London, Asharq Al-Awsat— Shafiq Al-Zaman has been chief calligrapher at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina ever since winning a competition to renovate some of the inscriptions on the walls of Islam’s second-holiest site in 1991. For the last 23 years, the Pakistani national has been doing the job he loves most: renovating and decorating the steep walls and huge domes of the Prophet’s Mosque with the intricate styles of the Arabic script.
Zaman—or Khattat Al-Haram (the Chief Calligrapher of the Sanctuary) as he prefers to be called—still remembers with clarity the day he came to the ‘City of the Prophet’ after a long journey with Arabic calligraphy, his passion since he was a child.
As a child in Karachi, Zaman channeled his passion for neat handwriting by drawing on the walls of his family home, the houses in his street, and on his siblings’ notebooks.
He is proud of being self-taught in the craft and that he was not apprenticed to a master calligrapher. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that Ottoman calligrapher Hamid Al-Amdi, known for his brilliant style, has had much influence over his career.
In the beginning, Zaman maintains, Arabic calligraphy was a mere hobby for him, before he cultivated his gift by poring over guidebooks and practicing different calligraphic styles.
“When I grew up and explored more of my profession, I started imitating the work of the last and the greatest calligrapher of the Ottoman Empire, Ustaz (Master) Hamid Al-Amdi, whom I consider my spiritual teacher,” Zaman told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Zaman’s first contact with Saudi Arabia came earlier, though. In the late 1980s a Saudi merchant who was visiting Karachi liked his work and decided to give him a job at his company in Riyadh. It was not until 1991that the Dallah Company announced a competition to choose a calligrapher to renovate the centuries-old Qur’anic verses inscribed on the walls of the Prophet’s Mosque.
“I have been working in the Prophet’s Mosque for 23 years, specifically since 1991, when Dallah announced a competition to choose a chief calligrapher” he says. “They were searching for an artist who could rehabilitate the calligraphy painted on the walls and tombs of the Prophet’s Mosque, especially the part built in the Ottoman period that turned pallid by age. The calligraphy was done by Abdullah Zuhdi, one of the most prominent calligraphers in the history of this art.”
Zuhdi’s calligraphy stood the test of time for nearly 250 years. But it began to corrode and parts of it became pallid by time, according to Zaman.
Zaman says his work was not confined to renovating the already existing inscriptions, for he was also assigned to decorate a number of domes of the Prophet’s Mosque.
His work now covers more than 80 percent of the 177 domes located in the enclosure of the Prophet’s Mosque, with the remaining domes expected to take between four to five years to complete.
As for his advice to young artists, Zaman says: “Arabic calligraphers need to practice in order to acquire the necessary skills. I advise my students and the lovers of Arabic calligraphy to review the . . . [work] of prominent calligraphers and practice constantly in order to master this art form.”
Distinguishing between calligraphy and painting, Zaman sees them as two entirely different art forms. “A good painter is not necessarily a good calligrapher, or vice versa,” he says.
Zaman’s love for and dedication to his craft is clear, and he laments the decline in calligraphic arts, which he thinks have lost their prestige in recent years. “I feel that calligraphy is not given as much importance as it deserves as was given in the past. I believe [calligraphy] ought to be given its due attention.”
As is the case with practitioners of other traditional arts, today Arabic calligraphers find themselves face-to-face with the serious challenge of modern technology. But Zaman is pragmatic, and sees the new methods as double-edged swords. “There have been certain negative effects from computers on calligraphy, but altogether this new technology has also benefitted this craft, as is the case with many other conventional branches of art.”