(view as PDF) AIU 54 Blog Intro Essay

Everyone in America remembers where they were on September 11th, 2001. I remember walking home from elementary school and getting a big hug from my mom – “everything is going to be OK,” she said.  I thought to myself, what’s going on? My mom took me and my two brothers inside the house and held us as we watched the footage of The Twin Towers burn down after being hit by two planes. The chaos continued after the attacks – my friend’s dad was in 2 World Trade Center. Nearly three-thousand other people lost their lives that day. Who would do something so bad to so many innocent people? Being exposed to image after image of violent terrorists and an onslaught of accusations towards Islam, I remember asking my parents at the dinner table, “why is Islam so bad?” It was not until I learned more about the attacks and the teachings of Islam that I realized that religion was not the problem. People fueled with hatred and a lack of understanding were the problem.

One of the most symbolic parts of The Reluctant Fundamentalist was when Changez told the CIA agent to “listen to the whole story from the very beginning, not just bits and pieces.” In his first lecture of the semester, Professor Ali Asani explained how people have an inability to engage with differences because of the lack of adequate tools to understand differences. They do not listen to the whole story. Citing religious illiteracy as a manifestation of this ignorance, Asani invited us with him on a journey of understanding Islam and its incredibly diverse following. Asani presented us with a cultural studies approach to studying Islam. During the lecture, Asani discussed how the cultural studies approach can help solve the problems of religious illiteracy:


“This approach considers how religion is a phenomenon that is deeply imbedded in all dimensions and contexts of the human experience. It is intricately interwoven within a complex web of contexts — historical, political, economic, social, literary, artistic, etc. It requires multiple lenses through which to understand its multivalent social/cultural influences. Conceptions of religion are dynamic; as contexts evolve and change, religious ideas and institutions change as well.”


With an increase in connectivity via faster modes of transportation and the internet, societies are becoming more globalized. Cultures are exposed to one another more than ever before. Asani, in his book Infidel of Love, explains how this proximity, instead of uniting civilizations, has created “greater misunderstandings…resulting in ever-escalating tensions between cultures and nations” (p. 1). For class, we were assigned to compile a blog of weekly responses to readings pertaining to religion, literature and art in Muslim cultures. Written in English, the goal of this blog is to spread awareness of the beauty of Islam to people in The United States – to profile the whole story of Islam. Using the aforementioned cultural studies approach to address many different facets of Muslim cultures across the world, this blog will hopefully allow people to partially overcome religious illiteracy and spark a greater interest in learning more about Muslim cultures.

While the individual blog posts respond to individual weekly readings, I am going to present some more general information to help contextualize the study of Islam. Professor Asani framed our learning of Islam with three main themes: Traditional, Post-Prophetic and Contemporary Islam. Islam is a monotheistic religion practiced by about 25% of the world’s population. Islam dates back to the early 7th century when the Prophet Muhammad – the last of God’s prophets – received divine revelations from God himself to form the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. The word of God within the Qur’an, coupled with the Sunnah (the teachings of the Prophet) and the Hadith (accounts of the Prophet’s lifestyle) provide the framework for how Muslims are supposed to live righteous lives.

In this class, we were initially exposed to the traditional sources of Islam. The Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad by God himself via the angel Gabriel. Before the Qur’an was written down, it was passed on by oral tradition. Wanting to preserve the essence of the original recitations, Qur’anic recitations have strict rules known as tajwid, such as nazalization and shake. These recitations are highly valuable, in fact there is an annual World Qur’anic Recitation Championship in which participants are scored based on both their ability to memorize the entire Qur’an and all of the tajwid. The initially oral tradition of the Qur’an was eventually codified into a written text. Because of the beautiful, divine nature of these teachings, there became an effort to capture the orality of the Qur’an within the constraints of words. Calligraphy is a decorative way to write down words. In a previous assignment, we were asked to make an Arabic calligram of the word Allah. I have included below my interpretation of Allah and his all-encompassing love. During this assignment I learned that the beauty of calligraphy was not just in its artistic designs, but rather was how the individual gained the power to interpret the Qur’an.  These traditional sources of Islam have incredible focus on the aesthetic value of their representations. For that reason, these traditional sources of Islam paved the way for the incredibly diverse aesthetic interpretations of Islam in both Post-Prophetic and Contemporary Islam.

When Muhammad died at the age of 62, Islam was forced to find a successor. This created a schism in Islam – there became Sunni and Shia Muslims. The major distinction between these two forms of Islam is how they determine the Prophet’s successor. Shia Muslims believe that Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, had been designated by the Prophet to be the successor. The Shia Muslims reject how Sunni Muslims believe that people themselves have authority to decide the successors of the Prophet. The struggle over who are the true spiritual leaders of Islam – whether it is the Ulama or the Imams – has led to incredible tension within the religion itself. While the majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni, there remain countries, such as Iran, in which Shia Muslims are the majority. We also learned about another form of Islam: Sufism. Sufism is a form of Islam that focuses on the mystical inner nature of the religion. Citing the Qur’an, “…We know what the innermost self whispers within him: We are closer to him than his neck vein,” Sufis look to let of the ego by focusing on God. Performing mystical dance rituals such as sama, Sufis escape the nafs (ego) by focusing on dhikr (remembrance of God). These different interpretations of Islamic framework started various different communities of interpretation within Islam. Communities of interpretation paved the way for more contemporary Muslim societies.

As time went on, cultures adapted with the rise in modernity and globalization. While cultures began to shift, Islam, like many other religions, was forced to adapt to these modern times. Asani discussed the contemporary conformations of Islam by profiling one major aspects of these changes: the feminist movement. According to his lecture on April 5th, Asani explained how both internal and external factors caused major changes in Muslim societies. Internal factors, such as the syncretism of traditionally non-Islamic customs like music and dance in Sufism and traditionally Islamic traditions questioned tawhid, the monotheistic nature of Islam. External factors such as interactions with Europe and colonization also contributed to changes in contemporary Muslim societies. Women’s bodies became a medium for Islamic political battles. As John Zaleski discussed, the veiling of women showed how women perceived the Islamic republic’s authority. In the Qur’an and the Hadith there are references to modesty and the veiling of the Prophet’s wives. However, as Amina Wadud Muhsin put it in her book Qur’an and Women:

“The Qur’an acknowledges the virtue of modesty and demonstrates it through the prevailing practices. The principle of modesty is important—not the veiling and seclusion which were manifestations particular to that context. The movement from principles to particulars can only be done by the members of whatever particular context in which a principle is to be applied.”

This excerpt highlights how within changing times, previously “traditional” concepts must also change as well. According to Amina, one cannot legitimate governing rules created centuries ago to current societies that have vastly different societal contexts. Modern-day Islam maintains its root in its traditional source. However, post-prophetic and contemporary interpretations of Islam have created different interpretations of the common source of Islam: God and the Prophet Muhammad.

Understanding the origins of Islam and all of its artistic interpretation allows one to start to overcome religious illiteracy. These blog posts – when read together – paint a picture of how to approach dealing with religious illiteracy. They can be divided into two major categories: the problem and the solution. The first three blog posts are designed to represent the problem. By exposing the reader to the cultural tensions that exist between America and Islam, these posts exhibit the problems that can arise from a lack of understanding. The final three blog posts function as the solution: a multifaceted approach to understanding Islam. By juxtaposing the tensions with beautiful Islamic art, these blog posts underline how religious literacy can help solve many problems.

The Problem. The “Westoxification” post references Asani’s point that globalization has caused vast misunderstandings between cultures. This post is designed to not only allow readers to see this conflicting tension, but also to question why they exist and what can be done to ameliorate these problems. The second post, “Conflicting Identities” dives deeper into how these tensions can pose both physical and psychological problems for people stuck between these cultural divides. This post talks about the struggle of a young, successful Muslim immigrant in the United States who feels the hatred of America versus Islam in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Finally, “Molded Jihad” underlines how one must understand local context in order to understand how some people can interpret the same word in a variety of ways.  While some violently interpret jihad, others underline the peaceful internal struggle of jihad. These three posts offer a glimpse into some of the manifestations of conflicting cultures.

The Solution.  The final three blog posts highlight specific elements of Islam that help contribute to improve understandings of Islamic teachings and practices. Using art as a medium for expression, these posts help the reader get a sense of the beauty of Islam. “Eating the Qur’an” highlights a specific community in Sudan that physically embody the Qur’an by drinking different verses prescribed by a professional. This post shows how Islam is an incredibly dynamic religion, allowing people to interpret certain teachings in ways that fit their cultural contexts. The next post “Symmetry and Centrality” looks at the connection between Islamic architecture, Islamic designs, and the natural beauty of a flower. By finding similarities and differences between them, one can see how Islamic art underlines an appreciation of the natural beauty surrounding us. Finally, “We are God’s Creations” unifies all Muslims, Jews and Christians by talking about their connection as People of the Book. While there are often disagreements between these religions, it is important to understand that they are all rooted in the same divine teachings.

The take home message from this blog is that expanding one’s knowledge about Islam – not relying on construed Western media outlets – can unify cultures and decrease conflicting tensions. Everyone can relate to artwork. For this reason, using artwork to explain principles in Islam allows for a greater accessibly of its teachings. Islam, just as many other religions, is dynamic. Nebahat Avcioglu’s paper on “Identity-as-Form: The Mosque in the West” underlines this point well: “Islam…is not understood as a static concept, which it often claims to be, but rather as a dynamic process that adapts to specific geographical and cultural conditions” (p. 107).  By using a cultural studies approach, one can capture the dynamic nature of Islam and understand why different people interpret Islamic teachings in different ways. With this increased literacy in dealing with difference, perhaps we can dissolve the harmful cross-cultural tensions that intoxicate our modern world. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog, and I hope it helps shed a light on the fascinatingly beautiful religion of Islam!


Jallal Al-e-Ahmad, an Iranian intellectual, coined the term gharbzadegi, or Westoxification – the obsession with popular Western culture. In lecture, we learned about Westoxificiation in the context of the Iranian Revolution. The shah, who was backed by The United States, was overthrown by an anti-Western theocracy led by Ayatollah Khomeini. In his chapter on “Islam in Contemporary Iran,” Buchman explains how “Islam [played] an important ideological role” in the Iranian Revolution (p. 89). The negative connotation of the word Westoxification underlines how Western culture seems to be at odds with traditional Islamic values.

For this week’s blog post I decided to create a video reflecting this Westoxifcation. I downloaded a popular recitation of the adhan, the Islamic Call to Prayer. The adhan is integral to the soundscape around any mosque, as it is called from the mosque five times a day to signal mandatory prayer. The adhan is a key staple in Islamic practices. While the audience hears the traditional call to prayer, I chose to show a brief slideshow of pictures with American magazine headlines. The dichotomy of holy sounds and racy headlines highlights the tension profiled by Westoxification. Buchman poses an interesting question: “is Islam compatible with the modern world” (p. 99)?  Being exposed to the stark contrast of traditional Islamic sounds and images of Western culture, one might think that it’s impossible for the two to coexist.

However, I think the biggest problem is this politicization of Islam – the idea that it is Islam versus modernity. One can see this politicization in the case study of the Iranian revolution. Buchman puts it well that “Islam is a religion of compassion…[but] the [new] regime makes it a religion of destruction” (p. 99). Focusing on the care and beauty of Islam as a religion helps to negate the violent politicization of Islam in other contexts. But the question still remains: how can traditional Islamic values be incorporated with the growing modern global culture that seems to be at odds with Islamic values? Must one culture have to conform more than the other? Compassionate learning helps start the conversation between how two seemingly conflicting cultures can coexist.


Conflicting Identities

Mohsin Hamid’s book entitled The Reluctant Fundamentalist profiles the identity crisis of Changez, a young man from Lahore, Pakistan who is a successful businessman on Wall Street when 9/11 happens. Attending Princeton and securing a top-notch banking job, Changez – an immigrant – appears to be living the “American dream.”  However, after the 9/11 attacks, his identity in The United States changes drastically. The film, directed by Mira Nair, visualizes this change by showing Changez being strip-searched at an airport and tormented in his workplace by his co-workers.

The movie talks about how American patriotism became a way for people to protect themselves from the terrorist attacks. Hamid sums it up by saying “small flags stuck on toothpicks featured in the shrines” (p. 79). The overwhelming imagery of patriotism in New York City is coupled with thoughts that “we are America…the mightiest civilization the world has ever known” (p. 79). This unification of America resulted in a seemingly all-time high of patriotism, but it also excluded anyone who didn’t “appear” to be American, such as Changez.

For the final week’s blog post, I decided to do a drawing that shows Changez’s identity conflicts profiled throughout both the movie and the book. Changez – in color – is standing in between half of an American flag and a Pakistan flag, which are both black and white. The black and white nature of these flags hints at the “us vs. them” sentiment highlighted in both the movie and the book. In the United States, Changez’s identity is really black or white – he is Pakistani or he is American, as if the two are mutually exclusive.

Is it good to be different? In our increasingly globalized society, identities are forced to overlap. Yet there still remains to be a taboo nature of being Muslim in America. In order to work towards a more unified world, we must try understand why people are different, and understand how these differences can in fact strengthen globalized cultures.

Molded Jihad

Jihad is strewn throughout Western media outlets on a daily basis. The New York Times, The Today Show, Fox News, among many other high-impact media, employ this word to explain conflicts perpetuated by religious motivation. Violent images are situated near the word jihad, extending the negative connotation of this word. What most people don’t understand – and fail to acknowledge – is the peaceful aspect of this word.

In chapter 2 of his book entitled Infidel of Love, Professor Asani discusses the social and political construction of the word jihad. Coming from the j-h-d Arabic root, jihad literally means “to struggle, to toil, to exert great effort” (p. 80). However, Asani explains how the word’s multifaceted interpretations prevent it from being “reduced to a single and simple definition” (p. 79). Asani also provides three different accounts of how Muhammad and His followers interpreted jihad: military campaigns, caring for one’s parents, and inner struggles.

These different aspects of jihad represent the multivalence of the doctrine of jihad; however, years of social and political associations of jihad with violent conflict has brought that interpretation to the forefront. Using a cultural-studies approach, one can understand why certain groups of people interpret jihad in different ways. The danger of isolating jihad as solely violent action rooted in religious warfare negates the overall ethical element of jihad.

For this week’s response, I decided to mold the Arabic word jihad out of modeling clay. Sculpting this word required me to manipulate the clay until it “looked like” its Arabic script. Leaving my fingerprints along the way, the beauty of this artistic representation symbolizes how Muslims mold their own interpretations of the word jihad. The concepts of jihad are modeled in Hadith, and therefore each individual, consciously or subconsciously, models their own interpretation from the clay of the Hadith.

The word jihad has many different meanings for many different people. It’s important to understand the context in which these people find themselves in order to fully encapsulate their meaning of jihad.


Symmetry and Centrality

When Maryam Eskandari gave her guest lecture on exploring Islamic architecture, she underlined the influence Islamic architectural designs have had on other buildings, from Trump’s Vegas casino to St. Peter’s Basilica. A few characteristics she highlighted were the following: rotundas with domes, minarets and arabesque calligraphic designs. Her work on studying the qualities of the artwork on the inside of the dome was really interesting, suggesting that there are specific patterns to dome artwork found across many geographical locations.

For this week’s blog post, I wanted to jump off of Ms. Eskandari’s work and focus on the beauty within Islamic artwork, particularly mosque dome designs. Islamic art maintains a unique voice. Dome designs are a principle feature of the mosque, highlighting “centrality and symmetry,” according to Ardalan’s “On Mosque Architecture” (p. 56). This symmetry is reflected in arabesque designs that so often cover the inside of these domes. The centrality of the dome designs focuses attention on the light – the Divine light – at the center of the dome.

I chose to put together a comparison of the inside of the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, a mosque built by Muhammad in Medina, a flower, and a traditional arabesque design. I was shocked at how similar both the arabesque design and mosque decorations were to the natural beauty of a flower. Nature has a unique role in Islam, as in the Qur’an it states: “And the earth! We have spread it out…and have produced therein every kind of fresh plant. An insight and a reminder for every servant turning [to Allah]” (50: 7-8). Flowers are a reminder of God’s creation and the natural beauty associated with God. These three images taken together show their distinctions, but also show their similar symmetry. The connection between beautiful flowers and man-made designs underlines the focus on nature, as nature reminds us of our submission to God.

The images (from right to left) are from these sources:


Eating the Qur’an

A common theme in Islam is embodiment. There is a distinct difference between humanity and the Divine. By embodying Divine teachings or sayings, a human can become more divine. Qur’anic recitations and memorization (Hifz al-Qur’an) is designed to embody the words written in the Qur’an. Furthermore, the Hadith allow people to embody the lessons and lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad.

In Abdullahi Osman El-Tom’s reading entitled “Drinking the Koran,” the author profiles a tradition performed by the Berti people in Darfur. For the Berti, there is an incredible focus on actually internalizing the words of the Qur’an. In fact, certain verses of the Qur’an are prescribed by a faki (people who have committed the Qur’an to memory) for various reasons, ranging from curing diseases to safe traveling to inflicting leprosy on another. The faki meets with clients and discusses certain issues, then chooses an applicable verse from the Qur’an. The faki uses a dawai to write the text, then washes it with water before the client drinks it. This Berti tradition reflects their interpretation of the general theme embodiment in Islamic teachings.

For this week’s response, I decided to inscribe the words “love God” in Arabic onto an Oreo cookie. With inspiration from the Berti tradition, perhaps this could be prescribed by a faki for an individual who is struggling to love God. Loving God is a common theme in Islamic framework. In the Qur’an, it is written that “If ye love Allah, follow me; Allah will love you and forgive you your sins” (3:31). Furthermore, we see loving relationship of people and God in Urdu ghazals, love poems usually addressed (ambiguously) to often erotic love with God. For people who sin frequently or have lost their submission to God, perhaps the reminder – the physical embodiment – of the words “love God” can help allow them to follow God and receive God’s everlasting love in return.

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We are God’s Creations

A difference in identity has long been a significant contribution to perpetuating hatred. The “us vs. them” mentality establishes a schism between people rather than uniting them. Growing up in America – a post-9/11 America at that – I have been exposed to the media’s portrayal of Islam as an incredibly violent religion. However, with a true understanding of Islam and its motivations, one gains an entirely different perspective to Islam as a religion – and Muslims as humans just like you and me.

In chapter 1 of his book entitled Infidel of Love, Professor Asani presents the distinction between being a Muslim and being a muslim. There is no capitalization in Arabic, so these two words mean the same; however, Asani explains how everyone who believes in devotion to God is a muslim. A Muslim is used as a “marker of socio-religious identity” for those who follow the religion of Islam (p. 22). In contrast, a muslim literally means “one who submits” to God (p. 28). Jews, Christians and Muslims are all muslims – we are united by our submission to one God.

For this week’s response, I chose to create a cartoon of a symbolically brief conversation between a child and his father. I used to create the animation. Children are incredibly immature, and they mature as they are conditioned to learn based on their exposure to different life experiences. I chose to make the boy and the father white to reflect my experience growing up. For a white Christian child growing up in America, Muslims appeared to be radically different. However, when I was exposed to the Qur’an, I understood the unity of Islam with Christianity and Judaism.

Chapter 3 verses 113 and 114 of the Qur’an, which symbolically frame the cartoon, explains the concept of the ahl al-kitab, “People of the Book.” The notion that all of these 3 major religions have received their inspiration from the umm al-kitab, “the mother of scripture.” While the Qur’an is different from the Old and New Testament, their inspirations are Divinely linked to the same God. The power and beauty of this unity helps destroy the boundaries between religious identities, because at the end of the day – we are all God’s creations.