The Fractal and the Spiral

seeking god wherever they may be found

Dhikr (Reminder)

I long to remember the remembrance of my soul

at certain times at least.

 

In the beginning, the Called One says,

we were so fresh from the dust of our response to the Call.

We sat in wonderment for a time and a time of times.

And then, did we grow bored of wonder

and tired of such knowledge?

 

Now, there are fragments of a memory;

faint tendrils of a rose’s scent.

The whispers don’t even add up to a full echo.

They are more like a haunting, sometimes.

Still, the Caller bids us. Never does he tire of bidding us.

Like the birdsongs of his praise, how myriad is the call to remember.

 

Still, this mottled and mumbled forgetting is all I can muster.

And it is provisional. For what I will long for tomorrow,

this distant doubter’s heart doesn’t know;

but perhaps, a hope, that the call comes in clearer,

And the remembering surer.


The relationship between the Qur’an, Islam, and poetry is unique and beautiful and I knew from the beginning of this course that I would write my own poem. This free-verse short lyric addresses one of the central tenets of Qur’anic theology: that human beings were created with full knowledge of God but are forgetful, and thus, need reminders to remember who God is and who they are. As Michael Sells puts it:

The Qur’an does not propound a doctrine of the original or essential sinfulness of humanity. Human beings are not born sinful, but they are forgetful. This forgetfulness can be countered only by reminder (dhikr), which the Qur’an calls itself.

Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, 18.

As a Christian, I am nevertheless enchanted with this theological re-calibration of sin as forgetfulness and religion and religious texts not as means of punishment but of remembering, of recalling a very sweet memory of wholeness and holiness. The Qur’an also sees itself as a revelation and Muhammad as a prophet in a lineage of divine revelations to humanity, a lineage that from the Qur’anic perspective, began with the biblical story. Thus, God is always calling us to remember God.

In this poem, I seek to tie a broad overview of my spiritual journey, it’s high and low points, to this Qur’anic narrative of human forgetfulness and God’s constant, insistent call to remember.

In Week 5, we learned about how Shii Muslims view the cosmic significance of the massacre of the Imam Husayn and members of the Ahl al-Bayt (the family of the Prophet Muhammad) at Karbala in Iraq in 680 CE, in short, that it was not, in their view, just a political-historical tragedy, but rather a result or example of the eternal battle between Justice and Injustice.

In August 2014 and the months following, I was riveted by the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year old black teenager who was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. A few months, later in November, Wilson a grand jury declined to indict him. This turn of events breathed new life into a national movement against the inordinate use of state-sanctioned violence against black and brown people, especially black men, now known as Black Lives Matter.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph I used for this digital montage was originally taken by Robert Cohen of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the night of Aug. 13, 2014. Edward Crawford is throwing a tear-gas canister back at police. To me, this image represents not just the specific tragedy of Michael Brown’s death, nor even the larger, systemic violence of police brutality in this country, but rather, the eternally cosmic battle between Good and Evil, between Justice and Injustice. Taking the original image, I digitally imposed it on a field of green, representing the Prophet and his family, with the words, “Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala” surrounding it in white.

In our first class, Prof. Asani made clear the difference between Islam as an ideology, with a capital “I”, and islam as an orientation, an Arabic verbal noun meaning “submission.” Viewing Islam as an ideology requires it to be a concrete, discrete “thing” with clear boundaries between who belongs (Muslim) and who does not (non-Muslim) and between Islam and other religions. However, viewing islam from within the tradition, one’s perspective is expanded and a muslim, “one who submits,” can be anyone who, in their own way, submits to God as they understand God. From this orientation, even Christians and Jews can be seen as muslims. This approach places religious traditions not in ideological opposition but along a continuum or within a matrix. If a scholar seeks to understanding religious traditions from this viewpoint, then one can’t pay attention to just its stated creeds and written theology, but rather investigate it from multiple angles, including its popular and artistic expressions.

For this piece, I used alcohol-based inks on glossy card stock. The effect is achieved because although the alcohol evaporates, the non-porous surface does not allow the ink to seep into the material. Thus, when another drop is applied, the dye of the first ink reacts with the later ink, making an artform that is almost alive, one drop blending with all the drops that had come before.

As the drops in this piece mixed with and changed what had come before, I saw this conception of religion play out in vibrant color before my eyes.