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.