Creative Response Portfolio Essay
I believe that my art portfolio as a whole illustrates my experience of Islam, coming from the perspective of a strong Western and Christian background. For many of my artistic responses I chose to depict specific aspects of readings that especially intrigued me. My first piece is a response to the critique on Western approaches to Islamic art and architecture. One of the subjects that was discussed in regards to architecture was the arabesque design. I used to draw designs and patterns that look quite similar without knowing the religious background of arabesque. Western historians have previously dismissed arabesque as anti-natural, but Ismail Al-Faruqi corrected these thoughts by discussing arabesque as a representation of foliage and natural elements in a complex fashion. I really appreciated Al-Faruqi’s clarification on this matter and the philosophical implications. It was very easy for Westerners to look at the grand-scale image of arabesque designs in mosques and label it as a diversion from the natural forms of architecture that may have been more common at the time. He challenges people to take a closer look at the arabesque designs; after a closer inspection, arabesque actually just looks like the intertwined branches of a tree. Maybe the intention of arabesque art was to depict God’s creation; it appears to be decorative and whimsical from a far distance, but when one really reflects on the underlying purpose of our existence, the intricacies and similarities between us are very apparent. It was that intricacy that I hoped to convey in my creative response, especially in my incorporation of the Arabic calligraphy for Allah.
I wrote an Islamic poetic form, a gi’nan, for my second response to devotional literature. This literary form stresses the relationship of a believer to a religious authority as one of anxious and almost obsessive love. I was really intrigued by the fact that many Muslims view their relationship with God as one of love. I’m more familiar with people having fear of God and understanding God’s love for them, but I found beauty in the level of compassion that Muslims can have for their creator. To some extent I think that the emphasis on love and passion might be a better way to instill positive values than threatening believers with the prospects of hell. Two of my other responses were related to this same theme of an emotive relationship with God. I chose to draw an image of a rose and a nightingale and a rose in response to poetry by Muhammad Iqbal and Professor Asani. Roses are recurrent motifs in Sufi literature because of their bright passionate color and natural beauty. To Sufis, the rose perfectly represented the beauty and majesty of God, so both of the poems were metaphorically referring to God. It was very interesting to me that Sufis attempted to use natural beauty as a way to observe glimpses of God’s presence; this probably drew me to responding to the same motif as it appeared in two separate poems. The nightingale was often a way for Sufis to describe themselves since they sing at all times of the day. In my opinion, Sufi poetry was probably one of the most entertaining artistic forms that were covered in the course. I used to read a lot of poetry when I was younger and I was happy to revisit my childhood pastime. It was interesting that some poetic forms, such as the ghazal, had structure and meter that are typically associated with Shakespearean poetry.
My other two responses are based on other aspects of creative writing in Islam. One of my favorite components of this course has been the creative writing. I really enjoyed the allegorical poem, The Conference of the Birds because of the message of finding the truth and answers of life’s mysteries. Honestly I feel that this story can be applied to any type of life journey that a person takes even if it isn’t religious. In anything that comes with a struggle, some individuals will falter due to personal setbacks and excuses. There are no quick and easy solutions to problems of this magnitude. I liked the end of the poem when the birds realize that the true solution to their problems lies within themselves. I illustrated the birds in flight using construction paper as they journeyed to the Simorgh. I chose to make my final project in response to the satirical poem about the hypocrisy of Mohja Kahf’s mosque. I’ve actually had the same exact thoughts about my religion as a whole. I also dislike the false piety and judgment that some practitioners of my religion, especially religious faculty in previous schools. I really liked the idea of having a mosque that is based in acceptance and tolerance that welcomes all people regardless of their own spiritual standing. Using digital graphics, I illustrated a mosque that was in a traditional Middle Eastern setting but that lacked a minaret. The stone in the front of the mosque had a plaque that read “Bad Muslims Welcome” and a foot was placed over the mosque. My inclusion of the foot was motivated by the final revelation of Kahf at the end of the poem, when she realizes that the true essence of the mosque was actually around her at all times, and within the ground beneath her feet. Since all of creation comes from God, it is always important to remember that He is within all of his creation to some extent. The dress codes and insincere donations don’t bring the spirit of God to the mosque; rather, it is the faithful prayer and praise of the congregants that attracts God’s attention.
My personal religious background definitely influenced the portions of this course that I enjoyed the most. I grew up raised in Catholicism and spent most of my education in Catholic schools. My parents tried to instill morals and values into my siblings and me without attempting to indoctrinate us. As the child of immigrants, I’ve always been sympathetic to other minority groups and faiths. I actually grew up with a great deal of curiosity towards foreign cultures, and I was especially interested in Islam given the portrayal of fundamentalist Islamic nations and leaders in the media.
My first encounters with Islam didn’t occur until I was in high school. One of my friends who attended a different school was an African-American Muslim. Her grandparents had converted to Islam during the height of the civil rights era and her parents passed the faith down onto her. She didn’t speak much about her faith to me personally, and she rarely wore her headscarf when we were in public. However I understood the variability of individual expressions of faith as it exists even within Christianity.
To earn extra credit in a World Religions course at my Catholic high school, I visited the mosque located on the local university campus. My father accompanied me to this mosque shortly after their Friday prayer had ended. It was certainly much different than I expected. Unlike the large churches I attended with ornate decorations and filled with people dressed in their Sunday best, the prayer room of the mosque was small and modernly designed. There were still a few men scattered across the room on the plush carpets and the sun’s warmth brought comfort through the windows. It seemed to be a place of worship that was primarily focused on personal spirituality, which I appreciated.
The one thing that detracted from the entire experience was the dominant theme of female subordination. Women were sequestered to a corner of the prayer room and shielded away by a hanging cloth. I was also forced to wear a garment covering my entire body and only exposing my face, and our tour guide refused to shake my hand because I was an unmarried female. It also disturbed me to see young girls playing in the desert heat while wearing these thick garments. After that experience, I had been unable to ever see Islam in a positive light because I was unable to comprehend the reasoning behind all of the seemingly anti-female doctrines. I believed that Islam may have had good intentions but had been largely manipulated by political leaders throughout history. Eventually I developed the same opinion about my own faith, and had a negative view of religion altogether as tarnished by human shortcomings.
I decided to take this class as a way to learn more about Islam through the medium of art. I’ve always enjoyed observing and creating works of art and I was interested in seeing a more spiritual and whimsical aspect of Islam; I definitely was not disappointed. I’ve enjoyed all of the YouTube videos and guest speakers that have shown me firsthand that Islam is just as multifaceted as any other faith. Perhaps the most essential lesson I’ve learned from this experience is that Islam can be interpreted differently. I recall that one of the earlier readings described the role of women in Indonesian versions of Islam as equal to men, dispelling my belief that Islam itself promoted the subjugation of women. The different bodies of interpretation are maybe even more variable than the discrepancies between Catholicism and Protestantism within Christianity. The nuances of Arabic even leave the Quran itself open to interpretation, in addition to the many compilations of hadith that come from secondhand accounts. Islam lacks the theological structure and organization that many other Christian faiths have because it is often so directly tied to the political regime. Unfortunately, many of the negative aspects of some Arab dictatorships are confounded with Islam when they are actually not the original teachings of Muhammad. I was surprised to learn that Muhammad actually advocated for women’s rights at some points in the Quran.
Taking this class actually strengthened my own personal faith because it highlighted the distinction between faithful spirituality and organized religion. I now can respect Islam for its teachings on peace and seeking understanding of God while disagreeing with the teachings of fundamental Ayatollahs. Likewise, I can now have a pure relationship with God that is focused on my own moral astuteness and spirituality without becoming burdened with the ultra-conservative teachings of the Pope. The arabesque visually describes my opinions now-I think that Islam is a very diverse and rich culture that can yield incorrect perceptions depending on the breadth of your scope. Sometimes your previous opinions and experiences might shape your view of Islam if you neglect to appreciate the intricate and fundamental components. I will surely remember some of the lessons I learned from Sufi poetry that emphasize closeness with God himself as I move forward in life.