Civry's CB12 Blog

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Introductory Essay

Filed under: Uncategorized — civry at 9:28 pm on Thursday, May 3, 2012

When I first saw For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures on the spring course website, I was extremely excited. After living in Morocco all summer, I had become quite interested in Islam. I had looked for a class on Islam that fall, but I had not found one that fit into my schedule or met any general education requirements. I was behind on meeting my Gen Ed requirements, so I had to take at least three Gen Ed courses this year. Not only did Culture and Belief 12 give me a Gen Ed and an introduction to Islam, but it also appeased my creative side and my love of art. I am an extremely visual person and that side of my brain has not gotten enough attention in my life. I never took an art class or delved into any visual art extracurricular in high school or college. Yet I have always noticed about myself that I remember things more when I engage visually and experientially. I loved the idea of the class on paper and I hoped it would meet my expectations.

The reason why I first became interested in Islam was because of Morocco. I went to Morocco for the first time with my grandma when I was 15. Before that point, I had never known a single Muslim personally. In just the week that I was there, I met so many Muslim people and I enjoyed learning about their culture and their values. I was incredibly struck by the beauty of the art, architecture, and the Arabic language. I loved looking at the beautiful squiggly lines on the signs and on my coke bottle. I longed to learn what they meant.

My senior year when I learned that my high school was offering an introductory Arabic class, I signed up immediately. In a short semester I learned the Arabic script and many conversational and introductory words. I absolutely loved every minute of it. My Arabic teacher would always play popular music from the Arab world at the end of every class and I always looked forward to that. Although I still knew very little about Islam, what I knew about the language and culture enthralled me.

The next year at Harvard, I wasn’t sure if I would continue to take Arabic, but I had to meet the language requirement so I decided to take it anyway. I continued to enjoy it and I decided to go back to Morocco that summer to study at the Arabic Language Institute in Fez. This was when my real interest in Islam began. Over the summer, I made many close friends who were serious Muslims. I learned more about what the Qur’an says from what my Muslim friends said. I started to think deeply about Islam and question all of my preconceived notions. The topics that particularly interested me were those that concerned women and the hijab, and I often got into lengthy conversations with other students and my Moroccan friends about the hijab, virginity, marriage, and the role of women in Moroccan culture. So after being immersed in an Islamic society for an entire summer, I longed to learn more about what I had witnessed over the summer, and I found the perfect class in which I could do that.

Over the course of this class, I have created six creative responses to the readings we have done that also encapsulate many of the themes that interest me. I have created artistic pieces using many different combinations of mediums, such as knitting, photography, colored pencil, watercolors, collage, and paint. It has been a wonderful experience being able to represent my ideas visually and make a statement that reflects my thoughts and feelings on certain issues. I have learned that sometimes it is much easier to demonstrate ideas through pictures than through words. After this class, the saying, “A picture is worth more than a thousand words” has taken on a new meaning for me. Art is almost its own language, and it is something that can be interpreted universally. You don’t need to understand Arabic to comprehend the beauty of Arabic calligraphy or the Qur’an when it is recited with perfect tajweed. You don’t have to understand Hafez’s wordplay and metaphors to appreciate the beauty of his imagery. So many works of Islamic art don’t need any explanation in order to grasp the magnitude of their beauty and the power of their message.

On the first day of class, hearing Professor Asani talk about some of the issues that had really concerned me over the summer, and after reading The Infidel of Love, I knew I was definitely taking the class. I was really struck by the idea that Islam and America have much of the same ideals, as Professor Asani stressed that day and I would come to learn for myself throughout the course. While sitting in lecture that first week, an image came to my mind and I knew I had to use it in a creative response. The image was of the word “Islam” written in English and Arabic script yet interconnected so that you could read it from left to right and see Islam, and read it from right to left and see the same word written in Arabic script. I particularly liked this idea because it seemed to highlight the fact that even though the Qur’an is only the word of God when written in Arabic, Islam itself is a universal concept that can be understood anywhere and in any language.

One other excellent aspect of this class was the outside opportunities it provided to learn more about Islam experientially. One of the opportunities I was able to participate in was the Comic Book Workshop that was offered at the CMES. That was a really cool experience that taught me a lot about juxtaposition in works of art and about interpreting images and symbols in new ways. One activity we did was look at a word in Arabic such as the word for freedom, tahrir, when it is stretched across the boxes of a comic. We were asked what new meaning we could pick up just from looking at the shape of the letters and how they were placed. To me, it looked like an arm was reaching for something it had lost, trying to reclaim it. We talked about the importance of the “gutter” in making comics and how the empty space between the pictures provides the reader with room to use their own imagination and make their own interpretations about what happens between the pictures. I tried to employ the tools we learned in that workshop to make my own comic depicting the words in the Qur’an about the light of the prophet that are so important to Islamic mysticism.

In my third artistic response before spring break, I decided to incorporate my ideas on the hijab with the idea of crying, which we had talked a lot about and had learned is important when reading, reciting, or listening to the Qur’an, the poems of Hafez and other notable Islamic poets, and the taziyeh in Iranian theatre. Crying is particularly important because it creates a deep emotional connection between a person and God, and it shows that the person is moved on a deeply spiritual level. Crying and wearing the hijab are both signs of piety that are highly external: they demonstrate one’s faith to others. While they can be real signifiers of piety, that can also easily be put on and replicated by someone who is not so religious. This creates an important struggle in Muslim societies that use the hijab as a symbol of Muslim identity. If a person wants to maintain their Muslim identity and be considered more religious, they will gain status in a highly religious community by covering up more.  Conversely, this could be said of Western cultures as well, particularly regarding women who wear a great deal of make-up and expose a lot of skin in order to gain status in their communities. Of course these women aren’t doing this for religious reasons, but that is because the societies they live in and/or the families in which they were raised did not emphasize religion. Instead, they were taught that women who show skin and look beautiful are able to attain a higher social status. People often try to say that putting on make-up is just another form of wearing a hijab, and this is true from a superficial level. In both cases, the females in question are hiding their true selves from men and are gaining acceptance/status in their respective cultures. However, these peripheral cues are just that: external. They say nothing about the beauty or true religious nature of the soul. Of course, there are many women who wear the hijab for the right religious reasons, not just to put up appearances and appease people, but because they truly believe it is the morally right thing to do. In my creative response, I was trying to demonstrate that crying and wearing a hijab are similar in their meaning and importance to Islamic cultures.

Continuing on the theme of superficiality, I decided to interpret the book The Conference of the Birds with a fashion shoot. I collaborated with my friend Theresa Tharakan on this project, and together we planned, photographed, modeled, and edited pictures of all ten birds that make excuses to hoopoe for why they do not want to go on a quest to find the Simorgh. We thought that fashion would best represent how the birds should be interpreted in our culture today, because like the birds, fashion is a vain, superficial activity that delves away from spirituality and piety. We worked hard to construct a certain recognizable persona for all of the birds in our photographs and put them together in one compiled image to demonstrate how they relate to one another.

My next response was an image that again came to me while I was sitting in lecture. We had been talking about dervishes and how when they spin, their skirt creates an endless circle that spiral around them. Immediately this spiral image came to my mind, and as I learned more about Sufism, I learned the importance of being close with God and how using a personal pronoun instead of God’s name, demonstrates that bond. I started to think of my image as the layers that a Sufi has to go through in order to obtain true knowledge and understanding of God. I decided to use the medium of knitting because it is a repetitive and almost spiritual task that is monotonous yet relaxing. It reminds me of the action of using prayer beads and repeating the shahada over and over again. Also the action of knitting is interconnecting yarn, which could be a metaphor for the interconnectedness of Sufis with God.

My last artistic response was a two-part response to Persepolis. I decided to respond particularly to the image of the girl who has a veil and an Islamic arabesque on one side of her head, and is uncovered with tools of knowledge on the other side of her head. This image represents a dichotomy between religion and secularism in her mind. I particularly relate to this image because I often feel I have a dichotomy between my Jewish heritage and my interest in the Middle East and Islam. I tried to convey this in a similar image to the one in the book. The second part of my response, however, is an image that takes the symbols of the three big religions and attaches them by a heart with the backdrop of the American flag. This represents what I have learned in this class: that America is a place that upholds the ideals of all three of these religions, and these three religions are united by their love for humanity, the worlds, and for God.

Self-Perceptions of Persepolis

Filed under: Uncategorized — civry at 2:49 pm on Thursday, May 3, 2012

While reading Persepolis, there was one image that was so powerful that I couldn’t get it out of my head. I wanted to end talking about this image because I feel it encapsulates what we have been discussing through out this entire course. The image is of a girl who is veiled on one side, with an Islamic arabesque coming out of her head, and unveiled on the other side, with tools of construction and knowledge surrounding her head. I decided to recreate this image with myself as the subject. I often find myself in a weird dichotomy between my own Jewish heritage, and my love of the Arabic language and Arab culture, mostly because of the conflict in Israel. I consider myself to be Jew-ish in that I am proud of my Jewish heritage, but I really know very little about it. My mother is Jewish and my father is Christian. I have been studying the Middle East and Islam for two years now, and I spent the last summer studying Arabic in Morocco. I often feel that my love of Arabic is a bigger part of my identity than my Jewish or Christian heritage. I feel that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity coexist in me, and that is not how the world is right now. I think this is how Marjane must have felt with her Muslim and secular identities growing up in Iran.

What this course has taught me is that we don’t need to divide our identity for the sake of religion. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all come from the same root and share the same values. America upholds these values most of the time, and it is a society that Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike can feel proud to be apart of.  I leave the course with a new image, full of color and love.

 

There is no God but He

Filed under: Uncategorized — civry at 2:00 am on Thursday, May 3, 2012

 

To represent the week 8 readings and lectures, I decided to create a symbol that I felt captured Sufism as a whole. One of the most important elements of Sufism is dhikr which means remembrance. When Sufis practice dhikr, they often repeat a certain phrase over and over again while doing a repetitive action, such as repeating “There is no God but God” while using prayer beads. I decided to use the medium of knitting because it is also a repetitive task and when you focus just on knitting, it is easy to let go of all thoughts and just focus on the task, and because of this, I think that Sufis would approve of it. I decided to create this symbol particularly for a number of reasons. The first reason is because of  Surah 3, verse 2, which states, “allah la ilh ila huwa” or “there is no God but he”. This phrase is called the shahada, where the reciter bares witness to the fact that there is only one God. Usually the phrase reads, “la ilaha ila allah” but occasionally it is substituted for a pronoun. I decided to represent the pronoun because I feel that it demonstrates a closeness and familiarity with God that all Sufis strive for. I chose to have the wow continue to wrap around the word because it reminded me of the skirt of a whirling dervish, moving around endlessly in a circle. The circles around the “huwa” also symbolize the layers of understanding about God. As it was stated in our week 8 readings, “Those who focus on the exterior manifestation of music to the exclusion of its interior form are deluded” (The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, 183). Here, God is the interior manifestation, and one has to go through many layers to get to him. This journey to achieve knowledge and understanding of God is very important to Sufis and one cannot understand music and dance fully until one understands Him.

 

The Conference of the Couture

Filed under: Uncategorized — civry at 10:39 pm on Wednesday, May 2, 2012

As a response to The Conference of the Birds, by Farid ud-Din Attar, Theresa and I decided to create a fashion shoot to represent each bird that makes an excuse to the hoopoe for why it does not want to go on a long journey to seek out the Simorgh, who the hoopoe wants to be their king. In the book, each of these birds represent a sin and demonstrate misguided views on looking at the world. In Sufism, it is important to loose oneself and ones ties to the material world and focus only on one’s love for God. Each of these birds fails to do this and is unable to see past certain material desires or bodily fears. We thought that a fashion shoot would be the best contemporary medium to demonstrate how the complaints of the birds are quite relavent in American society today. We decided to remove the background of the images and compile them into one large image to demonstrate that the complaints of the birds are universal and can apply to many humans across different cultures.

The first bird that makes its excuse is the nightingale, who is blinded by its material love of the rose. We decided to portray the nightingale as wearing a soft pink color, holding a rose and blowing a kiss to demonstrate its obsessive love for the rose.

The second bird to make its excuse is the parrot, who wears an all green cloak and seeks the stream of immortality. We decided to have the parrot gaze out at the world to demonstrate her need to break free from being “caged by heartless men” (38).

The peacock is described as having “haughty looks” and many colors, and it longs to return to paradise. We decided to put the peacock in a proud, show-stopping dress would give it the attention it seeks.

The next bird that speaks is the duck, who does not want to leave its home in the water to find the Simorgh. It describes itself as coy and clean, so we decided to put it in very clean looking clothes and give it a air of arrogance because it thinks it is more pure than the other birds.

We decided to depict the partridge in a jeweled black dress holding a string of pearls to demonstrate that its “one desire is jewels” (41-42).

The homa is depicted as wearing a business outfit in order to represent its hunger for power and success. The homa says about itself, “I am not  as other birds, but soar and fly on lofty aspiration’s lordly wings” (43).

The hawk also longs for power, but unlike the homa, has not yet achieved it. We depicted the hawk as wearing all grey and staring up at the homa’s power, longing to snatch it away.

The heron is very depressed, it says, “My misery prefers the empty shoreline of the sea” (46), so we decided to put it in all black and depict it as gazing longingly at the other birds.

The owl is concerned only for finding buried treasure, namely gold, so we decided to depict it looking appreciatively at a golden chain.

Lastly, the finch says that it, “lacks the courge that (its) betters share” so we decided to depict it as a timid little girl, looking up admiringly at the other birds.

Tears for the Prophet

Filed under: Uncategorized — civry at 11:44 pm on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

“The sweetest of relationships is that with the Prophet;

all the rest are meaningless!

The Creator created you [Muhammad] in the highest rank.

My moist eyes…

The Lady Amina gave birth to the Lord smilingly.

My moist eyes…

O Muhammad, the Arab, I, “the rebel,” am afraid

My moist eyes…” (Poem by ‘Abd ur-Ra’uf Bhatti)

 

This poem, which was in Professer Asani’s article in the week 4 readings, depicts the experience of reading the hadith, the collections of sayings of the prophet Mohammed, and crying because his words are so moving.  The lines are continuously cut off by the refrain “my moist eyes” to show that the author is so touched by Mohammed that he is speechless and can do nothing but weep. Unlike in some of his other poetry, in which he uses the third person, Bhatti chooses to use the first person in this poem. This highlights the deeply personal effect that reading the Hadith and the Qur’an have on Muslims, and demonstrates that one should form ones own relationship with the Prophet.

My creative response to this poem is a self-portrait in which you can only see my eyes. I am crying from reading the words of the prophet Mohammed in the Hadith, and also as a way of imitating him. As my tears flow, they are becoming a hijab that covers my face and my head and protects me from the world. My face is devoid of color to highlight the intensity of my tears, which are a vibrant blue. I decided to create this visual representation in order to demonstrate the power of crying, not only within this poem, but in the Muslim world. As we have discussed in lecture, many Muslims make themselves cry when they read the Qur’an with the hope that if they continue to do this, it will eventually happen naturally. Crying is a sign of piety, and even in place where people don’t show any emotions at all it is important to cry when one reads the Qur’an. Shii Muslims also cry when they see the Taziyeh in Iran because they are so moved. Crying is important because it shows that one is connecting on a deep level with Allah, who is lovesick and created the world because he wanted to connect with people.

Islam vs. اسلام

Filed under: Uncategorized — civry at 11:44 pm on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

This image came to my mind when I was reading the week 2 reading,  Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam by Professor Asani. This text refutes the idea that there is a duality between being ‘American’ and being ‘Muslim’. In fact, the ideals of America are actually the same as many Islamic ideals, and the system of governance upholds the values of Islamic law. One quote from General Colin Powell particularly struck me:

“…one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in you can see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Karim Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American, he was born in New Jersey, he was 14 at the time of 9/11 and he waited until he could go serve his country and he gave his life.”

When I was reading this essay, I started to think about how Muslims read the Qur’an in Arabic because it is no longer the word of God when it is translated to English. However, the overall concept of Islam can be translated into English and is everyday by Muslims. When used with a lowercase first letter, the word muslim means “one who submits” and islam simply means to submit. In this way, Islam can be seen as a universal religion, and one that is fully integrated into American society. When I was thinking about this things, this simple image came to my head, with the Arabic and the English words combined.

Then I started to think about the many layers and interpretations of Islam, and how it is a fluid religion that is ever changing and is practiced by a diverse population of people all around the world. The many colors and shapes represent the different interpretations of Islam, and the two words meshed together represent how two different ways of looking at the religion (from the outsider “American” perspective and from the Muslim perspective) are really the same thing. As Asani demonstrates in his essay, a person can be “both a Muslim and an American citizen” and can as proud of being American as there are of being Muslim.

Sirad

Filed under: Uncategorized — civry at 10:55 pm on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

 

“God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; His Light is like a niche in which is a lamp, and the lamp is within a glass, and the glass is like a shining star kindled from a sacred olive tree neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil nearly glows though fire touch it not: light upon light; God guides to His Light whom He will. And God coins similitudes for human beings, and of everything God has knowledge.” (Q 24:35, Renard 7)

In the graphic novel workshop, we talked about the symbolic meaning of calligraphy and how using the comic form as a medium can bring to life a story out of just words or pictures. We also talked about using the “gutter” which is the open space between the pictures, and how this can be utilized to allow the reader to make a mental leap and imagine what happens between the pictures. In addition, we were provided with a bunch of magazines at the workshop and told that collage can be a great way to make a comic.

I decided to depict the Qur’an surah about light because it is a theme that has continuously been brought up in lecture and in the readings. The first time I encountered it was in the week 1 reading “Seven Doors to Islam”. In this reading, the passage was used as an example of something that Sufis would interpret in a mystical way. It is a verse with a lot of symbolism, so it is easy to interpret in a number of ways. Sirad, which means lamp, is also a name for Mohammed, as both lamps and Mohammed illuminate the way and guide you along the path.

For this reason, I decided to depict Mohammed in the opening picture as a figure carrying a light. However, I decided not to include his head to show that there are a lot of different readings of who or what the lamp in the glass represents. For example, Shii people believe the lamp in the glass is the Imam, the spiritual leader who guides them. Whoever the figure may be, I placed him so that he transcends the gutter, a place that is usually left untouched in comic books, to show that his light is everywhere. I also demonstrated this sense of universality by using a magazine cutout to continue my picture in the second panel, demonstrating that the light of God is everywhere. In the next panel (when you read it from right to left) the lamp also transcends the gutter and is shown onto an ordinary man who looks puzzled. In the last panel, I used a sheet of “scratch magic” to demonstrated stained glass in the shape of Allah, to demonstrate that the light passes through Allah to shine on to the rest of the world. The line “light upon light” is reflected in my comic through the literal use of different types of light in each panel: the first light is the light from the stars, the second is the light from the sun, the third is the light from a lamp, and the fourth is the light from God.