Embracing spirituality and strengthening faith through art

Citi Jeleha headed to Istanbul to seek the grandmaster of Ottoman calligraphy in pursuit of the Islamic art


The one piece that most beholders would find fascinating is the waw, the 27th letter in the Arabic alphabets

CITI Jeleha Yousoff was making her way into the contemporary art world when tragedy struck.

She was in the middle of creating a name, participating in exhibitions with other compatriots in the “worldly art” realm when her daughter died in the year 2000.

“My entry into the Islamic Art happened not without divine intervention, as with everything else it was by His will,” she said.

Dealing with her daughter’s death was a difficult time for Citi Jeleha, but her faith in the Almighty was fortified and her belief that God has His ways was further reinforced.

“I asked for an occupation that would keep me in constant remembrance of Him. He led me the way slowly, step by step…and opened the door for me,” she said.


Now, Citi Jeleha is a renowned Islamic calligrapher. She became the first Malaysian to receive a proper education, with a certificate of qualification in the Thuluth and Nashk scripts achieved in 2012.

Just 16 years before that, Citi Jeleha graduated as a painter from the Wimbledon School of Art.

She then pursued a Masters degree in Visual Islamic Traditional Arts at the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts in London for two years.

While completing her Masters, Citi Jeleha also learned about miniature painting, marquetry, stone carving and sacred geometry, but it wasn’t the place where she would learn Islamic calligraphy.

“I did my Masters at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts thinking I could have also learnt Islamic calligraphy.

“I benefitted with many skills, but not calligraphy. Somehow, my heart and soul was yearning for the Kalimah Allah (the word of God), the Quran,” she said.

Citi Jeleha (right) explaining one of her artworks to Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia DG Prof Datuk Dr Azizan Baharuddin (left) during the launch of the exhibition

Learning from the Master

Her colleague, Nassar Mansur told Citi Jeleha to head to Istanbul, Turkey, and seek the grandmaster of Ottoman calligraphy Hasan Celebi.

“I became his student until today in his old age. Healthwise, he is not so well, but his eyes still assess one’s work like a hawk,” said Citi Jeleha.

Hasan Celebi’s Ottoman calligraphy has been taught and passed on for generations from master to student since the 13th century.

What Hasan Celebi taught Citi Jeleha was writing by hand in ink using the reed pen or the Qadam.

The calligraphy was written on parchment and then ahar paper, which is specifically used for Islamic calligraphy.

In present day, it is impossible for somebody to erase their handwriting with eraser when they use a pen, likewise for calligraphers as they would need to make corrections and erasures.

Ahar paper, on the other hand, is created in such a way that ink would not be able to penetrate through it.

The paper is actually coated with multiple coats of wheat starch and a sizing made from egg whites and alum.

Citi Jeleha has been Hasan Celebi’s apprentice for 13 years now, and she wants to share her skills and knowledge from her great master by teaching Islamic calligraphy.

Imparting the Knowledge

In fact, she has been teaching at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (KL) for five years now, being the only female calligraphy instructor there.

“I’ve been told to take only a few apprentices because my lessons are one-to-one sessions. So, I take only nine persons,” Citi Jeleha said.

Progressively, she is able to divide the lessons — one for beginners and the other for the more experienced hands — which allows her to teach more students.

She teaches different scripts according to how experienced her students are. For beginners, she would teach the Riq’ah script, but for the experienced, she would teach the Nasakh and Thuluth scripts.

Citi Jeleha would also train the students to write Arabic first before progressing into forming full sentences and joints. The students would later be taught how to properly cut the reed pen.

Although she originally learned calligraphy using ink, parchment and paper, Citi Jeleha can now present her writing on different media, which has placed her in a unique position.

“The scripts are the same, you know…but every hand is different, of course. We write the same script and the same ayat or sentences. The results might be slightly different because each hand is different,” she said.

She also experiments with different forms, colours, textures, materials, arabesques, symmetry and geometry that would further enhance the process of creating a beautiful piece of Islamic calligraphy through the eyes of the beholder.

Patrons admiring the woodcarving of Islamic calligraphy. Citi Jeleha also learnt the Malay art of woodcarving from Nik Rashidee and Norhaiza from the East Coast


Citi Jeleha also learnt the Malay art of woodcarving from Nik Rashidee Nik Hussein and Norhaiza Nordin from the East Coast.

Nik Rashidee is the brother of the late Nik Rashiddin Nik Hussein, another legendary woodcarver from Kelantan.

As part of their efforts to keep Nik Rashiddin’s legacy alive, Nik Rashidee, Norhaiza and Nik Rashiddin’s widow established the Akademi Nik Rashiddin in Kampung Kandis near Bachok, Kelantan.

Favourite Piece

As an artist and calligrapher, Citi Jeleha loves all her artworks, but the one that she enjoys the most is Surah Al-’A’la (Quran: 87:14) which is a simple piece based on the 14th verse from the 87th chapter of the Quran.

The piece, which translates as “but, he will prosper who purifies himself”, is written in all green ink.

“It shows pure calligraphy. This is the movement of the pen and ink,” Citi Jeleha explained.

“As you can see, I used a very light, transparent ink. It shows the hand’s technique and this is true calligraphy.”

The one piece that most beholders would find fascinating is the waw, the 27th letter in the Arabic alphabets.

Those who did their Pendidikan Islam or Islamic Studies might remember memorising all the alphabets in the Arabic language.

Still, it is rather fascinating that such a simple alphabets can form a unique shape.

From afar, the piece looks like a Celtic knot, which is found in decorations in Ireland and Scotland.

But a closer inspection would tell you that it is a knot made up of a few of the alphabet waw.

“Everybody likes it. It’s very strong. It has two different waw — a long one and a round one. They are facing opposite sides like a mirror,” Citi Jeleha said.

The waw was created using ink and gold on ahar paper.

The alphabet carries a unique symbol among Sufi masters as it symbolises the promise of total faith in God.

It also represents No 6 in the “Science of Secret Letters” and the element of air.


Sufi mysticism is also part of Citi Jeleha’s interest, and her art also carries related influences.

“In my studies, I discovered that all the beautiful scripts and amazing works of Islamic art were in the hands of Sufis. Their mystical sentiment inspired their work towards aesthetics perfection,” she said.

Citi Jeleha also believes that Sufism is a door to purification to reach the sublime as she also has the desire to be a wayfarer to divine observance.

While she had already found her master in Islamic calligraphy, she still is seeking the right path that could bring her to a master on Sufism.

“I prayed that I would find the right Sufi order that would suit me. When I met the late Martin Lings who lectured us in Quranic illumination, I thought he would be the right teacher for me, so I made an appointment to see him,” she said.

Unfortunately, Lings peacefully passed away in his sleep before their appointment, and Citi Jeleha had to continue her journey in search for the right master.

“I came across a little book, ‘Turning Towards The Heart’ written by Hazrat Azad Rasool the sheikh of the Naqshbhandi Mujaddidi Order from Delhi. I had to read it a few times because every page was enlightening,” she said.

Nevertheless, Citi Jeleha said it is destined that the teacher would find their student.

True enough, Hazrat Azad Rasool made his final visit to London before his death.

“I took the opportunity to spend as much time with him as I could and took an oath to become his student. I continued my Sufi practices under Sheikh Hazrat Hamid Hasan,” she said.

Admired by All

Citi Jeleha’s pieces are not only admired and bought by Muslim beholders, but by those from other faiths.

“People of other religions also buy my art because they feel something that they can’t describe. I’d tell them that they should hang it on the wall in the right place,” she said.

Citi Jeleha’s current works are now part of the Oleh Tangan Yang Berkata (By The Hand That Speaks) exhibition at the National Art Gallery in KL.

The title refers to the works of Citi Jeleha’s skills in Islamic calligraphy and her prowess in the traditional Ottoman art.

“You have to be very patient when it comes to learning Islamic calligraphy. It’s not something you can do overnight. It has taken me more than 13 years and I still haven’t mastered it,” she said.

The exhibition will feature 30 of Citi Jeleha’s masterpieces which are created in different scripts.

Oleh Tangan Yang Berkata exhibition is currently on until Sept 20 at the Creative Space gallery, which opens from 10am to 6pm. Admission is free.