Exploring Islam Through Art

By Brenna Hilferty
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Filed under: Uncategorized May 9, 2014 @ 2:12 am

Hello. I couldn’t help but notice that you were sitting alone. I was wondering if you would like some company. It’s such a lovely day it would be a shame not to fill it with company and tea. You’re sure you don’t mind? Wonderful! My name is Marina. I’m from around here, which I’m sure you’ve already guessed. You seem reluctant to tell me where you are from but your shoes and accent betray you as an American. Don’t worry. I harbor no ill will towards Americans. I hope you bear no ill will towards Muslims such as myself.

Of course, I’m sure you don’t.  You seem like an accepting, self-reflective individual. But it is truly terrifying to turn on the news some days. I have seen broadcasts in the southern part of America in which protesters chant that all Muslims are terrorists and that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a pedophile. I do not hate these people, but I pity them. They seem to view Islam as a monolithic religion the sole intent of which is to destroy America. They appear not to understand that there is no one Islam, but rather many overlapping interpretations, each with its own regulations and practices. I worry that these people do not even have a working understanding of the central components of Islam.

I do not mean to offend you, my new friend, but I must ask: how do you know what you know about Islam? You don’t know? Yes, sometimes it is hard to uncover the root of our knowledge.  Ah wait, here is our waiter. If it is acceptable to you, I will happily order a delicious local brew.  Two karak teas, please. Thank you.  Now back to you, my young friend. Have you heard of the Quran? Yes, it is something like the Bible for Christians. In fact, in fact you might not know this, but many Muslims revere the Bible and the Torah. You look surprised! Yes, these holy texts might have preceded the Quran, but Muslim’s believe that all three books share the same intent: conveying God’s message to his people.

Why do Muslims value the Quran so highly, you ask. Well, for Muslims, the Quran is unique in that it is literally the word of God.  Think of it like this: for Christians the divine becomes incarnate in the body of Christ, whereas for Muslims the divine becomes incarnate in the Quran.  The Prophet’s wife referred to him as the walking Quran, as he was the physical embodiment of the values contained in the Quran.  The revelations which are included in the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, over a period of 23 years. That’s longer than you have been alive! The first time the Prophet heard God’s voice is a story that practically every Muslim child knows.  On this night, called lailat ul-qadr or the night of power, the Prophet was meditating in a cave. While he was meditating, he heard a great voice, the voice of God, say iqra which means read and/or recite.  After the Prophet died, transcriptions of his revelations were codified and compiled into the Quran.

At its core, the Quran is an oral scripture. If you look at the Arabic root, the word Quran literally means recitation. For Muslims, Quranic recitations allow listeners to experience the word of God. The sound of a Quranic recitation is listened to with the ear and experienced in the heart. Memorizing the Quran is seen as a sacred act of purification.  A person who has memorized the entire text of the Quran is called a hafiz al-Quran or a guardian of the Quran. Such individuals often compete at international Quran recitation competitions, such as the one which is being held next week in Cairo. Ah, here is our tea. What an efficient waiter we have. Drink, drink! I promise that I won’t let our refreshments deter me from my story.

The Quran in written form is also powerful. Some Muslims view the Quran as tawiz or amulet which bring baraka or blessings and grace. These Muslims might carry a mini Quran on their person to ward off evil, or even write verses of the Quran with liquid and then drink what they have written. I see you look confused. This might be different than how things are done in your culture, but try to keep an open mind. If you believe that the Quran is the word of God, imagine the power in each verse and how comforting it would be to carry these words with you and inside you. What I am trying to convey to you is that the Quran is at the heart of Islam. The Quran permeates traditions of spirituality as well as poetry, music, and dance — all vehicles intended to transcend the material and physical in order to access the spiritual.

Oh, but how rude of me! I was so excited by my explanation of the Quran that I failed to ask if the tea was to your liking. Ah, but your tea cup is empty so it must be. I am so pleased. Look, here is our waiter. Shall I flag him for a second cup? It’s done. Would you care for a pastry? No? Please do let me know if you change your mind. I’m sorry the café has gotten rather loud in the last hour. I couldn’t hear you. What was your question?  Where do the different religious interpretations stem from if the various Islamic factions all share the Quran?

This is a complicated question. The root of the answer lies in the aftermath of the Prophet’s death in 632 AD.  After the death of the Prophet, there was intense political tension as the Prophet’s followers fought over who had the right to claim authority and succeed him. This controversy led to great wars in which many lost their lives. After the dust settled, there emerged two rival groups, each with its own beliefs as to who had the right to religious authority. You might have heard of these Islamic factions on your news, they are called Sunni and Shia.

The Sunni believed that authority is shared between the ulama and the caliphs. The ulama are community-educated scholars whose higher learning gives them alone the authority to interpret religious texts. For the Sunni, true religious authority lies in the ljma or consensus of the community of ulama. The caliphs originally claimed temporal and spiritual authority, however over time their role was limited to temporal authority with a focus on the political. For the Sunni, it is the caliph’s duty to uphold the law developed by the ulama in order to ensure efficient administration and maintain peace in the Sunni community.

In contrast, the Shia believe that after the Prophets’ death, authority transferred to his family. Specifically, the Shia support claims that Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, was the true successor to the Prophet. Ali is seen as the imam, the religious and political leader for the whole Shia community. After Ali was assassinated, the Shia believe that authority passed to his first son, Husan.  After Husan’s murder, authority then passed to Ali’s second son, Husain, who suffered the same fate as his father and brother at the hands of those who opposed Shia authority.   A gruesome history, indeed!  Most Shia’s believe that the 12th imam, or 12th descendent, went into hiding and will soon return with Jesus to help guide the faithful on the true religious path. You look surprised at the mention of Jesus. Do you remember what I said earlier, that the Bible is a holy book for Muslims? Jesus is viewed as a prophet, but not as the messiah, by Muslims. Anyway, there is a small Shia minority called Ismaili who believe that the 12th imam never went into hiding and that there is currently a living imam, a man named Aga Khan IV.While these two Shia factions might not agree, their shared belief that authority is transferred to the Prophet’s family is legitimized by the Hadith in which the Prophet stated, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate.”

How are Sunni-Shia relations? That is another interesting question that lacks a simple answer. The relations between these two groups are heavily influenced by economic and political contexts and vary according to geographic region and historical time period. There are some instances in which the two cohabit in harmony. Others in which Shia are hunted like animals and declared to be infidels by Sunni. Traditionally, however, Shia view Sunnis as betrayers of the Prophet’s family and Sunni view Shia as misinterpreting the will of the Prophet.

Look, here is our tea. There is nothing like a cup of karak to help you enjoy a warm summer night. I do want to convey to you that there are some overlaps between Sunni and Shias. Have you heard of Sufism? No? Understandable, it is not often talked about in your local news broadcasts. Sufism is commonly defined as Islamic mysticism. It’s best not to think of it as a separate sect but rather an orientation or world view with political, economic and religious dimensions. Sufism transcends the legalistic dispute about authority between Sunni and Shia and, as such, there are Sunni Sufis and Shia Sufis. Sufis reject the conservative belief that the human-God relationship is defined by obedience and instead believe that the heart of the human-God relationship is that it is possible for humans to experience the divine in a spiritual way. For Sufis, all of existence has two components: batin which is the inner spiritual real truth and zahir which is the physical apparent transitory reality. Sufis believe that the greatest obstacle to finding batin and knowing God is the ego and that in order to experience haqiqah or the inner reality of God you must follow the tariqah or the true path under the instruction of a Sufi shaykh who is a Sufi spiritual leader. This way of thinking was inspired by the Quran itself, as the Quran is filled with references to an inner esoteric dimension of experience such as “We are closer to him than his neck vein.”

And here is our check. No, I insist. You are a guest in my country and, besides, you have been very patient listening to the ramblings of an old woman. Look how the café has cleared. We have been here for quite a while. Good company is such a lovely way to pass the time. Where are you staying? Oh, that hotel is only a few blocks away. It has gotten late and I will walk you there. You say you are a college student? What are you studying? Ah, the economy. Are you going to be a banker? Do you ever take classes outside of your major, perhaps in religion? No? Perhaps you will in the future. And really, you aren’t missing out on too much. So many academics take a purely theological approach to religion. They focus exclusively on faith and religious texts. These things are important, of course, but they miss the lived, breathed, human experience of religion. If you are ever inspired to study religion, I suggest you take the cultural studies approach which stresses that the experience of religion is not stagnant but rather evolves over time and that religion itself is a cultural phenomenon embedded in a variety of contexts.

With this approach, you will study things that might otherwise be ignored and forgotten.  Like art. Art is so often overlooked, yet art is central to defining Islam and provides a window into the Muslim experience. Art can play so many different purposes in an Islamic society. Off of the top of my head I can think of three.

The first is to verify a religious interpretation or practice.  Consider the Shia Ta’ziyah plays. These plays are designed to honor the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson and reify the Shia belief that authority rests with the family of the Prophet. Think also about paintings or collages you may have seen which depict a popular story of the Prophet such as the Isra and Mi’raj. These compositions are often created with the sole intent of demonstrating respect for the Prophet, a man whose teachings are so important for all Muslims. Another example? Hmm. Have you ever read The Conference of the Birds? No? I highly recommend it. It’s a Sufi classic. The story follows the journey of a cohort of birds as they journey to find the king of the birds. Recently, I saw a painting of an owl on a mirror which reflects the end of the story and the story’s religious message. What is the end of the story? I wouldn’t dare to ruin it for you. But, if you so choose, it would make for lovely reading on your long flight home.

A second purpose of art might be to enter into debate. As we have been discussing, Islam is comprised of various subgroups. These groups do not always agree and controversy arises. The first thing that comes to mind is the veil. I’m sure you have noticed it. Many Muslim women wear veils that cover their hair. Some even wear veils that cover their faces. But should they have to? Some view the veil as a sign of oppression, others as an indicator of submission to God. The way in which artists depict the veil and write about the veil, can contribute to this controversy and add perspective and nuance to how we understand the veil’s role in various Muslim societies.

Another controversial topic artists often engage with is music. More conservative Muslims tend to believe that music is prohibited because it distracts from the glory of God. In contrast, Sufis, the religious orientation we were discussing earlier, generally believe that when performed properly certain types of music and dance are essential to connecting with God. Who is right? No one knows. But artists can use music, or literature, or sculpture to draw attention to such debates in order to raise awareness or perhaps suggest solutions.

The third purpose of art is to communicate unity. There are divisions in Islam. Any major religion has them. Underlying these divisions there is a shared belief in the Quran, the Prophet, and Allah. This is the same Allah who the Christians pray to and the Jews as well. I have seen a documentary based on interviews with four young people in Dubai which explores how religion does not have to divide us, but rather can help us come together in understanding. Can help us learn to respect one another’s beliefs.

We have reached your hotel! What a grand building it is. It has been lovely to talk to you this evening, I can’t think of a more pleasurable way to spend the time. I hope that you enjoy the rest of your stay in Abu Dhabi. If you have time, I recommend visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It’s a little too ornate for my taste, but it gives you a sense of the culture you are visiting. I hope you continue exploring and learning about religion. The greatest threat is the tendency to “other” that which you do not understand. Don’t fall into the trap of ignoring people and things you perceive to be different from you. Try to understand them. Study art. In doing so, you become an informed global citizen and foster a more complete understanding of the world you inhabit.  May peace be upon you, my friend.

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Blog Post #6

Filed under: Uncategorized April 28, 2014 @ 5:03 am

In week 12 Professor Asani discussed the ways in which literature and art function as forms of critique and resistance to contemporary Islamic ideologies.  Asani utilized the example of the veil worn by many Muslim women as a custom that art often pushes back against. To provide context, Asani noted that the Quran never commands women to wear facial veils, but instead simply advises believing women to “reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their head covers over their chests” (Quran 24:31). Even so, in contemporary Muslim societies the hijab has taken on a plethora of roles depending on the specific context. On a national level, in countries such as Afghanistan the hijab is intergraded into national ideologies about religion while in France the hijab is a symbol of opposition to the state which has banned the hijab. As such, for modern Muslim women, the veil can demonstrate modesty, indicate their identity, or represent oppression.

While Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis is careful to include different perspectives on the veil, her book clearly pushes back against the oppressive way the state forced women to wear the hijab during the Iranian revolution. In my drawing, I used sharpie to mimic a panel in Persepolis in which Marjane reflects that “I really didn’t know what to think about the veil” (page 6). However, I replaced the decorative background which adorns the real panel with quotes from Persepolis which describe contrasting ways in which the veil was utilized and interpreted. On the left-hand side I wrote a quote in which Marjane’s mother verbally attacks and recoils from the veil while on the right-hand side I included quotes from the news and women’s brigade which emphasize the importance of wearing the veil. While there is no singular meaning behind the veil, or correct way to interpret a women’s decision to wear the veil, my piece attempts to reflect Satrapi’s own conviction that women and hijab served as battlegrounds for the ideological warfare  that was rampant during the Iranian revolution



My Interpretation:



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Blog Post #5

Filed under: Uncategorized April 21, 2014 @ 2:12 am

During week 8, Professor Asani explored music and dance in the Sufi tradition. According to “The Shambhala Guide to Sufism” written by Carl Ernst, “no other aspect of Sufism has been more contentious…than the practice of music and dance” which is dominant but “by no means universally found among Sufis” (179). As Asani explained, Sufi’s generally view music as a way to connect with God because music induces a state of wajd or ecstasy in which one is not aware of himself and is only focused on God.  In section John explained that the term ‘wajd’ is a pun, as wajd has the same root for a word which means existence which suggests that all existence derives from God.  In contrast, other Sufi’s and others who share their conservative interpretation oppose the use of music and language of intoxication. From this perspective, the relationship between humans and Allah is one of obedience and sobriety, and as such the language of intoxication and the use of music is perceived a distraction from God.

In response to the debate described by Ernst, I created the two CD covers which are pictured below. The main design of each CD was first drawn in pencil on white paper and then pasted onto collage paper to create a more dramatic effect. The top most cover represents the Sufi perspective and depicts a Whirling Dervish.  As noted by Ernst, Whirling Dervishes are a branch of the Sufi order located primarily in Turkey whose members dance in circles in order to get closer to with God.  Inside the case there is a CD which boasts ten Sufi songs by artists such as Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.  The bottom most cover represents the conservative perspective and says ‘haram’ in Arabic which means forbidden.  According to this tradition, music is distracting and forbidden, which is why there is no CD inside of this case.

Addendum:  The debate centered on music is more complicated than my project conveys. As Asani described in class, Sufis defend their use of music by imputing strict criteria which detail the time and place in which music is appropriate. When these rules are not respected, and “listening to music ceases to be a session for listening to the changed relation of the beloved attributes, [the music] becomes merely aesthetic occasion, a musical self-indulgence” (183). Moreover, while I chose to represent music through a CD many religious Sufi leaders would likely disapprove of this medium as they would differentiate between music for mass audiences and a true performance for those seeking Allah.

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Blog Post #4

Filed under: Uncategorized April 16, 2014 @ 3:30 am

During week 10, professor Asani lectured extensively about various forms of literature and arts which populate contemporary Muslim society. One such form is the Masnavi: Sufi Persian narrative epics which follow a double rhyme scheme. The format afforded by Masnavi poetry is often used to discuss and reflect on mysticism, the most famous example of which being Attar’s Mantiq ut tair or The Conference of the Birds. Attar’s story depicts the experience of a cohort of birds who go on an epic journey to find the king of the birds named Simurgh. As Nasr describes, the flawed birds each represent a human personality type and the king of the birds represents Allah. Upon arriving at Simurgh’s palace, the thirty surviving birds view a mirror and, upon seeing their own reflection, realize the traditionally Sufi concept that God is within them. As Asani noted, this concept is reinforced as the name of the bird king is a pun: Simurgh is the king of the birds while Si murgh means thirty birds (who find God within themselves).

In order to fully engage with Attar’s text, we read Darbandi and Davis’s translation of the Mathnawi epic. I was particularly struck by the conclusion of the poem, in which the birds look at the mirror and realize that “they themselves were Simurgh. And perceiving both at once, themselves and Him, they realized that they and the Simurgh were one and the same being” (132). This quote inspired me to create the painting which can be seen below. The canvas for this painting is a broken piece of mirror, which references the Valley of Pure unity, fifth valley the birds crossed, in which all are first broken into separate pieces and then unified with God. The owl was painstakingly painted onto the mirror with watercolors.  I elected to paint the owl as a representative of the thirty birds because, in the beginning of the text it is revealed that owl’s fault is his greed and idolization of earthly treasures which I believe is a common fault that plagues many in the modern material world. Indeed, the owl’s pupils remain unpainted so that the viewer could, theoretically, place themselves at eye level with the owl and see themselves reflected in the eyes and realize both the true nature of their own greed and their connection with God.


owl                                       owl2

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Blog Post #3

Filed under: Uncategorized March 27, 2014 @ 2:31 am


During Week five Professor Asani explored the tension that emerged after the death of the Prophet regarding who would inherit his religious authority. Asani detailed the creation of five different groups which each claimed authority: the Sunni Alim, Sufi Shaykh/Pir, shi’i imams, Mahdi and Sunni Caliph’s. After growing up hearing about the Sunni and Shia, I was particularly interested in learning about the differences between these two groups and was fascinated to learn that Sunni’s believe that authority transferred to a close friend of the Prophet while Shia believe that authority resides with the family of the prophet.

Asani described how Shia’s reverence for the family of the Prophet is reflected in many aspects of their culture such as their pronunciation of the shahada, their interpretation of certain segments of the Quran, and even in cultural performance such as Ta’ziyah. Ta’ziyah is Shia form of theater in Iran which depicts the martyrdom of the prophet’s grandson Husain.  As Chelkowski explains in “Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran”, while the core themes and plot structure of Ta’ziyah remains constant, the style in which the play is composed is not stagnant but rather evolves throughout history to reflect the context in which it was written.  Pelly’s “The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husein” offers one example of the Ta’ziyah tradition. After reading this script, my poetic muses were inspired and I decided that the best way to engage with the Ta’ziyah tradition was to write my own script of the ending scene in which Husain is killed. To bolster the integrity of my script, I intentionally included themes Chelkowski identified as central to a Ta’ziyah performance such as evil nature of the godless Shimar, and the power and tragic sacrifice of Husain and the dominant style of flowery language. Even so, my script is different from Pelly’s translation in that the Prophet and his daughter do not appear to Husain in his dying moments. Instead, in my script I decided to have Husain die alone, proclaiming his connection to the Prophet and Allah without any ghostly company to affirm his statements. In addition, I utilized contemporary expressions such as “a shell of a man” that would likely not be found in historical interpretations. As such, my script is a mix of dominant themes in historical Ta’ziyah plays with the addition of my own personal interpretation and modern flair.


Martyrdom of Husain:


I raise my trusted sword to sever the neck of Husain

I fear not the wrath of God nor the Day of Judgment

I worship only the glory of my sword and my leader Yazid

And as such, I care none for Islam and its nonexistent God

-Raises his sword and strikes Husain-


And with the stroke of the sword I am killed

Felled by a shell of a man who has no God

A man whom the ancient annals of history will not remember kindly

And who will be shunned from the glory of heaven


My family grieves the loss of a beloved father

My valiant son, Al Akbar, I go to join in the majesty of heaven

But my living sister Zainab, and surviving family will suffer at the hands of my murderers

I weep as I leave them, yet I know that I am doing my duty to Allah

And there can be no higher calling than that


I die here, today, for the salvation of my people

And though my earthly body will wither, my spiritual connection with Allah lives on

For those who recognize the true golden meaning of Ahl al Bayt

For those who know the glory and authority of the prophets family

I shall fight and defend

For I am Husain, the grandson of the prophet and a flower in the gardens of heaven

All power of intercession is mine

-Husain dies-


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Blog Post #2

Filed under: Uncategorized March 26, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

During week four, an overarching theme discussed in lecture and described in the readings was that many Muslims model themselves after the life and teachings of the Prophet.  As an example of this, Professor Asani described dominant Muslim perspectives of the Prophets Night journey.  According to tradition there are two parts of the Prophet’s journey: the Isra and Mir’raj. During the Isra, the Prophet mounted a mythical creature, flew from Mecca to Jerusalem, and prayed at the Dome of the Rock with several Prophets who had preceded him. Next, during the Mir’raj, the Prophet ascended unto the top level of heaven and conversed directly with God.

The Isra and the Mir’raj are often seen prototypes for how humans can experience the divine. As many Muslims feel that the greatest gift is to behold the face of God, believers often choose to follow the Prophet’s guidance so that they too can meet the divine. Artists have often attempted to depict the Prophet’s experience, producing pieces such as those shown in class in which the Prophet is seen flying on the back of the Buraq and bowing down in the presence of light which represents God. My collage engages with the tradition of the Prophet’s night journey and with representation in Islamic art.  The piece depicts the Muhammad on the back of the Buraq as they fly upwards towards the encounter with Allah.  The Buraq is depicted as described in lecture, namely with the head of a human, the body of a horse and, to the best of my abilities the tail of a peacock. The materials for my collage come almost exclusively from page 75 of Miracles for Mohammed in which the author recounts the meeting between the Buraq and Muhammad and beginning of the Prophet’s assent.  I printed out two copies of this section, the first served as the background and the second as the material from which I constructed the Buraq. Creating the Buraq out of the words of the story served two purposes: first it conformed to the dominant Islamic tradition of not using figures, and second it attempted to show that the words themselves are so powerful and descriptive they construct an image in the viewer’s mind. In order to depict Muhammad, I elected to avoid calligraphy and instead portray him as a rose. This artistic choice was motivated by Professor Asani’s statement that “the rose is the most beautiful flower and as such represents the Prophet who is the most beautiful human.”

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Blog Post #1

Filed under: Uncategorized March 26, 2014 @ 5:42 pm

In the second week of class, Professor Asani stressed that Islam is not separate from other Abrahamic religions but rather incorporates them into its traditions. Asani introduced this topic by describing Ahl Al-Kitab, a term which literally translates into “the people of the book” and refers to the various worshipers, such as Christians and Jews, who submit to God and as such can be understood as being muslins. Indeed, in chapter one of his book Asani states that although prophets proceeding Muhammad “have come to associated with communities who appear to follow different paths they are represented in the Qu’ranic discourse as having preached identical messages”(Asani 29). Supporting this, the Quran says “If you are in doubt regarding that which we have revealed to thee, ask those who read the book from before you” (10:94).

During spring break I traveled to Dubai, a predominantly Muslim city home to worshipers from a variety of religions. After learning about Islam’s relationship with Judaism and Christianity, I became interested less in their theoretical relationship and more in the daily interactions between Muslims and members of other religious sects, especially in concentrated multicultural religion such as Dubai.  I elected to interview four friends, each hailing from a different religious background, to provide insight into the experience of how different religions interact. As religion is often a sensitive topic and I did not want to offend my interviewees, I elected to only ask two prewritten neutral questions: “How do you perceive religions interacting in the multicultural center that is Dubai?” and “Does religion impact your relationship with friends and or who you chose to be friends with?”

I was particularly struck by how my Muslim, Hindu and Durus friends described, to some extent, religious acceptance and harmony while my Christian friend depicted an environment in which she felt excluded as a result of her religion. Similarly, in regards to friendship, I was interested in how my Durus, Hindu and Muslim friends described religion as not factoring into their friendships while my Christian friend stressed how religion was an important component of how she selected her friends. The Christian girl’s sentiments were supported by many other Dubai residents I spoke to, leaving me to wonder whether if I was closer with the Durus and Hindu men I would have gotten less politically correct responses. Regardless, their interviews suggest the potential for religious harmony and highlight Islam lends itself to being accepting of other religions

Side note: The film ends with my Emirati friend reflecting on the differences between Sunni and Shia. I did not prompt her to speak about this topic, and it does not quite fit into the overall theme established by the other interviews. Regardless, I included her comments and wrote a leading question to introduce them because I thought her reflection was insightful about the relatively amiable relationship between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Dubai