An Unbroken Line: Josh Berer and Mariam Lodin Share the Art of Islamic Calligraphy
“Back in the olden days, the calligraphers would go to mosques,” Mariam Lodin told me. “They would take a feather and gather soot from the ceilings of oil lamps. Then, they would write texts with the ink that was made. It’s this idea of ensuring that your tools and materials have purity.”
Lodin is a scientific illustrator and student of Islamic calligraphy, an artistic tradition that goes back centuries, originating on the Arabian Peninsula. For Lodin, calligraphy is a deeply contemplative practice.
“We’re bombarded on a regular basis with so much noise,” she shared. “This is a space for me to find my connection. It brings me that solace, that inner quiet that is lacking in other aspects of my life.”
I recently spoke with Lodin and Josh Berer, another calligrapher based in the Washington, D.C., area, at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where the two introduced visitors to the history and practice of calligraphy.
For millennia, calligraphy has played a central role in Islamic culture. After the Prophet Muhammad’s passing in 632 AD, scribes copied and distributed his revelations throughout the expanding Islamic empire. Given the divine nature of the Qur’an, these scribes felt an obligation to write the text as beautifully as possible. Thus, the art of Islamic calligraphy was born.
Over time, dozens of distinct scripts developed. Some styles were regional, and others were used for specific religious, cultural, and administrative purposes. In addition to producing copies of the Qur’an, calligraphers created inscriptions on ceramics, textiles, coins, and other surfaces. Most consider Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Muhammad’s fourth successor, to be the first master calligrapher. The line of transmission begins with him and goes through generations of artists and teachers.
Since the art form emerged, many calligraphers have codified, refined, and experimented with the practice. Ibn Muqla, an official of the Abbasid caliphate which ruled over the Islamic empire from 750 to 1258 AD, standardized cursive writing and developed a teaching system. In the centuries that followed, many calligraphers built upon his instruction, which is still in use today.
As Islamic calligraphy evolved, scripts fell in and out of fashion. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Turkish calligrapher Shaikh Hamdullah refined the popular naskh script, with its cursive and rounded characters. According to legend, the saint Khidr taught Hamdullah to write in this form. Over the course of his life, Hamdullah refined several other scripts and developed a distinct style of teaching, so he is considered the founder of the Ottoman school of calligraphy. Since his death in 1519, generations of calligraphers have followed in his footsteps.
Mohamed Zakariya and his students, including Lodin and Berer, are part of this Turkish lineage. “There’s an unbroken line of transmission,” Berer said. All students in the Ottoman school of calligraphy have been taught the same curriculum.
Born in 1942, Zakariya grew up in Southern California. At the age of eighteen, he noticed a piece of Arabic calligraphy hanging in the window of an Armenian rug store. He fell in love with the piece, and he committed himself to learning the art of calligraphy. Years later, he had the opportunity to study in Istanbul with master calligraphers Ali Alparslan and Hasan Çelebi, and in the decades since, Zakariya has become a celebrated calligrapher and teacher himself. Now in his eighties, Zakariya has taught hundreds of students. In 2009, President Obama commissioned him to create a piece for the King of Saudi Arabia. In 2001, 2011, and 2013, the U.S. Postal Service commissioned him to design postage stamps in honor of the Islamic holidays Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
On the first day of their training, students in this Turkish lineage are given a specific Arabic phrase to copy. The phrase is رب يسر ولا تعسر رب تمم بالخير—a prayer that translates to “Lord, make it easy, do not make it difficult. Lord, make it end well.” This phrase was chosen centuries ago, Berer explained, because its shapes contained “all the secrets of calligraphy hidden within it.” Students are expected to practice writing it until they get it right. At this stage, students are offered little instruction, and the process can take years.
“Imagine, if when you start learning the violin, they just gave you a medium complex phrase of Mozart, but no instruction—just a recording,” Berer explained. “You have to figure out how to replicate that on the violin. Once you finally do, and you’re able to very fluently and confidently play that particular phrase, then you start learning scales, and you go back to the very beginning.”
It took Berer two years to complete this initial lesson. “It’s a process of self-critique that allows you to get an understanding of how the pen moves and how the ink interacts with the paper,” he told me. “You’re just trying to parse out your own mistakes. Every week, you go to your teacher’s house, and you fail the lesson.” Oftentimes, the difference between a letter written correctly and one written incorrectly is a sixteenth of an inch.
In total, there are thirty-three lessons that students in this Turkish lineage must complete. These lessons cover just two scripts of the dozens that exist. During lessons, Zakariya corrects his students’ homework in front of the whole class—“so that the less advanced students have an idea of what’s coming up,” Lodin said. “For the most advanced students, it’s a review of what they’ve already done.”
Zakariya, Lodin, and Berer’s journeys into the world of calligraphy are stories of inspiration and persistence. Since Berer was a teenager in British Columbia, he has adored the architecture of language. Despite not having any Arab ancestry, he was drawn to study Arabic language, and on his first day of college, his professor showed the class a video of a calligrapher writing the alphabet. Berer was hooked. “I thought to myself: this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” he recounted. At the time, there was little information available in English about the tradition. Still, Berer spent hours in the library studying whatever books he could find.
After he graduated, he moved to Yemen. There, he studied Arabic with a teacher similarly impassioned with Islamic calligraphy. His teacher introduced him to the area’s small, though active, community of calligraphers. He eventually moved to Istanbul, where he found the opportunity to work with the master calligrapher and historian Uğur Derman.
Berer moved to the United States in 2010 and launched his own calligraphy business. Many of his designs were inspired by his love of graffiti art. “Graffiti is all about lettering,” he pointed out. He began studying with Zakariya in 2012, and he received his ijaza—a certificate granted to calligraphy students from their teachers—in 2020.
Berer’s work is rooted in his love of typography; when he works on a piece, he rarely reflects on the spiritual significance or meaning of the words. “The architecture of the letters themselves and the engineering in sculpting out those letters on the page—that’s what I’m thinking about.”
For Lodin, on the other hand, calligraphy is a spiritual practice. “The daily rites that we engage in as Muslims—praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan—are all inherently spiritual acts,” Lodin reflected. “But when things get so consistent, for me, they tend to lose that novelty. I lose attention to the rituals. Calligraphy has created a different dimension for me.”
Lodin grew up in Arlington, Virginia, where she often visited local museums and galleries with her family. Through these experiences, she cultivated an appreciation for art and design. As a teenager, she began creating graffiti art. Like Berer, she adores the “architecture” of words. “There was something about the love of typography,” she recounted. “The idea that you can mold and form words and letters to create images or to create some sort of spirit.”
When Lodin was older, she began to explore her Muslim identity. In the process, she decided to connect her spiritual and artistic practices. She started creating Arabic calligraphy, eventually showing her work to a master calligrapher named Haji Noor Deen. He encouraged her to explore the foundations of calligraphy and gave her virtual lessons over the following years. Berer and Lodin first met after she purchased some of his calligraphy supplies, and they bonded over their shared love. Berer introduced her to Zakariya in 2015, and she has been formally studying with him ever since.
Unlike Berer, Lodin often contemplates the meaning of the words that she writes. “I like to sit down and think about how these are words that are divinely inspired,” she told me.
Both calligraphy and scientific illustration are practices that remind Lodin of her connection to the divine. To her, both art forms are “reflections of creation. There’s a perfection in these creations, and they reflect the creator. How can I best represent them?” When she works on a piece of calligraphy, she feels an obligation to depict the fundamental beauty of the world.
At the Folklife Festival, Lodin introduced visitors to the various tools and materials used by calligraphers. All Zakariya’s students learn to create their own materials, which are treated with the utmost care and respect. Calligraphy pens, known as qalam, are traditionally made from reeds. To create a pen, a calligrapher must first cut the reed with a razor-sharp knife. This is an incredibly difficult—and, given the sharpness of the knives, even dangerous—process. Artists must frequently sharpen these pens in order to maintain their quality. Four years into her training, Lodin was finally taught to sharpen her pens. Two years later, she learned to carve them from scratch.
Although calligraphers no longer collect soot from oil lamps in mosques, many continue to use traditional inks. As Lodin demonstrated, calligraphers often put raw silk in their inkwells to ensure that the ink will not spill if the bottle topples over. Additionally, calligraphers often write on handmade paper specially treated with egg whites. This allows calligraphers to erase their writing a few times before completing a final work.
Learning the art of Islamic calligraphy is a lifelong process. “There’s no end to your learning and your improving,” Berer explained. “I fell in love with this idea that there’s no possible way for you to truly master it. You’re only going to get very good, and, even then, there’s always room for improvement.”
Although he received his ijaza several years ago, Berer continues to work with Zakariya. Currently, he is studying Taliq, a script that was traditionally used for writing documents in Persian. Although Berer is committed to deepening his knowledge of the classical tradition, he is also interested in returning to graffiti art. “I want to take classical calligraphy and put it into graffiti,” he told me.
Recently, he began teaching his first student, learning a great deal in the process. “In English, we have this phrase: those who can’t do, teach,” he said. “In Islamic calligraphy, we have the opposite: if you can do, you must teach.”
In the future, Lodin would like to learn the Maghribi script, which originated in North Africa. She was introduced to this style over a decade ago, when a friend gave her a copy of a poem entitled “The Burda.” Coincidentally, the version that she saw was done by Zakariya. “I fell in love with it,” she told me. “I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever.” Years later, he showed her the original copy.
One day, Lodin would love to transcribe the Qur’an. “That’s a lofty goal,” she admitted. “But it’s something I hope to do one day so that I can give it to my children, who will then give it to their children.”
Berer and Lodin are grateful that the calligraphy community in the United States has been so welcoming and supportive. Calligraphers are not competitive. Rather, there is a profound sense of kinship. “The thing that connects us is that we all have a teacher, and all these teachers are interconnected,” Lodin shared.
Although the community is diverse, Berer explained, “We all have the same exact origin story. We encountered calligraphy in our home country, and we fell in love.”
Islamic calligraphy is an evolving tradition. Berer and Lodin are part of a long line of calligraphers who have refined and reinterpreted the practice. “In calligraphy, we are constantly honing the idea of a perfect letter,” Berer said. “We’re standing on the shoulders of people who stood on the shoulders of people.”
Joshua Kurtz is a writing intern with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, where he studies Judaism and spiritual care. He is also a weaver, poet, and fiddle player.