personal interpretations of Muslim artistic and musical expression

Video of Call to Prayer

Photo of Light



The idea behind this blog post was simple and straightforward. Throughout our course we have studied light as a major metaphor in Islamic art and theology. I wanted to find a way to express or capture the metaphor of Allah as Al Nur and even the Prophet as Al Nur. In this photo, I interpreted the metaphor in my own way. For me light also comes with darkness, and it is only in our darkest moments that we see the light. It can be a painful experience to see this light because it requires honesty from ourselves, and as we saw in many Muslim contexts it requires discipline. This photo captures some of what we have been learning in our course about the metaphor and also brings in this beloved quote from Leonard Cohen: “there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.

Redramatizing Trauma

I wrote the following poem in response to our readings about Taziyeh ritual theatre. I noticed connections between the ritualized sense of victimhood for Shii Muslims in Taziyeh and the sense of victimhood that gets ritualized in Passover Seders, Israeli holocaust Memorial Day, the Ground Zero memorial in New York City, and many other ritualized memorials. This connection led me to wonder about the Iranian Shii tradition of Taziyeh theatre, especially because it seems to be such an exaggerated and dramatized experience where the audience is intentionally made to cry and feel as if they are experiencing trauma and persecution all over again.


Grieve for the umpteenth time
Through rituals that memorialize our past.
Feel the pain as if it happened this morning
As if Qasem, son of Imam Hassan, just left for the battlefield
And surrendered himself to martyrdom
His blood leaking into your shirt,
down your mouth, and into your heart.
Weep like Qasem’s mother
Cry as a Shia nation, victimized by the Sunni world
Feel as if you are getting stung by the whip of of King Pharaoh
Or as if you are being marched to a concentration camp
Or as if the news of hijacked planes just reached your television screen
Taste the bitterness of slavery
Moan as the world crucifies your people
Year after year after year after year after year after year after year.
What are these memories?
Are they ever even really there, as historical events?
Can we take them out like folders in a cabinet and look at them?
Year after year after year after year after year after year after year.
We take these memories out of their cabinets and wipe our tears and blood on them.
And then the next year we see the tears and blood and we shed even more tears and lose even more blood.
Until the memory is nothing but a blood-drenched, tear-soaked pain.
The world is out to get us.
And we will never forget.
But it is in this act of never forgetting that we create anew.
We create something every time we remember.
We create pain
We create fear of the other
We create alienation, and mistrust, and belief in martyrdom
We create nationalism – a persecuted people.
Let us be aware of what we create.
Let us remember the pain and also remember to love
Let us remember our trauma while striving for better
Let us feel fear and challenge ourselves to imagine how the other side feels as well
Let us be present, in the Taziyeh ritual, feeling what it must have been like
While also being present in this world, aware of what it does feel like and what it will feel like.
Let us attempt to heal our traumas, not redramatize them.

Iqbal – “Stop complaining”

Khudi ko kar buland itna ke har taqdeer se pehle

Khuda bande se khud pooche bata teri raza kya hai.”


“Elevate yourself so high that even God, before issuing every decree of destiny, should ask you: Tell me, what is your intent?”

In Iqbal’s poem “Complaint and Answer” he writes the above quote, which has gotten a lot of attention. It has gotten interpreted through music and performed by famous Muslim music artists, such as Mohsin Ali. I looked up Mohsin Ali’s musical rendition of this poetic verse by Iqbal, and when I started playing it on my guitar it reminded me of a famous Jewish chant song “Oseh Shalom Bimramav”. The words to this Jewish song as I learned it are:

“Oseh shalom bimromav

Hu ya’ase shalom aleinu

Ve’al kol yisrael

Ve’al kol yoshve tevel

Ve’imru, imru, amen”

“He who makes peace in his high places

He shall make peace upon us

And upon all of israel

And all foreign peoples

And we say Amen”

I combined these two songs into one song that I recorded and performed. For me, the significance or the message of this piece is similar to that of Iqbal’s overall work “Complaint and Answer”. In “Oseh Shalom,” Jews ask God to bring peace upon us. The underlying implication of this, and many other prayers like it, is that Jews have done their part and now it’s time for God to do his part. Iqbal inverts this assumption and challenges Muslim readers to stop asking so much of God and start asking more of themselves. In other words, Believers need to step up their game and elevate themselves so that they are worthy of God’s benevolence. I tried to express this inversion musically by starting with “Oseh Shalom” in a slow kind of reflection and then picking up the tempo as the music shifts into “Khudi Ko Kar Buland”.

Complaint and Answer

In Mohammad Iqbal’s poem “Complaint and Answer”, he bemoans the decline of Muslims’  moral integrity. He writes:

“You are all intoxicated with the joy

of fleshly ease;

Are you Muslims? What, is this the

way Islam would have you tread?

Ali’s poverty you will not, uthman’s

wealth you dare not seize –

What relationship of spirit links you

to your glorious dead?

For the fact that they were Muslims

they were honored in their day;

You, who have abandoned the Quran,

are spurned and cast away.” (Page 56)

I tried to capture Iqbal’s “complaint” in the form of a charcoal drawing. At the bottom left corner of the drawing, the Quran sits, slowly getting covered by whithered fallen leaves. The man who is featured in the center of the drawing is naturally facing the Quran but his head is turned backwards toward the city in the distance. This city represents some of the sources of moral corruption and depravity (the joy of fleshly ease) that Iqbal complains about in his poem, and I emphasized this symbolism by writing the word society backwards (society, for Iqbal, has become corrupted and backwards). The answer, of course, for Iqbal, is to turn back to the Quran. But in my drawing, as in Iqbal’s worldview, man’s indulgence in the corruption of modern society casts a shadow over the Quran. Man has forgotten the Quran and the time of the Prophet. The Quran, as well as the tree of knowledge and morality that shelter it, are left neglected, while modern society has become the focus for mankind.



“Man kunto maula” – Qawwali A Capella

In our discussion of Shii narratives, we learned about a famous statement that Shii Muslims attribute to the Prophet Muhammad: “Man kunto maula, fa Ali-un Maula” – meaning “Whoever accepts me as master, Ali is his master too”. This statement obviously becomes one of many sources that Shii Muslims cite in their assertions about Islamic history, but it also gets picked up by Sufi Muslims as well. I found this popular musical interpretation/articulation of “Man kunto maula”, done by a famous Qawwali singer named Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: I found his musical interpretation of such a phrase very moving, so I re-interpreted it into a capella. My attempt at Qawwali feels like a bit of a joke, considering that people devotee their whole lives to learning Qawwali. But I got the sense from various Qawwali performances that this musical form has a lot to do with feeling (and not as much to do with technique). I tried to repeat “Man kunto maula” over and over again, and I actually felt myself entering a kind of trance state as a result of it. I also improvised on top of the base recording, and let my voice go wherever it would go. I was intentionally unselfconscious about the actual notes I sang, and tried to make it much more about the feeling of transcendence.

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