Introduction: How Does Love Unite Us?

Like many, I have a 9/11 story. I was a high school junior in Boulder, Colorado, and that day permanently popped the “Boulder Bubble” I’d been inside. Naive to global politics but deeply affected, I spent the rest of the school year leading a wearable art project with 150 middle school students in response. It was called “An American Dream: Discovering Unity in the Face of Tragedy.” Each kid decorated a denim jacket to express their thoughts and feelings. I photographed each of them in their jackets and made towers of the photographs to represent our united diversity. We had a big exhibition of the towers and the jackets, and we sold the latter to raise money for New York City middle schoolers near Ground Zero. Here is a picture:

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Ten years later, I was living in New York, feeling dissatisfied by my budding nonprofit career. I didn’t want to become a fundraiser; I wanted to do things that united communities through the arts—like that project we had done after 9/11. So I enrolled in a couple of classes at NYU, including one called Creative Programming for Arts Institutions. I ended up being assigned a project to design opening activities for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at Ground Zero. I proposed a slate of public programs centered on uniting the community through song. School choirs from around lower Manhattan were to perform a Sunday Sunset series of songs focused on unity, healing, hope, and growth. Here is a slide from my final presentation:

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Two years later, I finally realized that my interest in uniting communities was more than passing. I applied to Harvard Divinity School with the express intention of fostering diverse and meaningful community through creative collaboration.

On this whole journey, and in my first two years at HDS, I never studied Islam. Though I dismissed the rhetoric that blamed all Muslims for 9/11, and lamented this country’s rising Islamophobia, I also had no idea that unity in diversity – the very thing I was seeking – was at the heart of Muslim faith. Discovering the spiritual foundations of Islam has been, for me, the great joy—and long overdue lesson—of this course.

I have chosen to focus my blog on that discovery process. In particular, I have sought to explore and reflect upon the unifying force of divine love that has been a touchstone of our semester. I remember our first section in which Ceyhun asked if any of us could recall the course title. It is not every day that one signs up for an experience with such a lofty (and promising) name! For the Love of God and His Prophet…Even after years in divinity school, it struck me that this was to be a different kind of course, one that engaged with history and politics and doctrine, yes, but also, deeply, with devotion. That here we would examine religion, literature, and the arts in Muslim cultures through the lens of love.

At least, that has been my lens, and I invite you to share it as you take in the following posts and creative gestures. Each is a statement of inspiration, and taken together, they represent my journey into the heart of Islam this semester. I tried to be practical in my questions about love in Islam. How is love working as a force to unite communities? What is the role of the arts in that work? Precisely how is the love of God seen, felt, practiced, articulated, illustrated, experienced, and artistically expressed? In particular, I was interested in the forms and tropes of love in relationship. Is God lover, master, father, mother, friend? King? Hidden yet searchable self? Endlessly unknowable other? And how do the answers to these questions impact relationships  on the human scale? What does the Qur’an say about the way we are to be with each other, and how has that manifested across time and place and communities of faith? What is our individual and collective aspiration? How do we make it so?

The creative arts turned out to be an ideal avenue down which to explore these questions, since so many of the responses ultimately hinge upon the act of co-creation. Poets, activists, imams, politicians, rappers, scholars—all had something to say, or show, about creativity. For Iqbal it was change agency, for Mipsterz it was self-expression. The journey of this course was a journey of creative inquiry: into God as creator, the arts as creation, the inner life as source, and the outer life as inspiration.

Here is an overture of how that journey unfolded, theme by theme:

The first and overarching theme was the power of God’s love to unite diversity. It came up almost right away, as Professor Asani introduced us to constructions of Islam and the difference between Islam with a big “I” and islam with a little “i”. This is the focus of my first post. The theme continued to reverberate and gain momentum all semester, as we explored Islamic architecture, calligraphy, music, art, and literature from across time and place. The film, Koran by Heart, was an amazing example of young people from all over the world, and with hugely divergent life experience, coming together to recite the Qur’an. Their diversity was maintained and celebrated, as they each brought something different to the recitation, or Tajwid, but was united by the shared goal of memorizing and recounting God’s word. This mostly-positive example brought some counter-examples into stark relief. Our guest lecture on the Bosnian War was a particularly devastating study of the opposite case: of a wholesale effort to stamp out diversity and impose a standardized worldview, with resultant genocide, horrific violence, and cultural devastation. The example of Saudi Arabia provided a similar contrast, in which the government attempts to control every aspect of Muslim identity and practice.

These examples highlight the fact that, embedded in the theme of unity in diversity, is the notion of unity being different from uniformity: that we do not have to see or think alike in order to be spiritually alike and connected as participants in God’s creation. In my second post, I tried to ground this theme in the power of everyday love as a counter-force to oppressive attempts at uniformity. I tried to show how personal expressions of love, when joined together, are even more beautiful and powerful than when taken alone. This is how I experienced our exploration of Muslim calligraphy and architecture. Each expression was personal, different, and unique, but commonalities and patterns emerged – both within cultures, and across cultures – when they were studied together.

My third post furthers the theme of patterns as a mark of the divine. I was struck by the sheer volume of nature symbolism in Islamic art and especially Sufi poetry, and the debate over representation versus decoration versus something more profound, like pattern as a gesture toward the infinite and unrepresentable spiritual plane. I try to capture some of that conversation in my post. It seems that pattern is an important consideration in fostering religious community. Elements like ritual and tradition are part of what facilitate a sense of unity and belonging, but can also become calcified and rigid. Patterns of conduct and aesthetic, it strikes me, are simultaneously necessary and important to hold in balance with individual initiative. I think of The Conference of the Birds, in which each bird has a different excuse to not to go on the journey. Each one needs to be held accountable to a higher standard of conduct, yet each one is unique and, therefore, must follow a different path to find the divine. But, like us, they are strengthened by journeying together.

This leads me to the importance of devotion in finding one’s personal path toward God. This is the subject of my fourth post, and was one of my favorite lessons in our course. I knew very little about Sufism before this semester, nor did I know the story of Mi’raj and Isra’ in the mystical account of the Prophet Muhammed’s journey to see the face of God. We saw many beautiful artistic depictions of the Prophet’s ascent to the highest heaven, but more importantly for me, this story opened up a portal of possibility for all individual Muslims and, I’d venture, for all individuals who wish to know God. That is the possibility of spiritual ascent – of ascending toward God by living a life the way the Prophet lived. Here again I wish to highlight the interplay of individual devotion and community life. For the Prophet’s virtue was revealed in both his intimacy with God and his service to others.

My fifth post builds on the theme of becoming Godlike by growing in love. I was especially inspired to learn about Pakistan’s national poet, Allama Iqbal, and his vision for actualizing individual potential. With this piece, I wish to highlight themes from the course around the role of nations in the construction of religious identity, and the challenges of growing in love in the midst of international politics that include the use and misuse of authority. To bring back the context of 9/11, it was poignant to read and watch The Reluctant Fundamentalist and to try to make sense of how entire cultures can shift so dramatically based on a single incident, such that an individual like Changez becomes the locus of a whole nation’s fear. What does it look like for Changez to grow in love, to grow toward God, when alienated by those who once purported to love him?

My response to this, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a call to creativity. My final post is a design for sacred space. It is both a reflection on our in-class partner exercise and an invitation to the reader to reflect likewise: What is sacred for you? What is sacred for your friends, family, and loved ones? I hope to provide my own example as an offering to expand the conversation. To learn what is sacred to another person, we need to ask. To learn most anything about another person, we need to ask. I make this case for curiosity because I think that is what is needed to overcome the alienation, phobia, and violence that has come about in America since 9/11 – not to mention, what it will take for each of us to grow in love and toward God. But I will let you read and consider for yourself.

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Week 1: We Are More Love Together

Vocal composition in four-part harmony

This piece is inspired by Professor Asani’s book, Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam. The poetic trope of an “infidel of love” was one of the first and most exciting ideas I internalized from our course. In particular, I was inspired by this passage from Professor Asani’s introduction:

By relating to God through passionate, yearning and longing love, an individual can become so transformed that he is purified of all egotistical tendencies and becomes God- centric…love is such a powerful transformative force that it transcends socially constructed categories such as Muslim and Hindu which no longer have any significance…In this sense, the term “infidel of love” serves as a badge of true faith and challenges the narrow construction of religion as a static sociopolitical identity (14).

The idea of God’s love transcending narrow constructions of religious identity, is profoundly resonant to me. It is intricately connected to the ideas we learned early in the course about the difference between ‘islam’ and ‘Islam’. In Arabic, the word ‘islam’ means submission and the word ‘muslim’ means one who submits. Professor Asani explained that the inclusive term ‘islam’ was used to denote all who submit to God, including those who come to know God through Abraham and Jesus. Abraham himself would be ‘muslim’ by this understanding, even though he predates the Prophet Muhammed. But as the religion espoused by Muhammed became politicized and shaped by issues of empire, geographic dominion, and authority claims, a more exclusive ‘Islam’ emerged. (As is, of course, similarly the case with other religious identities!)

Even though ‘Islam’ now refers to a specific group of those who submit to God, even the dominant understanding of Islam – namely, as a religion defined by knowing God through the revelation of the Prophet Muhammed, the last and greatest of the prophets – does not do justice to its internal diversity. Professor Asani explained how the Five Pillars, which came from the Hadith of Gabriel and are therefore extra-Qur’anic, are not agreed upon even among Muslims. Some say there are seven. This goes to show that Islam – that “narrow construction of religion,” as an infidel of love might accuse – has emerged in many forms over centuries, as the result of cultural forces, and is not original to the times of the Prophet himself.

With this in mind, I was inspired to celebrate the inclusive term ‘islam’ and the possibility of transcending social constructs, and their divisiveness, through the transformative force of love. The lyrics of this song, “We are more love together,” and the interwoven voices, attempt to honor a simple truth about the power of coming together to relate to God and each other through love.

 

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Week 2: Love in Action

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Collage of greeting cards 

I assembled this piece in response to the spiritual message of Islamic calligraphy as it is so beautifully portrayed by Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Islamic Art and Spirituality. I was moved by the idea that Quranic calligraphy “issues at once from the Islamic revelation and represents the response of the soul of the Islamic peoples to the Divine Message” (18). Coming into our course, I knew that the Qur’an had a special status among Muslims, which was more elevated than that of a sacred text. But Nasr helped me to understand the depth of this relationship; of the Quran as “the ‘Mother of Books’ (Umm al-kitab), the ‘Book’ containing the inexhaustible possibilities of Divine Creativity” (17).

From this reading, I learned a now-favorite saying: ‘Calligraphy is the geometry of the Spirit’. The idea that calligraphy presents the Word of God in the visible world, but remains wedded to the world of the spirit, is what inspired my thinking for this piece (18). I began to think of the Quran as God’s love letter to the world, and of the robust and widespread art of calligraphy, as a love letter back to God. Beyond its decorative qualities, adorning everything from ceramics to the interiors of secular spaces like stores, I became curious about the active qualities of calligraphy. That the art of writing becomes a practice of reminder: of God reminding us of his love, and of the spirit that imbues our visible world, while the calligrapher reminds God of his or her devotion and reminds others of the love of God.

This piece is assembled from greeting cards that I have received from friends and family over the years of graduate school. Each one contains a message of love, and assembled, they are even more beautiful than they are alone. I think of them as a collective gesture toward the geometry of love, and of the interconnections among loved ones as sacred facets of Divine Creativity.

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Week 6: Love Patterns

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Photography

Here I have in mind two things: First, the mystical dimension of the ayat: that all creation is a ‘sign’ of God that refers to God’s grandeur, and the many poets who describe nature in this way. Second, and moreso, I think of Gülru Necipoğlu’s book, The Topkapi Scroll–Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture. In her discourse on the geometric ‘arabesque,’ she systematically refutes prevailing Western interpretations of architectural and decorative arts that import a methodological framework so as to fragment, appropriate, ‘other’, and dismiss the art of the Islamic East (66). Her survey is rigorous and critical, finding much to be desired from studies “characterized by sweeping generalizations unsubstantiated by concrete data” (80). She wants to honor the multiplicity of artistic forms, in their cultural contexts, and both avoid and point out essentialism on the part of scholars.

I tend to be more aligned with Seyyed Hossein Nasr (who I got to portray in our section debate!), insofar as I do think there is an underlying spiritual unity to the multiplicity of artistic forms, and that this stems from the inner life of each individual connecting, through the creative act, to a shared and ultimate source. However, I think that Necipoğlu actually does a better job of illustrating the multiplicity of which that beauty is comprised, through her detailed analysis. I was struck by Al-Faruqi’s description in particular, of the arabesque as a representation of God’s infinity. To him, far from being contentless, it seeks an aesthetic of inexpressibility: derived from and pointing toward the transcendent (76).

In this photograph, I attempted to depict the conversation about artistry with an assemblage of patterns: some human, some divine. The tree is overgrowing the wall and cracking the tiles in the sidewalk. My point is, first, that there are many patterns and one God. But while the world is marked by a combination of divine and human handiwork, ultimately it is God’s artistry that is lasting. As we debate back and forth about meaning and craft, the tree just grows and grows.

 

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Week 7: Devotional Love

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Colored pencil and paper cutouts

This was one of my favorite weeks of the semester, and one of my favorite pieces to make. In John Renard’s Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims, he makes a study of Islamic spiritual and religious tradition that “emphasizes the importance of experience and of the relationships among human beings, and between human beings and God, as Muslims have understood them” (xiii). His inquiry treats spirituality as a more specific framework than the broader culture tends to provide. For him it is that dimension of a religious-cultural tradition (in this case, Islam), that is focused “on the unfolding experience of a relationship, expressed both individually and communally, between the person and the source and goal of that person’s existence” (xiii). And religious life becomes then all “pious practice and creative endeavor that is inspired by and fosters spiritual growth” (xiv).

As one who studies spirituality and religious life across traditions, I have rarely encountered such a useful taxonomy of the two concepts. Renard uses it to enter seven so-called doors to Islam: foundations, devotion, inspiration, aesthetics, community, pedagogy, and experience. Here I am peering into the second door of devotion.

Light has been a constant theme for this course. I feel the Qur’anic verse to which we have most returned is the so-called Light Verse, or the 35th verse of the 24th Sura, which lends itself to both mystical contemplation and practical application, as in the many works of art and architecture depicting a lamp in a niche. I was inspired for this piece by Renard’s section on prayer, in which he quotes a prayer that was apparently a favorite of Muhammed’s:

Oh God make a light in my heart and a light in my tongue. Make a light in my ear; and make a light in my eye, make a light in back of me and a light in front of me; make a light above me. O God give me light (52).

The candles represent individual lights, which are all aspiring to become like and united with the divine flame. The bird is a nod to The Conference of the Birds, and its reminder that this light lives within each of us.

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Week 11: Growing in Love

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Colored pencil on paper

This piece is inspired by the poetry of Allama Iqbal and his vision of growing Godward. The flowers are unfolding and reaching toward the sun, and each individual unfolds in the journey toward the divine.

In his chapter called “Iqbal and His Message” in his book, The Pursuit of Urdu Literature: A Select History, Ralph Russell describes Iqbal’s emphasis that “creation is a continuous and eternally continuing process and that we are, and always will be, called upon to work alongside God in the work of creation” (178). In order to fulfill the role that God has ordained for us, we need to develop our self, or khudi, which is our full potentialities for positive action. We need to both discover these potentialities and then make full use of them (177).

I was intrigued by the differing concepts of self in Islam, and especially the two that were exemplified by Iqbal in his poetry and Attar of Nishapur in The Conference of the Birds. As Professor Asani helped us to understand, the concept of khudi as used by Iqbal is of each individual as an agent of creation. In this view, my responsibility as a person is to qualify myself with the qualities of God; to self-actualize and, in the process, to unite with God and change the course of time. It is a very action-oriented conception of selfhood. By contrast, the concept of nafs as used by Attar is of an ego that must be annihilated. As we see in The Conference of the Birds, an orientation toward individual action is actually misconceived. The quest for enlightenment yields the discovery that we are all part of God all along, and must learn to destroy the ego which separates us from the experience of oneness with the divine.

Since both concepts of self draw on Sufi discourse, I wondered about how they might co-exist. As I drew this image, I mused about how a journey toward self-actualization would inevitably require shedding the ego. Journeying toward God would require forgetting oneself in service of others.

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Week 13: The Form of Love

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Oil pastel on paper with digital enhancement

I will never forget the exercise we did with Maryam Eskandari. It was so simple: We turned to a neighbor and asked them where they find sacred space, then designed a space that would be sacred for them.

Yet somehow this exercise quietly defied much of the dominant discourse around religion. The question did not ask about sacred space in their religious tradition, much less about standardized architectural elements that comprise such space. Even if my partner had belonged to a religious tradition, the question did not assume that an official house of worship would be the place – or the only place – that he found sacred. Instead, it treated sacred as personal.

I was inspired to design a personally sacred space, building on this exercise and on the work of Oleg Grabar in his article, “Symbols and Signs in Islamic Architecture”. After examining various symbols and signs, Grabar opens the possibility that symbolism is not inherent to the design but is the result of human action in the building. Then he, too, arrives at a question:  “Can one extend the point and propose that the true uniqueness of the Muslim visual system lies not in the forms it takes but in the relationship it creates, indeed compels, for its users?” (31).

This made me think about the relationship that a space creates. In the case of sacred space, I thought about the relationship it creates to other people and to God. My hope is that it brings people closer to both. At least, this is what I have tried to do in the sketch above. It is a fountain built of three concentric circles of azure blue tiles. Meant as an immersive experience, the water that emerges from the center rises to surround all who enter. I remember Professor Asani asking offhandedly one day: What is the sound of God? I think it is something like falling water. I wish to immerse people in the sound of God as they approach the center of the fountain, which represents the approach to the divine. The journey goes from material body to spiritual heart. In the process, one circles with others, representing the fact that this journey to find God cannot be undertaken alone.

Here I show the sketch in three different variations, representing the experience at different times of day.

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