Beyond The Lights

Weblog for Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 54
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Filed under: Uncategorized May 7, 2016 @ 4:05 am

Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 54:

For the Love of God and His Prophet:

Religion, Literature, and Arts in Muslim Cultures

Professor Ali Asani

Spring 2016


This is my second class with Professor Asani, and I feel that I have come a long way since I have taken my first class with Professor Asani sophomore year. Growing up in Egypt, I wasn’t exposed too much to how diverse the Muslim community really is. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and, for some reason, when I was younger, I thought there was only one version of Islam, one way to call for prayer, and one core belief system. I was always aware that there are different Muslims because I have met people from different Muslim backgrounds in China and other Arab countries. However, I never realy gave it too much thought until I took Professor Asani’s class.

Though the core values of Islam and its teachings are the same, people actually have very different beliefs, traditions and myths. Throughout the class, we were exposed to different forms of recitations, poetry, stories and traditions. The culture of every place strongly affects how the interpret Islam, the Quran and the hadith, that is why the “Cultural Studies Approach,” is so fascinating and crucial for learning Islam. From this class, I have learned that Islam can never be learnt out of context, and if you want to understand the Islam of a specific region, you have to understand the culture of the place Islam grew in to be able to differentiate what is attributed to Islam and what is attributed to the culture of this area.

This is a very important lesson that needs to be understood by anyone studying Islam or the Middle East or any other Muslim country. In fact, religious pluralism within Islam needs to be studied and accepted by both Muslims and non-Muslims. It is rather ironic that most people of our time are on both extremes; people either generalize and think all Muslims are the same everywhere, or they think that they are very different to the point that they cannot get along with each other. The former is more reflective of non-Muslims who haven’t had enough exposure to many Muslims communities, and the latter is more reflective of Muslims, who think their differences are so vast, that they can never communicate with each other effectively economically or politically, and a great example of that is Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The class’s emphasis on the cultural studies approach and religious pluralism within Islam, I believe, are some of the most important lessons we have learned in class due to their relevance to a lot of other topics that are very important for us to understand nowadays, especially politics-related. Having these two lessons in mind completely changes how we approach the news we see and hear daily. Being able to ask ourselves why we think the way we do and where our information related to a certain topic gives us the opportunity to objectively analyze situations and credibility when discussing these issues with other people. Also, just being able to get exposed to so many different cultures, traditions and music in the period of a semester is really eye opening. It feels as if we traveled to those countries and got to know the people there. Now, whenever we visit Iran, Pakistan or Indonesia, we won’t be too surprised or too culturally shocked when we meet the people and see the countries.

Another important theme in this class is art. From this class, I have learned that a lot of things can be considered art and it’s people emotion and reactions to something that makes it art. Art can be anything, if it makes people feel a certain way. Throughout the class, we have learned about different types of music, dances, songs, poetry, paintings, prose, calligraphy, architecture among others, and the list goes on. I was never really excited about art. I had never been really good at expressing myself through art, and maybe that is why I was never very excited about it. However, after this class, seeing how much other people were able to express themselves through art is extremely fascinating. People were able to say so much more using one poem or one painting than they could have by directly expressing how they feel in words.

It really showed me how important art is in our society and how much it signifies and symbolizes people’s beliefs and thoughts. All the dances, songs, recitations and performances we have seen were able to give us a very pure, raw look at people, how they feel and what these beliefs mean to them. The different forms of art represented in class were also very mesmerizing. Though not everyone is talented in the same skills, it showed me that art can be anything you want it to be and you can be good at some for or the other. Looking at the architectures of a lot of mosques was also wonderful. Being able to understand how a building came into being and the thought process behind why a specific building looks the way it does also taught me a lot about what goes in the head of an architect and how much culture influences the design of buildings.

Being able to create artwork for the class was also a great experience. After getting to see all these different art forms in class, it was great to be able to think like an artist and design 6 different artworks. For my 6 pieces of artwork, I followed two themes: one is religious pluralism and religious empowerment.

Coming in freshman year, it was very interesting for me to see how different my belief system was from my roommates’ belief systems. One of them was Sikh, one was Catholic and the third one was Christian. Though we got along perfectly and shared the same core values and morals, I kept wondering how we all believe equally strongly in what we believe in and how so many groups of people in so many different continents somehow reached the same conclusion when it came to faith and religion. It seemed unreasonable that one group would be right and the other wrong. We either were all right and we all believed in the same truth but with different names and were following different paths to that same truth, or we were all wrong.

These were very interesting conclusions to reach, and I was very happy when I heard Professor Asani talking about how most influential, spiritual leaders of different communities can be considered prophets. In the first week of Professor Asani’s other class, he talked about how Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Moses and Muhammad were all prophets of God that came to earth to guide humanity and enlighten them, and how essentially all religions stem from the same creator, which sounds very logical. Thus, for 4 of my 6 artworks, I decided to address this theme.

In Week 4, I tried to picture the idea of how Allah has sent so many prophets throughout time to different communities. I tried to represent that through some holiday lights. Each of the light bulbs represented a prophet, and collectively they represent the light of “Allah” on earth, guiding and aiding humanity together, throughout different time periods. In Week 7, I also tried to address this theme from a different perspective. I tried to draw our planet earth. The continents represented the word Allah, and I took a snapshot of the earth from outer space. The idea was that our core values are all the same and that there is essentially one truth, and we are all trying to get there throughout different directions and paths.

Week 2 represented the mix of two different cultures. I was very inspired by a painting by a famous Chinese calligrapher that drew Arabic words with a Chinese style, which I have felt was the perfect representation of my mixed background. I tried to do something similar for my artwork to prove that cultures can, in fact, be mixed and the results can do justice to two cultures. Week 3 represented nature and how sacred nature can be. Giving ourselves the chance to look at the world, listen to the sounds it has and look at all the amazing living organisms on it can be very spiritual. This is exactly how Abraham found god.

Week 6 and Week 10 tackle a different theme. It is a theme about religious empowerment. For Week 10, I created a Muslim version of the Powerpuff Girls to empower young Muslim girls everywhere in the world and give them superheros that look like them that they can look up to. I tried to create them in a way that they were very diverse and representative of how different Muslims are in the world. For Week 6, I created a ring design that symbolizes knowledge for it to be given to Muslim scholars who accomplish a lot academically. It is a design of the word, “Read” in Arabic, which is also the first Quranic verse to to be recited to prophet Muhammad, to symbolize the importance of knowledge.

All in all, it has been an amazing class that I am really glad I had the opportunity to take. I have learned so much; I had the opportunity to think of topics that I have always wanted to think about,  explore the artistic side of me, explore so many cultures and traditions and have intellectually-stimulating discussing with amazing students. All this wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions of Professor Asani, Ceyhun and John, so thank you so much for an amazing semester and class!


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Week 4: Prophet Muhammad

Filed under: Uncategorized May 7, 2016 @ 1:37 am

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Prophet Muhammad has been depicted in so many different art forms, throughout the centuries. There are numerous poems, paintings, odes and songs about Prophet Muhammad, his Isra and miraj (Muhammad’s night journey and celestial ascent where he is said to have led all other prophets in prayer and to have spoken to Allah), his life and Sunnah. For Muslims, Prophet Muhammad is not only Allah’s prophet and messenger. For them, Muhammad is the perfect role model and human being (Uswa Hasana, as mentioned in the Quran) that all Muslims should emulate religiously and socially. In addition, Muhammad plays a very important unifying role in the Muslim community; Muslims of all Islamic sectors love the prophet and acknowledge his efforts in the spreading of Islam.

The role of Prophet Muhammad as intercessor, someone who intervenes on behalf of another, especially by prayer to seek forgiveness for others, is also very central and significant to Muslims. As Professor Asani mentions in his book:

“According to some hadith, other prophets also have the power of intercession and each prophet will intercede for his community on the Day of Judgment: Moses will intercede for Jews, and Jesus for Christians. Generations of Muslims have pinned their hope on this role of Muhammad, who will arrive with a green flag of praise to lead any who have recited the shahadah, including sinners, to paradise.”

Muslims are very hopeful about the belief that prophet Muhammad will intercede for them in the Day of Judgment and lead them to heaven. Therefore, they regularly recite the salawat, “a formula invoking blessing on the Prophet Muhammad whom they affectionately call habib Allah, God’s beloved.”

Another development regarding the nature of Muhammad’s spitiral significance, as discussed in Professor Asani’s book, is prophet Muhammad’s association with God’s light of mysticism. Eighth-century theologian, Muqatil ibn Sulayman, proposed that the lamp in the famous Light verse in the Quran symbolizes prophet Muhammad and that Allah’s divine light shines in the world and guides humanity through prophet Muhammad.

For this artwork, I was inspired by the Qur’anic Light verse:

“God is the Light of the Heavens and 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)”

Using some holiday lights, I drew the Arabic word of “Allah” on the wall. Every one of those lights represents one of Allah’s prophets to earth, and collectively they represent Allah’s light and guidance to humanity on earth.



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Week 7: Muslim Devotion in Local Contexts

Filed under: Uncategorized May 7, 2016 @ 12:20 am

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It has been so interesting learning about local Muslim communities in different parts of the world. Both people who grew up in Muslim countries and people who grew up in non-Muslim countries tend to have one specific idea of what Islam is and what Muslims should look and behave like. Thus, it was very interesting to look at all the other communities, who also identify as Muslim but have completely different lifestyles and traditions.

The cultural studies approach, where we study Islam through different cultures and societies, had been the highlight of this class. Religious pluralism within Islam is very important, and understanding all sectors of Islam is crucial for people to communicate better with each other on an individual level and country-level. Learning about what Islam is like in Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia among other countries has been crucial in our process towards understanding Islam really is.

Religious pluralism is very important in our current world. Thus, for this piece of artwork, I tried to picture a world, where we are all the same, regardless of our different beliefs. I have used acrylic paint to color my painting. The blue sphere represents our planet earth. The word Allah in brown represents all the continents. The yellow halo around the earth is the light of Allah, and the black background represents outer space. The picture symbolizes how, even though we are very different people with beliefs that sound very different, at the end we all believe in the same thing.


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Week 10: Reform, Revival, and Muslim Women Defining Identity

Filed under: Uncategorized May 6, 2016 @ 8:09 pm



Women rights’ is a very important issue that needs to be tackled worldwide. It is an issue that affects fifty percent of our world population; this problem persists almost everywhere in the world, to different extents. Women are paid less in the United States, cannot drive in Saudi Arabic and have a difficult time reaching governmental leadership positions in China.

Women Rights’ has seen substantial progress in the past few years. Many organizations have emerged to help eliminate gender inequality. The Arab world had lagged behind in their progress, relative to other areas of the world. However, the issue is that Western scholars and activists started relating the Arab World’s relative regress when it comes to women rights to Islam. They fail to see that Islam granted rights to women 14 hundred years ago and that prophet Muhammad’s wife was a businesswoman and his boss. In “Unveiling Scheherazade: Feminist Orientalism in the International Alliance of Women,” Charlotte Web recognizes the way culture implicates international issues. She ties back International Alliance of Women’s ineffectiveness in the Arab world and Arab women’s general distrust towards them to the fact that European and North American leaders did not see the Arab women as equals and saw themselves as saviors bringing “aid and enlightenment to their more “oppressed” sisters.”

If we want to see change implemented effectively in the Arab world, it needs to come from the inside, not from the outside. We need a cultural and mentality revolution, and we need to start with the little girls. Thus, for this post’s artwork, I decided to create a Muslim version of the Powerpuff Girls, a popular cartoon about three strong, powerful sisters who fight crime, which can be called “Powerpuff Muslimats” or “Powerpuff Slimas” for short. I used to create the three characters. There was no option for hijab on the website. However, I found a hijiabi Powerpuff girl on the web. I then put all three characters on the Powerpuff background using Adobe Photoshop.

The three characters are very different and diverse, so that little Muslim girls from all over the world can see them and have a superhero that looks like them. People tend to forget how diverse the Muslim population is. There are around 1.6 Billion Muslims in the world, covering almost all ethnicities and nationalities. This cartoon should hopefully change perceptions of Muslims in the world, and hopefully, through this cartoon, little Muslim girls can have superheros to look up to and realize their strength and that they are capable of doing anything they set their minds to.

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Week 6: Symbolism

Filed under: Uncategorized April 5, 2016 @ 7:43 pm



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The idea of symbolism is very important in Islamic tradition. Artifacts, images, animals, plants, art , Quranic verses and calligraphy always have multiple meanings. This notion is also particularly very important in Islamic architecture. In “The Topkapi Scorll – Geometry and ornament in Islamic Architecture,” Gulru Necipohlu discusses how “the innate spirituality and mysticism of the Arabs made them favor abstract ornaments capable of expressing transcendental beauty.” He believed architectural ornaments are a “reflection of spirit” and a “mirror of cultural tendencies.

Indeed, artifacts and monuments have a much deeper cultural and spiritual significance than just decorative, and that’s why we read so much about cultures destroying monuments from other cultures and beliefs, unfortunately, to destroy the meanings and ideas behind it. In “Erasing Culture: Wahhabism, Buddhism, Balkan Mosques,” Michael A. Sells talks about this issue, drawing examples from Afghanistan and Prague. For example, the Taliban completely demolished the buddha statures in their country. In year 2000, Saudi Arabia also bulldozed some of the most historically monuments in the western Kosovo market town of Djakovica to “to make way for what the Arab donors consider to be more proper Islamic structures,” in response to Serbia’s destruction of over 200 mosques and Islamic structures in 1999.

For this artwork, I decided to create a ring design that would then be put on a ring similar to Harvard’s class ring (pictured above). The design is of the word, “Read” in Arabic. It’s believed to be the first verse of the Quran that was recited to prophet Muhammad. This goal of this ring design is to symbolize the importance of knowledge. Similar to Quran recitation competitions that we have learned about in class, it would also be a great idea to have similar events recognizing the the achievements of Muslim scholars around the world

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Week Two: Calligraphy

Filed under: Uncategorized April 5, 2016 @ 7:39 pm




The written word is highly esteemed in Arabic and Islamic culture, and as explained in Schimmel’s book, “Calligraphy and Islamic Culture,” Arabic calligraphers often regard their profession as highly sacred. Islam has always stressed the importance of reading and writing for the preservation of everything. In fact, Islam’s first verse in the Quran is: “Read.” The idea of Prophet Muhammad’s illiteracy is also a topic that is vastly discussed in the Quran; the miracle of the Quran is also associated with the fact that Prophet Muhammad was illiterate.

Calligraphy holds both spiritual and artistic value for Muslims. Annemarie Schimmel defines “Calligraphy,” according to Islamic tradition, as “an art which is conscious, founded upon a code of geometric and decorative rules; an art which, in the patterns which it creates, implies a theory of language and of writing. The art stats off as part of the linguistic structure and institutes an alternative set of rules, derived form language but dramatizing and duplicating it by transposing it into visual terms.” Schimmel provides more examples about the reverence of the written word throughout her book. He talks about how the Quran places man’s whole life under the sign of writing; Allah made his angels act as scribes who sit on man’s shoulders to record all his deeds, thoughts and intentions. Then, on Doomsday, his book will be presented to god for a decision to be made about whether the man will go to heaven or hell. Furthermore, Surah Al-Qalam (The Pen) speaks of an angel called An-Nun, who is the “personification of the first intellect in its passive aspect as the container of all knowledge, that corresponds to the common interpretation of nun as the primordial inkwell.” This surah later influences the Ikhwan As-Saga to interpret “Aql” (Intellect) as God’s book written by His Hand and to develop a whole mythology of the heavenly Book and Pen. Muslims have considered Arabic and its letters the vessels for revelation, and for that, they have associated baraka “blessings” to Arabic and have developed a strong interest in calligraphy since revelation.

Many Muslim scholars and poets talk about the splendor of calligraphy in their works. One Muslim scholar recounted that his famous calligrapher friend appeared to him in his dream to tell him that “his sins were forgiven because he had written the basmalah word so well.Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, also sings of the power of pen and calligraphy in his poems:

“My heart is like the pen in your hand––
from you comes my joy and my despair”


“we are the pen in that master’s hand;
we ourselves do not know where we are going.”

and here we see a clear allusion to Surah Al-Qalam 68:

“When you are like a Nun in genuflection, and like a a pen in prostration
Then you will be joined, like Nun wa’l-qalam, with “and what they write,””


Calligraphy holds importance in so many other cultures as well, specifically in Chinese and Japanese cultures, and Abdelkebir Khatibi touches upon this topic in his “Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy” book. Khatibi talks about how about the Japanese, the Chinese and the Arabs regard the art of calligraphy as a sign of civilization: The Japanese describe a person as “having beautiful” handwriting when they mean he is graceful and handsom and Arab calligraphers considered “their art was the geometry of the should expressed through the body – a metaphor that can be taken literally and connately with the literal design of its inspiring spirit.”

Arabic calligraphers have always been very creative with calligraphy, writing Quranic verses in the shape of different animals and trees. However, what made Calligrapher Haji Noor Deen’s piece specifically very interesting is the merge of two cultures in the above piece of art. It is a perfect example of the cultural studies approach method, where we see Arabic Islamic calligraphy merged with Chinese culture, two cultures that are equally important to Haji Noor Deen. This piece of art is also very important to me personally. Born to an Egyptian father and a Chinese mother, I have always thought that besides the common core values held by both the Chinese and the Egyptian people, the two cultures couldn’t be more different. Thus, it was great for me to see both cultures mixed together, and how it is perfectly acceptable to be both at the same time without making any compromises.

Thus, for this artwork, I have tried to replicate his idea and attempt to write some Arabic words in a Chinese style. For this piece, I have decided to draw one of my favorite verses, “Verily with every hardship comes ease” using watercolors. I also signed this piece using my Chinese name.

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Week 3: God’s Word as Sacred Sound and the Concept of Prophethood

Filed under: Uncategorized April 5, 2016 @ 7:36 pm


I have heard more sounds in AI54: “For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures,” than I have in any other class at Harvard. It was very interesting listening to the adhan, the Islamic call of prayer, in different countries. Growing up in Egypt, I had the idea that all adhans and recitations sounded like the one in Egypt but it was very eye opening to hear all the different recitations and adhans.

Listening to all the ghazals, poetry, hip-hop and rap songs also offered another dimension to this class. It was very fascinating hearing the wide range of Muslim sounds in different parts of the world. Remarkably, all the worship music, no matter how different they are, sounded very spiritual and sacred. Part of it is possibly attributed to the context of our class and its topic, but more of that sacredness is attributed to these people’s body language and facial expressions when they were singing.

However, interestingly, during Maryam’s presentation on design, our group (which was composed of three people with completely different religious backgrounds) reached the same conclusion when we were trying to think of something spiritual and sacred. When we were thinking of what makes something spiritual, our automatic reaction was nature, which reminded me of of the verse:

“On earth there are signs for those with sure faith; and in yourselves too, do you not see?” 51:20-21

This piece of artwork is a recording of the wind. It is representative of nature around us (the sun, the stars, the wind, the rain…etc). If we pay attention to what is going on around us in the world and connect with nature, we will realize how amazing the world is and think of the creator of all this, the same way Abraham found Allah.