TOKYO: Born in Tokyo, Fuad Kouichi Honda is widely recognized as one of the best Arabic calligraphers in the world. The Japanese-born 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 Koran.
Fuad started learning Arabic decades ago. Reading the Quran 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 expression of Islam and Islamic culture.”
His style is also a reflection of the landscapes encountered during his travels through Arab countries. Honda conducted mining 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 the form. of art.
Despite his father’s encouragement, Honda was not particularly fond of calligraphy as a child. In fact, he says, he gave up studying it in favor of the sport. But when he became an undergraduate in foreign studies at the University of Tokyo in 1965, Honda decided to take Arabic classes because he was interested in ancient civilizations in the Middle East, especially Egypt. . And it was a choice he initially regretted.
“I think (Arabic) is the most difficult language in the world,” he says. “I gave it up after two years. The teacher asked me to read a book in Arabic about the legendary Arab hero, knight and poet Antarah ibn Shaddad. It was a very difficult literature for me.
It was topography that brought Honda back to the Arabic language and calligraphy. After graduating, he joined a Japanese company that worked with the Saudi government to survey and map the Arabian Peninsula.
He traveled to the Kingdom in 1974 as a translator for the company. Several of the cards the company used bore Arabic calligraphy, and Honda says he fell in love with the art. He began to teach himself to recreate the artwork he had seen.
Honda recalls that a calligrapher he met, whose job it was to write official correspondence for the oil ministry, advised him to buy a fine book on Arabic calligraphy by Naji Zein, who became a major influence on Honda’s own work.
Upon his return to Tokyo, he continued to practice calligraphy and received requests from the Saudi Embassy to create pieces for National Day banners. Other embassies began to request similar services. And it got to the point where Honda decided it wasn’t content to just treat calligraphy as a side hobby.
“(When I came back) to Japan in the late 70s, I became a clerk in the company,” he says. “I felt routine work didn’t fit my life and spirit, so I decided to quit and started teaching Arabic.”
He adds that the main motivations for his resignation were a strong desire to “live a free life” and to continue learning Arabic calligraphy.
What Honda didn’t fully realize at the time was that its thinking had undergone a major, albeit unconscious, shift. His stay in Saudi Arabia had forged a strong spiritual bond with the country and the culture, but also with Muslims and Islam in general.
He had been interested in Islam since college, he says, and that interest deepened as he made Muslim friends in Saudi Arabia and read the Koran and other religious books. After returning to his native country, quitting his job, and beginning to explore language and calligraphy more intensely, Honda decided to convert to Islam.
He declares his conversion to the Islamic Center of Tokyo and adopts 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 its first invitation to exhibit its work overseas. He traveled to Baghdad – taking three of his works with him – to participate in an international conference on Arabic calligraphy with about 180 other calligraphers. It was there that he met the famous Turkish calligrapher Hasan Chalabi.
Fuad asked the master calligrapher to teach him more about the art, and Chalabi agreed. This was the start of years of correspondence between the two.
“He corrected me a lot,” says Honda. “I was surprised and disappointed at times.” But these corrections have diminished over time. And after about a decade of instruction, Chalabi presented Honda with his certificate—with a caveat.
“During the ceremony in Istanbul, he told me that the certificate did not mean that I had achieved my goal, but that it was a new beginning (and should inspire me to be) more creative and to work harder tough,” he said. Basically, the certificate also meant that he could now sign his work.
At that time, Honda was creating its own designs and participating in exhibitions. He had received a few awards, but says that imitating old works made him feel “limited by tradition.”
“One day while I was reading verses from the Quran, vague formations like circles and triangles flashed in my mind,” he recalls. “I felt that was the inspiration to design new (forms of) calligraphy that reflects the meaning of the Quran – so I started doing that.”
While Honda emphasizes that he has great respect for the heritage of Arabic calligraphy (believing that it “stands at the pinnacle of fine art in the world in terms of aesthetic value”), he says he felt a desire to create a more personal style. for him, with a new substantive style – an original style with “philosophical significance” that would bring a new aspect to an old art.
Colors play a vital role in this style, especially blue and gold – blue representing sky, water and eternity, and gold reflecting divinity. “The words on water have a very deep meaning,” he explains. “Water is important in the Quran because it has different shapes every moment and it shows 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 Quran on each sand dune. He was inspired to do this after visiting Saudi Arabia’s Rub’ al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, and noticing how the dunes change color with the weather and their changing shape. He felt that the dunes were reminiscent of waves and the delicate lines on their surface evoked calligraphy from the Quran.
Like the art form he embraced, Honda’s career blossomed. In addition to teaching Arabic calligraphy to Japanese students for more than two decades, he has published books, lectured overseas, and established the Japan Arabic Calligraphy Association.
“I believe that all Muslims in the world, regardless of their nationality, (should) be very proud of (Arabic calligraphy), whose aesthetic value has not been achieved by (any other form of art),” says -he.
“Calligraphers must fully maintain this heritage by respecting the rules of calligraphy. (But also) introduce more creativity, so that it becomes even more beautiful.