Welcome to 5 A.M.

red m

Welcome to 5 A.M.


The first adhan, or call to prayer, usually begins around 5 A.M. and contributes to the unique soundscape of Islamic communities. It marks the beginning of each new day, and it brings Islam to the forefront of the consciousness. “5 A.M.” represents the new insights that I have gained from approaching Islam through a variety of perspectives. This blog contains my personal reflections, commentary and artistic responses to Islamic cultural thought, religion, and art.

Throughout the world, Islam is expressed and observed with incredible diversity and variation. Often, the differences between interpretations are accredited to two branches which are loosely defined by a political and theological split that occurred in the centuries after the Prophet’s death and resulted in the groups now known as the Sunni and Shi’a. These groups are distinguished by their disagreement concerning the rightful succession of leadership after the death of Muhammad.

However, these schools are very broad classifications, and there are numerous groups which fall under these categories that experience and interpret Sunni or Shi’a Islam very differently from one another. For example, Sufi’s search for deeper significance in religious text as well as devotional and experiential knowledge, and a Sufi may align their religious beliefs with either Shi’a or Sunni interpretations, yet they experience and practice Islam independently from what we would recognize as Sunni or Shi’a liturgy.

The meaning of religion changes across time and space. Carl Ernst writes that “religion never exists in a vacuum. It is always interwoven with multiple strands of culture and history that link it to particular locations” (Ernst, 30). In essence, Islam is composed of many communities of interpretation (Daftary, 161), and each individual community interprets the meaning of Islam in different ways depending on cultural, historical, political and religious factors. For example, many Islamic communities outside of the Arab-Islamic center imbue the Qur’an with local meanings and concerns. It can also be observed in tandem or as part of an amalgam of religions, such as for the Berti of of northern Darfur who follow a variety of Islam that, “is a fusion of orthodox beliefs and practices and elements belonging to the indigenous pre-Islamic religious system” (El-Tom, 414).

The notion that Islam is a monolithic religious tradition  supplants the many facets of the human identity with a single, sociopolitical orientation, which assumes all Muslims share similar beliefs, values, histories and aspirations. However, religion is only one facet of an individual’s dynamic identity, which is shaped by many elements and is constantly evolving in response to change. Amartya Sen writes,

“The increasing tendency to overlook the many identities that any human being has and to try to classify individuals according to a single allegedly pre-eminent religious identity is an intellectual confusion that can animate dangerous divisiveness. […] The world is made much more incendiary by the advocacy and popularity of single-dimensional categorization of human beings, which combines haziness of vision with increased scope for the exploitation of that haze by the champions of violence.”

The legacies of orientalism, colonialism, and the explosion of xenophobia after the events on 9/11 and 7/05, have increased the assumption of exclusionist identities regarding Islam and the West. Namely, the superstition that Islam is not compatible with the values sought by democratic societies has sought to construct “Islam” as a single race. In this sense, Islamaphobia becomes a new type of racism. These divisive discourses fail to realize the variegated topography of Islamic traditions and the misperceptions that arise from viewing Islam as a single identity. For example, while Islam is strongly associated with the Middle East, specifically the Arabian Peninsula, only 15% of practicing Muslims live there today. In fact, most of the worlds Muslims reside in Asia or in Africa. In the United States, the presence of Islam can be traced as far back as 1543, and today, the Muslim communities in the United States are more culturally and religiously diverse than any other nation.

The inability to engage with differences is a byproduct of religious illiteracy, and religious stereotypes only lead to dehumanization of the millions of Muslims who experience life in many different ways. But religion is a cultural phenomenon that can, and should, be studied, for if people cannot understand their neighbors, this illiteracy undermines the very point of democracy.

Sadly, most studies on Islam have failed to acknowledge this diversity, and have been primarily concerned with legal and religious textual sources. These legalistic and theological concepts only offer a constricted view, and the singular conclusions that are drawn from them fail to appreciate the many ways in which the text is interpreted and applied, depending on the multiple contextual factors in each community. Ziauddin Sardar notes:

“Scripture is perpetual. The Qur’an does not change, but the circumstances of human life, the potential of our thought and action, the social, economic, technological, environment and political conditions of our time are ever changing.”

Therefore, simply reading the Qur’an would offer little insight into the daily life and culture of those who consider themselves Muslim, and cannot capture the unique characteristics of an Islamic village in East Africa or a bustling urban Muslim community in Indonesia. Further, understandings of Islam are not static. Rather, they change over time and respond to contemporary events and concerns. By using the cultural studies approach, in contrast, we are able to switch the focus to the cultural aspects of Islam in recognition that culture heavily shapes how people express and experience their religious traditions. This perspective takes into account the incredible range of variation within the Islamic tradition, and cultivates, “a more diverse and inclusive understanding of Muslim societies and cultures” (Asani, 22). Using this approach, we must first ask “whose Islam?”  when approaching the study of Islamic culture and religion (Asani, 17).

Since the way people experience and express their religious views is contingent on cultural factors, both the material and intangible culture of communities reflect the different aspects, rituals, and practices of the Islamic religious tradition. Art, in its visual, literary and musical manifestations, becomes a lens through which we can explore the variegated fabric of Islam. It is critical to consider art through the cultural studies analytical approach, namely because in order to approach art, we must understand the context in which it was created. Ismail Faruqi argues while scholarship in the fields of art history has advanced the understanding of Islamic artistic expression through the identification, systematization, and classification of Islamic art, the theory (the philosophy and meaning behind its creation) has been vastly misunderstood and misrepresented.

Olec Grabar writes that, “we can demonstrate precisely what such and such symbol ‘means,’” but how do all these symbols interact together as a whole or in specific contexts? (Grabar, 25). It is important to note that the images, symbols and metaphors that we come across do not have one single meaning or significance. Each symbol often has different meanings depending on their cultural context, and subsequently, artists will attribute different meanings to them depending on political or social climates. Further, local cultures attach a number of meanings and values to specific artistic pieces which often encompass symbols or charismatic figures specific to that community, which are not present in other Islamic communities. For example, the image of Ahmadou Bamba, who is a local Sufi saint in Dakar, Senegal, wields incredible spiritual, apotropaic and emotional power among the people. While only one known photograph of Bamba has survived, it has been reproduced in a variety of ways and is a constant fixture throughout the city. His image is painted on buses, plastered on walls, or painted onto tiny charms which people wear around their necks. The people of Senegal have a very personal and complex relationship with Bamba, whose persona is interwoven into the country’s unique historical and religious fabric. Here, we are able to realize the capacity of visual arts, and of certain charismatic figures, to instigate strong emotional reactions.

There are many corresponding layers to art, with functional, connotative, formal and literal, doctrinal and other variations that must be considered in order to grasp the meaning of any particular piece. Symbols and images are often combined to transmit a narrative, a theme, or a specific state of mind. The rhythm, the pace, the placement and character of a collection of words, symbols, or metaphors will take on different meanings for both the creators and those who view the work.

In part one, واحد, I explore Arabic calligraphy and reflect on the written word of , الكتاب, the Holy Qur’an. My piece “الكلمات” (medium: ink), represents the calligraphic presentation of al-Bismillah, a phrase which has significant theological connotations in the Islamic tradition. Calligraphy is seen as one of the noblest devotional practices, and learning to write Arabic calligraphy is a critical element of an education, as well as ritual, in Islamic communities (Renard, 30). The exact form of the calligraphy is not universal, and various regions have developed their own, specialized calligraphic styles, such as Japanese or Urdu calligraphy (Abdelkebir; Sijelmassi, 14). However, Arabic remains the most sacred of languages. For some, the words take on magical meanings or special powers, and various personal items are often inscribed with verses from the Qur’an. The sacred text also plays a central role in daily and personal religious experiences. Finally, calligraphy has an aesthetic appeal that is perhaps regarded as one of the highest art forms in Islamic societies, and the calligraphic form creates an evocative image that is present in every variation of Islamic devotional traditions.

But the Qur’an was not meant to only be read, and the sound, “is considered to be the actual word of God” (Nelson, 255). Hearing the Qur’an is an integral part of the Islamic faith, and the audible Qur’an makes it accessible to those who are unable to read the text. The primary method of teaching the Qur’an is through recitation and memorization. Hafiz, literally meaning “guardian” or “memorizer” is a term used to describe an individual who has memorized the entire Qur’an. During the lifetime of the Prophet, histories, poetry, and traditions were preserved orally. The Prophet himself was illiterate, and when the Qur’anic revelations were revealed to him, he memorized them. His followers subsequently memorized his teachings as a way of both preserving the words, but also as a way of internalizing them. Reciters had a central role in the early Islamic period, and the tradition has retained its importance throughout the ages and is evident in every Islamic community.

In part two, اِثنانِ, Veneration of the Prophet Muhammad, my piece, “الوردة,” represents a rose as a metaphor for the Prophet (Medium: watercolor pencil). I approach the visual manifestations of Muhammad, and explore the relationship between Muslims and their Prophet. Among the key prominent spiritual and societal ideals that Islamic traditions throughout the world share, all Muslims are united by their belief in God and their love of his prophet, Muhammad (Asani, 53). Throughout the varying contextual differences and cultural interpretations of Islam, the love for the prophet has remained a constant aspect of the Islamic religious experience across time and space.

In part three, ثلاثة, Mosque Art, my piece,“شىء جميل” (medium: acrylic paint, card stock), represents the arabesque in its classical form. I explore notions of meaning behind mosque art, in particular, the arabesque style, and the appreciation of beauty in the Islamic tradition. The architecture created by Islamic communities in many ways becomes an extension of nature and of God’s creation. Mosque art and architecture is devoted to an awareness of God, a tangible way to remember the Divine. For some, the mosque becomes the earthly reflection of the Divine, just as the gardens that surround some mosques represent the gardens of paradise. The oldest mosque, the Holy Ka’bah, acts as a force, and every mosque is oriented towards the direction of the Ka’bah.

On a more social level, the mosque becomes an integral part of the surrounding town or city and serves many purposes for the community. The mosque adds to the soundscape of the city with the call to prayer and Friday observations. Further, the mosque is representative of the people who built and use it, in its material and layout. African Islamic architecture is especially enthralling, as the style and design express the variance in Islamic religious expression and devotion across cultures, ethnicities, and identities. The mud and stick Laranbanga Mosque in Ghana, West Africa, believed to have been built between the 13th and 15th centuries, and is one of the oldest surviving mosques in Africa. The architecture of the mosque does not resemble a typically mosque in the Middle East, and it does not have any decoration, markings or scripture that might identify it as Islamic. Yet it is one of the most valued visual manifestations of the Muslim-Ghanaian identity. Further, the Great Mosque of Djenné is an adobe building that is not only considered to be one of the greatest achievements of the local architectural style, but it also represents rejuvenation and renewal. At regular intervals, the walls must be restored with local materials from the river. In this sense, the mosque is both ancient, and new, and it has become an integral part of the landscape and identity of the Mali people.

In part four, أربعة, Sufi Piety, I explore the mystical branch of Islam. Two pieces make up my artistic reflection. “Annihilation” (medium: acrylic) represents the Sufi goal of complete annihilation of the ego, or fana. The figures are reminiscent of the Mawlaw’iyya, or Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order. Often the Sufi experience, interpretation, and artistic works do not represent the stereotypical Islamic discourse. In particular, Sufi music and dance are both loved and controversial, but they are not universal practices among Sufi communities. In Sufi theology, the appropriateness of music depends on the singer and the listener. Rather, the intention of all present has to be focused on God, and not on material longing. Sincerity therefore, becomes critical for the conditions that allow music and dance.

Sufi music has become popular among national and international audiences, and this popularity has led to a surge in Sufi artists and reproduction of Sufi music. These expressions have also come under attack by Muslim reformers from both the liberal and conservative camps. In the 20th century, the Mevlevi whirling dervishes were banned by the new Turkish government as a way to reign in religious activities (Ernst, 193).

The primary theme of Sufi music and literature is love, directed to the Prophet, Friends of God, or the Divine. Another theme is the journey in which all Sufi’s embark on in search of God. Works such as Attar’s “Conference of the Birds” reflect the spiritual journey Sufi’s embark on to find their Beloved, God.

Through my explorations of Sufi traditions, I discovered the Pakistani artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose musical compositions have become some of my favorite, particularly his piece “Allah Hu.” Khan primarily sings Sufi devotional music and the Sufi tradition of poetry is beautifully represented in his lyrics. In this particular piece, he asks why Hindu’s and Muslims fight, if they both worship the same Divine (23:00).

In part five, Political Posters – Dissent and Criticism with Art, I explore the visual manifestation of political dissent in Iran.My piece, “به يد تمام” (Persian “remember all”) represents the Kurdish dissenter, Behrouz Alkhani next to Imam Hussein (medium: modified digital photography). Graphic arts as a means to criticize or protest political authorities began in the 1960’s, and reached a peak during the Iranian Revolution. Much of the art addressed the modernization that was affecting the country in a multitude of ways. The images were often displayed on banners or posters, and communicated complex political and social messages to every facet of society, including those who were illiterate. In this sense, graphic art enabled all social classes to engage in the discourse on political legitimacy, modernity, and change.

The themes that were featured in these visual narratives were closely tied to Shi’ia theology and Iranian history. In particular, the theme of tragedy and political oppression connected to the Karbala tragedy, the event where Muhammad’s family were massacred whilst protesting tyrannical rule, is a prominent influence on Iranian art. This theme is particularly embraced by the performance traditions in Iran. The Ta’ziyah is a passion play that reflects the theme of tragedy and is performed by communities all over Iran. It is a drama commemorating the martyrdom of al-Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet, and his family at the Ka’bah. The major theme of the Ta’ziyah is redemptive suffering, and the symbols, themes and metaphors used in the play are well known to all Iranians. As the graphic art movement appropriated these similar themes and symbols, it made the reception and impact of the graphic art all the more extensive. Any Iranian, of almost any age, could understand a simple poster that evoked the sense of suffering and oppression felt by the Iranian people.

In part six, Women in Islam, I consider one of the perhaps most controversial symbols of Islam, the veil. My piece, “The Veil” (Medium: digital photo collage) is a collage of many different women from a variety of religious traditions who cover their head, similar to how Muslim women wear the hijab. The piece represents the notion that the practice of veiling is not limited to Islamic traditions, but is rather an aspect of many cultures and religious expressions.

The veil remains a divisive subject within Islamic circles and outside them. The Qur’an is seemingly gender neutral concerning veils (24:30-31), and there are many verses in the Qur’an that encourage equality between the sexes. Michael Sells reflects on this, and writes that, “within the nuances of the Qur’anic language one encounters a balanced and powerful gender dynamic” (Sell, 19). Critically, the veil as a tool of oppression is not found in the Qur’an, but is constructed by political ideologies. For example, in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, the veil represents violent oppression against women as a strategy of the state. However, many women do not find the veil to be oppressive. Rather, they see it as a part of their identity, intertwined with their spirituality. The #mipsters movement attempts to deconstruct stereotypes and dichotomies surrounding the veil, and offers new definitions of the veil as a symbol of identity as opposed to oppression:

Pakistani activist, poet and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal, wrote, “only those who are engaged in constant search are really alive.” This blog represents my constant search, my observations and my questions regarding Islamic theology, culture and art. My posts and artistic responses represent different tenets of the Islamic religious experience and expression, and they also address how Islam is confronting change and modernity. I specifically chose subjects that express both continuity and change throughout the Islamic traditions, and how contextual factors shapes the meaning of religious practice and experience . My work herein is not meant entirely to explain, but rather to inspire curiosity. It is my hope that I have avoided offering the viewer a single interpretation or meaning of any of the images or symbols I referred to in this body of work, so that each can experience Islam in a way that is uniquely their own.

Works Cited:

Abdullahi Osman El-Tom. “Drinking the Koran: The Meaning of Koranic Verses in Berti Erasure” in Popular Islam South of the Sahara. eds. Peel, J.D.Y. and Stewart, C.C. Manchester: Manchester UP. 1985. Print.

Asani, Ally. Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam

Daftary, Farhad. Diversity in Islam: Communities of Interpretation. Muslim Almanac p. 161-173.

Ernst, Carl. Following Muhammad (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina press, 2003), 30.

Ernst, Carl. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1997. Print.

Grabar, Oleg. “Symbols and Signs in Islamic Architecture,” in Architecture and Community: Building in the Islamic World Today, ed. Renata Holod (Millerton, N.Y., 1983), pp. 25-32.

Khatibi, Abdelkebir, and Mohamed Sijelmassi. The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Nelson, Kristina,“The Sound of the Divine in Daily Life” in Bowen, Donna Lee, and Evelyn A. Early. in Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993. Print.

Sardar, Ziauddin. Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Sells, Michael Anthony. Approaching the Qurʼan: The Early Revelations. Ashland, Or: White Cloud, 1999. Print.

 Sen, Amartya. “What Clash of Civilizations? Why religious identity isn’t destiny.” Slate Magazine. Web. Accessed May 2nd 2016. Available online.

Weber, Charlotte. “Unveiling Scheherazade: Feminist Orientalism in the International Alliance of Women, 1911—1950,”Feminist Studies, 27, no. 1 (2001), 125-57.


Posted in art, Cultural heritage, Islam, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment