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Earlier this week, I had the honor of sitting in on a guest lecture by renowned Islamic calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya.  Mr. Zakariya, who has spent years practicing and studying under Turkish masters, spoke about the different styles and the history of calligraphy in Islamic art.  Already suffering from a profound weakness for the Arabic script, Mr. Zakariya’s slideshow of examples gave me goosebumps.

In the name of God, who soaks His entire creation with His mercy, who directs His mercy specifically: Truly, the promise of God is true, so do not be fooled by the life of the world, and do not let the deceiving devil fool you about God. Only God knows when the last day will happen, He sends the rain, and He knows what is in the wombs. No soul shall know what it will earn tomorrow, and no soul shall know in what land it will die. Truly, God is all-knowing, all-informed.

One thing I noticed about the lecture is that while it was scholarly and serious, it was also full of rapture and joy.  Mr. Zakariya constantly referred to the “music” of certain calligraphic pieces.  He said that a beautiful piece of calligraphy is to the Islamic tradition what the nude is in Western painting: its purity, its form, its “sinuosity” representing the height of art.  He also described it as a very “intimate piece of art”; to really grasp the beauty of a calligraphic manuscript, one has to view it while holding it in the hand, off the shelf and out from the display glass, putting one’s face right up next to the text to see how the paper was burnished, how the border was constructed, how the ink flowed from the pen.  He said that it is difficult to put into words what differentiates an excellent piece from a merely lovely one; there is an “indescribable extra,” he said, that “turns it into visual music.”  Displaying a photograph of one exquisite example he had seen in person, he said “When you see a piece like this, you can’t get enough of it.”  From my limited knowledge of Islam, particularly the mystical branches that come out of Turkey and Iran, I can see how this art reflects the religious experience: at once strict, empirical, scholarly, and dedicated, and also poetic, experimental, spiritual, and above all, ecstatic.

How does one describe the indescribable? How does one form an image of that which cannot be portrayed? That is what the hilye does…it embodies the Prophet’s moral, behavioral, and spiritual qualities as well as physical appearance.

Reading, or even simply viewing, a well-produced hilye can refresh the heart and mind. It gives us, so many generations later, a kind of intimacy with the Prophet, as though we had known him. To see him in this way is to allow him to show the way.

Of course, calligraphy is never just about pretty shapes.  As Mr. Zakariya said to me when I got to meet him after the lecture, “this is all about language.”  During his lecture, after displaying several slides of various permutations of the bismillah, the phrase that invokes the grace and mercy of God before every sura of the Quran, Mr. Zakariya noted that if you look at Islamic art or texts you’ve inevitably seen the bismillah hundreds of time.  “But,” he noted, “it is perhaps the most potent phrase in all of Islamic literature.”  Calligraphy, he says, has the ability to make a thing new; a particularly beautiful calligraphic rendering of the phrase causes the reader/viewer to stop and see the phrase with new eyes, and to reflect on its meaning once again.  “If you put the hadith,” the sayings of the Prophet, “in a beautiful setting, it allows you to look at them in a different way,” he added later.  At the same time, he marveled out loud at lines, movement, the perfect formation of a dot marking a consonant, the spacing of characters within and between words.

O cat, you left us and didn’t come back
And you were to me like a son,
So how can we get loose from the bonds of our love for you?
You were like a part of our household to us.
You would drive away harmful things and guard us
In the dark from snakes and crickets.

In Islamic calligraphy, language serves art, and vice versa.  Language, art, and religion dance together to a verbal, textual, visual music.

Photos: “Do Not Be Fooled” & “Lament for a Dead Cat”, Kaz Tsuruta
“Hilye in Red”, Mohamed Zakariya

Thanks to Sally Banks Zakariya for images, translations, and notes.