Muslim Calligraphers in America

© Mamoun Sakkal 1994

Judging by the recently announced results of the prestigious Third International Calligraphy Competition, it seems that American Muslims are working on preserving their traditional arts here, and reaching out to participate and contribute to artistic events world wide as well.

Muslims in North America are facing the challenge of preserving their cultural identity in the face of influences affecting many aspects of their lives. Art is an effective tool in meeting this challenge, and calligraphy has been the main medium of artistic expression for Muslims since the early years of Islam.

The competition is organized by The Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture, based in Istanbul, and is held once every three years. It aims to preserve, promote and develop the classical Islamic art of calligraphy, to keep alive the original principles and traditional spirit of this art by protecting it from trends emerging under foreign influences that are not in conformity with its traditional spirit.

The first competition (1986) was dedicated to the memory of calligrapher Hamid Aytaç, and the second (1989), to that of calligrapher Yaqut El-Mustasimi. To commemorate the great masters of this art and encourage young artists to follow their examples, the Commission dedicated the third competition to the memory of master Ibn El-Bawwab.

Calligrapher Abu'l-Hasan Alauddin Ali B. Hilal was known as Ibn El-Bawwab or Ibn El-Setri, because his father was the gate-keeper of the palace during the Buwayhid period in Baghdad. He tried his hand at a variety of jobs ranging from engraving to gilding, and later held the position of director at Bahau'd-Dawlah's (the Buwayhid ruler) library in Shiraz. He learned the art of calligraphy from Muhammed b. Asad and Muhammed b. El-Simsimani in his native city of Baghdad and developed his style by studying Ibn Muqlah's works. Ibn El-Bawwab was an expert in Islamic law and knew the Quran by heart. He was also a writer and poet. His poem about calligraphy titled "Qasidah Raiyyah" is very famous. He died in 413 H. in Baghdad and was buried near the tomb of Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal.

The Jury of the Third International Calligraphy Competition was composed of eight specialists of world renown from Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Jury meeting was held under the Chairmanship of Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Director General of IRCICA, in December 1993, at Yildiz Palace, Istanbul. The number of participating calligraphers in the competition jumped from 352 in 1986 to 450 in 1989, and to 550 calligraphers from 35 countries in the present competition with a total of 1200 works in 14 calligraphic styles. The jury examined, evaluated and ordered the entries in accordance with the conditions and regulations of the competition. In certain categories of styles where there were no entries fulfilling the standards required at an international competition, the Jury withheld some of the awards. In some other cases it decided that prizes would be shared by two participants. Finally, awards totaling US$ 40,200 were distributed as 19 prizes, 57 mentions, and 48 incentive prizes. These prizes and mentions were distributed to 96 participants from 26 countries including the United States. The winners' works will be displayed first in Istanbul, and later in some member countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference. A catalogue comprising the reproductions of these works will be also published.

Four calligraphers who live in the United States received awards.

Abdul Lateef Madaki, a Muslim calligrapher from India received mention awards in Jaly Diwani and Jaly Thuluth styles. The latter is considered one of the most difficult to master because of the care, innovation, and skill required to produce a pleasing composition where all the letter shapes are perfectly written according to the classic rules, while in the same time producing a composition with unique relationships between the parts. The text is from the Holy Quran, surat "Al-Mu'minun" (23:116).

Jaly Diwani is the style of the Ottoman courts, which explains why it is so luxurious, ornate, and opulent. Mr. Madaki designed his piece, the end of surat "Al-Fath"(48:29), in the traditional 'boat' form, where the letters are decorated with diacritic (tashkeel) and ornamental marks. Only a few sinuous lines extend above and below the main body of the dense text.

Mr. Madaki's interest in Islamic art, dating from his boyhood in Haydarabad, lead to his traveling to Saudi Arabia where he worked on a major calligraphy project, before coming to the United States. His calligraphic pieces were admired in his latest New York exhibition which ended in October 1993, as they did in his first one-man show held in India when he was a mere twenty years old.

This writer received first award in Kufi, one of the earliest and most decorative styles of Arabic calligraphy. The aya prescribed for this style by the organizing committee is from surat "Al-Baqara"(2: 144). I divided the text into two equal sections, and extended the vertical letters to form a balanced pattern of braided lines and stylized arabesque floral shapes. The symmetry of the general composition is enlivened by the variations that result from relating the different letters to the overall pattern.

In one of the early sketches prepared for the competition, I wrote the aya in Square Kufi, and arranged it to form the shape of the Ka'bah. This idea did not work well because the text was too short, but I redesigned it later to produce the cover art for this magazine.

Although I had several art shows in the Middle East and United States, I received only limited traditional calligraphy training in Aleppo, Syria, where I grew up, under master calligrapher Ibrahim Rifa'i. My interest in the study of Islamic arts in general, and calligraphy in particular, increased continuously since I emigrated to the United States in 1978. At present I lecture on Arabic calligraphy in the University of Washington, and provide graphic and architectural design services to local, national, and international clients, including calligraphic panels for mosques and other Islamic buildings.

Abdul Rahman Yusuf is a Palestinian calligrapher who came to the United States in 1993, and submitted his winning entries from Dallas, Texas. In the previous calligraphy competition of 1991 he won a mention award in the Diwani style. In the present competition he received a mention award in Diwani again, as well as first award in Riqaa, the simple style of every day writing. He also designed and composed an oval piece in Jaly Thuluth, but did not have time to ink the finished version with the traditional reed pen, and did not enter it in the competition. The working sketch shows a great mastery of composition and control over the finest subtleties of traditional letter shapes. The text is the same as Jaly Thuluth work by calligrapher Madaki.

His mastery of composition is also evident in his Diwani entry, where he distributed the large curved letters in a balanced but asymmetric way, and chose the shapes of the individual letters to relate in the most pleasing way to the general composition. Mr. Yusuf said that his style in this piece is influenced by the great Iraqi master Hashem Al-Baghdadi in addition to the Turkish masters. He enjoys and excels in all the traditional cursive styles of Arabic calligraphy.

"The calligrapher must discern what is beautiful and what is most beautiful" says Mr. Yusuf, "he must have a sensitive taste that guide his selection of the most beautiful letter shapes, to produce calligraphy with balanced proportions, uniformity, and harmony in composition."

Mohammed Zakariya, who received an award in Jaly Thuluth in the first competition in 1987, received an incentive award in the same style in the present competition. Mr. Zakariya was born in California and became a Muslim when a teenager. He is the only American to receive an "icazet", Turkish for diploma, from the Research Center in Istanbul, after studying under the well known master calligrapher Hasan Çelebi by correspondence.

Since I was unable to obtain a copy of Mr. Zakariya's winning entry to the competition, here pictured instead are two of his latest works for clients overseas. One is in an old Ottoman proverb translated into modern Turkish letters: O mahiler ki deryada yuzerler, deryayi bilmezler. Or: the fish which swim in the sea are not cognizant of the nature of the sea. The other is a quotation from the Holy Quran (51: 56). Both are written in Jaly Thuluth, and display admirable skill in arranging the letter forms to create compositions of great harmony and beauty. Notice for example the pleasing rhythm created by the vertical lines in the figure above and how they contrast with the curved letters located at the lower part of the piece.

Mr. Zakariya exhibits his calligraphic work and lectures about calligraphy in the United States and the Middle East, and also builds working astrolabes and fine mechanical instruments. He has published two books, The Calligraphy of Islam: Reflections on the State of the Art and Observations on Islamic Calligraphy.

As the most prominent competition of traditional Islamic arts, the International Calligraphy Competition is stimulating the production, recognition, and appreciation of Arabic calligraphy the world over. Its sponsors are to be commended for their efforts in organizing this event. To better serve the competition's aim in preserving, promoting and developing the classical Islamic art of calligraphy I would suggest bringing the calligraphers together for a few days of face to face dialogue, exchange, and inspiration. Further more, bringing the exhibition of the winning works to tour North America will give a positive image of our culture, promote understanding through art appreciation, and connect millions of Muslims here with a wonderful and expressive part of their heritage. Such an exhibit may also encourage more American Muslims to practice the traditional art of calligraphy, and become more active participants in future competitions.


The calligraphers mentioned in the article can be reached at the following addresses:

A. Lateef Madaki: P.O. Box 1887, Peter Stuyvesant Station, New York, NY 10009

Mamoun Sakkal: 1523 - 175th PL SE, Bothell, WA 98012

A. Rahman Yusuf: 5127 Mark Trail Way # 24E, Dallas, TX 57232

Mohammed Zakariya: 536 N. Littleton St, Arlington, VA 22203

This article appeared first in Iqra Magazine May 1994 issue and is reprinted here with permission. To view the figures in the original article or to subscribe to Iqra magazine please contact: South Bay Islamic Association, 325 N. Third Street, San Jose, CA 95112, USA.

©SAKKAL DESIGN 1523 175th Place SE, Bothell, WA 98012, USA.