Explorations of Islam

A Foray into Islamic Religion, Art, and Culture Using a Context-Based Approach

Sacredness

The Mystic

 

When I was little

My sacred space

Was a seat in the back

Of an old Toyota

On a Saturday morning

Loaded up with my Grampa,

Driving stick shift,

While strains of haunting melodies,

Blue notes and ragtime,

Floated out of

The old radio and mixed

With his stratchy hum

And a child’s off-pitch wail.

 

I remember my mosque

Was in the grass

Covered in dew,

Rolling down the hilltops

Before the storm,

And the wind

Tussling my long hair

And long dress

And the look of the clouds

As we waited

Waited for the rain

And in that moment

Of anticipation

I felt Allah in the wind.

 

When I was older

I learned about walls

About concrete

And about the feats

Of modern engineering

In the city

Where the grass was gray

But still I found religion

In the stucco slabs

And the tall glass windows

And the indoor plants

Where bamboo shoots rose

Tall as a tower

And called out to me:

Come pray.

 

Somehow it was religion

That brought me,

A small town girl with no

Particular relationship to God,

With no prophetic

Word to speak of

To the ancient halls

Surrounded by iron

Built out of red brick

Observed by the impartial

Eyes of a statue

Of a dead man

And first I felt trapped

I felt caged

I felt hollow

And then I found the dew drops

On the lawn at dusk

And I found that walls

Mattered not to God.

 

And it was in the basement—

Of a church no less—

No dome above me,

No light from a niche,

No platform from which

The Imam might speak

When I encountered the teachers

In the barest of places

Smoking cigarettes and carrying

Their lives on their backs

And asking for food

And before morning

Someone left a Qur’an

At the staff desk

And suddenly I knew

The direction

Of the Kaaba.

 

And while I know

I will find God

In the birds

And the city

And stuck in traffic,

I somehow know that

I must close my eyes

When the world gets dull

And the night drags

And something in me sleeps,

And then I can see

The miracle:

An old growth forest,

The line where the water ends

The ocean meets the sky

The cliff drops off

And I am a child

Sitting in the dew grass

Looking up at the sky

Admiring its endlessness.

 

I have been brought

This far.

The rest I must travel

On my own.

“The Mystic”

Week 13

Poetry

This poem, entitled “The Mystic,” draws not only from the final week of class but also from selected previous weeks and themes from throughout the course. It’s main inspiration, though, is from the penultimate lecture, Maryam Eskandari’s talk on sacred spaces.

Drawing from the in-class exercises, this poem emphasizes the individuality of sacred spaces. Rather than a prescription or blueprint for a sacred space, this poem explores the appearance of the sacred in more everyday situations, scattered throughout life.

The poem makes references to several standard symbols and architecture of the mosque, including minarets, domes, minbars, and the qibla. However, the poem emphasizes that none of these traditional symbols exist in the sacred space, or else describes them in a subversive form, as when shoots of bamboo replace minarets. The speaker even implies that the idea of sacred spaces having walls is, initially, foreign. This ties in to Maryam’s theme that mosques, and sacred spaces more generally, need not conform to preconceived notions.

Similarly, the musical tradition is also subverted. In “orthodox” Islam, music is not allowed in sacred spaces; however, Aidi’s discussion the empowering role of jazz in the Afro-Islamic tradition reveals the important and arguably sacred nature of music. Therefore I included components of jazz (“blue notes” and “ragtime”) in the first stanza of the poem, challenging preconceived notions of a sacred soundscape.

For me, the concept of a sacred space is also fundamentally rooted in a mystical experience of Islam. Much like the quote we heard in class—

“Knowledge is like a horse. It can lead you to the gate of the palace, but it cannot follow you inside.”

—I believe that tradition can contribute to feelings of sacredness, but only individual, intuitive knowledge can define sacredness. This is evidenced by the last stanza of the poem:

“I have been brought / This far. / The rest I must travel / On my own.”

With this in mind, I decided to take an artistic risk with this poem: I wrote this poem largely about my own life. My grandfather’s pickup truck (stanza 1), miscellaneous scenes from my childhood (2-3), Harvard (4), and Y2Y (5) are among the more sacred spaces in my personal history.

While I am not Muslim, I chose to write a very personal poem for three reasons. First, I wanted to emphasize the importance of individual intuitive knowledge in constructing a sacred space. Secondly, I sought to highlight the transcendental nature of sacredness, in which one can experience the sacred feelings associated with “islam” while not being Muslim. Finally, I wanted to show that the concepts from class have themselves managed to transcend religious boundaries, so that I as a non-Muslim have still gained something very personally relevant from our discussions of sacredness.

Resistance

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“Resistance”

Week 12

Body paint and photography

This piece, “Resistance,” draws mainly on the themes of week 12, which discuss the use of Islamic art and literature to empower artists and fight against oppression. Each of the four photographs is taken in black and white, mirroring the style of graphic art and cartoon used in Persepolis.

The first three pictures represent different ways of engaging with Islamic art. The first picture depicts a hand, holding a pen, engaged in the creation of graphic art. The second photo shows the hand holding a book (specifically, A Reluctant Fundamentalist), representing the consumption of art in the form of literature. The third photo shows two hands on a piano, engaged in the expression of religion through music.

The three artistic forms described above–graphic art, literature, and music–are the three main forms of resistance art that we discussed in class. Graphic art was used not only as a form of critique, as in Persepolis, but also as a tool of revolution and a motivator in times of war, as in Iran:

“Never in the history of propaganda have the graphic arts systematically played such an important role as they did in Iran in the years 1980-88 . . . . The battle was waged not only in the trenches at the front but also in the streets and alleys of Iranian towns and villages.” (Chelkowski, The Art of Revolution)

Literature was (and is) also a form is societal critique, as exemplified by the short story Sultana’s Dream. Finally, music, from hip hop to jazz, remains relevant in the Islamic tradition, both in the context of Sufi mysticism and as a means of pushing back against oppression and injustice.

The key component of all of these pieces of art, though, is that the art is also expressed on the skin of the artist. The hands and arms are covered in body paint, bearing the words of hip-hop songs, musical notes, graphic illustration, poetry, and lyrics, in English, Arabic, and Urdu. This shows that engagement with Islamic art is, for many, not simply a passive process. In the absorption and creation of art, and in the action of social critique, the art fundamentally affects the artist, becoming a part of their being.

This final step–the internalization of artistic messages–seems to me to be a key for resistance through art. Because art has this special power to deeply affect and move its creators and consumers, Islamic art has been an important tool for resistance, as symbolized by the fisted hand in the final image.

Identity

The Hijab

“Identity”

Week 10

Collage

This piece draws from week 10 and highlights the complexities of Muslim women and feminism in an Islamic context. The piece is meant to highlight the difference between the external perspectives and stereotypes about hijabis and the internal meaning that the hijab has for each woman who choses to wear it.

The background of the piece contains a series of words, written in black, which represent the stereotypes often associated with Islam and America and with Muslim women in a Western context. The comments range from the political–“sharia” and “no more mosques”–to the condescending–“in need of liberation”–to the Islamophobic. All of these insults were either alluded to in class or are common in the media. These background is black-and-white to represent the lack of nuance and complex understanding that is present in these stereotypes.

By contrast, the actual hijab is a combination of words, quotes, images, and symbols and is full of color. This is to symbolize the depth within Muslim women (and, indeed, within all humans) and to explore the full range of what the hijab means to those who wear it.

Many of the images and words in the hijab are offered in direct contrast to the stereotypes. In response to the “uneducated” stereotype, there are books and representations of intelligence; in response to the “backwards” and “uncivilized” stereotypes, there are depictions of technology; in response to the “un-American” stereotype, there is the American flag, Statue of Liberty, and New York skyline. The lips and jewels symbolize that hijabis can, in fact, be classically feminine, while the soccer ball shows that the veil need not keep women from being athletes. The leopard skin represents strength, while the parrot represents freedom and vibrance.

Importantly, near the middle of the hijab, there is a black patch. This is to symbolize the fact that some Muslim women do legitimately feel oppressed by the hijab, whether they are forced to wear it or choose to wear it for their own reasons. This black in integrated with the rest of the hijab, though, to show that these negative feelings are not always experienced in isolation, and that they may be only a part of the complex emotions that hijabis feel towards the veil.

However, there also exists within the piece more classical and positive references to religion. The rose near the top symbolizes the prophet. Additionally, the eyes of the woman are not looking at the surrounding stereotypes; rather, she is looking up, symbolizing her relationship with and dedication to Allah.

The main point of this piece, though, is to emphasize the diversity of experiences and perspectives of hijabis and to validate all of their experiences. As captured by the central quote–“It’s all about you”–the choice to wear a hijab, as well as the associated reasons and experiences, are fundamentally individual in nature.

Sacrifice

“Zaynab”

Week 6

Poetry & Film

This poem and video were inspired by week 6, “Shi’i Piety.” In particular, I drew from the Taziyeh plays, or the Iranian theatrical tradition which describes the martyrdom of Husayn. This event has incredible significance for Shi’a Muslims, and so I chose to focus my video on an alternate representation of this event.

The poem in the video is recited from the perspective of Zaynab, the daughter of Ali and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Like any member of Ahl al-Bayt, or the People of the Household, her biological relation to the prophet awards her special cultural recognition. Additionally, Zaynab also gave a powerful speech in front of Yazid following her brother’s martyrdom, making her an ideal narrator for this piece.

The piece begins by referencing the drums of war, a stylistic representation of the Battle of Karbala, and the blood spilled during that war, which was the blood of her family and thus, in some ways, her own blood. The line “the blood is ablution” hints at a theme in Shi’i piety, i.e., that the suffering of her family is cleansing and redemptive.

The middle of the piece uses the symbols of water and rain and occurs over the sounds of a thunderstorm. This storm is used to emphasize two dual pieces of the Battle of Karbala. First, the rain is used to represent the deep sadness of Zaynab and the rest of the family. Second, the thunder and lightning reference the power of Husayn, and his willingness to die despite this power, as discussed in the Taziyah:

Husain: … If I will, I can make the moon, or any other celestial orb, fall down on the earth; how much more can I get water for my children. … I voluntarily die of thirst to obtain a crown of glory from God. (Pelly, The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain)

It is only in the last verse of the poem that Zaynab is revealed to be the speaker, and this verse references her speech in the courtyard of Yazid and also the spiritual victory of her family. In some sense, the poem calls out Yazid for his false victory, which only belongs to him in the earthly realm. In the eternal realm, she says, the victory belongs to her family.

Importantly, and finally, the last verse of the poem also emphasizes the deep connection that Shi’a Muslims feel with the family of Ali. In the line “I am Zaynab, we are Zaynab,” the poem showcases the depth of this connection, which is also present at the Taziyeh: the members of the audience will often get entirely swept up in the play, experiencing the suffering as their own. Similarly, this poem shows that importance of the family of the Prophet and the depth of empathy that Shi’as feel in recalling the Battle of Karbala.

Imitation

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“Imitation”

Week 4

Pencil & paper

This drawing pulls from week 4, “Prophet Muhammad as Paradigm.” In the above piece of artwork, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is symbolized as a rose, which a common representation in Islam, as described in Ghazal 19 by Hafiz and in a poem by Muhammad Iqbal:

We are like a rose with a hundred petals with one fragrance: He is the soul, he is the one. (Muhammad Iqbal, Asrar-i khudi)

Also, there is a halo of light around the rose, which connects to the theme of prophethood as divine light. For example, the Qur’an described Muhammad as light (“nur”) from God (5:15) and a radiant lamp (“siraj munir”) (33:46)

Week 4 focuses in large part on the love that Muslims hold for the Prophet. In the above drawing, a Muslim artist is depicted as lovingly painting the rose, showing the devotion of Muslims to the Prophet. Secondarily, this also shows the importance of Islamic art as a means of expressing this love and religious devotion more generally.

There is more to the drawing than love of the Prophet, however. In almost every context, Muhammad is seen as a role model, and Muslims throughout the world seem to imitate his beautifully righteous life:

Verily in the messenger of God you have a beautiful model for everyone who hopes for God and the Last Judgment and often remembers God (Qur’an 33:21).

The artist in this drawing is seeking to imitate the beauty of the Prophet; thus the name of this piece, “Imitation.” The way in which the artist paints the rose is an imitation of the perfect Rose that is the prophet. Just as the artist seeks to imitate the Prophet in his painting, so many Muslims seek to imitate the life of the Prophet in their own lives.

The final notable feature of this piece of artwork is that the rose in the artist’s painting is unfinished. This symbolizes the ongoing nature of followers’ relationships with the Prophet. The process of imitation is a lifelong journey for many Muslims, and so this artist is in the midst of his own spiritual quest to imitate the Prophet.

Revelation

Leaf 1

Leaf 2

Dragonfly

“Ayat”

Week 2

Calligraphy & Photography

This piece draws from week 2, “The Qur’an, God’s Word as Sacred Design, and Calligraphy.” The photos above depict a calligraphic representation of Sura al-Fatiha, the opening sura of the Qur’an, using nature-based designs.

I chose to use calligraphy for this project given the importance of calligraphy in Islamic cultures. When recited, the sound of the Qur’an is exceptionally moving, and the beauty of the language is cited as evidence of its sacredness. Therefore, the written version of the Qur’an must also capture this beauty, and a major mechanism through which this is accomplished is Arabic calligraphy.

The importance of the written Qur’an is also emphasized in the original story of the revelation, and the acts of reading and recitation are closely related, as discussed by Khatibi and Sijelmassi:

Recall the first words revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, “Read, recite.” Does not the word Qur’an also mean the act of reading and recitation? Read the world and the heavens as a table of signs. You are first and foremost a reader, then a believer. (Khatibi and Sijelmassi, Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy)

The above quote also references the idea of signs, or ayat, as evidence of God. The Qur’an mentions that the existence God can be recognized or experienced through signs, some of which may be found in nature. The face of God is said to be reflected in nature and in the world; therefore I chose to create calligraphic representations of natural things–leaves and a dragonfly–to represent the signs of God that appear in nature.

Specifically, I used a dragonfly in the final image because of their agility and beauty; much like the signs of God, they can be difficult to spot, but once noticed they are often regarded as beautiful. I choose to photograph the final calligram on a human hand to emphasize that the signs are accessible to human understanding. By understanding the Qur’an, humans are able to remember (dhikr) God and can see His signs in the world around them.