Islamic Calligraphy

“I try to keep people’s eyes on the Middle East, because the area is so essential to Japan,” Professor Yuriko Koike, former Japanese Environment Minister (2004-2006) and Defense Minister (2007). She was born on July 15, 1952 and graduated in 1976 from Cairo University (Egypt). She speaks Arabic and writes in Islamic calligraphy as hobby. Watch a video of her speech on the occasion of the establishment of the Sasakawa Middle East Islamic Fund below.

Arabic calligraphy has always been the supreme art form of the Islamic world. From the very begining of the Islamic faith – Arabic calligraphy has expressed and enhanced the aesthetic and spiritual dimensions of Islam in the shape of Qur’anic calligraphy. Not only that – it also played a major role in the other Islamic arts, such as,  architecture, metalwork, ceramics, glass and textiles – draw on calligraphy as their principal source of embellishment. With the spread of Islam – Arabic calligraphy first spread to Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt and later to North Africa, Spain, Sicily and in the east to Iran, Central Asia, China, India, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Burma.

The British Muslim convert, Professor Martin Lings (1909-2005), in his book “The Qur’anic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination” wrote:

“It must not be forgotten that one of the greatest purposes of Qur’anic calligraphy is to provide a visual sacrament. It is a widespread practice in Islam to gaze intently at Qura’nic inscriptions so as to extract a blessing from them, or in other words so that through the windows of sight the soul may be penetrated by the Divine radiance of ‘The Sign of God’, as the verses are called”.

Sheldon Chad, an award-winning screenwriter and journalist from Montreal (Canada) has written an excellent article, titled Shodo Arabic, on the Japanese interest shown in Islamic calligraphy:

“Inside the Arabic Islamic Institute in Tokyo, 15 students of calligraphy raptly practice writing verses from the Qur’an. Yet when the call to prayer is heard, few stir. The instructors and students are Japanese, and only two are Muslims. Here, their calligrapher’s pens (qalam in Arabic) are not made of reeds, as is traditional in much of the Islamic world. Nor do they use the brushes (fude) favored by Japanese calligraphers. Their pens are made of bamboo, which is plentiful in Japan.

Yukari Takahashi, who owns an elegant Tokyo nightclub, holds up a sheet of Japanese rice paper with embossed floral patterns framing immaculate calligraphy. I ask her why she studies Arabic calligraphy, and, in her limited English, she answers, “Very beautiful.” Other practitioners—a retired consul-general, a choreographer and dancer, the head of the Tokyo City Retirement Fund—also mention beauty first when describing their attraction to Arabic calligraphy. When asked about the cultural value behind a Japanese appreciation of Arabic calligraphy, Professor Yasushi Kosugi’s simple reply echoes the calligraphy student’s: “Beauty.” “Because that is the target,” he says. “We have to attain the beauty.”

Koichi Yamaoka says, “People don’t know about Islam. They only know Muslim people can marry four wives; they don’t eat pork…. Only superficial knowledge. So when I teach Arabic calligraphy, I explain the background of the culture.” 

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