laurengreenawalt — May 4, 2014, 11:51 pm

Reader’s Guide

My blog is directed at people who don’t know much about Islam- particularly those people who grew up in Islamophobic America.  I chose this audience because it is an audience which I connect with. I had never met a Muslim person before coming to Harvard. Everything that I knew about Islam was from the television or from a World Religion’s class I took in high school which painted Islam as a monolithic religion. Having such a limited view of Islam allows for Islamophobia to spread. If one doesn’t know anything about Islam, one will believe any lie about it- including the popular narrative that Islam is a violent religion.

I’ve seen many examples of ignorance leading to Islamophobia. Over the holidays I was talking to an older relative. He was telling our family that he sometimes goes to church with his neighbor- a woman from Indonesia. He said he was relieved to find out she was a Christian because, “I thought all of them were Muslims. And as you can guess, I’m not so fond of Muslims these days.” I was struck by the hateful tone he took on when talking about Muslims. I thought about my Muslim friends at Harvard and automatically felt defensive. Yet, I realized that such negative views about Islam and Muslims are common in the United States.

I believe that learning more about Islam- especially through a cultural studies approach- can be an antidote to such ignorance and hate. A cultural studies approach allows people to understand that there is no one Islam. Rather, there are many different ways in which people view and practice Islam. Understanding that Islam is not monolithic helps people realize that not all Muslims are the same. That is, even though Muslims committed terrorist attacks on September 11th, they do not represent all Muslims. In fact, most Muslims would vehemently condemn such acts of violence.

My blog, therefore, is a way to stand up against Islamophobia, ignorance and hate. It is a way to fight back against the popular narrative in the United States that all Muslims are the same. Through my creative responses I wanted to address common misconceptions about Islam, introduce people to iterations of Islam that they may not be familiar with, and explore the relationship between Islam and America.

The first theme of my blog- to address common misconceptions about Islam- was a common theme of the course. In fact, the great strength of the cultural studies approach is that it does just that. I had misconceptions about Islam before coming in to the course. For example, I had assumed that wearing a hijab or abaya was dictated by the Quran. Further, I had assumed that the patriarichal nature of some Muslim societies was strongly rooted in scripture. Learning about how Islam is practiced in different places helped to undermine these assumpitons. I realized that not all Muslim women wear hijab and that Muslim women were praised Quran reciters and Muslim leaders in different parts of the world. This helped me realized that the Quran was not as prescriptive as I had previously thought.

The second theme of my blog- to introduce people to iterations of Islam that they may not be familiar with- is also inspired by the cultural studies approach to Islam. In high school, I was only taught vaguely about how Islam is commonly practiced in the Middle East. We essentially just read the Quran and learned about Sharia law. The many, beautiful, ways in which Islam is practiced throughout the world was completely ignored. We did not learn about the Bersi tradition of erasure, the Iranian tradition of Taziyeh or the many forms of poetry used to show devotion to God. I had never heard of Sufism before “For the Love of God and His Prophet”. Just as this course taught me of the many ways Muslims show their devotion to Islam, I wanted to use my blog to highlight Islamic traditions that people might not know.

The third theme of my blog- to explore the relationship between Islam and America- was not an explicit theme of the course. However, I found that some of the course addressed this subject and I felt compelled to further explore it with my portfolio. The relationship between Islam and America was first introduced in this course with Professor Asani’s book Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam. This reading opened with an analysis of how, during the 2008 elections, many people claimed that Obama was a Muslim. In doing so, they implicitly argued that being Muslim and American were incompatible- an offensive and inaccurate claim. Other readings, lectures, and movies also touched on the relationship between Islam and America. For example, ”New Muslim Cool” explored the experience of one Muslim rapper living in the United States. A few lectures mentioned the impact that U.S. foreign policy had on Islamic states in the Middle East. Finally, the hard-hitting novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” followed a Muslim living in New York and explored the ways in which the US demonized Islam- especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. This theme- though not a large one in terms of the class- seemed important to explore and I thus incorporated it into my portfolio.

My first post, “An Infidel of Love: Muslim Understanding of Islam”, serves as a sort of introduction to the blog. It directly connects to the mission of the blog- to stand up against Islamophobia and to educate people about the true nature of Islam. Further, it touches on two themes of the blog- to address common misconceptions about Islam and to explore the relationship between Islam and America. As an artistic response, I made a video collage which acts as almost a conversation between Muslims and those who don’t understand Islam. The first half of the video addresses misconceptions about Islam. It slices together videos of people calling Islam a violent or dangerous religion with videos of people explaining the peaceful nature of the religion. By doing so- it addressed misconceptions about Islam. The second part of the video explores the implications of labeling Obama as a Muslim. By doing so, it looks at the relationship between Islam and America.

My second post, “The Topaki Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture”, addresses a specific misconception about Islam- that there is one, unified form or “Islamic Art” or “Islamic Architecture”. I chose to address this specific misconception because “Islamic Art” is one subject that many people feel like they know about. Many people have seen mosques or are marginally familiar with what is often incorrectly labeled “Islamic Architecture”. Many people also associate geometric design with Islamic art. My artistic response and blog post corrects a misconception about Islam- that there is only one form of “Islamic Architecture” or “Islamic Art”. I explain that Islamic Art should not be painted in a monolithic light in my post. My artistic response portrays this by incorporating the Arabic words for “culture” and “context” into a geometric design.

My third and fourth post both tie into my theme of exposing people to different iterations of Islam. By doing so, they also help to address common misconceptions of Islam.

My third post, “Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran”, exposes readers to the Iranian-Muslim tradition of the Ta’ziyeh. As I stated earlier, I had never heard of the Ta’ziyeh before this course. Yet, I think it is a beautiful and moving way to express devotion to God and Islam. I love the Ta’ziyeh because of the way it brings together past and present, because it contains a message of hope and resilience and because it encourages its audience to connect with the play. This last part inspired my artistic response. I connected to the Ta’ziyeh by writing a poem from the perspective of a character from the performance. In addition to introducing people to the concept of the Ta’ziyeh, my post also helps address common misconceptions about Islam. First, it shows how the Ta’ziyeh celebrates the female characters. This is counter to the perception that some people have that Islam is a religion which harms women. Second, by exposing people to a practice of Islam that they might not know, my post puts a hole in the narrative that there is one, unified “Islam”.

My fourth post, “The Conference of the Birds”, also exposes people to a different iteration of Islam- that of Sufism. Again, I had never heard of Sufism before this course but I loved the tradition from the moment I learned about it. I love the emphasis of each person forging a relationship with God and the concept that the divine is within us all. I tried to capture this latter concept by creating a mask inspired by “The Conference of the Birds”. I created a mask with bird-like feathers and the word “Simorgh” written over and over again. I photographed it with mirrors as a nod to the scene in “The Conference of the Birds” where Simorgh is revealed to be the reflection of the 30 birds. My post, in addition to introducing people to the Ta’ziyeh, also helps to address a common misconception of Islam- that Islam is very strict and perspective. Just as my third post does, it also challenges the assumption that Islam is a monolithic religion.

My fifth post, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Veil of Patriotism”, addressed my third theme in that it explores the relationship between Islam and the United States. My artistic response is a disturbing image of a woman during a US air raid in Afghanistan, veiled by an image of the American flag. My post explains both the struggles Changez, the main character from The Reluctant Fundamentalist faces and the role of the United States in the Muslim world. This post is the most jarring and cynical post in my portfolio. I did this intentionally. I want readers to understand that the relationship between Islam and America is not as simple as we often think it is. People in the United States often think of Islam as the enemy while forgetting that many Muslims around the world might view the United States as the enemy. While it is true that the September 11th attacks were committed in the name of Islam, the United States has killed thousands of innocent Muslims in the name of America. I felt like creating an image such as the one I did would be the best way to expose this to readers of the blog.

My final blog post, my alternative post entitled “Whose Islam”, serves as a conclusion to the blog.  It ties together all three themes of the blog- addressing common misconceptions about Islam, exposing people to new iterations of Islam, and exploring the relationship between Islam and the United States. For my artistic response, I created a word cloud about Islam. It contains words that should be associated with Islam but- due to the Islamophobic environment that is the United States- are often not such as “Compassion”, “Love” and “Service”. It also contains words that belong to different Islamic traditions such as “erasure” and “recitation”. The word cloud is to be printed as a poster and hung up in  classrooms in the United States that teaches about Islam or religion. The poster addresses misconceptions about Islam and exposes students to new iterations of Islam. This final post is solution oriented. It shows one way in which Islamophobia and orientalism can be reduced. By being solution oriented, my final post perfectly wraps up my portfolio. It shows that while many in the United States are ignorant about Islam and often irrationally hate the religion, work can be done to help facilitate understanding and appreciation for Islam and Muslims

I hope my blog is one example of such work.


laurengreenawalt — , 9:00 am

Infidel of Love: Muslim Understandings of Islam!/5180225637842944

(video embedding isn’t working)

I created this “video collage” in response to Professor Asani’s excerpt of “Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim understandings of Islam”. The excerpt assigned explored common misconceptions of Islam, and addressed these misconceptions by outlining Muslim understandings of Islam. I wanted to create a visual representation of this work. The resulting video is almost a conversation between those who aim to demonize Islam and those who know the true meaning of Islam.

The video has two distinct, but related components. The first section, “Misconceptions about Islam” addresses specific misconceptions about Islam. There are clips in this section of people claiming that Islam is a violent religion, that Islam is un-American, and that Muslims wish to harm people of other religions. After the attacks on Islam, I stitched together clips of people explaining how Islam is actually a peaceful religion. As Asani explains, for many Muslims, Islam is fundamentally a peaceful and compassionate eligion. One of the reasons people view Islam as a peaceful religion is the etymology of the word “Islam”. He explains, “the Arabic verbal root s-l-m, in addition to meaning submission, can also signify to be at peace, or to be safe, sound and secure” (pg 58). Many parts of the Qur’an also encourage Muslims to practice peace and compassion. Asani explains that for many muslims, “extending compassion and love for all human beings and the whole of God’s creation is a way of loving and knowing God” (pg 60). The video clips I included in this section of the video collage reflect that Islam can be viewed as a peaceful, compassionate religion- just as Asani explains.

The second section of my video collage, “Painting Obama as a Muslim”, explores the implications of the campaign to label Obama as a Muslim. Asani explains that people who called Obama a Muslim did so to “de-americanize him in the eyes of the American public by falsely portraying him as the ‘other’—that is, as a Muslim” (55). These attacks were predicated on the offensive assumption that being a Muslim was antithetical to being an American. The second section of my video collage aims to interrogate such a claim. The video collage features conservative voices calling Obama a Muslim and then people responding to those claims- not by simply asserting that Obama is a Christian, but also by arguing that there would be nothing wrong with electing a Muslim president.


A note: The software I used only allowed me to edit the videos by the second rather than the millisecond. Therefore, some videos are a few milliseconds too long and/or contain irrelevant sounds or images.


laurengreenawalt — May 3, 2014, 4:05 am

The Topaki Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture

(click image to enlarge)


I created this image in-response to “The Topaki Scroll- Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture”. Throughout the excerpts assigned, Gurlu Necipoglu deconstructs past literature on the topic of geometric ornament in Islamic architecture. While other scholars have emphasized the unity underlying Islamic art and architecture, Necipoglu argues that Islamic art should not be painted in a monolithic light. Rather, Necipoglu argues, students of art must take into account the history, culture and context that surrounds Islamic ornament. In order to communicate this theme, I created my own geometric pattern. I embedded the Arabic words for “culture” and “context” within my design to emphasize Necipoglu’s point that art cannot be truly understood when using an ahistorical lens.

Necipoglu explains that 19th and early 20th century scholars of Islamic ornament created false categories for styles of art. For example, Owen Jones used the ethnoracial categories that existed during his time, rather than looking at the categories that existed before. This incorrect categorization, “distorted the multiethnic culture of most pre-modern Islamic dynasties, whose rule had unified several geographic regions with mixed populations and religious minorities” (63). Further, Jones- and other scholars- argued that there was a universal relevance of the patterns used in Islamic ornament. Such claims fueled the Orientalist narrative which, in turn, propagated stereotypes and cultural misrepresentations of Islam.

Necipoglu goes on to show how modern scholarship often feeds into this same, Orientalist mindset. Necipoglu takes particular issue with Hossein Nasr- whose work focuses on the archetypes in Islamic decoration and architecture. Necipoglu explains that this emphasis on “static tradition, as opposed to dynamic historical change, revived a center topos of the Orientalist discourse with its typical distinction between historical and traditional cultures” (77).

My design aims to challenge the work of those such as Nasr and Jones. By integrating the words “culture” and “context” into my design, I remind all viewers to take both into account while examining art. This helps fight the ahistorical, Orientalist work that Necipoglu so strongly argues against.

laurengreenawalt — , 3:10 am

Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran

Goodbye, Qasem

I have dreamt of my wedding, the sights and the sounds

The joy and the love that would be all around

How different this day is than the day I desired

For my special day is full of doom, pain and ire

Instead of music from harps I hear the drumming of war

There are tears on my cheeks as I lay on the floor

I cannot smile, I shall not even try

For I know that today that my bridegroom will die

Today my Qasem will go off to fight

For all that is good, virtuous and right

I know I should be proud that my husband is so bold

Yet I want him here with me, to have and to hold

Qasem, my dear, you are honorable and brave

But I wish for a way that your life could be saved

I shall not stop you from leaving- that would not be fair

But you cannot blame me if I am sad and quite scared

To where you are going, you will never return

And for the rest of my life, for you, I will yearn

I will find you on Judgment Day- your sleeves all tattered

And you should find me- with a heart that is shattered

Goodbye Qasem, my husband, my love

I will see you, someday, in heaven above


This poem is in response to “Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran”, edited by Peter Chelkowski. I was drawn to the drama and tragedy in The Marriage of Qasem and wrote a poem from the perspective of Fatemeh, Qasem’s wife.

Fatemeh is a compelling character because she has two conflicting emotions- she is devastated over the impending death of her new husband, yet she knows that she should be proud of Qasem’s bravery and sacrifice. As Sadeq Humayuni explains, Fatemeh- like many other women in the Ta’ziyeh- shows admirable self-sacrifice. Humayuni writes, “The women sublimate their personal desires both great and small because they recognize that an honorable death for their husbands, sons and brothers is far more to be desired than is weakness and disgrace” (pg 20). While Fatemeh tries to repress her personal desire, she is can’t completely eradicate it. Indeed, when Qasem leaves her to go to war she yells, “Do not be so unfaithful! Do not leave me!” (pg 14). Fatemeh knows that it is right for Qasem to go to war, yet she also has a strong personal desire for her husband to live. I tried to capture these conflicting emotions in my poem.

I used writing the poem as a means of personally connecting to the Ta’ziyeh. Peter Chelkowski explains the importance of personally connecting to the Ta’ziyeh: “The actor-spectators confrontation in Ta’ziyeh and its archetypal themes induce self-analysis in all who participate and create in them an inner harmony. Ta’ziyeh is such a personal and serious dramas that it captures the very essence of thought and emotions impacting life, death, the Supreme Being, and fellow men” (pg 11). While I am not a traditional spectator of the Ta’ziyeh, I wanted to interact with the play just as those attending the play do. I thought the best way of doing this would be to write a poem from the perspective of one of the Ta’ziye’s characters. I tried to connect to the archetypical themes of life, death, love and duty and to let such themes inspire my writing. Throughout my writing I reflected on how the lessons could inform my life. I wondered, would I be able to make a sacrifice such as the sacrifies made by Qasem and Fatemeh? Would I be willing to fight for what I believed in, for what I held dear? By asking myself such questions, and by writing the poem, I was able to connect to the Ta’ziyeh in a way I did not by simply reading about it.



laurengreenawalt — May 2, 2014, 7:26 am

The Conference of the Birds

photo 4

photo 2

photo 3

I made the mask featured in these photographs as a response to The Conference of the Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar. This mask captures the moral of The Conference of the Birds by showing that Simorgh- or God- is within every living creature. The top of the mask is comprised of feathers in order to emulate the thirty birds that fly to find Simorgh. On the bottom of the mask, I repeatedly wrote the word “Simorgh”. This is to show that Simorgh and the birds are one- as described on page 219 of The Conference of the Birds.

“They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend

They were Simorgh and the journey’s end.

They see the SImorgh-at themselves they stare

And see a second Simorgh standing there;

They look at both and see the two are one,

That this is that, that this, the goal is won.”

I found this Sufi concept- that God is within us all and that we are a reflection of him- to be extremely powerful. It has such beautiful implications. If every person is a part of the divine then everyone must be treated respect. Further, if we all have God inside of us, then we should never be timid or lack self-confidence like the Finch who initially refuses to go on the journey to find the Simorgh.

The oneness of humanity and God also helps explain other parts of Sufism. For example, it helps justify why Sufis focus on the internal- rather than the external. If God is within us, then the best way to worship him is to turn inwards. This concept also helps to explain why Sufis emphasize individuals finding their own connection to God. Since we all have God within us, our unique ways of reaching out to God are all inherently divine.

In order to convey the message of my mask I photographed it in three ways. Two of my images contain mirrors as a direct allusion to The Conference of the Birds. One is simply an image of my own face which I used in order to show the mask in greater detail.

laurengreenawalt — April 30, 2014, 7:09 pm

Alternative Post: Whose Islam?




For my alternative blog post I created this word cloud. This word cloud should be printed on posters and hung up in any classroom teaching Islam or religion in the United States.

The poster helps portray a central theme of the course: there is no one way to practice Islam. Many high school religion courses give students a narrow representation of Islam. Teachers at my own high school would make declarations such as, “Islam prohibits music” or “In Islam,  you aren’t allow to paint pictures of people”. Such declarative sentences beg the question- whose Islam?

This poster is a counter narrative to the dogmatic portrayal of Islam that some teachers give. The largest word in the word cloud is “Islam”. The next five largest words are “Compassion” “Peace” Service” “Love” and “Diversity”. These words are, in my opinion, key to all practice of Islam.  Yet, in an often Islamophobic nation such as the United States these words are rarely associated with the religion. The smaller words on the word clouds all describe different iterations of Islam. Some are categories of Islam- such as “Sufism” “Shia” And “Sunni” and some are ways in which people show their devotion to Islam such as “recitation” “erasures” “calligraphy”.

I chose the venue- a classroom- for a few reasons. For many people a classroom is the first place they get to learn about Islam. Non-Muslim often have very little idea as to what Islam actually is before it is formally taught. I, for example, did not know a single Muslim person until I came to college. The majority of what I knew about Islam before coming to Harvard was from a course on world religions that I took in high school. Yet, as I stated before, many high school courses- such as my own- don’t give a full view of what Islam is or can be. This poster helps remind students and teachers to constantly ask themselves, “Whose Islam?”.

I chose the audience- students- because they are the future of the United States. If they can have a more accurate view of Islam, then perhaps Islamophobia can be curbed.

I chose the medium- a colorful word cloud poster- because I think it will fit well into the venue and it will attract the audience. Word cloud posters are popular among high school students and teachers- the poster would fit in well with any classroom decor. Further, the colorful nature of the poster will draw students in so that they can read it and learn from it.