An Interview with Master Calligrapher Haji Noor Deen

Arts & Entertainment

Haji Noor Deen Mi Guang Jiang is a renowned master of Arabic calligraphy from Yucheng, Shandong Province in China. After studying calligraphy for years, in 1997, Haji Noor Deen was awarded the Certificate of Arabic Calligrapher in Egypt, becoming the first Chinese person to be honored with this prestigious award.

In 2000, Haji Noor Deen initiated and taught the first regular and systematic Arabic Calligraphy course at the Zhengzhou Islamic College in China. Muslims in China are estimated between 25 million to 80 million, depending on the source.

The Chinese and Arabic calligraphic traditions have often been compared as two of the world's finest manifestations of the written word. The love for the Divine written word reaches and conforms to the lands where Muslims settle. A 1,000 years ago, Chinese Muslims began using the traditional brush and ink to copy the Quran. he Sini style (Chinese script writing Arabic with Chinese tools ) is used masajid in China, such as the the Great Mosque of Xi'an, in vessel inscriptions and hanging scrolls, as well as early copies of the Quran in Eastern China. The oldest handwritten copy of the Quran in China dates to 1318.

As Islamic art is largely aniconic, calligraphers are heavy weights in the Muslim world. A genius who developed the unique style of Sini-Arabic calligraphy, which reads the same in both Chinese and Arabic, Haji Noor Deen is considered an influential Muslim throughout the world. He merged the two styles: the horizontal lacing of Arabic and vertical planes aligning with forces of gravity of the Chinese. He is often seen at Islamic conferences his fingers waltzing over the paper and producing works of art in moments. Haji Noor Deen's art has been and displayed in galleries and museums around the world, often as the first Chinese/Arabic artist, including The British Museum, San Francisco Asian Museum, National Museum of Scotland and Harvard University Art Museum.

He brings an immense amount of knowledge in Islamic art and traditional thought to a modern audience. The focus of his work is a masterful calligraphic technique which uniquely fuses both the Chinese and Arabic arts. Using a mix of Zamzam water and silk in the Tie Zhai Ong ink, the master calligrapher's graceful strokes mesmerize onlookers as he gives gives creative expression to the ayaat of the Qur'an.

hajji noor deen sample


Recently the Muslim Link met with Haji Noor deen at the Diyanet Center of America, where he was conducting calligraphy workshops. The interview was conducted in Arabic and translated with the help of Amira Ahmed. It has been adjusted for readability.

[TML] Where were you trained and which styles of khatati have you learned?

[HND] I began in 1980 [at the age of 18] with a sheikh in a masjid in China. My second teacher was Muhammed As-Said (Lee winchen), whom I also studied with in a masjid in China. With him, I studied arabic calligraphy and islamic sciences. Then I went to Khubai, and studied Arabic calligraphy in Chinese style with numerous early Chinese calligraphers. That style of Arabic calligraphy looks a lot like Chinese calligraphy. After completing my studies in China, I studied in Egypt for 8 years with Ustadh Muhammad As-Said Ramadan, Ustadh Khudayr bin Said, and Ustadh Hammam, whom they call Abdulfattah, and many other calligraphers.

I studied traditional Arabic calligraphy there. such as Thuluth script and Naskh script. I lived in Egypt from 1991-1999. After that I moved to Turkey in 2008 and studied with Ustadh Hassan Chalaby, Ustadh Dawud Baktash, Ustadh Ahmed Kojak, and others. I am still studying there learning the intricacies of thuluth and naskh scripts, and will finish my lessons this year or next year, inshaAllah.

[TML] What are some of your memories of learning this art from your teachers?

[HND] In the course of my life, while learning Arabic calligraphy, I have had many teachers. Alhumdulilah, they were all experts. There are some scripts that are different, such as the ones I learned from Muhammed As-Said, who is a Chinese calligrapher. He used to write Masahif in Chinese. His Arabic calligraphy in Chinese style is very beautiful. All my teachers were experts MashaAllah, and they each wrote Arabic calligraphy in a different style. There is a wide word in Khitan that is written with a Chinese brush/quill. In Egypt, as you know, they write Arabic calligraphy which is original/authentic. For example, they write with bamboo, or "boos" as it is called in Egypt. This calligraphy is very different from Chinese calligraphy. Ustadh Muhammad As-Said Ramadan taught me many facets of the art form. I was the first Chinese in Egypt to learn Arabic calligraphy, and to earn the certificate and ijazah. I went to Istanbul in 2008. As you know, the Qur'an was revealed in Makkah and Madinah, it was read in Egypt, and written in Istanbul. In Istanbul there is a long history of calligraphers who wrote many beautiful things, specifically the thuluth script and the naskh script, which are mashaAllah very amazing, brilliant, and beautiful works. I not only studied calligraphy, but also manners, morals, and religion, so it was a holistic Arabic calligraphy learning experience, which I was very happy with. May Allah give them all success.

[TML] What brings you back to the United States? How many students do you have here?

[HND] In America, as you know, there is a famous calligrapher, Ustadh Muhammad Zakaria, who is training many artists Alhamdulillah. When I come to America, like to visit this place, the number of my students has no limit. I don't know, maybe they were in a lecture, a class, a university, a workshop, so I don't know how many students there are, but Alhamdulillah there are a lot. I noticed that in America, many Muslims and even non-Muslims love calligraphy, because this is an art, and an Islamic art. Nowadays, despite being the age of computers, I noticed that many young people, elderly people, doctors, and others, they love this art form. When I do lectures and workshops, I notice a lot of teachers attending and asking good questions about this art. For that reason, I don't know how many, but I can say that they are many, Alhamdulillah.

[TML] Who are your favorite artists? Are there other calligraphers whose work you follow closely?

[HND] The Qur'an was revealed before 1300 years ago, and since then until now, all masahif are written by calligraphers and then duplicated. In the history of Islam, there are many, many, expert calligraphers. For example, in the Abbasid era, there were famous calligraphers such as Ibn Bawwaba, Ibn Muqlah, and Yaqut. These calligraphers were brilliant and innovative, they set the foundations for thuluth and naskh scripts and calligraphy, as well as muhaqqaqah script. And as you know, in the Ottoman era, there were more calligraphers. In Turkey, from the Sultan to the average citizen, everyone loved this art, even until now it is still splendid. Likewise in Arab countries such as Iraq, Egypt, and Syria, there are still many calligraphers. Even in Iran, they have Farsi calligraphy, as well as in Pakistan and India. I would say that in all Muslim lands. In Spain, we have Muhammad Nuria. In Britain, France, America, Japan, Malaysia, in every place there are many calligraphers, mashaAllah, because they all love this art, and they love the Qur'an. It was with this beautiful calligraphy that masahif were written.

[TML] Calligraphy is often viewed as the most elevated form of art because it transforms the sacred word into masterpieces. Are you working on a mushaf (compiled, written pages of the Qur'an) project?

[HND] Yes, I have started one, but have not finished it yet. I started a project on a mushaf in Chinese, and inshaAllah, it will be done in the next three or four years. When you write a mushaf from beginning to end, it takes a lot of time. I started in 2010, so it has been eight years so far. One must patiently prepare the paper, determine which script is more sublime, what is the appropriate size, and this all comes with studying. When you want to write the words of the noble Quran in beautiful calligraphy and with due respect and appreciation, it takes time and introspection, so inshaAllah, I hope in the next three or four years, if our Lord makes it easy, this project will be done.

[TML] What is your message to students of art?

[HND] I hope that they love this art from the soul, because this is Arabic calligraphy and a form of Islamic studies. Arabic calligraphy is a beautiful thing, and we know Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty, so I hope the people of America will encourage this art and learn this lovely art.