BIOGRAPHY:  The World of Mohamed Zakariya

Piney Kesting

Posted Jan 1, 2004      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The World of Mohamed Zakariya

by Piney Kesting

Mohamed Zakariya is a modern man practicing ancient arts. “In a sense, I am a jack-of-all-trades. I like the stimulation and the variety,” he explains, as he methodically stirs a mortar of ink in his pleasantly cluttered studio. He was preparing his own home-made black ink for his calligraphy, many examples of which hang on the walls of his small studio. Sundials and intricately engraved brass astrolabes, all made by Zakariya, decorate the tops of bookshelves that overflow with titles in Turkish, Arabic and Rumanian.

Old calligraphy exercises from his tutors in Istanbul lie on a others completed by Zakariya’s own students. Above the table, wooden shelves hold brightly colored rows of specially prepared watercolors with names like cadmium red, rose madder and Chinese vermilion. Glass jars of calligraphy pens, carved from bamboo and reed by Zakariya himself, sit neatly arranged on his desk.

Behind the studio, a workshop full of machinery reveals another side of this jack-of-all-trades: Zakariya is as comfortable - and as skilled - working on his 19th-century lathe, or manufacturing his own engraving tools and compasses, as he is guiding a calligraphy pen across paper.

This world of medieval skills is Mohamed Zakariya’s; he entered it through the traditional art of Islamic calligraphy some 30 years ago. Once described by Palestinian-American artist Kamal Boullata as “a medieval artisan led by faith and professional expertise,” Zakariya is an internationally renowned American Muslim calligrapher, with a penchant for handcrafting working reproductions of historical Islamic and early European scientific instruments.

Faith was the catalyst for California-born Zakariya’s introduction to calligraphy. In the 1960’s, while still a teenager, he converted to Islam and began teaching himself Arabic. Zakariya recalls how he discovered, through those early studies, that “calligraphy was an important aspect of both Arabic and Islamic life.” (See Aramco World, September-October 1989.) During the day, he worked as a machinist in a factory. At night, he pursued his self-taught Arabic and calligraphy studies.

Two trips to Morocco in the early 1960’s had introduced him first-hand to a religion that, he says, “attracted me like a magnet.” Hardly the average tourist, Zakariya spent most of his time in mosques. During his second visit, while examining a copy of the Qur’an in a small bookstore, he met an Egyptian calligrapher, Abdussalam Ali-Nour, who was to become his first teacher. This was the beginning of an intriguing path that, years later, led him to Istanbul and master calligrapher Hasan Çelebi.

His native curiosity and wanderlust took Zakariya on an extended two-year journey through Europe in the mid-1960’s. Living by his wits and working at whatever odd job came his way, he occasionally found himself restoring houses and even performing with a British comedy troupe. While in London, Zakariya spent every spare moment in the Oriental Reading Room of the British Museum, studying historical calligraphy texts.

The rules have changed now, but in those days, he recalls, “you could put something that was actually made within 100 years of the Prophet’s lifetime right in front of you and touch it, smell it. You could hold it up to see how the light came through it. I learned a great deal about [ink and paper] from handling these things.”

Zakariya returned to California in 1968. Hired by an antiques dealer in West Hollywood, he restored and built reproductions of antiques. “I learned to be a fabulous maker of oddball stuff, like sundials and astrolabes,” Zakariya says. His many creations, from reproductions of Renaissance scientific and musical instruments to illuminated manuscripts and celestial globes, led to what he describes as his “one brush with fame,” when he was named Scripps College’s artist-in-residence in 1970.

Those early years sharpened Zakariya’s skills and revealed his exceptional, and as yet untutored, artistic talent. However, it was not until he moved to Washington, DC. in 1972 that he decided to pursue the art of calligraphy as “a serious business.” In the following eight years, Zakariya built an impressive reputation and notched up several major accomplishments. He completed his first functioning astrolabe - one of his “dream projects” - and published two books, The Calligraphy of Islam: Reflections on the State of the Art and Observations on Islamic Calligraphy.

Professor Walter Denny, an Islamic art historian at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, reviewed The Calligraphy of Islam back in 1980. “This is the first American book I know that has ever been published on calligraphy as art,” he recalls. “As far as I can tell, it is the first book published in modern times by an Islamic calligrapher about his work in any language other than Arabic. I was really quite impressed by the book. I had no idea [the author] was an American.”

Yet while critics praised his work, by 1980 Zakariya felt that his calligraphy had reached a standstill. “You should be able to see improvement in your work from piece to piece until you are too old to see,” Zakariya says, recalling how frustrated he was at that time.

Then fate intervened. Unbeknownst to him, Dr. Esin Atil, historian of Islamic art at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, sent samples of Zakariya’s calligraphy to the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture in Istanbul.

Well acquainted with Zakariya and his work, Atil was convinced that he was “one of the best artists. He not only composes in a traditional manner, using a dozen or more types of script; he does his own illumination, which is extraordinary. Mohamed was the person who started [Islamic calligraphy] in this country way before anyone else showed interest in it.”

Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, director of the Research Center, recalls that Zakariya’s early works “reflected his skill and enthusiasm. However, it was apparent that they were the product of a calligrapher who had not received proper instruction.” He agreed to accept Zakariya at the Center as a student - if Zakariya was willing to forget everything he had previously learned and start again from the beginning. The challenge was eagerly accepted.

In 1982, Zakariya began a correspondence course with Turkish master calligrapher Hasan Çelebi. “Instruction by correspondence was a very difficult task,” Çelebi says. Traditionally, “the teaching of calligraphy requires that teacher and student should be together and should practice visually.”

Nonetheless, the lessons, known in Turkish as meşks, were sent back and forth between Zakariya’s Arlington, Virginia, home and the Research Center in Istanbul. He studied the thulth and naskh scripts with Çelebi, as well as the nasta’liq script with noted calligrapher Ali Alparslan. Zakariya explains that lessons teach one “how to see, rather than how to work.” By reviewing and copying the works of great masters, he says, “one side effect of lessons is that you become a real connoisseur of good calligraphy.”

Heath Lowry, director of the Institute of Turkish Studies in Washington, occasionally carried Zakariya’s lessons to Çelebi when he traveled to Istanbul. “I don’t know of any other Western calligrapher who has gone through a formation like his,” Lowry notes. As Zakariya’s own work developed, Lowry says, “it was inevitable that it would begin pointing him more and more in the direction of Istanbul. The role of the Turks as the last great calligraphers is and continues to be recognized throughout the Islamic world.”

Zakariya devoted himself to his studies with his customary scholarly zeal. The lessons began with individual letters of the alphabet. As he improved, he was given two-letter combinations, and finally, years later, whole sentences to work on. Just as a musician practices scales and exercises, so must a calligrapher repeat his writing exercises again and again to acquire the precision and sureness essential to the art of beautiful writing. One seventh-century practitioner wrote that “calligraphy is hidden in the teaching of a master. Its constancy is maintained by much practice and its continuity is contingent on the religion of Islam.”

“I could have become a surgeon several times over in the amount of time it took me to become a calligrapher,” Zakariya says. With the exception of one month in 1984, when he was able to travel to Istanbul and study daily with his teachers, his lessons continue to this day through the mail.

In the 1980’s, while he continued to labor as a novice under the watchful, albeit longdistance, scrutiny of his teachers, Zakariya’s growing mastery of both calligraphy and the moribund art of astrolabe-making attracted widespread attention. He began to exhibit his calligraphy both in the United States and abroad. In 1983, he traveled for the first time to the Arabian Gulf to exhibit his work in Qatar and teach at the Doha Free Art School.

Several years later, in 1986, under the auspices of the United States Information Agency, Zakariya traveled for the second time to the Gulf region. Visiting Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Abu Dhabi, he both lectured and displayed his calligraphy. In that same year he also won his first calligraphy prize, in a competition sponsored by the Research Center in Istanbul. It was to be the first of many such awards.

In June 1990, a two-year-long, ten-state tour of his work, sponsored by the American-Arab Affairs Council, made its last stop in Minneapolis. Since then, he has designed and produced nine large calligraphy panels, using texts from the Qur’an and from poetry, for the exhibition “Images of Paradise in Islamic Art,” which is scheduled to travel to five states by the middle of this year.

During that period, between his lessons and frequent exhibitions, Zakariya was hard at work reviving the ancient art of making astrolabes. Said to be the invention of the Greek astronomer Hipparchos of Nicaea in the second century BC, the astrolabe - an engraved brass plate on which brass discs and pointers rotate — is in effect an analogue computer which simulates the apparent rotation of the stars around the celestial pole. Ptolemy of Alexandria described the instrument’s principles in his Planispherium, which was translated into Arabic in Baghdad in the ninth century, and Arab astronomers of the following century refined the astrolabe and used it to make extraordinary scientific advances (See Aramco World, March-April 1991, May-June 1982).

Called “the mathematical jewel,” the astrolabe can be used for navigation and surveying, for telling the exact time of day or night - essential for fixing the times of Muslims’ daily prayers - as an accurate calendar for predicting the seasons, and as a calculator to solve many astronomical problems. Such a wealth of knowledge and precision was, and still is, required to build an astrolabe that the skill was often passed from father to son, as in the case of 12th-century artisans Hamad ibn Mahmud al-Isfahani and his son Muhammad.

Over the centuries, Zakariya says, many of the undocumented techniques used to make astrolabes, such as the engraving process, were lost. Searching through old Arabic manuscripts, however, he managed to unearth the basic mathematical and scientific principles for making them.

“I think I am the only person who makes astrolabes consistently,” Zakariya says, and it is little wonder. Depending upon the size and the complexity of its functions, an astrolabe can take from three to six months to complete. With as many as nine parts that move in relation to each other, the design requires extensive geometrical calculations and precision engraving with specially designed tools.

Today one of Zakariya’s astrolabes, as well as a celestial sphere from his workshop, are on display in the Aramco Exhibit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Another hangs in the terminal of the King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jiddah. Both the National Museum in Doha, Qatar, and the Time Museum in Rockford, Illinois, house his elaborate sundials.

Over the past few years, Zakariya has found himself focusing less on his instruments and machine work and more on his calligraphy, “a living and growing culture. It is so interesting and overwhelming that it becomes something you can’t do without,” he explains. “With me, it has pushed out astrolabes and machine-shop work almost entirely. When I do break the connection and go back to the shop, it’s very hard for the first few days. I want to get that pen in my hand again.”

From carving his own pens to making his own ink and paper and illuminating his texts, Zakariya has become a traditional Islamic calligrapher in every sense of the word. He is, according to Denny, “a genuine hattat” - Turkish for calligrapher. “Mohamed sees himself as being able to work both in the style of the Ottoman and Iraqi 19th-century calligraphers. I am just amazed that he can work in all the major script styles. He can do everything a hattat was always supposed to do.”

Zakariya “has been trained precisely and rigorously in ancient forms,” according to Vicki Halper, assistant curator of modern art at the Seattle Museum. Halper worked with Zakariya during a 1990 exhibit at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, which featured his work along with that of three other contemporary calligraphers. Zakariya, she explains, “particularly identifies himself with the tradition because he works completely within it. He is not trying to push the boundaries of his craft into contemporary American idiom.”

To the contrary: His work honors and revitalizes the past. Zakariya’s success as a calligrapher is reflected in his knowledge of the Qur’an and classic Arabic literature, and in his mastery of the many details and ancillary crafts of the art of calligraphy.

Several years ago, this success was recognized when he became the first American to receive an icazet, or diploma, from the Research Center in Istanbul. A tradition that dates back to the 15th-century, the icazet is only awarded to those calligraphers capable of duplicating the works of the masters, and who have demonstrated as well that they can write a well-known Qur’anic text or Islamic saying on their own.

On May 23, 1988, in the historic 19th-century Yıldız Palace overlooking the Bosporus, Hasan Çelebi presented Zakariya with his icazet, conferring upon him the right to sign his own works and to teach students. Underscoring his student’s unique talent, Çelebi noted that “even among Turkish calligraphers, there are not many who both write and illuminate their work. Zakariya does. I am proud to know that he is ably representing this branch of Islamic art in the United States.” Research Center director Ihsanoglu added: “It has been a wonderful experience for us to be involved in the making of a great artist who, as far as we know, is the first American calligrapher.”

Today, like the jack-of-all-trades he professes to be, Zakariya is consumed with both his work and his hobbies. When he isn’t busy writing a book - in Arabic - on calligraphy, retooling his machines for some future project, or preparing his calligraphic works for exhibitions around the country, he can be found reading old Islamic law books - for fun - or teaching himself how to play the baritone horn.

In addition, he remains both a devoted student and a dedicated teacher of calligraphy. “The Turks say that when you are learning calligraphy, it is the happiest period of your life,” he says. As his own lessons continue and grow harder, he has taken on six students of his own.

Teaching calligraphy face to face, master to student, he explains, is “the old Islamic method of transferring this knowledge. The axiom is usually, ‘If you can’t do it, teach it.’ But it’s exactly the opposite with calligraphy: ‘Don’t teach it unless you can do it.’” Unquestionably, Mohamed Zakariya does it very well.

Piney Resting, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS, is a Boston-based free-lance writer who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs.

Originally published at


MOHAMED ZAKARIYA is an Islamic calligrapher, artist, and maker of custom instruments from the history of science. Born in Ventura, California, in 1942, he began his study of Islamic calligraphy with A.S. Ali Nour in Tangier and London in 1964. After continuing his studies independently at the British Museum, he was invited in 1984 by the Research Center for Islamic History, Art, and Culture (IRCICA) in Istanbul to study with two celebrated Turkish calligraphers: Hasan Celebi and Ali Alparslan. In 1988, Zakariya received the prized icazet (diploma) in sulus/nesih script from Mr. Celebi in a ceremony in Istanbul, and in 1997, he received the icazet in talik from Dr. Alparslan.

Zakariya has presented numerous workshops and lectures on Islamic calligraphy, and his calligraphic works have been exhibited widely. In this country, for example, his work has been shown at the Smithsonian Institution“ís Renwick Gallery and S. Dillon Ripley Center and at the Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C.. He has also shown his calligraphy and given demonstrations in conjunction with Islamic art exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Walters Gallery in Baltimore. Abroad, Zakariya has participated in invitational exhibitions and symposia in Turkey, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Abu Dhabi, and Saudi Arabia. He is the author of numerous articles and monographs, including Music for the Eyes, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles Museum of Art in conjunction with a 1998-99 exhibit of Ottoman calligraphy from the Sakip Sabanci collection. He has also translated from the Turkish the exhibition catalogue, Letters in Gold, by Ugur Derman, as well as Mr. Dermans Art of Calligraphy in the Islamic Heritage (IRCICA, 1998).

A master woodworker, engraver, and machinist, Zakariya also designs and constructs functioning examples of antique-style horological and scientific instruments, examples of which are in the collections of the Aramco Science Museum in Saudi Arabia, the National Museum of Qatar, the Time Museum in Rockford, Ill., and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. His woodturning has been exhibited at the American Craft Museum in New York and his engraved astrolabes at the Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis, Tenn.
Zakariya is also the calligrapher for the first U.S. Eid postage stamp which came out in 2001.

Mohamed Zakariya has been included in the Muslim 500: The World’s 500 most influential Muslims for 2011. 


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VIDEO BIO:  Portrait - Mohamed Zakariya