Wed 4 May 2016
When I stumbled into AI 54 this spring, the first thing I realized was that I didn’t know what I was doing there. I was sure of two things – that I did not know much about Islam and that I should probably learn more about Islam, if not only as a citizen in this United States – but why I wanted to take the class, that eluded me. The first class was interesting, but no extremely memorable. I learned a bit about Allah, the geography of where Muslims lived around the world, and read some quotes from the Qur’an. However, later that week, in our first section, something clicked. Our TF Ceyhun, after introducing himself, asked us to reciprocate and add a sentence or two about why we were interested in the class. I sat there, thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to come up with something witty.” My peers were announcing their inspiring intentions – some studied religion and wanted to deepen their knowledge, one girl’s mother was Jewish and her father Muslim, one girl was from Iran and wanted to learn the Western perspective of the culture she grew up in – and I had no idea what I was going to say.
And then it was my turn.
I started with a nervous laugh.
“My name is Karoline.”
Another nervous laugh.
And then the words just flowed out, as if I had buried them inside of my consciousness for longer than I remembered.
“I’ve tried all kinds of religion. When I was younger, my family went to the local Buddhist temple. When we stopped doing that, I learned the ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ prayer and prayed every night. In college, I went to church with my friends and really tried to be Christian. And now…well, I don’t know much about Islam but I am interested in finding out?”
I had forgotten all of these experiences. I had forgotten that I, personally, was compelled by religion from any early age and sought to absorb it in the forms that were available to me. And so, I came into AI 54 with an intense need to understand myself and the world I live in; I was choosing to explore how other people have understood themselves and their world.
Firstly, I learned the general tenets of Islam and what being Muslim generally (but not always) involves. It is a monotheistic religion that believes that Allah is the one and only God and Muhammad is His Prophet. Along with Christians and Jews, Muslims are considered to be ahl al-kitab, or “People of the Book.” The Qur’an is the key religious text, verbally revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. The hadiths are secondary religious texts, stories about the Prophet Muhammad’s life that inform a Muslim’s everyday conduct. The hadiths include the Five Pillars of Islam. Different communities of interpretation have formed depending on their interpretation of the Qur’an, who they believe in as the rightful successor to the Prophet, and other ideological differences. For all groups, however, recitation and writing (and the writing utensils) are paramount, because these were the methods by which the holy word was delivered. I learned that art forms – painting and calligraphy and architecture – emphasize God’s omnipresence. He is in nature and humanity and every creation. Literature, in particular, emphasizes the believer’s longing to unite with God and the long, trying journey of waiting for this union. Worship is also conducted with music and dance, although both have been contentious among various communities. Even when permitted, both have strict structural requirements and emphasize the desire to be closer to God rather than the act of performance itself. Being Muslim is a way of life, with sounds and tastes and practices that vary by region and by community.
Secondly, I learned to reevaluate my standing in the Western world and how our media affects public perception. This class worked to redefine stereotypes and expand commonly-held, but flawed notions of what sort of Islam is practiced and where it is practice. I learned that, many times, what we understand as “conservative” Islam is what our government has dictated as “conservative Islam.” In reality, “conservative” refers to Islam interpreted by the Sunni scholars in the 9th and 10th century. This differs from the “Islamist” movement, which we perceive to be “extremist” but often conflate with the word “conservative.” The Islamist movement seeks to interpret Islam for a nation state and implement their interpretation of Islamic values in all aspects of society. This is the group al-Qaeda belongs to, and the number of people involved are much less than Western media portrays.
I appreciated the focus on less mainstream topics, such as Sufism and the Islamic practices in South Asia. This was the first time that I realized that 80% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni while only 20% are Shia, that what I knew has been shaped heavily by Western perception and ideology. From this, grew my specific interest in the anti-Western observation and analysis of Islam. From my English junior tutorial last fall, I was growing increasingly aware of Western influence on everything we read, especially non-Western works. I was aware of literary colonization, which manifests when white authors assume Western views as the standard for measuring worth or opinion or experience, but didn’t realize the extent to which this affected Islam. In hindsight, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, since the West has a history of taking advantage of non-white cultures. However, there are still terms like “Orientalism” which refers to the scholarly study of the Middle East that seem like the anachronistic and problematic word. No one has brought up this fact, though. Perhaps it is because the term has been circulated so heavily, and without repercussion, but “Orientalism” refers to a patronizing Western view on Eastern societies often used to justify, subtly or not, Western imperialism.
Too often is the Western gaze applied to the global understanding of non-Western cultures. Too often is Western gaze the starting point for dialogue, the measuring stick for all other cultures, the final and most powerful voice of approval. I appreciated the selection of course material that fought to remove Islam from that gaze. We read pieces authored by South Asians and radical feminists and cultural icons. For example, I was quite struck by the incisiveness of “Unveiling Scheherazade” by Charlotte Weber, which not only outlined rising feminist perspectives of Islam but how those critiques were also skewed. The course fought the Western gaze when we studied the Iranian Revolution, which emphasized the collective spirit of Iranians turning away from Western modernization and turning to more traditional codes of conduct. Their efforts to do this reflected their need to reclaim their Muslim identity amidst the influx of Western influences.
I was drawn to the multimedia use, which I felt added a visceral component to the lecture experience. Immersion via videos and paintings and photos, like those practicing Muslims are exposed to and venerate, made me feel more invested in the culture. I felt like a teenager growing up, surrounded by the sounds and sights of living in a Muslim community. It helped bridge the otherwise vast distance, both geographically and personally, between my life and theirs. I was especially intrigued by “Muhammad Walks” by Lupe Fiasco, an artist I like. Whilst a commercially popular rapper, his religious background is rarely mentioned, even though it is clearly a vital part of his life. My exposure to and subsequent enjoyment of this song was a surprising moment of connection to the course material.
Each of my blog posts was written with the above concepts in mind. I focused on the weeks in the course I was most interested in and honed in one aspect of the course. In fact, you can think of each blog post as a funnel. The start of each post highlights the overarching topic of the week, the middle of the post discusses what I am specifically examining, and the creative portion is an extension of both, looking at the same topic through a different lens. Thematically, the posts feature less mainstream topics in literature, visual art, and performance (recitation or otherwise) and are connected in more ways than one. Post 1 and 5 both feature illustrations, but Post 5 also relates to Post 4 and Post 3 with their emphasis on less mainstream topics Post 2 and Post 4 focus on theater, a communal activity, but they relate to the oral tradition and the communal energy of recitation in Post 1. Post 2 and Post 5 focus on Iran in two different ways, just as Post 3 and Post 6 focus on worship through literature in two different ways.
The art forms in each of my posts are deliberately chosen. I am attracted to art that follows a logical line of thought (in this case, adherence to the themes of the blog post) but also creates tension or unexpectedness in some way. I believe the best art, and the best means of reflection, involves a distance between meaning and representation. In this regard, I chose forms that would respond to the blog’s topic (like composing a ginan for Blog Post 3) but would surprise the reader as well.
Blog Post 4 is a special one for me. As an actor, I find theater a very compelling medium. It is thrillingly ephemeral, but there, in its brevity and “liveness,” lie its true power. On the page, the theatrical takes a different form, albeit just as lively. I am intrigued by the spaces between the words and the lack of stage directions, because these are the places that rivet the reader’s imagination. Because a play is meant to be performed, the reader is even more compelling to “play” their version of the play whilst reading. It is an intimate experience that is at once more and less than enough. When it came to merging my love for theater and writing a blog post, I decided on writing a short scene. It would have been too literal to write my own ta’ziyeh (and besides, we did that in section), so I pondered where else I could explore the dramatics of the performance. We have often seen court cases dramatized on TV or religious stories narrated in children’s books so I wondered what the combination of the two would be like. I wanted to bring the rationale to life in a way people could connect to.
I encourage the reader to peruse with an open mind. That is, read with the knowledge that what you know may not be the full story and that even if you are familiar with the topic, your conceptions might be altered. Read carefully, but not daintily; try to be okay wandering in the unknown and try to resist translation. Don’t try to compare what you’re reading to a Western standard; rather, wallow in the awkwardness of not knowing. If something is striking or odd or unfitting, question it and then question how you are questioning it. What are your own biases? Are they coming into play at this moment? Delve into alternative routes of thinking, routes that are not the white-male-dominated scholarly field. All this and more have I learned from the cultural studies approach in this class, and I hope you will embark on your own fruitful journey.