Representations and Perceptions of Islam in the West

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When I began reviewing the creative responses I had done over the semester, I found that most of them – five out of six to be precise – are more closely related than I had originally thought. Considering that I came to this class with a strong background in cultural studies and, to a lesser and purely “recreational” degree, Middle Eastern politics, it is perhaps not surprising that such themes are reflected in my responses. In addition, my chief concern throughout the class was the very broad question of perception, which is also mirrored in my creative work as well as expressed through the two texts that have become my favorites: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s Sultana’s Dream.

My first creative response focuses on the pluralistic and inclusive nature of the terms “islam” and “muslim”, as opposed to their capitalized counterparts which denote an institutionalized religion and are more closely connected with ideology and identity. This especially piqued my interest because I felt that the literal meaning of “islam” and “muslim”, denoting simply “submission to the will of God” and “someone who submits to the will of God”, is rarely noted by non-Muslims and is perhaps overlooked by many Muslims. Interestingly, though the capitalized, or institutionalized, politicized and ideologized, meaning of the terms dominates mainstream perception, the literal meaning better informs an interfaith perspective from which mutual trust and respect can grow. In this respect, I believe that the media in a globalized, post-9/11 world has reinforced the dominance of the capitalized terms by not only simplifying matters to the point of distortion, but also by living by the mantra that “bad news is good news”.

My second response is connected to this predominantly monolithic representation and perception of Islam and epitomizes that there really is no such thing as one Islam. The Isra and Mi‘raj are an integral part of the Islamic tradition, though versions differ concerning, for example, Muhammad’s fainting (or not fainting) at the sight of God, hell, and the Buraq. This, then, emphasizes that even though there is a common denominator for many Islamic traditions, Islam as a religion cannot be easily grasped or reduced to a definite set of dogmata, traditions, and stories. As was demonstrated by the texts we read concerning the Isra and Mi‘raj, Islam is connected to more than just Middle Eastern cultures, another aspect that is often overlooked by mainstream media and society and which further solidifies the perception of Islam as monolithic.

My third response focuses on notions of humanity and dignity, dominant themes in Aminata Sow Fall’s The Beggars’ Strike, which tie into an underlying message that reinforces social justice as the sine qua non of Islam. The central importance of social justice struck me as another vital aspect that is often neglected in the representation of Islam. Not only do representations of Islam post-9/11 promote a simplified and monolithic perception of Islam, but they also construct Islam as the “other” to a supposedly Western and Christian world (in accordance with Said’s Orientalism). Sadly enough, the omission of social justice as a vital element in Islam makes sense here: In order to construct an “other” effectively, it is paramount to boil down a tradition, religion, and people to characteristics that seem not only different but alienating, perhaps even frightening. Hence, the media has emphasized dimensions of Islam that revolve around an essentialist understanding of sharia, especially as it relates to women’s rights and extreme interpretations of jihad. Emphasizing the importance of social justice in Islam, by contrast, would constitute a common ground since – theoretically anyway – the Western tradition also stresses its importance. However, emphasizing the centrality of social justice in Islam would not be overly helpful in constructing an “other”, which is probably why it is rarely stressed in Western politics and media.

Apart from this rather political “othering”, I also felt that there are still ample examples of “othering” the East in the exoticized and eroticized way that were predominant during colonialism, for instance establishing the Mevleviye as tourist attractions. My fourth creative response touches on this, although the work is chiefly concerned with a passage from Carl W. Ernst’s article in his Shambhala Guide to Sufism, which refers to the perception of the Mevleviye in the 19th century. In a way, the Mevleviye are still perceived through a keyhole perspective akin to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ in his painting “Le Bain Turc” (1862). A digital camera might have replaced the literal keyhole, but the voyeuristic nature nevertheless remains the same and is now strongly tied to the tourism industry. Again, a complex culture is reduced to a few obvious, superficial aspects (e.g. the particular dress of the Mevleviye), and a deeper understanding of the underlying traditions is usually limited at best.

In my fifth creative response, I strove to capture my struggle and doubts about the claim that the ghazal is a genre that creates “cultural unity” by using themes and metaphors which are universal and understood by virtually everyone. In retrospect, and in taking into account my other creative responses, I continue to object to this supposed “cultural unity”. First of all, “cultural unity” is a rather fickle construct, and I am tempted to dismiss it as impossible in such a broad transnational and translingual context. Secondly, assuming that this “cultural unity” can exist, the ghazal genre would necessarily have to be reduced to aspects that can be understood by everyone regardless of their specific context and backgrounds. This would in turn rob the individual ghazal of the specific background and context of the author, since to claim “cultural unity” the author’s individual idiosyncrasies would have to be either universalized, which seems somewhat difficult to me, or take a backseat to more relatable aspects. What this notion of “cultural unity” comes down to, then, is uncannily close to the simplified and superficial constructions of Islam I discussed earlier – in both cases, something complex is crudely simplified and reduced to unite people.[1]

Unfortunately I ran out of creative responses before we read and discussed Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s Sultana’s Dream and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but they have become personal favorites and offer an interesting addition to my focus on perception in my creative responses, so I have decided to include discussion of them here. In the preface to Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s Sultana’s Dream, it is mentioned that her text was usually perceived “as a pleasant dream and not a ‘terrible revenge’ on men for their oppression of women, as her perceptive husband did” (2). This is an interesting statement because it illustrates yet another way in which reduction can be employed to promote a certain perspective. In the case of Sultana’s Dream, this reduction results in a watering down of the text’s strong feminist message, and significantly weakens its transformative potential concerning gender equality. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that as a result of the publication of Sultana’s Dream, Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain was constructed as the “other” by many of her contemporaries who labeled her “a radical misguided by the proselytizing propaganda of Christian missionaries” (53). This, then, emphasizes a significant effect of “othering” that is also applicable to the way in which Islam is represented and perceived, namely that through “othering” an idea, text or religion becomes dismissible and delegitimized.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis stood out to me because I felt that the text succeeded in doing something not easily and not often accomplished, namely building a genuine bridge between Western readers and the Iranian people, even though Satrapi had to mediate between two mutually “othered” cultures. On the one hand, Iran has been dubbed part of Bush’s “Axis of Evil”, and on the other Iran has labeled the United States as the “Big Satan”. Persepolis, as a work that predominantly addresses a Western audience, has to work within the preconditions imposed by a simplified and distorted perception of Iran. A first step in breaking the construction of the “other” is to move from the abstract to actual human beings – something that Persepolis does exceedingly well, in part because it is a graphic novel and can convey human emotions through facial expressions. The importance of the depiction of facial expression cannot be overestimated, since the human face shows the same emotions regardless of the individual’s cultural context and background – or as Marjane Satrapi herself puts it: “And when you draw a situation – someone is scared or angry or happy – it means the same thing in all cultures.” – and creates a sense of human understanding on a basic but nevertheless quintessential level. This recognition of something not all that different is reinforced by the graphic novel’s focus on the protagonist and her immediate family: the reader will inevitably find him- or herself identifying with an aspect of her family’s life and interaction, again emphasizing similarity over difference. In short, Marjane Satrapi succeeds in showing that, ideology, religion, culture and constructed “otherness” aside, there is a lot that all human beings share. Across all national, religious, cultural and linguistic barriers, we all laugh, cry and love in the same way.

 

Sources:

Marjane Satrapi on drawing a situation: http://www.icelebz.com/quotes/marjane_sa… (accessed 04/29/12).

Sakhawat Hussain, Rokeya. Sultana’s Dream. New York: Feminist Press, 1988. Print.


[1] I am omitting my final creative response here because it does not quite fit in as nicely with the other responses and their relation to perception.

Simurgh

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Simurgh

 

My creative project for his week draws on and seeks to combine two different inspirations: First of all I was inspired by the reading of Attar’s “The Conference of the Birds”, especially by the clever way “thirty birds” translates as “Si murgh”, which is also the name of the bird in search of which the other birds begin their journey. Through this, the notion of loosing oneself in and becoming one with God is underlined in a very precise and powerful way. Secondly, I wanted to somehow integrate my favorite piece from the Islamic Art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. This favorite piece is a dagger from India, made in the second half of the 16th century  http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/sea…).  Since the handle of the dagger includes zoomorphic elements, it lends itself well to a little makeover in connection with visualizing the Attar’s “The Conference of the Birds”.

For my drawing, I kept to the general shape of the original dagger from the exhibition but redesigned the handle. The entirety of the handle depicts the Simurgh, with the thirty birds incorporated into it (in a perfect world, all these birds would have been integrated in a more subtle fashion similar to the phoenix that makes for the Simurgh’s eye in order to emphasize the oneness of the Si/murgh). Since my scanner sadly refused to show the coloring of my drawing, description will have to suffice: I decided to keep it simple and, in contrast to the original dagger, to refrain from incorporating rubies or other precious stones into the design, which I felt would have contradicted the rather ascetic sentiment of Sufism. The handle is to be imagined as made from the same material entirely and the different birds as only distinguished from the predominant Simurgh by the shaping of the handle and not by e.g. a different color.

 

Wine-drinking

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Wine-drinking

 

 

For this week’s response I was inspired by the theme of wine-drinking in ghazals, which, on the metaphorical level, signifies that the poet is so very much in love with the beloved that he will commit great sins to prove his love (drinking alcohol is forbidden to Muslims, Introduction to Conventions of the Urdu Ghazal 6/7). Like other prominent themes around the relationship between the poet and the beloved, e.g. the candle flame and the moth or the rose and the nightingale, the theme is universal and virtually understood by everyone. I also felt a certain contrast between the universality of these themes, which, I think, can be understood by most people even without knowing too much about ghazals, and the uneasiness I felt at some point during the readings when one of the authors claimed that there was a “cultural unity – created by the audience’s shared assumptions and expectations” (Ravishing DisUnities 5).  Even though I acknowledge that certain themes – like the wine-drinking – can certainly be understood across different nations, ethnicities, traditions et cetera, I still highly doubt that a cultural unity can be claimed for the entirety of the ghazal genre, since different people’s diverse backgrounds make for diverse relationships with each and every individual piece of work as well as the genre as a whole. I admit that I still have not found an adequate way to reconcile this universality with my conviction that cultural unity is something that cannot be claimed for something as spread out and popular as the ghazal.

My artwork represents this dilemma. The picture I worked on was found on the internet and selected mainly because of the spilling wine forming the silhouette of a person. I found it especially appropriate in this context because of the relationship between the wine drinking and the beloved – and the picture captures both in a unique way. In order to express my confusion and doubts as mentioned above, I then made the texture of the picture appear rougher and less unified (by means of making the shadow appear as a conglomerate of different lines). Furthermore, I decided to give the picture less-defined boundaries to enhance the above point even further. Last but not least, I also opted to change he colors to darker and more contrasting shades in order to make it look severe and troubling as opposed to somewhat serene – a sense that I certainly get at the moment when trying to find a balance between the universality of the wine-drinking theme and my uneasiness about the notion of cultural unity introduced by the reading.

 

 

Original picture from:

 http://www.google.com/imgres?q=wine+drin…

Whirling Dervishes and Orientalism

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My creative response for this week is based upon a passage from Carl W. Ernst’s article from “The Shambhala Guide to Sufism”, where the author states on pages 192/193 that:

 

“Yet for Western observes both then and now, the Whirling Dervishes became emblematic of Sufism as a whole. […] It is remarkable how many European books of the time [the 19th century] feature pictures of dervishes, with the Mevlevi whirling dance forming the most dramatic and prominent of all these portraits. These portraits, particularly those by artists such as Preziosi, show the Mevlevi dervishes as truly exotic creatures, with feminine-looking skirts and trancelike expressions.”

 

This passage immediately reminded me of other artistic works in the Orientalist tradition of the time, which I personally find epitomized in “Le Bain Turk” (1832) by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres. Ingres uses the keyhole perspective in his work, which underlines the voyeurism intrinsically linked to the conception of the East as the “other” in a feminine, exoticized (and eroticized) way. The way the article describes the dervishes in the pictures as “truly exotic creatures, with feminine looking skirts” fits right into this tradition. In my response then, I used the keyhole perspective in homage to Ingres’s work and its context in order to underline the Orientalist and voyeuristic notions present in the passage. The voyeurism (which I find present in the first sentence of the quoted passage) and the limited understanding of the cultural and religious context of the Whirling dervishes, as mentioned in the beginning of the passage, are further expressed by using only black and white in my response, which also indicates the notion of the “other” by leaving out any nuances or colors in between. The picture of the dervishes I used all depict them in a similar posture, further emphasizing the limited understanding of the Sufi tradition as expressed in the quoted passage.

 

Humanity and Dignity

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Humanity and Dignity

 

 

My creative response is related to Aminata Sow Fall’s “The Beggars’ Strike” and focuses on the recurring notions surrounding the terms “humanity” and “dignity” and their interrelation, as well as their connection to the vital Islamic theme of social justice.

The book frequently touches on the questions “What is humanity?” and “Can a person lose their humanity?” which are connected to the beggars and the way they’re treated. Herein lies the rather unsettling suggestion that due to their social status, some people higher up the social hierarchy rob the beggars of their humanity through the way they treat them. This is epitomized in a quote from p. 11:

 

Who wouldn’t run, if he’d ever felt the sting of those whips? I take to my heels, I do, as soon as I catch sight of the fuzz. They lay about them like madmen; when they get worked up like that, they seem to forget that we’re human beings.

 

Furthermore, it is repeatedly stated by the character named Keba Dabo that the beggars “lower their dignity” by begging, although he affirms that they are indeed human beings. Dignity seems, however, closely related to the notion of humanity throughout the text and therefore one must ask to what degree dignity functions as an attribute of humanity.

The many questions concerning humanity and dignity are ultimately resolved by the text’s underlying moral lesson, a reminder of social justice as the sine qua non of Islam. One can only be a true Muslim if one actively engages in larger society and empathizes and connects to one’s fellow human beings. This is brought across especially well through the character of Mour, who fails in his aspirations to become Vice President as a result of his egocentricity and forgetfulness of other human beings and their very humanity.

My photograph expresses this line of thought: In the background, the papers with the words “dignity” and “humanity” denote the questions raised about these notions. Since they are questions, a question mark follows each term. The multitude of each term represents the different ideas held by different characters. The answer, found in the Islamic notion of social justice as explained above, is denoted by the exclamation (and affirmation) of humanity and dignity of each human being as expressed through the “beggar” sitting in the foreground. The paper stating “Humanity Dignity!” claims both notions for each individual human being (emphasized through the exclamation mark).

Buraq

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Buraq

 

This creative piece is a response to the differing accounts of Muhammad’s ascension as presented in the readings “The Miracles of Mohammed” and “The Mevledi Sherif”. Some examples for these differences are Muhammad fainting at the sight of God while in the other he doesn’t, as well as the difference in details given about hell. What struck me most, however, were the parts of the accounts revolving around Buraq, Muhammad’s mount during the Isra and Mi’raj.

For this reason, Buraq serves as a symbol for the differing narrations of the Isra and Mi’raj in my creative response. The difference in the accounts is brought across by the opposing colors black and white and their contrast is further underlined by using squares, which again contrast in color to the depiction of Buraq integrated into the squares. While there is a picture emerging out of these singular squares, it is not a monolithic one but instead is informed by difference (of color). This was very important to me as it emphasizes the common denominator of the story, in this case Buraq, but also brings home the point that there are varying accounts and interpretations revolving around it. On a further note, and this might be a bit of a far-fetched play on words, I felt that using the squares was adequate since they somewhat resemble the make-up of a puzzle, making for a bit of a pun on my initial “puzzlement” at the difference of the accounts.

For this creative response, I used a black pen only.

 

Plurality

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My focus is on the different notions of plurality and similarity brought across by the terms “muslim”, “islam” and “Ahl al-Kitab”. The uncapitalized transliterations of “islam” and “muslim” mean “submission to the will of God” and “somebody who submits to the will of God” respectively. Unlike the capitalized versions of the terms, these transliterations do not refer to a specific ideology or institutionalized religion but are of a far more inclusive nature, since the terms also apply to Christians and Jews (the Virgin Mary is described as a “muslim” in the Qur’an, for example). The plurality of the terms is expressed through their diversity of color in the picture. I decided to further underline this plurality, in respect to the Abrahamic religions, by also including the notion of Ahl al-Kitab, meaning “People of the Book”, in my picture. The thought is that all the Abrahamic religions received revelations from God, thus emphasizing their similarity rather than their difference. In the picture, this is brought across by the Arabic writing of Allah and the three girls, each of them representing one of the Abrahamic religions. To stress their similarity, they are all connected to the same word Allah, and by implication to the same One God, and dressed and look the same save for their necklaces depicting their respective faith (Judaism, Islam and Christianity). I believe that the plurality of the terms “muslim” and “islam”, as well as the emphasis on similarity rather than difference in the notion of “Ahl al-Kitab” are premises from which understanding, acceptance, respect and friendship can be developed (further) between the Abrahamic religions (as well as others, but the focus here is on Judaism, Islam and Christianity). This hope is expressed through the predominantly light colors, especially the golden yellow of the word Allah and the background.

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