x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Master calligraphers' year-long sacred mission to script the Holy Quran

Two master calligraphers - one of them in war-torn Aleppo - will spend a year writing a Dubai-sponsored rendering of the holy book.

A man reads passages of Quran during his afternoon prayers at a mosque on the outskirts of the Khalidiya neighborhood in Abu Dhabi. 
Silvia Razgova/The National
A man reads passages of Quran during his afternoon prayers at a mosque on the outskirts of the Khalidiya neighborhood in Abu Dhabi. Silvia Razgova/The National

Two master calligraphers - one of them in war-torn Aleppo - will spend a year writing a Dubai-sponsored rendering of the holy book. It is a delicate task, requiring not just exceptional calligraphy skills, but deep spirituality and minute attention to detail.

DUBAI // The letters must be a certain distance from each other, the dips and angles of the words need a specific slant, the vowel marks must be added with the most delicate of strokes, and if there is any discrepancy, even a single dot out of place, then the entire page must be rewritten.

Two men will dedicate at least an entire year to this most sacred of tasks in any Muslim's life, the scripting of the Holy Quran.

"It is not like any book you will ever write in your life," says the renowned calligrapher Mohammed Deeb Galoul.

Mr Galoul, a 55-year-old Syrian, and Bajar Al Erbili, a 49-year-old Iraqi, were chosen to be master calligraphers for a new Quran edition sponsored by a Dubai authority.

The men were picked from 30 top calligraphers from across the world who sent in their candidacies.

Each man will script a whole Quran, with the best one being chosen to be bound, printed and distributed in various sizes. There is a possibility the second copy will also be printed.

The project follows a decree last year by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, who commissioned the Dubai International Holy Quran Award (DIHQA) to issue, print and distribute one million copies of the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Mus'haf [Quran], named after the President.

The two calligraphers were in Dubai recently for just a day to sign their contracts. Before leaving for his hometown of Aleppo, Mr Galoul described what a great burden was on the calligraphers to get their task right, as the Quran carries the words of the Almighty.

"You are overwhelmed with awe and spirituality when writing the Quran. You must evoke your mind to be in synchrony with all your senses," he says. "Your eyes, your nerves, your hands, all must be one to be able to script it correctly and present it in style befitting the words of Allah."

Born in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, Mr Al Erbili lives in Germany and will work on his script there. Mr Galoul is writing the Quran in his hometown of Aleppo, a war zone where battles and bloodshed rage on in the ongoing crisis in Syria. According to the latest update from the organisers, he is still in Aleppo, pressing on with his work.

Dr Mohammed Abdul Rahim Al Olama, head of the organising committee and head of the Quranic sciences unit at DIHQA, wished the calligraphers the best of luck.

"It is a hard enough task in a peaceful, quiet place, so imagine how difficult it is with bombs going off near you," Dr Al Olama says. "But there is no greater reward and no stronger inner peace achieved than to be sitting writing the words of Allah."

The calligraphers are not permitted to give interviews while working on their scripts. Both have won numerous awards from across the world for their scrolls and projects, and have decades of experience at their craft.

"Only very few select calligraphers know the rules, style and order required in scripting a Quran," Dr Al Olama says. "There are so many rules and so many details to pay attention to, that only the best masters of calligraphers can accomplish it."

"Besides professionalism and rules, there is the artistic expression unique to each calligrapher, almost like part of his soul will be captured in his scripting."

The Quran is 604 pages (16 folded), and the most standard size is Al Mutawast, medium size, which is 17 by 24 centimetres. Then there is the Jawamee print, which is 24 x 34cm. Other sizes are 20 x 14cm, 20 x 29cm and the smaller 11 x 15cm.

"Even sizes are standardised and must adhere to certain rules," Dr Al Olama says. The calligraphers are expected to send large pages, each almost poster size, to be able to resize according to need. The calligraphers will be writing on special paper from Turkey.

They were told to use Al Naskh font, a soft, cursive style most often used in scripting the Holy Quran. Dating to the late 8th century, it is said to be easier to read than other styles.

Following the oral tradition of the language, Arabic calligraphy emerged in the first century of Islam, about 622, and has evolved throughout the ensuing centuries.

Kufic was used to write the first copies of the Holy Quran and is the oldest form of calligraphy, dating to the early 7th century.

Derived from the Greek word kallos (beauty), calligraphy means "the art of beautiful handwriting".

"Special ink, special paper, special technique of writing, details like a specific word a page must end on and how it is positioned, how far from the margin, the distance between the lines of verses ... every possible detail you can think of goes into scripting the Quran," Dr Al Olama says. "We have committees that will go through each and every detail."

Besides the supervising administrative, technical and religious committees in the UAE that will check each page, the approved pages will then be sent to religious committees in Arab and Islamic countries for final approval and accreditation.

Additional Al Zakhrafah decorations and designs, such as the front cover, will be assigned to other calligraphers.

It is estimated to cost more than Dh25 million to print one million copies, with the first one to be given to the President, Sheikh Khalifa. The rest will be distributed for free in the UAE and across the world.

The only other UAE edition was commissioned in 1997 - the Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum Mus'haf. It took about five years to complete and can be found in different sizes in every mosque in the UAE, as well as mosques across the Muslim world.

One of the most popular in print is the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia edition printed in Medina, with millions distributed throughout the world.

These editions, like all copies of the Quran today and for hundreds of years, are the "Othmani" Quran, based on the copy of the third Caliph, Othman bin Affan (644-656).

After the death of the Messenger, Umar Ibn Al Khattab, who later became second Caliph, advised Abu Bakr to collect the written-down pieces of the Holy Quran and protect it in one place, following the deaths of those who memorised the Quran - 70 were martyred in one day - and fearing the loss of pieces written in front of the Prophet.

It was under Abu Bakr, the first caliph of the Muslims (632-634), that the transcribed pieces of the Quran were collected and put in one place, the house of Hafsa, the wife of the Prophet and daughter of the second caliph, Umar.

These collected pieces were then turned into a book form, a mus'haf, under directions of the third caliph, with seven original copies each accompanied by a special reciter sent across the expanded Islamic empire.

Many years later, Othman's copy had the Arabic letters dotted and diacritics such as tashkeel or formations added that included harakat motions or vowel marks, as well as various tone and pronunciation grids.

"Each Quran is stamped on the last page with a mark of the last person to have reviewed it, and if any error was found, that person will be held accountable and the Quran will be recalled," Dr Al Olama says.

He explained that modern techniques and chemicals allow for the words in the Quran to be erased first before the book is disposed of into the sea, buried or burnt.

"Every person who had some part in the making of a Quran will be rewarded each time someone opens that Quran and reads it," he says.

For those who leave a Quran as a legacy, their rewards continue beyond their lives.

Prophet Mohammed said: "The good deeds that will reach a believer after his death are: knowledge which he learnt and then spread; a righteous son whom he leaves behind; a copy of the Quran that he leaves as a legacy; a mosque that he built; a house that he built for wayfarers; a canal that he dug; or charity that he gave during his lifetime when he was in good health. These deeds will reach him after his death."