For Kouichi Honda, writing a beautiful line is what life is about. Getting every detail right — the subtle curves, the varying thicknesses and the density of the ink — matters to him as much as life itself.

The 61-year-old professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University in Saitama Prefecture is Japan’s leading authority on Arabic calligraphy, a devotional art form that has evolved over the course of 1,400 years and has detailed rules determining every single facet of the practice, whether the script is executed on paper or vellum or is fired into the gorgeous ceramic tiling that can hardly fail to astonish any visitor to a mosque.

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