Prologue

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Emmanuel D’Agostino

AIU 54

Creative Portfolio Prologue

TF: Ceyhun Arslan

 

In an ideal world, a class entitled “For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures” would be about just that. It would seek to, as its my.harvard.edu course description implies, examine the relationship between literature/art and religion in a variety of predominantly Muslim cultures around the world, from those geographically near to Islam’s founding to those far from Saudi Arabia, and compare and contrast its findings about those cultures with an Islamic lens. Consequently, this course’s readings would give examples of song, poetry, theater, visual art, music, dance, literature, and the like in a variety of Islamic worlds, showing the breadth and depth of Islamic culture across the globe.

Yet it is a regrettable, if undeniable, twenty-first-century fact that any serious discussion of Islam must speak to the events and the legacy of September 11, 2001. On that day, of course, a small minority of extreme fundamentalist Muslims, representing and speaking for only the tiniest fraction of contemporary Islam, hijacked planes and crashed them into New York City’s World Trade Center, killing three thousand innocent people. As a result of the largely white, non-Muslim backlash to this extreme fundamentalism, Muslims and people who appear, to bigoted eyes, to be Muslim have faced extreme persecution since. Professor Ali Asani’s book Infidel of Love addresses this phenomenon in an interesting and important manner.

While a class such as AIU 54 must mention the events and aftermath of 9/11, which is almost always implied or alluded to in discussions about Islam and Islamophobia, it also serves as a potent weapon against the hatred of Muslims that 9/11 engendered. By spreading the truth about the beautiful, intricate variety of the Muslim world and its culture, and utilizing Professor Asani’s “cultural-studies” approach, which seeks to attribute beliefs and events normally linked to religion to existing cultural and non-religious factors, AIU 54 serves as a tool against Islamophobia and religious illiteracy.

As a result of this dual nature of AIU 54, my creative portfolio seeks to enhance the religious literacy the class spreads by examining various cultural works of the Muslim world from a variety of places and reflecting on them through a variety of media, and, where applicable, linking this back to promoting the truth about Islam as not inherently violent, and often very peaceful and pluralist. I do this by looking at everything from calligraphy to rap, from hundreds of years ago to the present. In reflecting on these pieces, I use four types of media: three drawings in pencil, one in ink, one written rap, and one auditory work. I hope that ultimately, I have used my work to counteract Islamophobic sentiment in some small way, as AIU 54 itself does so well.

In this spirit, my first piece is a visual reflection of Al-Ghazali’s rules for Qu’ran recitation. I use ink, in which many copies of the Qu’ran are written, and I draw a ten-step guide to reciting the Qu’ran in the way he specifies, including everything from crying to reciting a certain number of times per week to specifying the direction one should face. This piece does not follow my anti-Islamophobic mission all that directly, but rather shows an example of the diversity of belief within the Muslim world. Important to note is that while some of Al-Ghazali’s guidelines may seem esoteric or unnecessary, such as dividing the Qu’ran into exactly seven parts or specifying what one should say before and after recitation, none of them are violent or anti-Western at all. Of course, Al-Ghazali’s interpretation does not represent Islam at all times and in all places, but rather one man’s view in one time and place. My remaining pieces look at very different views of Islam in very different contexts, yet they all have a non-violent ethos in common.

My second piece more directly portrays Islam as peaceful, through calligraphy. Calligraphy has been considered a sacred way to express devotion to Allah by writing the characters of his name. I visually intertwine the characters for Allah with those for the Arabic word for peace, salaam— it was surprising to me how easily they physically fit together. I did this to physically show the connections between God and peace in Islam (which, after all, is related to the word salaam itself). In fact, when God’s beautiful attributes are listed, peace is often near the forefront of the list. I also included the straight path, or sirat al-mustaqim, that God is said to lead his followers on, toward peace and light and away from darkness. Also, calligraphy is only embraced by some Muslims, and its mystical attributes are evocative of the mysticism that characterizes the Islam rejected by those fundamentalists whose actions engender so many misbeliefs and prejudices about Islam at large.

My third piece attempts to counteract Islamophobia and misconceptions about Islam by pointing to some of the pluralist aspects of that religion. The Qu’ran’s “light verse” is well-known, which is a reason I decided to illustrate it here. Somewhat more esoterically, the scholar Mutaqil ibn Sulayman and his followers believe that the “prophetic light” that Muhammad is seen as possessing was handed down to him from a series of prophets, including Adam, Moses, Jesus, and others in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Admittedly, the light does stay with Muhammad, but I really liked the pluralist idea of it being passed down from prophets from other religions. As I mentioned in my commentary on my art, I like how this speaks to my own religious background, not only linking together my Jewish mother’s and my Catholic father’s traditions, but linking them both to Islam. Admittedly, this pluralism is limited, as it only extends to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, or People of the Book (al-kitab) but I still think it serves as a powerful counterpoint to the tiny fraction of Muslims who see their specific Islamic ideology as the only permissible religion.

My fourth piece serves as a personal reflection and response to some of the Islamic hip-hop we read about in section. Hip-hop is seen in many ways as uniquely American, but some types of it also have a strong connection to Islam and to directly counteracting Islamophobia. I think this implies a connection between America and Islam that runs directly counter to the American Islamophobia in our post-9/11 world. Therefore, while I was pleasantly surprised to hear about Muslim rappers counteracting Islamophobia, it made me wish that there was more of a response– I know of no non-Muslim American rappers reaching back out to the Islamic rappers to work together against Islamophobia. This void was what I sought to fill by writing this rap. In it, I write of how, yes, the events of September 11 were horrific, but that they serve as no excuse for the rampant and irrational hatred of Islam that too many Americans hold. I truly believe that while rap is a great vehicle to fight Islamophobia, Islamophobia cannot be eradicated or even minimized through the efforts of Muslim rappers alone. Instead, Muslims, non-Muslims, Americans, and non-Americans must all come together to fight against the irrational fear and hate too many non-Muslim Americans hold. I think that my rap, rudimentary as it may be, is an important first step toward fighting Islamophobia through music.

My fifth posting, like my first, counteracts anti-Islamic sentiment in a less overt way than my fourth or second. In it, I use pencil to draw an illustration of the seven valleys of the world of The Conference of the Birds, a long poem by Attar of Nishapur. I was inspired by the illustration of this world by Peter Sis, a well-regarded illustrator. While I lack his artistic talent, I like that my drawings included depictions of one of the stories from each valley, and I wish he had included that. There is nothing in The Conference of the Birds that directly addresses Islamophobia, as it was written long before September 11, 2001. It is merely a beautiful poem in an Islamic world, and thus speaks more directly to the original mission of AIU 54 of showing and analyzing the cultural and artistic diversity of the Muslim world. In doing so, however, it serves to counteract Islamophobia nonetheless. If more Americans thought of ideas and texts like Attar’s work, and fewer thought of terrorism and violence, when Islam is brought up in conversation, it would show progress against Islamophobia. The importance of reading, discussing, and sharing beautiful works like Attar’s cannot therefore be understated in the fight against Islamophobia.

My sixth and final piece is different from all the rest in that it is auditory, not visual. I set a beautiful ghazal, or Persian love poem, to music, and recited it. Because each couplet of a ghazal is its own poem, I set each one to a different piece of music or sound. Like Attar’s Conference of the Birds, I think this poem counteracts hatred of Islam indirectly. By showcasing the diversity and the beauty of Islamic art and culture, as AIU 54 itself aims to do, this poem fights against misconceptions and hatred of Islam in an indirect but nonetheless very important manner.

These six pieces can be grouped in various ways. The sixth is auditory, whereas the first five are visual. The ghazal, the Al-Ghazali piece, and the illustration of The Conference of the Birds all speak to the mission of AIU 54 by showcasing the diverse and beautiful nature of Islamic art and culture whereas the rap, the calligraphy, and the piece reflecting on Prophetic Light and Sulayman’s interpretation all offer a more overt response to hatred of Islamophobia and anti-Islamic sentiment. These pieces also all reflect Islam in a wide array of times and places, from modern rap music to ancient calligraphy, and can be grouped along either of these spectra.

Like Islam itself, these pieces therefore encompass a wide variety of ideas and beliefs, all grouped into my project the way many communities of interpretation come together to make up Islam. These communities of interpretation are groups that interpret Islamic thought and the Qu’ran in a variety of ways. Admittedly, some of these Muslim groups possess a violent, virulently anti-American ideology, but what many Islamophobes fail to realize is that the overwhelming, overwhelming majority of these groups are peaceful, tolerant, and pluralist. As I hope is clear, I tried to get at this idea in my project by showcasing the many, many ways across space and time in which the latter set of communities of interpretation express themselves through art.

Ideally, I hope that one day, discussions about Islam in American classrooms will encompass everything from ghazals to rap to theater to music, with fundamentalist terrorism and Islamophobia as a mere historical afterthought. Furthermore, I’d like to think that AIU 54, and, by extension, this project, help to bring us toward a world in which that is the case.

Thank you so much!

6. Ghazal from Hassan by Flecker

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For this final posting, I set a recitation of the ghazal in James Elroy Flecker’s play Hassan, as written in Ravishing Disunities (edited by Agha Shahid Ali) to various pieces of music. The first couplet, which was about flowers, I set to Leo Delibe’s “Flower Duet.” The second, which featured a dove, I set to a dove’s cooing. The third, which was about morning, I set to the beginning of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, which is evocative of morning. The fourth, which was about sunset, I set to a more modern track, called “Chasing Sunset,” by Cubed Circle. The fifth, which was about night, I set to Beethoven’s famed “Moonlight Sonata.” The sixth couplet was left without music, and was made louder, both of which I did for emphasis.

I thought that this ghazal lent itself particularly well to music for a number of reasons. It is a qata, or continuous ghazal, so I thought adding music made it appear more fluid, in keeping with its style. However, by choosing separate pieces of music for each couplet, I reflect upon its nature as a ghazal itself by differentiating between each couplet. I also thought that because the ghazal itself was a reflection on beauty, choosing some of the most beautiful pieces of music and natural sounds I could find would be only fitting. Also, since this ghazal is part of Flecker’s play Hassan, I found it appropriate to set it to music, as many plays contain music. It has a certain appeal when heard aloud that is not conveyed when read, I believe, and I think the music I chose enhances this.

5. The Conference of the Birds. Note: If the image is not displaying properly, please drag it to your desktop and view it from there. Thank you!

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I really loved the Peter Sis book illustrating The Conference of The Birds that we passed around in section. This book made me think about how well that poem lends itself to illustration. However, the one thing I thought could be different or improved about that book was that it did not attempt to depict any of the stories within the valleys at the end. I thought these stories were one of the richest parts of the entire poem, and I wanted to reflect on these by drawing the world of the poem by including them. I chose pencil as my medium because it allows me to maximize my limited artistic talent and utilize shading.
I drew the valleys in order, named and connected by a path, and in each I wrote the title of a story corresponding to that valley, and an illustration of the story happening in each valley. I also drew the birds flying over each valley, as I thought Sis’s depictions of the birds themselves were some of the most beautiful things in his book. While I drew much more simple drawings of the birds, I tried to show the diversity of the bird kingdom by having them vary greatly in size. By drawing the stories I read, I think I offer an interesting visual depiction of and reflection on a text so rich in imagery as The Conference of The Birds. While, obviously, I lack Sis’s talent for drawing and artistic expression, I think my piece complements his by including some of the stories that were such a delight to read in the original text.

4. American hip-hop as a response and complement to Islamic hip-hop versus Islamophobia

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9/11/01 was a terrible day

Thousands of innocents, all gone away

Fundamentalist terrorists tried to make infidels pay

But their deaths were not the only legacy

 

American racism brought terror to innocents all around,

Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, really anyone brown,

Terrorists they’d never met sent buildings into the ground

But also brought out the worst in each and every town

 

For every Saddam there’s a million “Salaams”

For every bomb there’s a million Muslim moms

For every terrorist there’s American racism

So is the real threat from without or within?

 

Muslims use song, ghazal, ink, and rap,

To show that they’re more than that terrorist crap,

IAM, Atlas, Fun-Da-Mental, we hear you,

And want to show that we don’t fear you.

 

This rap I wrote was inspired by Ted Swedenburg’s chapter in Global Noise entitled “Islamic Hip Hop versus Islamophobia.” I really enjoyed reading the verses written by Islamic hip-hop artists and think they serve as a powerful tool for anti-racism. I had no idea that hip-hop was such a prominent force in the Islamic world, let alone one used for such good.

 

Being a non-Muslim American, I thought the way in which I could best respond to these Muslim rappers was to respond by writing a rap of my own that reached out back to them. I wanted to  present an American view on the situation different from the Islamophobic one they responded to that so unfortunately represents the view of so many of my fellow Americans.

 

In the first verse, I wrote about the attacks of September 11, 2001, which arguably engendered the majority of Islamophobic sentiment in America. The first three lines represent a pretty simple view of 9/11, but I also add in the fourth line that the deaths of those people were not the only legacy lasting from that day.

 

In the second verse, I write of the other lasting legacy: the pervasive Islamophobia that these hip-hop artists try to counteract. I write of how Muslims and anyone who looked stereotypically Muslim bore the brunt of American racism post-9/11, and how the terrorist attacks served not only to take down the World Trade Center but also to bring out the worst in Americans across the country.


The third verse offers more direct contrast: there are many more “salaams” or sayings of peace from Muslims than there are terrorists like Saddam Hussein. There are many more mothers, and by extension, human beings, who are Muslim, than there are bombs made by Muslims. I question whether the threat comes from without (terrorist attacks) or within (applying our thoughts about a very, very limited number of Muslims to all Muslims). In the final verse, I address the Muslims who reach out through rap, and use rap to say that I hear and understand what they’re saying, and try to offer a peaceful vision to complement theirs.

3. Prophetic Light and Mutaqil; PLEASE NOTE: The drawing will not fully display; please drag it to your desktop and view it from there. Thank you!

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I chose to make one of the projects for my portfolio based on the light verse in the Qu’ran, and on Muqatil ibn Sulayman’s interpretation of it, for several reasons. For one, this is a very famous verse, and thus deserving of artistic interpretation. Secondly, it has really vivid imagery, lending itself to visual art, and using pencil specifically allows me to best incorporate shading and textures in the tree and the trunk. Thirdly, I really like the pluralist aspects of the Qu’ran, and Mutaqil’s interpretation speaks to this.

The light verse, Qu’ran 24:35, is well-known, and speaks of God as a light within a lamp in a star-like glass from a heavenly olive tree with magical powers. I drew this light in a lamp in a glass in a blessed olive tree. The tree in my artwork is hovering above the Earth, so it is not in the East or the West. I drew both the heavens and the Earth, with the tree between them. Within the tree, I drew a lamp, which has light radiating all over the world.

However, as Prof. Asani notes in Chapter Three of his book Infidel of Love, Muqatil ibn Sulayman and scholars that agree with and expand on his exegesis believe that the lamp represents the Prophet, so I drew Muhammad’s body as the lamp, in the tree. They believe that prophetic light has been passed from Adam through the other prophets, finally residing in Muhammad, so I drew light passing down from a series of figures to Muhammad, whose light radiates over the world.

I really like this interpretation because of its pluralism; the idea of connecting the prophets of different peoples really spoke to me. As someone who does not come from any one religious background (my mother’s family is Jewish and very secular, my father’s is Catholic and less so), I’ve always looked for and admired ideas that bring together religions and look for their fundamental similarities instead of those that drive them apart and look for their differences. Sulayman’s interpretation was really meaningful to me because it connected a majority of the worlds’ peoples through their prophets, and it did so through a verse that is particularly meaningful to many Muslims.

 

 

 

2. Allah and Salaam; PLEASE NOTE: The drawing will not fully display; please drag it to your desktop and view it from there. Thank you!

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I really liked the calligraphy project we did earlier in this class, and I enjoyed learning a little Arabic, so I wanted to expand on that for at least one project in my creative portfolio. I especially liked the calligraphy we saw that had double meanings, such as the words Allah and God written in the same word. This project shows the word Allah in Arabic (in light characters) nestled in the word salaam (in dark characters). I chose these two words to be physically connected because the connection between God and peace is an important one in Islam, and an especially key one to understand given the misconceptions of Islam in the world today, as Prof. Asani’s Infidel of Love explains in Chapter Two. 

As Prof. Asani notes in his book, As-Salaam (“The Peace”) is one of God’s main attributes in the Qu’ran, as shown in the prayer “O God You are the Peace; from You is Peace; to You returns Peace; O Lord grant us lives of Peace and usher us into the House of Peace”, which I wrote encircling the calligraphy in my project. This course reading was particularly meaningful to me because Prof. Asani wrote it; it’s great to find a reading I respect so much and be able to interact with its author.

Additionally, in 5:16, as Prof. Asani notes, the Qu’ran says that “God guides those with whom He is pleased to the ways of peace, guiding them along the straight path from darkness into light.” I drew this straight path, known as the sirat al-mustaqim, in the picture, containing the calligraphy. Like the Arabic language, it goes from right to left, as evidenced by the decrease in dark shading, or transition from darkness into light. Using pencil as the medium for this drawing allows me to incorporate this shading.
I thought this was an important topic given the many 21st-century perceptions of Islam as violent, due to the actions of a few extremists that have committed their actions in the name of Islam. Because the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful human beings, and submission to Allah is the literal definition of Islam, I thought that it was important for my art to unify the ideas of Allah and peace. Also, because some non-Wahhabi Fundamentalist Muslims use calligraphy and even see it as mystical, I thought this piece counteracts fundamentalism by using a beautiful, arguably anti-fundamentalist art from.

 

1. Al-Ghazali’s Qu’ran external recitation rules; PLEASE NOTE: The drawing will not fully display; please drag it to your desktop and view it from there. Thank you!

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This drawing was inspired by Al-Ghazali’s ten guidelines for Qu’ran recitation and interpretation. I display his most ideal reading of the Qu’ran by showing a man following all of his guidelines. In addition to being art, this piece can also serve as a visual guide to Al-Ghazali’s work. The Arabic numbers for 1-10 are written throughout the piece, each corresponding to how the man displayed is following that guideline. To me, it makes sense to display these guidelines through visual art, since they are external guidelines. I think it is important that this drawing is ink, because using ink imitates the Qu’ran itself and connects it to it.


The first guideline instructs that it is best to face the Ka’ba in Mecca, which is displayed through a small window in the direction the man is facing. It also instructs that one should stand. This is also displayed by a quote to the left of the man, which implies that he is a “person of understanding” because he is standing as he recites. Thirdly, the guideline specifies that recitation is excellent when it happens at night, which is implied by the darkness and the moon in the window to the left.

The second rule, which specifies that the Qu’ran should not be read too often or too rarely, specifies that the Qu’ran should be read two or three times per week. It is shown that the man in the drawing is following this rule because of the calendar, which has 2-3 days per week marked, implying Qu’ran recitation on those days.

The third rule indicates a preference for dividing the Qu’ran into seven parts, which is shown by the chart to the immediate right of the man, which has one-seventh filled in.

The fourth rule states that it is acceptable to mark the Qu’ran to specify recitation, as shown by the marked letters next to the man.

The fifth rule indicates a preference for tartil, or slow, clear reading. The man is thinking about the Arabic word for slow, which indicates that he is taking his time to recite the Qu’ran.

The sixth rule is that one should weep while reading the Qu’ran.

The seventh rule states that a reciter of the Qu’ran should prostrate himself when the sura he is reading calls for it. However, as shown by the man’s thoughts about the Sura of Sad, he is reading that sura, which does not call for prostration, so the man is not prostrated.

The eighth guideline indicates statements that should be made before, during, and after reading the Qu’ran. The man is making the appropriate statement for commencing recitation in a bubble to his left.

The ninth guideline states the Qu’ran should be read aloud, as shown by the sound waves to this man’s right.

The tenth guideline is that the Qu’ran should be read beautifully, as shown by the musical notes next to the man, although of course some Qu’ran scholars would not call Qu’ran recitation music.

 

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