“Practice 30 hours a day,” is what world-renowned master calligrapher Hasan Celebi always tells his students. “With this philosophy, you can become a master,” Celebi said smiling, sitting in his atelier office in Üsküdar, İstanbul.

It’s Saturday afternoon and his students have gathered around him, waiting patiently for their work to be corrected. Calligraphic works from Topkapı Palace and from museums and galleries in Oxford and London adorn the walls of his office, while the bright, hot İstanbul summer sun spills into the room through the huge glass windows.

His fingers tremble and twitch as he pulls out his glasses to examine his students’ calligraphic work. Unsteadily with his old hands shaking, he unravels the roll of beige paper.

Beautiful solid black lines and curves form words from the Holy Quran in Arabic “Bismillahirahmanirahim” (In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful).

Taking a thinly carved reed pen, Celebi prepares it by pressing its nib against his thumbnail, dips it in purple tinted ink and starts to correct. His hand which was trembling a second before, is firm as he presses the pen against the smooth paper, creating perfect flowing letters. Students talk to him and tell him stories as he writes; he listens calmly and replies but never lifts his eyes from the paper.

Notes from a master

“This is too narrow,” he comments softly while fixing the letter “sin.” He thickens the loop in the letter. His reed pen makes a surprisingly loud screeching sound as he writes.

“This letter should be more to the left,” he commented. “Muhammad,” he said, talking to his student and rewriting the name on his piece of calligraphy, “learn how to write your name.”

When he’s finished, Celebi hands back each student their piece. There are quite a few mistakes in what seemed to be impeccable pieces of calligraphy to the inexperienced eye. The students’ letters differ from Celebi’s corrections only by millimeters.

Calligraphy is a difficult and ancient art form that requires practice and patience. The art is incredibly precise; its measurement value is smaller than the feet of a flea, Celebi explained.

Yet 76-year-old Celebi makes it look easy, writing calligraphy so swiftly, the connected letters flowing smoothly out like a small stream.

Celebi’s long list of achievements include restoring the calligraphy panels at the Blue Mosque, the Bayezid Mosque and the Hırka-i Şerif Mosque in İstanbul; at the tomb of Cem in Bursa and the Masjid an-Nabawi in Madinah, Saudi Arabia.

His work is featured in mosques worldwide including those in Belgium, Germany, South Africa and Kazakhstan. He’s been practicing the art for 48 years and says he still hasn’t learned it completely.

“I’m still learning, it’s a difficult art,” Celebi said calmly, sitting behind his desk. His voice is strained from old age, yet he still has a head full of thick, grey hair. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve studied it for 100 years, you’ll always have an opportunity to further develop yourself; it never ends,” he added.

It’s not hard to understand why calligraphy is so complex. With figurative art considered idolatrous in Islam (drawing images of people for display is strictly forbidden), letters and words are used instead to depict meanings by using verses from the Quran, hadiths (narrations of the Prophet Muhammad) and proverbs. The art of calligraphy is based entirely on the written form.

It first started out as a way to transcribe the Holy Quran and to preserve the direct words of God using Arabic script. Special care was taken in transcribing the sacred book, and the art of calligraphy, or “beautiful writing,” developed as a result.

It became a spiritual way to remember Allah (God) and to present religious meaning in sacred mosques. Calligraphy flourished throughout the Middle East, changing its capital from Damascus to Baghdad. The art created took on different styles in Iran, India and in the Maghreb (North Africa and Islamic Spain).

İstanbul’s new primacy

After the conquest of İstanbul in 1453, the city became the religious and cultural center of the Ottoman Empire, allowing calligraphy to flourish there like nowhere else. İstanbul had the honor of becoming the world’s center of Islamic calligraphy, which has been the case until the present day.

Just like how Celebi has so far taught his craft to over 60 students from all over the world, so was the case centuries ago when Ottoman calligraphers taught their own students, passing down the craft for generations.

Celebi’s most successful student, Mohamed Zakariya, a master calligrapher from America, explained in his article “Music for the Eyes” how numerous Turkish calligraphers advanced the art, changing it forever.

Among them was Seyh Hamdullah, who in the 15th century redesigned calligraphy’s structure to give “motion, tension and energy to the writing,” Zakariya explained. Hamdullah refined the measurements of letters and regularized spacing between letters and words, giving it a more open, lighter feel. New scripts were created, saving the writing from rigidity.

“There is a saying the Quran came to Mecca, it was read in Cairo and it was written in İstanbul,” Professor Cengiz Tomar said proudly, leaning back in his chair at the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) in İstanbul.

After visiting the Ulu Mosque in Bursa, the Ottoman Empire’s first capital city, just 90 kilometers away from İstanbul, it was clear to me that Islamic calligraphy is of paramount importance here. I had come to visit the brightly colored buildings of IRCICA in İstanbul’s stylish district of Beşiktaş to ask the experts the meaning behind the wonderful Islamic calligraphy at the Ulu Mosque.

The Ulu Mosque is a huge, rectangular, 15th century mosque predating any mosque in İstanbul. From the outside, the mosque looks plain and simple, built with gray and light brown bricks, but the moment I stepped inside my eyes were dazzled by the most beautiful Islamic inscriptions hiding within.

The mosque features the greatest examples of Islamic calligraphy in the world. One hundred ninety-two inscriptions created by 21 famous Ottoman calligraphers illuminate every wall and pillar. In other words, it’s pretty much a museum inside a mosque.

“Calligraphy is music for the eyes” is an Arab proverb to which this mosque can attest.

Gigantic words in gold covering a black frame are written out in Arabic: “Hua,” or “He” (God). Using the same accents used for the letters in “Hua,” a bird’s eye view of a person praying in the “secda” (prostration) position is depicted subtly at the top of the word.

Another wall displays a tongue twister about the hajj pilgrimage.

On every inscription, each letter seems to have its own character. There are letters like “tah” with long tails at the end that swerve spontaneously through the piece, as if wondering how far it can go. Other letters like “elif” stand tall and proud, with a deep, sharp end, like a dangerous dagger. Dots are playfully added everywhere.

But if there’s one letter that stands out from them all it would be “waw.” As I looked around the mosque, “waw” appeared almost in every inscription. There were “waws” drawn depicting a baby in a mother’s womb; other formed a sun, reciting “Surah Shams” (The Sun). “Waws” were inverted and overlapped to make a human face and another inverted “waw” depicted a believer in the secde position, which is the purest form of submission to Allah. All this was depicted just from using one letter.

As Celebi explained in his office, as well as Professor Said Kasimoglu from IRCICA, “waw” is the most difficult letter in the Arab alphabet to draw perfectly; calligraphers draw it to prove themselves great calligraphers.

But there’s a lot more to it.

The numbers of calligraphy

For each letter there is also a numerical value, or the “abjed” value. For example, waw has the value of six. The word “Allah” has the abjed value of 66. When two “waws” are placed side by side they represent Allah. Likewise, “waw” is also used to represent the six pillars of faith.

“The greatest part [about Islamic calligraphy] is that it’s an Islamic art, and I serve Islam in this way,” Celebi said back in his office. “What I write are the words of God, the words of the Quran, and that’s why it is the greatest thing to do.”

Representations of Allah can also be found in the tulip flower, often drawn on the tip end of the “waw.” Like all things in Islamic calligraphy, the tulip was chosen for a reason. The Turkish name for tulip is “lale,” which has the same letters used for Allah. Unlike other flowers, the tulip can only produce a single tulip from one seed. This singleness represents the unity of Allah. The connections that a tulip and Allah share are plentiful.

With such deep symbolism, numerical values and tiny measurements in letters the size of a “flea’s foot,” Islamic calligraphy is an art that requires plenty of patience and practice.

One of Celebi’s current students, Muhammad Hobe, 32, from Johannesburg, South Africa, explained that it wasn’t immediately apparent to him how difficult it really was to master calligraphy. “I thought it would maybe take me three, four months to finish [training with Celebi],” Hobe said. “But when I came here I said I need 10 years at least.”

Celebi agreed and said the education process that one has with his or her master is the equivalent of studying at two universities.

“Apart from patience and practice, there are four other elements [required to become a master calligrapher],” Celebi said slowly. He resembles a wise, old grandfather who is about to tell his grandchildren an insightful story. “The instruments that you use are important: the paper, the ink, the pen and the hand. When all of them are combined in harmony with each other, calligraphy is born,” he stated.

“But becoming a master also means that when you have a problem in your writing, you are able to see which one is the problem. Is it the paper, the ink, the pen or the hand?” he further added.

God willing, Celebi’s Islamic calligraphy will continue to embellish the city of İstanbul with its beautifully swerving “tahs” and dagger-like “elifs.” Driven by his love for Allah, İstanbul will soon behold his longest and most magnificent piece of calligraphy which he is currently working on: writing out the entire Quran.

Published on October 01, 2012.

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