Introductory Essay

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Introductory Essay: Beauty, Spirituality, and Inclusiveness in Islam

In my collection of creative responses, I have chosen to explore a wide range of ideas surrounding the religion of Islam. Multisensory Religion introduced me to many important notions about the philosophical, spiritual, and artsitic nature of Islam, as these kinds of understandings were emphasized over a doctrine-based approach to the religion. 

Subjective thoughts, ranging from the definitions of words and actions like “muslim” and “prayer,” to whole concepts, like god, beauty, nature, and spirituality, were extensively explored. The conversations surrounding these ideas were absolutely fascinating; throughout the class, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself thinking about the otherworldly, the ethereal, the metaphysical aspects of life and humanity. Furthermore, after examining the differing approaches taken by a wide range of communities and countries with varying cultural, geographic, and historical backgrounds, I felt enlightened in my overall understanding of Islam. 

These kinds of ideas were so beautifully observed through art. The class explored architecture, music, poems, prose, and visual arts, which aesthetically examined the political, social, historical, and spiritual aspects of Islam. I found myself very moved, particularly, by the art, poetry, and discussion surrounding Sufism and its implications. The ideas of intangible languages coursing through the veins of the world and humanity, and their relationship to the human condition, was so intellectually and emotionally engaging for me. Thus, I have chosen to focus many of my pieces on Sufi ideas, heavily indulging in the allure of abstract.

Generally, my collection focuses on these spiritual, mystical ideas of Islam that are sometimes hidden from the outsider’s perspective of the religion. Codification of Islam, overtime, has cultivated some political and social controversy surrounding the religion, which I reference periodically throughout my collection. However, my aim was, rather than to explicitly discuss such controversies, to focus on those aspects of Islam that were moving to me–the artistic and spiritual basis of the religion.

One of the major themes I chose to focus on was the idea of beauty in Islam. The emphasis on aesthetics in the religion was something I had never heavily considered until entering this class, even having taken many art history classes, featuring Islamic art, in the past. I realize, now, that Islamic art is not just a method through which to observe the religion, but that, in many ways, it is essential, and inherent to, the religion. Aesthetic beauty is seen as divine: Allah as beautiful and loves beauty. Beauty thus becomes central to understanding Allah and oneself. My largest peice, the oil painting/mixed media collage, is meant to illustrate certain concepts which help to collectively constitute this conceot of beauty in Islam. It references the physical senses, the beauty seen in the natural earth, and God’s presence in nature. It references, with the central position of the anatomical heart, the important Islamic notion of Ishan, the idea of becoming a beautiful person and embarking on a spiritual quest for internal beauty. This implies a fundamental morality as characteristic of the human search for beauty. 

Directly related to this notion is the sub-notion of God’s presence in nature, which is also heavily focused on in my collection. The watercolor piece featuring a flower is my most direct attempt to illustrate this concept. I attempt to communicate, with abstraction of color scheme, the notion that nature, although sensible in the objective sense, is also permeated with more obscure, mystical ideas. In Islam, humans are able to identify, appreciate, and engage in the beauty of nature, and yet unable to completely understand the entirety of the hidden spiritual reality underlying all that there is. Still, I maintain a geometric composition, referencing the Islamic idea of laws which govern the world as proof of divine creation.

With the emphasis on aesthetics comes the discussion surrounding the role of the artist in Islam. In many cases, art is people’s primary method of engaging with the religion. Again, we see the essential nature of it, cross-culturally; artistic venues are places of peace despite that they are enjoyed by people from many different backgrounds. Two particular art forms, the Sufi art form known as Qawwali poetry popularly practiced in India and Pakistan, and the Ghazal form of Arabic poetry, are focused on in my prose piece. The Qawwali style is founded on the idea of poetic verse as a gift from God, positioning it as divine, and resulting in the reverence of many Qawwali writings being equal to that of scripture itself. The idea of Islamic art often permeating the hearts of its audience was something I was moved by, which is why I chose to write this piece. Thus, my prose attempts to discuss the underlying purpose and effects of Qawwali and Ghazal, that is, leading listeners to states of religious ecstasy, and eliciting some kind of internal shift within them. The piece references the themes within the poetry, especially the theme of love, and the way in which this poetry is regarded by listeners/audiences. 

Art and politics are undeniably inseparable, which is not necessarily a negative thing. This semester, we saw how artistic engagement with controversial political ideas, like codification, prophethood, womens’ rights, and the role of religion in government, was extremely powerful. Thus, a few of my pieces attempt to illustrate more politically based discussions. For example, my sketch of the arabic word for “music,”موسيقى, attempts to illustrate the controversy surrounding music as an aesthetic in Islam. This controversy, then, begs questions surrounding where lines should be drawn in terms of what should be interpreted as “music,” and what should not, and what constitutes “music,” and what does not. This controversy can involve its denouncement by certain groups, such as, for example, the Chishtis, whose attacks on qawwali are based on the claim that music is inherently wrong. The overall controversy surrounding this argument in general is thus illustrated by the red question mark, central to the piece. 

Additionally, I also attempted to examine the role of the prophet in Islam with my other calligraphic sketch, featuring a central word, prophet, surrounded by many more, smaller calligraphic copies of the same word. The fluidity and inclusiveness of Islamic recognition of different important historical figures as prophets and/or muslims (small “m”), is very important. The terms “prophet” and “muslim” are much more broad than they are ofte n percieved; figures like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are recognized, not as rivals of Muhammed, but as members of the same fraternity, greatly revered by Muslims. The idea of a muslim, originally, was simply meant to refer to someone who “submitted” themselves to God. The term prophet included “messengers” of many nations and cultures, all of whom are thought to be descendents of the same family, all having inherited the same divine light. The representation of this light takes many forms; in some paintings we saw a fire or an orb behind Muhammad’s head, or we saw Muhammed represented as a lamp, for example. The idea is that the inheritance of this light signifies each prophet’s having been chosen for a divine purpose, and all being part of the same fraternity, influenced my choice to include a lamp in my drawing. Thus, I illustrate this inclusive nature, the Islamic notion of imitation of the prophet, and the idea of the passing-down of the prophethood. This, as well as the extent to which Muhammad should be imitated and what should be executed volunarily versus obligatory, are central points of controversy characterizing the Shi’i-Sunni partition. In Shi’ism specifically, the notion that faith in God is incomplete without faith in Ali is essential, as religious authority is then designated for the descendents of Ali. Love and devotion to the family of the prophet Muhammad (to Ali and Fatimah) is emphasized. Much of the prophet-centered art observed in class, including paintings, poetry, and prose, was centered on these figures. 

In some cases, I was faced with a decision about which doctrine/sect of Islam to draw themes from. One piece in particular which I struggled with, in this sense, was the poem I wrote surrounding the Shi’i ideology about inability of humans to guide themselves in their spiritual journey. I chose to describe both characteristics of the ideology, and to reference controversies about it. I wanted to draw upon the idea that peoples’ initial connection to Islam is often established through sheikhs, or other holy figures, whose role is not necessarily to preach, but rather, to bless and give advice to people (much unlike the Christian missionary, whose aim is to spread their beliefs). Misconceptions about the similarities of the roles of missionaries and Sufi teachers thus may arise from the fact that both are associated with travel, as the traveling of Sufi teachers was the predominant role of the spreading of Islam throught the Trans-Saharan trade route. I reference the human’s entrance into a spiritual journey to selflessness, the spiritual guide, and the “tariqah,” or “path” to ego transformation. I focus on the notion of selflessness, and the state of intoxication, which are often referenced in close relationship to one another: with genuine, true love of God, there is no longer any fixation on the self. 

 The poem also, however, also briefly references specific aspects of the history of poetry. This includes the talismanic/healing powers that are sometimes believed to be possessed by poetry, as well as the political history of poetry. The rivalry that emerged between respected poets and Muhammad when Muhammad began to recite his revelations is representative of the roots of much of the controversy surrounding Islamic art.

My overall goal with my collection was to communicate the the essential role of art in Islam, and this role as representative of its spiritual, extremely inclusive nature. Upon examination, we find that this is an important, fundamental idea. For example, when we examine Qur’an recitation, we see that it began as a fluid, subjective, varying method of expressing and engaging with the Qur’an. It was overtime, with institutionalization and codification, that political and religious elite introduced a particular framework for Qur’an recitation–that is, rules and regulations were introduced. Thus, the nature of the codification of the Qur’an is extremely important to understand from a historical perspective. What began as a fluid, fragmented collection of smaller-scale revelations became fixed and arranged into chapters and verses with titles, which had complex effects, including the domination of writing culture as opposed to oral culture, the emergence of Ulama, specialists in the exegesis of text, and the subsequent use of Islam to further political agendas of the state. Directly related to this historical phenomenon of Quran codification is the concept of the Hadith, which involves the chains of transmission (Isnad) surrounding certain ideas. The methodology surrounding Hadith and Isnad can become quite complex, as are the specific details of the authentication process, and the conversation surrounding what kinds of qualifications a person should have in order to authenticate a particular idea. 

Also a result of the codification was the crystillization of the six ideologies of Islam, which took place over a very long period of time. For the first three centuries after Muhammad’s death, the conception of who held claim to religious authority was highly ambiguous, resulting in the emergence competing claims in different communities, as well as a new political dynamic in which religion and state became fused. This association of political and religious authority is unavoidable today. 

Ultimately, with codification, arose many political controversies that are associated with the religion today. The ideas of art, beauty, and spirituality as central to the religion become lost in this negative perception that people tend to adopt. Thus, I chose to make these ideas the focus of my collection, as these ideas were often the focus of the art observed in class. We looked at Qawwali and Ghazal, at ginans, devotional hymns of the Ismaili Shia community of South Asia, and at didactic songs called qasidah modern, which draw influences from the rhythmic form dangdut, and melodies from Arabic pop songs. We looked at different visual artistic trends, such as the iconoclastic controversy, examining post-iconoclasm depictions of the prophet; we examined different aniconic representations, like calligraphic representation (Hilyaas), figural representations with the face of the prophet left blank, and poetic representations. The emergence of these different aniconic, artistic representations of a previously iconically represented figure in response to the iconoclastic movement, as opposed to a direct decline in artistic practice itself, is fascinating, and demonstrates the essential role of the arts in islam. 

The implications of this variety in Islamic art are critical; with multiple acceptable approaches to devotion comes, again, one of the central ideas communicated in this course: the inclusivity of Islam. Engagement with the religion is a personal, spiritual journey and is thus highly objective. 

This class demonstrated to me that, when political controversy and strict boundaries characteristic of doctrines are focused on, it is difficult to understand the roots of the religion. Its inclusive, artistic nature, is lost. With my collection, I hope to demonstrate my new understanding of the religion as a fundamentally artistic one.

 

Notions Surrounding the Idea of the Prophet

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This piece is inspired by the discussions surrounding of the role of the prophet in Islam. 

There are three major themes reflected in these discussions which are referenced in this piece: (1) the imitation of the prophet, (2) the prophet’s miracles and/or unusual gifts, and (3) the mystical paradigm of prophethood and inheritance of prophethood.

This drawing attempts to integrate all four themes. Theme (1) surrounds the prophet as a role model, which is where the idea of the “sunnah,” or habitual practice, is founded: the sunnah-an nabi, the custom of the prophet, emphasizes this idea of the prophet Muhammad as a “walking Quran” such that imitation of him is desireable, and is meant to aid in discernign God’s will. In the piecem, this is represented with calligraphic repetition: the central word, prophet, is surrounded by many more, smaller calligraphic copies of the same word, attempting to illustrate imitation. Theme (2) surrounds the gifts or mystical abilities of the prophet, which are ultimately believed to be the result of divine inspiration, and are thus divine gifts from Allah, while theme (3) deals with the idea of the passing-down of the prophethood. The imagery of the prophet as a “lamp,” thus, represents both the divine “light” often associated with images of a prophet, and also the passing down of this light from generation to generation. 

Additionally, the general nature of the piece as a calligraphic piece rather than an explicit, iconic representation of Muhammad or a prophet, points to the history behind the iconoclasm. The philosophy surrounding this notion emphasized that the depiction of the image supposedly increased the likelihood of worshipping the image. 

 

Leaving Egotism: The Role of Poetry and the Divinely Inspired

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Imbibed in an internal influence 

Is the intoxicated lover

Engulfed in a state of euphoria and wholly infatuated with the beloved,

His body is electric, and yet, his mind drowns in a daze

Captivation curtains his vision

And eventually, swallows his body,

Slipping into his veins, filling the pores in his skin and pouring into his organs, 

His chest expands and his fingers float,

his limbs are light, and he levitates

There is no physical body to be aware of any longer

Everything is elevated by the elation inside his heart,

The mind dissolves and is defeated by delerium:

First-person oriented perception recedes and

Fades fast

 

The rational explanation is imponderable

For how does one express the otherworldly:

The sublime supranatural which collapses the corporeal senses

Unbound by time and space,

Ethereal

 

The self disappears

And there is only the beloved

 

The self disappears 

And there is only God

 

Enter the state of egolessness 

The state in which those who are divinely inspired reside and 

fundamentally understand: 

The incapability of the human to successfully guide himself 

off of the ground

and into the aerial atmosphere of the unearthly

 

Poetry then becomes an instrument:

For healing, its talismanic powers are infused into recitation

For political power, its enamoring abilities have inspired strife 

But the importance of poetry is immersed in this:

The moving nature of which

Intoxicates audiences eager to experience the revelation

 

of losing oneself.

 

The inspiration for this poem is derived from two main ideas.

The first larger idea is the Shi’i ideology surrounding the notion of the inability of humans to guide themselves in their spiritual journey. This inability is referenced in the poem to introduce the second half of the piece, which briefly references the history of the purpose of poetry. In the Shi’i ideology, to enter a spiritual journey to selflessness, people necessarily require guidance from the divinely inspired. 

This is also reminiscent of the discussions surrounding Sufi figures, like the Marabout,  the Muslim religious leader of West Africa, who are spiritual guides/role models for a small group of elite within the community. In their role as a spiritual guide, the Marabout helps people in their journey or “tariqah,” (which directly translates to “path,”) of ego transformation. In this way, the Marabout acts as an ego monitor. And, in the case of most people, the Marabout acts as a saint-like figure and/or an intermediary figure. As a saint-like figure, the Marabout is a role model and a figure to whom people can go to receive Barakah, a spiritual blessing. As an intermediary figure, the Marabout can intercede on people’s behalves. This idea of a religiously respected elder is seen elsewhere as well; other types of saint-like figures, such sheikhs, or figures in South Asia, were discussed as other examples of how these roles are a common trend in Islamic practice elsewhere in the world.

The poem also briefly references specific aspects of the history of poetry. This includes the talismanic power that is sometimes believed to be possessed by poetry; its healing powers are metaphorically communicated in the story of Al-Busiri, who was healed after waking up from a dream in which he presented a poem to Muhammad and Muhammad responded by placing a cloak around him. Additionally, the political history of poetry is briefly referenced as well; the rivalry that emerged between respected poets and Muhammad when Muhammad began to recite his revelations is representative of this.

The other larger idea is the Sufi idea of letting go of the ego. This notion of selflessness, and the state of intoxication, are often referenced in close relationship to one another: with genuine, true love of God, there is no longer any fixation on the self.

 

Prose on Qawwali Poetry

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This work is my creative prose(/poetry) surrounding the Sufi art form known as Qawwali poetry, popularly practiced in India and Pakistan. It incorporates and makes reference to many of the discussions surrounding this type of poetry that we had in class and in section. References to the structure of Qawwali poetry, to the themes within the poetry, especially the theme of love, and to the way in which this poetry is regarded by listeners/audiences, are of particular concern.

A prominent theme in my prose is the underlying purpose of Qawwali, and how its characteristics reflect this purpose. Qawwali aims to lead listeners to a state of religious ecstasy, that is, to a spiritual union with Allah. Many of its characteristics directly reflect this; for example the fluid shifting between languages, and the shifting between different texts, poets, and authors, enhance listeners’ ability to actively engage: these different versus and languages are important for establishing a relationship between the poet and the audience which ultimately allows for this engagement. References to this characteristic are made in lines 1-2 of my prose. 

Qawwali poetry as the inspiration for, and result of, mystical experience, is also focused on throughout the entirety of this piece, especially in the second and final stanzas. The Qawwali style is founded on the idea of poetic verse as a gift from God, positioning it as divine, and resulting in the reverence of many Qawwali writings being equal to that of scripture itself.

This prose also references many aspects of the Ghazal form of Arabic poetry, which is primarily concerned with love. Through Ghazal poetry, the theme of love is reflected as central to Islamic faith. I reference the important Sufi idea of love, ‘Ishq haqiqi/’ishq majazi, one aspect  of which emphasizes the notion of a state of “drunkenness” or “intoxication” as characterizing being in love; in this, the “self” is forgotten, and the “beloved” is focused on. This idea is thus representative of what true love for God looks like. 

1   The nature of Qawwali poetry arises from its complexities, 

     Both structural and schematic

     They are works whose compositions are tapestries of powerful allusions: texts, authors, and       

     poets fluidly melt into one another, their souls harmonizing in the realm above the earthly

5   Silky voices fold in and out of mesmerizing metric melodies contained between the lines of 

     sublime stanzas

     The poet embraces the elemental exquisiteness of the words

     It is poetry that slithers into the spaces between the oxygen atoms in the air: poetry that fills  

     the space and hangs in breath of the reciter, poetry that diffuses into the ears of the people as  10 they adopt a single, shared pulse, the zarb, whose rhythm responds to that of the verses 

     Something divine visits the earth in those moments, traveling from the mystic and   

     transforming into matter, entering the hearts and heads of listeners and inducing spontaneous 

     responses, rooted in realization of the heavenly

     In the Qawwali method, poetry is architecture

15 Beautiful buildings establish their foundation on the rhyming pattern Qafiya,

     This metric scaffolding supports poetic structures, stages upon which themes of love settle 

     Love, the notion, infused into each letter: it is intrinsic to Ghazal, a reality revealed   

     gradually as each phrase punctuates the silence with pleasant rhymes

     The works are covered, blanketed in, this concept of love

20 A lover’s intoxication whines within the words, while a beloved is bound to the syllables,  

     A drunkenness daring to declare selflessness the root of love, including love of God

     This house of poetry that is formed within the verses, that is disassembled and explored and    

     expressed by the reciter, 

     Its materials are superordinary, its resulting architecture angelic, and thus poetry is both a 

25 product and source of mystical experiences

     Poetic verse as gifted from God, as inspired by the principles of the divine, has earned     

     Qawwali poetry its reverent position: as comparable to scripture.

 

  

 

Entry 3

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This sketch attempts to illustrate the controversy surrounding music as an aesthetic in Islam. This controversy has many dimensions. One surrounds the idea of Qur’an recitation and how it is meant to be interpreted as separate from music; it serves a different purpose; although it is also inherently beautiful, Qur’an recitation as music is not a widely accepted idea amongst Muslims. This controversy, then, begs questions surrounding where lines should be drawn in terms of what should be interpreted as “music,” and what should not, and what constitutes “music,” and what does not. Additionally, a controversy surrounding music in Islam involves its denouncement althogether by certain groups who claim that music is inherently wrong. We saw idea most recently in the reading Sufi Music and Dance, which explored the attack of the qawwali music of the Chishtis by Muslim reformers, resulting in the need of Chishti spokesmen to “defend the legitimacy of listening to music in terms of Islamic law.” The reading counters the argument against the legitimacy of music by citing that it ignores the “established role of music in Sufism” and that it “runs against the grain of Sufi texts.” The overall controversy surrounding this argument in general is thus illustrated by the red question mark which is central to the piece, and otherwise clashes with the calligraphic flow of the arabic word for music: موسيقى. Although controversy surrounds this mode of Islamic aesthetics, the inherent beauty of the art itself still prevails. Thus, the clarity of the word, despite the presence of the red question mark illustrates the prevalence of the inherent beauty of music despite the controversy that may surround it.

Entry 2

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The painting attempts to illustrate the Islamic concept and implications of God’s presence in nature. This idea suggests that nature itself reveals God’s presence, as aesthetic beauty, especially in nature, is importantly associated with God and with engagement with God. Immersion of oneself in nature, and interpretation of nature’s beauty as examples of God’s work, is represented by the floral theme of the piece. The flower, however, is abstracted by the alternating warm- and cold- color themes, demonstrating this notion that nature, although sensible in the objective sense, is also permeated with more obscure ideas, that is, with the mystical and the heavenly in the natural world. The flower as deducable, but abstracted, is thus meant to represent the coexistence of the otherworldly significance that is believed to be possessed by all things in nature, and yet, the perfectly distinct and comprehensible beauty which is obvious when one examines the natural world. In Islam, humans are able to identify, appreciate, and engage in the beauty of nature, and yet unable to completely understand the entirety of the hidden spiritual reality underlying all that there is. 

In the painting, the sections which alternate between cool and warm in terms of color scheme are box-shaped. This is meant to illustrate the Islamic idea of the natural laws which govern the world as proof of Allah’s divine creation of the world. Order, in Islam, then, is a sign of God, and humans can then examine nature as full of examples of God’s work.

Entry 1

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This peice is meant to illustrate certain concepts which help to collectively constitute the conceot of beauty in Islam. One such notion, for example, is the idea of Allah as beautiful; in Islam, Allah himself is beautiful and loves beauty, resulting in the emergence of the Islamic emphasis on aesthetics. Beauty becomes central to understanding Allah and oneself. This piece demonstrates this in that emphasis on aesthetics with its positioning of the image of an eye in the top right corner of the painting; aesthetics begin with physical senses. In this, the human can observe (and hear) the natural beauty around them–that is, the beauty which is seen in the natural earth. This idea is represented by the flowers and vines which punctuate the painting; they are meant to illustrate the Islamic idea of God’s presence in nature. A less physical, still more important Islamic ideal surrounding beauty is the notion of Ishan, which is the idea of becoming a beautiful person. This requires spiritual and metaphysical understanding of oneself, which is illustrated by the anatomical heart in the painting. This heart is meant to represent the internal quest for beauty within oneself, but also the fundamental morality of humans; thus, in their search for beauty, they must understand that, though they are striving to reach a good relationship with Allah, they are, ultimately, of this earth, and thus, moral. The painting also emphasizes human creation of beauty–that is, it illustrates the existence of an important role of artists in Islam. This idea is represented by the images of Frida Khalo, a famous Mexican artist. Finally, the piece is, ultimately a collage, consisting of multiple different mediums, and references to multiple cultures and societies, including modern day (represented by images of Kim Kardashian). This is meant to illustrate the subjectivity of the idea of beauty, and the inclusive nature of the Islamic understanding of beauty. Islam is incljusive because irt recognizes this subjectivity of experience; people of different cultures experience and engage with Islam in widely varying ways, speaking to the inherently variable nature of beauty as a concept.

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