March 2014

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“To-day shall the rose be turned out of its delightful spot by the tyranny of the thistle. Dear sister, if any dust happen to settle on the rosy cheeks of my lovely daughter Sukainah, be pleased to wash it away most tenderly with the rose-water of thy tears.”

– Imam Husain in The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain

 

In The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain, Husain says this to his sister who has already begun to mourn his coming death. This line metaphorically addresses Husain’s future martyrdom by drawing on the common symbolism of the rose to represent the Prophet and his family, since the rose is seen as the perfect flower (much like Muhammad is seen as the perfect human). The rose is even said to have been created out of Muhammad’s sweat.

I painted a picture of this metaphor (and along the way discovered how difficult painting with watercolors is).  I drew a red thistle at the top, whose prickly nature parallels the animosity of Husain’s enemies (particularly his murderer, Shimr). It is high up on the page to reflect Shimr’s military success, while the rose (the symbol for Husain) is beneath it. While I chose to make the rose red in order to make it more recognizable, I decided to draw the rays coming out of it in green and the rays from the thistle as red. These mirror the colors in Ta’ziyah traditionally associated with Shimr (red) and the Family of the Prophet (green). The rose is in a tear drop, both to visually represent the rose-water used to brush away the brown clouds of dust on Sukainah’s cheeks, but also to represent the tears of the Shii Muslims who mourn Husain’s death at Karbala every year during the month of Muharram.

While the thistle may occupy the “delightful spot” in this picture, stories like Husain’s which depict martyrdom and failure (in this life, at least) are used by Shii Muslims to help them persevere through their historical persecution by Sunni Muslims for their “heretical beliefs.” While the rose may be turned out of its spot, Shii Muslims are assured that their continued faith in their Imam and their form of Islam will ensure that their suffering on earth will not be for nothing.

 

“Know first that never did that sacred body

Cast shadow on earth, not e’en at noonday;

From head to foot his frame was light in essence,

And sure it is that light has not a shadow.

Above that noble head there hung unfailing,

A cloudy fragment sent from heav’n to shield him;

Its shadow cooled the burning heats of summer,

And where he moved the cloud to him was faithful.”

– The Mevlidi Sherif

 

This excerpt from the Mevlidi Sherif produces a powerful image that I wanted to depict in a drawing. The idea that the Nur Muhammad could physically manifest itself in the literal lack of a shadow stood out to me, as did the conflicting connotations of shade in this passage. While the light of Muhammad, a sacred and divine phenomenon, is seen as banishing shadows, God’s love for the prophet is simultaneously expressed through shade as a protection from the light of the sun. This positive connotation for shade is also seen in phrases like “in the shade of Allah,” which refer to having God’s blessing supporting your actions.

In line with the central issue of shade and shadows in this passage, I made shadows prevalent in the picture. The drawing is meant to take place in the desert at sunset, when the sun casts long shadows over all things. The figure is meant to be Muhammad while on one of his trips as a merchant, and the green tent is supposed to support this since green is the color of the Family of the Prophet. The issues in some cultures with the figural representation of the Prophet, along with the fact that the Nur Muhammad is depicted in this passage very literally as light, compelled me to leave the details and color out of Muhammad himself. I used his outline to show his general figure, but kept him white and empty to show that he is special; he is made up of pure light. The single cloud hanging in the sky provides shade from the harsh sun in the area where Muhammad stands, but since he is made of light, shade never actually covers his figure and he never casts a shadow.

 

“My desire is to visit your tomb—fulfill it if you desire:

For me it is most difficult [to accomplish], for you most easy.

None can go astray while following you,

Because those footsteps are the lamps on the road to faith.”

– Khalil, Armaghan-I na’t

 

This section of a na’t from In Praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu Poems inspired me to make a collage. The collage uses a black background to incorporate the light mysticism referenced in the last line, the black representing the human tendency to be forgetful of God, contrasted against the white of the road created by Muhammad’s footsteps and of the mosque in the center. The white road represents the divine path of Islam (specifically the Sirat al-Mustaqim, or Straight Path) that is meant to provide guidance in an otherwise chaotic world. The footsteps themselves were cut out from a picture of a sunrise to reflect how the life and sunnah of the prophet, as recounted in the hadith, serve to illuminate the Sirat al-Mustaqim for many Muslims.

Because the na’t addresses Muhammad and specifically mentions the desire to visit his tomb, I put the Mosque of the Prophet (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, where his tomb is located) at the end of the path. Many Muslims from around the world go on pilgrimages to the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina to express their devotion to him, and since this na’t is part of a long tradition of Prophet-veneration, it seemed fitting that visiting Al-Masjid al-Nabawi would be on the road of faith. It is important to note that not all Muslim sects believe in such prophet-veneration. Wahhabi Muslims (who often go by Muwahhidun, meaning “monotheists”) oppose the veneration of any figure besides God himself, and thus do not practice traditions centered around Muhammad or follow guidance from the Hadith, and some have exerted their political influence in Saudi Arabia to restrict other Muslims from visiting shrines of important figures from Islamic history that serve as shrines for Muslims of other sects of Islam.

However, while Wahhabi Muslims would not see the Mosque of the Prophet as an appropriate symbol for the Sirat al-Mustaqim, prophet veneration is a very common theme in most other sects of Islam around the world, and since this poem is part of that tradition, I decided to put Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in there anyways. Additionally, since many such Muslims think of Muhammad as the prefect human, the mosque also represents the Prophet’s sunnah and how following his example to become an ideal Muslim is the ultimate goal for many on the path of faith.

The cracks between the black sections are random and break up the darkness to give it a chaotic appearance in comparison to the solid white path that creates a sense of order. However, the mosque itself is also made up of different fragments and shades, and the footsteps vary in color as well. This reflects how, despite its homogeneous depiction in Western media, the term Islam encompasses a collection of culturally unique and contrasting traditions and beliefs from around the world.