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.