Looking past the veil



This edited photo of the famous image of an Afghani girl that ran on the cover of National Geographic is what came to my mind after reading Satrapi’s Persepolis. We see the young girl wearing a veil, covering all but her face. Satrapi’s opening mirrors this: the reader encounters a young girl who is masked only by her face. This picture, however, became well known for the girls’ passion in her eyes. They pop in the brilliance of her color and still express an entire story. In many ways, the veil might cover a woman’s face, but it still does not lead to a complete occultation of her person. Even through the veil, a persona might shine through.



I came to this class late. The day I joined was the day that a major project was due; we had to write “Allah” in Arabic, through a creative medium. Faced with now producing a sophisticated piece of art that my classmates had weeks to consider, I paused. Ultimately, I photographed pens in the shape of the word—in a sort of “meta” reflection on the pens’ importance in visualizing “Allah” through intricate calligraphy. I don’t know if it was very good. But it was the first time that I had encountered a class leaning on art as a pedagogical tool to understand—and build on—the concepts explored in a lecture. And it was a curious and refreshing overhaul of a teaching style that dates back to ancient Greece.

After three months, we have not tried to understand Islam. We have learned how to understand the world’s second largest religion. We have learned that the heart of the religion is not in scripture—that’s the mind, so to speak. The heart of the religion is its culture, and it beats with astonishing vivacity in its aesthetics. It beats to the rhythms of Urdu ghazals and it is nourished by stunning architecture in its mosques and it pumps meter and rhyme in its poetry. We learned that we could read the Qur’an, reflect on the five pillars, but to understand what it is to be a Muslim is to go far beyond the literature. It is to understand how a Muslim engages with the religion, through her culture and daily routine.

That was the first lesson. Since then, we have broken up the massive body of information that exists to answer the question of what it means to be a Muslim. Through a systematic piecing up of our responses, we learned we can begin to visualize an absolute answer. And so we learned to appreciate the diversity in the answer: Not to run from different answers, but to see how they correlated and was part of something larger, something bigger. We understand each different experience to pull together a more global understanding of what it means to be a Muslim. In this process, we varied over different processes, including looking at variations across politics, age, literature, persecution, and visual art. We have roamed the world in learning about the incarnations of Islam in different countries. We traveled to Saudi Arabia, Czechoslovakia, Iran, Pakistan, and America, among others. And in each country, we have seen a variation of what we might assume is an “absolute.”

Islam offers more than a typical religion. With sharia law, and Muslim legal experts who specialize in religious jurisprudence, the religion is uniquely sophisticated. Perhaps as a consequence, Islam is a joy to behold in its diversity of adoption in governance by different regimes around the world. The politics of Islam is often portrayed in international media. Perhaps most recognized is the clash between Islam’s tenet that women must wear a hijab and the Western, 21st century notion of “modernity” and liberalism. The even especially came to center stage recently in France. During the affair, young women who were French and Muslim attended their public schools wearing a veil. Teachers, principals, other students and their parents—they all rebelled. They claimed it was an insult to the freedom of rights that France upheld. The Muslim community shot back, holding up freedom of religion as a powerful counterargument. The debate sizzled and charged a polemical debate: By wearing the hijab, were these young women compromising their own freedom or by not allowing the headdress was society compromising their rights to express their religious faith. But while this development played out on an international stage, other debates have been more local to national governments. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis was a fascinating look into two extremes of Islam. Her family, a left-leaning, liberal household, is Muslim. Under the new regime of the Ayatollah, her family is forced to change. Marjane adopts a veil to go to school. And further we explored the definition of Muslim though Michael Knight’s own journey of who he is and what it means for him to be a Muslim.

At some point in our lives, we are told our names. Sometime later, we are often told our religion: whether Christian or Hindu, Jewish or Sikh. For many of the characters we met during the semester, we observed their interactions with this truth—or how they attempted to change what they were told to what they knew. Satrapi’s story goes beyond how her interaction with how surroundings influence her religion. Persepolis indeed rises to be a powerful tale of how she negotiates her rearing as a Muslim with a new, fundamentalist regime. In the sequel, she would face larger difficulty in handling her natural inclinations with the new world of Europe. Sardar’s tale was similarly transporting. He begins his story, Reading the Qur’an, discussing the soothing lyricism that hearing the text would provide him, as his mother would read him the book. As he grew older, went to a religious school, he aged, and his interpretation of the literature changed. He began exploring the depths in the chasms that exist with frequency in the literature. For Sardar, the text provided him with some sense of added purpose and questions. These two characters grew up with Islam—grew up Muslim. Knight’s tale is a different one. He tells us how he became a Muslim. With this later entrance into Islam, Knight recounts how his definition of what it meant to be a modern Muslim often would clash with others.

Nearly as diverse as the geography in which the religion spanned, the body of artistic literature that Islam includes is vast. We can see a variety of poems, most notably the ghazal. It is more individual to Pakistan and the Urdu language, and it carries a very distinctive meter and a rhyme scheme. The repeated word at the end of each couplet is perhaps the most individual characteristic of the poem. Indeed, like its cousin of the maulud, the ghazal often leans on a doleful tone to motivate the piece. In the maulud, the poem relies on greater specificity. The narrator calls longingly for a separated lover, often male. It is assumed that the narrator’s pangs are more or less fruitless. And the ta’ziyeh provides another remarkable literary point for the religion. Less a manuscript and more about the performance, the ta’ziyeh is a remarkable symbol for the presence that art has for Muslims—and not just those with higher levels of education. The play follows the persecution of Hasan and Husayn, members of the Ahl al-Bayt. It is a popular play, and in the class, we saw a rendition in the villages of Iran. For them, this level of aestheticism is vital to their spirituality. And if they find either ghazals or mauluds inaccessible, they will at least be able to rest on the ta’ziyeh for providing rich, tenable content.

Indeed, the ta’ziyeh might even fit into the wider field of visual arts, another rich body of aesthetic work that has defined much of the culture. Here we even see some very universal approaches to visual art: as it is forbidden to draw God or his Prophet, many Muslims rely on the names, heavily caligraphed, as a form of divine art. The delicate strokes and captivating calligraphy even translates to those practicing Islam in Chinese sects. We have also seen stunning miniature paintings that have been central to the culture of Islam. Indeed, in India, these paintings went beyond providing a source of rich culture for many Muslims; they also created a strong backbone for much of the artistic creativity in the nation. Miniature paintings were adapted to capture scenes from Hindu texts, such as the famous epic, the Mahabharata. This embrace of a new religion by its culture is in fact a fine representation of the culture that Islam creates: the culture is not necessarily defined by the religion but by the principles it stands for.

Lastly, persecution provided ample material. The idea of persecution predicates much of the Shii sectarian beliefs system. As dramatized in the ta’ziyeh, Shiis do not look favorably on the Saudi caliphate, casting aspersions on the ancient kingdom for its slaughtering of the royal Ahl al-Bayt family. But persecution was not isolated to ancient times. In a post-revolution Iran, the nation was besot by persecution, as fundamentalists elements pulled on the same mechanisms to create terror that the caliph did so many centuries ago. Further, the western perception of persecution of personal rights is one that is interesting to examine by trying to be on the side. To what extent is wearing a veil a persecution of personal rights or a freedom to express oneself? These ideas certainly informed the religion—both in days past and days present.

The semester was a stunning whirlwind into the lives of Muslims around the world and the art that they enjoy. I may have joined late, but I am happy I joined.

A Tiny Look into Miniature Paintings


The studying of ghazals prompted me to remember another great source of Muslim aesthetics in South Asia: that of the Miniature Painting. Deriving its origins from Persian and even Chinese culture, the miniature painting is a strong backbone of Indian culture. In Akbar’s court, the Mughal emperor even ordered an expansion of the body of art beyond simply capturing Muslim leaders and ideals. He began commissioning work that would seek to represent Hindu fables. In the above paintings, we can see Krishna holding up Mount Govardhan to protect nearby villagers from a torrential downpour from the angry god of the sun, Indra. In the second and third paintings on the right, Krishna woos Radha and fights against evil demons. And, finally, in the fourth, below painting, Krishna is taken and saved from his evil uncle by taking the place of another baby. These tales are famous myths in Hindu culture. And like the ghazal, they represent a cross-cultural give-and-take that Iqbal noted in his poem. Like the ghazal, they are the function of an infusion of Muslim heritage into a new terrain.

Typeface, on Iqbal


For this piece, I used the slightly odd aesthetic base of typography to found my interpretation of Iqbal’s poem. I wanted to pepper The Complainer’s side with many comments that are disorganized and disjointed, especially highlighting the series of opening questions that whine on why God has turned his eye away from the devout muslims. The narrator here discusses how they have lost all sense of direction on why they have lost God’s favor. In God’s response, I wanted to highlight a single idea of the irrelevance of the complainers. While far from the thesis that argues in favor of cohabitation and cross-pollination of Muslim culture within the next of the Indian fabric–without Muslims losing a sense of heritage to their history–the single idea is a powerful one and suggests the scale against which the first narrator is fighting.


The Pen in Calligraphy



For this calligraphy project, I chose to sketch the word of “Allah” using pens—a reflective look at the importance of calligraphy and scripture itself in the formation and identity of Islam. As Sardar observes, the “Qur’an” even literally means “reading” in Arabic; calligraphy often proves a powerful way of drawing the beauty that Allah has created. Indeed, as we have seen in some of the paintings in the second week, many of the miniature paintings lack dimensionality so that the artist does not try to mimic Allah’s divine creations of the beauty in the world. Poetry and its penmanship—for example, as we see in zoomorphic calligraphy—therefore enter as appropriately modest media through which to express the wonder that Allah has created.

I was moved by this particular focus that transcends the art of poetry and extends into the presentation of the verse itself. There are few other religions that have such a strong emphasis on the art of writing, and that individual characteristic differentiates Islam—and even fewer have the detailed origin myth of God beseeching the worlds to create a script. Schimmel highlights few stories, ranging from letters following the patterns of light falling on a table to Adam’s purported writing of books that detail the language.

I used multiple types of pen in this image to connote the sense of unity within the multiplicity that Necipoglu described. Within multiple incarnations or different events, there is the one binding notion of “Allah” that unifies them together. And writing and the art of calligraphy similarly unite thoughts and people together.


Creative Assignment Image


In this pictures I took during a trip I made to Istanbul, Turkey, in the summer of 2007, I captured a few pictures of the Blue Mosque. I remembered these pictures when reading Sardar’s piece in week 2. His account of interpreting the Qur’an when a child reminded me of these images—of young children playing in the courtyard of the mosque, learning Islam through osmosis. They frolic, light-heartedly, in front of the grand Blue Mosque, as a moon makes a high-day appearance, as seen in the bottom right picture. They are at the same time interacting with the religion, as covered women and men wearing white enter the impressive structure to say their prayers for the day, and removed from it, understanding the place only as a playground.

Sardar’s recollection of hearing his mother read the Qur’an to him as a child seemed to offer the same level of duality: both heavy in substance but light in routine. As a child, he seemed to know this was an important text, but he also appreciated the cadence of the language, almost as a lullaby as hew would drift to sleep.

In the arrangement of photos, I wanted to impress the scale of the mosque and its seniority by place that picture above the two of the children. But I also wanted to show how the grand spirituality and playfulness coexisted, at the same level, by placing the photos of the children with the photo of the mosque with the moon in the background.

A Ghazal


Yeh ishq, yeh pal, yeh saans, yeh zindagi;

Yeh sab hai tumahara, ya, Ali!

Tum hai pati, tum hai pitaji;

Tum hai mere ishwar, ya, Ali!


Kaise chalta hai bine admi;

Kaise hai woh insaan, ya, Ali!


Mera viswas hai ahl al-bayt ki;

Ishwar ki bete hain, ya, Ali!


Allah ishwar, Muhammad bani.

Aur tum inke wali, ya, Ali!

This love, this heartbeat, this breath, this life;

This is all yours, O, Ali!


You are a husband, you are a father;

You are my god, O, Ali!


How does it travel without a man;

How are these people, O, Ali!


My faith is in the ahl al-bayt;

You are the children of God, O, Ali!


Allah is God, Muhammad his prophet;

And you are their helper, O, Ali!


I wrote this ghazal in Romanized Hindi and translated it into English in response to reading the Ta’ziyeh. There are five couplets that each refers to the narrator’s Shii love for Ali, the fourth Imam and son-in-law to the Prophet. For Shi’a, Ali was seen as the chosen successor to the prophet; Sunni uphold that Abu Bakr was the rightful heir. The Ta’ziyeh is a play that is often staged in Shii communities to remember the Battle of Karbala. In the battle, the Sunni Caliph massacred Husayn, Ali and Fatima’s son and Muhammad’s grandson, and his followers. The Shi’a remember Husayn as a martyr, and, in particular, the scene in which Husayn’s horse returns to the encampment, riderless and thereby signaling Husayn’s death, moves many.

In this ghazal, or a form of Urdu poetry, I refer to the devotion of the writer to Ali, the first leader of the Shi’a in the first two couplets, discussing his role as a spiritual leader but also as a family man. Indeed, the Ta’ziyeh, when looking at Husayn and his family, portrays them as very human in their emotion and love for each other—the second couplet is a nod to that empathy. The third couplet examines that powerful scene in which Husayn’s horse returns, riderless, and bemoans the cruelty of the Sunni caliph. The fourth couplet is a resounding statement of belief in the ahl al-bayt, the family of Muhammad, and the Shii leaders of the religion. Lastly, the fifth couplet is an adaptation of the fifth pillar of Shii Islam, which adds a commitment to its belief system to Ali.

For the Hindi version, I tried to maintain a consistency in the rhyme meter of the language, at ten syllables per line. Further, the last line repeats, linking the otherwise disjointed couplets. In each couplet, the first and second lines rhyme.

A Maulud


I turn, my arm not knowing where to fall; I remember, my memories knowing only one person. 

I am present yet only existent when you are here and your memories are only ghosts,

I am left but traveling only towards home which is only where you are,

O, Muhammad, shine your light into the heavens—guide me!

O, Allah, let you fill me with the spirit so that I may live, not remember; that I may be existent, not be present. That I may be home. 


This maulud, inspired by the week 4 reading of Asani’s writings on Sindhi poetry, uses the poetic device of a virahani, or a woman separated from her lover. This type of poetry communicates one’s love for Muhammad as if the narrator is a virahani—lost from her love, disoriented in the world.

In this poem, I extended the story of Sassui and Punhal, the washman’s daughter and the prince, respectively. The two have married happily, but the prince’s brothers snatch him when drunk from his bed with Sassui. Sassui wakes up without her beloved, and she travels 200 miles to find him, to her death.

This maulud begins with her unconscious, her innate disorientation as Punhal’s body does not provide rest to her arm, and her dreams wander to remembering only him. The next two lines track her travels as she voyages to find Punhal, capturing the feeling of incompletion, as if part of her inner being is now vanished.  I played with this notion of incompletion in two ways: in trying to capture the feeling of lack of full existence and to convey the notion of homelessness. In the final two lines, I directly name Muhammad as my lover, identifying Him as the object of my love, praying to him and to Allah that I might find my way to home, to existence.

While the poem derives its inspiration from the story of Sassui and Punhal, it ultimately must be dedicated to Muhammad and the narrator’s feelings of love to the Prophet.

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