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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Connecting through calligraphy

Shunsuke Wakao

Oct. 24, 2017

Learning Arabic calligraphy is giving some Japanese people a chance to understand Islamic culture.

The masterful strokes of Arabic writing inspired Mayuna Shirota to take classes in calligraphy. She's also intrigued by the messages in the words. "I became interested in Arabic calligraphy when I visited Muslim countries and saw so many words decorating the mosques," she says.

Islam forbids the worship of idols. That's one factor that helped the growth of decorative writing in Arab culture. It's believed calligraphy also grew from people making handwritten copies of the Quran.

Lessons in calligraphy are becoming more popular. About 20 students take classes at Tokyo Camii, Japan's biggest mosque. Shirota's class is taught by Tarek Fatyani. He came to Japan as a student from Syria in 2010, but has been unable to return due to the civil war. He aims not just to teach calligraphy. He wants to spread the message of peace -- expressed in the words themselves.

"As-salamu alaykum is a greeting used by Muslims. As-salamu means 'peace,' and alaykum means 'upon you.' So this saying means, 'peace be upon you,'" he says. Tarek teaches Shirota to write insha’Allah, which means "If God wills." It's an expression that's fundamental to the Islamic philosophy of life.

"It will be difficult for me to worship at a mosque or to fast because I'm not a Muslim. But the calligraphy classes have been a good opportunity for me to understand the philosophy of the religion," says Shirota.

Shirota has been a world traveler since her student days. Now she's a high-school teacher, she hopes her new skills can encourage mutual understanding. "My students have a strong image of Muslims as 'terrorists' or 'dangerous' people. But the majority of Muslims are very different, and I hope my students will learn about the different aspects of Islam," she says.

Shirota's calligraphy contributes to friendship between cultures. Beyond the elegance of the words, there is a shared hope for peace.