Introductory Essay

May 7th, 2014

I arrived to the United States from Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam as some call it, but the knowledge I had learned throughout my school years was primarily textual and ritual oriented. Jurisprudence took a specific voice, the narrations of the Prophet and the stories about his life are selected with care to stress on a specific discourse, and it was the one and only Truth, Islam, in this case, with its capital ‘I’. Two semesters had passed since my enrollment as a student at Harvard Divinity School and I have noticed that the teachings that contributed to my understanding of Islam while growing up in Saudi were similar to the ones among Muslims in America, where an exclusivist manifestation is being embraced. Globally, what is presented from or about Islam is often the slice of the cake, but that slice never filled me, thus, I often desired the crumbs because of my belief that the true experience of pleasure lies in these last pieces, but who would want the crumbs, one would ask?

I wanted the crumbs because they had no specific shape, they tell you something about the cake, but not everything about it. The only apparent assertion that can be made then is that there is or was a cake, but each would give their own view on it, their own experience tasting it, and their own interpretation of what kind of cake it was. This does not mean that we had missed on the cake, although it could be true that we came centuries after Islam was being revealed, where the cake was being baked. With time, people have taken their shares, and what are left could be some crumbs. Nonetheless, this course and my conversations with people around me have taught me to cherish these crumbs so we can together, enjoy the making of the different flavors of cake that will be produced on the basis of diverse assumptions and efforts about the nature of the original cake. In that, we would be cherishing the experience by allowing for our imagination to be an agent.

It was right after I had spent a semester at the Harvard Divinity School, where I had taken classes on Islamic studies, done research on the role of politics in Islam and on Muslims, and in that, I participated in describing and engaging with the outcomes of a political Islam or a politically defined Islam. But it only happened when I saw Islam being islamic, and although I saw it with a small ‘i’, it was broader, deeper, and richer. The course joined the different cakes that were baked by different individuals, cultures, and communities of interpretations, and students had the opportunity to taste from each other’s cakes, but also to share their own. Here, the crumbs are the different faces of Islam, or in other words, the different parts of the elephant, and the cake is the elephant, and while some could refer to the elephant as God, others could refer to it as Islam. We tend to experience things differently depending on our experiences and contexts, which is a benefit of being human, yet often discredited.

Flavors

Flavors

For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures is a pure manifestation of the possibilities for an eclectic experience, a platform for imagination, agency, and for interpretations and embodiments. The course brought forward the artistic and literary aspects of Muslim communities’ devotional and spiritual life, presented through the assortment of mediums that went beyond a text or a single narrative. A significant aspect that this course was its ability to pass over the relationship between religion and culture, and in that it went beyond the notion that Islam is Arab, Shi’i, Sunni, Western, African, or specific to a group of people over others, but instead showed how experiencing Islam is a global experience, not restricted to Muslims, but to humanity. Moreover, it showed how situated knowledges are an important aspect of understanding religion and culture, and thus the question, what comes first, Islam or culture?

There are different mediums for understanding religion and culture, and the one that this course followed was the experiential learning that went according to the Cultural Studies Approach in the sense that tackles its topic through a multi and inter-disciplinary tactic in looking at the interplay between political, economic, and cultural perspectives. In understanding religion and culture through this perspective, we can overcome the dangers of illiteracy that include, but are not restricted to, losing the effectiveness of democracy because of the ignorance about neighboring religions, harming the potentials that diversity could foster, while reinforcing existing stereotypes and assumptions instead.

My experience with the Cultural Studies Approach was one of agency, through which I was able to go beyond the constraints of what I know, who I am, who I know, and where I am expected to go, to a point that was only possible in my imagination, fostered by the course’s experiential learning. This in precise took me to looking at the two forms of Islam; one explained as the name of the religion through which its people are called Muslims, and the other is explained as an act of submission, through which those who submit are the Muslims. The difference may be minor ones, but it certainly has a significant affect socially, psychologically, and politically, and that is precisely why the dominant religious discourse took the shape of the former, a more exoteric relationship with the text, and thus, with Islam as a whole.

Islam according to the former, simply a name of a religion, can follow certain fundamentals although shifting slightly between sects and communities of interpretation, and several would argue that through this perspective, a clear-cut Islamic practice would be preserved and saved from outside influences, in contrast to having an understanding of Islam that is fluid and open for others to experience. Some of these fundamentals can be found in the following notions:

  1. A person becomes a Muslim when she or he recites the shahada
  2. Monotheism: There is no god but Allah
  3. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah
  4. To Shi’i Muslims: And Ali is the master of believers who is from God

These fundamentals would include Sunni Muslims’ set of five Islamic pillars, another set of pillars that Shi’i Isma’ili Muslims have constructed, and the Shi’i Twelver Muslims who identify with yet a different form of fundamentals that they don’t refer to as pillars. These variations are important to Muslims, but they still follow an exclusivist form of Islam; one that becomes the religion of Muslims only.

However, according to several narrations of the Qur’an, Islam is one of the only religions that spoke and continue to speak to humanity, an approach that goes beyond Muslims as followers of the religion. In light of that, God says: “Say: we believe in God and what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes, and in what was given to Moses, Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between one and another among them and to…(God) do we submit (literally, we are submitters “muslims”)” (Qur’an 3:84). In this regard, we see the words of Johns in describing an attribute of the Qu’ran in going beyond the restrictive text orientation into an experience with the sound, a relationship with the tone, and a hearing in the mind, of significant importance, in which he says: “An appreciation of the character of dialogue and direct speech in the Qur’an, then, needs to go beyond an understanding of the words as they appear on the printed page. The challenge is to hear them in the mind’s ear, to listen to the various ways in which they could have been uttered. Above all else, it is necessary to listen”(Johns, 41 – 42).

The various ways that Johns points to here include the assortment of ways through which experiential learning could be practiced. This certainly follows the nature of the Qur’an because it, too, opens the floor for a deeper engagement and a room for pondering and imagination to take place. This miraculous attribute of the Qur’anic text teaches us how we can approach Islam too, and in speaking about that, Johns describes the text in these following words: “The Qur’an, it must be remembered, is a mosaic of diverse styles, parts of it being revealed to Muhammad publicly, others privately, and its language moves from a matter-of-fact to an elevated style, from relaxed to intense communication, often within a group of verses”(Johns, 39).

To avoid this exclusivist understanding, we learned that there could be foundations to Islam, but ones that don’t lock people into a single correct form. Henceforth, the following foundations are put forward:

  • Monotheism – tawhid
  • God’s transcendence; beyond comprehension; the 99 beautiful names/attributes of God (asma ul-husna)
  • God’s immanence
  • Creative Orderliness; manifestation through nature
  • God communicates with creation; revelation
  • Prophets as messengers (nabi/rasul)
  • Prophets as role models
  • Humans as the noblest of God’s creatures
  • Humankind forgetful and ungrateful (remembrance and gratitude as signs of faith)
  • Humankind egocentric, greedy; ignore the needs of the sick, poor, the traveller and the orphan. The quest for Social Justice a major theme in the Quran.

In doing so, we are both preserving the religion of Islam and at the same time opening the room for individual presence, and we see this in the experiences of figures that have been regarded as controversial due to the lack of such open space in the public sphere, such as Nawal Al-Sa’adawi in her views on the veil, Amina Wadud in regards to women reclaiming the Qur’an, Salman Ahmad and his devotion to music, and several others who continue to unfold their imagination and surface new perspectives and issues to engage with. This exclusivist understanding is not revolved around individual presence, but reaches the interpretations and the relationship between people and the text, such as the conflict between those who believe that the Mi’raj was a material and literal experience that the Prophet (pbuh) had embarked on, and those who follow the narration of Aisha, the wife of the Prophet, as she states that the Prophet was in his bed during that night, thus, suggesting that the experience was of a dream and a spiritual nature instead.

In the light of this, several questions could be addressed and some of which could be in asking about the changing structures of the role of traditional authority, the interplay between the text and the reciter as agent, and finally and most importantly, the role of poets and artists in surfacing an inclusive experience of Islam. We have seen the various manifestations of Islamic religious traditions and Muslim communities, but I have precisely taken the advantage of having this platform to creatively express myself by concentrating on the concept of Islam in its two forms, the exclusivist with its capital ‘I’ and the inclusive with its small ‘i’, and through this theme as a source of inspiration, I engaged with Islam and the way it is manifested in various cultures and traditions, through the usage of a variety of mediums that assisted me in this process, which can be found in the following headings:

  1. Ink on hand:I have chosen to use ink on a hand rather than on paper, a medium that becomes temporary when applied to skin, to write the word kalmia, word, however, as we have come to see, one word may carry several meanings, one word may have a meaning that is zaher and another that is batten. Moreover, in this design, the word kalima could also be read as kalimat, words, which signals the perspectives and the lenses used in reading the word.
  2. Written Poem: An inclusive islam is an experience that can be found within and not outside of oneself, for the Qur’an addresses humanity and in that we can see the the light is mutual in a human experience and not to a group over another. In pointing to islam with a small ‘i’ and not a capital one, I aim to eliminate a superior ownership to truth and allow for a wider platform where it can be relative and subjective and still be worthwhile and true.
  3. Ink on paper: The fusion between the sound and the structure of mosques in some countries during the five prayers of the day is a profound experience, through which one will hear an echo of all the different voices stemming from the mosques in a neighborhood and in the surrounding areas. However, although these mosques speak the same language and recite verses from a single book, one should not forget that each mosque represents an ideology, an understanding, and a leading message that it advocates. Thinking of it, I thought the differences in minaret structures, lengths, and shapes can resemble this multitude of voices.
  4. Oil on Canvas: Women could be used as symbols for a ‘godly community’ or for a liberal free country. Women themselves have reacted and engaged in these battles; between Nawal Al-Sa’dawi’s negation of the veil, and Zainab Al-Ghazali’s notion of the veil as a token of her resistance to Western ideologies. this painting as a symbol of how it looks when we are all alike, and despite using the color white with a soft pastel tone, it still has an impact on the lack of diversity. However, regardless of the former being an argument to some, in the similarity is a form of unity. My question is, how can we balance this formation of unity while still maintaining our selfhood?
  5. E-book Photo Edit: Al-Ghazali states that although he is an advocate of esoteric and metaphorical interpretations, “metaphorical interpretation is necessary to overcome the contradiction between reason and text, while the mastery of exoteric interpretation comes before esoteric interpretation. ” he still sets requirements for who can engage in metaphorical and esoteric interpretations with the Qur’an.
  6. Face-Paint and Photo Edit: This photo manipulation and face-painting art piece is about the potentials of looking within oneself before looking outwards. There is a truth in and of itself in that matter, which is the surrender to the barriers that could be found but the willingness to recognize them and work on overcoming them to nurture the fruits. Face painting is a form of portrayal, through which the face becomes a symbol of the self, of the unfolding of interiority.

 

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References:

Abdelkebir Khatibi, and Mohammed Sijelmassi, The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995).

Johns, A. H. “The Qur’anic Presentation of the Joseph Story: Naturalistic or Formulaic Language,” Approaches to the Qur’an (G. R. Hawting & A.-K. A. Shareef, Eds.). London and New York: Routledge, 1993. pp. 37-70.

William A. Graham & Navid Kermani, “Recitation and Aesthetic Reception,” in: The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an (Ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe). Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. 115-141.

 

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