Fuad Honda, the Japanese Muslim reinterpreting Arabic calligraphy

Surah Iuqman, Fond Honda, from Christies 2012. (Supplied)
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Updated 30 July 2020

Fuad Honda, the Japanese Muslim reinterpreting Arabic calligraphy

  • Honda has created a ‘Japanese style of expressing Islam’ through his ‘music without sound’

TOKYO: Tokyo-born Fuad Kouichi Honda is widely recognized as one of the world’s top Arabic calligraphers. The native Japanese Muslim, who teaches at Daito Bunka University, has won numerous awards for his work, including at the International Arabic Calligraphy Competition. His most famous pieces use passages from the Qur’an. 

Fuad began learning Arabic decades ago. Reading the Qur’an in Arabic inspired him to try his hand at Arabic calligraphy, which he describes as “music without sound.”

“Later, I embraced Islam in order to better feel the essence of this faith and to feel God,” he says. “My works are a Japanese style of expressing Islam and Islamic culture.”  

His style is also a reflection of landscapes he encountered on his travels through Arab countries. Honda led mineral surveys in the deserts of Saudi Arabia for three years in the 1980s, and he says the beauty of the sand dunes and the calligraphy he saw there combined to ignite his passion for this artform.

Honda began learning Arabic decades ago. (Supplied)

Despite encouragement from his father, Honda was not especially keen on calligraphy as a boy. In fact, he says, he gave up studying it in favor of sports. But when he became an undergraduate in Foreign Studies at Tokyo University in 1965, Honda decided to take Arabic lessons as he was interested in ancient civilizations in the Middle East, particularly Egypt. And it was a choice he initially came to regret.

“I think (Arabic) is the most difficult language in the world,” he says. “I dropped it after two years. The teacher asked me to read a book in Arabic about the legendary Arabic hero, knight and poet Antarah ibn Shaddad. That was seriously difficult literature for me.”

It was topography that brought Honda back to the Arabic language and to calligraphy. After graduating, he joined a Japanese company that was working with the Saudi government to survey and make maps of the Arabian Peninsula.

He traveled to the Kingdom in 1974 as a translator for the company. Several of the maps the company was using bore Arabic calligraphy, and Honda says he fell in love with the art. He started teaching himself to recreate the work he had seen.

Quran Surat Al-Baqarah148. (Supplied)

Honda recalls that one calligrapher he met, whose job was to write the official correspondence of the petroleum ministry, advised him to buy a beautiful book on Arabic calligraphy by Naji Zein, which became a major influence on Honda's own work. 

When he returned to Tokyo, he continued to practice calligraphy and received requests from the Saudi Embassy to create pieces for National Day banners. Other embassies began asking for similar services. And it came to the point where Honda decided he wasn’t content to treat calligraphy simply as a side hobby.

“(When I returned) to Japan in the late Seventies I became an office worker in the company,” he says. “I felt the routine work didn’t fit my life and mind, so I decided to resign and started teaching Arabic.”

He adds that the main motivations for his resignation were a strong desire to “live a free life” and keep learning Arabic calligraphy.

Reading the Qur’an in Arabic inspired Honda to try his hand at Arabic calligraphy. (Supplied)

What Honda did not fully realize at the time was that his way of thinking had undergone a major — albeit subconscious — shift. His time in Saudi Arabia had forged a strong spiritual link for him with the country and culture, but also with Muslims and Islam in general.

He had been interested in Islam since his university days, he says, and that interest deepened as he made Muslim friends in Saudi Arabia, and as he read the Qur’an and other religious books. After returning to his homeland, quitting his job and beginning to explore the language and calligraphy more intensely, Honda decided to convert to Islam.

He declared his conversion at the Islamic Center in Tokyo and adopted the Arabic name Fuad. He says the name, which means “heart,” just came to him. Rather than referring to the organ, he believes it symbolizes his heart’s connection with God.

In 1988, Honda received his first invitation to display his work overseas. He went to Baghdad — taking three of his works with him — to participate in an international Arabic calligraphy conference along with around 180 other calligraphers. It was there that he met the renowned Turkish calligrapher Hasan Chalabi.

Fuad asked the master calligrapher to teach him more about the art, and Chalabi agreed. It was the start of years of correspondence between the two.

He declared his conversion at the Islamic Center in Tokyo and adopted the Arabic name Fuad. (Supplied)

“He corrected me a lot,” says Honda. “I was surprised and disappointed sometimes.” But those corrections decreased over time. And after about a decade of instruction, Chalabi presented Honda with his certificate — with a caveat.

“At the ceremony in Istanbul, he told me the certificate did not mean I had reached my goal, but that it was a new start (and should inspire me to be) more creative and to work harder,” he says. Crucially, the certificate also meant he could now sign his work.

By that time, Honda was creating his own designs and participating in exhibitions. He had received some awards, but says that imitating old works made him feel “limited by tradition.” 

“One day, when I was reading verses from the Qur’an, vague formations like circles and triangles flashed in my mind,” he recalls. “I felt this was the inspiration to design new (forms of) calligraphy that reflect the meaning of the Qur’an — so I started doing that.”

While Honda stresses that he has great respect for the heritage of Arabic calligraphy (believing it “sits on top of the fine arts of the world in terms of aesthetic value”), he says he felt a desire to create a style that was more personal to him, with a new background style — an original one with “philosophical meaning” that would bring a new aspect to an ancient art.

He became an undergraduate in Foreign Studies at Tokyo University in 1965. (Supplied)

Colors play a vital role in that style, particularly blue and gold — with blue representing sky, water and eternity, and gold reflecting divinity. “Words about water have a very profound meaning,” he explains. “Water is important in the Qur’an as it has different shapes every moment and this is shown in my design.”

He adds depth to his work through gradual coloring, a technique widely used by Japanese painters. One of his favorite pieces depicts a blue desert with verses from the Qur’an on each sand dune. He was inspired to make it after visiting Saudi Arabia’s Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter and noticing how the dunes changed color depending on time and their shifting shape. He felt the dunes were reminiscent of waves and the delicate lines on their surface evoked the calligraphy of the Qur’an.

Like the art form he adopted, Honda’s career has flourished. In addition to teaching Arabic calligraphy to Japanese students for more than two decades, he has published books, given lectures overseas and established the Japan Arabic Calligraphy Association. 

“I believe that all Muslims in the world, regardless of their nationality, (should) take great pride in (Arabic calligraphy), the aesthetic value of which has not been reached by (any other artform),” he says.  

“Calligraphers should fully maintain this heritage by adhering to the rules of calligraphy. (But also) introduce further creativity, so that it becomes even more beautiful.”


Inside Dubai’s Theater of Digital Art

Updated 9 min 22 sec ago

Inside Dubai’s Theater of Digital Art

  • Less maximum-security museum, more relaxed moving-image showcase, ToDA’s launch makes for an enjoyable outing

DUBAI: If Vincent Van Gogh or Edvard Munch could time travel, one wonders what they would think about how art has evolved. Or about how much their masterpieces have fetched over the years, or how their works have now been transformed into digitised designs that can float from floor to ceiling.

For us, here in the present, digital art theater is a modern take on consuming artworks; getting up close and personal with renowned paintings without fear of ruining them. It’s certainly an unconventional way of presenting the world’s greatest works without having to worry about transporting multi-million dollar canvasses from city to city.

One brand leading this type of experience is the Theater of Digital Art (ToDA), which has just opened its first permanent space in the Middle East. Following its regional debut exhibit in Saudi Arabia, ToDA is now in the United Arab Emirates, taking over Dubai’s Souk Madinat Jumeirah’s former theatre.

Following its regional debut exhibit in Saudi Arabia, ToDA is now in the United Arab Emirates, taking over Dubai’s Souk Madinat Jumeirah’s former theatre. (Supplied)

“The exhibition in Saudi wasn’t as immersive as it is here; here it is available (to view from) different angles. And because it is a theater (space), it gives a different effect,” ToDA’s general manager, Gabriel Afrim tells Arab News. “Those who already visited in Saudi will get a different experience here.”

The company has definitely brought in the big guns for its first long-running show. Running for three months, “From Monet to Kandinsky. Revolutionary Art” is dedicated to “the most important art movements of late 19th and early 20th centuries” through the vision of nine legendary painters: Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Wassily Kandinsky, Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Edvard Munch, Juan Gris, Robert Delaunay, and Paul Klee.

Here’s how it works. Running every hour, entry includes access to the 45-minute “performance” of various artworks by the artists mentioned.

ToDA collaborates with Vision Multimedia Projects, a Russian company that specializes in these types of multimedia experiences. (Supplied)

“When you walk into a gallery you can see the masterpiece, but here you can see them ‘animated,’ allowing you to see more details in the painting,” Afrim elaborates. “It’s fully immersive. Visitors can sit and enjoy the music and art on the walls.”

ToDA collaborates with Vision Multimedia Projects, a Russian company that specializes in these types of multimedia experiences. Once the show’s concept is confirmed, says Afrim, the partner company works on everything from acquiring rights to both the art and the music, as well as piecing it all together.

Munch’s “The Scream” is very much the star of the show — as relevant today as it was when it first created in 1893 — representing the universal anxiety of man. It will no doubt resonate with many, considering it accurately depicts how the majority of us feel about 2020 so far.

One more offering included in the ticket price (from $20 for adults) is the VR Room that incorporates 3D, virtual-reality and augmented-reality “painting” experiences. (Supplied)

From a personal perspective, ToDA doesn’t replace the experience of viewing the real art pieces; rather it is a nice accompaniment and makes for something different. It is much more child-friendly as well. The children’s Interactive Room allows young visitors to create their own animal coloring, and see it transformed from paper to animation right before their eyes.

One more offering included in the ticket price (from $20 for adults) is the VR Room that incorporates 3D, virtual-reality and augmented-reality “painting” experiences. The permanent arrival of ToDA in Dubai was planned pre-COVID, so it will be interesting to see how well this room takes. While staff members were taking the necessary sanitary precautions, I was keen to avoid trying on a headset.

Taking current times into account, ToDA is operating at a limited capacity — the original plan was to host up to 500 visitors per hour; now it has been reduced to 120. The smaller number actually makes more sense. During my own visit, it was somewhat frustrating to be surrounded by a few individuals who were more occupied with chatting loudly or “doing it for the ‘Gram” rather than taking in the visuals and learning more about the artists. So if you plan on heading there, Afrim offers some advice:

“The beauty of this place is that you don’t have to sit in a certain way to see it and look in a single direction. Personally, I prefer to sit on the floor.”

ToDA’s plan is to remain in Dubai for just under 10 years, running different shows every few months. So there’s definitely time for visitors to get it as right as the organization itself has.