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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 12    Issue 20   01 - 15 April 2018

The Calligraphic World of Soraya Syed

Minaret Research Network

One of the most precious and lasting gifts of Islamic civilization to humanity lies in its revolutionary view of the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge and learning. Islam makes it obligatory on every Muslim – man and woman, child and adult, rich and poor – to acquire knowledge and learning. It flung open the doors of knowledge to all and sundry, regardless of the distinctions of gender, class, occupation and status. More importantly, Islam spawned and promoted a culture of writing. Writing, or the commitment of the word to space, enlarges the potentiality of language almost beyond measure. More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness. The culture of literacy entails an emphasis on the accuracy of transmission and a sense of history. Writing has played a crucial role in the preservation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge.

Unlike many other cultures and civilizations, Islam admits of no distinction or discrimination between men and women in respect of the acquisition of knowledge and learning. Women have unhindered access to all knowledge, including scriptural, scientific and literary knowledge. Similarly, women who have acquired proficiency in learning and scholarship are permitted to teach others, including men. It is little surprise, therefore, that we find thousands of names of Muslim women in Islamic history who had expertise in Quranic exegesis, Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence and other disciplines.

The contribution of Islamic civilization to the enrichment of humanity is manifold and covers wide-ranging areas, including Islamic disciplines, historiography, international law, literature, science, medicine, technology, architecture, music, and arts and crafts. One of the most splendid contributions of Islamic civilization relates to the development of the art of calligraphy. Islamic calligraphy attained spectacular heights during the Ottoman era. The Ottoman sultans were great patrons of artists, calligraphers, architects, poets, artisans and men of letters. Sultan Bayezid II, who was a connoisseur of art and a great patron of calligraphy, encouraged and supported Sayyid Hamdullah, a gifted calligrapher who introduced systematization and important reforms and innovations in the Thuluth script. The calligraphic masterpieces that adorn the walls and domes of thousands of mosques, madrasas, caravanserais, palaces and other public buildings across Turkey testify to the creative genius of Turkish calligraphers. It is no exaggeration to say that no Muslim country can compete with Turkey in its magnificent artistic and cultural heritage. The city of Istanbul represents a living museum of Islamic art, architecture and calligraphy.

Ottoman Turkey produced a galaxy of eminent calligraphers, including Sayyid Hamdullah (1429-1520), Ahmet Karahisari (who lived in the 16th century), Hafiz Osman Efendi (d. 1698), Mehmet Esad Yesari Efendi (d. 1798), Ismail Zuhdi Efendi (d. 1806), Mustafa Raqim Efendi (d. 1826), Yesarizade Mustafa Ezzet Efendi (d. 1849), Kadiasker Mustafa Ezzat Effendi (d. 1876), Mehmet Sevki Efendi (d. 1887), Sami Efendi (1838-1912), Hamid Aytac (1891-1982) and Halim Ozyazici (1898-1964). Kadiasker Mustafa Ezzat Effendi wrote the monumental 23-feet roundels depicting the names of Allah, the Prophet and the Four Caliphs at the Hagia Sophia Mosque (now a museum) in Istanbul. Sami Efendi was the official inscriber and teacher of calligraphy in the Ottoman court.

The Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA), a subsidiary of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, has played a highly important role in preserving Turkey’s magnificent calligraphic legacy and in its promotion and dissemination. It has published a series of albums on the masterpieces of Turkish calligraphy and has produced a documentary on Hamid Aytac. It has published An Annotated Bibliography of Calligraphy (2002), Masterpieces of Calligraphy in Islam (1992) and The Art of Calligraphy in Islamic Heritage (in English, Turkish, Arabic, Malay and Japanese languages). Since 1987 IRCICA has been organizing international calligraphic competitions and has published catalogues of winners’ plates. In 2010 IRCICA organised an international symposium on female calligraphers.

Soraya Syed

Soraya Syed was born in London in 1976 to immigrant parents. Her father is of Pakistani origin, whose family migrated to Kenya and thence to London in the 1960s. Her mother is French, who moved to London in the 1970s.

Syed graduated from the Central Saint Martin College of Arts and Design, London in 1995 and thereafter enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, where she studied Arabic and the history of art. She completed the course in 1999. A fortuitous encounter kindled an deep and lasting fascination with Islamic calligraphy. In the summer of 1999 a group of Turkish artists and calligraphers came to London to participate in a symposium and workshop on art and to exhibit their artistic works. Syed spent two weeks at the workshop and had the good fortune of learning the intricacies of Islamic calligraphy from an accomplished Turkish calligrapher Efdaluddin Kilic.

Efdalüddin Kılıç

Efdalüddin Kılıç (born 1968) graduated from the Faculty of Theology at Marmara University in 1990. He studied calligraphy with Hüsrev Subaşı and Muhiddin Serin. In 1993 Kılıç obtained a Master’s degree from the Department of Traditional Turkish Handicrafts at the Institute of Social Sciences at Marmara University. He then studied sülüs and nesih writings with the renowned Turkish calligrapher Hasan Çelebi, and received a professional license on calligraphy from him. In the 1994, Kılıç won a mention prize in the International Calligraphy Competition in the name of Ibn al-Bawwab, which was organized by IRCICA. Between 1996 and 2000, he worked on Kufic calligraphic designs for tiles for the Iznik Foundation in Istanbul. Between 1997 and 2000, Kılıç restored 20 pieces of the celebrated Egyptian master Seyyid Ibrahim at his workshop in Istanbul. He prepared a 64-metre long sülüs panel for the Üç Şerefeli Mosque in Edirne.

Kılıç has participated in numerous group exhibitions in Turkey and abroad including Germany, US, France, England, Ireland, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. In 1999 he was invited to the UK to give seminars on traditional Turkish and Islamic arts and to teach calligraphy for two months. Currently Kilic is working as a lecturer in the history of traditional Turkish arts at the University of Marmara.

In 1999 Soraya Syed enrolled for the Master’s programme in Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts at the Prince’s School in London. As part of the programme, she spent a year in Alexandria, Egypt to study Arabic. There she met an eminent Egyptian calligrapher Celal Ibrahim Muhammad and learned Islamic calligraphy from him. After completing the programme in 2001, Syed travelled to Istanbul to study Islamic calligraphy from the master calligrapher Hasan Celebi.

Hasan Celebi

Hasan Celebi, the greatest among contemporary Turkish calligraphers and one of the world’s most accomplished calligraphers, was born in 1937 in Erzurum in eastern Turkey. He learned calligraphy under the tutelage of some of the greatest calligraphers of his time, such as Halim Ozyazici (1898-1964), Hamid Aytac (1891-1982) and Kemal Batanay (1893-1981). He received a certificate in Naskhi and Thuluth calligraphy from Hamid Aytac in 1971 and in Taliq and Riqa from Kemal Batanay in 1980.

Hasan Celebi has produced numerous calligraphic panels for mosques, academic institutions and conferences, has been closely associated with the restoration of calligraphic panels in mosques in Madinah and Turkey, and has held exhibitions of his calligraphic work in several countries. In 1983 Celebi was invited to work on the restoration of calligraphic panels in the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, which were set up during the Ottoman era. He was closely associated with the restoration of calligraphic panels in several mosques in Turkey, including the inner dome of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and the inner dome of the Hirka-i- Sherif Mosque in Istanbul. Celebi’s calligraphic works are inscribed in Quba Mosque, Masjid al-Qiblatayn and Masjid al-Jum’ah in Madinah, Jum’ah Mosque in Johannesberg, Almati Jum’ah Mosque in Kazakhstan, Faith Mosque in Pfortzheim, Germany and Islamic Medical Centre in Kuwait. (See “Hasan Celebi: Turkey’s Master Calligrapher” The IOS Minaret (https://www.iosminaret.org/vol-8/issue21/Hasan_Celebi.php)

After spending a year or so Syed went back to London and got married there. In 2003 she moved to Istanbul again with her husband and stayed in the city for three years. After working under the tutelage of Celebi for nearly four years, Syed was awarded the icazetname or authoritative calligraphic licence from IRCICA in 2005. She then learned the diwani calligraphic style from Ali Alparsalan Hoca at the Sulemaniye Library, Istanbul. In 2006 she returned to London and embarked on her career as a professional calligrapher.

Syed’s calligraphic work has been exhibited in solo as well as in group exhibitions on Islamic calligraphy in many parts of the world, including Europe, Middle East and Turkey. She has participated in various calligraphy workshops around the world, lectured on Islamic calligraphy at several universities and worked with the British Museum, the British Council and the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha.

Syed organised a solo show on Islamic calligraphy, entitled Hurriyyah (Freedom), at Leighton House Museum in London in 2013, which received support from the Arts Council of England. She has created a mobile phone app called Nuqta, which creates a social-led archive of Arabic calligraphy. She produced a hologram and 3D digital installation entitled Pen and the Sword in response to a commission by Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford, as part of their Bradford Museums and Galleries International Art Collection, 2015.


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