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Portfolio Introductory Essay

As a student in Dr. Ali Asani’s course “For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures,” I have created six pieces of artwork in response to various readings we have done during the semester.  I have used many mediums to create these responses: collage, paint, fuse beads, pencil, clay, and poetry.  Several overarching themes from the course also inspired my work as I learned about them in lecture and readings.  The themes that have most captivated my intellectual and artistic attention (and which I will discuss further throughout this paper) include those of remembering God, contextualization for understanding Islam/islam, social justice, generosity, devotion to the Prophet Muhammad, God’s discernability through nature, and the role of symbolism in Islamic art, using familiar symbols in unfamiliar ways, theodicy, the Sufi critique of over-focusing on ritual, the contested role of women, and the theme of using poetry to challenge political contexts.

My method for responding to the readings in light of these themes was as follows: As I read through the various texts assigned to my peers and me, I took note of anything – image, concept, or phrase – that immediately grabbed my attention as something potentially expressed evocatively through artistic means.  At the end of the readings I would decide on which part of the text I would focus on, and would begin brainstorming about how to portray what that piece of text meant to me artistically.  It was particularly interesting to envision using different types of art forms to express these different textual responses.  In some ways, knowing that I had paint, clay, and fuse beads present, for example, influenced what I decided to make and even the content of the project.  In this way, responding to the written texts through art deepened my reflections on what I had read, and took my thoughts in new and productive directions which I would not have come to had it not been for these assignments and the mediums I had available.

My first project was a collage in response to reading Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam, and particularly responding to the story of Salimata within it (Asani 13).   One of the most interesting aspects of creating this response was discovering what sorts of images are associated with key words that came up in the text – giving, barrenness, marketplace, etc.  Noticing what images appeared most frequently online and comparing these to those which came naturally to my mind was an interesting project, and allowed me to see the close relationship between the freedom and restrictions that all art – written or image-based – can perpetuate.  This learning resonated with the theme we have been learning about in this course concerning the importance of contextualization for determining whose Islam/islam, whose practices, whose definition of Muslim/muslim we are addressing or learning about at any particular time.  Just as we, as scholars, must attend to the work of contextualization as we encounter Islam in the arts, as artists we take on the responsibility of contextualization in a different way, creating a new way of seeing something based on our own cultural, religious, and socioeconomic contexts, whether that is done consciously or unconsciously.

Themes which were important in this first project as well as in the course overall included social justice, generosity, and remembering God.  Social justice concerns often caught my eye in the readings, and this reading was no exception, especially since the story of Salimata raised questions which demonstrated the various perspectives with which Muslims can address issues of social justice.  Generosity was also a major theme in our course, as we learned about zakat, as we read The Beggar’s Strike, and as we considered the mosque as a community center and its tendency to house soup kitchens.  Finally, the theme in the Qur’an of remembering God was one of the most personally fascinating topics which we learned about this semester.  The practical focus of remembering God through ritual practices and the more mystical notions of remembering God in nature – such as in The Conference of the Birds or The Color of Paradise – captured my imagination as the goal for one’s religious life and spiritual life.

My second response was a painting reflecting on poetry venerating the Prophet in the article “In Praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu Poems.”  In reference to the poem “Khalil,” I attempted to represent what I found to be a particularly beautiful segment expressing how for many people praise can seemingly arise from nature.  The themes that were most prominent for this response and which related to those characterizing the course more broadly include devotion to the Prophet Muhammad, God’s discernible presence in nature, and the role of symbolism in Islamic art.  Devotion to the Prophet can be expressed in myriad forms, sometimes as love poetry, singing, or paintings.  Many of these expressions can be controversial, since people understand devotion to Muhammad to imply and bring forth great passion which some question in terms of idolatry and others for its sexual appropriateness.  The Qur’an’s assertion that nature has signs (ayat) testifying to God means has inspired a long tradition of discerning those signs – from plant life, animal life, geographic terrain, and more.  The symbolism of the rose, of blooming flowers, of mockingbirds, of rivers, and so many other natural phenomena are all associated with what it means to submit to the One God whom the Prophet proclaimed.  This symbolism creates powerful religious language that joins with the already powerful language of the Qur’an, spurring artistic expression as Muslims everywhere interpret and express their views of the world around them.

My third creative response was based on a section from Renard’s book Seven Doors to Islam.  For this project, I chose to use fuse beads to depict several powerful symbols which Renard explains in his chapter – the moth (a lover of God) being drawn to the flame of the beloved (God’s beauty), and paradise as a beautiful garden.  The themes which influenced this project most were the tendency of artists to portray familiar symbols in slightly unfamiliar ways and the role of the Qur’an as an instigator of artistic expression of religious ideas.  The former theme arose the two symbolic metaphors seemed to be related; a believer is drawn to God, but also to paradise, and love is a critical means for truly communing with God.  Love is also something with Rabia, a famous mystic, is said to have privileged over any other religious goal – heaven and hell included.  As these compelling symbols were both expressed in the Renard’s work, I combined them in a way that made sense to me, which resulted (as all art does) in a particular interpretation of a religious concept.  The Qur’an offers symbols and images itself, and its sacredness and beauty have long made it a centerpiece of Islamic art both through recitation and in calligraphy, in which form it adorns buildings, the Ka’aba, clothing, and many other everyday as well as religiously significant objects.

My fourth creative response was a pencil-sketch based on a powerful set of images in the midst of Iqbal’s poem “Shikwa.”  I played around with setting this response up like a comic strip, drawing several “scenes” which were connected to each other in four consecutive lines addressed to the hearts (of Muslims) reading this poem.  The themes featuring most prominently in this creative response were theodicy, how to interpret power or lack thereof as a religious community, and symbolism as a language around which Muslim readers could connect within a poetic context.  Theodicy was the impetus for this poem, bringing to the surface a believer’s grappling with why bad things were happening to apparently good people, and beyond that, faithful Muslim people.  We discussed frequently in class the long-held belief that developed with Sunni Islam that political favor and power were indicative of God’s favor, whereas Shia Islam (with Karbala as a major event and symbol marking its beginning) had a deep sense of suffering as something which God helps a people to overcome.  I took up these themes by using personification and symbolism to depict lines from Iqbal’s poetry, hoping to create room for focused reflection on just a little piece of what he uses this poem to suggest, ask, and summon Muslims to do.  By taking a single piece of paper, a single poem, and depicting four separate scenes where “hearts” are told to do four different things, I bring a new perspective to Iqbal’s call to unity in Islam.  From this unique perspective, ideally those who look at this sketch can consider what it would mean to have their hearts obey Iqbal’s words.

In my fifth creative response, I used clay to create a scene from Farid ud-din Attar The Conference of the Birds.  This project was exciting because I was really able to expand my art into a three-dimensional space, though conceptualizing how to do so entailed a lot of time.  The themes from our course which affected and shaped this project concerned Sufi critiques of ritual practice in Islam, the practice of following a Shaykh, and the goal of moving away from egocentrism to God-centrism.  The need to follow God in ways motivated by love rather than habit or fear came up frequently as we studied Sufism this semester, as did the mixed reactions Muslims have concerning the “Five Pillars of Islam” – some accepting these later historical developments of the tradition as a unifying component, and others rejecting them for their arguably restrictive focus and late development.  In The Beggar’s Strike, in some of the film clips we watched in class, and in this work by Attar we see what it is like to follow a Shaykh, where the relationship can be influenced by material gifts and an exchange of services, but also lifelong teaching bonds and a sense of how much the seeker needs the Shaykh in order to progress on her or his spiritual path.  Finally, the idea of losing focus on oneself and instead focusing on God alone was a beautiful and compelling concept in this work and in our discussions during lecture this semester.  The fact that the birds, at the end of this work, see the Simurgh in themselves after much journeying and teaching from the hoopoe is a significant parallel to the goal of a Sufi Muslim.

In the sixth and final creative response that I constructed, I wrote a poem after having read “Sultana’s Dream” by Rokeya Hossain.  This reading touched on several themes important to our course, including the contested role of women in Islam, questions of equality versus control (based on any number of justifications), and the theme of using an artistic form of writing as a powerful means to challenge politics and policies.  We discussed in more than one class session how women tend to be focused on as a way of gauging the influence and hold of Islamic ideals in certain countries – whether or not such a focus actually yields a good indication of whatever these may be in any given context.  In my poem, I take up the issue of women’s inequality, which I engage in personally as a feminist, and write trying to use a voice as similar as I can to the main character in Hossain’s short story.  I use tools such as form, a repeating refrain, and free verse to convey the powerful ways in which context shapes what can compel us to examine our assumptions and political/religious situations.  In using tools appropriate to my own situation and context, I attempt to use art to expand on the very themes that Hossain so admirably raises in her work over one hundred years ago.

Working on these creative responses to the reading assigned during this semester has been an extremely exciting, helpful, and productive experience for me in terms of learning and creativity.  I know that I will remember many of these works for years to come simply because I was able to take up concepts that truly resonated with me, think about how they relate to the issues most important to the text overall, and portray them artistically through projects that were both fun and meaningful.

Response to “Sultana’s Dream”

Walk With Me

A poem.

 

Waking or sleeping

I know not.

Only that with someone I know and trust am I walking.

Dare I walk in the open with you, friend?  My sister?

The moon shines bright as my spirits rise

and trusting, I emerge.

Suddenly, change.

No moon, but sunshine glinting off a setting that is

less

and less

and less

familiar,

yet more,

and more,

and more my own.

Even you, my friend, my sister, are different.

Even you, my friend, my sister,

slip away in the moonlight

and are not the same in the sunlight.

Yet you remain

even so

My friend.  My sister.

Walk with me, sister, into the town.  Over the paradise of flower carpeted hills

and break not a petal

not a leaf maim.

It’s incredible.

We are amidst beauty and are unscathed and unscathing,

safe and making safety.

No destruction in our footprints.

No fear in our hearts.

Walk with me through Ladyland, my friend, my sister,

and teach me what

makes sense;

teach me the customs

of peace.

And I will wake up

awakened

and thanking you

my sister.

 

After reading “Sultana’s Dream,” by Rokeya Hossain, I wrote this poem focusing on the main character’s experience at the beginning of the narrative.  I picked up the themes of questioning women’s cloistering, and expressed them somewhat indirectly, using the refrain “my friend, my sister” as a hopefully powerful way to talk about the bonds of womanhood.  I also linked the detail about the flowers underfoot which were not hurt by the path of these women as a metaphor for the idea that women tend to be less violent to those around them – which Hossain points out as a reason that men should be kept indoors and women allowed to roam freely.  If, as Hossain suggests, men are like tigers, then the solution is not to let the tigers roam free and lock up the ones they might hurt (the women), but to in fact do the opposite.  I also had the speaker of the poem ask her friend to teach her what “makes sense” in reference to the lines in “Sultana’s Dream” which use the analogy of an asylum to show the ridiculousness of hiding women away when men are often the ones doing damage.  I also wove images of paradise into the poem (detailing the vegetation, which Hossain herself highlights in the narrative), hoping that the idyllic scenes could be connected to ideas about how society should be, but also to how paradise promises to be.

The form of the poem is meant to be evocative, and the indentations and various alignments are intended to go along with the content of change, drawing attention to form and content as symbiotic.

Response to “The Conference of the Birds”

In response to Farid ud-din Attar The Conference of the Birds, I made the duck and the hoopoe out of modeling clay.  I painted the duck to look like a mallard, with a green head and  neck, gray, black, and white shades on his wings and feathers, and a brownish red color on his body.  The hoopoe is painted with a gray beak with a black tip; has feathers, wings, a lower body, and feathers protruding from its head that have black and white stripes.  In order to set the scene wherein a reader encounters these birds, I surrounded the duck with clay pieces painted blue to symbolize water, re-creating the scene where the duck protests that he is quite pious, since he lives in and loves water, thereby performing ablutions fairly constantly.  The hoopoe chides him for being too wrapped up in ritual practices rather than focusing on the path to God-centrism, saying,

 

“You value water’s purity, you say, /But is your life as pure as you declare?” (Attar 21 from http://sufibooks.info/Sufism/The_Confere…).

 

The hoopoe is resting on a log made of cardboard as he addresses the duck, who is in the water.  The hoopoe and duck are a pivotal example for Sufi though about the need for a Shaykh and for seeking experiential and esoteric knowledge (marifa) over learned knowledge (‘ilm).  The hoopoe is the Shaykh in Attar’s poem, and the duck is one of many who learn from him and follow him to encounter the Simurgh (i.e. God).

 

Response to “The Complaint”

           

             I decided to make a pencil sketch based on a powerful set of related images in the midst of Iqbal’s poem “Shikwa” (“The Complaint”).  These images all refer to personified hearts, who are responsive to the political and social state of Islam and of contemporary Muslims. The passage I work from is as follows:

 

“Break, hard hearts, to hear the carol

of this nightingale forlorn;

Wake, dull hearts, to heed the clamour

and the clangour of this bell;

Rise, dead hearts, by this new com-

pact of fidelity reborn;

Thirst, dry hearts, for the old vintage

whose sweet tang you knew so well” (Iqbal 33).

 

The sketch is divided up into four squares, and proceeds as a comic strip might, left to right, top to bottom.  In the first scene I drew several broken hearts,  and a nightingale singing mournfully (as the tears and music notes convey).  The nightingale, of course, is a Sufi symbol often used in ghazals to symbolize the lover of God, singing with joy at the beauty of the rose, which symbolizes the beloved.  The nightingale is perched on a barren tree atop a grassy hill, to signify the fact that although this place is capable of nurturing beautiful vegetation, it is not blooming at its potential.  This idea in the poem is paradigmatic of the Muslim people’s longing for the power and beauty of paradise , and God’s clear presence to be with them on earth.  Yet the poem laments that this is not their current situation.

The second scene is of hearts waking up to the sound of a tolling bell.  I curve the hearts in an upward arc, each with a facial expression indicating increasing alertness.  The idea expressed is that Muslims are called to become more aware of the change in their situation and the need to respond through prayer, reflection, and action (as this poem models and urges).

The third scene depicts hearts arising like spirits from a grave, and a scroll with plume and ink float in the upper right hand corner of this box to symbolize the “new compact” Iqbal solicits.  Deadness, in Iqbal’s estimation, comes from inaction, whereas faithfulness to God requires a living, active faith.  Finally, the fourth scene is of hearts gathering around a wind glass, thirsting for a drink with open mouths.  The bottle and wine glass symbolize what Iqbal calls “the old vintage…you knew so well,” which indicates the Sufi notion of God’s intoxicating appeal and effect on a lover of God.

 

Moths and Entering the Garden

 

 

Based on the Renard reading we had for this week in Seven Doors to Islam, I combined two themes that were particularly intriguing to me and which had to do with prominent symbols used in Islamic art.  The first of these themes is the Quranic verse 16:32 “Peace unto you; come into the garden on the strength of what you have done” (Renard 133).  The second is the symbol of a moth drawn irresistibly to a flame, as a human can be drawn to divine love (Renard 138).  I used fuse beads to make seven figures.  Six of these figures were images of the vegetation of the garden, which signifies paradise, or the realm of God.  Three of these were in the shape of hearts, and three others were simply squares.  I arranged these figures into two vertical columns, and used construction paper to make them look like a large candle when seen all together.  Thus, paradise and divine love were depicted together, and God’s magnificent, loving presence was symbolized.

The seventh figure was of a person riding on a moth.  Since the Quranic verse urged one to come into the garden by virtue of one’s actions, and an overwhelming love for God can be seen as one of the greatest acts of submission people are capable of, the symbolism seemed fitting.  Also, the fuse beads under the moth are all green, which is often a symbol for prophethood; I chose to do this because of the theological idea that one ought to imitate the phrophets and the sunna of Muhammad to know the actions God favors.  Therefore, the moth is literally supported by the green of prophet-likeness.  This figure is flying toward the candle.

Response to an Urdu Poem in “In Praise of Muhammad.”

 

 

In response to reading some of the poetry venerating the Prophet in the article “In Praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu Poems,” I painted a picture of some of the opening images in a poem entitled “Khalil.”  This poem comes in the context where the article is providing examples of the many ways that people express their love of and devotion to the prophet as one beloved of God and of people – and especially the honor shown Muhammad on the day of his birth.  Taking the first few lines of the poem as my cue, I rendered the “morning breeze” by painting wave like lines of blue and yellow through the middle and upper section of the paper., and making orange lines and dots to stream in from the upper left-hand corner, as if that was where the sun was beaming (Asani 176).  The narrator asks of this breeze, “[w]hat good news do you bear that every bud is blossoming?” and hence I painted a cluster of purple flowers in full bloom in the bottom left corner of the page.  In response to “Here the tulip flutters, there the basil quivers,” I painted pink tulips next to the aforementioned blossoms, and basil next to the tulips, with lines surrounding both to indicate the movement being described (Asani 176).


          Next, I used puff paint to write the exclamations which the poet uses to describe the aural qualities of this already beautiful visual scene-setting; the narrator says, “From somewhere else rises the exclamation, ‘Glory be to our Lord,’” and so I used the paint to write this phrase rising diagonally on the paper (Asani 176).  The narrator continues by saying that “elsewhere there is the roar, ‘Blessings be upon him!’, and so next to the other phrase, I used the puff pain to inscribe this too, writing each successive word slightly bigger than the last to indicate a roaring sound (Asani 176).  The final touch was to paint a southing peach color in the remaining empty space, pulling the picture together with a calming effect.  My hope is that this painting captures some of the joy, anticipation, and praise that the poet’s words lend to the scene while describing the advent of the Prophet’s birth.

Response to “Infidel of Love” Reading

 

I decided to create a collage in response to reading Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam, and particularly responding to the story of Salimata on page 13.  Salimata’s story comes up as a way of beginning a discussion on social justice and its important role in Islamic thought.  I was intrigued by the layering of images used in this brief story, and also by the fact that “[a]lthough many Muslims would question the motivations underlying Salimata’s acts of generosity,” this story is one which employs many important Islamic ideas (e.g. the pursuit of righteousness, generosity, and gratitude) (Asani 13).  As this story and so many in this chapter demonstrate, the ideals of Islam are drawn from the Qur’an, which urges humanity to remember God always, and to practice regular generosity in giving the zakat.  Yet many interpretations of the Qur’an are possible, as this text and its acceptance by some as praiseworthy and others as raising theological questions exemplifies.

I decided to split the collage into two segments, one a rough diagonal covering the upper right of the paper, and the other surrounding the lower left side.  A jagged brown line marks the sections, and symbolizes a sort of banquet table, in reference to Salimata’s cry, “‘Come, all of you! here! Eat!’” (Asani 13).  On the table (the upper-right section) are various images from the story: a symbol of barrenness, showing a stone with an empty circle in the middle like that of an empty womb; a fruit-filled heart for fruitfulness, a singing bird for the compelling image of Salimata’s laughter being like this creature’s “shining throat;” a person offering rice to symbolize giving and sacrificing; a food pyramid symbolizing health; smiling faces for happiness; a baby’s feet for barrenness transformed to fruitfulness; peace symbols; and bags containing “Lots of coins!” (Asani 13).  At the table as guests, surrounding Salimata (who is in the bottom left-hand corner) are Allah, who she knows to be with her as a result of her good fortune that day; the sorcerer who at any moment she could encounter in her acts of giving; and others from the market place that she invites to eat with her.

I chose to use images from Google for this collage, as it always fascinates me to see what images appear first for particular phrases or words.  I was pleased with what I found, and was able to locate images that resonated with my sense of the story as I pictured the images that it raised.  The references for these images I include below:

 

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