The Six Perspectives

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The Six Perspectives

 

Throughout the course of this semester, my eyes have been opened to the world of Islam. As I will describe later on in this paper, I have been introduced to various entry points of this religion. From music and art, to reform and political movements; we’ve found a way to touch on most all of them. This method of instruction, through introducing the religion from various entry points, has been what has made this learning experience all the more fruitful for myself. With all of this in mind, I would like to turn to my blog, which highlights six key entry points to the world of Islam that have served as the most substantial learning points for myself throughout this course. Additionally, I think that these six perspectives also provide a helpful and holistic look at all of the different kinds of Islam that I have interacted with.

Throughout this semester, we’ve looked at Islam through a number of different lenses. The lenses that I felt were most impactful for my learning were those that were concerned with the experiences of women, Muhammad and prophethood, musical expression, the celebration Nowruz, the Conference of the Birds, and the role of Islam in black America. I think that these six perspectives on Islam not only show a diverse range of viewpoints that are all relevant discussions, but also tell a bit about myself and what kinds of things I prioritize in life generally.

 

The first introduction to the role of women in Islam that I’d received in this class was through an excerpt from the Qur’an the read, “Surely for men who submit to God and for women who submit to God, for believing men and believing women….” (Qur’an 35:35). It was this initial distinction between the genders via scripture that alerted me to its overall importance to most all other practices of Islam. Towards the end of one of our first lectures, Professor Asani spoke of the Amina Wadud Muhsin, a former professor at Virgina Commonwealth University. She wrote a book entitled Qur’an and Woman, which discusses the different ways in which the traditionally omnipotent male gaze on the interpretations of Islam has led to the suffering of many women. In her book she expresses that there is a general need for the interpretation of the Qur’an “because only through continued interpretation can the wisdom of the Qur’an be effectively implemented” (Muhsin 94). Where she takes issue is with the lack of meaningful discourse around the interpretations of women, alongside those of men, of the Qur’an.

 

 

“Whatever the case, no record exists, in our Islamic legacy, of a meaningful discourse between the preceptions, experiences and reflections of women and men about both their different and similar understandings of the text.”

  • Amina Wadud Muhsin, Qur’an and Woman 96

 

Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian Nobel Prize Winner in 2003 says “The problem that women face in Muslim societies is not because of religion. It is a result of patriarchal culture.” Both of these quotes tell me something very important about the nature of the role of women in Islam. First, the problem of women’s equality in Islam this is not a problem of religion. The Qur’an is not seen as a discriminatory text, but instead has been used by those in power to justify discriminatory practices that adversely affect women. Second, the lack of engagement in the conversation and discourse which Amina describes in the quote above is evidence that this issue is systemic and has been implemented as such in various Muslim communities across the globe. If no notable discourse exists in the Islamic legacy that engages the views of both women and men as it pertains to the interpretations of the Qur’an, I’d find it hard to believe that this is because women have not spoken up. These are some of the ideas that informed my first blog post and had led me to inquire further about this matter. What I’ve gleaned from all of this is that while there are still certainly many ways in which Muslim women are oppressed, I still suffer from a male gaze that has the reverse effect of perceiving most anything that seems separate as being oppressive. Through conversations that I’ve had with Muslim women, I’ve learned that not all practices which may seem divisive or exclusionary are quite what they seem. For example, one image that struck me was that of women having to worship separately from men. While this struck me at first as being undoubtedly discriminatory, I’ve learned that there are some benefits that women can attest to that arise from having separate spaces for things such as prayer. While I still question the premise of some of these unequal – in the sense that men and women are merely afforded differing experiences – practices, I do see that there is much more to be uncovered about this topic.

 

My next post was a graphic design that I’d created in order to represent the prophethood of  Muhammad and the divine process of prophethood in general. One thing that I’d found interesting during this course was the willingness of Muslims to acknowledge the past existence of other prophets from other religions.

 

“Say: we believe in God and what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes, and in what was given to Moses, Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between one and another among them and to Him (God) do we submit (literally, we are submitters “muslims”)”

  • Qur’an 3:84

 

Similarly, I found it interesting that the Qur’an recognizes itself as just one of the holy texts – the others being those texts used by Christians and Jews. Being a Christian myself, the self-recognition of the Qur’an as being just one of the scriptures revered by those deemed as “people of the book” helped further my understanding of the religion itself, but also the prophet Muhammad.

 

Muhammad served many different purposes as prophet which include being a messenger of God, a moral authority figure, a guide, and an interceder between those on Earth and God. In many ways, these are functions that were also served by prophets like Jesus. However, the main difference between these figures is that Muslims worshipped and venerated Muhammad much more extensively than Christians do Jesus. In many ways, Muhammad was regarded as a “walking Qur’an”. Additionally, the tradition of Hadiths made it even more prevalent for Muslims to follow not only the teachings of Muhammad, but the way in which he carried out his life. Learning about Islam by studying the prophethood of Muhammad – as one amongst many prophets sent by God – helped shape my understanding of Islam in that it made the religion relatable. Because of the linearity between prophets Muhammad, Jesus, Abraham, and others that I’d recognized, I could draw meaningful comparisons which made my learning experience much more valuable.

 

One of my favorite blog posts to create was this third one about the Qur’an as music. I wasn’t even remotely aware of the aesthetics of the Qur’an that made it so beautiful to not only read, but listen to as well. I’d learned this first in class while we were listening to some Qur’anic recitations. Though there were several aspects of the sound quality which I hadn’t yet understood (e.g. cadence, vibrato, etc.), there was an undeniable affinity for the overall style of recitation that resonated with me and transcended my previous notions about traditional practices of vocal expression. For example, one convention of traditional Qur’anic recitation is to ensure that one’s expression of the text is void of any cadence or imposed rhythm, as anything otherwise is forbidden. Instead, rhythm and melody are meant to be imposed spontaneously by the reciter and “inspired by the text and the moment” (Nelson 41).

 

At first, I was excited to learn more about the different forms of musical expression of the Qur’an that might exist. After reading Kristina Nelson’s “Reciter and Listener: Some Factors Shaping the Mujawwad Style of Qur’anic Reciting” – one of our suggested lecture readings – I’d learned just how polemical this topic was in the Muslim world. I’ve since learned that “Attempts have been made to regulate both the behavior of reciter and listener and the sound of Qur’anic recitation….in an effort to keep recitation separate from music” (Nelson 41). This separation of music from Islam was also seen in a video clip shown in one of the later lectures of the course. The Sufi Rock singer Salman Ahmad was shown in a documentary called “Rockstar and the Mullahs”. During one part of the documentary, there is a scene of Salman speaking to a mullah who was stubbornly against the idea of making music. The mullah explains in the video that making music is essentially immoral and insights unruly behavior. Instead, the mullah explains that in order to be a good Muslim one must keep women at home, chop off the hands of thieves, and stone adulterers to death. Hearing these words from a mullah were a bit striking to me. However, they helped me understand just how deeply rooted and prevalent some of these beliefs are. As an outsider to the religion, I do not think it is my place to make a judgement on this matter. However, as a musician I can say that music has always been a trusted outlet for my expression. Learning about the Islam through the lens of music has taught me of the beauty of the Qur’an and its potential to be more than just the text. Additionally, I’ve now learned about some of the limiting factors of this religion and how it affects those who practice the religion but still engage in the forbidden act of performing music.

 

My next post was about the Iranian holiday of Nowruz. Originally, this was just a small point made at the beginning of lecture. It wasn’t until that I’d begun to notice that many of my own friends also recognized the holiday as well. Soon after, I’d even begun to see many of my favorite music artists and actors were also expressing their public support on social media for the holiday as they celebrated with their families. Nowruz, which falls on the first day of Spring, is regarded by many Muslims as the beginning of the new year. Each year, on the vernal equinox, people gather for a celebration that includes Haji Firouz – their version of Santa Claus – giving out gifts and shaking his tambourine, jumping over fire to symbolize burning away the bad energy from the new year, thorough spring cleanings, and other customs. Though this was a relatively small piece of my learning experience during this class, I think that it helped show me that one of the beautiful aspects of this religion is its ability to acknowledge the world around it and celebrate them. In the same way that Islam recognizes the existence of other religions and prophets, it also recognizes the natural rejuvenation of our earth as the beginning of their year.

 

In the spirit of recognizing the beauty in nature, my next post is about The Conference of the Birds. This story is about a gathering of birds from across the world where they discuss who is to be their next leader. One bird, the hoopoe, suggests that the best candidate to serve as their leader would be the mysterious Simorghe. After a short time, all of the birds venture on a journey through several valleys that include trials and tests which ends up truncating the group to 30 by the time they reach the dwelling place of the Simorghe. When they finally discover who is to be the next leader, they realize that the leaders they were looking for were within themselves. The story was written by Farid Ud-Din Attar, a twelfth century Persian poet.  One of the great things that I’ve found about this story have been its ability to remain relevant. Firstly, I think that the overall message is incredibly relevant today and to my own life experience. Secondly, its relevance is even further proven because it has been adapted to modern times in various forms. Peter Sis, a MacArthur fellow and Caldecott award winner adapted the story for an adult book. In addition to adapting it to an adult book, there are numerous illustrations of scenes from the book which are incredibly beautiful and serve as additional indicators of the book’s versatility.

 

 

 

As a final example of this story’s adaptability, there is the matter of the play that myself and all of my classmates were afforded the opportunity of attending towards the end of the semester. The ANIKAYA Dance Theater conducted an entire performance of the story which featured dancers who posed as birds throughout the entire performance. I felt this experience was most interesting as I yet again was exposed to another entry point with which to engage with such engaging material.

 

 

My final blog post was about the role of black America in the world of Islam. As a young African-American male, my ethnic identity has always played a pivotal role in the way I’ve interacted with the world around me. I say this to clarify why this topic is of such relevance to my own life. Malcolm X had always been a figure that I’d looked up to growing up because of the countless lessons I’d received about how radical he was in the civil rights movement. However, I’d always known very little about Malcolm’s involvement in the Nation of Islam and the Muslim world at large.

 

The Nation of Islam was started by Wallace D. Fard in 1930 in Detroit, Michigan. After he’d disappeared shortly after in 1934, Elijah Muhammad became the organization’s new leader. While proclaiming himself as a prophet, and Fard as Allah, he began building the organization out to become one of the most influential ethnocentric groups of its time. The organization consisted of several other smaller programs which included the Temple of Islam, schools for children, and the Fruit of Islam. All of its followers had to abide by a strict dress and moral code. There was to be no use of illicit drugs and men were to always dress respectably. One of the most famous converts of the Nation of Islam was Malcolm X, who became the organization’s spokesmen for a time. Reading Malcolm X’s autobiography was the one piece of this lesson which again gave me a new window into understanding this religion. Malcolm starts out idolizing Elijah Muhammad, but learns later of the “true Islam” that he is not getting exposure to. The Nation of Islam abided by many of the traditional Islamic tenants, but also incorporated other beliefs. For example, the Nation of Islam believes in the former existence of a scientist named Yacub, who is said to have created the Caucasian race through experimentation. In the final parts of Malcolm’s autobiography, he talks about his pilgrimage to Mecca and his discovery of “true Islam”. Reading as Malcolm questions his own conceptions of his faith to a religion which he believes he may not fully know is incredibly engaging. His decision to free himself to learn more about Islam is also liberating textually as we now get an opportunity to experience Malcolm’s first interactions with true Islam with him. Learning about Islam through the eyes of someone who I’ve looked up to has helped make the experience all the more relatable and impactful.

 

Overall, my experience in this course has been one that has incorporated a diverse set of learning experiences. All six of these perspectives on Islam has challenged my conceptions of various fields of thought. Through art, media, poetry, and various other methods, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about this beautifully diverse religion. I am greatful to have had the opportunity to be a part of this learning experience this semester.

 

 

References

 

Staff, NPR, and Peter Sis. “In ‘Birds,’ Sis Makes A Dream World For Grown-Ups.” NPR, NPR, 16 Nov. 2011, www.npr.org

 

X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965. Print.

 

Wadud, Amina. Quran and Woman. Fajar Bakti, 1994.

 

“THE ROCK STAR AND THE MULLAHS (2003, UK, 56 Mins).” Vimeo, 28 Apr. 2018, vimeo.com

 

Nelson, Kristina. “Reciter and Listener: Some Factors Shaping the Mujawwad Style of Qur’anic Reciting.” Ethnomusicology, vol. 26, no. 1, 1982, pp. 41–47. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org

 

ʻAṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn, et al. The Conference of the Birds. Penguin Books, 1984.

Islam in Black America

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This week, I decided to get creative with my logo-making skills. I spent a lot of time for the Office of Student Life and for the Harvard Black Men’s Forum employing my visual creativity skills to create logos for different events, organizations, partnerships, and more. I decided that for this post, I would take a stab at what an alternative logo for the Nation of Islam might look like.

Today’s lecture about Islam in the black community brought me back to a class I’d taken with Professor Marla Friedrick called “Islam in Black America”. As one might expect, much of this class included discussions about the Nation of Islam and its most prominent figure – Malcolm X. Much of what was discussed during professor Asani’s lecture was already quite familiar to me. For example, I’d known much about the original Muslims that’d first arrived to the United States from Africa by way of the slave trade. I found the discussion about the nature of the Islam that the Nation of Islam was teaching to be most interesting. Elijah Muhammad, the head of the Nation of Islam for a time, taught his followers to live strict lifestyles. The goals of the organization were certainly more fixated on ethnic empowerment. When Malcolm X joined, he ended up rising up in the ranks of the organization and became a spokesmen. It wasn’t until Malcolm went on his Hajj – pilgrimage to Mecca – that he learned of what was described to him at times as “true Islam” (Malcolm X 325). Reading as Malcolm questions his own conceptions of his faith to a religion which he believes he may not fully know is incredibly engaging. His decision to free himself to learn more about Islam is also liberating textually as we now get an opportunity to experience Malcolm’s first interactions with true Islam with him.

X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965. Print.

Conference of the Birds

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For this blog post, I chose to use photography as an outlet again and use myself as the subject. This time, I used the imagery from The Conference of the Birds to inspire this shot I had a friend of mine take. I then used photo editing to create the reflection that relates to the part of the story where the birds learn that the leader they were looking for was within themselves all along.

Some time ago we focused on a story entitled The Conference of the Birds. It is a piece of Persian literature by the poet Farid ud-Din Attar. In this epic poem, the birds of the world all gather and realize that they must decide who will be their new leader, as there currently is none. After intense discussion the hoopoe, a bird known for his wisdom, suggests that they find the Simorgh – a bird of legend. One line from the poem mentions that, “If Simorgh unveils its face to you, you will find that all the birds….are but the shadows cast by that unveiling.” In order to find the Simorgh, the hoopoe warns that the birds must journey through seven valleys that all include various trials and tests. Numerous birds end up embarking on the trip and they encounter each valley one by one, but only thirty birds make it to the end. At the conclusion of this journey, the birds learn that the leader they were looking for was within themselves all along. This is communicated through the imagery of the birds looking at their own reflections in the lake of the dwelling place of the Simorgh.

 

I found this story to be most impressive in its ability to tell so many different sub stories which are all connected so well. The poem manages to effectively teach a large amount of lessons in a single text. In some ways, I think that this story has also helped me to reflect on my understanding of Islam as I navigate this course. I think that one of the most important things I’ve learned of this religion is its ability to inform so many different kinds of conversations. However, what differs in this comparison is the sometimes contradictory nature of certain conclusions drawn from a belief informed by an Islamic perspective. I think that this was made especially evident in the discussion we had in class today about the Sufi rock performer, Salman Ahmad, who could not understand how the mullahs and himself had reached such polarizing positions on the matter of the role of music in Islam.

 

 

 

ʻAṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn, et al. The Conference of the Birds. Penguin Books, 1984.

Nowruz in Photograph

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Today, Cambridge was blessed with some unusually beautiful weather. It’s not every day in March when the temperatures rise to sixty-five degrees and clouds disappear from the sky. In appreciation of this great weather, I decided to grab my camera and take pictures of the beauty all around me. As I was taking pictures, I was reminded of Nowruz – the Persian holiday that marks the beginning of the new year. I remember the topic of our lecture on the 21st of March which began with a short discussion about this holiday celebrated by many Muslims across the world.

 

Nowruz is the name of the Iranian New Year. It is the day of the vernal equinox. It marks the beginning of spring in the Northern hemisphere. The now  translates to “new” and the ruz translates to “year” in the Persian language. It is a holiday celebrated widely by diverse ethnic and religious groups. I have attached a link to a website that details some of the ways in which Nowruz is celebrated. In sum, Haji Firouz – a Santa Claus of sorts – gives out gifts and plays his tambourine, people gather to jump over fire, engage in thorough spring cleanings, and much more. I especially liked this holiday because I’d never thought to just how much sense it makes for the new year to actually begin then. I also think it highlights the beauty of the start of a new year by placing it on a day that marks the beginning of nature’s revival.

 

 

 

 

 

How to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year, like a pro

Qur’an as Music

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I’ve found that my interest in the Qur’an heightened very quickly when I realized that there was such an aesthetic to the text. While it is still magnificent as a piece of literature, I’ve learned in class of just how much more it is than that. The Qur’an truly is a moving piece of work when listened to from those who know how to recite. As a musician myself, I do truly appreciate the musical quality of the recitations that I heard in class and have now begun to listen to on my own. Most notably, the use of vibrato reminds me of my time as a saxophone player. It was an accepted standard of musicality that vibrato be used as often as possible where appropriate. I find this same use of vibrato to be almost nostalgic. Unfortunately, I am incapable of replicating that on the piano (my first instrument), but I’ve attached an audio recording of a short piece I composed that was inspired by some of the recitations that I’d listened to. I modeled this piece in hope of replicating some of the stylistic elements of recitation that I’ve noticed: meaningful pauses, legato tones, and unpredictable rhythmic patterns. While I’m unaware as to whether these are the actual standards by which recitation is performed, these are some of the observations I’d made after listening to some videos on Youtube (back at it again).

As you’ll also notice, in my audio recording, I’ve incorporated some elements of my own style which are present in some of the more jazz-esque riffs. However, I’ve tried to keep with the idea of using noticeably tense chords with unpredictable resolutions.

 

I also apologize for the crying baby. I was playing in Leverett Common Room, which is a public space and one of the tutors’ families were in there with their child.

Muhammad and the Qur’an

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The story of Muhammad and the Qur’an are quite interesting to me, as it pertains to our class discussions, because of the equivalence that is drawn between the Prophet Muhammad and other prophets. As is written in Professor Asani’s Infidel of Love in Chapter 3, “Muhammad was sent by God as the ‘bringer of good tidings'”. I’d never previously thought of Muhammad in the same way as I’d though of Jesus, but in reality they are quite similar figures. However, the one difference that makes all the difference is the role of the prophet in the deliverance of the word of God. While Jesus performed miracles and spoke the word of God in the way he carried out his life, Muhammad did so through the gift of the Qur’an. It was for this gift, that he was regarded as a “shining lamp”. Though, in lecture Professor Asani also mentions how Muhammad was seen as living out the Qur’an as well.

“You have indeed in the Messenger of God a beautiful model (uswatun hasana) for any who hopes in God and the hereafter and remembers Allah much.” (Quran 33:21)

This can essentially be interpreted as meaning that Muhammad exemplified and lived out the teachings of the Qur’an in his own life.

For my art piece, I chose to use a graphic design tool, though a bit novice, in order to demonstrate what I thought was an artistic representation of the transfer of the Qur’an. I’ve placed Muhammad, the human figure, atop a mountain peak in order to represent how close to God he was imagined to be. From the clouds, there comes down the knowledge of the Qur’an, which is represented in the image of a human head. Between that and the human figure is a book. I’ve used this book to demonstrate the transfer of the Qur’an from consciousness to text. Though, I should note that the Qur’an was not transferred to a text until after Muhammad had already passed I believe.

I also thought that this image was even more interesting as it can easily be modified. In the background, I’ve placed transparent writings of the word “allah” in order to make it clear that this is related to Islam. However, in the spirit of connecting Muhammad and Jesus, one could change the word to “God” and it could also symbolize the transfer of the word of God from the divine world to Jesus in the physical world.

Women In Islam

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For my first blog post, I found it necessary to delve into one of the questions which I found most troubling: what is the role of women in the Islamic faith? This week in lecture Professor Asani pointed out some of the  disparities which occur due to the implementation of, at least seemingly, sexist practices within the religion of Islam. These disparities play out differently depending on where in the world you are. In Saudi Arabia, the injustices that women face are some of the most aggressive. In other countries, it is less so the case. One thing that struck me was the “necessity” to separate women from men during worship. As the professor explained this, it was because women were “distracting”. In order to better understand this matter, I took to Youtube (quite naturally).

 

This video explains that though there are certain practices in the Islamic faith that make women seem as if they are subordinates, I am still puzzled. The narrator makes mention to the fact that there are several passages in the Qur’an which mention quite explicitly the fair treatment of women. However, I’m not quite  sure how to reconcile this with the practical implementation and rationalization of certain practices like segregated worship services, laws [in certain countries] that limit the autonomy of women, and so forth.

All the while, this research reminds me of an English teacher I used to have in the 11th grade, who was a practicing Muslim woman. I think back to the day in class in which she made specific reference to her religion and to rumors that had been going around our class that she was being treated unjustly by her husband. She said, “….and just because I wear hijab does not mean that I am oppressed. You all need not worry….”. My questions moving forward are certainly going to be pointed toward the social implications of Islam and how it manifests itself around the world. I also hope that for this mosque project, that I can create a fully functional and multipurpose mosque SOLELY for women.

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