Introduction

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On the first lecture of the course, For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures, Dr. Ali Asani asked the class how we know what we know about Islam. There were a number of answers including the news, popular media, movies, and social media, most of which often portray Muslims negatively. Throughout Dr. Asani’s course I thought about the question and how I have learned about Islam by studying the religion in an academic setting. Taking the time to look into multiple sources ranging from 12th century epic poetry and academic journals to graphic novels and film, it opened my eyes to the world of Islam that I most likely would not have seen had I not sought it out on my own. This essay aims to give the reader a way of thinking about the varieties in which Islam is practiced by introducing the themes present in the subsequent blog posts. These include Islam as a religion (as opposed to political ideology), the diversity of Islam, and the cultural studies approach. Each will be considered and expanded on in relation to the blog posts as well as other sources not otherwise discussed in the blog.

Many Westerners who encounter Islam are often confronted with a radical, dangerous Islam. Because of various conflicts and terrorism, many people learn of the perspective of only a handful of Muslims – an extreme kind of Islam that is more of a political ideology than a spiritual tradition. Many individuals use unsound reasoning to conclude from the violent actions of a few Muslims that all Muslims must be violent or that they must otherwise ascribe to a fundamentalist ideology. In 2010 there were 1.6 billion Muslims in the world[1], roughly 23% of the global population. Given the number of Muslims in the world, non-Muslims (and Muslims too, actually) would do well to try to understand the various meanings that Islam has. Seeing how a religion that has such an influence over the lives of so many people is practiced in different times and places can help us attain a better understanding of humanity, attain insight into global issues, and help us become more enlightened individuals.

The scholar Edward Said wrote, “The problems facing anyone attempting to say anything intelligible, useful, or accurate about Islam are legion. One should therefore begin by speaking of Islams rather than Islam…and then go on the specify which kind, during which particular time, one is speaking about.”[2] As is mentioned in the first blog post, one of the most productive ways of investigating the varieties of Islam (or any religion for that matter) is through a cultural studies approach. Once one understands that there is not one monolithic Islam, as the cultural studies approach recognizes[3], one will be able to attempt and understanding of the varieties of Muslim faith. Asani writes, “A fundamental premise of the cultural-studies approach is that the lack of religious literacy fuels antagonism and prejudice against particular groups.”[4] This ties directly to the claim above regarding hasty generalizations about Islam. A further important premise of the cultural studies approach, Asani writes, “is that the study of religion is an interdisciplinary enterprise that necessitates the use of several perspectives to appreciate the complexities of religious expression.”[5] As I wanted to show a variety the religions and cultural ideas of Islams (as opposed to Islam), my blog posts reflect a variety of perspectives, highlighting religious, spiritual, and artistic practices.

In the first post, ‘Conceptions of Muslims’[6], assumptions of how Muslims are supposed to ‘look’ and what they are supposed to believe is questioned. Shown is a range of individuals varying from a Sufi dancer to an American medical doctor. This post and a number of others can serve as counterexamples to basic assumptions about what Islam is and who Muslims are. Further, the post, ‘Sufi Poetry and Wine’ highlights a perspective that many would see to be blatantly opposed to ‘mainstream’ Islam. The near obsession of poets with wine and intoxication does not fit the preconceived image of Islam. Consider Renard’s description of Ibn al-Farid’s poetry. He writes, “One of [al-Farid’s] most celebrated poems is the ‘Wine Ode’ (‘Al-Khamriya’). It develops the imagery of intoxication as a mystical theme, beginning with an allusion to the lament for the lost loved one. Ibn al-Farid refers to an eternally ancient wine that is divine love.”[7] To quote a line of the poem, “In memory of the Beloved we quaffed a vintage that made us drunk before the creation of the vine.”[8] This imagery seems rather progressive even thought it goes back over eight centuries. The lesson to be learned here is that what is ‘normal’, ‘orthodox’, ‘conservative’, or ‘progressive’ is often times a function of the time in which an idea or practice is presented. What is more, what we take to be progressive now has most likely been advocated for (or even sometimes the norm) in the past.

Another source that shows the diversity of perspectives in Islam is the short story, ‘Sultana’s Dream’, written by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain in 1905. Hoassain writes of a dream where the roles of men and women are reversed; in particular, men, rather than women, observe purdah. Describing purdah, Hanna Papanek, scholar of Islam, writes, “The forms of purdah observance include spatial separation, the wearing of special garments, several kinds of portable seclusion in which women can move about in public, and certain kinds of body language.”[9] Much like with Islam there are cultural differences in how it is practiced. In any case, in ‘Sultana’s Dream’ Hoassain presents a number of criticisms of the situation of women through satire.

In Ladyland, the city in her dreams, men are “in their proper places” while women have authority, all women are ordered to be educated while men take care of the home, no woman is allowed to be married before the age of twenty-one, and science and reason are valued. Regarding spirituality, the character leading Hossain around Ladyland says, “Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful.”[10] The story serves as means of showing that women are just as capable as men in a number of areas. At the time of publication, one critic, Abul Huassain, said that Hossain wrote the story to “create a sense of self-confidence among the very vulnerable Bengali women.”[11] He praises the work and urges men and women alike to learn from it. He writes that “women may possess faculties and talents equivalent to or greater than men—that they are capable of developing themselves to a stage where they may attain complete mastery over nature without any help from men and create a new world of perfect beauty, great wealth and goodness.”[12] Once again, we have an example of a way of thinking that clashes with preconceived notions of what Muslims must think or how they must act. Indeed, the writing of the story of itself is quite outstanding and challenges presuppositions. Roushan Jahan, cofounder of Women for Women, a research group in Bangladesh, writes of Hossain, “Her pen was, first, a weapon in her crusade for social justice, [and] she marshaled her thoughts and arguments in order to question the existing order of things, to raise doubts about seemingly accepted facts, and to motivate people to take the necessary actions to change customs she considered evil and unjust.”[13] While Hossain can be seen as a progressive female Muslim thinker in the 1900’s, individuals today (over a century later) are still fighting for some of the views that she espoused. We ought to appreciate her perspective as part of the foundation of much of the work that is happening today regarding gender equality and for insight into how diverse Islam is, not only today, but historically.

The varieties of Islam can be seen not only in centuries-old poetry, but can be seen in contemporary artwork as well. Consider Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, an autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. Satrapi gives the reader insight into growing up in a Muslim community during that time. Within the first few pages she explains her own context, writing, “I really didn’t know what to think about the veil. Deep down I was very religious but as a family we were very modern and avant-garde. I was born with religion.”[14] Throughout the graphic novel, she is fascinated with aspects of American culture, in particular the music of Iron Maiden and Michael Jackson, as well as jean jackets and Nike shoes. This contrasts with the ideal of many more conservative Muslims during that time. One scene in the book portrays a debate between Satrapi’s conservative schoolteacher and some of the parents. When the teacher suggests that the parents do not know how to educate their own children and that they need to behave, she receives angry responses such as, “Well-behaved? So they can hit themselves twice a day??”[15], “So they can be covered from head to toe?”, and “So that they can be forbidden to play like the kids they are??”[16] Here we see conflicting views of Muslim culture: one very progressive and another more conservative. With these few episodes from Satrapi’s work, we see a variety of perspectives of Muslim life during the Islamic revolution.

I have aimed to show the diversity of perspectives in Islam, as consistent with a cultural studies perspective. In particular I have shown that there are and have been a multitude of ‘unorthodox’ ideas regarding what is acceptable in Islam and who Muslims are. While the works above are aesthetically pleasing in their own right, my focus on them has more to do explicitly with their literal, written content as a means to show different perspectives. Many of the works made by Muslims throughout history can be valued purely for their aesthetic qualities; and it is important to note that the diversity of artwork parallels the diversity of viewpoints. With this essay I have attempted to provide a method of sorts for approaching different Islams. It is my hope that the reader will be able to notice and appreciate the similarities and differences between the various viewpoints addressed in my blog posts. They shed light on various aspects of Islamic art, including sacred architecture, the symbolism of light throughout Islamic spirituality and art, Sufi poetry, and music. However, while I made the distinction between written content and aesthetic qualities, it is important to note that not only works of art can be beautiful; ideas can be beautiful, too. And Islam is full of such ideas that are expressed in beautiful ways. I urge the reader to consider this as they view the following posts.

 

[1] Michael Lipka, “Muslims and Islam: Key findings in the U.S. and around the world,” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/201… (accessed April 23).

[2] Edward Said, quoted in Ali Asani, Infidel of Love, (forthcoming), 13.

[3] Asani, Infidel of Love (forthcoming), 12.

[4] Asani, (forthcoming) 13.

[5] Ibid., 14.

[6] An interesting point to be made is that, while I criticize mainstream media for its portrayals of Islam, many of the images on my collage are taken from various news sources. The point is that there are positive portrayals of Islam if one seeks them out. This, however is a point I leave the reader to ponder.

[7] John Rendard, Seven Doors to IslamSpirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 119.

[8] Ibn al-Farid, ‘Wine Ode’ in John Rendard, Seven Doors to IslamSpirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 119.

[9] Hanna Papanek, ‘Afterword Caging the Lion: A Fable for Our Time’ in Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream (New York: The Feminist Press, 1988), 63.

[10] Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream (New York: The Feminist Press, 1988), 16.

[11] Abul Hussain quoted in Roushan Jahan, ‘“Sultana’s Dream”: Purdah Reversed’ in Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream (New York: The Feminist Press, 1988), 2.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Roushan Jahan, ‘“Sultana’s Dream”: Purdah Reversed’ in Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream (New York: The Feminist Press, 1988), 3.

[14] Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003), 6.

[15] This refers to one of the country’s religious rituals. Satrapi writes, “At school, they lined us up twice a day to mourn the war dead. They put on funeral marches, and we had to beat our breasts.” Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003), 95.

[16] Ibid., 98.

Conceptions of Muslims

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When one takes the time to study Islam, especially from a cultural studies approach, one learns that the religion is quite diverse. Asani writes, “A cultural studies approach to the study of Islam recognizes that the experiences and expressions of any religion are far from homogeneous or monolithic.”[1] This project combines the theme of diversity in Islam with my desire to combat the many negative stereotypes of Muslims, especially in western mainstream media.

The first image I chose was one of two children reading the Qur’an together. This image shows the innocence of young Muslims, which contrasts with the tragic portrayals in the media of children strapped with bombs or young Muslims being trained to become soldiers. Similar reasoning went into selecting the picture of the man praying. Many people forget that Islam is not fundamentally a political ideology but a religion that Muslims deeply cherish. To further this point, I included two images of Arabic writing. One is ‘Allah’ enclosed in a circle that says, ‘Muhammad’. The second image is the shahadah, or profession of faith, and can be translated as, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” This shows the emphasis on the spiritual and theological rather than political, which is emphasized elsewhere. It should be noted, however, that the shahadah is not a way to define Islam in absolute terms. Asani writes, “However strong the desire to reduce or simplify Islam to a few common beliefs or rituals, the historical reality is that the religion, and even its fundamental creed, has come to be interpreted in diverse ways depending on each region’s history and cultural traditions, its economic and political structures, and its geography.”[2] In any case, the simple beauty of the shahadah, shown written in the Arabic script, is one aspect of Muslim spiritual life that non-Muslims may actually identify with and that is often overlooked.

The collage includes a number of images that challenge Western notions of what Muslims are supposed to look like. Included are images of a bearded high-school math teacher with his child[3], a woman who is a medical student[4], a fashionable Muslim woman wearing a hijab, a physician[5], a female lawyer[6], a Muslim American who is enlisted in the U.S. army[7], and Isa Abdul-Quddus, a professional football player. People often forget that Muslims are people with lives, careers, and aspirations. These images contrast with what many take to be the authorized Muslim ‘look’: a bearded man with a turban, or a woman covered head to toe in a burka. While these ways of dressing are certainly acceptable and should be approached with an open-mind, many westerners would do well to understand that they are not the only way Muslims present themselves.

I wanted to include artistic/creative aspects of Islam and so chose to show a woman who is a whirling dervish, a group of musicians, and the work of a contemporary artist. Carl Ernst, scholar of the Sufi tradition of Islam, writes, “Perhaps no other aspect of Sufism has been more contentious, and at the same time more popular, than the practice of music and dance…. Today Sufi practice in the form of music and dance is being redefined in terms of contemporary Western aesthetic standards.”[8] The photograph in the bottom right corner of the collage is one panel of a larger work by artist, Lalla Essaydi.[9] The subject is fully clothed and her body is tattooed with henna ink in Arabic script. The artist challenges the idea of what Muslim women are ‘supposed’ to look like.

While I have not come anywhere close to being comprehensive in portraying Muslims or Islam in this collage, my intent is to challenge and combat stereotypes of Muslims and to illustrate the diversity in the human element of Islam.

Islam project

 

[1] Ali Asani, Infidel of Love (forthcoming), 12.

[2] Ibid. 12-13

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/…

[4] http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/18/us/muslims…

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-y…

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/08/nyregi…

[7] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB1257558535…

[8] Carl W. Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. 79

[9] http://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/blog/islam…

The Conference of the Birds

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In Farid ud-Din Attar’s narrative epic, The Conference of the Birds, he writes of a group of birds who gather together to decide who should be their king. The hoopoe, which is the wisest bird, suggests that they seek the Simorgh, a mythical Persian bird thought to be quite marvelous. The hoopoe describes the Simorgh, saying,

We have a king; beyond Kaf’s mountain peak

The Simorgh lives, the Sovereign whom you seek,

And He is always near to us, though we

Live far from His transcendent majesty.”[1]

The Simorgh is made into a metaphor for God. The hoopoe declares, “Whoever can evade the Self transcends/This world and as a lover he ascends.”[2] However, even with the hoopoe’s descriptions of the Simorgh’s qualities, such as power, omnipotence, and magnificence[3], a number of birds are reluctant to go on the journey. They give a range of excuses that correspond with human character flaws. The hoopoe responds to the excuses in order to convince the birds to go on the journey, and in doing so explains why various character flaws inhibit spiritual enlightenment. Ultimately, the journey to find the Simorgh represents a spiritual journey for God and of the overcoming of the self.

My piece was created to symbolize a number of the birds in Attar’s poem. While it does not represent any single bird in the poem, it can be seen as alluding to several. Consider the duck’s excuse. She has never left her home and sees no reason to do so. She says, “Water’s the only home I’ve ever known;/Why should I care about this Simorgh’s throne?”[4] Another reference is to the partridge, who says,

[…]My one desireIs jewels;

I pick through quarries for their fire.They kindle my heart an answering blaze

Which satisfies me – though my wretched days

Are one long turmoil of anxiety.

Consider how I live, and let me be;

You cannot fight with one who sleeps and feeds

On precious stones, who is convinced he needs

No other goal in life…[5]

Such love of money is an impediment to spiritual actualization as it ties the bird to the material. Another bird, the homa, thinks, “the world should bask in my magnificence.”[6] The hoopoe replies that the homa is full of vanity and self-importance and that this behavior must be reckoned with on Judgment Day.[7] The owl’s excuse also involves wealth. He states that “[l]ove for the Simorgh is a childish story; My love is solely for gold’s buried glory.”[8] This idol-worshipping destroys faith and spiritual growth, thus inhibiting the bird from attaining spiritual realization.

In my project I show a bird made out of a dollar bill in a nest made of advertisements. The bird being made out of money symbolizes how a few of the birds in Attar’s poem (like the partridge and the owl) are invested in money rather than their spirituality. In place of self-actualization they seek jewels or gold. The modern equivalent is that of the average consumer who seeks and values financial success over anything else. Further, much like the partridge, many Americans recognize their anxiety and unhappiness over pursuit of money.

The nest made of advertisements can be seen as the home that the duck is reluctant to leave. She is comfortable in her life and sees no reason to do away with it. This also describes much of the modern world where people are content with their spiritually impoverished lives of consumption. Written on one of the advertisements that make up the nest are the words, “easy to swallow”. Such is the life of the duck and of many people today – living comfortable lives revolving around acquiring things, ingesting mass media, and being superficially happy.

 

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CIMG1512

 

 

[1] Attar un-Din Attar, The Conferences of the Birds, Trans. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis, (London: Penguin Classics, 2011), 43.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. 44.

[4] Ibid. 51.

[5] Ibid. 52.

[6] Ibid. 54.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. 59.

Sufi Poetry and Wine

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In the mystical Sufi tradition of Islam poetry, music, art, and dance are highly valued. One theme that is present, especially in Sufi poetry, is that of wine and drunkenness. Sheyagan writes, “Islam’s prohibition against drinking alcohol meant that within the Islamic world the making and serving of wine fell to Zoroastrians and Christians and others.”[1] However, poets like Hafiz and Rumi write of taverns and drunkenness. In these poems the tavern “usually suggests an esoteric sanctuary or gathering, an assembly of believers, which exists beyond the borders of orthodox Islam.”[2] In these poems, the drunkard is seen as having spiritual insight that the rigidly sober person does not. Renard writes, “God is wine, and the lover cannot but become intoxicated; but the hapless drunk then becomes a pariah, scandalously preferring tavern to mosque. It is true that drunkenness blurts out stark realities that sobriety will not suffer; but sobriety’s penchant for control and fear of ecstasy can leave one trapped in oneself.”[3]

J.T.P. deBruijn writes that in Sufi mystical poetry the poet often asks the cup-bearer for a drink. “[T]he poet seeks comfort in intoxication for the pain caused by his love, for the wrongs afflicted by the World or the inexorable passing of Time. Even in secular poems, wine therefore may adopt the figurative meaning of a means of escape from a cruel reality into a realm of hope and illusions about the fulfillment of love.” (65)

Consider the following examples of poems where wine is a mystical theme.

The poet Ibn al-Farid writes,

Joyless in this life is he that lives sober, and he that dies not drunk will miss the path of wisdom.

Let him weep for himself—he whose life is wasted without part or lot in wine![4]

An excerpt from Hafiz’s ghazal 29 states,

Last night I saw angels knock on the tavern door.

They kneaded the clay of Adam and molded it into a cup.

Those who live in the veiled and chaste sanctuary of Heaven

drank strong wine with me, the wandering beggar.

 

In Ghazal 48 he writes,

Last night I went to the tavern door stained with sleep,

my cloak-hem soaked, my prayer mat stained with wine.

 

In Ghazal 14,

Don’t frighten us with reason’s prohibitions, and bring wine,

for that watchman has no authority in our province.

 

Rumi writes,

Little by little the drunkards congregate, little by little the wine-worshippers arrive.

He then proceeds to describe those who are spiritual, “The souls of the pure ones like the rays of the sun are arriving from such a height to the lowly ones.”

With these excerpts we see joy, prayer, and spiritual insight associated with wine and that even angles find themselves at the tavern. Further, drunkenness is often associated with a dream state, when one is able to tap into the spiritual.

For this project, I show empty bottles of wine, one with the Arabic script for ‘Allah’ on the inside. The idea here is that in order to get closer to God, one must become intoxicated by wine and God’s love. The photograph is intentionally imperfect – the angle is skewed, the lighting is poor, and the wine bottles are somewhat out of focus – and suggests the intoxicated state of the photographer. I wanted to show a modern visual representation of the mystical night at the tavern.

Wine Allah

[1] Hafiz, The Green Sea of Heaven, Trans. Elizabeth Gray, (Ashland: White Cloud Press, 2002) 9.

[2] Ibid., 9-10.

[3] John Rendard, Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 114.

[4] Ibid., 119.

Qur’an Recitation and Music

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Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the word of God that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The revelation was transmitted verbally and not written down until much later after Muhammad’s death.[1] Kristina Nelson writes, “The Qur’an is considered the miracle of Muhammad’s prophethood. The proof of its divine source is in its inimitable euphony, eloquence, and wisdom, for Muhammad was neither poet nor sage, but an unlettered merchant.”[2] In Islamic culture, those who have memorized the Qur’an are said to ‘preserve’ it and are called hafiz.[3] Children start learning the Qur’an at an early age and are encourage to master the unique sound of it before even understanding the meaning.[4] Qur’an recitation can be heard everywhere in Muslim cultures, from Mosques and official gatherings to radio broadcasts and TV shows. There are even competitions where top reciters across the world competes and are judged by the rules of Qur’an recitation (tajwid) among other factors.[5] Renard writes, “The sound of Qur’an recitation remains one of the most entrancing, moving experiences in Muslim daily life, and it continues to sustain in Islamic spirituality an oral and aural substrate stronger perhaps than in any other global religious tradition.”[6] However, while many non-Muslims would identify the sounds of Qur’an recitation as music, many Muslims do not place recitation in this category. Nelson writes, “Quranic recitations more than an art. Indeed, Muslim scholars and reciters are careful to distinguish between recitation and ‘mere’ music.”[7] Nelson gives an example of a distinguished reciter, Shaykh Mustafa Ismail, who said, “I don’t sing”. When pressed about how he could make such sublime music and not sing he responded, “I believe in God”.[8]

In my artwork I show two vocalists (which I take to be a neutral term which ‘singer’ and ‘reciter’ fall under) with different backgrounds. On the left is a piece of sheet music by Johann Sebastian Bach and on the right is a passage from the Qur’an. By juxtaposing the two vocalists I highlight the debate about whether or not the Qur’an reciter is singing. On the one hand, one can say that both vocalists are producing musical notes with their voices and so are both singing. On the other hand, from the Muslim perspective, the reciter is vocalizing the word of God, which cannot be reduced to notes. One could respond that the music of Bach is often sacred and is not ‘mere’ music like a pop song. The music of Bach is above that of the everyday pop star on American Idol; it is sacred music and should be respected as such. Furthermore, to call it music is not to disparage it. From the Muslim perspective, however, one could argue that while the music of Bach is certainly spiritually superior to that of ‘popular’ music, when one recites the Qur’an, one is vocalizing the word of God and so the recitation takes on a different ontological status separate from that of music.

 

Recitation pic

 

[1] Kristina Nelson, “The Sound of the Divine in Daily Life,” in Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East, ed. Donna Lee and Evelyn A. Early (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002), 257.

[2] Ibid. 258.

[3] Annemarie Schimmel, Islam: An Introduction (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), 33.

[4] Kristina Nelson, “The Sound of the Divine in Daily Life,” in Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East, ed. Donna Lee and Evelyn A. Early (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002), 257.

[5] Koran by Heart, directed by Greg Barker, HBO Documentary Films, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptHdmw57…

[6] John Rendard, Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 25.

[7] Kristina Nelson, “The Sound of the Divine in Daily Life,” in Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East, ed. Donna Lee and Evelyn A. Early (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002), 259.

[8] Ibid.

Prophetic Light

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“God is the light of the heavens and the Earth; the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp—the lamp in a glass, the glass as if it were a glittering star—kindled from a blessed tree, an olive tree that is neither of the East nor the West, whose oil well nigh would shine even if no fire touched it: Light upon Light; God guides to His Light whom He wills. And God strikes similitudes for man, and God has knowledge of everything.” (24:35)

 

Some thinkers give an esoteric interpretation of the Light Verse in the Qur’an (above). Ali Asani explains Muqatil ibn Sulayman’s interpretation: “[T]he lamp, in this verse, is a fitting symbol for Muhammad, who has been described elsewhere in the Qur’an as a ‘shining lamp.’ Through him the divine light could shine in the world and guide humanity to the origin of this light, its true home.”[1] A theory of ‘light mysticism’ sees this light as “the fountainhead of all prophetic activity, first manifesting itself in Adam, then in all the prophets, one after the other, until it found its full expression in the historical Muhammad.”[2] In Islam, Muhammad is seen as being the last of many prophets of God. Before him there were other prophets, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus; and they are all members of an extended, prophetic family, chosen by God.[3] Asani writes, “Besides the twenty-eight prophets mentioned in the Qur’an, Muslim popular belief acknowledges that before the advent of Muhammad, God had sent many messengers to humanity—as many as 124,000 according to legend—to every nation and to every people.”[4] Some Muslims even consider religious figures and thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Alexander the Great, Krishna, and Confucius to be earlier prophets.[5] While the Qur’an does not distinguish the prophets in terms of rank (3:84), many Muslims believe Muhammad to be superior to all prior prophets.[6] Regardless of whether or not Muhammad should be ranked higher, he is the last Prophet of God in Islam and can be seen as unique for that reason.

My project aims to depict the notion of Prophetic Light explained here. The largest candle on the pedestal symbolizes Muhammad while the other, smaller candles represent the prophets preceding Muhammad. They are shown as being melted shorter the farther they are from the candle that represents Muhammad. This indicates that some candles (prophets) have been burning before others, highlighting the temporal element of the order of the prophets. Adam was before Abraham, Abraham before Moses, and Moses before Jesus, and so on. Also, the candles can be understood as being equal-sized steps in the direction of Muhammad. The flames point toward Muhammad, indicating that he is the last in line of the prophets. The direction of the flames also references the concept of Ruh, or divine breath. In the Qur’an we read that God made a mortal out of dried clay and breathed his spirit into him.[7] With this divine breath comes life, and my project hints at the divine breath of God giving life to all the prophets. I have also included a glass candleholder to indicate the representation of Muhammad as a lamp from various interpretations of the Light Verse.

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[1] Ali Asani, Infidel of Love, (forthcoming), 133.

[2] Ibid. 133.

[3] Ibid. 112.

[4] Ibid. 113.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. 114-115.

[7] Qur’an 15:28-29

Light and Islamic Architecture

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Light is featured prominently in Islamic culture, from the Qur’an and hadith to poetry and visual arts. Light is also an important feature of Islamic architecture. Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes, “The great masterpieces of Islamic architecture, such as the Alhambra, the iwans, and the courtyards of so many Persian mosques and the Taj Mahal, are like crystallizations of light, limpid and lucid, illuminating and illuminated, where the space of Islamic architecture is defined by light.”[1] I attempt to show this idea visually. Instead of painting or constructing a model building, I wanted to make as pure an architectural structure as I could. So, using light from a candle and a piece of paper with the silhouette of a mosque, I was able to created a mosque of pure light. A prophetic saying states, “The first being created by God was light.”[2] In my piece I aim to show the creative inspiration of God in Islamic architecture: while God creates light, man creates architecture. My work also references Muslim devotional life. Ali Asani writes, “the straight path mentioned in the Qur’an on which God guides the faithful is often described as the path of peace. Muslims have referred to several verses in this regard, such as 5:16, that says that ‘God guides those with whom He is pleased to the ways of peace, guiding them along the straight path from darkness into light.’”[3] This idea is represented in my work by showing that the Mosque, the ideal place to worship God, is the destination from those coming out of darkness into light. Nasr writes, “Through the ingenious use of light the Islamic architectural spaces are integrated with each other and into a unity which transcends the experience of ordinary and ‘profane’ space.”[4] I highlight the notion of Divine Light manifesting in Islamic architecture, specifically mosque.

 

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[1] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), 50.

[2] Found in Nasr, ibid.

[3] Ali Asani, Infidel of Love, (forthcoming), 54.

[4] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), 55.

 

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