From all the various artistic forms in the Islamic culture that were presented throughout the semester, each one of us individually responded to six distinct pieces that present our own interpretation and understanding of particular artistic expressions. The exposure to the different stimuli allowed us to explore the relationships between the Islamic religion and its arts. My six pieces explore the themes of love and devotion, religious pluralism within Islam, and the definition of the Muslim identity. Pieces such as “Blossom of a Rose,” “The Journey of a Virahini,” and “Qawwali Dance” all originate from the common theme of love and devotion for Allah or Muhammad. The theme of religious pluralism is presented in the works of “Mosaic of Diversity,” “Scale of Roles,” and “Prism of Birds” because each of these pieces consists of individual components, which cumulatively define the full product. Although my six pieces cover two distinct themes, they do share one unifying theme that addresses the definition of the Muslim identity. Even though each Islamic culture has its own distinct characteristics, it is interesting to notice that they are all unified in terms of the basic ideas that are shared. After reflecting upon my selection of my six art pieces, I noticed that I had been able to weave the aforementioned themes through all of my pieces.
The importance of love and devotion is one major theme that is able to connect three of my pieces together. One of the fundamental concepts in Islam is that human beings are seen as Allah’s representatives on Earth; however they tend to be ungrateful and forget God. Since humans are diverted in their devotion to God through worldly materials, there is a strong emphasis on the remembrance of divine by memorizing the Quran or spreading the oral traditions of storytelling. The concept of remembrance is noticeable in all aspects of daily life. For example, the call to prayer occurs at five regular times during the day, ayats are written over doorways of shops, and there is a great emphasis and reverence of individuals who have memorized the word of God by heart. My pieces individually use various visual and aural stimuli to represent the love and devotion for Muhammad and Allah.
My piece “Blossom of a Rose” highlights the love and devotion for the Prophet Muhammad. I have combined both visual and aural techniques by having a video illustrate the development of a rose plant. Accordingly, a poem, recorded in the background of the video, follows along by describing the development of Muhammad into a prophet using the rose symbolism. I purposefully tried to align the visual images with the corresponding poetic lines to emphasize the relationship between the visual and aural dependence of the work. I utilized two art forms that would incorporate both the visual and aural senses because this aids the viewer in having two distinct stimuli to remember the life of Muhammad. My main inspiration for this piece came from the Islamic symbol of a rose for Muhammad. The rose is an eternal source of fragrance and beauty because its unique fragrance is easily diffusible and the plant itself can be grafted to produce additional plants. I decided to connect the stages of the development of a rose to the Swahili work “Miracles of Mohammed.” The Swahili work presents the biography of Muhammad through an exaggerated and mystical tone that highlights the peculiarities of Muhammad such as the removal of the dark clot, the cloud hanging above his head, and his glowing presence. Although the Swahili biography presented an exaggerated manner of Muhammad’s life to provide the audience with a vivid image of the Prophet’s life to elicit remembrance and devotion, I tried to convey this same idea but through visual and aural components to compensate for the need to aggrandize Muhammad’s life.
Secondly, “Journey of a Virahini” is one of my involved pieces because of the repetitive strokes done in the colored pencil medium. I drew inspiration for this piece from the Sindhi tradition of viraha songs sung by women separated from their beloved. The symbolism of a virahini highlights the importance of love and devotion within the Islamic tradition as the virahini represents a devotee who is seeking to complete her relationship with Muhammad through an impending marriage. My piece combines qualities of the virahini as stated in the descriptions in the mauluds found in Religions of India in Practice. The virahini symbol is the true embodiment of love and devotion because the journey taken by her puts her under great emotional and physical stress. However, this suffering is ultimately relived by the presence of the mosque. This is an effective symbol that conveys devotion because the virahini is a prominent figure within the South Asian culture, her suffering can be understood by the Muslims in this culture. Additionally, I incorporated calligraphy sewn into her veil to reveal her devotion to Allah and Muhammad. Calligraphy is omnipresent through Islamic art and tradition because divine writing is considered to emphasize sacredness. The main idea conveyed in my art work is the suffering encounter by the devotee to seek their love and connection to the divine.
“The Qawwali Dance” is the last piece that ties together the theme of love and devotion. The Qawwali tradition is part of a Sufi musical form common in South Asia that inspires a state of ecstasy for the listener. Producing this piece requires total immersion of one’s self with the music to pinpoint particular beats and melodies. Thus, most of the interaction with the song is found during the choreography stage. The repetitious nature of the song provides the listener enough time to focus on one verse and through our spins and redundant motions; we attempt to convey our state of ecstasy governed by the music. The Qawwali form is unique in attempting to show one’s devotion to Allah. It does not only engage one’s senses emotionally, but it allows one to be physically engrossed in the music. This piece is unique from the two mentioned above because it elicits the engagement of other senses indicating that love and devotion does not only come in the form of recitation, oral tradition, or visual art. The Qawwali Dance is a unique form indicating that devotion to Allah and Muhammad consists of many art forms across the various Islamic traditions.
The second theme that ties the rest of my pieces together is the religious pluralism that defines the unity within the Islamic communities. Each individual Islamic community has formed its own interpretation of the Quran and formed its separate identity. However, all these different communities obtain their doctrinal interpretations from a common pool that consists of common practices and ideologies for all Muslims. For example, acknowledging that there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet or accepting the Quran as the word of God are primary doctrines. Within the Islamic religion, there are differences in orthodoxy; however, it is the similarities in orthopraxy, which ties these distinct groups together. In Islam, it is acknowledged that there are many different sectors; however, ultimately they form one large community. Islamic art is crucial in observing these distinctions and making connections among them. Art was not only confined to the sacred lands of the Middle East, rather it was able to change and evolve as it was introduced to different cultures during globalization, just as the religion itself.
“Mosaic of Islam” consists of a diverse range of Islamic calligraphy, architecture, and art found in various Islamic cultures in the world. Although each individual picture represents a distinct exterior appearance, the symbolism and techniques used to produce the art work stem from the common pool shared in Islam. Mosques serve as a primary example to illustrate how the exterior is influenced by the culture within which the mosque is placed in. However, each mosque maintains the traditional minbar, quibla wall, and the minaret. In essence, the differences in perspectives, whether one focuses on the outwardly qualities of the art or the intrinsic qualities that influenced the art, defines whether one is able to view the diversity within the unity of Islam. When the individual pieces of the mosaic are composed together, they form a picture of the Kaaba, the central and most sacred point for all Muslims. Prior to this class, I had the impression that all Islamic art was confined to the Middle East and South Asian regions; however, this mindset changed when I understood how Islam was able to spread its original practices while developing its art forms. It is a common misconception that the Islam identity found in the Middle East is applicable to Muslims all across the world. This is the main idea behind my piece because I want to present to the viewer two different perspective of the diversity and unity of the Muslim communities. Inspecting this piece up close one is able to see various forms of mosques, calligraphy styles, and Muslim gatherings. However, viewing this piece from afar amalgamates into a cohesive form that symbolizes the central and holiest point for all Muslims. Although each community of the Islamic region has formed its own identity through its arts, they all form a union because it is the central doctrine which preserves the entity of Muslims across the world.
“The Beggar’s Strike” also emphasizes the theme of diversity in a community from a social justice standpoint. My piece entitled “Scale of Roles” conveys the importance of the interdependencies among those in a single community. I decided to present this idea by using a scale of justice to indicate the role of social justice present in Islamic literature and in the Quran. For example, the Quran calls for social justice by helping those who are less fortunate through donations or zakat. “The Beggar’s Strike” serves to indicate how the upper-class is able to assist the beggars by donating money and the beggars in turn return their favor through prayers. When one component of this reciprocal cycle is disturbed, destroyed, or eliminated, it breaks the cycle and one group alone cannot fulfill its social obligations in the absence of the other group. This clearly indicates that although there are individual religious responsibilities within the Islamic society, the individuals cannot be self-sufficient. This adds a social and political dimension to the art piece rather than maintain a religious dimension, like the previous pieces. However, it still connects to the theme that the unity of a community relies on the diversity of the religious and social roles among the members in a community.
The final piece focuses on the “Conference of the Birds” and takes a more mystical approach to reiterate the theme of the importance of individuals who constitute a united community. I decided to apply the scientific phenomena of the scattering of white light to illuminate how the individual birds combined to form the ultimate leader, the Simurgh, which was the primary reason for their journey. This article is crafted from thirty individual origami paper cranes that are strung together under the guidance of one distinct bird, the Hoopoe. During their journey, they pass through the valley of Unity in which all things are broken into smaller pieces, but can then be pieced together to complete its unity. This particular description of this valley interested me because I was not able to comprehend how one would be able to maintain unity and divisions within the same reality. As I created this piece, I began to understand that the idea of diversity and unity originates from the perspective of the viewer. For instance, observing my piece from the side versus an aerial view allows one to see either many individual birds at once or just a single bird, respectively. Applying these two different perspectives to the end realization in the “Conference of the Birds” helps each individual bird understand that the search for the Simurgh was a way to build their individual character while collectively forming the Simurgh through each of their individual entities.
While my pieces can be separated into two distinct themes constituting love and devotion and the dimension between individualism and unity, there is an underlying theme that is present through all the works: the definition of the Muslim identity. Exploring the various forms of religious expression through art and literature allows one to understand that Islam is not only defined by its religion, rather it is shaped by the influence of other cultures that encounter the theology. My first three works pertaining to love and devotion are based off of inspirations from the Swahili and South Asian cultures while the last three come from a Senegalese and Persian tradition. All of these different traditions have a distinctive characteristic in their work while sharing the continuous theme of love and devotion or unity versus individuality. It is important to notice that the same themes, of love and devotion of individuality versus unity, is present in all different cultures, indicating that the basic fundamentals of Islam are not lost across cultures. The various cultures allow the viewers to interpret the same themes in a different manner because they combine the Islamic theological concepts along with the cultural influence. Defining the Muslim identity is not a simple and consistent answer. It requires one to understand the culture within which Islam has evolved to formulate the identity. However, the true identity of Islam that is common to all cultures maintains the primary tenants of Islam.
My pieces are able to tie together the themes of love and devotion as well as the relationship between pluralism and unity. It is common to find many forms of love and devotion within Islam because the remembrance of God is one of the main activities of Muslims. Although my pieces are mainly focused on the visual and aural art forms, it is important to consider that there are additional art forms that rely on other senses to help humans remember the divine. Moreover, I think that this exhibit has allowed me to understand that the Muslim identity is constantly changing as practitioners incorporate themselves into different regions of the world. My personal experience with this art has allowed me to experience the thought process behind formulating elements that incorporate traditional symbols found within various Islamic cultures. Love and devotion and the idea of unity within diversity are common themes that are found throughout the course and are incorporated into various elements in my pieces.