Shafina Ali is a versatile creative Islamic artist who designs hand-painted modern and traditional Islamic art on canvas and specialised paper. Her paintings are primarily based off the masterpieces of Islamic history. She represents her interpretation of Islamic art through simple and uncomplicated designs while remaining true to its traditional origins. Her main inspiration comes from the nature and old traditions of Islamic artwork with the three main elements– Arabic Calligraphy, Geometric pattern and Arabesque (floral and vegetal motifs). She has been developing and producing bespoke artwork for clients from all over the world for many years. Each design she creates are meticulously crafted to provide a professional-quality product that is unique to the viewer. She hopes that her artwork can adequately reflect the beauty of Islam. Her painting expresses her devotion to Allah (God), faith, and Islamic ancestry. It acts as a reminder of Allah’s (God’s) message and Islam in today’s hectic world.
We talk to Shafina about her creative journey, training in traditional Islamic art, writing verses from the Qur’an and her future aspirations.
What was your journey to becoming an artist?
As far as I can remember my journey to the art world started from childhood. I grew up in Bangladesh surrounded with nature and manmade Street art with bright colours, shapes and beautiful intricate patterns. I used to be fascinated by the colourful oil painting on the rickshaws and baby taxis, bold ornate writing across the shop signboard, mosaics articulately crafted on the mosque walls, they all use to mesmerise me. From a young age I use to be very curious to know how they were created or crafted, and so at home, I would try to imitate some of the patterns and shapes by drawing them on our front yard with sticks or draw on the wall using broken pieces of clay pot and red brick. My father was working in England, and he would send colouring pencils and felt-tipped pens for us which we would treat like treasure. My mother used to make beautiful delicate embroidery, knitting and crochet to decorate our home with, and her use of eloquent contrasting colours in her embroidery still inspires me (in my art) to this day.
I was a teenager when we migrated to UK in late 1980s and everything changed. We were living in a council flat with very limited space and the only time we could go out was when we had to go to school. At home, we had limited support with studying, no computer games or TV, so art was the only thing that would keep me busy and connected to memories of Bangladesh. When I started school in England, I remember collecting Christmas cards and wrapping papers my classmates would give me, and during school holidays I would draw or paint patterns from them on back of cereal boxes. My teachers were very impressed with the quality of artwork I use to produce and so after GCSE they convince me to attend Art College in London to further develop my skills and pursue my rising passion as an artist.
Commission work for client based in Dubai (text sent by client) Design composed and hand painted by Shafina Ali
Size: A2 paper size
Hand painted with 24carat genuine shell gold, gouache and walnut ink on traditionally prepared paper. Paper preparation and shell gold was made by me using the techniques I learned at the School of Traditional art.
Why do you feel a connection to Islamic art specifically?
My painting expresses my devotion to Allah (God), faith, and Islamic ancestry. Artwork I produce acts as a reminder of Allah’s (God’s) message and Islam in today’s hectic world. Every Islamic artwork I produce gives me the opportunity to learn more about my creator, religion and history behind it.
When I was growing up I only learned how to read the Quran and the basic principles of Islam, I would simply just follow how my elders were doing things without thought. Since Arabic is not my first language, I didn’t understand the meaning of what I was reading in the Quran and I knew very little about the history of our religion.
Canvas Size: 60cm x 60cm
Charity artwork Medium: acrylic on canvas
Thuluth script ornate with Persian Taj pattern
Transliteration: Subhan-Allahi wa bihamdihi, Subhan-Allahil-Azhim
Translation: Glory be to Allah and His is the praise, the Greatest is free from imperfection
[Bukhari & Muslim]
However, when I started doing Islamic art, my pursuit in order to research more about the ancient arts of Islam led me to learn about the history of our religion too, and I was intrigued by the rich culture and history of our ancestors. I started questioning and finding my own answers through books, visiting museums and attending short courses that I could find locally in London. The course I attended at the School of Traditional Arts, taught me how art back in the time was created through traditional and natural methods. I was inspired by the innovative ways in which people had managed to create such magnificent pieces of work despite having limited materials and resources, and it really helped me to view art from a different perspective. One book in particular, ‘Splendours of Qur’an Calligraphy and Illuminations’ by Martin Lings, piqued my interest through how Quranic verses were illuminated with geometric patterns and arabesque, and ended up serving as a basis for all my future works of art due to just how much detailed information there was to learn from, regarding the development of illumination and calligraphy through different eras.
This was the book that led me to start my journey on discovering more about Islam. I attended Arabic classes to learn to read the Quran correctly, listened to online lectures on the life of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions and attended tafseer (exegesis-the science of explanation of the Qur’an) classes in local mosque to broaden my knowledge in my religion.
Ultimately, I believe that through pursuing my passions in Islamic Art, I too was able to grow closer and learn more about my religion as a result, which is why I feel such a strong connection to Islamic Art specifically.
Canvas Size: 100cm x 50cm
Commission artwork Medium: acrylic on canvas
Thuluth script with border design Inspired by Mamlum Quran leaf.
Transliteration: Rabbi Zildni ‘ilma
Translation: “My Lord, increase me in knowledge. Qur’an 20:114
Did you undergo any formal training?
After GCSE, I attended Art College to study General Art and design for 3years which included Graphic, Fine Art, Interior design and Textile. Then I completed Higher National Diploma in Design from The London Institute, specialising in Surface Pattern. I also attended The Prince’s Trust School of Traditional Art to learn about Islamic manuscript and illumination which helped to broaden my knowledge of the various traditional methods used by ancient artists. During lockdown in 2020, I took different Islamic geometry online courses with Art of Islamic Pattern. I learned to construct geometric pattern using straight edge ruler and compass. These courses helped develop my talents and understanding of conventional art and many other cultural arts by experimenting with diverse skills and techniques and incorporating them into my artwork.
Your works are inspired by Islamic illumination and Arabic calligraphy. What made you develop an interest in this artistic traditions?
I was looking to buy paintings for my home with simple, clear Arabic calligraphy. Everything I could find either had overcrowded writing which were very difficult to read or simple calligraphy with typical designs in green, black and gold. Our local Islamic store in London didn’t have many in their collection and the one I saw in Egypt during my holiday didn’t appeal to me so I decided to create my own painting with my own vision. When I was researching Islamic art containing Quran verses, I discovered Maghrebi Arabic script which took my heart away instantly. It was different from the other Arabic calligraphy, very elegant cursive writing with straight lines and big loops. I decided to compose an artwork taking inspiration from this script.
Final artwork I produced for the manuscript illumination course I studied with Ayesha Gamiet in 2011. At the Prince’s Trust School of Traditional Art.
My Islamic illumination journey started when I first saw Ozcay website which mesmerised and inspired me to learn this specialised art. There's not many courses I could find in London so I started practising by looking at the intricate work I found on their website and tried figuring out how the patterns worked. My first hand painted illumination was on canvas painted with acrylic paint. I hand painting the illumination from scratch. The original illumination was by Hasan Turkmen and calligraphy by Osman Ozcay. Alhamdulillah halfway through my painting I found a short course in Prince's Trust Traditional school of Art and I learned various traditional methods and skills from Ayesha Gamiet. She was very giving with her knowledge. My passion for Islamic art and architecture developed and I have continued developing my skills till this day.
Exploring 5- Fold Symmetry with Richard Henry from Art of Islamic Pattern online class.
Acrylic ink on hand prepared tea stained watercolour paper.
How did you train to become an artist specializing in these traditional artforms?
As I mentioned before, after leaving school I attended Art College to furtherer education in Art at The London College of Printing. They had qualified professional teachers and technicians from the working industry for the subject they were teaching. I was really fortunate to learn from them and gain working experience during my study. My previous experience and knowledge I acquired from these courses made it easy for me to adapt to new skills quickly. I learned how to document and research a topic by visiting museums, attending art exhibitions, reading books and searching online to find relevant information. I learned how to create colour study, sketchbook preparation before starting a final project. I constantly research and experiment with any new technique I find. I apply these skills when I’m doing a tradition art and alhamdulillah the end result is always well appreciated by my client as well as the social media followers. Regular practice and on-going learning is a must for keeping your skills up to dated.
Where do you find inspiration to create your works?
I believe inspiration can be found all around us if we look carefully. From the ripple created by rain drop on the floor to cloudy sky or the trails left by insect, they all can be interpreted as backdrop of a painting. My main inspiration comes from the nature and old traditions of Islamic artwork. I take inspiration from the detailed Quran leaf, Islamic Architectures, jewellery, textile and traditional ornaments I see in museums, books and internet.. British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum has a diverse collection from different culture and heritages which are easily accessible to view for research purpose.
Replica of an original illumination by Hasan Turkmen and calligraphy by Osman Ozcay
Acrylic on canvas hand painted by Shafina Ali
As part of your work, you also write verses from the Qur’an, which have you written?
The most common one I have written were Surah Fateha, Ayatul Kursi, 4Quls (Al Kafiroon, Al-Ikhlas, Al-Falaq and An-Naas) and 99 names of Allah. Qur’an verse21 from Surah Ar-Rum was the most popular calligraphy I painted for wedding season. I have also painted specific verses from Qur’an and Hadith on customer requests.
Commission artwork designed and hand painted for an Indonesian client.
Handmade Ahar paper, 24carat handmade genuine shell gold, DANIEL SMITH Finest Watercolours.
Size: 21cm x 30cm
What is the preparation process for writing a Qur’anic verse?
For me, first I find out the word to word meaning and in-depth explanation of the verse. I learn as much as I can about the verse by reading commentary, listening to online lectures or attend an actual Tafseer class (exegesis-the science of explanation of the Qur’an) that I can find at our local mosque. It’s very important for me to know what I am writing about, why it was revealed or lesson that is to be derived from the verse. It’s an ongoing process until I complete the painting. Once I know the meaning and familiarise myself with the letters then I work out the layout by sketching the calligraphy freehand with pencil. I constantly check each letter and the diacritical marks to insure they are placed correctly, it is very important to check as a single wrong position mark can change the whole meaning for the complete sentence.
Ayatul Kursi in Maghrebi script with Classic illumination border Size : A2 paper size (42cm x 59.4cm ) Material: Gouache and watercolour on traditionally prepared board.
This commission was designed for a client based in Kent, UK . Her request was to create a hand painted Ayatul kursi for her home with the colour scheme of grey, gold and hint of maroon and black. She chose Maghrebi script as the calligraphy style and border to be in Classic illumination design.
The patterns I use with the calligraphy, I create them separately on sketchbook making sure they don’t have any animal shape on them. Once I’m happy with the calligraphy layout and pattern position I move on to the next step which is to hand paint each letter and pattern with paintbrush using ink or watercolour. I work out the colour combination for the pattern on sketchbook then carefully paint and embellish them on the final piece.
99 beautiful names of Allah
Canvas Size: 60cm x 60cm
Commission Artwork for a client based in UK.
Medium: acrylic on canvas
This is the process I took for the Four Quls in Maghrebi Kufic – Antique Style I created for an exhibition in UK. It was exhibited at three different venue in UK. First, each piece of paper was tea stained with different shades of tea to make it look old and ancient. Designs and calligraphy are then carefully hand painted with acrylic ink using a handmade squirrel hair brush. Each geometry and arabesque designs are composed from scratch using compass and ruler. They are then gilded using 24carat superior quality transfer gold leaf and patterns are filled with acrylic ink, Windsor and newton watercolour and gouache.
What are your aspirations as an artist, what do you hope to achieve?
My main aim is to spread the deen of Islam to our future generation who InShaAllah will carry it forward to the next generation. Quranic verses I create are for daily reminders to all the Muslims. I hopes that my artwork can adequately reflect the beauty of Islam.
How do you create your colour compositions?
To begin with colour compositions, I first look for inspiration. Inspiration comes from essentially everything around me-anything that catches my eye/interest I note it down on paper or sketchbook, and then make small colour sample from it. I do several colour study by experimenting with different shades, balance of warm and cool, light and dark intensity of the colours to create samples before finalising the colour composition. For the bespoke artwork I create, the clients usually request the colours and from their suggestion I make the colour sample. Once they approve the sample, based on their suggestion I create the final piece.
Bespoke Wedding canvas
Surah Ar-Rum Quran 30:21
Acrylic on canvas
Canvas size: 40cm x 50cm
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
The overwhelming support and love I received from the followers who share, like and buy my artwork is indescribable. I appreciate every little praise I receive. Every returning customer brings joy and smile in my face Alhamdulillah. It’s beyond words to describe how amazing I feel to know that my artwork is serving as a reminder for the deen of Islam and adorning home in different parts of the world. I can’t thank Allah (God) enough for this beautiful blessing and gift He has bestowed upon me. For everyone who have been supporting my artwork thorough out the years since I started my journey, I ask Allah (God) to reward each soul with goodness and bless them with His countless mercy. Alhamdulillah (All praise to God) without their continuous love and support I wouldn’t be where I am now.
What do you think the future of Islamic art looks like and how do you think we can continue to keep the tradition alive?
I think, especially now with the addition of the internet and social media, the future for Islamic art is looking brighter than ever. Information and resources on Islamic Art and the methods to learn the skills to produce them have become much more readily accessible than before, and with the help of social media, many great artists with the similar enthusiasm for Islamic Art have been able to share their splendid work and inspire many others across the world whilst also spreading the heartfelt messages of Islam. I think that as long as we are willing to continue to share our passions and delight within Islamic art with the others around us, whether it be expressing our affection for religion through creating artwork or extending the message by showing others, the beauty of Islam and its arts will forever continue to thrive throughout the next generations, InShAllah.
For more information follow
Instagram: @islamicartgallery or @shafinaalidesigns
The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.