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A high school dropout from California is now the preeminent American master of Islamic calligraphy

By Nushmia Khan

Art is usually valued for its distinctiveness: The celebrated artist is one who conveys meaning in a way that no one has ever done before.

Islamic calligraphy has its own metrics of value. The tradition prizes expertise over innovation. It takes years to perfect the handful of principal calligraphic styles belonging to the category, even though they have the same rules regarding strokes and spacing. Few reach the level of mastery. Mohamed Zakariya is one of them.

Aasil Ahmad
A cat rests on a handwritten Quran at the calligraphy studio of Mohamed Zakariya.

A machinist from California, Zakariya converted to Islam at the age of 19. After years of self-study, he traveled to Turkey to continue honing his craft as an apprentice to calligraphic experts. It took him four years to master his first two scripts and receive a diploma, or icazet, certifying his achievementHe is now the preeminent specialist of Islamic calligraphy in America.

Zakariya upholds the traditional style in all of his work, but he claims his style is also western. “I don’t like the contrast between western and Islamic art. To me, I’m a western person and my take on calligraphy probably is a very western take.”

Mohamed Zakariya
A practice sketch of calligraphy by Mohamed Zakariya

Through his letters, he revives old words of Islamic wisdom, whether they’re from the Qur’an, the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet), or more obscure works of Islamic literature.

See Zakariya at work in the video above.