Islam as Expressed Through Artistic Mediums

April 12, 2016

Introduction Essay

Filed under: Uncategorized — akandola @ 12:14 pm

For most of my life, I have been indirectly surrounded by aspects of Islam, despite having little understanding of the religion. My first few interactions with Islam were mostly from watching Indian movies that had Muslim characters in them. After September 11, I would hear about it on random news segments or be confronted with the concept of Islam by people who would mistake me for a Muslim. When I was in middle school, a Mosque was built on my very block, just a couple hundred feet from my house. I even found out that there were writings by Muslim sufi sheikhs in the Holy Scripture of Sikhism and had read them, but I neither knew their meaning nor researched further as to what similarities the two religions shared. But through this class, I have gained both a greater understanding of the themes underlying Islam a well as a greater appreciation for how Islam has influenced all sorts of different cultures around the world.


The first concept I learned in this class was the idea that different political and cultural environments shaped the history and even parts of the ideology of Islam. Having joined the class a few weeks into the semester, my first lecture was during week 5 and it was on authority in Post-prophetic Islam. Professor Asani laid out a convincing case for the argument that different practices in Islam and the subsequent perception of these practices developed due to the political systems present. In particular, we discussed how Sunni Muslims became distinct from Shia Muslims and how western tradition has sought to label these traditions as “orthodox” and “heterodox”. We also discussed how multiple interpretations of the same Hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet as passed down by his companions and eventually transcribed, and verses from the Quran existed to justify different political dynasties and eventually came to further distinguish these two sects of Islam. While I certainly learned a great deal regarding the main differences between these two versions of Islam, and how even these two labels are misleading due to the various subparts, what was most interesting to me was the complete overlap of certain practices in Islam and Sikhism. In particular, the concept of Dhikr, or the repetition of the name of God, is used in both. The idea behind Dhikr is to repeat the name of God to symbolize the internalization of God and to constantly remember his existence in the world around oneself. This is often conducted as part of a musical performance or as part of meditation. Moreover, since Islam is practiced across the world, the types of instruments that one might play while singing vary widely depending on the cultural context of the worshipper. To highlight these concepts, I practiced Dhikr using the name of God in Sikhism along with the guitar, a very American musical instrument as a symbol of the intersection between religions and cultures that Islam can be a part of.


In week 6, we dove further into the concept of cultural communities shaping the various interpretation of Islam. In particular, we read excerpts from The Topkapi Scroll and Islam and the Modern Age to set up a debate in section regarding the source of inspiration for various artistic endeavors in Islam. In many ways, this debate struck at the heart of this class’ message. On the one hand, Nasr argued that Islamic art stems from the spiritual nature of Islam and finds its inspiration in the divine whereas on the other hand, Necipoglu argues that such sweeping generalizations are unsubstantiated by historical data which point towards the dissimilarities between Islamic art in different cultures and the evolution of certain themes over time. Necipoglu’s argument seems to me the crux of the message that Professor Asani seems to suggest in this class. Personally, I felt it was likely that the true answer lay somewhere in between. Islamic artists very likely drew inspiration from a number of sources so that while they were certainly inspired in part by their devotion to Islamic principles, they were equally likely to have been influenced by the culture around them. One thing I learned this week was that the idea that Islam is opposed to art and music is simply incorrect. To be sure, certain interpretations of Islam such as Wahhabism involve suppression of many art forms, but Islamic civilizations have been responsible for the construction of many beautiful artistic creations. I experienced firsthand some of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen when I visited Istanbul a few months prior, though at the time I was unaware of the religious significance and the cultural context surrounding their construction. As a response to these ideas, I created a small arabesque design representing mathematical concepts and a geometric design as seen on the ceilings of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. One thing I already knew before this class was that Islamic civilizations during the European Middle Ages were great centers of mathematic and scientific research and produced significant advances in many fields and so I used some mathematical concepts in my drawing as a tribute to these scientists such as Chaos Theory. Moreover, many Islamic artists gave serious thought to geometry as a representation of the oneness of God and studied it as a manifestation of natural laws created by God in the world around them so I felt it was important to include such considerations in my drawing.


In week 7, we dove deeper into some of the differences in Islamic practices between different cultures around the world. One example included the widespread practice of worshipping Marabouts in Western Africa and associating spiritual power with the person instead of some religious institution that this person claims to represent. Another example was in the use of mystic symbolism as a means of expressing one’s understanding of Islam beyond ritual practices in South Asia. To this end, we read an excerpt from Ecstasy and Enlightenment on the usage of bridal symbolism. This symbolism is a representation of the idea that God is the husband/lover of all humans on earth. This particular symbolism was very interesting to me since I had previously been introduced to it through the context of Sikhism where it is abundantly cited throughout the Scripture, but its not something I ever would have imagined in Islam due to my biased prior understanding of Islam. What I learned is that all sorts of mystical interpretations exist throughout Islam and are expressed in art forms, particularly in poetry such as the kind found in the Sikh scriptures (some of which was written by Muslim Sufi saints). Referring specifically to the bridal symbolism, one key theme is the idea of “seeing” the beloved (God) with one’s eyes. The interesting idea here is the stress on the sense of vision as the means by which to experience the sensation of God. This is in some ways a contrast to the more “strict” interpretation of Islam which emphasizes the importance of the written word and on sound, given that sound was the means by which the Quran was initially given to the Prophet. In my art, I strove to combine both concepts by writing a poem using this love symbolism. It combined the emphasis on writing (though the poem was written in English which does not hold the level of respect that Arabic does in Islam) and especially in poetic forms with the mystical symbolism of love with God.


In week 8, the reading of Seven Doors to Islam cited the existence of stories used to teach morals and the importance of certain religious practices to the reader. Up until this week, I had thought that Muslims only referred to stories and sayings from the life of the Prophet himself and used morals from those stories. However, I was mistaken. There is an extensive history of exposition in the form of short stories of all forms, whether they are fables, or short stories on small parts of the lives of other Prophets that are meant to teach some sort of lesson. We were lucky enough to read such a story in week 10 when we read The Conference of the Birds. This story related the tale of 30 birds in their quest to find a mythical king and is meant to represent an allegory for the human search for God. Each bird represents some aspect of human personality and how having the wrong personality can prevent one from truly submitting themselves to God. The existence of such stories further cements the idea of different interpretations of Islam since the stories stress different ideas in relation to how one should live their life even though the source inspiration for all of them is the devotion of the author who all claim to be Muslims. As a response to some of these ideas, I wrote a short story about the Prophet Joseph who tries to save a village from a flood using prophecy in which the lesson is to always listen to the word of the Prophet even if it does not make sense. I also wrote a computer program to generate fractal images that represented some of the ideas present in the birds’ quest.


In week 9 we explored further the Sufi traditions of poetry in the form of the Ghazal in both our class discussion and in our readings of Persian Sufi Poetry and Conventions of the Urdu Ghazal. I had already explored the idea of poetry to some extent in week 7 when we discussed bridal symbolism, but I jumped the gun so to speak. Even though much of the poetry we discussed this week was still love poetry, the thematic depth and diversity of form were far deeper than what I had previously been acquainted with. Moreover, Professor Asani discussed the incredible respect given to poets in society in many Muslim countries which was something I had never expected and even found hard to believe. Poetry serves an important purpose in these cultures and this purpose found its way into the expression of Islamic devotion in these cultures as well through the Ghazal and through narrative epics such as The Mathnawi. The Ghazal, I learned, is the oldest currently existing poetic form. It is formed of a series of couplets, often disjoint, with the last word usually repeated in the 2nd line of each couplet (and the 1st line of the 1st couplet). The most common theme of Ghazals is love. Whether this love is earthly or mystical is usually unclear since the lover is never named and never given a gender. I also never realized that I had listened to many Ghazals being performed as a kid without knowing what they were. The Ghazal is apparently one of the more popular poetic forms in Punjabi, a language very similar to Urdu, likely due to the influence of the large Muslim population in the region, and I had heard many of these poems in various shows or on television. As a representation of these ideas, I wrote love poems in the form of Haikus as a way to not only stress the emphasis on love in Sufi poetry, but also to express it in a poetic form of a culture not typically associated with Islam to highlight the multicultural dimensions of Islam.

Overall, I learned a lot through this course. I learned much about some of the many different interpretations of Islam and the motivations behind how these interpretations came into being. I learned about some of the practices and their meanings as well as how different people also express their devotion through artistic mediums I did not associate with Islam in the past. But more than just learning about Islam, I also learned about my own philosophies and about the world in general. Aside from understanding some of the major influences in Sikhism which I had not explored in detail before this course, I also came to learn a viewpoint on religion that seeks not to define religions as monolithic institutions intent on coercing whole populations into a single practice at the expense of local cultures, but as sources of common inspiration to be molded and shaped into the fabric of the locality in which they become embedded. Mostly, I learned to think more critically about my biased definitions of cultures and religious practices around the world and question how these practices came to develop, how they differ, and to never assume that one person’s definition of anything is the same as anyone else’s. It is this diversity of interpretation that leads to such creativity in thought and I hope that we can all learn to better understand the different perspectives we all hold to create a more harmonious and mutually beneficial society.

April 6, 2016

Week 10: The Mathnawi as a Narrative Epic

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This week, we read Conference of the Birds. In this story, a number of birds gather to search for a mythical king. The birds in the story are considered representations of different personalities of humans and their search is a metaphor for the human search for God. Throughout the entire quest, various short stories are related describing allegories for rituals, prayers, and various other elements of Islam and what they mean for our lives.

As a response to this reading, I wrote a computer program in python to generate fractals using mathematical formulas. Fractals are found throughout Islamic art since they make precise use of geometrical shapes and mathematics which were considered symbols for the underlying unity of the universe and evidence of God’s existence. Due to their extensive usage throughout the history of Islamic cultures, I felt it would be appropriate to use these designs to represent some of the themes present in the book. Moreover, the three fractal images shown above made use of the trigonometric wave functions (sine and cosine) which is also fitting since it is considered that the first mathematician to treat trigonometry as separate field of study from astronomy was the Persian Muslim scientist Nasir Al-Din Al-Tusi in the 13th century.

The first of the three drawings is an image depicting the mythical Simorgh, an allegory for God in the story. The Simorgh is also found in various other Persian myths and folklore. The second image has a large hole in the center of a complex, richly patterned fractal. This hole represents the idea that each bird had a weakness in their pursuance of the quest. The hole is the missing quality that each human lacks which becomes an obstacle to their quest for finding God. It shows how despite possessing various layers of beauty, intelligence, and all sorts of other physical and emotional qualities, at the center is a hole that can only be filled by God and any single failure in one’s personality may end up blocking the path to God. The last image highlights the symmetry between the birds on one side and human personalities on the other side. The two are the same, as the author intended, and thus we are able to extrapolate ideas from the birds into lessons for ourselves. Moreover, it also relates to the final scene in the story when the birds view their own reflections in the lake where they hoped to find God. In the image, the two sides are reflections of one another reflecting both the connection between humans and birds and the connection between humans and God.

April 3, 2016

Week 9: Love Poetry

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All else I see not
One glimpse of my beloved
And my life is complete

I search across the world
One glance of my aashiq’s mole
No treasure compares

My Mashuq requests
The entirety of my soul
Willingly I give

This week, in Persian Sufi Poetry as well as Conventions of the Urdu Ghazal, we read about how Sufi poets wrote love poems in the form of the Ghazal as a means by which to express their love with God. Crucially,  the poems never explicitly evoke any reference to God or the prophet. In fact, they are so entirely devoid of such explicit references, that one might easily take them to refer to some earthly lover. There is also never a mention of the gender of the lover, or aashiq. This type of poetry became so popular and widespread, that there would even be massive performances of Ghazals attended by tens of thousands of people. The Ghazal remains one of the most widely used forms of poetry across the world.
While the most widely accept form of Sufi poetry made usage of the Ghazal as the mode of expression, I decided to use the Haiku in order to highlight the multicultural nature of Islam. The idea of the Ghazal is to express the intense love experienced by the poet for (presumably) God, so the form is less important than the content. Some of the themes captured in these poems includes the idea of vision as an important sense in that “seeing” the beloved, or the mashuq, is considered essential to the poet’s purpose. The idea of the mole on the lip of the beloved is referencing a famous line from Hafiz, the famed poet, where he writes he would give away the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand for a glimpse of this mole as an indication of the intensity of his love. These were two major cities at the time and Samarkand was the capital of the Timurid Empire of which Hafiz’s homeland was a part of during the time of writing. This line eventually became famous and is found throughout Ghazal’s in many different languages. Through poetry, these poets sought to capture part of the essence of Islam in the love that one holds for the world and for God. The last poem also mentions giving the soul which references the possibility of the beloved actually being God and the submission of the soul as a metaphor for Islam itself, which literally translates to submission.

Week 8: Sufi Piety

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Joseph and the Flood

For a short time in his life, Joseph lived in a small farming village beside a large river. Almost everyone in the village lived the simple life of a farmer along the plains of this river. When times were good, everyone lived a comfortable life. But times were not always good. One year, there had been so little rain, that the river was starting to run well below its normal level so that it seemed that it might dry out entirely and the village would starve. Fortunately, the villagers were shrewd and everyone had stockpiled plenty of grains and gold from the previous harvest so that they could continue to support themselves and even enjoy some luxuries, such as the passing fairs that sometimes came through.

But Joseph knew something the villagers didn’t. When all the villagers would spend some gold each week on new clothes, entertainment, or good food, Joseph would instead buy bricks and eat only small amounts of his grain. One day, after about a month of this, the villagers asked Joseph why he was buying all of these bricks. He told them it was to build a wall around his house for when the river floods in a few months. The villagers laughed and said he had no idea what he was talking about. Only one other person, Joseph’s friend took him seriously and also began to buy bricks. The two of them slowly built their wall as the rest of the villagers continued to mock the two and ignore their warnings.

Just as Joseph and his friend were finally finishing their walls, the first signs of rains appeared as clouds blew in from the West. The villagers were ecstatic. Over the next few days, the clouds built up so that it seemed that rain was imminent. And indeed it was. The rain fell nonstop for 2 weeks. By the end, the river had completely enveloped its flood plain and was only a few yards away from the first few houses in the village. This was not unusual to the villagers, and they continued their celebration of the long awaited rains. They asked Joseph where his great flood was, but he continued to tell them that they would see before long the great mistake they had made. And in fact, Joseph was correct. Only a day after it had stopped raining, a lake located in the mountains far upstream the river began overflowing, adding a new tributary to the river and greatly increasing the volume of water passing through. The river rose at a rapid pace and began to flood every house in the village, with the exception of Joseph and his friend, who by now had built a wall entirely around their house along with an irrigation channel to divert all water that approached their house out to the fields.

When the flood finally passed. All the villagers were left with the ruins of their simple homes and faced the destruction of all their stockpiles. Joseph and his faithful friend were spared this devastation. Joseph then tells the villagers that in order to survive until the next harvest season, they should all migrate to the East for the winter where they will be able to fish and hunt for food. Not one villager questioned his suggestion. For one year they lived off the coast in the East and were all able to return to their ruined village safely the following Spring and begin the long process of rebuilding.



This week, the reading from Seven Doors to Islam discussed the usage of stories to depict events in the lives of the Prophets. Many of these events were fantastical in nature, but generally involved teaching the reader some sort of spiritual lesson. They were a means by which the author could introduce a moral to the reader in an approachable manner. Moreover, some authors, such as Ibn-i Munawwar suggested the idea that recalling individuals of great devotion, such as the Prophets, is an act of religious devotion. Furthermore, we also discussed how different communities wrote stories around the lives of Prophets that were not part of any sort of established Canon, such as the Swahili legends around the different Prophets. One example of a Swahili legend centers on a mythical battle between the Prophet Muhammad and a tyrant named Anzurani. In this story, the Prophet leads an army against the tyrant, but is about to lose, until he performs a ritual in which he solicits support from God in the battle and receives it so that God helps them win the battle.

To capture some of these concepts, I wrote a short story around the life of Joseph that resembles the type of short story that could have been written about any of the Prophets complete with a lesson for the reader. Joseph was one of the son’s of Jacob and was believed to have had the gift of Prophecy. This is represented in the story through his ability to see the future flood that will wipe out the village. The villagers, representing foolish people who ignore the Prophet, are convinced he is insane and ignore his warnings. As a result, their entire village is destroyed. The lesson learned by the villagers at the end of the story is to always heed the word of the Prophet, even if it seems to contradict their reasoning. Moreover, the one friend of the Prophet who followed his advice had his home and possessions spared representing the idea that one can be saved by following the teachings and manners of the Prophet. One similar concept between both this story and the Swahili legend is use of divine powers to aid in real world matters. Even though in my story, the village was destroyed by the flood, they eventually survived hardship due to the power of prophecy just as in the legend, the battle was won through help from God in the form of his help to Joseph.


March 18, 2016

Week 7: Bridal Symbolism in Islam

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Poem by Sheikh Fareed (d. 1266):

Fareed, my withered body has become a skeleton; the crows are pecking at my palms.

Even now, God has not come to help me; behold, this is the fate of all mortal beings. ||90||

The crows have searched my skeleton, and eaten all my flesh.

But please do not touch these eyes; I hope to see my Lord. ||91||

O crow, do not peck at my skeleton; if you have landed on it, fly away.

Do not eat the flesh from that skeleton, within which my Husband Lord abides. ||92||

One light, one voice, emerges from the deep

Slowly, across the universe it begins to creep

One light, one voice, announces its presence

From the King of kings, to the lowest of peasants

One light, one voice, the search begins

Scholars and Saints examine all things

One light, one voice, hidden in plain sight

In brightest of day, in darkest of night

One light, one voice, the search goes on

From Allah to Buddha to dear St. John

One light, one voice, we must remember

And submit our will, to it we surrender

One light, one voice, one light, one voice

to it we return, to it we depart.

But my eyes cannot see, my ears cannot hear

I long, I wait, for that beloved I hold dear

Majnun, they call me, a madman I’m called

Where is Layla my light, by her I’m enthralled

There is no other purpose, no other pursuit

My body, it trembles, from my hat to my boot

One light, one voice, has stolen my soul

Now I must live, part empty, part hole.


In this week’s reading of Bridal Symbolism in the Ginans, by A. Asani, we read about how some interpretations of Islam discuss the idea of the bridal soul with the goal of reuniting with the husband (God). In the above poem, written by Sheikh Fareed, a Sufi mystic living in India around the 13th century, this idea is expressed through the poet’s desire to keep his eyes as the means by which to see the husband. Fareed is writing that he is dying as everyone is, but that he still desires for his soul to merge with his Husband. This concept connects a number of esoteric ideas in Islam. There is the light verse in the Quran, and specifically one interpretation of it which focuses on the idea of transmitting light through the prophets and the ability of the individual to gain that spiritual knowledge through their own soul. It is this type of interpretation that Fareed seems to agree with.

This particular poem is actually written in the Sikh scripture, which is how I came across it. The idea of God as the husband is a theme so ingrained in Sikhism that the poem read during the marriage ceremony is actually about the marriage of the two souls of the bride and groom with God instead of each other, mirroring the idea in the reading that many times poems about mystical love written by Persian poets are interpreted as being about earthy love. To me it was interesting to see the influence of the Sufi mystical interpretation of the soul in Sikhism and the inclusion of Muslim poetry in the scripture.

To capture some of the ideas and themes present in Fareed’s poem and in general love poetry, I wrote a short poem describing one light (God) as permeating existence. The reference to God as light is found throughout the Quran, but one particularly relevant verse is the Light Verse in which Allah is referred to as literally “the light of the heavens” (roughly translated to English). The one voice referenced in the poem also refers to God. In Islamic belief, God passed down the Quran orally to the Prophet so the voice and, in particular, the reciting of the Quran when done correctly is considered divine. As a result, the light and the voice are two very important concepts in Islam. The contrast between scholars and saints is also an important one because there has been a constant dispute through much of Islamic history on the correct approach to finding God: the rules and studies of the scholars or the mystical experiences and devotion of the saints. But in this poem, the two are considered equal in their pursuit of God, even though the general theme of the poem revolves around more of the mystical concept of love that the saints would support. Some of the more subtle ideas are the universality of God in Islam, as in the reference to Buddha and St. John and the idea of the King of Kings and the lowest of peasants sharing the same experience in this context.

The character in the poem is obsessed with finding some light, but is unable to do so because he is blind to its existence and so is cursed to remain forever longing to reunite with his beloved. I also used a reference to Majnun and Layla, two characters from a classic love story who loved each other, but were separated and died tragic deaths longing for each other in order to relate further to some of the metaphors Arab and Persian poets would use in their poems. In many poems, the boundary between a human lover and God is blurred as in this case. While Layla is the name of a fictional human woman, in this case, she is compared to a light (“Where is Layla, my light”) and the light may also refer to God, thus capturing the blur between love in a worldly context and in a spiritual context.

Week 6: The art and architecture of mosque and other places of Muslim devotion

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Photographs of the Blue Mosque (left) and the Hagia Sophia (right).

Blue Mosque Ceiling


Penrose Crystal Pattern


My Drawing


This week, in our readings of The Mosque and the Topkapi Scroll, as well as the section discussions, we discussed, among other things, the influences underlying the art and architecture found in mosques. In particular, we were interested in finding out whether the inspiration was divine or if it was influenced by more worldly affairs such as political and cultural concerns. The first image here is of the roof in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The next image is of the Hagia Sophia, just a few hundred feet from the Blue Mosque. Some very common features can easily be seen in both images such as the heavy use of Arabesque to decorate the roofs and walls of both structures, the large dome-shaped ceilings, and arabic texts in interesting locations. Other common Mosque features, while not visible in the pictures, included in both are the Mihrab and the Minbar.

I actually had the pleasure of visiting both and actually took the first two photographs with my phone. I noticed some interesting differences between the two buildings. The Blue Mosque stressed symmetry to a much greater degree than the Hagia Sophia and had some extra features that would be useful in prayer such as an Ablution fountain in the courtyard whereas the Hagia Sophia had an extensive series of outer layers containing mainly the tombs of past Ottoman Emperors. Since it was converted from a Church, it also included a few Christian images on some walls which were interesting to see, especially given our reading of the article on Wahhabism in the Turkish Times. Their presence lends more credence to the idea of cultural significance in artistic renderings since such images would have been removed long ago under different interpretations of Islam.

In order to capture some of the ideas behind these designs, I decided to create a drawing of my own design. My drawing is of a circle containing a symmetric design. Architects and painters of most Mosques gave a great deal of consideration to symmetry and of giving emphasis to the idea of the unity of God. The circle amplifies the idea of oneness while the geometrical designs within create a theme of multiplicity. Some aspects of this design can be seen in the third image, which is a photograph of a portion of the ceiling in the Blue Mosque. In this image, a pattern is inscribed into a circle, as is the case with my drawing. At the very center of the circle, I have drawn a Sierpinski triangle, a geometrical shape composed of infinitely smaller equilateral triangles.

The idea of infinity is another way to connect with God. In the Blue Mosque image, calligraphy is inscribed into the circle so that if one were to begin reading from any part of the circle, it would involve infinite repetition since the circle never ends. Moreover, the way in which a Sierpinski triangle is constructed involves use of the “Chaos Game”, which is relevant to Islam because the world is filled with chaos, but it is the goal of the faithful to attach themselves to God and remove themselves of the chaotic distractions around them. Chaos Theory involves the construction of a geometric shape made from infinitely smaller parts of a larger version of itself so that no matter how small an area one considers, a shape exactly proportional to the larger shape can be constructed. In Islam, it is believed that God has revealed signs of himself in his creation and this is part of the belief behind the importance of mystical experience which allows you to understand these signs. The concept of “infinitely small” resonates with this idea for me since if something is infinitely small, one would not be able to see it even if it is right in front of them as is the case with God. In the triangle case, the smallest triangles are smaller than we can observe with any technology, but they still exist and a mystic might argue that having a sufficient connection with the world around you would allow you to sense their presence. In terms of geometry, infinity is important because many patterns approach specific ratios (in the area of specific parts of the pattern, in the ratios of the colors, etc.) if extended to infinity and the concept of convergence is another Islamic concept since the goal of each individual is to merge with God, which is quite similar to converging. One particular example of this concept was observed by a Harvard graduate student in a 15th century madrasa, or Islamic religious school, in Bukhara when he noticed a Penrose crystal pattern (as demonstrated in the third image) in the tiles on the architecture. In this particular pattern, the entire pattern is repeated inside of itself and if extended to infinity, the ratio of the two shapes approaches the golden ratio. Even though Islamic art may seem very mathematical at first glance, many subtle hints are dropped as to how the fundamental aspects of the art relate to God and I sought to capture these in my drawing.

Week 5: Post Prophetic Authority

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This week, we discussed the disputes that arose regarding authority in Islam after the death of the Prophet. We also read about it in Diversity in Islam: Communities of Interpretation, by Daftary. One particular historical incident of interest occurred at Ghadir al-Khumm, in March of the year 632 when the Prophet said “Man Kunto Mawla” meaning “He whose master I am, Ali is his master.” There are numerous interpretations of this phrase. Shia Muslims believe it to mean that the Prophet has passed authority to Ali, his son-in-law, and use it to justify their hierarchical structure in which the Imam is a family member of the Prophet and is the leader of all Muslims. Another interpretation focuses more on the esoteric meaning of such a phrase and states that what really happened was a passing of mystical truths from the prophet to Ali.

As a result of the importance of this phrase, there exists a tradition of singing these lines as seen in the first linked video. This is interesting because repetition of certain phrases is a theme found in many other Islamic interpretations for completely different reasons. For example, dhikr, found mainly in Sufi traditions, refers to a form of devotion in which the worshiper repeats one of God’s names or an aspect of his in rhythm. Another example is the repetition of Quranic verses, either for purposes of memorization, or for artistic purposes such as when a verse is repeated across the walls of a building. In calligraphy, the word Allah is often repeated in some pattern, as in our calligraphy assignment. Repetition highlights the importance of internalizing and constantly remembering the repeated phrase, whether it is a way of giving thanks to God by chanting his name or in this case to recall an important moment in history.

For me, what was particularly interesting is how similar this concept is to dhikr as found in Sikhism (skip to 8:50 in the second video for an example). The text sung in the second video is from the Scripture and is entirely about the Islamic concept of constantly remembering God and repeating his name. The instruments used are in fact entirely the same as those used in the first video highlighting the influence of regional cultures and traditions in different interpretations of Islam. The two main instruments used in both videos are the harmonium and the tabla which are both South Asian instruments. In other regions, different instruments are used to achieve the same ends.

Music has long been used to create an emotional response in the listener. In both of these cases, it is used to highlight the devotion that the worshipper has for God and to help the listener achieve the same feeling. Moreover, the concept extends across many different parts of the world, whether it is in the singing of Gospels in Churches, or in these examples. These songs are a tribute to the underlying themes of many of the world’s cultures that we can hopefully appreciate and use to find a common understanding among different religions.

As a response to these themes, I decided to create a short audio recording of myself repeating the name of God in Sikhism while playing Guitar. This captures the idea of Dhikr as mentioned above, but also makes use of a Western instrument as opposed to the ones you might traditionally find in a Sufi order or in Sikhism to highlight the multicultural dimensions of both religions. I used two different patterns of singing as a sample of the many different ways in which Dhikr could be performed by the practitioner. The chord progression used throughout the piece was G, E, C, D. These are four incredibly common chords and some of the first that one would learn when learning how to play the guitar, and they are also very widely used in American pop music. In fact, many of the most popular songs are formed entirely using combinations of these chords (or perhaps also including A as well). The two main reasons for choosing these particular chords are to, one, stress the underlying commonality between these two different religions which I felt would be best expressed using the most fundamental chords, and also to promote the idea that Islam is not as rigid a religion as people might think it is by using pop music chords. One could very well perform Dhikr, an act of devotion taken incredibly seriously by those who practice it, to the very same music that we enjoy in Western culture. Hopefully it gives one a sense of how Islam can be appreciated through many different perspectives.