master through patience and fortitude. And most importantly, this must only be done with the intention of gaining the consent of Allah (subhanahu wa taala) and not with the expectation of financial power in short period of time. The rest is all kadar Allah.