Have you seen this New York Times review of a phenomenal new exhibition showing now at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.? Titled The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts , it is the “first major presentation” of Qur’anic manuscripts in the United States and features almost sixty pieces from between the 8th and 17th centuries. It looks so incredible, I only wish I lived more locally so I could view it in person.
Last year, I had the privilege of volunteering my skills in aid of a prestigious international Islamic Art Charity Sale. From around the globe, master artists and artisans donated their work to be sold in benefit of a ground-breaking and innovative mosque project. As each new piece arrived, we unwrapped it carefully to feast our eyes on pieces which ranged from watercolour drawings to plaster carvings.
One sunny afternoon, we gathered to photograph some calligraphic pieces. With no expectations of what this package may contain, I lifted the protective covers and gasped. Shimmering and radiant, seemingly reaching out to me from it’s paper ground, the work I had uncovered was so arresting and sublime it had, quite literally, taken my breath away.
Arabic calligraphy, particularly Qur’anic calligraphy, is an artform beloved by Muslims worldwide. It’s meaningful beauty a source of spiritual strength, pride and honour at a time when so many visual representations of our faith are twisted into ugly caricatures.
And although we love to admire it, purchase prints, posters and vinyl decals, there is also this sense that the greatest original works of traditional Islamic calligraphy – those which fill the page with their precisely balanced and flowing strokes, surrounding by luminous, detailed golden illuminations, are somehow a thing of the past. Somehow no longer part of our world.
And yet, on that day, in front of me lay a transcendent piece of pure, ethereal beauty – very much created in the modern world, by living artists. My most immediate questions were where did it come from, how was it made and how much was it? Needless to say, it was completely beyond my budget but through these questions I came to learn about the amazing Özçay family.
They are three siblings from Turkey, Mehmed, Osman and Fatma, whose exquisite mastery and understanding of Islamic calligraphy and illumination is directly connected to the finest calligraphers and illuminators of the past and yet, their own work is fully actualized in the present and at times even reinterpreted for a more contemporary context.
Mehmed Özçay and Osman Özçay are master calligraphers, while their sister, Fatma Özçay is a master illuminator. Separately and together, they create the type of art which hangs in museums and private collections around the world. And yet, despite the high status of their work, many people will have never heard of them.
Qur’anic calligraphy, like almost all Islamic arts, is a living tradition which, thankfully, is still available to us in it’s most finessed form. Since that first encounter with their artwork last year, I have developed something of an obsession with the art of the Özçay siblings and am delighted to share some of my favourites here. No photograph can do these artworks justice, but trust me, this is traditional Islamic calligraphy at its most glorious.
Iqra (Read) | Calligraphy by Osman Özçay | Illumination by Fatma Özçay
This is the piece, that upon unwrapping, started it all. It’s difficult to tell by this image, but the calligraphy is done in a gold so rich and deep that it seems to glow from within. The illumination around it is so subtle that it appear to ‘float’ up from the depths of the paper.
Bismillah (In The Name of God) | Calligraphy by Mehmed Özçay | Illumination by Fatma Özçay
How beautiful is the juxtaposition here between the strong bold strong of the basmalla and the delicate, almost charming floral illumination surrounding it? This is one of the precise classic styles the Özçay siblings are known for.
Lā Ḥawla Wa Lā Quwwata Illā Billāh (There Is No Might Nor Power Except In Allah.) | Calligraphy by Mehmed Özçay | Illumination by Fatma Özçay
Verse from Surah al-Baqara | Calligraphy by Mehmed Özçay | Illumination by Fatma Özçay
“[Our life] takes its colour from God, and who can give a better colour than God? It is Him we worship” Surah Baqara, Chapter 2, Verse 138.
‘Ashq’ & ‘Mashq’ | Calligraphy by Mehmed Özçay
This form of calligraphy is known as a Karmala, literally translated at “scribble”. Developed by the artist with coloured inks, my eyes enjoy these dynamic and modern-looking compositions.
Karmala | Calligraphy by Osman Özçay
Here is another Karmala, this time by Osman Özçay. This one reminds me of calligraphy practice sheets, where each letter is set against dots or nuktas made by the pen in order to ensure their perfect proportions – although, of course, this is far more beautiful and accomplished, I am fascinated by seeing the usually hidden measurements made visible here.
Calligraphy by Osman Özçay | Illumination by Fatma Özçay
How utterly striking and gorgeous is this piece? I can’t stop looking at it for all it’s detailed perfection. Stunning.
Illumination by Fatma Özçay
A close up detail of the most beautiful illumination. Each stroke so fine and carefully placed, I could fall into this pattern and happily stay there.
Illumination by Fatma Özçay
The subtlety and grace of this work keeps me returning to look at it – so thoughtful, serene and pleasing to both eye and heart.
“Nun! By the pen and all they write.” | Calligraphy by Osman Özçay
Yet another karmala because I love them so much and just had to get it in here! This one centers upon the sacred letter nun and the opening verse of chapter 68 of the Qur’an, al-Qalam (The Pen). The colours in this are slightly more subdued but the mark in the middle reminds me of a golden ka’aba circumambulated by letters.
Hadith (Saying of the Prophet) | Calligraphy by Mehmed Özçay | Illumination by Fatma Özçay
Verse from Surah Hud | Calligraphy by Mehmed Özçay | Illumination by Fatma Özçay
“It is He Who hath produced you from the earth and settled you therein” Surah Hud, Chapter 11, Verse 61. Love the sunshiny colour. Love the perfectly balanced calligraphy. Love the golden paper. Love. Love. Love.
“Vaw” | Calligraphy by Mehmed Özçay
I have to say it… this is a definite “wow”!
La Illaha Ill Allah (There Is No god But Allah) | Calligraphy by Mehmed Özçay | Illumination by Fatma Özçay
The power of illumination means that a difference in it and ink colour completely changes the feel of otherwise identical calligraphic forms.
MashAllah (Allah Has Willed It) | Calligraphy by Osman Özçay
If you’d like to know more about traditional Islamic calligraphy, it’s historical importance and development, here is a short overview.
“Iqra” Image courtesy of the Cambridge Islamic Art Sale, all other images from ozcay.com