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.
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.
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.