Prologue: A Personal Academic Exploration

Link to intro essay (PDF)

At the start of the term, during our first section, Ceyhun asked each of us why we were taking this class. There were a wide variety of answers, and I myself had a few answers to this question myself. Yes, it counts as an AI credit. Yes, it counts towards my degree in the Comparative Study of Religion. But most importantly, as a Muslim myself, it allowed me to explore a side of my faith that I have not had the chance to explore in great detail ever before.  I grew up Muslim and had gone to Sunday school for years. This exposed me deeply to the legal, ritualistic and practical side of Islam, all of which is beautiful. However, as Professor Asani notes in his text, it is really only one side of Islam (Asani, Chapter 1). Then, as a child growing up in post-9/11 America, I also engaged with another side of Islam—specifically, political Islam. I was in a position that left me uniquely aware of my Muslimness, as one of very few people of color and even fewer Muslims at my school. The news and media showed me a version of Islam that I didn’t recognize and couldn’t believe, one that was contrary to everything I believed and everything I had learned about Islam, the Quran, the Sunnah, and Islamic History.

As I was exposed to the historical, traditionally religious, and political sides of Islam, I had yet to realize that there was another dimension of Islam that I hadn’t even begun engaging with. On a trip to Turkey after I had already graduated college,  I found myself in Konya, the resting place of the great Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi.   From here I began learning about the rich literary and poetic history of Islam, and when I came to college, I wanted to continue that study. I mention in one of my blog posts that I also took another class with Professor Asani, specifically a class on Sufism. This course again exposed me to the literary wonders of Islam, but it also introduced me to the world of Islamic music and dance and celebration that I never knew existed and whose exploration was only possible through the cultural studies approach that Professor Asani’s teaching embodies. And that is what brought me to this course. I titled this prologue “A Personal Academic Exploration” because while this course is technically part of my college academic curriculum, it also holds so much personal value in its ability to broaden my understanding of Islam and the ways in which Islam can be engaged. Through the process of creating this blog, engaging with my own interpretations of the art, music, literature, and scholarly work that we studied, I was able to not only see, but experience first hand the diversity an beauty of all that is contained in the Islamic faith and tradition. My blog thus presents my experiences with Islam in its many diverse forms through these artistic practices and can hopefully enlighten others in the way this class enlightened me.

Throughout my artwork, there are many themes that are embodied. One of these themes is the omnipresence of Islam and God and our engagement with Him through our various senses. Outside of personal engagement with faith, God can be found everywhere, in architectural designs, in nature, in quiet moments of personal happiness. As an avid photographer who is particularly engaged with landscape photography, I wanted to put this idea to the test with my first post, in which I “found” Allah written in nature—in smoke, in rocks and in leaves. This is undoubtedly a very unique way of engaging with Islam, but it was also very meaningful to me. Further, in the Islamic tradition, it is said that God is beautiful and loves beauty. By capturing some of the beauty that God has placed around the world, I understood a new way of engaging with the Islamic God. Renard, in his Seven Doors to Islam, touches on this idea, exploring the many ways we can experience God outside of the traditional rituals of faith. While the visual aspects are one of those ways, another is the auditory. The auditory tradition in Islam has deep roots. The Quran itself was first transmitted through oral recitation and even now, communal recitations of the Quran are very popular. However, the aesthetic that comes with recitation is a little known art that truly is an art, and an incredibly beautiful one at that. We watched a movie documentary on Quran reciters and one on architectural design and the incorporation of calligraphy. In both of those, what stood out was the theme of the aesthetic engagement with Islam—seeing and hearing it in the world around you, rather than just in the confines of traditional religious practice. My second piece in my series aims to engage both of these things together, by combining the auditory and visual experiences of Islam in a way that admires the traditional in non-traditional ways. It is a synthesis of finding God in the world around you and then experiencing that discovery spiritually through sound and sight. I especially found the auditory aspect so elucidating, so I furthered that exploration in my blog post from Week 10, in which I listened to the audio of the poem Conference of the Birds while simultaneously working on my art.

A second theme, seen in my piece related to Conference of the Birds and in my post relating to the Ta’ziyeh is that of the role integration—specifically integrating Islamic concepts, practices, and works of art into new mediums that are not traditionally associated with Islam. In my case, I combined the Ta’ziyeh, which is a traditional re-enactment of the death of Hussain with the art of fashion design. And in my later post, I combined the characters from Attar’s text with the traditionally Japanese art of Origami. By melding these art forms with Islamic artistic expressions of Taziyeh and Attar’s poetry, I was able to exemplify how Islam, through a cultural approach, can be spread beyond what one might expect. Further, I was able to really work with my hands when creating the origami, a process that allowed me to reflect on the difficulties of self purification that are thematic in Attar’s Conference of the Birds. By using the cultural studies model in my own artwork, I was able to push the bounds of Islamic artistry by incorporating Islamic concepts into traditionally secular art forms.

Finally, in a set of works that are personally my favorite and that truly embody the amalgamation of my lived experience as a Muslim and my work in this course, I engaged with the themes surrounding Islam and Muslims in the Western world—particularly profiling of Muslims and stereotypes of the Hijab. In an age where Donald Trump, a man who has openly expressed his distaste for Muslims and has asked to ban them from this country, has essentially secured the GOP Presidential bid, the realities of Muslim experiences in America are particularly important topics of conversation. While also deeply emotional, these issues have been brought to the forefront of political and social discussion after many years of silence. As someone who is not very confrontational, I found that doing these art pieces allowed me to express my frustrations with these experiences without feeling exposed. It was a truly cathartic experience—a key characteristic of art in every form. In particular, I focused on two issues, which were also very clearly exemplified in literary works such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Persepolis. These works highlighted the experiences of discrimination Muslims face in the West when for example, as seen in my comic drawing, they are given extra attention at the airport. I myself have noticed that when I am traveling with my family members, many of whom wear headscarves and some of whom have beards, we are always stopped and asked for extra screenings. And especially, my mom and sisters who wear a scarf are almost always patted down alongside their full body scan. In a tragic example of bigotry and discrimination, unfortunately this kind of profiling has extended beyond just Muslims to those who have any similar resemblances to Muslims. Often times, this leaves Sikhs, Middle Eastern individuals, and South Asians, who are not necessarily Muslim stuck facing discrimination that is aimed at Muslims. At the root of this behavior are stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslims, which is seen most potently in the politicization of the Hijab. The Muslim headpiece has become a symbol of oppression, anti-feminism, radical Islam, and so many other incredibly hurtful things over the past years. Muslims have reported facing serious harassment because of this, and I myself am hesitant about wearing a scarf in public because of fear of public backlash. An unfortunate reality of living as a Muslim in the Western world, I hoped to highlight some of these stereotypes and the damage they can do through my artwork. Thus, I was able to not only purge my own emotions as a Muslim who has experienced these issues, but also express them in a way that is hopefully relatable and can convey what I learned in the texts I have read to a larger audience.

At the core of my artwork is a combination of three themes. These are centralized on using the cultural studies approach to embrace Islam and its diversity through experience, engagement, and expression. It has provided me the opportunity to be reflective on the effects the art I have studied has had on me and my own understandings of Islam as well as how my own art can contribute to broadening understandings of Islam held by others. Through this process, I have seen how using a cultural studies approach, and engaging with the literary and artistic elements of a faith tradition can expand that tradition and make it accessible in ways that it previously was not. I would like to end by thanking all of those who have made this experience so uniquely available to me, especially, Professor Asani, John, and Ceyhun.

Published in: |on May 4th, 2016 |No Comments »

Week 10: Conference of the Birds

Medium: Origami

For this blog post, I wanted to do something hands on that would allow me to reflect on the poetry as I made my art piece. I found a book-on-tape style oral recitation of Conference of the Birds, and played the piece while I was creating my artwork. It was a particularly meaningful experience of getting to integrate what I was hearing and what I was making. While it is definitely not my area of artistic expertise, I chose to make origami birds that represented some of the birds from Attar’s book. I made three different birds that I hoped would represent some of my favorite birds from the text.

My first bird is meant to represent the hoopoe. In Attar’s text, the hoopoe is considered extremely wise and is the one who leads everyone on to the correct path to enlightenment. The Hoopoe speaks with each of the other birds, helping them identify their own flaws that are hindering their ability to reach higher levels of spiritual satisfaction, represented in their book as further progress on their journey to the King.

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My second bird was the owl. In the book, the owl struggles with his greed. The owl is constantly searching for more gold rather than focusing on his spiritual elevation, and the hoopoe advises him to renew his intentions and focus on what is really important–getting closer to the Divine (Attar 48).

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Finally, I made a bird that though technically a crane, I was hoping would represent the Heron. The heron in the book is consumed by his desire for control. He is always angry and upset over his lack of control over his own life, and in turn the Hoopoe advises him to release control to God and focus on bringing himself closer to God rather than trying to worry about controlling everything himself (Attar 46).

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I found this particularly meaningful because this is actually the third time I am experiencing this text, after having also read it for Professor Asani’s class on Sufism last year. I feel that while the text is talking about the path to spiritual elevation, many of these flaws are part of our daily lives as humans and are things we can try to get rid of to improve ourselves, for both spiritual and personal betterment.

Published in: |on May 4th, 2016 |No Comments »

Week 13: Women in Islam

Medium: Chalk and Chalkboard

In this image, I have drawn the silhouette of a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, the Muslim headscarf. On her scarf, I have written a number of words: terrorist, modest, oppressed, submissive, devout, fundamentalist, conservative, anti-American. These words are a representation of the many identities associated with wearing the hijab, both positive and negative, especially as seen in West. I also splashed the board with chalk dust, to symbolize erasing, which shows how these perceptions are fluid and can change. Finally, when drawing the silhouette, I drew it in the same style as that which was drawn in honor of Yusor Abu Salha, a UNC Dentistry student who was shot execution style over a year ago in a hate crime committed by a man who viewed Muslims as terrorists.

This is the picture used to advocate for the deaths of the 3 young North Carolina Muslims. The middle image represents Yusor, and that is who I styled my silhouette after.

When we read Persepolis, we saw that Marji was forced into wearing the veil at a relatively young age. We also saw through our class discussions and readings that the veil holds many symbolic implications for different people. For example, in the US in light of the modern political climate, the hijab is often seen as a symbol of terrorism and anti-American sentiment, as if it is some implicit approval of radical Islamic movements, a notion that is ridiculous beyond explanation. In Western countries, particularly Western Europe and America, the hijab is also interpreted as an inherent sign of female oppression by Muslim men and by extension, seen as an example of the inherent oppressiveness of the Islamic faith. By using the cultural studies model, we can see that these are not necessarily the true value and role of the hijab as prescribed in Islam, but rather specific interpretations that have emerged in the context of fearmongering politicians and recent attacks that have been credited to the “Islamic” State. Even within Muslim communities who do not necessarily see the veil as a sign of terrorism or oppression, there are a variety of positive and negative perceptions of the hijab. To some, the hijab goes against their liberal-minded interpretation and cultural application of Islam, and it then becomes a symbol of submissiveness, or hyper-conservative or fundamentalist Islamic values. For those who do support the observation of the veil, it can be interpreted as a symbol of devoutness or modesty and sometimes equated with religiosity. Thus, it can be seen by examining across communities, and even more so, by using the cultural studies approach, that symbols of faith, in this case, the Islamic symbol of the veil, can take on different meanings in different contexts.

 

Here is my image:

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Published in: |on May 4th, 2016 |No Comments »

Week 14: Islam in Post 9/11 America

Medium: Comic (pencil on paper)

This particular piece was done in the style of a comic strip. My inspiration for this particular representation was the book and movie, The Reluctant Fundamentalist as well as my own experiences as a Muslim American. Taking this class, and especially looking at Islam through a cultural-studies lens, my perspective and understanding of the material has consistently been very uniquely shaped by my own experiences.  The experiences of Changez in The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid really stuck with me because in spite of his genuine love for America and his extraordinarily impressive accomplishments, he is consistently profiled for being Muslim and even when not appearing visibly Muslim, for being brown-skinned, which is often used as a sign that someone might be Middle Eastern or South Asian, and therefore Muslim.  Changez experiences excess security in both the movie and the book, because after 9/11 Muslims are consistently being suspected without cause. Even Changez’ bosses notice and question why he is being asked to undergo extra security procedures. One of the most prominent examples of extreme scrutiny of Muslims is at the airport, by TSA, US Customs, and pretty much every other security official at the airport.  My comic shows the lines for US Customs, in which there are three options: US Citizens, US Visitors, and Muslims (or those that look like Muslims). I chose these three categories because the first two are what you usually see at the airport and then the last one represents the way airport officials often unfairly profile Muslims and people who are not Muslim, but share similar features. It is also significant because people can only be in one of the three lines, so it shows the myopic view of Muslims as nothing more than their religious identity, ignoring their actual legal status. For example, the comic aims to show that even Muslims who may be US Citizens will be profiled and put in the “Muslims” line, just because of their faith. I also added captions for some of the individuals in the comic. One man wearing a turban in the line for Muslims is saying “But I’m Sikh” with the nearby officer saying “Don’t lie to me towelhead”which is meant to show how other faith groups also are unfairly profiled and treated poorly because of prejudices against people that are or look like Muslims. Often, Sikhs are subject to undeserved violence or hassle because people assume they are Muslims and treat them unkindly. I also included the officer’s quote because it shows the inherent distrust of airport officers towards Muslims and the bigoted language, such as “towelhead” that is used to degrade Muslims. For the other two security guards further from the Muslim line, they are commenting with hateful statements about Muslims as well, and one is suspecting that the Muslim woman at the counter is “hiding a bomb in her scarf”, which shows again misperceptions about Muslims and unfair assumptions that Muslims are all associated with terrorist activities.  All of the security guards are also only facing the Muslim counter and are holding guns pointed towards the Muslims. Further, to show a comparison between the treatment of Muslims to others in the airport, or in America in general, I have written signs on each of the three desks. For US Citizens, the desk says “Welcome home!” and for visitors it says ”Enjoy your stay!”. However, the sign for Muslims says “We’ll be watching”, which is supposed to show the suspicion that the government unfairly places on Muslims, which in recent years, has extended to even hiring agents to pretend to be Muslim and join Muslim Student Associations at various colleges and universities. Thus, this comic shows the way Muslims after 9/11 are often perceived, without cause, as terrorists or evil people, and how this can be especially painful and isolating for Muslims who are singled out in many situations, such as when they are given extra security attention at the airport.

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Published in: |on May 2nd, 2016 |No Comments »

Week 5: The Ritual Drama of Ta’ziyeh

Medium: Colored Pencils

For my third art representation, I wanted to focus on aspects of the Ta’ziyeh, which is the ritual play popular in Iran that reenacts the martyrdom of Hussein. The play acts not only as a means of bringing together the community to mourn the death of Hussein but also as an act of remembrance of God, a Dhikr of sorts. However, the production of the play naturally overtime also lent itself to a degree commercialization, as noted in the reading by Chelkowski.  In the excerpt we read for section, Chelkowski notes that the Ta’ziyeh “became a commercial enterprise, centered not in the cities which at that time were given to imitating Western art forms, but rather in the rural areas” (Chelkowski 9). Though not explicitly discussed in this context by Chelkowski, one aspect of the Ta’ziyeh that seemed very prone to commercialization was the designing of costumes for the plays. Based on this, I decided to (attempt to) draw a fashion line of clothing relevant to the Ta’ziyeh based on the descriptions given by Chelkowski.  I used colored pencils  for my drawings because I wanted to use bright, bold and definitive colors to hopefully express, through the clothing of the Ta’ziyeh, the level of passion and emotion that is central to the play.  I used the description of the costumes given on pages 9 and 10 of the Chelkowski reading as the basis for my drawings. As Chelkowski notes, characters that are “good” wear costumes that have green and white. In contrast, characters that are “bad” are dressed in red clothing to symbolize their evil.  Gabriel is represented by the carrying of an umbrella to represent that he came down from heaven.  As protagonists, Hussein, Gabriel, and the mourning audience costumes are all in green and white to represent their goodness. In contrast, I colored the army’s costumes red to symbolize the evil of their actions.  I also made the costumes for the mourners and the army to look similar as to represent the fact that in many ta’ziyeh plays, the armymen and the mourners are roles both played by the audience.

 

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Published in: |on March 22nd, 2016 |No Comments »

Weeks 2 & 3: Visual and Auditory Experiences of Sacred Texts

Medium: Oral Recitation

As we have discussed throughout the semester, the aesthetic experiences of Islam are incredibly significant to spiritual practice and can be seen everywhere in the Muslim communities. This Spring Break, I happened to be traveling to the heart of Islam’s origins, Saudi Arabia. Spending time in both Makkah and Madinah, I got to experience the prevalence of Islamic expression all around me. From decals on cars to small signs and symbols in the windows of every shop, influences of Islam and its history in these cities was everywhere.  In weeks 2 and 3, we learned about two different aesthetic aspects of God’s word: sacred design through calligraphy and sacred sound through oral recitation.  For this piece, I decided to integrate the two. In the Masjid An-Nabawi in Madinah, which is also the resting place of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), calligraphy is seen all over the mosque. From lamps that have the shahada inscribed onto them to ornate ceiling designs that highlight verses from the Quran, the role of calligraphy is clear.  Some of the most beautiful calligraphy I got to see in the mosque was surrounding the Prophet’s grave. There is also lots of calligraphy across the entire Mihrab. Because photography is not allowed in the mosque, and the mihrab is essentially inaccessible to women, I found a photo of the Mihrab to use for the purposes of this project. I decided to pair the calligraphy on the Mihrab with my own attempts at practicing oral recitation, recording recitations of the verses and prayers inscribed along the archway of the Mihrab.

Here is a photo of the Mihrab itself, with the archway circled in red:

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Because of my Muslim background and my experience as a student of the Arabic language, I was able to read with Tartil without significant difficulty. However, engaging with Tajwid was much trickier for me. I read through this site to learn some of the rules of tajwid to use while reciting and listened to a few different recitations of the verses on the archway before attempting my own recitation.

The melding of visual and auditory experiences of the Quran allow for a holistic experience of faith. In fact, Muslims are able to experience this union at the mosque during each of the five prayers. While the recitation during the prayers does not necessarily mimic what is written on the surrounding walls, the atmosphere created by the calligraphy and other forms of religious art undoubtedly contribute to the sacred experience of praying within the Masjid An-Nabawi.

Photo source:

 https://holyhijaz.files.wordpress.com/20…

 

Published in: |on March 20th, 2016 |No Comments »

Week 1: God as the Creator

Medium: digital photography

In class, we learned about the omni-presence of Allah and the sacredness of His name. Professor Asani even mentioned spectacles of people coming to visit farms where the word “Allah” appeared on an animal”s fur or within the shape of their hooves.  The reverence for Allah in the Islamic tradition is clear and the relationship between Allah and his followers seems to permeate every aspect of life. Renard, in Seven Doors to Islam best stated, “Muslims believe that God has, since the beginning of time, actively communicated with and through all of creation in a variety of ways. Foremost, God communicates in the very act of creating, by suffusing the universe with divine signs” (Renard 2).

As someone who loves photography, I chose to use past photographs, as well as snapshots I took over the first few months of this semester as inspiration for this week’s work. I wanted to examine the idea of seeing God everywhere, and in everything. I decided to look through past photos to see if, with this new lens of viewing in mind, I could see “Allah” written in any of the surroundings I captured. I also went on a few walks and tried to see similar signs of the word “Allah”. The photos I have included here are some of my favorite iterations of finding “Allah”. I especially chose photos where I was able to see the name of God in natural settings because it reminded me of the connections between nature and God that we discussed in class. We talked about how nature is full of signs of God, and in some ways, are seen as daily examples of God’s miraculousness. I also found that these photos and ideas connected very largely to many of the 99 names of Allah, but based on the quote above, I most profoundly felt these photos and “seeing” God in nature connected with his name Al-Khaliq, which means The Creator.

In my three images, I found the word “Allah” masked in images of smoke, leaves, and rocks. As God is the Creator of everything, it is an incredible concept to be able to see his name in his own creations, almost like a divine signature of sorts. By engaging in this “Where’s Waldo”-esque search for the name “Allah” in my photographs and in nature, I was able to experience first-hand the Islamic concept of God’s omnipresence and understand the divinity of even simple, often overlooked aspects of creation.

Here are the three photographs, without the word “Allah” marked. See if you can spot the name of God yourself, or if can find a different one than I did!

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leaves

rocks

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I edited the three photos to mark where I saw the name “Allah” in each. Here is what I found:

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Published in: |on March 20th, 2016 |No Comments »