Islam is at the center of many discussions taking place in America and in the world today. American perceptions of the religion are often influenced by media portrayals of Muslims, and by the horrific acts of terrorism that have been brought into the spotlight in recent years. It’s easy to lose sight of the true religion and what it means to its members behind its most prominent popular depictions. However, the question remains, for non-Muslims and Muslims alike: what is the “true” religion? As with most systems of belief, there is no simple answer. Islam is found in many forms and variations across the globe. To attempt to discern a singular, unified Islam would be to greatly oversimplify a religion with a rich historical tradition as well as a widely diverse group of modern worshippers. In this blog, I will attempt to show this variety, as well as to portray some of the many ways in which Islam is expressed and interpreted in the world today, through art.
Nearly from its inception as a major world religion, Islam has been a divided camp. This can be seen in its various sects and forms, including Sunni and Shia Islam, as well as Sufism. In a photo series, I explore the idea of communities of interpretation: that different groups of people can find different meanings in the same source material, but that those interpretations are still inextricably intertwined in some way. Islam as a religion is particularly varied in its readings, due to its abundance of textual and oral materials. The Qur’an is, of course, the main scripture of Islam, but many elements of Islamic worship come from entirely separate sources, such as Sharia law or the hadiths. Often, individual or group interpretations of the religion are dependent on which sources one subscribes to. However, even the Qur’an itself has a number of possible readings, due to the ambiguity of some of its passages. This overall ambiguity and variability in the religion leads to the emergence of communities of interpretation, and to the vast array of forms of Muslim worship that exist throughout the world.
As one portion of this array, Sufism is a prominent figure in the world of Islam. It is particularly prominent in this blog due to its propensity for forms of artistic expression. Sufism is focused on the mystical, and on the individual’s inner workings and relationship with God. It has been portrayed by Western media as a highly tolerant and liberal alternative to other forms of Islam. Additionally, the arts play a major role in Sufi worship. For example, while Islam has a complicated relationship with music—in the form of worship practices, such as Qur’an recitation, that seem to be closely tied to music but are often denied such a title—Sufism more widely embraces it. Sufism also considers dance to be a method through which one can become closer to God, as embodied by the famous “whirling dervishes”. Because of these views, Sufism is more suitable for pop culture and modern interpretations than are many other forms of Islam. The result is the existence of Sufi rock bands and similar groups, which have been used to present a more accessible Islam to youth in various parts of the world. Such groups are a fantastic example of the ways in which art is used to connect communities and to educate people about a religion.
Although Sufism presents a special variety of modern artistic interpretations, however, Islam has always been inextricably tied to the arts in a number of ways. Poetry has long been seen as sacred in many Muslim communities; it is believed that before Muhammad, poets were some of the most powerful people in Middle Eastern villages, and that when he first began spreading the word of God, many people thought that he was a poet. Muhammad vehemently set himself apart from these people, and expressed some disdain for poetry. However, many Muslims believed and still believe that poetry is the lesser companion to prophethood, and that to write poetry is to wield great power. Ghazals, a form of Persian poetry usually dealing with themes of love, are part of the Muslim tradition. Additionally, contrary to the common belief that Islam forbids imagery and labels it heretical, visual art has always played a role in the tradition. This takes its form through Islamic architecture and the geometric designs often found on the interior of Islamic buildings such as mosques, as well as through artistic calligraphy and illustrations.
Sound plays a huge role in Muslim worship and culture as well. It is vital to Muslim religious practice in most areas. The call to prayer is a part of the soundscape of most urban centers with large Muslim populations. Qur’an recitations are an immensely popular form of religious practice as well as entertainment, and the practice of hearing the Qur’an out loud goes back to its very roots. Before it existed as a written text, Muhammad and his followers spread the message of the Qur’an orally. As a result, sound is still highly important to the religion, and some Muslims believe that hearing or speaking the Qur’an aloud is a far more sacred act than silently reading it. The line between Qur’an recitations, which possess a tonal quality that some would label musicality, and music itself is a blurred one. Some Muslims believe that music is forbidden in worship, and that to call Qur’an recitations music would be to violate their sanctity. Others, however, acknowledge and embrace the sanctity of music itself and view such recitations as just that. Indeed, some talented reciters have become popular singers and vice versa. This discrepancy only further shows the multiplicity of potential interpretations of Islam and the rules by which it is governed for different sets of people.
Another factor that plays into the diversity of portrayals and interpretations of Islam is its interactions with other religious traditions. Islam shares many of its prophets, for example, with Judaism and Christianity. This interaction is depicted in my piece concerning the story of the prophet Joseph. Joseph’s story exists across all three religions, with minor variations in details but the same overall storyline. This is only one of many stories that exist in different forms across the different faiths, not all of which are mentioned at all in the Qur’an, leaving room for a number of interpretations, shifts, and the extent to which they are incorporated into the system of belief and worship.
Islam is suited to the development of communities of interpretation, as mentioned earlier, but it is also suited to the development of differing individual interpretations of the religion. In cultures where the religion isn’t bound up in government and law, one can find visual evidence of the variety of individual methods of practicing Islam. Muslim women’s garments around the world range from wearing a full burqa to wearing a hijab to wearing nothing distinctly “Muslim” at all. Some practicing Muslims pray five times a day, while others don’t. Some strictly adhere to dietary laws, some adhere to some extent, and some don’t pay attention to dietary restrictions at all. What it means to be a practicing Muslim can vary greatly between families and between individuals, and the enormous variety means that one cannot truly say that any form of practice is definitively the “correct” way to practice Islam.
Just as individuals portray their different interpretations of Islam through their appearances and daily lifestyle, artists portray different interpretations of the religion through different forms of artistic expression, with different meanings, and have done so throughout history. These works of art, including poetry, modern Islamic music, and architectural details, among others, may not always be directly related to the religion itself or to its values. However, they play an essential role in portraying the religion to the rest of the world, and through them we can learn much about the varied forms that Islam takes and has taken throughout history.
In this blog, I examine a number of concepts relating to the practice and history of Islam through my own works of art. Some of these concepts have to do with the role of art within Muslim religion and culture, while others relate to other themes in Islam, and are not connected to other artists’ works in any way. Through these works, I hope to illustrate some of my own personal perception of Islam, as well as the inherent multiplicity and diversity of the religion. This can be seen explicitly through pieces such as the photo series concerning communities of interpretation, as well as through the general diversity of artistic mediums, themes, and viewpoints represented among the different works.
This image depicts the ghazal as sacred poetry, and represents one of the major motifs of ghazals throughout history: wine drinking. In the foreground of the picture are a book and pen, representing the presence of the author. Farther from the camera is a wine bottle filled with light. Drinking wine and being drunk are often mentioned in ghazals, and can be interpreted in a variety of manners. Traditionally, these motifs are interpreted as metaphorical and religious: the narrator has been drinking the “wine of love” for God, and is completely consumed with piety. However, drinking wine is traditionally forbidden by Islam, and despite its symbolism, some people interpret such statements as heretical. Additionally, ghazals are typically addressed to an unnamed, unattainable Beloved. Most of the time, the Beloved is a name for God. However, there has been some historical debate over whether all such poems are indeed addressed to God, or whether some are actually disguised love poems to a mortal beloved.
In this image, I chose to interpret the act of writing a ghazal as a holy one. The light in the wine bottle represents the light of God, on which the author is metaphorically drunk. This light illuminates the author’s mind, facilitating his or her writing.
For this week, I was inspired by the artistic elements of Sufi piety. Music and dance both play large roles in Sufism, although they are sometimes looked down on and seen as unholy or forbidden in other areas of Islam. However, to some, they are integral to the worship process and help the individual feel closer to God. The arts, and music in particular, play a complicated role within the greater context of Islam, and the lines between worship and art, or sacred and not sacred, are often blurred.
To represent the place of the arts in the religion, I made a time-lapse video of a number of objects associated with art spelling out the word “Islam”. The guitars represent the act of performing music. The headphones represent the act of listening to or experiencing music. The sheets of paper represent writing, and specifically poetry. The shoes represent dancing. Each of these artistic acts plays a role in making the practice of Islam around the world what it is, and to some practicers of the religion, are integral to it. I used modern devices, such as the headphones, to show that these ideas and practices follow through to and are still relevant today. Additionally, the items in the video are being arranged by two individuals. These two together represent community and teamwork. Religion is largely about community, and the acts of worship described here–singing, dancing, writing–often require more than one participant. The two in the video are symbolically building their own personal vision of Islam through the use of various forms of artistic expression.
For this week, I chose to focus on one fascinating aspect of the way Islam is portrayed in the world today: Sufi rock. In addition to being simply a form of entertainment, Sufi rock music has been utilized in programs to alter the way in which Islam is presented. In Rebel Music, Hisham D. Aidi discusses a 2004 conference on the potential role of Sufism in American foreign policy: “The participants–academics, policy wonks, and representatives of various government agencies–praised Sufism’s tolerance, talked about Salafi hostility to Sufism, and pondered how the U.S. could ally with Sufi brotherhoods” (70). Sufism itself was seen as an appealing portion of Islam, and one that fit more closely with American “values” than the popular perception of the religion. One of the major ways in which the Western world experienced Sufism throughout this period was through music. Additionally, he writes, “For Sufi activists, music was a way to proclaim their difference from Salafis, win over public opinion, and touch ‘at-risk’ youth” (75).
In this work, I included a number of pictures that are traditionally associated with Islam–mosques, calligraphy, and whirling dervishes. They are seen in pieces through the silhouette of an electric guitar, representing one “lens” through which Islam is seen. The collage also emphasizes the juxtaposition between the traditional and the modern: mosques and rock music. Although these two don’t seem to go together at all at first glance, in this picture the more traditional images together make up the image of the new element.
The medium of the collage is appropriate for this particular topic because just as listening to Sufi rock only offers glimpses of one perspective on Islam, the picture only shows fragments of the individual pictures of elements of Muslim culture. However, it does show those fragments, offering some form of lens into the religion through the medium of music.
In this week’s readings, I was particularly struck by the story of the prophet Joseph within the Qur’an and its relation to other religious scriptures. Joseph’s story is also present in Jewish and Christian traditions, although it is particularly emphasized within the Qur’an and in Muslim culture. This provides insight into the close relation of the three religions, and the ways in which they interact with each other. The Qur’anic version of the story is closely related to the Biblical one, although there are some key differences. In Muslim tradition, Joseph’s immense physical beauty is emphasized to a greater extent, and is one of his most prominent and familiar characteristics. Additionally, while in the Bible his coat–given to him by his father–is a source of jealousy for his brothers, it is not one in the Qur’an.
I chose to represent my perception of the story as one portion of the many ways in which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam interact. In the picture I drew, I used familiar symbols to portray the story of Joseph. There are the sun, moon, and eleven stars, which Joseph sees bowing down to him in a dream before his brothers sell him into slavery. There is also the bloodstained shirt which the brothers take back to their father as proof of Joseph’s death, as well as eyes, representing Joseph’s outward beauty. These figures are surrounded by representations of books, acting as religious scriptures–perhaps the Qur’an, Bible, and Torah, or perhaps generic representations of religious traditions. These books are connected by multicolored lines to show the intricate and close-knit relationship of the different traditions and the multitude of ways in which they all interact with the same story.
This week, we discussed the role that sound plays in Muslim worship. Sound and aural elements are at the very roots of Islam, beginning with the initial spread of Muhammad’s revelations. In “Reading the Qur’an”, Ziauddin Sardar writes, “Sound plays a very important part in the structure of the Qur’an. Before it was a written text, the Qur’an existed as sound; this is why it is often compared to an epic poem” (14). Muhammad began to spread God’s word orally, by speaking to other people, who then spoke the same things to others, and so on. The Qur’an was only written down and integrated into a single material book later on; before that, it existed in people’s memories.
Although this is no longer the case today, sound continues to play a major role in Islam. I chose to make this drawing as a representation of the act of listening, and as a statement of the importance of sound in the religion. The Imam’s call to prayer is an integral part of the daily soundscape in many modern Muslim cities. Additionally, Qur’an recitations are popular, both in their role as a form of worship and as a sort of art or entertainment form. Sardar writes, “Even to this day, millions of Muslims continue to commit the entire Qur’an to memory. Listening to Qur’an recitation is a popular art form, one in which the entire audience would be aware of any mistake that disturbed the sound structure as much as it would the meaning of what is being recited” (15).
To represent the importance of sound within Muslim culture and worship, I used colored pencils to draw a visual representation of the act of hearing the basmalah, the invocation of God that is recited before almost every sura, or chapter, of the Qur’an. Translated, it means, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” The basmalah is an essential component of Muslim worship, and one that is heard and spoken aloud often. The picture shows an ear, separate from distinctive features of any individual human being, representing the universality of the experience. The way in which the basmalah leads directly into the ear and is connected to it represents the view that the Muslim listener is one with God and with the word of the Qur’an. I depicted the act of listening as a whole, holy, and self-contained experience.
This week, we discussed communities of interpretation within the Muslim world. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the issue of succession became a major point of contention among his followers. This led to the first and largest split in Islam: the division between those who endorsed the historical caliphate, subsequently named the Sunni, and those who believed that Ali was the legitimate and designated successor to the Prophet, called the Shia. In “Diversity in Islam: Communities of Interpretation”, Farhad Daftary writes, “In time, the Sunni and Shias themselves were subdivided into a number of smaller communities and groupings with particular theological and legal doctrines that evolved gradually over several centuries. In addition to the Sunnis and the Shia, other communities of interpretation in the form of religio-political movements or schools of thought began to appear among the early Muslims during this formative period” (161).
I find the idea of communities of interpretation to be fascinating, and I think that it ties in to the idea of varied individual interpretations of religion in an interesting way. Different people, or different groups of people, can take varied, or even opposing, ideas out of the same source material. This is especially evident in the wide range of individual and cultural interpretations of Islam visible throughout the world today.
I wanted to represent the essential idea of communities of interpretation through this photo set. Each picture features a different individual, who can represent either an individual in the Muslim world or a larger group. Each photo is set in a different location, symbolizing the wide variety of backgrounds and cultural contexts that exist within the world of Islam, and which can affect an individual’s or a group’s interpretation of religion. There are windows illuminating each setting, as light is a major symbol in Islam, particularly in the form of the Light of the Prophet. Each person is reading a book, which can be seen as a representation of the Qur’an or as a generic representation of any religious scripture; the different colored sweaters worn by each person are symbols of outward manifestations of varied interpretations of the same source.