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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 8    Issue 21   16-31 March 2014

Hasan Celebi
Turkey's Master Calligrapher

Professor A. R. MOMIN

The Arabic script has an inherent flexibility and fluidity and an unparalleled elegance. The eminent German orientalist Hellmut Ritter (1892-1971) described the Arabic script as the “queen of all scripts.” Calligraphers, artists and architects have used the Arabic script for a wide range of decorative forms, mediums and abstract patterns. The development of the Arabic script marks a fascinating chapter in the annals of Islamic art. The script in which the earliest copies of the Quran and the letters of the Prophet were written was an adapted and refined form of the Nabatean script. In the course of time, a refined, angular form of this script, known as Kufi, was developed. Subsequently, calligraphers developed several variants of the Kufi script, such as floriated Kufi, plaited Kufi and ornamental Kufid. The Kufi script reached its fullness in the second half of the second century of the Islamic era.

Abu Ali Muhammad Ibn Muqla (886-940 CE), a renowned calligrapher of Persian descent who was an official of the Abbasid caliphate, introduced some important innovations as well as systematization into Arabic calligraphy. He developed a more cursive and rounded script known as Naskhi. In addition, he invented five other scripts: Thuluth, Rayhani, Muhaqqaq, Riqa and Tauqi.

Ibn al-Bawwab (d. 1032 CE) refined the Nskhi, Rayhani and Muhaqqaq scripts and added elegance to them. He wrote the Quran in the Naskhi script. Some of the fragments of the Quran written by Ibn al-Bawwab are to be found in libraries and museums in Turkey, Egypt and Europe. The Quran Collection at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin has more than 260 copies and fragments of the Quran. The gem of the collection is a complete Quran copy written by Ibn al-Bawwab. A complete facsimile edition of the copy was published in Paris in 1972 and was sold out in a short time.

Yaqut al-Musta’simi (d. 1298 CE), who is considered the most accomplished Arabic calligrapher in the 13th century, was an official at the court of the last Abbasid caliph al-Mustasim. He introduced further refinements in the Naskhi script.

Persian calligraphers developed and refined a distinctive script, known as Taliq or Nastaliq. It was refined by Mir Ali Tabrizi in the early decades of the 15th century. The Nastaliq script reached great heights in Persia, India and Turkey. A distinctive script was developed in the western part of the Muslim world, from Andalusia to North Africa, which came to be known as the Maghribi script.

Muslim calligraphers used a variety of materials, including paper, metal, ivory, marble, glass, wood, textiles, ceramics and stone. They left the imprint of their creative skills on the domes, walls and mihrab of mosques, on madrasas, caravanserais and palaces, on vessels, ceramic plates and bowls, boxes and lamp-shades, and on marble and stone covers of mausoleums. Calligraphy was also used in delicate mother-of-pearl inlays, on tortoise shells, engraved on helmets and swords and embroidered on flags.

Calligraphy in Turkey

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.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the establishment of Turkey as a republican and secular state in 1923, Ataturk launched a state-sponsored project of modernization, Westernization and secularization and introduced sweeping changes in Turkish society, with a view to make it a mirror-image of Western societies. The education system was overhauled and modern subjects replaced the traditional Islamic subjects. The Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar and Islamic family laws were supplanted by the Swiss Code. Turkish replaced Arabic as the liturgical language and it was decreed that calling the faithful to prayer (azan) should be in Turkish, not in Arabic. People were prohibited from going on pilgrimage to Makkah. The Quran was to be read not in Arabic but in its Turkish translation. The post of Shaykh al-Islam was abolished and the ulama were made state employees under the authority of the ministry of religious affairs. Sufi orders were banned and Islamic madrasas and Sufi lodges (tekkes) and shrines were closed down. Sunday replaced Friday as the weekly public holiday. The Arabic script of the Turkish language was changed to Latin and a systematic move was launched to purge it of words of Arabic origin. The wearing of the traditional Turkish cap – fez -- was prohibited and the wearing of veils and headscarves was banned in all public institutions, including schools, universities, government offices and public hospitals. In 1928 the Assembly voted in favour of deleting the words ‘The religion of the Turkish state is Islam’ from Article 2 of the constitution. The ruling regime sought to nationalize and manipulate religion in order to make it subservient to the secular ideology of the state.

The deliberate and systematic marginalization of Arabic and the replacement of the script of the Turkish language from Arabic to Latin dealt a severe blow to Turkey’s cultural heritage, including Arabic calligraphy. However, a small but dedicated group of Turkish calligraphers, led by Hamid Aytac, Necmeddin Efendi (d. 1976) and Halim Ozyazici, kept the tradition of Arabic calligraphy alive.

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 two books on the contributions of Mustafa Halim Oyzazici and Mehmed Sevki Efendi. 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.

Turkey has the distinction of having the world’s largest calligraphic museum, the Museum of Turkish Calligraphic Art, which is located in Bayezid Madrasa in Istanbul.

Hasan Celebi

Hasan Celebi, the greatest among contemporary calligraphers in Turkey and one of the Muslim 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. Celebi was an Imam at Selami Cami Mosque in Uskudar, Istanbul for many years. His calligraphic works adorn the mosque’s mihrab, dome and walls.

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.

Celebi held his first calligraphic exhibition at IRCICA in 1982. In 1984 he was invited to hold an exhibition of his calligraphic works in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In 1985 he was invited by Jordan’s Prince Hasan bin Talal to hold an exhibition of his works in Amman.

Celebi has received several honours in recognition of his monumental contributions to Islamic calligraphy. In 2008 he received the Service Award from the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. He has received awards from the Dubai and Kuwait governments for his contributions to Arabic calligraphy. In 2009 he was elected an honorary member of the Supreme Council in the Hosnuvisan Encumeni in Tehran.

Celebi is also a renowned teacher of calligraphy. Since 1976 he has trained and given certificates of practice (ijaza) to more than 50 students from Turkey, United States and other countries. One of his well-known students is the American calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya, who was trained by him in Istanbul in 1984.

Mohamed Zakaria clearly remembers the cold winter day in January 1984 when he met Hasan Celebi in the office of Dr Ekmeleddin Ihsanogu, former Director-General, IRCICA, at Yildiz Saray in Istanbul. Zakariya, then 44, was faced with an agonizing crisis in his calligraphic career. He felt that he could not make any progress as a calligrapher. His long search for a master calligrapher and mentor brought him to Istanbul. Dr Ihsanoglu told Zakariya, “Let’s offer you a deal. In order to make progress in calligraphy, you must give up all you have learned and learn everything again”. Zakariya readily agreed and began his apprenticeship under Celebi. He received his certificate (icazetname) from Celebi in 1988 and is now among the world’s well-known Arabic calligraphers.

I had the privilege of meeting Mr Hasan Celebi in Istanbul in 1993. I gave a lecture at IRCICA and thereafter requested Dr Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu to arrange a meeting with Celebi. He asked one of his office staff to accompany me to Celebi’s residence. He received me with utmost courtesy and cordiality, offered me Turkish cay (tea) and showed me some of his calligraphic pieces. I was greatly impressed by his humility, courtesy and simplicity. I requested him to write my name in the Naskhi script on a piece of paper, to which he readily agreed. Since I have considerable interest in Arabic calligraphy since my student years, I tried to copy the way he wrote my name with his calligraphic pen (which he makes with his own hand and which makes considerable sound as it moves). He then made a few corrections in my writing. I consider him my teacher in calligraphy. A couple of years later, I requested him to write Ayat al-kursi on paper, which could be enlarged and engraved on marble, to be fixed on the wall of the mihrab in a mosque in my native place. He was kind enough to oblige.

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