Islam Through the Eyes of an Outsider
I grew up Catholic and attended Catholic school for seven years. My teachers were sisters who were always covered from head-to-toe by the habit. As girls, we were required to wear tights and sweaters even in the summer to cover ourselves.
When I was in the seventh grade, I switched to public school. Not many people were Catholic there. Students wore what they wanted, and so did the teachers. But I did notice a group that seemed to have grown up in a similar environment as I had: the Muslim girls. They would always cover themselves—even their hair sometimes. They would pray multiple times per day, as my family would. They fasted during their holy season as I did during mine.
Even as Republicans in New Jersey after September 11, my parents saw the value in my friendships with the Muslim girls. My parents made friends with their parents, and I would go to their houses for dinner. I went to their parties and met their aunties (most were Pakistani and thus had aunties). I did not see them as any different from me, except for their denial of Jesus’ status as Son of God. But dogmatically and culturally, they were similar to my Catholic upbringing.
When I got to Harvard and “lost my religion,” as often happens to young adults during their first time away from home, I still retained an academic interest in the similarities between my (now somewhat lax) religion and Islam. I still needed to fulfill my Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding requirement my senior year, and CB12: For the Love of God and His Prophet seemed like a perfect course for me. I would not be bogged down with doctrine, which had admittedly jaded me on Catholicism, but would instead be exploring the cultural and aesthetic context of Islam. I would be studying its people rather than its tenets.
Early on in the course, I realized that I would have trouble creating Islamic art as a non-Muslim. I do not have fervor in me for the Prophet. I did not grow up surrounded primarily by Islamic art or culture. God—who I had always seem represented in human form—was inspiring me to create figural art. I had grown up surrounded by statues and religious icons (Catholicism does love its statues and icons), with the occasional calligraphic art I came across at the houses of my Muslim friends. I focused on not making anything that could potentially be seen as offensive to the religion I sought to understand.
But I quickly realized that this artwork was supposed to reflect my own understanding of Islam. And I would naturally see Islam through a Catholic and Western lens, having grown up Catholic in New Jersey. I abandoned all pretenses that I was a non-Muslim Muslim artist and instead adopted the perspective that I was an American “artist” inspired by Islam’s people and teachings. I sought out themes in the course that I could identify with and interpreted them in a Western artistic context. I used traditional media such as paint and clay but was also drawn to nontraditional media such as melted crayons, spray paint, and paper.
“Week 2,” “Week 4,” “Week 10,” and “Week 13” relate to Islamic devotion. The first depicts a scene in which Rabia al-Adawiyya tried to burn heaven and set fire to hell in order to emphasize the purest form of devotion: love. I connected to this story because in both Islam and my own religion, there seems to be much tension over dogma: Should sexual protection be allowed in a life-saving context? Should women be covered from head-to-toe when outside? Can women be leaders in the faith? Can holy texts be translated? Questions such as these have permeated discourse within and across religions.
In wanting essentially destroy the afterlife, Rabia wanted to refocus people on unqualified love of God. If rewards and punishments were removed (ex: burning in hell or thriving in heaven), people would have no selfish reasons to subscribe to or fight over loveless dogma. There would only be love of God. People would know how to act because they would do what they felt showed their devotion to God. If this required providing life-saving condoms to women in Africa or marrying a same-sex partner, it would not matter what conventional dogma stated regarding these issues.
“Week 10” can be viewed as a follow-up piece to “Week 2,” as it also deals with the Sufi ideas of proper devotion. In it, a parrot, once afraid of death and bound to earthly beauty, is seen flying away from his self-imposed cage. He was able to do this by obliterating his ego, accepting death, and following God. A woman still sits inside the cage, trapped by her ties to earthly life and desire for immortality. The woman can viewed as representing me as the artist or the general human condition. It is a piece inspired by Farid Attar’s The Conference of the Birds. As in “Week 2,” earthly worries are seen as a hindrance to finding the Way, rather than as a path to it.
My response to Week 4 was perhaps the most difficult response for me to make as a non-Muslim. Week 4 focused on Muhammad. Though in Week 2 I was able to draw on my experiences with Catholicism and the One God as inspiration, Muhammad had no special personal meaning for me. I chose to depict Muhammad as the Light at the center of the creation of the universe. I used melted crayons to help me to focus on the journey of creation. For me, the creation of the piece was more informative than the outcome. I do not subscribe to the idea that Muhammad was the reason for the creation of the universe, but seeing the yellow crayons cut the darkness of the gray and black crayons during the melting process over the course of an hour-or-so helped me to conceptualize what an important place the inspirer of the universe must have in the hearts of Muslims who subscribe to this thinking.
“Week 13” reflects the role of suffering and bloodshed in devotion across religions and specifically within Shi’a Islam. As the narrator says in Blue-Eyed Devil, “I’m no anthropologist, but Blood Atonement could be the world’s oldest religious idea, so old and deeply rooted that it doesn’t even need religion” (p.60). The practice of matam in Islam reminded me of self-flagellation in Catholicism; my grandmother used to wear something with the texture of a brillo pad over her heart in order to remind her of Christ’s suffering. Across races and religions, we not only divided but also united by blood and blood atonement.
Women and Western Influence
“Week 6” and “Week 12” deal with the role of women in Islam, particularly in the context of Westernization. “Women in Islam” is a frequently debated topic in not just Islamic but also Western discourse. Most recently, the banning of the burqa in France has resulted in the West being seen as both a liberator and oppressor. The veil is similarly seen as either a symbol of religious devotion or as a means of oppression. The West and the veil, though seemingly in opposition to each other, both share the characteristic of being extremely polarizing.
“Week 6” started out as a response to the debates over Orientalism, or the misguided interpretation of Islamic art by Western scholars. I chose to make a very Western-styled figural picture in spray-pained street art in order to express my desire to reinterpret rather than recreate Islamic are as a Westerner. However, in looking back at my collection of creative responses, I think that it also speaks to the role of Muslim women, particularly in America. The background for the picture is the skyline of Dallas. Two Muslim women stand in the foreground, one wearing a niqab and the other a business suit with no headcovering. They are holding hands. Neither judges the other for her respective choices with regard to veiling. They are able to walk through the city together both as strong, unoppressed women. The Arabic word “Allah” is written in the foreground to emphasize that He is always present.
“Week 12” also deals with different forms of dress. It consists of a paper doll with clothes ranging from a burqa to doctor/nurse scrubs to a clubwear dress. Some articles of clothing were inspired by what my friends would wear back in high school to cover themselves while still looking stylish. A modern Muslim woman can express her style through what she wears in private or through more colorful, patterned hijabs. No matter what the doll wears, she is always smiling, reflecting that a Muslim woman can be happy regardless of what she is wearing.
An Outsider’s Art Revisited
I hope that the overall effect of my collection overall is to demonstrate my journey towards a personal understanding of Islam. Throughout the class, I have seen many more parallels between my Catholic upbringing and the teachings of Islam than I have seen irreconcilable differences. My emphasis on the themes of devotion and women and Western influence reflect a desire to find similarities between my beliefs and those of Islam. Devotion to God is common across monotheistic religions, as is an ongoing debate about the role of women and the “perils” of modernization. Though I am still an outside in the Islamic community, to which I cannot clam to belong, I am no longer a complete foreigner.