The Fractal and the Spiral

seeking god wherever they may be found

An Introduction

Hello and welcome to my blog for the Harvard course, For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures. I am Isaac Martinez, currently in my second year of the MDiv program at Harvard Divinity School and in the process to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, a Christian denomination. What follows is an explanatory essay to this blog and an introduction to each of the posts.

Introduction

What is a religion? How do you define it? How do you understand it and engage with it? Those were the opening and ever-present questions throughout this course. The answer, “It depends,” may at first glance seem unsatisfying. But from the first lecture until the end, it became increasingly clear that perspective determines everything. Is “Islam” an object with discrete boundaries that clearly and consistently demarcate a set of beliefs and practices which are easily differentiated from other religions? Or is “islam” an orientation, a subject’s experience and expression of a faith in one God and a divinely-appointed messenger? To be sure, even these two binary constructs, are just that, constructs, because how can religion-as-object—Islam as ideology—exist without Muslim subjects? And how can a muslim, one who submits to the one God (that is, islam as an orientation) be born, nurtured, and formed in their faith without some stability and coherence of beliefs across time and place? However, the aim of this course was, in contrast to the predominant mode of the academic study of religion, to focus far more on the later, to explore what we could learn about Islam—the ideology, the object, the religion—by examining how people lived out their islam—their faith, their submission, their experience of the divine. Such an approach, as I will explore later in this essay, has deeply influenced and affected how I approach the study and practice of my own Christian faith, which I trust will carry over into how I teach and form others as a Christian minister.

I came to this course and to the academic study of Islam generally as a novice and an outsider, as a guest hoping to learn from the tradition and not just about it. I have discovered and learned many things: some fundamentals of Islamic faith and practice, some history of the Muslim world, and some specific beliefs, theologies, and practices that were popular in a certain place or time which demonstrate the immense diversity of Islam, or more accurately, Islams. It has been equally beneficial to learn things that will enrich my own beliefs, theologies, and practices in a Christian context, including the absolute need for humility when attempting to discuss anything about who God is, what God is like, and how God works in human life and in the world. I have also learned that the gulf between Islam and Christianity is not as wide as current popular discourse may have us believe.

This blog is an attempt to express some of that newfound knowledge in artistic forms. Being art, you may find different ideas and themes arising from the pieces. Depending on your experience with Islam and with the different art forms I have used in this blog, from collage to poetry to sacred chant, the art may impact you differently than what I intended. I invite your thoughts and responses in the comments. In reviewing the art I have created and reflecting on what I have learned from this course, what I most want to convey through this blog can summed up in three themes: the wide range of Islamic faith and practice, today and throughout history; the ways in which I, as a Christian, found it helpful to engage in what I was learning and make connections with a tradition not my own; and finally, an appreciation for this cultural studies approach to religion.

One God, Many Faiths

The first theme I want to reflect upon, and which I hope comes through in my creations, is the vast terrain of what it means to be Muslim. I would venture to say that there are as many Islams as there are Muslims. This wide “religious” diversity is of course always culturally, historically, and politically conditioned, yet individual Muslims have found many ways to express innovatively what about this tradition—its beliefs, stories, and practices—most resonate with them, even at great personal cost to them, up to and including losing their lives.

Such diversity has its ultimate origin in the divine revelation of the Qur’an in an oral form which was intended to be aurally experienced. Because this initial encounter with God through the text is an aesthetic experience, every person will experience God differently. No single person sees or hears or feels the exact same thing in any experience, let alone one intended to be understood at the level of emotional sensation and perception.

Early in the course, I learned that the Qur’an is different from other sacred “texts” because most of it is written in first person from the perspective of God, as opposed to third-person narration of say, the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, where any direct words of God appear as quotes. Thus, God can be said to be “inlibrated” as opposed, for example, as incarnated in Christian belief. This divine inlibration sees itself as a means of reminding humanity to be grateful to their Creator, as gratitude (shukr) is the foundation of belief. From the Qur’anic perspective, humans need reminders (dhikr) by means of signs (ayat). The Qur’an sees itself as one such sign—individual verses are known as aya—and the experience of hearing the Qur’an is also a sign. The natural world, God’s creation, is also seen as signs reminding people to thank God. Once the Qur’an was codified into a written text, calligraphy became another way to signify and symbolize the divine message. I would argue that there is a preponderance of signs, arising from the Qur’an (and even, as the Qur’an makes clear, from its Jewish and Christian antecedents) because each person, being unique, will not necessarily respond to the same signs as another, and their belief-as-gratitude will also not be expressed the same way.

Of course, human expression, even of remembrance of the Divine, coexists with human impulses to label, divide, and control—politics. Another key question of this course has been, “Whose Islam and by whose authority?”. The question of social and political arrangements has been bound up with religious ideals and expression since the Prophet started building a community of Muslims around him. The sources of the most profound divisions in Islam, between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims, were questions of authority and who should wield which kinds of authority. Even the very act of writing down the Qur’an was a political issue—it was the early caliphs who, ruling over a rapidly expanding empire, felt the need for a codified, canonized text that could both justify their rule. However, asserting and opposing authority, especially when those discourses assume, involve, or explicitly claim religious ideas, pushes the boundaries of the tradition further, increasing diversity of expression.

The Prophet himself, what he said, what he did, and the records of them (hadith) came to be another foundation of Islam but have also contributed to the wide diversity of the tradition. To some, the Prophet is the exemplar sine qua non of a faithful person and one should strive to imitate him absolutely. To others, the Prophet is an intercessor or a holy person to be praised or a mystical paradigm and symbol of what happens when a person seeks and finds union with the divine. Often, he is a combination of all of these, and when a Muslim seeks to articulate her devotion to the Prophet along any of these axes, by creating or experiencing “art,” she often finds there is a wide array of ways to do so.

In my art, I sought to express this theme of diversity in the media I used and in the course topics I chose to think about. (Though as the next theme discusses, one topic most sparked my interest.) Each piece uses a different “art.” Four are visual pieces—alcohol-based ink drops on glossy cardstock, digital montage, paper collage, and digital painting. Two are literary pieces—free-verse poetry and sacred chant. The topics range from the organizing principle of this course to a one stanza in the 12th-century Persian epic poem, The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar. The range of options open to me, for both form and content, was almost paralyzing. Yet, when I consider not only these pieces but also the other projects in the course, the calligram of “Allah” and a mosque design, I emerge with a lasting appreciation for how diverse and multidimensional Islam and all religions are.

Pentecostalism, Christian Contemplation, and Sufism

As previously mentioned, one particular topic of this course that most intrigued me was the Sufi orientation within Islam. This mystical or esoteric approach to the tradition and its truths, and especially its view of religion as a progressive return or ascent of the human soul to God, deeply resonates with how I conceive and practice my own Christianity.

First, I should summarize a bit of my own religious journey. I was born and raised in a fundamentalist Pentecostal sect which emphasized a physical, ecstatic experience of the divine as an assurance of salvation (speaking in tongues/glossolalia, dancing, jumping, running, “slaying”/fainting in the Spirit, etc.). After I left Pentecostalism because I had accepted myself as a gay man, I discovered the Episcopal Church in my young adulthood, and its emphasis on a rational understanding of Christian belief and tradition (an approach conditioned as a predominantly privileged denomination in the United States). However, I see myself as an Episcopalian primarily because of my experience with Episcopal communities who practice Christian contemplation, a mystical approach using a variety of practices including meditative prayer, sacred chant, an affective reading of scripture, and other embodied practices to get closer to God.

Thus, it came as no great surprise to be so drawn to learning about Sufism, its openness to the affective dimension of religion, its acknowledgment of the power of embodied experience and physical ecstasy, and its general view that Islam is about transcending and transforming the egotistical self through spiritual/religious discipline and practice. While exploring all I learned and appreciated of Sufi thought is beyond the scope of this essay, I do want to touch on key aspects that are reflected in these pieces.

The poet/mystic Rumi coined the term that Islam should be a “subversive theology of love.” I understood this to be, admittedly from my own Christian perspective, that God is best understood as the source and object of all love and the purpose of human religion is to understand and follow that love. The piece I am perhaps most proud of, “Do You Love Me Above All” reflects my belief in the absolute interdependence between God’s love and our very existence. Also, as a gay man, the Sufi poets’ use of a same-sex relationship between Mahmoud and Ayaz, as demonstrated in “Ayaz’s Sickness” in The Conference of the Birds, reflects the universal potential within mystical/contemplative orientations of faith. Once one understands that human love can serve as a mirror of divine love, then one can open one’s heart to the incredible variety of that human love.

A Critical and Generous Approach to Religious Studies

Throughout this course, I was deeply aware that this was not a typical “introduction” to Islam. And, while I have memorized none of the Qur’an or the Hadith, I nonetheless feel that as a Christian, I am coming away with an expansive view of what the tradition offers and can begin to engage with Muslims from a place of humble and generous inquiry. Seeing Islam through the eyes of this course allows me to both question my own assumptions about Islam, Christianity, and religion in general, as well as see the resonances between Islam and Christianity that helps me construct and build upon what I believe and love of my own tradition and my own understanding of God. A cultural studies approach takes religion not as a discrete, clearly delineated object of study, but as a multidimensional expression of what makes us most fully human, and thus must include historical, political, and economic contexts. This approach allows me to see that a historical event that happened over 1300 years ago, because of its religious dimensions, still can speak to us today about deeply theological, moral, and ethical questions of justice, as I explore in “Every Day is Ashura, Every Land is Karbala.” I am left wondering, as I prepare to be a pastor and teacher to fellow Christians how I can approach their religious and spiritual formation not as a set of doctrines to be learned by rote and soon forgotten, but as a living, complex interplay of all of who they are and hope to be.

Conclusion

Without a doubt, this has been one of the most transformative courses I have taken at divinity school and I hope and trust its lessons will remain with me and continue to shape me throughout my life and ministry. Before this course I would have said I am very much not an artist. Even now, I am partially embarrassed that others will see my “art.” Yet, they are authentic expressions of some of my deepest held beliefs and explorations of questions yet unanswered. I hope you enjoy them as much I enjoyed making them. God bless you.

 

Ayaz’s Sickness

For my final post, I took inspiration from a section of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, a 12th-century Persian epic poem, or mathnawi, that serves as an extended allusion to the Sufi mystical path towards union with God. The section that spoke most to me is called “Ayaz’s Sickness,” serves as one of the hoopoe’s birds parable-like responses to the birds excuses to undertake their journey to search for the one who would be their king, the Simorgh. The plot of Ayaz’s Sickness is quite simple: Ayaz falls ill due to the curse of the Evil Eye, and the king Mahmoud, who loves him, sends his messenger with utmost speed to convey his love and guard Ayaz, but when the messenger arrives at Ayaz’s respite, he finds that the king has outpaced him somehow and is willing to submit to Mahmoud’s punishment, but Mahmoud is merciful as the messenger “could not know the hidden ways by which we lovers go.”

Ayaz’s Sickness, in my reading, is used to exhort people on their spiritual paths by reminding them that God’s love is already present in their lives, if only they could become aware of it. I interpret Mahmoud as God, Ayaz as humanity, or more specifically, a spiritual seeker, and the messenger as religious authorities who do have a divine command to inform humanity of God’s will to love us but are not that love itself.

As a gay person, the fact that a same-sex loving relationship could be so positively used as to illustrate divine love is beyond encouraging.

This digital painting shows the scene of Ayaz and Mahmoud’s reunion as the lightning flashes and the messenger has not yet arrived, though he is moving quickly. The characters are identified as the word Allah in the top right corner is drawn in a matching color to Mahmoud. Their tight embrace is the hope and promise of divine union.

Do You Love Me Above All?

“And [mention] when your Lord took from the children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants and made them testify of themselves, [saying to them], “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we have testified.” [This] – lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, “Indeed, we were of this unaware.” Sura 7:172

The Day of Alast, or “Am I not?”, is a foundational tenet of Sufi spirituality. It has its origin as a concept in the above quoted verse of the Qur’an. In Sufi thought, God asks this question, “Am I not your Lord,” (“alast-u bi rabbikum?”) of the uncreated creation in the time before time. It is creation’s response, “Yes, we have testified,” that is a precondition to their existence. For Sufis, this was a time of wild happiness, when the new creation (including humans) had not yet forgotten God and were intoxicated with the love of and for God. It is this moment that the mystical path is intended to bring us back to, a path marked out with love, divine love, certainly, but also human love as a mirror of that divine love.

Sacred chant is an art form I learned as a Christian contemplative practice. There are four movements to sacred chant. The first is breathing, to remind us that the divine connection we seek and the tool we have to seek it with (our body) depends on breath and spirit. The second is tone or resonance, which can be a simple hum. Through the vibrations of the humming, we feel our bodies become sources of divine sound, from our nasal passage, through our throats, reverberating in our chests, and deep to our bellies. The third movement is intention, which we achieve by bringing words into the mix. In order to keep our intention as fixed on God as possible, the best chants have simple words and musical notes. The words I composed for this chant are inspired by the Day of Alast and the idea that our existence is ultimately dependent on loving God more than anything, even ourselves. Finally, the fourth component of sacred chant is community. Ideally, each voice listens and reacts to the voices around them, not in musical harmony necessarily, but rather, being balanced in volume and intention. I had to record this chant by myself, but I would love to join voices with you sometime. 🙂

The Best of All Creation

In Week 4, we learned about one of the fundamental aspects of Islam–devotion to the Prophet Muhammad. We discussed the various roles the Prophet occupies in the Muslim religious imaginary: divine messenger, religious authority, moral guide, unparalleled intercessor, and mystical paradigm. This piece, a paper collage I entitled, “The Best of All Creation,” references the Prophet’s role as an intercessor without equal between believers and God.

One of the stories I found the most interesting this semester was that of the 13th-century Egyptian poet and mystic, al-Busiri, who, as he was recovering from a stroke that left him paralyzed, wrote an ode popularly known as al-Burda or, “The Mantle.” The title is a reference to a story that one of the Prophet’s poetic rivals, Ka’b ibn Zuhair who repented of his hostility to Muhammad and wrote a poem asking for mercy. In response, the Prophet is said to have thrown his mantle or burda around Zuhair, thus creating a new symbol for the prophet’s forgiveness. Al-Busiri, in the 13th century, then had a dream where the Prophet was so pleased with the poem that he placed his burda around al-Busiri and the latter woke up healed. Since then, the later poem, whose actual title is “The Celestial Lights in Praise of the Best of Creation,” has become a staple of popular Muslim devotion.

In my collage, the mantle or Burda takes prominence with its striking use of different shades of green to denote the Prophet’s cloak. I took inspiration for the color from the Turkic manuscript illustrations of the Prophet’s isra and mi’raj. As in some portrayals, I covered the face of Muhammad in white and his whole head is framed in the fire of prophethood.

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.

Every Day is Ashura, Every Land is Karbala

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.

Ideology or Orientation

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 understand religious traditions from this viewpoint, then one can’t pay attention to just a tradition’s stated creeds, written theology, and legal judgments, 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.