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.