As this semester draws to a close, ushering in the overwhelming pressures of reading period and final exams, I have taken a few moments to reflect on the lessens that I have learned in Professor Ali Asani’s AIU 54: For the Love of God and his Prophet: Religion, Literature, and Arts in Muslim Cultures this Spring of 2014. While it is quite obvious that this was a class on Islamic religious traditions and Muslim communities, it was the subtle nuances that regional cultures added to Islam, guided by the cultural studies approach, which truly made this a topic of fascination. This introduction is meant to capture the major aspects of my first blog experience as well as outline what I felt were the most significant themes of my intellectual and spiritual journey through this course.

Throughout this semester, we explored Islam and the diverse ways it is practiced globally via the lens of a cultural studies approach. Rather than focusing solely on the theology, commandments and creeds of a particular region or sect of Islam (Sunni, Shia, Sufi, etc.), we studied the “Islam” of various cultures and individuals, which was shaped by their own unique customs and beliefs. In both lectures and readings, it was evident that Islam is not identical in any single place in the world. There are always aspects that are universal such as the belief in Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, but there are always points of disagreement or tension such as listening to music and the depiction of human forms in art which some might endorse and others might condemn. Despite these differences, we learned that we cannot be exclusivist in our studies; all of these distinct cultures and groups do in some way or another practice Islam and consider themselves Muslims. Any and all of their different perspectives come under the term Islam. In retrospect, I felt the pervading philosophy from the course has been that Islam encapsulates an inherently broad spectrum of devotional practices and opinions; any dogmatic or uniform representation of it is only one part of the canvas. The statements made by the media about what Islam is and what it is not usually depict the religion inaccurately with an exclusivist mindset. These uninformed remarks often look at one model of Islam (often at the Arab world) leaving out key regions of the world that consider themselves Muslim (such as Africa and Southeast Asia), and often do so with some form of predisposition (political, religious, or otherwise). In order to mitigate the influence of preconceptions when looking at dissimilar religious interpretations, the cultural studies approach does not view religion from a faith-based standpoint, but rather views it as a cultural phenomenon that emerges in response to a preexisting historical and social context. Nevertheless, Islam is also constantly evolving: certain practices may die out and opinions may shift even at the community or individual level (such as drinking the Quran, which is a very localized practice in Africa). Therefore, all people have their own distinctive version of whatever religion they profess (be it Islam or otherwise), and it is imperative to recognize these external contexts when analyzing any statement, speech, poem, story or piece of art.

With that being said, art is the centerpiece of our studies. It is the medium selected to examine the diverse aspects of devotional life across the Muslim sphere because it is both a form of religious expression as well as a product of regional culture. Because art can often be interpreted in a plethora of different ways, its subliminal attributes, much like that of poetry, has traditionally allowed artists greater freedom of discourse than other mediums such as novels or speeches. Art can be outwardly simple, yet difficult to decipher. In this aspect, it can carry with it controversial motifs and messages which allow for criticism without sparking too much controversy. Additionally, art has an inherent aesthetic appeal that outreaches to all classes of people regardless of their education or literacy, which is a flaw with written language. As a result, art is often used to convey feelings and ideas that would otherwise be harder to grasp from a purely intellectual perspective. This is especially true for religious expression, which tends to focus on illuminating aspects of the soul that can be difficult to explain through simply words. These are a few of the reasons why art was so heavily focused on in this course. And because of this, the cornerstone of this blog is the creation of artistic pieces with the hopes of demonstrating what Islam means to me.

The entries in this blog in order or creation are as follows:

  1. Salah – Ascension Through Submission (Week Five)
  2. Arabesque Style in Islamic Art (Week Six)
  3. Adhans From Around the World (Week One)
  4. Tajweed and Tartil in Quran Recitation (Week Three)
  5. Zakat – Charity for Self-Preservation (Week Seven)
  6. To Veil or Not to Veil (Week Twelve)

Out of all the projects and assignments in this course, the blog was a principal tool for my understanding of Islam. It bridged the gap between concepts from the readings and lectures and experiential learning on a personal and spiritual level.  Essentially, the blog was a tablet to organize my wandering thoughts and questions into a somewhat coherent creative construct. Before every new post, I was forced to ask: How does this relate to my Muslim faith and my own identity? Am I doing a proper job conveying these feelings and ideas to my audience? How does this response exemplify my understanding of course material in a novel fashion?

Every week this semester I was introduced to a new topic that could have been molded into a potential piece of my blog. However, I wanted to be selective with these entries and responded to themes and issues that had the greatest impact on me individually. My responses focused on a few particular themes that may require some background introduction for those readers who may be unfamiliar with the context. Therefore, the remainder of this introduction is dedicated to those few concepts which may need further explanation for a profound understanding of my following blog posts. Note that the overarching theme of my collective entries is that there is never one interpretation of Islam, including the one presented in my blog. Just as there are different sects of Islam under the whole ummah, there are different opinions on what Islam is and what Islam is not.  Certain practices that may only find presence in scarce localities and certain practices that may appear outright forbidden according to other groups. What I ask the audience is to view the blog with an open mind, a mind eager to explore the foreign and unfamiliar, and ultimately drawing conclusions after seeing it all (not just my blog, but others as well).

A fundamental concept to understand is the formation of Islamic sects with dissimilar legal, social, and religious opinions. It is important to recognize the division between the two major factions of Muslims: Sunni and Shia. The initial separation between these groups emerged after Muhammad’s death when a verdict had to be made about who would take over the role as the Imam, the leader of the ummah. Sunnis believed that the next leader should be decided by close acquaintances of the prophet, whereas the Shia felt that the direct relatives of the prophet inherited the Nur Muhammad (the divine light of Muhammad), and therefore possessed Muhammad’s intercessory, spiritual, and political authority. Ultimately, the Shia sided with Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, as his successor, while Sunnis endorsed Abu Bakr, one of his closest companions. This disagreement resulted in multiple conflicts between the two sects that lasted for many years, forming the backbone of the Sunni-Shia differences that we witness today.

A third major Islamic sect, whose observers transcend the Sunni or Shia archetype, falls under the class of Islamic mysticism referred to as Sufism. Sufis tend to believe that God is connected to every individual by an intrinsic love, and that experiencing God’s presence and love is the primal form of religious observance. Unlike other sects of Islam that tend to view such practices as sacrilegious, Sufis may listen to music, dance, compose poetry, or tolerate drunkenness as a tool of experiencing God’s love. While Sufis consider that it is possible to momentarily experience aspects of divine love, ultimately this world is often illustrated as illusory and fleeting in comparison to the Day of Alast (a time when all creation was in perfect union with God; also a time before humans became forgetful of their intimate connection to God). This link to God is believed to be deep-rooted within everyone, but is obstructed by one’s ego. Transcending the ego to realize ones connection with God is the underlying goal behind most Sufi traditions. Sufis, as a group, have not generally been looked upon favorably by members of other sects, especially the ulama. These religious scholars have often condemned numerous Sufi practices and have professed a more dogmatic and authoritarian version of Islam, hoping to free it from impurities that have arisen since the time of Prophet Muhammad. As a result, their authority, often both religious and political (as seen in Saudi Arabia) can cause conflicting tensions further dividing the ummah. Just as we cannot downplay anyone’s version of Islam, we must not overlook that such groups exist who steadfastly cling to the notion of a uniform, homogenous Islamic model. They too have their own doctrines and opinions, which serves to further diversify Islam with more actors and scripts.

After reviewing some historical background regarding the splits in Islam and the emergence of distinct sects, it is crucial to discuss contemporary issues affecting Muslim societies today, specifically the role and place of women. Numerous national reform movements throughout the Muslim world saw the lack of religious education of women, who under the patriarchal system were responsible for the Islamic upbringing of children, as a source of the decline of Islamic civilization. They believed that the timely rise of the West and stagnation of the Muslim world as a punishment from God. Therefore, during this time religious education for women became prevalent, but the influx of Western influences from schools and universities remained an issue. As a result, movements such as the Iranian Revolution, viewed this westernization of the Muslim world as the heart of the problem, and forced women to dress conservatively and wear veils to cover their head and chest, which was a reactionary response to the revealing clothes of the West. As a widely discussed topic of lecture and readings, this covering up of women’s bodies is part of the custom of hijab, which is practiced in certain parts of the Muslim world. Hijab is the separation of women from unrelated men and can even be extended to separating the house into specific rooms where only women are permitted. When women are in the presence of men, they often must wear a veil to cover their hair and chest, objects of sexual attraction. While these veils are often criticized in the West for limiting the freedom of women, many modern Muslim women, even those who attend secular universities and have careers, choose to wear the veil as a sign of their religious identity. To them, unlike to most of the West, the veil offers a sense of empowerment to reveal to others what only they choose to reveal.

With this collection of introductory statements, I leave you, the reader, to explore my blog and forge your own opinions on Islam. Feel free to comment or critique my works. Any feedback is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

The prominent theme in this week’s lecture and section was the divergent attitude towards women’s public appearance, especially the hijab or veiling of the head and chest. As we learned in lecture, women often became the centerpiece of Islamic reform movements and national revolutions, with veiling seen as the divisive symbol of controversy regarding the acceptance or rejection of Western culture. This can be seen directly in Satrapi’s Persepolis which illustrates the oppressive tactics used by the regime during the Islamic revolution such as forcing women to veil. We learned in lecture that, in reaction to this notion of the veil seen as a form of male-dominated oppression, even modern day states such as France have banned the public practice of veiling, suggesting that it goes against their “freedom from religion” attitude. But we also witnessed that in places such as present day Turkey, women (especially young, educated women who attend universities) have voluntarily turned back to the veil as a symbol of freedom, modesty, and identity. With regards to the Quran, the scripture makes no mention of hijab or veil, simply advising women towards modesty by covering the chest and private parts. This ultimately results in multiple interpretations regarding the veil and my response this week attempts to capture these differing views. I made a computer generated cartoon of two women of starkly contrasting perspectives. One fully endorses the veil, whereas the other wholeheartedly detests it. As they look at each other, they see the same signs of female oppression, but through entirely different lenses. It is amusing that each of their thought processes, while having similar conclusions, originate from discrete cultural viewpoints.

Hijab

In week seven of discussion, we read Aminata Sow Fall’s The Beggar’s Strike which discussed the significance of the zakat or almsgiving, one of the five pillars of Islam. In this story, the government of an Islamic nation sees beggars as hurting the tourism industry and wants to remove them through raids. For the beggars, they see themselves as practicing a trade that supports the moral faith of all Muslims: giving and receiving. By tradition, people of the city needed to give alms to beggars in exchange for their own prayers for long life and prosperity to be accepted –  in other words for their own self needs. It is, therefore, every Muslim’s religious duty to give alms to the beggars. I thought the context of this story was quite interesting in how it dealt with people’s intentions when giving zakat. Growing up in a Muslim household, I always saw zakat as a form of “obligatory charity”. Something we as Muslims had to do because it was obligatory upon us. As the story shows, zakat is not only a means of helping others, but it is also done in part for one’s self-benefit. I now see zakat as a medium for us to not only alleviate ourselves of our guilty desires in a positive act that benefits society (helping the poor), but also to instill a moral habit of giving rather than taking. We all desire numerous things for ourselves and our families, but what have we truly done to earn them? What sacrifices have we made? I believe the pillar of zakat tries to introduce and cultivate that quality within us all. Therefore, for this week’s artistic response, I altered the typical representation of two hands, one giving zakat or charity and the other receiving it. The alteration I made to this common image is to add into the background the inner desires of the giver of zakat: what he hopes to receive from Allah for his charitable actions and fulfillment of his moral obligations. People often forget these inner desires when discussing the practice of zakat and I wanted to bring them to the surface with this piece.

zakat

In week three of discussion, we learned about the rules and guidelines for Quran recitation. The recitation of the Quran differs from region to region worldwide, but collectively scholars have formulated their own opinions about the proper etiquette and technique during recitation (as seen in numerous international Quran competitions). Specifically, we discussed the importance of tajweed and tartil. Tajweed is the science of the rules of recitation of the Quran.  Reciting with tajweed means that one is applying the rules of tajweed including proper pronunciation of letters, pausing correctly at certain points, as well as producing the proper motions of the tongue in producing the correct sound. Tartil is the proper style of recitation such as reciting with slow, measured and rhythmic tones. It originates from the method of recitation preferred by the Prophet, in the manner that the Angel Gabriel revealed it Muhammad. In section that week, we focused on Al-Ghazali’s External Rules of Quran Recitation which encompasses everything from the humbled state of the reciter to the respect and veneration that each verse or ayah should receive in recitation. I have recited the Quran numerous times, but have seldom followed all the guidelines as outlined by Al-Ghazali in the reading. In order to properly pay my respects to this ancient tradition and scripture, my project this week was to recite the first surah of the Holy Quran, Al-Fatiha, in accordance with the aforementioned rules of tajweed and tartil as well as putting myself, the reciter, in a purified, humbled state. Some of these guidelines that I heeded to include making ablution, sitting facing the Ka’ba (towards Mecca), reciting in a slow manner while pronouncing every letter and elongating certain phrases, as well as controlling the tone of my voice to match the distinct rhythm that we heard from other reciters in class. My recitation, while nowhere near perfect, attempts to demonstrate my faith as a Muslim. I have included the Arabic text so that those familiar with the language of the Quran can follow.

 

al fatiha.

In week one of lecture, we learned about the fundamental beliefs of Islam as well as the sacred call to prayer: the adhan. The adhan has been an integral part of Islamic tradition from its inception. The one who is in charge of leading the adhan, the muezzin, has always been highly respected within the Muslim community. In addition, often times one of the first things that a newborn Muslim baby hears is the adhan so that he/she becomes accustomed to the word of God. The aspect I found most unique about the adhan is the fact that although it never changes form and meaning (the same Arabic phrases are said in every adhan around the world), it is different from region to region. Muslims all around the world have their own unique approach to the adhan and freely play with the accent, tones, and pauses used in their recitation. Therefore, the adhan is both universal and unique in this regard. For my work, I made an audio compilation of adhans recited from around the world in a continuous recitation. Rather than listen to different adhans individually, I feel it is easier to appreciate the diversity by listening to a compilation of many different adhans at once.  The order of countries where the adhan is recited in the audio compilation is Al Aqsa (Jerusalem), Syria, Medina, Mecca, Bosnia, Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey, respectively. It is immediately apparent that there is no one standard for reciting the adhan, but that it too becomes a form of cultural expression and identity. It is important to note that these adhans are primarily Sunni adhans, representing the most common sect of Islam.  The Shi’i adhan, unlike the Sunni adhan, usually includes two extra phrases: Ashhadu anna ‘Aliyyan waliullah (I bear witness that ‘Ali is the viceregent of God) and Hayya ‘ala khayr al-‘amal (Come to the best of deeds) in order to express the sect’s veneration for its favored Imam.

Compilation of Adhans

In week six of lecture, our discussion readings debated the nature of Islamic art. One of the techniques discussed in the readings, especially Al-Faruqi’s Misconceptions on the Nature of Islamic Art was the arabesque style that is often the centerpiece of these artistic pieces. In my work, I tried to capture this arabesque style through plant motif and leafy forms. Since the depiction of animal and humans is discouraged, Islamic art has a natural decorative approach with a mix of geometric patterns and vegetal design. Instead of simply drawing the designs with continuous lines, I employed a stippling approach with fine point black marker using small dots.  The benefit of this technique is that it allows the artist to vary the degree of solidarity or shading of the work via the compactness/concentration of dots. It adds an additional layer of depth to the work and I feel that this is in agreement with the meticulous nature of various Islamic artists who try to incorporate great detail and complexity into their masterpieces. Another aspect to note about this piece is that the plants extend beyond the boundary of the page. Many arabesque patterns disappear at a framing edge without ending, and thus can be regarded as infinitely extendable outside the space they actually occupy. This allows for the endless repetition of the design to accompany vast spaces such as the ceiling of a mosque or a prayer rug. Lastly, I was debating whether or not to incorporate Islamic calligraphy such as the name of Allah or Muhammad, but in the end decided against it. As we learned from the readings and argued in the debate in section, Islamic art is not merely defined by religious calligraphy or scripture but encompasses all degrees of forms and styles.

Salah – Ascension through Submission

I feel myself drifting from this Earth,
As I stare down at my feet,
And the world fades to nothingness.
To the sunrise I face,
My surroundings lose their worth,
A feeling beyond word.

Motionless I stand,
My heartbeat and breathing, calm,
I have departed from this time and space.
Desire for this land,
And the money in one’s palm,
Are nothing worth the chase.

I raise my hands and call,
A call of exaltation,
Words that have echoed through the ages.
My arms relax and fall,
And fold in preparation,
As I speak the words of ancient sages.

I bow towards the East,
My face parallel with the soil,
To which one day I will return.
I stand and face the East,
My hands released from their coil,
I gaze upon His creation, with no concern.

My body descends to the ground,
My forehead and nose press to its warmth,
My end beneath me, above it I wait.
Motionless, I yearn to be found,
By He who provides me with warmth,
To Him, I bow and prostrate.

I sit on the Earth that supports me,
For I am unworthy; if I stand I will fall,
I sit and I submit as my duty.
I raise my finger in testimony,
To the oneness of He whom I call,
And His greatest creation.

I turn my head to my right,
I turn my head to my left,
Each time, wishing peace.
The world returns to my sight,
And I sit there, bereft,
As the worldly desires will never cease.

But at this moment, I sit to atone,
With a brother by my side,
And a hundred more all around.
I am comforted for I know I am not alone,
We have all made this decision,
Through submission, I hope to be found.

________________________________________

Descrption:

In week five of class lecture, we discussed important Muslim piety and ritual practices including the five pillars. One of the most significant pillars of Islam illustrated in the poetic composition above is the daily Salah or ritual prayer. After doing some reading into the details of Salah, I have learned Muslims pray Salah five times daily at distinct times – at dawn, immediately after noon, in the mid-afternoon, at sunset, and at night. In Salah, Muslims attempt to enhance their connection with Allah to the highest degree, to the point as if they are standing and speaking before him in submission. Through this state of submission towards Allah, the troubles and endeavors of this world become trivial; nothing comes close in comparison to the feeling of devotion and yearning during Salah. Unlike other forms of prayer, Salah is very structured and each position in the course of the prayer must have proper etiquette and procedure. As illustrated in this poem, the one performing Salah must have the proper intention of cutting ties with the physical world and enhancing the spiritual connection with Allah. Earthly desires diminish and the spiritual connection grows deeper as he/she recites verses of the Quran throughout the prayer. It is imperative to note from the poem that not only does the mind of the Muslim perform Salah, the body does so as well as demonstrated by: the raising of the hands at the start of the prayer and subsequently letting them fall and relax, standing motionless with a calm heartbeat, pressing one’s forehead on the ground in submission, as well as lifting one finger in testifying tawhid (oneness of Allah). Although it may appear outwardly simplistic, Salah is collaboration of both mind and body to profess one’s piety in the highest of regards. For it is a common Muslim belief that Salah is the most direct connection to Allah and through it may come forgiveness and ultimately salvation.

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March 21st, 2014

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