Synthesis essay

May 4th, 2012

I enrolled in For the Love of God and His Prophet this semester because it seemed like a good way to rectify my total ignorance of Islam. I knew a few basic things, of course, probably holdovers from some middle-school World History course: Muhammad, Mecca, the Qur’an, the Seven Pillars, that kind of thing. I knew, in the blandest definitional terms, the difference between a Sunni and a Shia, because those were the two “groups” in Iraq and it seemed like a good thing to be aware of, who over there was killing whom and why. Actually, I think most of my knowledge of Islam was derived from those little asides in international news reports, the supplement or sidebar where some guest journalist summarizes a knotty theological problem or a 100-year regional conflict in ten sentences, so that you can get some idea of why everyone in the main story is so angry at one another. I gathered, from these summaries, that most Muslims in most parts of the world were angry about something—except in Europe and America, of course, where it seemed like the majority non-Muslim populations had the general monopoly on spitting indignation. I tsked at Swiss minaret bans, French hijab bans, and New York mosque controversies because they went against my general feelings about religious freedom, but I’d never lived in an area with a visible Muslim population and so it was all pretty abstract to me. This past summer, however, perched on my suitcase one evening in the middle of London’s Kensington Gardens, I watched a group of women in abayat and niqab chivvying their polo-shirted, ice-cream-eating children around the duckpond, and suddenly realized that I had no clue what Islam was all about. I’ll have to do something about that! I thought… and so I joined this course.

I still have no idea what Islam is all about. But one of the central messages of For the Love of God and His Prophet is that there is no monolithic “Islam” that warrants those kinds of sweeping pronouncements. This is something I probably ought to have realized earlier, if I’d ever bothered to think about it for more than two seconds: I was raised Catholic, arguably the religion that has made the most concerted efforts at worldwide standardization, and even then the differences between a parish in Boston and a parish in my Virginian hometown are staggering, regardless of the fact that we’re all mumbling the same liturgy. But intra-religious diversity doesn’t just extend to theological differences of opinion, or different interpretations of a religion’s ideal social priorities. Before taking this class I already knew that there were “extremist” Muslims and “conservative” Muslims and “liberal” Muslims, with all the implicit value-judgments that these designations confer. What I didn’t really anticipate was the way that “Islam,” interpreted in different times and different regions by different communities and different individuals, would manifest itself in extraordinarily diverse shapes and colors.

Exploring Islam primarily through the artistic output of individual Muslims made me realize that there is far more to Islam than can be summed up in a theological treatise or (worse still!) a detached anthropological survey. Even more surprising, perhaps, was that many of these artistic works, which at first glance seem to be the products of a very specific theological, cultural, and literary context—such as the ghazals of Rumi or Hafez—are known and admired by Muslims all over the world. I’m not sure whether this ability to transcend time and place is a mark of these works’ connection to some basic underlying principle of Islam that resonates with all its practitioners, or whether the Islamic world simply happens to be the venue in which these works, great by anybody’s estimation, have been most frequently transmitted. Either way, the fact that so many Muslims connect so deeply with these literary and artistic traditions is something that I wish more religious cultures, including my own, could emulate. (How many modern-day Catholics listen to Gregorian chant, or could recite a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins? Not very many, I imagine!)

My creative responses to our weekly readings draw on a number of themes from the course that particularly resonated with me. Looking over my six projects, I think the clear frontrunner is the theme of earthly love as a metaphor for the individual’s relationship with God. I was amazed by how pervasive this theme was across many of the topics we explored, from the Qur’anic version of the Joseph story to the Sufi ghazal tradition. This metaphor by no means exclusive to Islam—plenty of medieval and early modern mystics in the Christian tradition, for example, used eroticized or romantic language to describe a spiritual experience—but I think the emphasis placed upon the illicit or unrequited nature of the love within the Islamic tradition may be slightly more unusual. In modern Catholicism, the use of earthly love as a spiritual metaphor is almost always grounded within the context of a marital union. I never found this kind of imagery particularly interesting or inspiring: possibly because I’m not married, but also, I think, because the marriage metaphor addresses none of the profound anxieties and uncertainties that characterize many people’s experiences with religious faith. The language of unrequited love, however, embodies such emotions perfectly. In addition, the fact that these stories feature both male and female lovers, and male and female beloveds, in every imaginable configuration—as well as frequent ambiguities over whether God is meant to be read as the lover-figure or the beloved-figure—gives such narratives the ability to express a nuanced range of spiritual experiences. When I was writing my own ghazals (“Two ghazals for the price of one”) I consciously stuck to the theme of unrequited love, and didn’t make any deliberate attempts to express a religious or spiritual worldview. I was surprised to discover, however, that the ghazals I eventually ended up producing, if read metaphorically, were a fairly accurate expression of my spiritual hopes and doubts.

In my pastel drawing of “The Moths and the Flame,” I returned to this theme again, illustrating a narrative from the Conference of the Birds that can be read either as a metaphor for earthly love or spiritual enlightenment: the moral, in either case, is that one must abandon oneself entirely within the experience in order to learn anything from it. That this process is difficult, dangerous, frightening, and (when successful!) self-annihilating is suggested by the fact that only the moth who allows himself to be consumed achieves understanding of the fire. In creating this image, I drew the flame first using very bright whites, yellows, and oranges. I then used a sponge wedge to sketch the moths, using as my material the heap of pastel-dust had accumulated while I was making the flame. I used this as a way of suggesting both the moths’ fragility and their substantial connection, as created beings, to the divine flame.

In another image, this time in watercolors (“Muhammad as the rose of God’s garden”), I appealed to a different Islamic literary tradition that also exploits the metaphorical possibilities of earthly love: namely, the na’at, a genre of poetry that praises the prophet Muhammad as the beloved. Here, however, I was somewhat less interested in the love-metaphor aspect, and more interested in the imagery used to describe Muhammad in one specific na’at. The poem calls Muhammad “the rose of God’s garden,” an image that attracted me because it had both cosmic and earthly dimensions. Muhammad is exalted by being accorded a place in God’s paradisial garden, but he is, as a rose, also manifestly present in the physical beauties of nature. I expressed these two concepts by superimposing a geometric lattice of rose-petals over an abstract watercolor background meant to evoke a heavenly sky. The pattern of the rose-petals converges on an orb of golden light, representing another aspect of Muhammad (that of “the illuminating”) that was present in the same poem.

My second project (“The taziyeh of Qaseum”) is an illustration of a scene from a taziyeh that features the marriage-subplot of Hussein’s nephew Qasem, and his tragic death shortly after his marriage to his cousin Fatemeh. This picture, then, can also be seen as an expression of the theme of unsatisfied love that appears in some of my other responses. When I first drew the image, however, I was more preoccupied by the theme of family loyalty and love that is so prevalent in Shia narratives of the Karbala massacre. Here, as with the unrequited love-trope, I detected a theme in the our weekly readings that resonated especially well with me, and which I felt to be somewhat lacking in the religious tradition in which I grew up. Catholicism certainly values the Holy Family and the Trinity as ideal models for earthly family life, but the Gospels and many saints’ lives also heavily emphasize the frequent necessity, and even the virtue, of family renunciation. It seems as if there may be a much stronger family element in an Islamic literary context, perhaps because Muhammad himself, the moral exemplar, was a father and a husband. Because I am very close to my own siblings, the moment in the taziyeh when Fatemeh sees her brother’s riderless horse was particularly moving to me. Her role as Ali Akbar’s grieving sister is as important in the drama as her role as Qasem’s betrothed, and makes the marriage-plot all the more bittersweet and poignant.

My final two projects are explorations of my curiosity about the connections between the so-called “Western” experience and the “Islamic” experience, which first motivated my initial interest in this course. My comparison (“The theology of light”) between the vaulted ceiling of the cathedral of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and the dome of the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul—finding the word “Allah” in the lines of the former and the word “God” in the curves of the latter—was a way of suggesting that these two monuments of religious architecture embody similar concepts. Both Gothic architecture and “traditional” Islamic architecture (as defined by Nasr) have their own “theology of light.” Whether it was the theological principles that gave rise to architectural principles, or vice versa, is not clear from historical context, but what does seem clear to me is that both architectural traditions have a common appreciation for the power of artistic beauty to facilitate spiritual uplift and inspiration. As this course demonstrates so well to those of us who enter it as non-Muslims, art is an excellent vehicle for understanding the common human interests and longings that underlie seemingly-disparate cultures. For me, the striking similarities between these two modes of religious architecture were a visible manifestation of these shared values.

My last and perhaps oddest project (“Sultana’s Dream: Redux”) is a short-story response to Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream,” and touches on the problem of gender roles and relations that we examined during the last few weeks of the course. Though “Western” society does not, currently, have any institution resembling purdah, it undoubtedly has a legacy of traditionally-prescribed gender roles that many individual men and women find to be unrepresentative of their own personalities, and therefore socially confining. I wanted to explore the relationship between these issues and those raised by Rokeya’s story. In writing my own version of “Ladyland,” therefore, I did not attempt to locate the story in an “Islamic” setting, but rather to portray a geographically-nonspecific setting which is not dissimilar from modern “Western” society, but is governed by reverse purdah. The piece is probably not a very hard-hitting satire: it pokes fun at some of Rokeya’s assumptions about women (particularly that all women would be productive, non-smoking employees!) and attempts to represent, by reverse analogy, what a purdah society on the verge of “liberalizing” its gender ideas might look like. I was particularly interested here in Rokeya’s own situation, as an educated woman whose intellect was respected by her husband, but was nonetheless restricted by societal norms; the narrator’s husband in my story, who lives under reverse purdah, is in a comparable position.

On the whole, I think the readings we explored and discussed this semester, and my creative engagement with their major themes, has gone some way towards redressing the inaccuracy and incompleteness of the ideas I held about Islam before I entered the course. I’m very sure that many of the interests I’ve developed during this experience—particularly in musical ghazal arrangements and classical mosque architecture—will persist over the long term. I think that if everyone took the time to explore the literary, artistic, and musical products of Islamic societies, rather than viewing Islam exclusively through the lens of political discontents in various Muslim-majority countries, we would all be much better off!

Sultana’s Dream: Redux

May 4th, 2012

I very much enjoyed Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s short story “Sultana’s Dream,” so I decided to write a little story of my own, using her idea of “Ladyland”—a world in which men are secluded and women are active members of society—as inspiration. “Sultana’s Dream” is a brilliant piece of satire because it takes the assumptions that underly the institution of purdah (namely, that men are unable to resist women’s sexual allure, and thus that men and women must be kept separate for women’s own protection) and uses them to justify an entirely different world order: why, after all, shouldn’t men be the ones who are confined to private spaces, if they are so incapable of controlling themselves? By portraying “Ladyland” as a utopian society, Rokeya also makes several claims for the female sex as a whole: namely, that they are cleverer, more diligent, and less prone to violent impulses than their male counterparts, and that a world run under their auspices would be vastly superior to the world as presently run by men.

My story takes place in a “Ladyland” which is a couple centuries removed from the “Ladyland” of “Sultana’s Dream.” The first-person female narrator is a citizen of Ladyland who has been experiencing some doubts about whether this system is really all it’s cracked up to be. As Hanna Papanek remarks in one of the essays we read: “Rokeya was not explicit as she might have been about the cruel consequences of confinement for the men of Ladyland, concentrating attention instead on what life in Ladyland meant to previously confined women.” My goal in writing this story isn’t, of course, to demonstrate that a male-dominated society would be superior to a female-dominated society, but rather to explore the basic problems underlying any social order which assigns pre-determined roles to men and women.

I came out of my office a little after two o’clock. “Where are you off to?” Dinah asked as I passed her desk. I took a bottle of Motrin out of my purse and rattled it demonstratively. “Just going for a little rest break,” I said, “my head is splitting. It’s that happy time of month again.”

She winced in sympathy. “You take as long as you need.”

The single-occupancy bathroom on the third floor smells of lavender and peppermint, and the smoke detector, as I know from experience, is absurdly easy to disable. You don’t even need a screwdriver—a pair of nail-clippers will do the job fine. I made short work of it, left it hanging helpless, loosened lid clinging to its distended wire innards. Then I opened the window, levered myself onto the sill and lit a cigarette.

Smoking is strictly against company policy: a nasty, mannish habit. I get funny looks at the tobacconist’s so I always have to send away for my cigarettes by post, or get Max to buy them for me. He prefers shag-tobacco for himself, thinks manufactured cigarettes are beneath his dignity. That’s all very well for you, I said, but I’m smoking sub rosa and I don’t have time to be rolling my own cigarettes on the damn toilet. I envy Max his freedom sometimes, if I’m perfectly honest. I’d never say it to his face, of course, because I wouldn’t want him to think I don’t appreciate the things he does, and because I know that it’s a travesty anyway, that if this country had any sense we’d be putting men like Max into the workforce instead of keeping them locked up in the home, but whenever I’m in the middle of some meeting or other I can’t help but think of Max with his feet up on the kitchen table, pipe between his teeth, going leisurely through the morning paper. Really I’d’ve done better as a man than as a woman, I think. It’s not that I’m shy, exactly, but I get tired of all this earnest talking-things-over, all this concern over who’s doing what when and where am I off to and why am I making that face, let’s sit down and have a cup of chamomile tea about it, God. I’d just like to be left alone for once.

Of course, if I were a man I’d have a wife, and then she’d come home in the afternoon and start yammering at me straight away, chances are, wanting to go through her day with a fine-tooth comb. Women! you can’t get away from us, I suppose.

When I got to the end of my cigarette I flicked it out the window, clambered onto the back of the toilet and buttoned up the smoke-detector again. Then I reached into my purse and pulled out my secret weapon: a squeeze-bottle of lavender water. A spritz here and there, a little judicious hand-wafting near the window, and you’d think the cleaners had just been in.

In the corridor I ran into Leila. “Where are you off to?” she asked.

“Heading back to the office,” I said. “I was just taking a rest break.”

“Menstrual trouble?” she said, suddenly.

“Yes, actually,” I replied.

“I’ve noticed,” she said, “that you seem to get that a lot. Every day of the month at two o’clock, in fact.”

“My cycle is irregular.”

“Irregular?” she scoffed. “It sounds uncannily regular to me.”

“I’m not aware that what my uterus does is any of your business,” I said, loudly.

“Just remember that you don’t get paid for personal time,” she replied, pushing past me.
I glanced at my watch. Only three more hours. Then I could go home.

I really can’t stand all these flowers we have growing all over the walkways. I mean, I’m sure it makes a pleasant enough picture, women in sundresses and light linen trousers, tripping through the blossoms. It’s not to my taste, though. I used to have a poster up on my wall—one of those art prints—of a cityscape with tall grey buildings, all sheer-faced and many-chambered like sea-cliffs, looming above a stretch of wet pavement and a crowd of little men with beetle-black umbrellas. It gave me a nice feeling to look at it. Pure romanticism, I know. Before they figured out how to control the weather there used to be droughts and floods, and people would catch cold in the wet air. I wouldn’t want us to go back to that. But that doesn’t stop me imagining, sometimes, what it would have been like to step out from under a dripping awning, hiking your umbrella open at the same moment, and walk home with the rain beating a rhythm against the taut fabric, the puddles mirror-bright on the black street. Oh, if my mother could hear me—“what next?” she’d say, “would you have the men back in the streets, too? Going to pubs, getting drunk, knifing people in alleys?”

Max was wielding a knife when I came in. On the counter in front of him lay the scattered members of a dissected broccoli. He had on an apron that said “Kiss the Cook,” so I did.

“You taste like smoke,” he said.

“So do you.”

“Yes, but I’m allowed to.”

“I’m allowed to too,” I protested, “it’s not against the law.”

“Yes, but it’s bad for your health. You should quit. You’re the one who’ll be carrying our children one of these days.”

You should quit. You’re the one who has to raise them.”

“Maybe we should both quit,” said Max.

We had had this exact conversation at least a hundred times and both of us still smoked.

I took the knife from him. “Move over,” I said, “I’ll do the rest.”

“You sure?”

I’m no great shakes at cooking, not like Max, but my father taught me a few basic things. I find it relaxing. Some days I wish I could send Max in to work and stay home and chop vegetables. He’d enjoy that, probably. Already I could see his fingers itching for the latch of my purse. “How was work?”

“Oh, same old same old,” I said, “have a look if you want,” and he dove into the bag and had all my project notes spread out on the table in front of him.

“Check over my figures if you feel like it,” I said. “I’m sure I messed up somewhere.”
I loathe math but Max eats up that kind of thing with a spoon. Half of my success at my job is probably down to Max, really. I wonder how many other women consult with their husbands about their work. We all pretend otherwise, of course, but I’d be surprised if most of us didn’t. Perhaps some husbands are too busy with the children to take an interest. Max and I didn’t have children yet, of course. And some men are just plain stupid, it must be said—not that we have anyone to blame but ourselves, the way we keep them out of schools, and the way some of us treat them like dumb animals. I guess I’ve always been a little selfishly glad of those blinders we still make men wear on their errands, though, because if I ever caught Max looking at other women I don’t know what I’d do.

Still, I never kept Max from reading anything he liked, went out of my way to get him books and things, never spoke to him like he was an idiot. That was more than you could say for a lot of the women I knew. I watched him now out of the corner of my eye as he went over my accounts, so serious in his silly apron. “It’s a shame I can’t just send you in to work,” I said.

“Oh, but I’d never be able to control myself,” he said, very evenly, without looking up. “You know me. Rape, pillage, and burn.”

“There’s no need to be nasty,” I said, tipping the cutting-board over the steam-cooker.

“Sorry,” he said, marking one of my columns with a pen.

I don’t like it when he says things like that. Most of the time I think we understand each other—he knows I don’t buy into that nonsense about all men being mentally deficient sex maniacs (why would we entrust our children to them if that were true?) and that I see him as a partner and a helpmeet, not just some fetch-and-carry drudge. But sometimes I think he resents me, and is it my fault I was born a woman? Does he think I always enjoy my womanly responsibilities? I could make a big noise about men being allowed to work but who’s to say that most of them would even want to?

Not every man is a Max, after all. I’m sure plenty of them like things the way they are.

The moths and the flame

April 22nd, 2012

This project was inspired by our week 10 reading, The Conference of the Birds: specifically, the story of the three moths and the flame. In this narrative, three moths witness a candle-flame in the distance and decide to investigate; the first moth goes only a little way towards the flame before returning, the second moth goes a little further, and the third moth enters the flame and is consumed. This third moth, according to the parable, is the one who discovers the “hidden truth” of the fire, because of his willingness to annihilate both body and soul in its pursuit. My picture can either be seen as a representation of each of the three moths, or of the progress of the third moth towards the flame, ending in his engulfment.

I opted to take a photograph of my project rather than a scan because I stupidly failed to realize that it would need a fixative to stay on the page (I’ve never tried to use pastels before!), and I was worried that it might get smudged out of all recognition after I put it facedown in the scanner. I did, however, create the images of the moths from the giant heap of pastel-dust that I accumulated while drawing the flame, which I realized later had a nice kind of symbolic resonance, suggesting that everything is composed of the same divine substance.

After reading through the list of prescriptions for “real ghazals” in Ravishing DisUnities, I was tempted to see if I could write one myself. I ended up writing two! I think they meet all the requirements, if I haven’t messed up the meter anywhere. Writing ghazals in English was, for me, a way to try and experience certain aspects of the form that are inevitably lost in the translation process. Puns and wordplay, for example, tend to translate very imperfectly, and I’m sure there must be many layers of cleverness and nuance in the original poems of Hafiz that can’t be gleaned from the English approximations we read. I had a lot of fun working puns and double-meanings into my couplets, and I think it gave me a vague inkling of how such a formally restrictive genre of poetry might, in the hands of a master poet, give rise to very terse yet complicated and beautiful imagery. I am not a master poet, unfortunately, so the end-products are……… less than impressive. Probably the kind of thing that heron from Conference of the Birds is writing in his spare time. Ah well!

Both of my ghazals make use of themes and images that have come up in class—moths drawn to flames, struggling fish, the isra and mir’aj of Muhammed, etc. In the second ghazal, I also refer very briefly to some English-language poems (“The Lady of Shalott,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), and borrow a line from the writer/Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton, who uses “a twitch upon the thread” as a metaphor for God’s ability to draw straying believers back to himself at unexpected moments.


Ghazal #1
All life is redness: bloodstain, blossom, fire.
All winedark breaths are hot with wisdom-fire.

I love a man (alas!) and not a moth.
My blackened fingers tend a lonesome fire.

I am the fish that bit the flotsam hook.
I am the hiker lured by phantom fire.

I rate the sunlight by your silhouette:
You light-limned lovely, dark in fulsome fire.

Your eyes, my love—these things are lattices
Of rods and cones, my neurons’ random fire.

It was not wine that put me in this state.
Your whiskey scorched my veins with venom-fire.

I never liked my guts. Oh, reel them out:
That rotten slop will feed a wholesome fire.

Aloof in shirtsleeves, Eros eyes his mark.
Well Rennix likes her killers handsome—fire!


Ghazal #2
I’m no Shalott. I’ll slowly work that snare undone,
Those looming deadlines, duties (do I dare?) undone.

Your shadow falls across my book, a longed-for shade.
I tuck my work beneath my empty chair, undone.

Oh bellies, chests, and bums: this summer skin is cheap.
I’d sell my soul to glimpse your outerwear undone.

Ascetic women make toilette at monkish hours.
They’d sooner miss a meal than leave their hair undone.

Hey waiter, damn your ice. I’ll drink my whiskey neat.
My steak? I want it bloodier than rare—undone!

My brain is flesh, you know, not papier-mâché.
My hungry eyeteeth strip your image bare, undone.

But these are flights of fancy, pleasing puppet-shows:
The morning sees mirages everywhere undone.

Poor Rennix grumbles, weaves her cloth with crooked weft.
A twitch upon the threads, and curses—they’re undone.

The theology of light

March 8th, 2012

My creative response is based on this passage from S.H. Nasr’s Islamic Art and Spirituality:

“There are no created tensions, no upward pull to a heavenly ideal in Islamic architecture as one finds in Gothic cathedrals which are based on another spiritual perspective than that of Islam. The space of the sacred structures of Islam rests serenely and nobly in a stillness which conforms to the inner nature of things here and now rather than seeking to participate in an ideal which belongs to another level of existence and is contrary to the nature of the material at hand. Likewise, Islam architecture ennobles matter not by making stone appear to be light and flying upwards but, by means of geometric and arabesque patterns which make material objects become transparent before their spiritual archetypes, reflecting these archetypes on the level of existence proper to those objects.”

I was intrigued by Nasr’s comparison between Gothic and Islamic architecture. I’m more or less entirely ignorant of architectural principles; that said, my two favorite types of architecture, aesthetically speaking, have always been “Islamic” (broadly interpreted) and Gothic, precisely because they both make such beautiful use of light. Nasr elaborates at length on the theological implications of light, identifying it as “the spiritual principle which at once creates, orders and liberates” and describing the great masterpieces of Islamic architecture as “crystallisations of light, limpid and lucid, illuminating and illuminated.” Gothic architecture, too, was influenced by a similar theology of light; the 12th-century patron of the cathedral of St. Denis, Abbot Suger, was the first major exponent of these ideas. His writings on the theological principles inherent in the construction of St. Denis drew on the work of the 6th-century mystic Pseudo-Dionysus the Areophagite, who has this to say about light:

“The Superessential Beautiful is called ‘Beauty’ because of that quality which it imparts to all things severally according to their nature. And because it is the Cause of the harmony and splendor in all things, flashing forth upon them all, like light. … and because it draws all things together in a state of mutual interpenetration.”

Though the Pseudo-Dionysus sees light leading to “mutual interpenetration” and Nasr to clear differentiation of realms, I was otherwise struck by the similarity between the language of this theology and Nasr’s description of Islamic architectural principles. Though the aesthetics of the two traditions are quite different, they are clearly informed (or, at any rate, have been interpreted as expressing) comparable notions about the linkage between light, divinity, and architectural harmony and proportionality. For this reason, I chose to express the parallelism of the two traditions by tracing (badly) the name of “God” onto a view of the dome of the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, and tracing (even more badly, I’m afraid) the name of “Allah” onto the vaulting of the cathedral of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. I also made this mash-up of the Süleymaniye dome and the Sainte-Chapelle rose window, using some rather silly Morph software I found online:


The Taziyeh of Qasem

March 8th, 2012

The Week 5 readings focused on the taziyeh, the theatrical form used by Iranian Shias to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at Karbala. I was especially struck by some the imagery in the taziyeh described in Sadeq Humayuni’s article “An Analysis of the Ta’ziyeh of Qasem.” This version of the drama combines the story of the killing of Hussein with an additional plot involving Hussein’s nephew Qasem. Qasem wants to accompany Hussein into battle, and Hussein, realizing that Qasem will inevitably be killed, arranges for Qasem to be married that same day to his daughter Fatemeh, wanting him to experience “the pleasures of life” before he dies. Fatemeh herself is mourning the death of her own brother, Ali Akbar; at the moment of her assent to the wedding, his riderless horse bursts onto the scene, a sudden and powerful reminder of her grief. Later, when both bride and bridegroom have dressed for the wedding and anointed their hands and feet with henna, Zainab instructs Fatemeh to ride her brother’s horse into the bridal chamber. Still stricken by sorrow for her dead sibling, Fatemeh refuses.

In my creative response, I tried to combine these two moments by creating an image of Ali Akbar’s horse with reddened handprints on its saddle, evoking both Ali Akbar’s violent end and the henna-anointing of the wedding ceremony. One the most powerful aspects of this type of drama, as explained by Peter Chelkowski, is the juxtaposition of strong, opposing emotions: in taziyeh performances featuring the Qasem plotline, the audience “turn[s] from side to side changing from weeping to laughter,” as the funeral rites of Ali Akbar are enacted on one half of the stage and the wedding of Qasem and Fatemeh is enacted on the other. The emphasis placed on Fatemeh’s grief for her brother, and on family relationships more generally, also gives an intimate, personal dimension to the tragedy that may account for the story’s continuing resonance with many generations of Shia observers.

My creative assignment for the Week 4 readings was inspired by a series of verses from the English translation of a na’t by the Urdu poet Salim Ahmad, which contains this litany of praise for the prophet Muhammad: My creative assignment for the Week 4 readings was inspired by a series of verses from the English translation of a na’t by the Urdu poet Salim Ahmad, which contains this litany of praise for the prophet Muhammad:

Muhammad, the repose of the hearts of the destitute,

Muhammad’s name is comfort for the soul,

The rose of God’s garden,

Muhammad is eternity without beginning, Muhammad is eternity without end,

Muhammad, who praises [God] and is praised,

Muhammad, who bears witness and is also attested,

Muhammad the lamp, Muhammad the illuminating,

Muhammad the bearer of good news, Muhammad the warner,

Muhammad the sage, Muhammad the word,

Muhammad on whom be thousands of salutations and greetings.

The multiplicity of images and attributes assigned to Muhammad in these praise-poems attests to his central position as model, intercessor, and, in mystical symbolism, the object of desire and love. The poem’s use of light and lamp-imagery brought to mind a particular Qur’anic verse that has recurred many times in lecture: “God is the Light of the heavens and the 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 of 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.” The description of Muhammad as “the rose of God’s garden” reminded me of the concept of ayat, the idea that nature is filled with “signs” of God’s presence.

In my watercolor design, I combined the idea of Muhammad as “the lamp… the illuminating” with the idea of Muhammad as “the rose of God’s garden”; the pattern of the lines, which are meant to resemble rose-petals, converges on a golden orb of light in the center of the image. I also tried to evoke the concepts of “Muhammad, who bears witness” and “Muhammad the warner” by making the center of the flower resemble the shape of a human eye.