Master Calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya: Between the Lines

Master Calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya: Between the Lines on

Mohamed Zakariya

From designing the Eid stamp to providing his expertise consulting with museum curators and collectors of Islamic mansucripts throughout the world, Mohamed Zakariya is considered the leading champion for the art of Islamic calligraphy in America. After converting to Islam in 1961, he immersed himself in the study of Arabic and Islamic calligraphy, earning licenses in Islamic calligraphy and acclaim throughout the world. Taking time out of his busy schedule of teaching and practicing his calligraphy, he graciously shared some of his experiences and thoughts with Al-Madina.  

Al-Madina: You converted to Islam after a trip to Morocco in 1961. What about that trip attracted you to Islam, and how did your perception after that trip vary from your outlook on spirituality and Islam growing up as an American youth?

Mohamed Zakariya: When I went to Morocco in 1961, it was a holiday from my job in a factory in Los Angeles. I chose Morocco because it was inexpensive and sounded adventurous. Who can look back at what kind of motives we had at 19? When I returned to L.A., there was only one mosque. The members were all immigrants, and there were no learned people who really knew about the religion. Converts were not welcomed – we had to go it alone.

 I wanted to learn all about Islam, but the English-language resources I found were inadequate to the point of exasperation. I had to learn Arabic, so I got a lot of “teach yourself” books and went to town. When I returned to Morocco in 1964, I had trouble communicating because I had been learning classical Arabic. I wasn’t aware of the problems raised by the various spoken languages. I went to Fez, where I could understand more people. There I found a culture of learned scholars and a tradition of classical Andalusian music there, and I found it congenial.

I spent two years traveling, one year in Morocco and one year in Europe and England, where I studied the great ancient mushafs at the British Museum. I worked in a British comedy troupe to make money and lived as a guest with a kind Russian family who were artists and musicians. I also helped renovate houses. Nevertheless, it was a precarious way to live. I liked the Muslim life in Morocco and held onto it while traveling. The Muslim life in England was different, and I found it alienating. Spirituality? What is that? I experienced the height of generosity. That was enough.

You’ve said your interest in calligraphy was piqued by a serendipitous stroll by an oriental rug dealer on Santa Monica’s Wilshire Boulevard. How do you envisage similarly situated youth today to become attracted to the world of calligraphy?  What role, if any, will the Internet play in this?

My first exposure to calligraphy in its artistic form was in that rug shop on Wilshire Boulevard. I owe the owner a debt that cannot be repaid. To get respect in California was almost impossible. Money and cars and babes and who you knew – that’s what got respect, and I had none of them. I don’t know about today, when calligraphy is everywhere on the Internet. In the 1960s, Muslims in America didn’t know about calligraphy except as a legend and considered it foolish and immature for anyone to pursue it. But if you are lucky like I was, you find your friends, you find people who care about what you do. I think it would be similar for young people today. There are ways to get things done today that didn’t exist in my day, but there are also pitfalls. The Internet is an indispensable resource, but it is only from real people, face to face, that you can learn calligraphy.

What is the significance in the variety of scripts like Jalil, Ma’il, Mashq, Kufi, Sulus, Reyhani, and Nesih?

The script names you mention – jalil, ma’il, mashq, kufi – are attempts by Orientalists to put names on scripts that have lost their original names through time and neglect. There is a whole world of lost scripts, a world you can lose yourself in. These lost scripts are fascinating and indispensable in the study of calligraphic history, but their contemporary art value has not been exploited.

You also mention sulus, reyhani, and nesih. Reyhani is obsolete, and its real nature is misunderstood outside of the Ottoman calligraphic tradition. Sulus and nesih – the great pair – are the two basic models, the Rolls Royce and Ferrari of scripts. Talik and celi talik, which you didn’t mention, are the Bugatti and Ducati. Calligraphy, like music and poetry, is expression. The scripts express but are ultimately inexpressible.

Do you have a favorite script, and if so, why?

 Sulus, nesih, talik, and celi talik – I can write many other scripts, but for me, these are the ones. Each of them has its secret. The secret of sulus is subtlety and stasis in motion and drive. The secret of nesih is to be as natural as falling leaves and ripples on a pond. The secret of talik is to remind us of flying birds. The secret of celi talik is sinuosity, muscularity in repose.

It’s amazing to see the amount of time, effort, and discipline it takes to make the materials involved in your handicraft. From the various manners of preparing paper such as Ahar, Ebru, & Tezhip, to preparing ink and pens, it seems that this is a labor of love. Is this so and does the preparation of materials have any spiritual significance for you?

There is an aspect of this work that resembles the work and attitude of the Renaissance artist/craftsman – very serious, never corny. Calligraphy cannot be done without certain processes and materials. Not to learn them is to go into the art only half way. Calligraphy, in my opinion, is three dimensional, not two. The idea is to produce an artifact, an object. It cannot be virtual – a print or a digital image is not the same as an object, which is made by the hand and the mind. If there is no study or research or scholarship behind the work, it lacks impact. I’m very interested in what a piece of calligraphy tells us. The texts tell, and the production also tells. And love, of course. Work without love is vanity. In Arabic we could call it abtar (cut off).

Can you give us some words on your teacher, Hasan Celebi? How important is having a teacher in becoming a master such as yourself?

Hasan Celebi is now recognized as the Rais al-Hattatin – the head of the calligraphers. Words like master, ustad, hoca, etc. diminish the reality of someone like him. One of the secrets of Islam is that people like this have continued to exist. We are a rich religious culture to have someone like Celebi – this is one of the proofs of Islam. Without such a guide, few could have succeeded in calligraphy. There have been two self-taught giants: Mahmud Celaluddin in the 19th century and Hamid Aytac in the 20th, but they both studied the masterpieces of their predecessors.

Do you have favorite calligraphers, and what about them makes them special to you?

Among the most important I would include Ibnul Bawwabb of Baghdad, the originator; Seyh Hamdullah (d. 1520), whose method gave the world modern calligraphy and whose philosophy gave us a better way to evaluate work; and Yesari Mehmed and his son Yesarizade, who gave us the whole new vision of jeli (celi in Turkish) or large writing.

The 19th century is full of favorites – too many to include here, but I can’t leave out Kadiasker Mustafa Izzet, whose nesih was like a flight of butterflies, and Yahya Hilmi, who wrote, in my opinion, the most beautiful mushaf in existence, which is now in the Harvard Sackler Museum.

And then there are Hulusi Efendi and Necmeddin Efendi, who brought talik into the modern age, and Hamid Aytac, who taught the greats of the 20th century, and of course my own teachers, Ali Alparslan (ruhuna fatiha) and Hasan Celebi, both of them men of inestimable value to the followers of the art, both of them men of ethics and heart.

All of these calligraphers were significant people, but some lived lives of terrible tragedy and very few got rich – let alone earned a decent income. Many of them lived during times that were tormented by fires and plagues and marked by an influx of refugees driven out of their European homes by revanchist Christians. Still, they left art for the ages. How can anyone choose favorites?

On your website, you quote a line from Mahmud Yazir’s “Kalem Guzeli,” which states: “The line must have a breath-like flow.” What does this mean?

Mahmud Yasir’s “Kalem Guzeli” may be the most important book ever written about Islamic calligraphy. It has its share of pro forma stuffing, but the good bits are amazing. The “breath-like flow” is a euphemism for a difficult concept, and different people will describe it differently.

Here is how I read it: In each script there are standards for each letter and for all the possibly thousands of letter combinations the calligrapher has to know without thinking about them. For a shape to be correct, it also has to look natural, without jogs and deviations and jagged edges. The best writers will be able to achieve this with pen and ink, but most of us have to resort to some retouching to bring the wilder parts of the writing under the umbrella of naturalism. And so the writing achieves its flow – its natural, almost effortless look. When this happens, the writing becomes all that writing can be; beyond this, it can become art.

On your website you have written an essay on the hilye. Briefly, what is the hilye and what significance does the hilye have in the world of Islamic calligraphy?

The word hilye in this context means description. In literature, it is a description with a certain linguistic nature. Hilyes were written, I believe, to preserve in memory the person described. Why? Without the human dimension, text is useless. The hilye shows how certain people reflected the messages they brought – how they lived their message and reflected it in their lives. The fact that hilyes also include a physical description of the person also helps the reader (beholder) to feel a connection with that person, strengthening the other parts of the hilye text. In the literature we have hilyes of such people as Moses, Ibrahim, and Jesus (aleyhimus-selam), all derived from early sources.

The hilyes of Muhammad (sallallahu aleyhi was-sallam) come in many forms, long, short, and middle-sized. Some have been translated into Turkish and some have been composed as poems, like the Ottoman masterpiece Hilye-I Hakani, by Hakani Mehmed Bey (d. 1606). As far as we know, the Ottoman calligrapher Hafiz Osman (d. 1698) was the first to write a hilye as a calligraphic work. To read the hilye is to give greater substance to one’s love for the Prophet. To write it …

Your vita states your mission as being “to revive classical texts through aesthetically arresting presentation.” What are you currently working on, and do you have any future projects you would like to share with our readers?  Also, any thoughts on how you envision furthering your mission?

 I am recovering from hip replacement surgery, practicing calligraphy with no other goal than strengthening my work. I will have a second surgery soon and intend to spend the following months on this as well. By the fall of 2014, I hope to come out a better artist than I was before. After that, I have some big projects in mind. I have reached the age of 72 by the Creator’s grace, and I have life-long ambitions to produce some work that is free of commercial demands. Among my plans are works related to teaching and learning and works for serious exhibition. My friend and agent Suleyman Cooke is helping me realize these ambitions.

Do you have any words of advice for our readers, who look to you and your works for spiritual inspiration?

Advice is hard to give. For our art to prosper on soil to which it is a stranger is a real challenge. Calligraphy needs both artists and audience. Today’s artists of calligraphy, as in the past, need to assimilate a number of qualities – knowledge of religion, knowledge of texts, knowledge of materials and techniques. Also important is the ability to use and enjoy languages like classic Arabic and Turkish; in my case, these languages have given me access to treasures. Anyone who works hard and wants to succeed can come to calligraphy.

Calligraphers have to understand, however, that to produce high-quality artworks, artifacts, is also a business. If calligraphers cannot earn a decent living, the art will not prosper and will wilt and die. I always tell my students that after learning, they will need to be, in some way, business people.

In addition, every good calligrapher is also a teacher of calligraphy. It is our duty and privilege. Under the best situations, we teach for free. But to teach, one needs dedicated students. In the form of teaching that developed in Ottoman times, the student-teacher relationship is very rich and rewarding. We honor our teachers because they bring us more than technical skill. For me this is the “prime directive.”

Mohamed Zakariya will be sharing his reflections on the art of Qur'anic
calligraphy, along with a live calligraphy demonstration in "The Qur'an in Motion", at the 5th Annual Pearls of the Qur'an Conference on April 18-20.

By Mohamed Zakariya , 25 Mar 2014

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