Artur Pisarenko: ‘I was concerned that we, Tatars, read the Quran but we didn’t have a handwritten edition’

A calligrapher talked about the work on a handwritten Quran in honour of the 1100th anniversary of adoption of Islam by Volga Bulgaria

Artur Pisarenko: ‘I was concerned that we, Tatars, read the Quran but we didn’t have a handwritten edition’
Photo: Tatarstan Muslim Religious Directorate

A handwritten Quran started to be created in Kazan in honour of the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam by Volga Bulgaria. Tatarstan Mufti Kamil Samigullin claimed that this would favour the revival of the lost science of Islamic calligraphy, which studies the rules of writing Arabic letters. It takes two days to write one page. Considering the time it takes to check the text, it will take at least two years to write a Quran. A special commission of Russian and foreign theologians will verify the correctness of the written holy text. Professional calligrapher Artur Pisarenko was entrusted with creating the handwritten Quran. In an exclusive interview, he told Realnoe Vremya what inspired him to do this job.

Artur, what are the specifics of the art of Arabic calligraphy? What’s the difference from other fine arts? Is there any difference between calligraphy in Tatarstan and the world?

In this sense, Arabic calligraphy has an important peculiarity. When it is studied profoundly, it becomes clear that Arabic calligraphy can hardly be called just an art. It is a science. It isn’t even the science in the meaning that’s used in the Islamic tradition (religious sciences), it is a science because it has a system inside. Arabic calligraphy has the basics of projective and analytic geometry. To put it simply, Arabic calligraphy uses different mathematical formulas. Letters are written according to these formulas.

Islamic scientists, al-khattats (calligraphers) who developed the style of calligraphy thuluth — the first, fundamental style of all calligraphy containing all calligraphy rules — did this with the help of geometrical figures. Imams who were calligraphers (for instance, Ibn Muqla, 10th century) were also scientists studying geometry and maths. Ibn Muqla is famous for adding the rule of golden ratio to the thuluth. The golden ratio is the ratio of one third to two thirds, a proportion allowing creating a more harmonic image.

This is the difference between Arabic calligraphy and other fine arts. A scientific approach rules here. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci worked this way. Leonardo used mathematical mechanisms when creating his paintings, and Arabic calligrapher also has mathematical mechanisms in its foundation.

Arabic calligraphy has the basics of projective and analytic geometry. To put it simply, Arabic calligraphy uses different mathematical formulas. Letters are written according to these formulas

Is the calligraphy school in Kazan really strong? When did it appear?

Yes, I think here in Kazan we have a very strong calligraphy school. And it is strong thanks to our teacher Ramil Nasibullov’s sophistication. He once told me he gave his students more than he had received from his teachers. When he was studying, he didn’t have such an opportunity to learn from advanced calligraphers. And he achieved a lot himself, with his work. As I already said, the science of khatt is based on mathematical formulas. If you use logic and have geometric thinking, you can judge yourself in calligraphy. In other words, to figure out, conclude something on the basis of scientific methodology inside calligraphy resting on the works of legendary calligraphers of the past.

The school of calligraphy appeared in 2010 according to an initiative of some of my teacher’s students. He was then teaching at the Russian Islamic Institute in Kazan, and the school was created inside this educational institution. However, it wasn’t separate classes but a whole centre, the Centre for Arabic Calligraphy.

The teacher is a very wise person. His outlook covers different spheres. The spheres he includes in our calligraphic school are not only about calligraphy: methods of academic painting, projective geometry are studied, something is linked with Wushu (he is a master of wrestling), ilm at-tazhib (the science of ornaments), history (he creates arrows, musical instruments, repairs clothes).

The writing of the Quran is our Mufti Hazrat Kamil Samigullin’s initiative. He invited me

How did you decide to create a handwritten Quran? What difficulties did you face when preparing it?

I was already concerned that we, Tatars, read the Quran but we didn’t have our own handwritten edition. As a child, I read imported Qurans, but ours, old ones, aren’t developed given the evolution of calligraphy and book publishing in the last centuries.

The writing of the Quran book is our Mufti Hazrat Kamil Samigullin’s initiative. He invited me. Earlier, he had invited my teacher, but something didn’t work. He is better at this science than me, and he would have done it better.

The biggest difficulty is to calculate everything accurately. Plenty of time has to be dedicated to training. Previously, I spent a lot of time on the naskh writing. I wrote a lot by testing different elements. My goal was to create a more elaborate version of naskh in my manner, in a modern way.

Today naskh became more perfect. We can see this, for instance, in Mehmed Özçay. Naskh used to be less expressive, and now its elaboration is incomparable, of course, but it gets closer to thuluth. A lot of intricacies appeared.

As I understand, your handwritten book of the Quran will be the foundation for the project on new printed Kazan Qurans.

Yes, I write a page by hand, then scan it, then it is converted into a vector image to make it high-quality and precise. Then it will be printed. As I understand, Khuzur will print the book.

What do you think of the quality of calligraphy in Medina, Damascus and other collections?

It depends on the collection. What Uthman Taha wrote was Saudi collections, the quality is not great, it is designed for people, to make it readable, especially for those who don’t speak Arabic. While calligraphy in Turkish collections is good. Mehmed Özçay printed his own collection some 3-5 years ago, it is very good, with elaborate calligraphy. But Arabs don’t recognise it, while Turks don’t recognise the Saudi one because it isn’t made according to the calligraphy basics. On the other hand, Uthman Taha is also a student of Turkish calligraphers. In general in the world calligraphy is linked with the Turkish tradition.

Why is calligraphy necessary in the 21st century? Why is it necessary to make a handwritten Quran when a printing press was already invented?

First of all, calligraphy is necessary as an Islamic science. Calligraphy develops a Muslim’s special thinking, his identity. It is an authentic Islamic art.

Because the modern world is pro-Western. The art with its morals, its ideas, philosophic ideas carries mainly Western values. Art is one of the strongest factors in culture, art precedes technology and philosophy.

Tatars, Muslims live inside art that isn’t so authentic for them: abstractionism, cubism, suprematism, some new forms of actionism, for instance. We think according to the idea of deconstruction philosophy, what contemporary art carries.

While Muslims have their own art, it is fundamental. In fact, it is elaborate, it is 14-centuries-old.

Yes, there is a printing press, but a printing press doesn’t create culture

This is why I think that classical Arabic calligraphy is necessary. Those who even deal with “contemporary” Arabic calligraphy anyway include all these Western tendencies that are simply based on Arabic letters or motifs. A philosophic approach, internal prerequisites are important here because not calligraphy itself but the idea of calligraphy is the case.

When studying formulae, letters, you get familiarised with the Islamic culture. Here a psychological moment plays a role. A handwritten Quran is rather Muslims’ composition.

Yes, there is a printing press, but a printing press doesn’t create culture.

You founded your own calligraphy school. What is the training like? What areas of calligraphy do you study? Do you already have graduates? Don’t you want to start dealing with Cyrillic and Latin calligraphy?

Yes, we opened our own online calligraphy school. We did first of all for people from other cities. When Kazan citizens come to me, I recommend them to go to the Centre at Russian Islamic Institute, to the teacher.

My school is designed to teach those who cannot come to Kazan or Turkey, centres of Arabic calligraphy. The training includes all styles besides taliq, it is not my specialisation. I have the right to teach the other styles, which dates back from the student to the teacher and reaches legendary scientists, calligraphers. Silsila (a link via which knowledge is passed) leads to Ali bin Abu Talib, may Allah be pleased with him, who is considered the first calligrapher.

We use the classical system, just communication is online. A student is given a special textbook that has the ideal picture of letters. A student tries to copy images from the book, while the teacher helps him to understand, make theoretical remarks, correct what he cannot do.

In theory, one can learn this on one’s own, but it will be much faster with the teacher. If a person learns fast, the development will be faster, even in this case, the teacher helps very much.

We don’t have graduates. It is a special topic. My teacher says that if one in a thousand people become a calligrapher is huge progress. For instance, the last time my teacher gave somebody the right was in 2014. It is Belyalov Amir, a calligraphy teacher at Bulgarian Academy. I got the right 7 years later. And it is fast for calligraphy because it is a tough thing. It is easier to learn the Quran by heart.

The teacher has strict requirements to obtain the right. It is not only a skill of writing well, but a person’s morals are also important here. According to Sharia sciences, the right isn’t given simply for theoretical knowledge but for the person’s compliance with the moral qualities of the science. For instance, if a person is arrogant, shows off, starts to immediately sell his works, he doesn’t do it for Allah but just for primitive mundane things, such a person isn’t given the right.

As for Cyrillic and Latin, I don’t yet consider expanding. Perhaps, it is not expansion but reduction. They are quite simple, I don’t think they are tough to learn. I don’t need it. Calligraphy for me isn’t an art of writing but a system, art, which is unique in itself. Because of this uniqueness, other types of calligraphy are not interesting for me at the moment. It is even hard for me to name khatt calligraphy in the broad meaning of this word.

The teacher has strict requirements for the right. It is not only a skill of writing well, but a person’s morals are also important here

What plans do you have in the future? How are you going to develop?

I would like to develop and promote science. But I face its wrong perception, the alleged “uselessness”, as it is considered by some in our society. This art isn’t understood here, it is not appreciated.

In Turkey, it is very appreciated mostly because it became a tradition. Some Turkish calligraphers learn by rewriting images from notebooks, without understanding the deep intricacies of calligraphy. My teacher told me this.

I want to develop myself. The logical elaboration of calligraphy is interesting for me. I deliberately entered the Faculty of Philosophy, I want to link khatt with contemporary logic, mathematical analysis, do calculations.

I don’t want to turn this into dry science, but new writing methods are interesting for me. Perhaps, this will open new doors in khatt: such areas that haven’t yet been discovered. It has its own methodology, but I want to make it more specific.

Interviewed by Karim Gaynullin. Photo: