Welcome to my blog! My name is Aly Abdel Khalik and I am a student in the class AESTHINT 54: For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures at Harvard College. This was a wonderful course in which we explored Islam and the devotional life of Muslim communities around the world from an artistic and literary point of view. As we live in a time where Islam is usually associated with negative stereotypes in the West, I figured this class was the perfect opportunity to dig beyond the surface and gain a much deeper understanding of the religion. In response to the lectures, readings, and discussion sections, I wrote six blog posts throughout the semester each of which focused on a different dimension of the course’s material and was accompanied with one of my own artistic creations. In this introduction, I am going to delve into and explain two of the major themes of the course and my blog, sound and diversity within Islam, so that you are aware of what you should keep in mind when reading my blog.
The first major theme of the course and my blog is Sound and its relationship to Islam. Do you ever wonder why music affects us so deeply? Or even just hearing the voice of a loved one? There may not be an obvious answer as to why this is the case, but it is undeniable that sound has a special effect on all of us human beings whether we acknowledge it or not. This is something I like to call the “power of sound”. In the beginning of the course, we looked at the origins of the Quran and the life of Prophet Muhammad. During this time, in 7th century Arabia, poetry was the most highly developed and most prized art form. One of the reasons for this was because most of the population was illiterate (including Prophet Muhammad himself) and poetry didn’t require literacy since its creation and transmission could be done completely orally. And so to grasp a better understanding of how Islam and sound are interrelated, it is essential to understand the basics about the Quran and its origins. For this reason, I will give you a brief explanation of the origins and development of the Quran.
The Quran was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel during the year 610 CE. Prophet Muhammad would then memorize the verses revealed to him exactly as they were recited. Over the span of the next 23 years until his death, Prophet Muhammad received many more revelations, and cumulatively they make up what we know today as the Quran. I just want to stress the fact that the Quran wasn’t written down and compiled until approximately 15 years after the Prophet’s death, so the spreading of the message was done completely orally throughout the Prophet’s lifetime and the subsequent years. With that said, it should start to become clear why the recitation and memorization of the Quran are held so highly in Muslim societies around the world.
The memorization and recitation of the Quran are two skills that are highly respected in many Muslim societies around the world. As I mentioned, the Prophet Muhammad recited all the Quranic verses exactly how they were revealed to him, and in turn all his companions recited it exactly how he recited it to them, and so on. Thus we can see how the oral transmission and memorization of the Quran played a key role in maintaining the authenticity of the Quran before it was compiled in a book. This is the reason why the Quran is seen as an aural tradition more so than a written one. Today, millions of children and adults around the world dedicate their lives to the memorization of the Quran. And unsurprisingly, this requires them to know exactly how to recite every single word of the Quran. Today, there are recitation rules known as tajweed and tarteel which ensure the reciter recites the Quran exactly how it was recited by Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. Something interesting is that it is very common for people to weep when listening to the Quran, even if they don’t understand it, merely because of the beauty of the sound. This brings me back to this idea of “the power of sound”. It is also strongly recommended that even when Muslims are reading the Quran or praying in private, that they at least whisper the words they’re reading because the element of sound is essential for the experience. This brings me to the last topic we discussed which fell under the theme of sound: Sufism/Mysticism
Sound is undoubtedly the backbone for Sufis and their spiritual experiences. Sufism is a mystical and Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God (1). And just to clarify, Sufism is not viewed as another “sect” of Islam because Muslims can for example be Sunni and Sufi or Shia and Sufi. In Sufism and mystic practices, sound plays a very major role. The ultimate goal of a Sufi is to directly experience God, and there are two common ways as to which this is achieved both of which are a form of “dhikr” or “the remembrance of God”. The first is the rhythmic repetition of sacred phrases aloud for a long period of time while moving their body in sync with the the rhythm. This is usually done with the guidance of a “pir” or “sheikh” (an older mentor who has mastered this practice). The second Sufi practice in which sound plays a key role in is known as “Whirling” which is a form of physically active meditation where the Sufi whirls around in circles for a long period of time while listening to music. This is also known as a form of “Sama” or”listening”. If both these practices are done correctly, the Sufi will reach a state of ecstasy known as “wajd” in which they have experienced the divine.
So as you can see, Sound plays a key role in the Islamic experience, ranging from the Quranic tradition to mystic practices. So when reading my blog posts, I want you to keep in mind the element of sound, especially in my first (Recitation of the Quran) and third (The Light Verse) blog posts. In my opinion, the “power of sound” in my video creation in my third blog post depicting The Light Verse is very strong because it combines the beautiful recitation of the Quran with beautiful imagery (but if you think differently, let me know in the comments!).
This brings me to the second major theme of the course and my blog: Diversity within Islam. In the world today there seems to be a very stereotypical understanding of a “Muslim”. If you were to stop a random person on the street in the United States and ask them to describe a Muslim they would probably say something like, “a middle eastern guy with black hair and a beard” or, “a woman wearing a black veil with only her face exposed.” But in reality, there are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today living on every habitable continent. For example, did you know that the most widely practiced religion in Southeast Asia is Islam (240 million, approx. 40% of the entire population)?! With that said, there are unsurprisingly vast differences in cultural practices between the Middle East and Southeast Asia, yet they are both regions that are heavily populated by Muslims. And the truth is that the Islam practiced in, for example, West Africa is much different than that practiced in South Asia merely because of these cultural differences. Therefore you can already start to see how generalizations about Islam based on the practices in certain regions are misrepresentative of the practices as a whole. To make this more clear, I will give you some examples of these cultural and theological differences and show how they affect the practice of Islam.
As I already touched upon, the Islam practiced by Muslims around the world is heavily influenced by the cultural practices of the certain region/country and time they live in. An example of this would be the practices in West Africa versus those elsewhere. In West Africa, there is the tradition of the “Marabout”. The Marabout is a Muslim religious teacher and scholar who is perceived by the general West African Muslim population as someone with a divine presence and spiritual powers. As he goes around from village to village, the residents get excited because he is believed to bring them divine blessings. He will then recite to them some Quran and they will follow, and then once his visit is over, a lot of them will convert to Islam despite the fact that they don’t really know much historically and theologically about the religion. Nevertheless, they identify as Muslims. That is an extremely brief overview of this tradition but my point is that if you were to ask a Muslim outside of West Africa if they have heard of the Marabout, chances are they would answer with a firm no. This alone speaks to the diversity of the religion and the impact of culture on religious practices.
Moreover, as you will see, my second blog post “Communities of Interpretation” highlights the fact that there are theological differences between the different “schools of thought” within Islam, but that at the end of the day, regardless of which school of thought someone follows, he or she will still identify as a Muslim. And so at this point, I just want to bring light to one of these issues that you will find commonly debated among Muslim scholars (or “ulama”) today: Music. Many conservative scholars will argue that music is prohibited in Islam because of certain hadith from Prophet Muhammad. On the other hand, other more liberal scholars will argue that it is not prohibited and they will also base their argument on certain hadith from the Prophet Muhammad. That begs the question, what does the Quran itself say about music? The answer is that Music is not mentioned in the Quran, and this is exactly why there is this conflict of beliefs. After I gave this more thought, several more questions came to mind such as: What even is defined as “music”? Does the intention of the musician matter? From a Western perspective, couldn’t Quranic recitation be classified as music? Today in the West there are many Muslim youth who use music (hip hop, Sufi rock, etc.) to spread a message of positivity about Islam, and while they do receive a lot of support, they also get a lot of criticism because their acts are seen as prohibited by some people. This is just one example out of many others (including: homosexuality, women, etc.) where you will find an array of different beliefs across the different Muslim schools of thought. Therefore it should now be even more clear how much diversity there is not only culturally across Muslim societies, but also theologically.
As you can see, there is a lot of diversity within Islam, making this is the second major theme in my blog. My blog post titled “The Self: Khudi vs. Nafs” touches upon another example where you see spiritual diversity among Muslims when it comes to the perception of “the self”. Muhammad Iqbal, an early-20th century Pakistani poet, supports a more outward understanding of the self whereas Sufis have a more inward one. Furthermore, in my blog post “The Mathnawi” I write a poem in the form of a Mathnawi. A Mathnawi is a Persian form of poetry in which there are rhyming couplets and lessons taught. And so although mathnawis teach Islamic messages, the poetic form itself is rooted in Persian culture dating back to the 10th century. For this reason, the most famous mathnawis are written in Persian and reflect Persian culture to a certain degree, the most notable being “Masnavi-I Ma’navi” by Rumi (which I elaborate upon in my blog).
Now that you have a deeper understanding of the two major themes of my blog, Sound and Diversity, and their relationships to Islam, you are ready to join me as we explore Islam through the arts!