Wanderlust and Wahi: An Introduction

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This blog is titled Wanderlust and Wahi because it represents my personal journey of understanding Islam and Muslim culture through studying and creating Islamic art. I was initially drawn to AI54: For The Love of God and His Prophet because of my own wanderlust. As an avid traveler and someone who has visited over thirty countries so far (with plans to travel to many, many more!) I have only been to one country where Muslims represent the majority of the population. That experience was eye opening for me, but because my purpose for travel there was not cultural tourism and my time there was short, I came out with even more questions about the Islamic way of life and the Islamic nation state than I had going in.

At Harvard, I study Government and Economics, and have taken a particularly strong interest in the current refugee crisis in Syria and subsequently its neighboring countries and Europe and have also studied the rise of terrorism. Because of the availability and speed with which content is shared today via social networks, incidents of terrorism (which is by no means a new phenomenon) have become sensationalized by the media and tainted with Islamophobic messages. I already knew that Islam is the largest religion in the world, so I knew that messages of terrorism or purported “jihad” (which originated could not be the true message of the Quran – after all, Muslims outnumber people of any other religion and are not all up in arms, thus, terrorist acts must be the work of a few extremists who use the religion as a justification or a way to gain followers, and not a staple of the religion itself.  However, with the rise in popularity of  political candidates in the US such as Donald Trump, who openly called for a “ban on Mulsims” and surveillance of  these American citizens just because of their religion, I decided that it was necessary for me to have a deeper understanding of the Quran in order to more effectively battle this rise in Islamophobia in the Western world.

This is where the second part of the blog title, “Wahi” comes in. Wahi is the Arabic word for revelation, which is God’s word delivered through Prophets to mankind. In a way this class has been a wahi, or revelation, to me about the different approaches to Islam historically and today, all around the word. It has been a journey that will hopefully help me in satiating my wanderlust and make me a more educated consumer of Islamic art the next time I come across it (I’ve learned of course, that Allah can be found everywhere – even in the palm of your hand through ayat!).

About half of my blog posts contain photos related to Islamic art and religion that I have captured on travels around the globe – some during this course and some that I visited in the past and only now have come to understand the significance of. What is striking about this is the theme of the unity of Islam despite differences in cultural settings. For example, my post on Islamic ornament showcases the different styles and variety of Islamic ornament and arabesque, but the underlying unifier is the significance of the geometric shapes, the colors, and the large amount of skill and time required of the artist to create such intricate and complex work – hard work made worth it because it is meant to venerate the divine. My first post on ahl al-kitab is a collage of various religious buildings. The physical joining of this religious architecture into one book-shaped collage is meant to represent the unity of the monotheistic religions. The photos of the Sufi Haus in Vienna represents a unity of the Sufi Islamic tradition with Austrian cultural norms and traditions – perhaps it is not the Sufism of North Africa that we have studied, but the cultural approach to religious studies tells us that these adaptations and varieties of Islam are not wrong just because they are different. Therein lies the foundation of this Islamic unity: love.

One of the main themes in Islam and of course, in this blog, is love. The amount of love that Muslims have for Allah, for the Prophet Muhammed, for fellow Muslims, for People of the Book, the love that Shiites have for Ali and his descendants, the love that Sufis have for their sheyks and imams, is incredible.  It is this love that brings the Sufi dervishes to whirl without end, performing dhikr and rituals that are meant to bring them closer to fana and God. It is this love that is the basis for the ghazal – a form of lyrical poetry that Renard describes as short, emotionally charged, and focused on interpersonal relationships, where the beloved is God and the theme is unrequited love (Seven Doors to Islam, p 116). It is this love that keeps Muslim women wearing their veil (if that is what they believe), even if the government they are subject to tries to use unveiling as a political tool. It is because of this love, because of the strength that Muslims find in unity that they do not succumb to the generalizations and falsehoods projected on them through Islamophobia and orientalism.

There has been a trend throughout history and especially today to view Islam as the “other”. When these views are propagated it becomes increasingly difficult to understand the truth. The truth of course is that there are many truths. Non-Muslims must not view Islamic art or traditions through the lens of western artwork or culture but rather try to understand the history and ideas behind Islamic culture before making a judgment on the merit or meaning of Islamic artwork. I have learned also, that merely imitating an art form or ritual does not give you the clearest understanding or bring you closer to God. As someone who does not practice any religion, of course it is ridiculous for me to claim that by writing a ghazal using traditional themes of love for the beloved I will suddenly truly understand the Muslim submission before God and longing for Muhammad or that by imitating the Sufi ritual of whirling I will reach fana. However, learning about these practices and attempting to recreate this type of art in veneration of Allah does give me a much more nuanced understanding of Islam and of life as a Muslim, and this is something we all desperately need in a world so full of misunderstanding.

 

Week 10: The Veil

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Veil

One of the starkest visual markers of the Islamic faith and also a typical heuristic in the West for repression and religious piety is the veil. The veil has become representative of so many different things: Muslim identity, modesty, a way for a man to distinguish his wives (according to certain interpretations of Surah 33.59), chastity (Surah 24: 30-31), religious practice, radicalism, repression, and the list goes on. This is because the veil has been taken out of its original religious context and has become politicized. The veiling and unveiling of women has become a political act and women become objects of reform. For example, as discussed in class, the President of Tunisia Habib Bourguiba, although initially opposed to unveiling of women, ordered the unveiling of women in Tunisia because he believed it was a symbol of liberation and the modern state, and likely because he was trying to gain key political alliances with western nations that fundamentally misunderstood Muslim practices and saw veiling as a backwards and religiously ultra-conservative act.

However, the veiling of women is not for the government to decide – it is a personal religious choice of every Muslim woman. This is the idea that I try to convey with my artwork. The drawing is of a woman with one half of her head veiled and the other unveiled. I purposely made the veiled and hair difficult to distinguish from one another to imply that veiled or not, the identity of this woman is the same and it is her own. In other words, the veil or lack thereof does not make the woman.

Week 9: The Ghazal

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Even before I take a sip of wine, my love

The thought of you ensnares me like a vine, my love

 

I yearn to let you know my feelings for you

It’s not corporeal, it is divine my love

 

I open my heart before you like a rose

And for your light I pine, my love

 

I look for you day in and out

But cannot find you though you shine, my love

 

You are the moon you are the sun

You are everything, you are my lifeline, my love

 

Jeegar sits and forever wonders,

When is it that you will be mine, my love?

 

This ghazal is a reflection of the yearning for the divine and the representation of God as the beloved and the poet as the lover that is typical of ghazal poetry. It is a group of couplets (shers) where every verse ends with the same group of words, called the radif (“my love”) preceded by a rhyme, called the qaafiya (“-ine”). It touches on themes of unrequited love, innocence, wine, drunkenness, and the tension between human love and divine love that is typical of ghazals.

 

I decided to use the imagery of the rose, the moon, light, and wine to represent the Divine because these are classic symbols that we have seen through the ghazals we read in class. As we discussed in section, to understand any ghazal you need to be familiar with the preceding Islamic literature as many ghazals have symbols that allude to prophetic stories or to the Quran.

 

I allude to the the tension between human and divine love with the line “It’s not corporeal, it is divine my love” because this dichotomy between true love and metaphorical (human) love is a topic of much contention in the Islamic world. For example, Rumi believes there is no boundary between the two as does Saghi, who says there is no way to feel divine love without human love. But many Muslim poets and scholars disagree: saying that divine love is completely different from human love and aiming to disentangle issues of love and sexuality from religion.  However, the nature of the Persian language in tandem with ghazal poetry allows for the blurring of these lines. In Ghazal and Taghazzal, Naim writes that because the Persian language does not have gender, it allows for a dual reference of the sacred and profane – in other words, the love could be for a maiden, God, or even a Mursid (192).

 

Lastly, it is common for a poet to refer to themselves by a pen-name in the last sher of the ghazal. For my pen-name I chose the Persian wod “Jeegar” which means “liver”. Although this may initially sound strnage, in Farsi there are many terms of endearment that use the word “jeegar”. For example, “jeegare man-ee” means “You are my liver” and it is a way to tell someone you love them and that they mean a lot to you. Similarly, telling someone “jeegaret-o bokhoram”, meaning “I will eat your liver”, actually means something along the lines of “I will do anything for you”. I chose this word because it is used as a term of endearment but also because the liver fits well with the ghazal theme of drunkenness and being drunk in love.

Week 8: Music and Dance in the Sufi Tradition

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Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous. – Quran 2:177 (Sahih International)

This verse from the surat l-baqarah touches upon the theme of the role and significance of rituals in religion and ties in with the cultural studies approach that we have so often called upon during class. Essentially this verse explains that merely performing rituals does not make you a person of faith, but that faith and righteousness is an internal journey. I experienced this firsthand when attempting to imitate what has come to be known in the western world as “Sufi Dance” or the ritual of the Whirling Dervishes. Not only was my attempt at whirling physically taxing, but it showcased firsthand that merely performing a ritual does not necessarily give you a better understanding of Islam or a closer proximity to God.

By watching videos of Sufis practicing zikr and being especially mindful of the fact that for the Sufis this is not merely a dance but a worship ritual and form of meditation, I attempted to imitate their movements.  I quickly noticed that the music and whirling begin at an initially slow pace and gradually speed up, with the “dancer” gradually unraveling their crossed arms into a specific position. The positioning of the hands is symbolic: the left hand points down toward the earth and the right hand points up to the heavens, symbolizing the “dancer’s” metaphysical state. The rhythmic music, clapping, and dikr or recitation of words like “Allah” are meant to create an ambience that allows the “dancer” to meditate on God in hopes of experiencing Haqiqah (“the real”), in other words seeing the Divine. The idea of seeing the divine is present in the Quran through verses like “Wherever you turn there will be the face of God” (2:115), and is connected to the Sufi notion of “batin” or inner/hidden meanings in the Quran. Here one can thinking of seeing God with the heart rather than with the eyes.

 

The Sufi’s longing for God is represented by the whirling, which tests the corporeal body, the desires and needs of which must be tamed before the Sufi can approach the Divine (Asani, “Music and Dance in the Work of Jalal ad-Din Rumi”). In the documentary we watched in class on Sufi whirling dervishes, the pir mentions that in the “dance” there is an experience hidden form the viewer: that the whirling is akin to circling the whole universe, and that the entire universe is engaged in recitation.

Through my own experience doing this dance, I realized how much discipline and self-control it requires. I barely made it through a minute and a half before the dizziness overcame me and the newness of the experience of whirling wore off. It became clear to me that in order to whirl for many minutes on end it requires an inner strength and faith – one that cannot be gained just by practicing the whirling with no goal or end in sight. Thus performing the rituals of Islam does not necessarily make for a pious Muslim…

Sufi-Haus

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Week 7: Muslim Devotion in Local Contexts

As the largest religion in the world, Islam is practiced by people of different socioeconomic, cultural, and historical backgrounds. As such, many variations of devotional practice have arisen. In week 7 we discussed the expression of Muslim devotion in local contexts through the South Asian ginans, the qasidah modern in Indonesia, and the practice of Sufism in Sengal through Aminata Sow Fall’s short story. To my surprise, while walking to the naschtmarkt in Vienna, Austria over spring break I came upon a “Sufi- Haus” or Sufi place of devotional worship. The space looked nothing like the tent of Serigne Birama – the revered marabout in Beggar’s Strike, nor anything like the outdoor spaces of religious practice featured in the documentary on Islamic conversions in Africa that we watched in class.

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From the outside it looked just like any other house: the light white curtains were drawn and there was a potted plant and some decorative items on the windowsill. There was even a small ceramic figurine of what appeared to be the Virgin Mary – misleading at best. The only signs of Islamic worship were the posters on the wall describing Sufism (in English!). Here is their description;

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These photographs capture a variation of Sufi devotional practice and a religious space adapted to a “Western” culture like that of Austria. The Sufi-Haus, rather than promoting itself as a place where Sufi Muslims go to engage in dikhr and rituals such as chants and dancing, advertised itself as a place for meditation done by appointment.

Islamic Ornament

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Week 6: Islamic Ornament 

 

“Islamic art is the result of the manifestation of unity upon the plane of multiplicity” (S.H. Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality, p. 7)

 

According to some Islamic scholars, the origin of Islamic art lies in the inner content and spiritual dimension of Islam rather than in judicial sciences and theology (Nasr, 7). The creation of Islamic art to adorn places of worship such as mosques or just to venerate God surely does contain a spiritual quality linked to the love of God, but Nasr’s notion that Islamic art does not derive from external historical, cultural, and social influences is mistaken. In fact, the development of different styles of calligraphy, arabesque, and geometric ornamentation could not have occurred without external, social, cultural, regional, and even economic influences. For example, the style of the vegetal arabesques of the St. Petersburg Cathedral Mosque are quite different from the vegetal arabesques carved out of stone in the Medina Azahara in Cordoba, Spain.

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Arabesques from the St. Petersburg Cathedral Mosque (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Arabesques at Medina Azahara in Cordoba, Spain (Source: Flickr).

Arabesques at Medina Azahara in Cordoba, Spain (Source: Flickr).

These intricate patterns can grab the attention of any art enthusiast, be they Muslim or not. European fascination with Islamic ornament reached its peak during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century due to the European assumption that Islamic art is abstract. Arabesque’s alleged absence of meaning combined with its stark differences from the iconographic tradition of western art facilitated its appropriation by European architects and interior designers (Necipoglu, 63). And although this cultural appropriation simplified Islamic art to abstract geometric figures and elaborate patterns, non-Muslim fascination with arabesque and Islamic ornamentation signals that Islamic art was able to be understood and interpreted by all, not just by “native informants” like devout Muslims.

I personally am most fascinated by the dazzling and complex geometric arabesque patterns that adorn mosques, tombs, and palaces alike. One of my favorite examples of this arabesque style is the tiled mosaic on the ceiling of the pavilion over the Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz, Iran.

Ceiling ofPavilion over the Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz, Iran (source: Wikimedia)

Ceiling of Pavilion over the Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz, Iran (source: Wikimedia)

Taking this mosaic among others as inspiration, I decided to create my own geometric pattern.

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The piece I have created showcases my own attraction to Islamic geometric art and is an attempt at a geometric and arabesque pattern. The process of creating these patterns is tedious and requires patience and repetition – a theme that coincides with the Islamic idea of “dhikr” or remembrance of God through repetition. My pattern is not perfectly symmetrical – perhaps Nasr is right to say that only the most devout Muslims can create and understand arabesque and ornamental art! According to Nasr, “Islamic art does not imitate the outward forms of nature but reflects their principles” (8). As such, I included a vegetal pattern in my design (the purple tendrils on the left and right) to reflect the idea of paradise through the analogy of flowers and God’s garden. As described in the documentary “Islamic Art: Mirror of an Invisible World”, color is an important means of demonstrating meaning in Islamic art. For this reason I used bright colors, including green (the color of Islam and Muhammad)for the geometric shapes and white to bind the patterns together, as white represents unity and is a symbol of being (Nasr). My pattern, with its imperfections, left me wondering how did these Islamic artists create these intricate patterns and how do they split their process between math, geometry, planning, and spirituality?

People of the Book

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Week 4: People of the Book and Religious Unity

People of the book

Non-Muslims are often surprised to learn of references in the Quran to biblical and Hebrew figures and events. However, these references should not be unexpected because Muslims consider the Quran to be God’s third and final installment of revelation. As such the Quran is an affirmation and confirmation of the revelations that preceded it, which are said to all stem from God’s heavenly prototype of all scriptures (Asani 114). The term ahl al-kitab or “People of the Book” is meant to encapsulate this essential truth and refers to Jews, Christians and Muslims – or people that have received revelation in the form of scripture. The unity that this term purports can be seen in Quranic verse:

 

And argue not with the People of the Book unless it be in a way that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say we believe in that which has been revealed to us and to you; and our God and your God is one and unto Him we submit (29:46).

The piece I have created stems from the theme of unity among the monotheistic religions as seen through religious architecture. I have created a collage of photographs (some my own and others taken from the official websites of these religious structures) in the shape of a book. Some of these buildings such as the Hagia Sophia and the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See in Seville, Spain have been used both as mosques and churches in different periods of time. In the third and fourth rows on the left for example are photos from the Hagia Sophia: one shows the Southwestern Entrance mosaic which depicts the Virgin Mary with child Christ and in the other Islamic calligraphy is clearly visible. The second photo on the left is of the Seville Cathedral and its famous bell tower La Giralda, which used to be the minaret of the ancient mosque that stood there prior to the Reconquista. The third photo on the right is of the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary. While this synagogue has neither been a mosque or church prior to its construction its architectural style is quite similar to the Moorish style of the Alhambra, Alcazar, and Giralda in Spain (pictured on the top right and bottom of the collage). In fact, its architect, Ludwig Forster, deliberately chose “architectural forms that have been used by oriental ethnic groups that are related to the Israelite people, and in particular the Arabs”. Similarities can be seen between the Moscow Cathedral Mosque (first photo on the left) and the Hagia Sophia or Blue Mosque for example, due to its minarets and domes. And while the Moscow Mosque has a distinctive Russian twist (gold plated domes typical of Russian Orthodox churches), it still bears similarities to other mosques and places of worship around the world.

 

All of the buildings featured in the collage are extraordinarily beautiful, but even more striking are the similarities between them despite having been built in different time periods, geographic locations, and by people of different religions. This underlying unity is representative of the unity of the ahl al-kitab and showcases that despite some unique differences, the message of love for God is the same.

For a closer look at the collage visit this page.

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