Prologue

Before taking this class, I did not know much about Islam. Coming from a French catholic background, I had mainly heard of it through media and newspaper articles. Most of the content I had been exposed to concerned immigration from Arabic countries, its political and social implications such as the rise of extreme-right wing party in response to the fear of an “islamization” of France. And I had heard a lot about the conflations made about the Muslim communities, especially after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and was aware that many people hold misconceptions about Islam but I did not actually know what its practices were, its culture and was completely oblivious to its complexity and diversity. I knew who Muhammad was but nothing about his story, I knew about the Qur’an but had never read a verse, I knew about some rituals but nothing about their multiplicity, I knew about the rivalry between Shia and Sunni but nothing about the diversity of communities of interpretation. I discovered during the course of this semester that I was religiously illiterate and that most of the people from my community and background were too. And this religious illiteracy can lead to many misconceptions and generalization. “For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures” has not only been an eye-opening experience about Islam and Muslim communities but also a life-lesson on how to approach religion and unknown situations in general so as to get educated and well-rounded pictures. The course looked at Islam through different lens: we have explored its artistic expressions, its rituals, its political past, its history and its Scriptures. Most importantly, the course underlined the multitude of branches and diversity of Muslim communities of interpretations.  In my art projects, I have tried to reflect on three themes we have explored in class: religious illiteracy and ways of approaching religion, the differences and similitudes among communities of interpretations of Islam, and finally art expressions and artistic rituals in Muslim traditions. In order to do so, I have 6 art projects using visual arts such as chalk, collage, water color pencils, pen and 3D objects:

 

  • “Streams of Interpretation” in response to “Communities of Interpretation” by F.Daftary
  • “Spring Stroll” in response to “Persian Sufi Poetry” by De Bruijn
  • “Samā’, Love and Ascendance” in response to “The Sacred Music of Islam: Samā’ in the Persian Sufi Tradition” by Leonard Lewisohn
  • “Four Prominent Ideals” in response to Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam by Professor A. Asani
  • “The Beloved Light: Prophet Muhammad” in response to Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam by Professor A. Asani
  • “Box of Ignorance” in response to Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam by Professor A. Asani

 

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The first theme we have approached in class and that I have tried to reflect on in my first post is religious and cultural illiteracy. We have seen in class that these two forms of illiteracy often lead to “clashes of ignorance”. That is, a number of conflicts, tensions and misconceptions about others stems from ignorance about others’ culture, traditions and beliefs. Man is scared of the unknown. And unfortunately, fear is often followed by suspicion and can even lead to hatred. The Western world is often illiterate about Islam, its traditions and its people. For instance, one of the most common misconception we discussed in class is the belief that the majority of Muslims live in the Middle East. In reality, 62% of Muslims live in South and Southeast Asia. The reason why there are so many misconceptions about Islamic communities stems from the way people learn about Islam: through the media. The media have in the past decade mostly talked about this religion when reporting news about wars and conflicts in the Middle East or when reporting violent barbaric acts committed by extremist organizations such as Al-Quaeda or ISIS which pursue what they interpret jihad to be. Ignorance about Islamic culture combined with biased and narrow-minded information leads to misconceptions and “ill-informed characterizations” about Muslims and Islam. People usually only look through one lens at a time, for instance looking only at the Qur’anic Scriptures, or at the political ideals motivating certain Muslim groups etc.  This way of looking at things and in particular at Islam have lead to problems such as the Ahmed Mohamed clock incident we talked about in class or many stereotypes. People fail to acknowledge the diversity of Muslims communities and do not have a well-rounded and well informed view of Islam. I tried to illustrate this idea with my project “Box of Ignorance”, to reflect how misguided people are and what they are missing when they are looking at religion, in particular at Islam, through only one lens.

In class, we have looked at different facets of this religion to get a well-rounded picture, we thought “outside the box”. We have learnt about the history of the Islamic movement; we studied the rise of Muhammad, the political rivalry existing between him and poets, the influence of colonialism on the redefinition of Muslims’ values in the XXth century etc. We also explored different artistic Islamic expressions such as Rumi’s ghazals, calligraphy, or Ta’ziyehs. We not only looked at different types of arts (music, dance etc.) but also at arts from different time periods and places, listening for instance to the modern hip hop song “Muhammad Walks” by Lupe Fiasco and to classic recitations of the Shahada (call to prayer) in the Middle East. We also studied mosques, their architecture, their function, the importance and debates of ornaments and art, and we even had to design our own. Finally, we looked at both Scriptures and sacred texts (the Qur’an but also hadiths for instance) as well as studied certain rituals and how they differed from one place to another ad from one time to another (Qur’anic recitations for instance).  And every time we looked at one aspect of Islam, we always looked at its “historical, political, economic and cultural” background. This multi-contextual and cultural approach allowed us to get a better understanding of Islam, a more rounded and less narrow-minded picture. We were able to explain the why of the what, the reasons behind some characteristics, values and rituals for instance. This thought-process is not only useful when studying Islam, but can be more generally applied to the study of religion or of anything new. It avoids making false and hasty assumptions. Here, it also allowed us to perceive more accurately not only what was common to all Muslims but also the differences and nuances existing among the multiple communities.

 

Indeed, another theme we have explored in class is the similitudes and differences among the various Islamic branches.

To learn about these similitudes, we have read about the history of Islam, its emergence and about the values and ideals commonly found across Muslim groups. The rise of Islam is the common root to all Muslim communities. The religion can best be understood as having been brought by the Prophet Muhammad. He is the symbol of union of all his followers, of the entire umma. The best example of this general agreement is the Shahada, the profession of faith which is commonly seen as an essential criteria defining a Muslim: “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God”.  The way the Prophet is perceived is usually a consensus among all communities of interpretations. Muhammad has been subject to a real cult of personality across time and space. I have tried and explored in “The Beloved Light: Prophet Muhammad” the different roles he plays; as a Prophet and messenger from God, as a role model, as an intercessor and finally as God’s beloved.

In the reading of Chapter II of Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam, we learnt about common Islamic values and beliefs that transcend groups’ differences such as “peace and compassion, social justice, love of God and jihad”. I explored these fundamental pillars in my sketch “Four Prominent Ideals”. Although I have only reflected on these two important parts of Muslims’ identity (values and veneration for Muhammad), it is important to note that the similitudes among the different communities of interpretations are not limited to certain beliefs and attitude towards the Prophet. We have seen for instance that some rituals, traditions and arts are commonly found across the different groups. In class, we have for instance compared calligraphy from different parts of the globe and from different times (watching for instance videos of Chinese Calligraphy and observing calligraphy from the Middle East at the MET). We also watched the movie “Koran By Heart” which illustrated the importance of Qur’anic recitations all over the world, even for groups that cannot speak Arabic! Some characteristic of Islam can be found in all communities, they are markers of Muslims’ identity, but they are

Of course, we also had the opportunity to then learn about the origin of the different branches of Islam, their beliefs and rituals. Islam is not all black and white, different groups interpret the religion differently, disagree on the definition of a Muslim, on the rules of recitation, on the legitimacy of political and religious leaders, their role etc. The cultural studies approach asserts that each religious faith has multiple communities of interpretation shaped by different circumstances such as the political, economic or social background. Each of these communities believe that it is on the “right path” and consider all other communities as “heretics” and holding the wrong values. My art project “Streams of Interpretation” tries to capture and reflect this diversity in Islam and illustrates origins. The reading “Communities of Interpretation” by F.Daftary allowed us to gain a better understanding of the multitude of branches that exist and how they came to existence. Often, these differences have political implications in that communities try and gain the authority to assert their interpretation over others.

The cultural study approach that we applied in this class gave us a great insight into the diversity of communities of interpretations in Islam. They differ in terms of beliefs, political stands but also art and traditions.

 

We explored further in class the theme of art expression and rituals within certain Muslim groups. Art has always been a way for Man to praise beauty, to celebrate what he values and in the same time to express his inner feelings. We studied different types of art like calligraphy, music, poetry as well as different rituals such as Qur’anic recitations, or Sufi traditions like the Samā. The rules that these art forms and rituals had to follow differed from one group to another, and were even a source of disagreement within communities of interpretations. For instance, Sufis are mystic Muslims that believe in the enlighten of the inner self trough inspiration, revelation and witnessing. They are opposed to more rationalist and logical approaches to know God. Yet, Sufis can be found in many communities of interpretations, Sunni or Shi for instance. I was particularly interested in understanding how art could be used as a vehicle to get closer to God, to attain the wajd (ectasy). We talked in class about the feeling of “intoxication” with God’s love once one has attained the “ma’rifah” (interior knowledge or gnosis) and “mahabbah” (love). To reach this ecstatic state, Sufis perform the Samā’ (ritual involving dancing ad listening to music and poetry). They believe that it allows them to reach a spiritual status during which they are ego-less and god-centered. I tried to reflect the process and conditions necessary according to Sufi scholars to attain this wajd in my blog post “Samā’, Love and Ascendance”.

Samā’ is seen as a way to experience God’s love. Muslims in general have also been really interested in expressing and depicting their feelings and love relationship with their Beloved (Allah). The most important and respected medium to do so is poetry. We studied in class more specifically the prominence of the “ghazal” in Middle Eastern and Indian literature. Ghazals are lyric poems about the love relationship between a poet lover and the Beloved and the hardships as well as the joys associated with this relationship. They usual contain many symbols that I have tried to incorporate in my 6th blog post “Spring Stroll”.  Ghazals were completely new to me and are really interesting as they use what may seem as controversial symbols to express religious feelings. For instance, wine imagery is really frequent in such poems and is used to mirror the feeling of intoxication Muslims feel when they are full of God’s love. Yet, wine is a forbidden element in Islam. Along the same line, some poems depict relationships between men when homosexuality is once again forbidden. Ghazal captures an important aspect of Muslims’ identity. It illustrates their intense love-focused relationship with God and can help one understand better Islam in general.

Both the Samā’ and the Ghazal are part of the artistic and religious tradition of Islam. They are specific exampled of a more general theme we have been exploring during the semester, which is how art can be used as a medium to get closer to Allah (and for Sufism to get to a higher hal) as well as to praise His Beauty and to express Muslims inner feelings. They are characteristic features and component of Islam. One cannot hope to get a good picture of Islam without understanding the role and importance of art in its religious traditions and culture.

 

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I tried to crystalize in my blog post what I thought were important and interesting aspects of Islam.  And my hope is that a religiously illiterate reader discovering them would get a glimpse of what cultural studies are, their importance, and will get out of my art project a better and more complete understanding of Islam.

I am really grateful and happy that I took this class! I not only learnt a lot about the Muslim world, got rid of some misconceptions I had of Islam and feel more educated but also have gained an invaluable way of looking at religions and events/movements in general. To avoid ill-conceived beliefs and to be able to grasp and appreciate the complexity of a situation, it is important to be able to look at this situation through different lens so as to define not only the “what” but also its “why” and “how”.

 

Streams of Interpretation

Reading Diversity of Islam – Communities of Interpretation F.Daftary

Farhad Daftary, in his essay “Diversity of Islam- Communities of Intepretation” retraces the history of Arabic and Muslim communities and tries to define certain of the differences between the multiples branches of Islam and to explain when and why these differences appeared.

                  He starts by exposing the first steps of Islam. They were years during which most of the Bedouin tribes of Arabia were united by their pledge to Muhammad, seeing him as “the Messenger of God” (rasul Allah). I tried to represent the union of this newly formed “umma’ (Islamic community) under one leader by writing the name of the Prophet at the top of my drawing. I draw his name in gold to show that he was the light towards which all were turned during the first years of Islamic history.

                  Then, after Muhammad’s death, the “umma” was fragmented in many subdivisions that Daftary calls “Communities of interpretation”. He argues that these groups took “the form of religio-political movements or schools of thought”. Depending on the political goals of certain ethnicities or groups and their ideals, the populations within the “umma” interpreted the Qur’an in different ways and hold different fundamental ideas about the values constituting Islam. For this reason, I placed a book within a cracked sphere of glass. The book at the center represent the Qur’an but can also be interpreted as a hadith or any writing that is considered essential to the practice and understanding of Islam for a certain community. The sphere has been cracked by two hammers labeled “politics” and “ideals”. I wanted to show that the differences in interpretation of the Scriptures or of Islam among groups stem from these communities’ political views as well as their previous values and beliefs. These variables shape the way they interpret Islam.

                  From the crack glass flow three main streams which represent the three main branches of Islam: Sunni, Shii and Murija. Each of these movement emerged from different communities of interpretations and were later on subdivided into even smaller groups which did not agree on things like the “definition of true believers”, the “source and nature of authority” (for instance, religious or political authority), “attributes of God” etc. Towards the bottom, thery are plenty of smaller streams; illustrating the diversity of interpretations and communities among Muslims.

                  I also chose to draw each of these streams in a different color as each of these communities thinks of itself as being on the right path and of the other groups as being “heretics”. For this reason, they are many versions of the  “true Islam” which is reflected by the numerous colors in the drawing.

 

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Spring Stroll

Reading: De Bruijn “Persian Sufi Poetry”

One of the most important themes of mythical Persian poetry is Love. According to De Bruijn, the ghazal is the form of poetry that is the most “closely tied to the theme of love”, telling the story of a poet-lover expressing his feelings or looking desperately and usually vainly for his Beloved.

Ghazals are usually pervaded with  symbols, notably involving  Nature and the Animal Kingdom.  Nature serves as a way to express and picture the Beloved’s beauty. The lover, the witness of the Beloved’s beauty (shahid), is usually in a blossoming Spring Garden that represent “an idealized world’, a sort of Paradise. It displays symbols that mirror the God’s grace. For instance, there are usually red flowers such as roses or tulips that remind the reader or listener of “blushing cheeks”, symbol of youth and beauty. The rest of the Natural world, such as the planets, the minerals, plants and animals also mirror Allah’s beauty. I tried to reflect that idea in my project by drawing a garden with flowers, trees, stars and the sun in the Sky. Yet, De Brujin underlines that the beauty of the garden is ephemeral so I displayed, behind the poet lover, automnal trees. De Bruijn sees this change in seasons as a parallel between both the “excitement” created by Spring followed by the “disillusionment stemming from the death of Nature” and the “union” followed by the “separation” between the Lover and the Beloved.

There are two especially important symbols that represent God and the poet: the rose and the nightingale.  I have tried to incorporate them in my drawing according to the signification that they bear. The rose is a symbol of beauty and youth, so of the Beloved and the nightingale is seen as the poet-lover. It is common in Persian poetry for the Beloved not to be attributed a gender, but in many poems, he is incarnated in a young man, a “pisar” with black curly hair and  with a beard. The beard has a double paradoxical signification: it evokes sadness, by marking the end of youth, but also desire as the pisar is at “the apex of its pristine beauty”. I incorporated these features in my representation of the Beloved by  drawing the face of  a young man on a rose.

Muhammad Ghazali argues that God has put in the human heart a “fire” that can be revived when getting closer to Him. The path to get closer to the Beloved is often difficult and rough (I placed rocks, holes and abysses on the road on my drawing). But the Lover is ready to brave any danger. He is completely intoxicated by his Love for God and forgets about rational thinking. This intoxication is symbolized through the metaphor of the wine: once drunk, one forgets about his identity, his selfishness and his logic. I represented two streams of wine flowing from the roses’ roots and we can see the poet-lover’s veins full of this delectable and forbidden poison.

I also represented behind the lover a broken scale: once drunk, he has no more sense of rationality and De Bruijn also argues that he cannot make the distinction between “good or bad, or belief and unbelief” as they “refer to values tinged by expectations of reward ad salvation that are concerned with the lover’s self interest” and thus do not concern the Beloved.

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Samā’, Love and Ascendance

Reading: The Sacred Music of Islam: Samā’ in the Persian Sufi Tradition-Leonard Lewisohn

Sama is an important part of the Persian Sufi tradition and is seen by Sufis as a way to get closer to God by attaining a state of ectasy, wajd.  Literally meaning “audition”, Suma is defined by Leonard Lewisohn as “an art form and spiritual exercise composed of music, and poetry and singing” and as “spiritual nourishment” for Sufis as it allows them to attain momentarily a state of closeness to the One.

My drawing symbolizes the process through which a Sufi has to go through according to scholars like Abu al Ghazali or Tusi in order to attain the wajd. I made my creation with chalk as  the wajd is only ephemeral: it only leaves behind a faint impression on the person.  At the bottom, there is a man drawn in white and at the top a fire in purple. The man represents a Sufi proceeding to the Sama where as the fire represents God (I chose the color purple as it is associated with piety and mystery, related themes). The man is lying down, still, within a sort of tube divided into three parts. According to Ghazali, the Sama requires three sacred preludes that make up the adab (the proper conduct). These prerequisites are represented by the tube divided in three that will serve as a sort of tunnel towards God. In order to reach the wajd and do the Sama, one must be at the right “time”, at the right “place” and in the right “company”. One has to be in a time of “hal”, in the right spiritual mind, one has to be in a place evoking the Sacred but more importantly, a place that is “sacred by virtue of the heart’s presence there”, so that he is entirely dedicated to getting in contact with the God, and finally one has to be with other members if his community that are authorized to practice the Sama (my person is surrounded by two other Sufis who have finished their ascendance towards God and have already reached wajd and are now coming back to the Realm of the Senses, which is shown by the erased “sama”structure on top of them ).

Finally, Ghazali argues that for one to attain the wajd, one must forget about the realm of the senses and only focus on listening, with the “ear of the heart” to the poetry and music of the Sama ritual. He states that poetry can help communicate with the Divine but only with the help of music, which serves as a bridge between the Finite and the Eternal. He writes: “the only road to raptures which are divine are through esthetic pleasures which are preeminently human: music and poetry”. For these reasons, I tied a sort of rope from the Sufi to God. The rope is within the tunnel composed of the three Sacred preludes, made of words (symbolizing poetry) and notes of music, tying the man, his heart and the ear of his heart to God. The music is also omnipresent in the tube as Ghazali insists that it is “the poem’s emotional body of water”, without which poetry cannot serve its transcending function. I tried to mirror this idea by drawing music notes filling the tunnel.

Once one has attained the momentum of the Sama, he is at the “wujud”, represented by a circle under the God-fire. It is a sense of “egoless consciousness”, of bikhwudi. I made the circle from a mix of purple and white (we can’t really see it on the picture!) to show that the ego disappears, engulfed by its love for God and by God’s love.

 

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Four Prominent Ideals

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Reading: Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam Chapter 2

This art project represents the “four prominent ideals” which according to professor Asani form the “core of [Muslims’] faith: peace and compassion, social justice, love of God and jihad”. I decided to form with important words associated with each of these 4 ideals the structure of a temple representing Muslims’ faith in Islam. The idea of the 5 pillars of Islam is a Sunni concept that has been associated with Islam in general. Yet, Muslim communities support different views on what the religious ideals and values of Islam should be. Professor Asani argues that they are 4 fundamental ideas that can be found among most Islamic branches.  It inspired me to recreate a sort of Roman temple supported by 4 pillars. I chose for each of these pillars a symbol I though reflected the 4 values presented. I decided to draw a Roman temple instead of a Mosque as temples were a place dedicated to cult and religion  but also because they have a symmetrical and usually simple architectural building. I wanted a building whose architecture could really reflect the idea I had of the structure  of the Muslim Community, with elements pilling up, supporting each other towards the sky. Mosques can also have 4 towers on their sides but these structures are not supporting the entire edifice and thus do not fit my design as well as a Roman temple does.

The base of the building is the community that supports the entire religion: Muslims. Without a group that has some important values in common and that agrees on certain basic ideas and beliefs, a religion cannot exist. For Islam, the Muslims are the people who choose to follow this ideology.

The first pillar of the edifice of faith is peace and compassion according to professor Asani. He states in chapter 2 of his book that “Islam is literally a religion of peace and peace making”. The two most important phrases that marked me about this idea and that I used to build the first pillar were the “sirat al-mustaqim” and the words of the basmala “Bismi-llahi’r-Rahmani’r-Rahim”. The “path of peace” on which God is suppose to lead his rightful and pious followers and some names of God itself “In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful”. These two expressions express well the idea that Islam can be perceived and interpreted as a peaceful ideology and I chose to draw on that pillar the “sirat al-mustaqim”.

The second pillar is the one of Social Justice such as “helping the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. Professor Asani stated that Social Justice was itself supported by two different “sets of obligations”: the “idabat”, which is more of a divine obligation, a subjective one, (the belief that God’s message was transmitted to the Prophet) and the “mu’amalat” which is more of a social obligation towards society in general. These two notions express themselves in Muslims’ lives through the “salat” and the “zakat”. One cannot go without the other and this is why I chose as a symbol a balance; Muslims have to find the right equilibrium between salat and zakat.

The third pillar reflects the idea of a “selfless love of God”: the individual disappear, his egocentric desires and dreams evaporates as he gets closer and one with God, a point where he would be at the “fana fi’llah” (state of annihilation in God). The other important word is the “alast”, as moment in which “all of creation was united and contented in the Beloved’s presence”. I chose as a symbol a fire as the idea of getting purified of egocentric impulses and desires by fire has been a recursive theme in class.

The fourth and last pillar is the one about “jihad” which means ““to struggle, to toil, to exert great effort” but the exact definition and interpretation of the terms differ depending on economical, cultural and political variables. Thus, I choose as a symbol a diamond, as jihad can be observed through many different facets and reveal/mean completely different things. The lowest form of jihad is jihad asghar then the next one is  jihad akbar but the greatest one is be the jihad against oneself: the “nafs”.

This art project tries to show that even though within a same communities of interpretation differ in their vision and practices of Islam, there still are some key concepts and values more or less shared among all Muslims.

The Beloved Light: Prophet Muhammad

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Reading: Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam Chapter Three

I decided to  illustrate in my art project the different roles the Prophet Muhammad plays in various Islamic communities. Professor Asani focuses in his book on 4 ways Muhammad is perceived in Islamic cultures: as a Prophet and messenger from God, as a role model, as an intercessor and finally as God’s beloved.

First of all, Muhammad is seen as God’s prophet: he plays a key role in defining the boundaries of faith in the Islamic tradition. Indeed, in the profession of faith, the shahadah, the first part is inclusive and is common to all monotheist religions (There is no God but God) whereas the second part of the shahadah, “muhammadur rasulu Ilah” (Muhammad is the Messenger of God) is exclusive and thus differentiates Islam from other religions. Muhammad is thus an important marker of Muslims’ identity, as reflected by the shahadah. On my project, you can see Muhammad standing at the center of the picture, under a yellow light (symbol of God) and inside with his followers of a circle made of the second sentence “muhammadur rasulu Ilah”.

Muhammad is also perceived as God’s messenger. Professor Asani writes that some Muslims consider Muhammad not to be the author of the Qur’an but rather “its transmitter” , like a “transistor radio”. This idea is reflected in the picture by a line made out of verses of the Qur’an which goes directly from the light at the top (which represent God who possesses the Holy Scriptures) to the Prophet’s ears and then from his mouth to the written Qur’an given to his followers, the Muslims.

In Chapter three, we can also read that Aisha, one of the Prophet’s wife, described him as being the “Walking Qur’an”. For a lot of Muslims, Muhammad represents a model, “uswa hasana”, and example to follow in order to access God and Heaven; he incarnates the right “path”. For this reason, a lot of Muslims believe in the importance of living as the Prophet did, according to his customs. I tried to represent these ideas by filling the body of the Prophet with verses of the Qur’an (he embodies the sacred text (“walking Qur’an”). I also draw  flowing out from his hands Muslim customs such as the salat, the musulmani (act of circumcision for boys in South Asia, which means becoming a Muslim) or the Sunnah that are presented by Professor Asani as examples of rituals “determined by Muhammad’s reported practices”.

On top of being a role model, Muhammad is also a beloved intercessor between God and the rest of the believers (as reflected on the art project). Professor Asani describes that Muslims sometimes perceive Muhammad as both a “revered eleder in the family”, the one to turn to in times of “grief and difficulty”, and a prophet with the “ability to seek God’s mercy” for their sins. Thus, it is also a common custom for pious Muslims to pray for “God’s blessing upon Muhammad” by reciting the “tasliya” (prayer for the Prophet).

Finally, Muhammad became with time a mystic and was hold by Muslims as God’s beloved. For instance, Professor Asani talks about the association of Muhammad to a “form of light mysticism”, supported by the Light verse from which derives the idea of “Nur Muhammad” (the Muhammadan/Shining Light), of a Prophetic and Divine Light which was passed down from prophet to prophet since Adam up to Muhammad in who it found its ultimate completion. On the project, I decided to represent this Prophetic Light by a rope linking  him to the the Lamp which then became one of the Prophet’s symbols.

Box of Ignorance

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Reading: Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam Introduction

This box represents cultural and religious illiteracy and misunderstanding of religion. Professor Asani stated in his introduction that people usually categorize and paint “with a single color and a single brush stroke” difference and in that sense failing to acknowledge or perceive the diversity, beauty and complexity of other cultures. For that reason, all the human figures or images representing different aspects of Islam are in black and white on the box.

Professor Asani emphasized the problem of religious and cultural illiteracy, how misunderstandings and ignorance can lead to misconceptions and tensions between and within cultures. I thus decided to represent Islam as a black box, reflecting various erroneous or narrow-minded views people can hold of the religion. It is important to understand that I make no reference to planes’ black boxes in any way. I decided to take a box after remembering the saying “Think outside the box”. For me, it involves thinking for yourself and not taking for granted what you are told. I then chose the color black to show that narrow-minded people have a vision of Islam that  is not enlightened, they are behind a sort of “veil of ignorance” and have no access to “light” as in truth or wisdom.

The 4 sides of the box represent lens through which religion can be approached: through devotional or textual approaches (as mentioned in the introduction) or by looking for instance at the history of the religion or its artistic traditions. But looking at each separately does not give a correct and well-rounded idea of Islam. Looking at Islam only through a devotional approach (doctrines and rituals for instance), leads to “rarely acknowledging the diversity of interpretations and practices” . The textual approach can lead to misinterpretations if one ignores the context in which the scriptures were written and be ground to “exclusivist interpretations” and “extremisms within religions” such as the emergence of a deadly interpretation of “djihadism”. Only looking at Islam’s history or at  its artistic expressions  (calligraphy, architecture etc.) are two other ways of interpreting religion. Although these two lens of studying religion are not as dangerous as the previous ones, they do not give a full understanding of Islam and only allow the viewer to access a limited and fragmented insight into this religion.

Instead, knowledge and understanding of religion reside in the opening of the box, in being curious enough and rigorous enough to explore religion in its entirety and integrating all its different aspects at once when studying it.