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.

Week 13


In reading Blue-Eyed Devil, I was struck by the themes of opposition and of blood.  The rhetoric of the Nation of Islam and Five-Percenters created an opposition of white devils versus black Muslims.  (The Nation of Islam was a response to white-imposed racial divisions, but I speak here only to the religious implications.)  Michael was navigating this landscape as an ironically self-proclaimed “blue-eyed devil” looking for fellow Muslim brothers and sisters.

Alongside the overarching theme of black-white opposition and Muslim brotherhood, I noticed a concurrent but more implicit theme of blood and suffering.  Personally, Michael suffered at the hands of his mentally ill father.  Religiously, Michael references the martyrdom of Imam Husain numerous times, an event that defined Shi’a Islam as a sect born out of suffering rather than triumph.  Institutionally, as mentioned prior, the Nation of Islam gained momentum as a response to the systematic oppression of blacks in America.

In Chapter 10 of Blue-Eyed Devil, the idea of “blood atonement” is explored, with Michael writing: “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).  He relates the idea to depressed self-injurers, thumb-task wrestlers, Jesus’ suffering on the cross, the martyrdom of Husain, and the assassination of Malcom X.  He attends a ceremony of matam (self-injury in commemoration of Husain) and, dissatisfied with its tameness, performs his own act of crying blood by pouring thumbtacks on the floor and throwing himself on them.

For my creative response, I made an abstract piece incorporating the themes of opposition and blood.  One half of the canvass is white and the other black, in direct reference to the black-white struggle in the Nation of Islam but also representing other oppositions (ex: Christian vs. Muslim, Sunni vs. Shi’a).  In the middle is a “tear” of blood that touches both sides.  This is to represent both the bloodshed spilled in the fighting between both sides and the blood atonement common to both sides.  Blood both divides and unites us in life and death.

Week 12


Week 12 focused on the role of the female in Islam.  As has seemed to be a common theme throughout this course, interpretations of the Qur’an are very culturally bound and are use differentially to support the oppression and empowerment of Muslim women.  The veil is one point of contention in the Muslim world, though its importance has perhaps been overemphasized in Western discourse.  The practice of veiling is based on the following verses of the Qur’an:

…And tell the believing women to be chaste in their looking and to keep their sexual impulses under control not parading their charms beyond what is chastely seen but drawing their veils over their bosoms… Surah 24:30-31

…Tell your wives, your daughters and the women folk of believers to draw their veils closely around them. This will facilitate their being identified for who they are and will save them from molestation….God is forgiving and merciful. Surah 33:59

It has been interpreted to suggest anything from simple modesty to full coverage with the burqa.

In Persepolis, the veil is viewed by the narrator and her progressive family as oppressive and unnecessary.  When the veil first became mandatory, Marjane is seen playing around with it along with her classmates (p.3).  However, the necessity and seriousness of the veil becomes apparent to Marjane and her family when her mother is harassed on the streets for walking unveiled (p.74).  To Marjane, the veil is a symbol of political and religious oppression.

Not all Muslim women see the veil as oppressive, however.  In the Divas PBS show, women expressed its value as a modesty tool, a nationalistic and religious symbol, and a rebellion against the influence and power of the West.  Younger women also were more willing to incorporate the veil into their outfits, often color-coordinating it or choosing patterned headscarves.  Unlike in Persepolis, the veil was not a burden.

For my creative response, I made a paper dress-up doll of a young Muslim woman.  I found a doll pattern online and adapted it to look in the style of the artwork of Persepolis.  I made a range of articles of clothing, veils, and accessories: doctor/nurse scrubs, hijabs, shayla hijabs, a chador, a niqab, a burqa, long-sleeved shirts, long skirts, jeans, a clubwear dress, a purse, and a cellphone.  I wanted to encompass the range of coverings: from a full burqa to a covering from the wrists to ankles in Western clothing (as by wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans).  One of the shirts is short-sleeved but has sheer add-on sleeves; this is a style that many of my Muslim friends would wear in high school.  The dress is not modest by any standards but was inspired by a story my TF told in section of women taking off their burqas in a club and wearing skimpy outfits underneath.  I hope my doll and clothing encompass the range of clothing worn by Muslim women.

Week 10


In response to Conference of the Birds in section during Week 10, we were each asked to identify with a particular bird.  I felt that I identified most with the parrot.  The parrot is obsessed with earthly beauty and does not want to have to die to be free.  She seeks immortality rather than love; she feels that in immortality lies freedom.  She is green, a color reflecting the color of earth and also a reference to Khezr, who drank from a fountain of immorality and is known in Sufism as “the Green One” due to his ties to nature.  I similarly place a large emphasis on earthly beauty and fear death.

Addressing the parrot, the hoopoe shares a fictional story of a meeting between Khezr and a person who lived for God’s love alone.  In response to Khezr’s request for companionship, the lover of God responds: “…life is your cause / As death is mine – you wish to live, while I / Impatiently prepare myself to die” (p.49).  In other words, a true lover of God cannot wait to leave his earthly self behind and obliterate the ego.  In it, he can find true freedom that would only be hindered by immortality: “Know that we are born to die; the sould moves on; / The heart is pledged and hastens to be gone” (p.131).

In my creative response, I crafted a cage out of wire and within it made a patch of green to represent earth.  I put a person in the center to represent me, or really anyone who is caged by their desire for immortality.  Outside the cage, the parrot is flying away, because by the end of The Conference of the Birds, she is able to find the Way and uncage herself from the lure of earth.  The idea would be for the person still in the cage to follow the journey of the parrot in order to free themselves.

Week 6


This week’s readings focused on Western conceptions of Islamic art.  Two main opposing points were presented: Nasr argued that Islamic art was directly inspired by God and thus could not be understood outside of a Muslim context; Necipoglu argued for a cultural contextualization of Islamic art.  Both fought against Orientalism and a solely Western interpretation of art and ornamentation.  As a non-Muslim who is studying Islamic art, I naturally gravitated more to Necipoglu’s perspective, which allows for an understanding, through thorough research, of art, whereas to Nasr the art would be inaccessible to me.

In this art piece, I chose to extrapolate Necipoglu’s argument for cultural context and semiotics into a highly Western picture.  Necipoglu, and Al-Faruqi, to an extent, claimed that Western critics do not have the correct cultural context for Islamic art and thus count not fully understand it when trying to analyze it according to Western ideals.  I should note that while the week’s readings were primarily concerned with religious ornamentation, I instead chose to create “Islam-inspired” art.  In a sense, I have stepped away from trying to emulate Islamic art from previous centuries and in cultures which I am unfamiliar with.  I have accepted my place as a 21st-century, non-Muslim, Western “artist” (I use the latter term quite loosely!).

To imbue my art with my own culture, I drew from my experience growing up in a Muslim and Hindu area in New Jersey.  For the medium, I chose “street art,” as it is, in my opinion, very reflective of the current times.  It is also a nod to my New York roots; I grew up surrounded by graffiti.  As Necipoglu mentioned, different styles of Muslim (ornamental) art, such as the Timurid-Turkmen revetment aesthetic, were used to tie culturally similar groups of people together.  Street art could be said to tie people who have roots in urban areas together.  The skyline in the background further underscores this link to city life.  I also, due to my Western upbringing, chose to use figures in my art.  They are not religious figures but, rather, depictions of ordinary Muslims you might come across in my hometown and the surrounding areas.

Week 4


In the readings from this week, I was struck by the conceptions of Muhammad as being a “special” figure.  I realize that this is not a view shared by all Muslims, but it was nonetheless surprising to me as a non-Muslim.  Muhammad is seen as an intercessor on behalf of those who bless him and his family.  Furthermore, an extra-Qur’anic revelation reads, “but for your sake, I would not have created the spheres.”  This suggests that Muhammad has a special role in human existence: he inspired Allah to create the world.  An additional mystical concept, the Light of Muhammad, states that before the universe there existed a light out of which was created the universe and which inspired the prophets until its full expression in Muhammad.  This is reflected in a line from one of the Na’ts in the Asani reading: “The entire universe shines from the radiance of Muhammad’s light.”

For my creative response, I wanted to depict the melding together of creation out of nothingness with Muhammad as the inspiration, and its “Light.”  I had seen pictures of “melting crayon art” around the internet and decided to use it to represent my concept.  I chose crayons that were either dark (to represent nothingness) or light (to represent Muhammad and creation).  I put the light crayons in the center to emphasize that Muhammad is the center of creation, and the impetus for it.  To further emphasize Muhammad’s central role in creation, I wrote his name in calligraphy in the center of the canvas.  I then melted the crayons with a hairdryer.  They all joined together into a “creation” with Muhammad at the center of it.

Week 2


In this week’s readings, I was struck by the amount of confusion about Islam both from within and without.  It was frustrating to read the Sardar reading, in which the author describes her fond memories of growing up with the Qur’an and contrasts them with the ways in which the words of the Qur’an have been distorted to serve political and nationalistic purposes.  I could not believe that one verse of the Qur’an has been interpreted variously to either condemn persecution or to promote it.

The Asani reading offered an anecdote of a Sufi saint, Rabia al-Adawiyya, who wanted to burn heaven and drown hell in order to prevent people from fixating so much on the rewards and punishments of the afterlife.  She is reported to have said:

O Lord, if I worship you out of fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I worship you out of hope of paradise, forbid it to me.
And if I worship you for Your own sake,
Do not deprive me of Your eternal beauty.

She instead believed that love of God was the singularly most important, and perhaps only, facet of Muslim life.  Though this proposal to destroy the afterlife is clearly radical and figurative, I found it to be a refreshing contrast to the painstaking (mis)analysis of the Qur’an depicted in the Sardar and Asani readings.  With the strict guidelines and recommendations set forth by the Qur’an and its interpreters, as a non-Muslim (and perhaps as a Muslim, though I cannot speak to that experience), it is easy to forget that Islam is foremost a religion about submission to and love of God.

With this perspective in mind, I chose to paint the scene of Rabia al-Adawiyya with a torch and pitcher of water with a background of heaven and hell, respectively.  During her excursion through the streets with a torch and pitcher, she responded to questions about her intentions with:

I am looking for Paradise so that with this fire I can burn it and I am also looking for Hell so that with this water I can put out its fires…Because people worship God either out of hope (of going to Paradise) or out of fear (of being cast into Hell).

My painting should evoke, as Rabia intended, a visceral response from the viewer, as the prospect of destroying the afterlife is heretical.  However, it should also make the viewer question what they themselves would do should the there be no “incentives” to follow the guidelines of the Qur’an (or of their respective religious text).  The Qur’an in fact warns against the dangers of performing charitable works only to serve selfish purposes (2:264).  I hope that my painting abstractly portrays this concept.

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