[Interview] Umaar Ejaz on how the humanitarian crisis inspired him to create his new charity project I.Calligraphy
Meet Umaar Ejaz: the founder and artist of I.Calligraphy. Having completed a degree in Engineering at Brunel University (London) and a Masters in Education and Philosophy, Umaar pursued work for various blue chip companies before deciding to embark upon his passions of education, faith and social justice in his current work and projects.
He is now a full time teacher, runs an engineering business, and has recently launched his calligraphy project, creating bespoke artwork on wood and donating the pieces and funds to various charitable causes.
Umaar was inspired to start I.Calligraphy six months ago due to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Palestine and other countries, and feeling a sense hopelessness initially. “I wanted to do more to help, no matter how insignificant it may be. I must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them. From this pretext, I have seen I.Calligraphy flourish from strength to strength because of this intention.”
Read my interview with Umaar as he explains how he learnt the art of calligraphy, what makes his style different to others, and some valuable insights and advice for aspiring artists and entrepreneurs. Also, view some of his personalized calligraphy pieces below, they are stunning!
Who and what inspires you?
If I had a flower for each moment my mother showed me kindness and love, I could forever walk in the garden of eternity. My mother was my first teacher, my first friend, my first mentor, everything that I have accomplished in life both personally, academically and professionally is because of foundation that she lay at home for me to be nurtured and grow as a human being. I cannot emphasise the pivotal importance of a mother; she is the root of a family and the foundation from which any husband, child can truly prosper.
There is no faith without humility. My faith inspires me, thus I strive daily to improve my self. Through this seed being at the core of my roots. To develop my understanding of faith through meaning, this compromises of reading the Quran through tafsir and study of the Prophetic traditions.
I cannot express enough gratitude to every single person, who has shown me kindness and supported me the past six months since the first conception of I.Calligraphy. Working with countless individuals, organisations and charities that Interpal, Amirah Foundation, Penny Appeal, Human Relief Foundation, Muslim Aid, Palestinian International Medical Aid, Human Care Syria, CARE Pakistan, Pearl Education Foundation, and Save the Children. All of whom that have attained and retained the pivotal role of making I.Calligraphy into what it has become today.
What is the story and inspiration behind I.Calligraphy?
Art is a universal language and as medium of expression, it allows us to understand a story without words. If there is a profound narrative that reflects the human condition but still retains a personal meaning. I would like to believe that the core of my work is a means to bring myself closer to God and convey the beauty of my faith. Morally, ethically and spiritually speaking, the story behind each canvas resides in reflecting my own akhlaq (practice of virtue, morality and manners in Islamic theology and philosophy) in meaning.
For example one of the calligraphy canvases ‘One Essence. One Soul’ (below) begins with Arabic calligraphy with words that depict a family, consisting of a mother, baby and father. The words are a poem by Saadi and have been written exactly 14 times, the meaning translates to:
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you have no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain.
The notion within the words is to define, that under the heavens and the Earth, we are all but one family. Whether, that is in our faith or through our common humanity. ‘Human beings are members of a whole, in creation of One Essence and Soul’. Man/Woman was made with the essence of life by Allah. The way we treat others is in direct correlation with the Most High whether that is spiritual, figurative or literal, it is the link we all share.
“I started I.Calligraphy fours months ago looking at the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Palestine and wanting to do more to help”
I have been blessed with many opportunities in life and being provided with the choice to be successful within my own personal life. However, it means so little when a man like me wins some success. Where is the benefit when a small class of people make money and can live well? It may be encouraging, but it has no deeper significance. I feel this way because I have travelled the world and met children who can neither read nor write. I have had a chance. They have not. That is the difference. I believe to whom a lot is given, a lot is expected. This is the pretext of my motivation and intentions.
Where did you learn calligraphy? Have you always acquired a talent in art or was this developed throughout the years?
My mother taught me calligraphy at a young age and in essence instilled a deeper sense of culture within me, to understand the rich depth of my heritage through history, philosophy, literature, poetry, and music. Always retaining humility in my own growth and development through the pretext of self-knowledge, awareness and understanding.
Imam Ghazali once said ‘The true greatness of man lies in his capacity for eternal progress.’ I believe that our faith has to embodied into every dimension of our life, through both thought and action. Faith like knowledge like art is not linear, but circular. It will always be an on going cycle. It is dynamic and constantly in-need of revision, thus change is eternal and driven by humility. That is why I choose to retain humility by questioning. To constantly read, comprehend, gravitate, ponder and develop. Everything and anything that I can try to understand to better my soul and improve my humanity.
“I have travelled the world and met children who can neither read nor write. I have had a chance. They have not. That is the difference. I believe to whom a lot is given, a lot is expected. This is the pretext of my motivation and intentions.”
What is the process of creating a calligraphy piece?
The process itself transpires in many stages of planning, designing, redesigning, making and finishing. I begin with the initial conception of the idea as a thought, than planning the journey. I then design the calligraphy on paper, with three to five concepts shortlisted to the chosen design. Redesigning to finalise the selected design and making any refinements needed. Followed by cutting the wood to precise size, replicating the design onto the wood and carving out the calligraphy, section by section. Once the above steps are finished, the wood is sanded off with glass paper and varnished with two coats, to provide the artwork with a professional finish. Then taking the photograph and writing the description to explain the context and meaning of the calligraphy follow this.
I have met countless people who have stunned by the quality of the finish and complexity within the final calligraphy. However, with any product, we as people abstract the process from the final product. The mistakes, rejections, failures are never considered because these stages of the journey are not always within our sight. I know that I have succeeded only because I have failed so many times, when going through the process iterated above.
Calligraphy artwork can be made in a plethora of styles. What makes your style different to others?
Art through an Islamic conception has always been progressive, evolutionary and developed on the foundations of the pillars that were set by those before. Our ancestors never looked upon a specific period of history within the past with nostalgia and tried to repeat it identically. They used it as a pretext for inspiration to develop their own identity.
A pragmatic example of this would be the diverse beauty of mosques all across the world and how the choice of environment reflected the design of the mosque itself. The choice of material and technique is used intentionally to preserve this style of craftsmanship and create bespoke artisan canvases. The style of calligraphy itself is very versatile and has been called an amalgamation of classical, contemporary, and modern. The story behind each bespoke artwork, tries to entwine the past and present into one outlet of expression.
I did not just wish to replicate calligraphy that I saw many artists complete, but personally reflect the edifice of my faith within the work. Each canvas is a personal narrative of universality; it paints a story that is timeless and shows our common humanity. And even though the essence of my work rests upon my faith, it is not intended to only appease a specific demographic but express the plurality and universal dimensions of Islam.
What experience do you have in both the calligraphy/art and charity sector?
Calligraphy has always been a hobby that I have completed within my spare time and before I began I.Calligraphy, I would always make canvases similar to my current work, as gifts for family and close friends. This is the actual origin of how I.Calligraphy began. I made a calligraphy piece for mother’s day and a close friend saw the work that I made for my mother and advised that I take the hobby more seriously and consider donating it to raise funds for charity.
Prior to this, I have been mentoring on weekends for the past 6 years, working with children from disadvantaged backgrounds, through community based projects, and charity work in my spare time. Charity is one of the 5 pillars of our faith. And I know at the at the end of life I will not be judged by how many degrees I have received, how much money I have made, how many great things I have done. I will be judged by “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.”
What are the challenges with this type of work and how do you overcome them?
I have been mastering my craft for a long duration of my life, first as a hobby then a career and ultimately a vocation. The biggest obstacle I currently face is balancing the time to run my own engineering business, teach and have the time to make the calligraphy. The whole process from design to delivery is completed by myself. Currently, demand outweighs supply and finding the time, energy, to balance this endeavour is the biggest challenge right now.
What advice would you give to those who are interested in launching their own art and charity project?
From my own experience I have found that my intentions have always been the core of my personal success and the collective success attained through I.Calligraphy and making a difference, no matter how big or small it may be. I would advise anyone who is interested in following a similar pathway, to always reflect and act upon his or her own strengths rather than weakness.
Always be and remain an active part of your community and contribute to charity projects. Regardless of religious affiliation, be committed with your time, effort, energy through your akhlaq, as these qualities always make the difference to others. Never see it as a passive, temporary part of your life, always see humanity as a whole rather than an abstraction, holistically aware of whom you are.
“The highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them. And from this pretext, I have seen I.Calligraphy flourish from strength to strength because of this intention.”
What do you hope to achieve in the near future?
The journey thus far has been very humbling to say the least. Within this short period of time I have worked with countless individuals, organisations and charities. I have travelled throughout the U.K for various events and I. Calligraphy has been given a platform in galleries, magazines and purchased by hundreds of individuals including celebrities. And with time it is only growing from strength to strength. I am currently working on some major projects, which I should announce shortly insha’ALLAH but I am taking everything within my stride daily and seeing how the story continues to unfold.
At the same time, I am content with what I have. As more so, material or physical notions of success do not drive my ambition. It is driven to better myself as a person, for my family, my community and myself. That inwardly ambition is ultimately what drives me as a person, to wake up everyday and create something meaningful of my existence with everything that ALLAH has blessed me with. And insha’ALLAH within the long term continuing to help others, as ALLAh has forever helped me.
Finally what do you think of Sufi Comics?
I have studied Mawlana Rumi’s work in depth and one of the calligraphy canvases I created was inspired by this. The inscription begins with Arabic calligraphy and depicts a Sufi Dervish whirling. The words translate to:
“Either exist as your essence, or be as you look.”
The notion within the words is to define, that true faith and spirituality is an inner fire, a mystical sustenance that feeds our souls not our body. The aim is to abandon one’s nafs, egos or personal desires. The mystical journey drives us into ourselves, to a sacred flame at our center. The purpose of the religious experience is to develop the eyes by which we see this inner flame, and our capacity to live its mystery through our existence. In its presence, we are warmed and ignited. When too far from the blaze and driven by the material rather than the immaterial, we are cold and spiritually lifeless. We are less than human without that heat. Our connection to ALLAH is the essence of life itself.
I think Sufi Comics works from a similar pretext in expression through reflecting the universality of our faith and I am honoured to being given this opportunity by Sufi Comics, as I hold their work the highest of esteem.
Check out our new book Sufi Comics: Rumi available for sale
Read our previous interviews with creative artists here