Interpretation of “Martydom of Husain”


With this piece I sought to symbolically represent the martyrdom of Husain as the extinguishing of a fire.  The fire on the left represents not only Husain as grandson of Mohammed, and so with it being extinguished the extinguishing of one of the members of the family of the prophet, but also the strong piety of Husain.  He was an upstanding man of integrity who went to his death knowingly because of what he believed in.  Because of this he shines as an example throughout history.  The dark figures extinguishing the fire are figuratively the army of Yazid.  The figures are shrouded in darkness and the scene is depicted at night, although Husain actually died during the day, to represent the moral darkness of the act, the terribleness of Husain’s murder, and also to emphasize how Husain shines out as a the example of an excellent and pious man against their darkness.  The continuity of Husain as a figure of strong religious significance is represented by the coals on the right of the painting, which are left even after the fire is put out.  Although Yazid’s army was able to kill Husain, they unwittingly cemented his place in history.  Now, in many situations of injustice and oppression, Husain is invoked on the side of those who are oppressed and Yazid on the side of the oppressor.  Yazid’s victory can thus be seen as very temporary.  The coals, stretching off over the horizon in the distance, represent this permanence of Husain.  Despite the extinguishing of the blaze that was Husain the righteous man, his example continues to inspire.  The coals also represent the Imamate which follows from Husain and which is of such significance to Shia Muslims.

Martydom of Husain


Interpretation of “Stranger” Poem


I began this project first as an attempt to explore the Adhan by meditating on how I perceived and experienced the recitations we were exposed to in class, and then by recording my own version.  I admit I was motivated by a dislike for what I perceived were certain trends in Adhan recitation.  These trends were the tonal nasality and melismatic embellishment found in all the recordings.  I wanted a clean, pure sound.  I reflected on the observation that my perception of the Adhan was affected by the fact that I had almost no previous exposure to both the Adhan and other non-Western semi musical recitation.  It also seemed quite reasonable to assume that a Muslim American person of similar age and cultural experience to myself would not have the same problem I had with the Adhan because of a lifetime exposure to it and its stylistic manifestations, and so even though they might have had a very similar exposure to other forms of musical culture as myself because they were American, they would still have a developed appreciation for the Adhan.  But this is of course to assume that appreciation for the Adhan is almost like an acquired taste that is not the natural state, that only experience, i.e. exposure and repetition, can inculcate it, and does not take into account the possibility that perhaps it is my unique history of cultural exposure and engagement that somehow prevents me from much appreciating the prevailing style of Adhan recitation.  Indeed it may be this other way around as it seemed from the overwhelming response of other students in the class that Adhan recitations of exceeding melisma and nasality were appreciated by non-Muslim students who had little experience with it.

My most striking reflections came as I began to actually recite the Adhan in my own style.  I immediately felt uncomfortable.  I was of course aware that I was trampling over every rule of Arabic pronunciation and liturgical recitation, and although at first this hadn’t seemed like too important of an obstacle since there was no way for me to avoid it, I realized that full engagement necessitated accuracy.  I was even more thrown off balance by the reflection that these words I was reading were not merely props for vocal expression but the core tenets of a faith.  So much of class lectures and readings have emphasized the oral nature of the Quran, how it was not meant to just be words on a page, that I realized butchering the Adhan, as I certainly seemed to be doing, might not just be innocent experimentation but perhaps highly offensive to a believer for whom these words were actually spoken by God.  How could I speak them again so poorly?  There was also the element of false profession.  I don’t believe the truth claims these words make, and although at first I thought it signified nothing to say the Adhan for a class project and in a language I don’t even understand, I realized that perhaps there is some kind of real meaning to the spoken word that obtains even though it is spoken without sincerity of literal meaning.  This made me anxious about trespassing on the sacred of Islam and as well as the sacred of my own faith.  In short, I was plunged into confusion.  I felt like I was spinning around in circles looking at something entirely foreign and unsure of whether I had a right to engage with it in the way I had intended, prohibited perhaps by its own religious standing and perhaps by my own, and so I wrote this poem to express the that confusion.  I hope if conveys this odd strandedness.





Standing and turning.


Do I face a real unknown?

Or a familiar countenance

in unfamiliar veil.


Partly mine and not my own;

What I survey I do

as traveler:

Where do I trespass?

Where am I at home?


This is not my land

these are not my words,

my sounds,

and to partake may be forbidden

by some unknown orthodoxy:

is it other or my own?

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