Antiphon

Creative responses to ideas in Islamic art

Introductory Essay

When choosing the title for this blog, I wanted something that gave the reader a taste of what they would be reading before they started. This blog is primarily about responses to themes in Islamic art or culture, so that was the main idea I was looking to convey. I searched for a word with the perfect meaning and came across Antiphon. The first definition from dictionary.com reads “a psalm, hymn, or prayer sung in alternate parts.” At first glance this didn’t seem to be what I was looking for, but an alternate definition reads “any response or answer.” The word has Greek roots and is obviously rooted in religion, specifically that of Christianity. I thought this was a very interesting representation of where I am coming from when writing these blog posts. I grew up Catholic and went to a Catholic high school, but I haven’t practiced religion for a number of years. Being away from the homogenous community I grew up in has helped me to realize how little I knew about other religions. This blog documents my journey to understanding more about Islam as a religion, a political ideology, and an important influence on culture. Because of this, the posts are very diverse and explore a range of topics.

The uniting factor in this blog is context. Just as knowing the context for my writing of these posts is important for their interpretation, the context of each piece or theme I reflected on is important for understanding the meaning. One of my main takeaways from this class has been the cultural studies approach. The cultural studies approach takes context into account when studying a religion. It looks at typically excluded voices and incorporates them into a more diverse discussion about the religion. As Professor Asani says in the first chapter of Infidel of Love, it “helps us weave the voices of poets, novelists, short-story writers, folk musicians, and rock stars along with those of clerics, theologians, mystics, scholars, and politicians” to create a rich, inclusive, and complete picture of Islam. The cultural studies approach gives just as much importance to the context in which the work is made as to the work itself.

For example, Muslims are routinely outlined as following the five pillars of Islam: recite the shahada, the profession of faith; perform the salat, the ritual prayer 5 times per day; give the sakat, a portion of income for charity; observe sawm, the daylight fast during Ramadan; and participate in at least one pilgrimage to Mecca. But the Qur’an actually does not mention the five pillars in a defining way, and in different hadiths, the number of pillars is contested. If we were to take a cultural studies approach to this, we would think about the context of the pillars becoming this dominant identifier of Muslim faith. We would ask: who promoted this definition and what power did they claim to do this? What were the bases with which they decided five and not four or six pillars? And why was caring for your parents excluded?

Geography, politics, culture, art, traditions and more shape religion, so those factors must be a key part of any study of religion. Even the way we traditionally think of religion as uniform, homogenous groups is problematic. Religion is always changing as the people who practice it change, so it can’t be defined so squarely. We use this approach specifically to talk about art in Islam, but I think it would be beneficial to use this approach to study art, history, literature, and politics within any culture or religion.

The first art response I completed was that for my post titled “Listen.” One of the first topics we discussed in class was how the word of the Quran affects those who listen to it. If you speak Arabic and can understand the words, the experience is different than for someone like me who can only listen to the mood of the piece, but each of those experiences can be whole and meaningful. I came up with the idea to capture the experience of listening to a Quran recitation in an art piece. I thought about many different types of media and eventually decided photography was the best way to capture something so intimate and subtle. I took some of my block-mates aside, one by one, and played for them a recitation from my phone. They didn’t know what I was going to play, only that they would hear something and I would take a picture of them as they heard it. The result was a beautiful mix of facial expressions, which are shown in my art piece. The interesting part about this piece is that the context of the faces is completely and purposefully left out of the art piece. The viewer has no idea what those reactions come from, if that person knew what they were listening to, or if they could even understand the words. This shows just how similarly the Quran’s power affects the people who experience it, no matter their background.

My second blog post is “Roots.” This piece is a response to one of the more factual aspects of this class: the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. My main takeaway was that the differences are mostly due to context. Sunni Muslims have historically held political power, which has affected religious practices and definitions of good fortune. Sunni Muslims see power as a sign of God’s approval. Shia Muslims have experienced the opposite phenomenon, and therefore the struggle against an oppressive power is given a place of honor. I portray this with a flower representing Sunni Muslims and a cactus representing Shia Muslims. The idea is that the environments in which they were formed heavily affected their roots, i.e. religious practices, morals, power structure, and culture.

In the third art piece I completed , “But is it Art?”, context is extremely important, as looking at the piece by itself could be confusing. We discussed “Misconceptions of the Nature of Islamic Art” and the idea that some people don’t think that Islamic art is ‘real’ art. They think geometric designs and calligraphy are just decoration. This is obviously problematic, as the primary advocates of this philosophy seem to be western artists and denizens who are wary of something they aren’t used to. Just because an individual or a group of individuals don’t see something as art, that doesn’t mean it isn’t. This got me thinking about who decides what is art and what isn’t. I read a book in high school called But is it Art? which focused on this topic and explored many non-traditional art pieces that had been ridiculed due to their precarious standing in the realm of art. I decided to create a piece which echoed this sentiment, so I created “But is it Art?” which is simply a sheet of white paper with those words written in the center in black ink. It is visually appealing, yet one would be hesitant to call it art. It is a piece aimed to raise questions, but not necessarily provide answers. It prods the viewer to question their previously held beliefs as to the nature of art itself. My amateur calligraphy may not be art, but would it be if the context were different? Maybe it is my intentions as an artist, whether I am making something to hang on my wall or to evoke a feeling of closeness to God, which dictates the nature of the piece.

“Bridge” is a response to our lessons focusing on Sufism. This is another piece, which focuses more on the facts of our lessons. Sufism is an outlook, so any Muslim could be Sufi, and the ideology involves connecting with God on a more personal level. It also involves connecting with the divine in a way that is different than non-Sufi Muslims. The Earth is in the physical world and God is in the real or eternal world. These realms are separate, but some people, like prophets, can span the divide. This involves a personal transformation and a move away from the egotistical self. A very important aspect of this connection with the ‘real’ is art. In many Muslim groups, dance and music is frowned upon, but within Sufism dance and music can be important parts of worship. An example of this is the whirling by the Sufi Dervishes. In my art piece, I aimed to represent the struggle to bridge the gap between the fleeting and the eternal. I thought I could most accurately represent this with a flipbook to show the passing of time. In my art piece, a bridge is built spanning the divide to the ‘real.’

‘Mirror’ is my piece that reflects on our reading of The Conference of the Birds. The symbolism and inclusion of references in this epic poem was incredible. I chose to portray the final scene of the poem and tried to include symbolism in my piece to mirror that in the poem. Without knowing that this piece was a reference to The Conference of the Birds, it would look like a pretty odd cartoon of a bird looking into a mirror. A viewer familiar with this epic, though, could look at a bird, a mirror, a lot of other birds, and some valleys and know exactly what they were looking at. With just a very simple drawing, a viewer can be transported to a beautifully written and profound scene in a poem.

My final reflective piece is ‘Day.’ I wanted to reflect on the ghazal as a poetry form, and the best way to do this was to write a ghazal of my own. Historically, context has been very important to the ghazal. Because they are written so vaguely, they are able to contain references which show disdain for political authority or the religious elite without coming right out and saying anything directly. This was incredibly important for the safety of the writers themselves who could have gotten in trouble for the things they implied, but one cannot be convicted for implications. They also use a series of common characters and symbols, which mean certain things. A reader who looks at a poem without knowing the tropes could extract a completely different meaning than what the poet intended to convey. This also applies with idioms and references that would be common knowledge at the time a ghazal is written, but may not be known today or by the particular reader. For example, any Quranic references in a ghazal would go completely over my head, causing me to misinterpret the poem as a whole. In my poem, I strayed from the common theme of a tragic love story to embrace a simple depiction of the change from night to day. The reader may pick up on references, though, which could point to a deeper meaning between the lines of text.

 

 

Mirror

Conference of the Birds is a Persian narrative epic poem written in the mathnawi style. This style involves a double rhyme which switches after every couplet allowing the poet to write long poems following a single storyline. Conference of the Birds was written by the poet Rumi who wrote both ghazals and mathnawis. The poem is said to so embody the essence of the Quran that it is called “The Quran in Persian.” As the name suggests, it is written mostly in Persian although the Persian is mixed with Arabic, as Rumi chose to keep any excerpts of the Quran or other texts, originally written in Arabic, in their native language.

The poem follows a group of birds who go on a journey to find a leader. They are led by the Hoopoe bird, which is portrayed in my response below. I decided to try to portray the essence of the conclusion of the poem. After their journey, the birds finally reach the palace of the Simurg, who they hope will become their new leader. The journey was incredibly hard, so only thirty birds reach the palace out of the millions which started. The usher of the court tells them they can not see the King, and that they should turn back. This is devastating, as they have gone through so much to get there. Despite this, they soon see the Simurg, but in the Simurg they see themselves. In my art piece, you can see the seven valleys through which the birds traveled and the twenty-nine other birds in the background. Although all the birds were together when they saw themselves in the Simurg, I decided to just portray the Hoopoe. This is in an effort to show the individual experience that one can have when looking for themselves in God. The Hoopoe looks into a mirror in which she should have known she would see herself, but she had been looking for someone else to lead her. This reflects a Sufi ideal that God is the reflection or summation of everything there is.IMG_6679.jpg

 

Bridge

We talked in class about Sufism, what people think it is and what it actually is. Sufism is Islamic mysticism, but it isn’t just about that. There are political, social, economic, and literary dimensions. It is not a group, but an outlook, so Sufis can be Shii or Suni, although most Shii Muslims are Sufi. I chose to concentrate on Sufism as bridging the abyss that separates the human from the divine.

This idea is embedded in the Quran itself. The Zahir, the outer physical world, is separated from the Batin, the inner, real, and eternal world, which is not accessible through the senses. Sufism is the interaction between these two worlds. The Quran states that God is within the individual, which supports the more personal connection that Sufis have with God. The Quran also embraces the idea that the physical world has signs pointing to God and the real. These signs are examples of bridges between the human and the divine. There are also specific examples of humans who could have experiences beyond the physical, like the prophet Solomon who could communicate with animals. Music and the arts are integral parts of this bridge. As our reading by Leonard Lewisohn says, “integrating music into the practice of meditation, is an important aspect of the contemplative life in Islamic Sufism.”

My art piece is a flip book (I ended up taking individual photos of the pages to make a GIF) made with post-it notes and pencil. I tried to portray the building of a connection between the human and the divine through the arts. The left side is the human side with a few buildings shown and the right side is empty showing the mystical nature of the ‘real’ world. In order for those like Solomon to connect beyond the physical, a personal transformation is necessary. The egotistical self must be extinguished. This process is often referred to as the polishing of the mirror of the heart. This is shown by the gradual building of the bridge, as the process is difficult. About halfway through, the bridge dips and threatens to fall, but it is reinforced and the gap between heaven and the human world is bridged. The musical notes represent how music and the arts assist in bridging this gap.

Access the GIF here: https://gph.is/2HujfwZ

Day

DAY

Breaking over the mountains comes the light of day.

The night, with its talking moon, will be lost with the coming of the day.

 

About the Sun, she knows nothing and has nothing to tell.

Until the light slips behind the Earth and ends the long day.

 

She battles for her right but loses as the birds call for dawn.

The casualties awaken renewed as the white flag is raised and begins the new day.

 

A child says the sky is blue, sometimes black, and sometimes nothing at all

But a chariot still pulls up life itself to begin to-day

 

After all the life is used, it’s time for that which only just started to end.

The moon’s turn has finally come after the death of day.

 

The ghazal, or love lyric, is a type of Urdu poetry, which involves a rhyming pattern of aa ba ca da ea fa, and so on. The rhyming ‘a’ word is always exactly the same. The couplets of a ghazal used to be connected through a narrative, but Ravishing Disunities explains that this practice has been almost completely discarded. It is now one of the ghazal’s most distinguishing characteristics that the couplets should depend on each other so little that it would not make a difference for one couplet to be moved around or completely removed. For this reason, ghazals are usually no more than about twelve couplets.

Our reading by C. M. Naim discusses the common theme among ghazals, which is usually the love of a beloved. Although this was a thread running throughout, the ideal was for poets to be as ambiguous as possible, so the poem could be experienced by a wide audience. These poems regularly used symbolism which was specific to the time, making the poems difficult to interpret for those who don’t understand historically common symbols signaling, for example, a beloved or a villain.

I tried to capture the essence of the ghazal in my poem. This most obviously manifests in the rhyme scheme, which establishes ‘day’ as the qafia in the matla. Although the poem breaks from the theme of lamenting love, it does remain extremely vague. On the surface, the poem seems to be about the changing between night and day. This is a beautiful but common and non-controversial event. The word choice and metaphors used throughout, though, are that of war.  A child talks of a black sky and the sun and moon battle for their place. This shows why ghazals were so popularly used to disguise political criticisms. This poem would need minimal changes to discuss descent of a specific war, yet a poet could never get in trouble for its creation, as it’s just about the sun and moon. I also included a reference to a chariot pulling up life itself to keep with the idea of important contextual references, although this one is Greek rather than Persian. It refers to the myth in which the sun god Helios pulls the sun across the sky behind his golden chariot, and in this poem means daybreak.

Listen

I decided to center my first blog post on one of the first topics we discussed in class: the power of the word of the Qur’an. In the Qur’an, the power of the word is expressly stated. It is so powerful that many who hear it recited, or recite it themselves, convert on the spot. The story of Umar ibn al-Khattab is a good example. He was a fierce opponent of the prophet and his teachings because they threatened aristocratic life. There are two versions of his conversion story. In one, he overhears a recitation and his heart immediately melts, so he converts. In another, he strikes his sister for following Muhammad, but afterward is ashamed, so he looks at what she is reading and is so struck that he converts.

The power of the Qur’an does not come only from the words; it also comes from the aesthetics. Our reading by Ziauddin Sardar, “Reading the Qur’an” sheds light on this topic. Sardar discusses the importance of reading the Qur’an in Arabic, so the words of God can be experienced in their original form. But even before he could understand the words, reading and listening to the Qur’an was a special and religious experience. To listen to the aesthetics of the reading is to experience the divinity of God’s word.

For my creative response, I aimed to capture the reality of this experience. I took a series of photographs of friends while playing a recitation from Ch. 55: Al-Rahman — The Beneficent. They didn’t know what I was going to play so I included a series of photos to capture the changes in expressions. In these, you can see a mixture of thoughtfulness, interest, recognition, surprise, and even a bit of reciting along. What I found very interesting is that for the most part, you can’t tell by the reaction if the person understands the words or is just experiencing the aesthetics of how they sound. Although much of the experience of listening to a Qur’an recitation is too personal to be captured by a portrait, I think the idea of its influence is represented.

But is it Art?

I found our readings and discussion from week 6, about Islamic art, to be extremely thought-provoking. Much of Islamic art consists of designs and calligraphy, which can seem unfamiliar to the modern western eye. Figures, when represented, may not look as though they were painted by a western artist. This makes sense, as they were not, but some people seem to take issue with it. In our reading “Misconceptions of the Nature of Islamic Art,” Ismail R. Al-Faruqi quoted M. S. Dimand, “Mohammedan art is essentially one of decoration.”  This is an obvious demotion from the realm of art to one of non-essential frill.  Art is a very interesting concept because it is extremely hard to define. How did Dimand come to the belief that in order for art to be art, it must fit into a certain box containing figures represented as he sees fit? Western art in itself varies immensely. In 1917, for example, Marcel Duchamp submitted an art piece to a show that was just an upside-down urinal taken out of a wall, which he had signed. There was an intense debate following as to whether or not it was a true piece of art. What are the criteria for art to be art? Must you make it? Must it produce an emotional response? Most Islamic art fits both of these criteria, while Duchamp’s piece, “Fountain,” only fits one, and there was a large following of people who said it was art.

I thought the most accurate way to respond to this debate was with a piece that made you wonder if it was indeed a piece of art. My response “But is it Art?” was created in the medium of pen on paper. So, is this really art? Well, you may initially think it isn’t because it is composed of just four words written on an otherwise blank sheet of paper. I didn’t even come up with them. It is the title of the book in which I first read about Duchamp’s “Fountain.” But I do find it beautiful. It is simple, yet visually appealing. Additionally, there is a deep symbolism found in the piece asking itself a question, “But am I art?”  If this creative response could be considered art, how could Islamic art be simply design, when artists can create pictures out of words from the Qur’an which routinely move viewers to tears.

 

Roots

This creative response reflects on the idea of differences between Sunni and Shia practices due to the different environments in which the two groups were formed. As I draw from the fourth chapter of Dr. Asani’s “Infidel of Love,” I would like to recognize that these are not the only two communities of interpretation in Islam, nor do all Sunni or Shii Muslims have the exact same practices or beliefs, but I will focus on the main features of the two for this reflection. Groups within Islam formed after the death of the prophet Muhammad. The debate of who was to take over the role of the prophet had two main sides: those who thought he had not named a successor and, therefore, it was their responsibility to concur and appoint a leader, and those who thought Muhammad had appointed his son in law, Ali. The groups could not reach a consensus, so they split and followed the guidance of different leaders, becoming Sunni and Shia, respectively. Sunni Muslims were, and are, the largest group by far, leading to their overwhelming control of power. This led to a belief system for Sunni Muslims which rests on the idea that having power means that you believe in the right things, and Allah looks happily down upon you. Due to this power imbalance, Shii Muslims were regularly persecuted for their differing beliefs, which led to “a distinctive worldview that understood their historical experiences within the broader narratives of the struggle of the righteous against oppression and injustice.” For this reason, martyrs are extremely respected among Shii Muslims. It also led to the existence of the practice of taqiyah, which allows Shii Muslims to avoid harm by lying about their religious beliefs.

 

I wanted to represent this difference in my art piece, so I chose to draw two pictures side by side. The first is of a daisy. It has flourished in a nurturing environment with all the water it could need. As a result, its roots do not need to grow very deep. The cactus, however, has struggled to survive. Its environment is harsh, but it adapted. The cactus’ roots grow deep to reach water beneath the surface, and as a result, it is also flourishing. In this piece, the daisy represents Sunni Muslims, and the cactus represents Shii Muslims.  Neither way of life is better than the other — and neither plant is better or more beautiful — but their way of life has been deeply affected by their environment.

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