Seeking identity in calligraphy, ‘the trustee’ of Muslim thought

Hafizan Halim decorates the Shahadah with an ornament akin to the Terengganu school of illumination. (Photo courtesy of Hafizan Halim)
Updated 03 November 2019

Seeking identity in calligraphy, ‘the trustee’ of Muslim thought

  • “I want them to realize that being born in a village doesn’t mean that you have to end up growing rice like your fathers and grandfathers — you can do anything”

ALOR SETAR, KEDAH (MALAYSIA): On an early October morning, the greens and blues of rice paddy landscapes entered the kiswah of an Ottoman sultan, four hundred years after his reign and several thousand miles away from Istanbul.
“This kiswah was ordered by Sultan Ahmed I, the one who commissioned the construction of the Blue Mosque,” said a young artist while uncovering his copy of the cloth that had once covered the Kaaba in the 17th-century.

Hafizan Halim's copy of the kiswah of Sultan Ahmed I displayed at the artist's home in Alor Setar, Kedah, Oct. 2. (AN)

Nowadays, the kiswah is embroidered in black, gold and silver, “but in the sultan’s times they also used blue. Back then, the pigment was nearly as costly as gold. Obtained from turquoise, it had to be brought from Iran. The whole process was long and very expensive,” Hafizan Halim explained in an interview with Arab News, at his home and workshop in the countryside of Kedah, north Malaysia, on Oct. 2.
The 240 by 120-centimeter piece on linen canvas took one year to complete with the involvement of another 20 people – mostly children who come from the same village as Halim. He taught them how to prepare the ground and apply paint layers. He often does it. Apart from receiving technical training, his young helpers broaden their horizons and knowledge of art history. “I also want them to realize that being born in a village doesn’t mean that you have to end up growing rice like your fathers and grandfathers. You can do anything,” he said.
Halim’s father, who for decades has been waking up every morning to tend to his paddy field, admitted that the son had never shown any interest in farming: “Hafizan has only been into art, since early childhood.”
Art takes him to foreign lands and royal palaces, for calligraphy still is, like the 12th-century Persian historian Muhammad ibn Ali Rawandi preached, “a craft blessed among the crafts,” which brings the best of luck and “by which the humble are able to rise.”
When the kids from Halim’s neighborhood took part in coloring, it was the final stage of making the kiswah, preceded by a months-long process of calligraphy composition and studying history.
“I need to know about history, philosophy, I need to study them. This is essential in creating a work of art,” Halim said, adding that meaning and craft must not be kept apart. Only when they merge, can a beautiful thing come into existence.
His understanding of art has not been informed by direct transmission from a certain teacher, as is usually the case in the careers of calligraphers and illuminators. The person who has had the greatest influence on him is Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, a prominent Malaysian scholar of Islam, philosopher, and the founder of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), to whom Halim refers as “a polymath, someone who creates written work on history and philosophy, and at the same time can produce architectural design and calligraphy in which all details are meaningful.”

The Shahadah with ornaments inspired by the modern-day kiswah. (Photo courtesy of Hafizan Halim)

The ISTAC building in Kuala Lumpur, designed by Al-Attas, is for Halim a manifestation of how “a thing put in the right place becomes beautiful. Professor Al-Attas considered the direction of wind, water, everything. In each single detail, there is meaning, purpose.”
In art, especially the art of writing and ornament, there is also identity, one that is of particular importance for the entire culture of the Muslim world.

Surah Yasin decorated by Hafizan Halim with illumination based on a 19th-century royal Malay letter from Johor. (Photo courtesy of Hafizan Halim)

“Demand for Islamic art is increasing, you can see it at auctions at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. The collectors are not only Muslims,” Halim said, adding that for the latter it has additional significance. “In their countries, you will find many new buildings, which are great, but their cultural identity is unclear.”
“Art needs to have an identity to become an asset for tourism, to attract with something unique. But what is even more important is its role for future generations. They need to have clarity about their own culture,” he said. Writing, ornament and illumination are the most natural forms of artistic expression in the Muslim world, where since the medieval ages calligraphy has been referred to not only as “the language of the hand,” but also “the ambassador of intellect, the trustee of thought.”

Surah Al-Fatihah in decorated frames. Hafizan Halim based the illumination on ornaments from the Terengganu school. (Photo courtesy of Hafizan Halim)

Halim finds his own identity in Terengganu, eastern Malaysia. For the past few years, he has been devoted to studying the school of Qur’an illumination which emerged there in the early 18th century.
This Terengganu school, according to Annabel Teh Gallop, the lead curator for Southeast Asia at the British Library, “towers above all others, alone in the Malay world in evoking a level of connoisseurship, patronage and artistic organization associated with the ateliers or kitabkhana of the Persianate court tradition.”
With their finesse, rich hues, “jewel-like radiance, with truly virtuosic decorative details,” the Qur’ans of Terengganu are for her “the most brilliant illuminated Qur’ans in the whole of Southeast Asia.”
There is no sufficient evidence to explain why this unique tradition was born in Terengganu.

Hafizan Halim's calligraphy with an aphorism from the Hikam of Ibn Ata Allah in Alor Setar, Kedah, Oct. 2. (AN)

“From an examination of the manuscripts themselves, I believe that perhaps only in Terengganu – of all the Malay states – was manuscript illumination carried out in a professionalized, atelier, system, probably centered on the royal court, where artists were able to develop and hone their expertise to an exceptional standard,” Dr. Gallop told Arab News. “In all other Malay states, illuminated manuscripts give the impression of village-level production, with artists mainly working by themselves, albeit still conforming to distinctive regional styles.”
Halim too works by himself, as the art of ornament is no longer present in Malaysia. Doing it, he said, “is a way for me to fulfill my obligations to the community, to give back to society.”

Sanders attacked for past praise of communist regimes

Updated 11 min 12 sec ago

Sanders attacked for past praise of communist regimes

  • Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg all seized on visits Sanders made to the USSR, the Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua and Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1980s
  • Joe Biden: He (Sanders) seems to have found more inspiration in the Soviets, Sandinistas, Chavistas, and Castro than in America

WASHINGTON: Bernie Sanders’ past praise of communist regimes like Cuba and the Soviet Union has come back to haunt him, his rivals for the Democratic White House nomination seeking to paint the frontrunner as a friend of left-wing dictators.
Fellow Democratic hopefuls Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg all seized on visits Sanders made to the USSR, the Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua and Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1980s as evidence he is a threat to the US democratic and capitalist system.
Sanders, who describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” was pressed on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program on Sunday about positive comments he made three decades ago about communist states, particularly his statement that Castro had vastly improved education and health care in Cuba.
“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” the 78-year-old politician said.
“When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?“
Biden, who Sanders has edged out as the 2020 Democratic frontrunner, fired back:
“Make no mistake: Bernie Sanders’ comments on Fidel Castro are a part of a larger pattern throughout his life to embrace autocratic leaders and governments across the globe,” the centrist former vice president said in a statement.
“He seems to have found more inspiration in the Soviets, Sandinistas, Chavistas, and Castro than in America.”
Buttigieg compared Sanders to President Donald Trump who he said has “cozied up to dictators,” adding the country needs a leader “who will be extremely clear in standing against regimes that violate human rights abroad.”
With Sanders in pole position heading into South Carolina’s primary this weekend, the controversy offers his rivals a precious chance to halt his momentum when they clash on the debate stage later on Tuesday.
Sanders’ alignment with the far left in US politics has always left him vulnerable to attack; Trump and other Republicans have branded him a “communist.”
But his Cuba comments have come to the forefront in the fight for voter support in Florida, home to a large Cuban-American population strongly opposed to Castro’s regime and holding substantial political sway in the southern state.
Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, targeted that electorate as he tweeted that Castro “left a dark legacy of forced labor camps, religious repression, widespread poverty, firing squads, and the murder of thousands of his own people.”
“But sure, Bernie, let’s talk about his literacy program,” Bloomberg said.
Sanders’ denies any support for dictators. Critics say his record suggests otherwise.
As mayor of the small city of Burlington, Vermont, he visited Nicaragua in 1985 and afterward hailed Daniel Ortega’s revolution against the Central American country’s landowner elite.
That was a view commonly held among the American left, especially as the administration of Ronald Reagan supported the right-wing Nicaraguan Contra fighters accused of numerous terror-like atrocities.
In 1988 Sanders visited Russia seeking to establish a sister-city pact with Yaroslavl, northeast of Moscow.
It was hardly unique: there were several dozen US-USSR sister city relationships at the time, according to Sister Cities International.
Upon his return, Sanders applauded Russian gains in health care, while adding they were 10 years behind the United States.
He said his hosts were friendly and spoke honestly about problems, especially in housing and struggling industries.
He offered no praise of the government and communist system, and noted Russians very much liked Reagan, who had just days earlier held a summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which Sanders called “a major step forward for humanity.”
Likewise after visiting Cuba in 1989, Sanders praised its achievements in education and health care, calling Castro’s revolution “profound,” but also noting the lack of political freedoms.
“The question is how you bring both economic and political freedom together in one society,” he said at the time, according to the Rutland Daily Herald.
Sanders’ position echoes that of president Barack Obama, who reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015, with Biden as his vice president.
Obama said on a landmark 2016 Havana visit that the government “should be congratulated” for its achievements in education and health care — while criticizing its human rights violations and communist-rooted economy which he said was “not working.”
Sanders told “60 Minutes” that his support for certain achievements in communist countries did not make him a friend of repressive leaders.
“I don’t trade love letters with a murdering dictator,” he said, referring to Trump’s friendship with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Whether that carries with Cuban voters in Florida remains an open question.