Initial Conditions

Am I Muslim? This is a question I’d long avoided, but that this class forced me to finally confront. Growing up, I came to understand being Muslim primarily in terms of rituals: praying at least the evening prayer, going to jummah prayer when possible, fasting during Ramadan, going to the Eid prayers, etc… or in terms of specific rules: don’t eat pork, try to eat halal, don’t date, don’t smoke, don’t drink, etc… As I grew older I drifted away from participating in rituals, only doing so when my parents nudged me, but still tried to adhere to most of the rules I’d internalized. However, when people would ask “Are you Muslim?”, I’d usually become flustered and half-heartedly respond with something along the lines of “I was raised Muslim…” and proceed to steer the conversation in another direction. The reason for my hesitancy to respond “Yes!” was two-fold: For one, it didn’t seem like I was Muslim based on my own understanding of what it meant to be Muslim, and I was never sure whether I’d fit into the questioner’s understanding of what being Muslim meant either. To make matters worse, I found the orientation of my faith difficult to coherently describe, although its progression over time can be approximated by the following quote from Werner Heisenberg

“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

But even as I continued to try to work my way further down the glass, I remained confused. Did I qualify as being Muslim?

By my narrow, naïve, effectively monolithic understanding of Islam, no, but having taken this class I realize now that there are almost an infinitude of ways to experience and engage with Islam, each of which depends on the manifold distinct cultural, political, historical, etc… contexts in which it situates itself, a fact I was wholly ignorant of before. Examining Islam through these lenses, in particular through the widest expanse of the arts, from poetry and prose to calligraphy and architecture to recitation and song, was also completely foreign to me, never having been exposed to these aspects whatsoever before. But I believe experiencing this more fluid, ambiguous, emotive pathway towards understanding Islam has given me the opportunity to understand my own context in a more visceral, emotional way than other media might have, as indeed these six creative blogs and the other creative projects have done.

The Ghazal project was a prime example of this transformative phenomenon, as in attempting to memorize the ghazal Andak Andak by Rumi, the musicality and rhythm of the Nazeri performance not only enabled my memorization but connected me to the aesthetics and spiritual essence of the poem in a way plain recitation alone could never do, well before I began to analyze the layered meanings of the poem in any detail. It was only then that I instinctively understood the spiritual fulfillment that could be obtained through lyrical memorization of sacred writing, as I saw multiple times in children depicted in the movie Koran By Heart, in Ali Khan’s soul-oscillating vocalizations of qawaali, in Farida Mahwash’s transcendant singing of Rumi’s Masnawi-yi ma’nawi, to name but a few, but did not fully understand on a deeper level until I attempted to do the same. Also, learning early on that the Quran was originally an orally transmitted text, the process of codification into a written format not beginning until well after the Prophet’s death, for which the aesthetics of the orality of its recitation mattered as much to those seeking its spirit as the words themselves, culminating in the various versions of tajwid, rules of recitation, in practice today, helped me to realize the possible existence of many deeper, more hidden levels to Islam than just the restricted, surface level perspective I’d experienced in the past.

However, at that time I was still unsure whether or not my personal faith qualified as being part of a different level or perspective of Islam, nevertheless attempting to convey its essence in the framework of a Sindhi “Maulud for Sadik”. But once we began to learn about the manifold practices grouped under the umbrella of Sufism, with focuses on mysticism, ascetism, and attempts to gain release from the emphemeral world of zahir around us and instead enter into the inner, hidden realm of batin and achieve fana, annihilation into God, abandoning one’s ego entirely, I began to see a place for strands of my beliefs. Especially considering the emphases on understanding the hidden meanings of nature, exemplified by Solomon’s ability to understand the language of the animals and Mohammad’s reading of nature through Braille in The Colors of Paradise, it felt as if connecting with the Divine through learning of his works, partially uncovered through science and mathematics, would be considered Islamic in the Sufi tradition. Not to mention the similarity of the intensely personal nature of the connection in the Sufi tradition, where a shaykh/pir may guide one along the path, but ultimately it being up to the individual to take the final steps.

Yet despite these similarities concerning internal, spiritual aspects of the religion, I continued to feel conflicted when it came to “behaving as a Muslim,” as even in Sufi traditions, for example the Murides of Senegal, service (khidma) in one’s community is crucial to controlling one’s ego in the process of spiritual growth, whereas I almost never undertook actions based on a notion of what I thought was “Islamic”. This conflict is touched upon in “My Composition,” an unfiltered reflection on my own experiences in giving to others in need in the context of zakat as it is presented in the satire The Beggar’s Strike. But what I eventually realized was that my previous notions of “Islamic behavior” were little more than minor extensions of the Five Pillars I’d learned as a child, neglecting to consider the historical and political context of their origin in Caliph Umar’s recounting of a conversation between Gabriel and the Prophet and as a tool for distinguishing Muslims from “muslims,” i.e. believers or those who submitted to God, including Christians, Jews, Sabiens, etc… in the expansionist, empire-building of an effectively Arab state after the Prophet’s death. Even the idea that there could be other formulations, with different pillars, for example the 7 pillars of the Ismai’li Shii, which include devotion to the Imam and walaya, had never even once occurred to me before. Now I understand that cultural, political, and historical context have profoundly shaped the various notions of what “Islamic behavior” means to different people today.

In fact, growing up I’d never known that there were different communities of interpretation within Islam. Terms like “Shia”, “Sufi”, or even “Sunni” had never entered into the discourse I was familiar with, and as such simply did not exist to me. That there were rifts in deciding who/what was to fill the political and spiritual vacuum left by the Prophet’s death, which would eventually give rise to communities such as the Shia, who themselves underwent further splitting into Twelver Shii, Druze, Isma’ilis, etc…, I had never learned. And even whilst learning of the processions and rituals undertaken by Shia Muslims during the month of Muharram, I had a difficult time understanding why individuals would undertake practices such as self-flagellation on the day of Ashura. But it was only when I was guided into a deeper analysis of the history of the Shii, especially with the defeat at Karbala to Yazid’s forces and the martyrdom of Hussein and the methods through which it is represented and relived in the present, for example through the Iranian dramatic form of ta’ziyeh, the subject of my “Circles of Ta’ziyeh” piece, that I began to understand how suffering in this life could serve as redemption for the life hereafter, illuminating my perspective on the previously confusing Shia rituals.

Some traditions continue to confuse me though, such as the separation of genders I’d seen during prayer times. Having “understood” it before as a method of dampening male urges and promoting modesty, it never occurred to me that it might have been the product of centuries of patriarchal interpretations of cherry-picked Hadith and verses of the Quran. Nor did I realize just how inhumanely this principle had been applied in the past, grippingly revealed with respect to purdah in Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein’s The Secluded Ones, the inspiration for my “Sultana’s Nightmare” piece. Yet it was heartening to learn of modern, female Islamic scholars like Amina Muhsin who fight for an emphasis on greater Quranic principles and the true spirit of the Quran, not limited to literalist readings, where an excerpt from Surah 4:3, sometimes viewed as allowing men to marry up to four wives, can be understood in the context of supporting vulnerable orphans through marriage, the Quranic principle of helping those most in need being more important than the particular historical context. Or take the Quran’s directives regarding inheritance, viewed by some as valuing daughters as worth half as much as sons, which can instead be understood to have been extremely revolutionary during a time when women may not have previously had any guaranteed inheritance rights at all, the Quranic spirit being to empower women in spite of the restrictive social milieu of the time. And more broadly, throughout the course, I’ve slowly realized that the spectrum of perspectives through which the Quran and Hadith can be interpreted have been instrumental components in the expansion and molding of the diversity of Islamic thought.

And never before this class had I realized the importance of non-Quranic literature and poetry in shaping the Islamic identity of certain communities of interpretation. The existence of a powerful, influential pre-Islamic poetic tradition in Arabia that eventually joined together with the Prophet, typified by Zuhayr’s change of heart, and was used to spread Islamic ideas to the mostly illiterate populace was fascinating. Even more so was that in the development of this tradition over time, in areas such as Persia, Iranians came to regard the work of poets such as Rumi, Hafez, Firdausi, and Attar with such reverence that children are taught to memorize lines from the Book of Kings, The Conference of the Birds, The Masnawi, and other famous works through an orally transmitted tradition, just as surahs from the Qu’ran would be memorized in other communities. Given the station of these works in the minds of the Iranian people, one might go so far as to say that they form the basis for Islam in their culture. To reflect this importance and power that poetry holds in Muslim cultures around the globe and to dissect one instance of it I found particularly poignant from the Indian Subcontinent, I created my “Powers of Iqbal” video, audio-visually responding to Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawab e Shikwa.

And for my last project, “Tension on a Lost Core,” I examine Changez, the ambitious, Pakistani, homesick, Westernized, lovesick, Muslim, hard-working, princely, and ultimately lost protagonist of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, as he experiences a crisis of identity, almost being ripped asunder by the different forces pulling on the core of his self. But I believe his statement near the end of the movie version of the story, “Yes, I’m Pakistani. Yes, I’m Muslim. But that’s not all I am,” represents for me one of the most crucial themes of the course, namely considering all the aspects of another’s identity with respect and tolerance rather than narrowly (and usually inaccurately) pigeonholing them into one’s own predetermined framework, with the pitfalls of doing otherwise including misunderstanding, discrimination, conflict, or worse. I’m no stranger to making this mistake, often times upon learning that someone was Muslim subsequently attempting to internally categorize and judge them based on my former naïve, narrow understanding of what it meant to be Muslim, as I would do to myself. And even now, my first instinct is to engage in this inadequate practice upon meeting someone who identifies as Muslim. But I’ve been trying my best to consciously correct it with all that I’ve learned from this course, making it a point to try and understand people not simply through their labels, self- or externally-imposed, but by who they are as a whole.

So am I Muslim? I’d like to say that it’s not really up to you to decide, and on some level, it’s probably not up to me either. But I’m going to try and say “Yes!” a lot more often.

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Reader Beware,
Tyche