Insights into Islam

Just another Weblogs at Harvard site


Filed under: Uncategorized — jenmurphy813 at 9:48 pm on Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Upon entering the course, “For the Love of God and his Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslims Cultures”, I hoped to gain a foundational understanding of the Islamic religion and how its interpretation and practice has been shaped throughout history. By studying Islam through its art and literature, I was able to achieve this familiarity that I had wished for at the outset of the semester. As I reflected on my learning in order to create these blog posts, I decided to focus on aspects of the course that allow for discussion of the relative degrees of continuity and divergence within the faith. It was striking to me that despite the constant interaction between religion, history, politics, and cultural standards, which would inevitably lead to innumerable renditions of the Islam worldwide, some of the most important early Islamic, and even pre-Islamic traditions and beliefs have prevailed throughout the religion’s long history.

In particular, the rich history of poetry, which dates back to pre-Islamic times, has been maintained throughout recent times. In fact, three of my blog posts, “The End of an Era”, “Wine, Roses, and Nightingales, Oh My!”, and “They see the Simorgh-at themselves they stare”, are reflections upon a specific work or genre of Islamic poetry. Another continuity in the religion that illuminates the blog posts stems from the first. Accompanying this traditional emphasis on poetry is the prevalence of and appreciation for oral recitation. The lyricism of poetry makes it conducive to oral performances, but above anything, memorization and recitation of the Quran is the most highly valued. It is in this realm of worship that the true beauty of text and of the religion can be realized. Quran recitation is also unique because it allows both the performer and the listeners to connect deeply with the text. This aspect of continuity is especially relevant to the entry, “Interpretation of Quran Recitation through Movement”. Lastly, although interpretations of specific doctrines and principles within the religion have changed over time, I would argue that the foundation of religion, that of the perceived relationship between God and his followers has largely remained the same. God, who manifests himself in all living beings on earth, is still viewed as the ultimate source of light and guidance. The fundamental aspects of this relationship between man and God lie at the center of each blog post.

Despite these continuities throughout history, it would be an inaccurate representation of the religion to ignore the fact that as time progresses, an increasing number of interpretations of the religion can be found worldwide. Professor Asani refers to this phenomenon through the term, communities of interpretation, where each interpretation is shaped by the cultural, political, social, and economic forces of the region. It is this theme of diversity of interpretation that I discuss in my post, “Center versus Periphery Practices”. Holistically, I would like the reader of this blog to appreciate the ways in which Islam has maintained so many traditions and practices that are critical to its identity throughout the religion’s long history, while still making room for continuous evolution in interpretation.

The prevalence and importance of poetry throughout the history of Islam is an aspect of the course that I found particularly interesting and therefore placed a considerable emphasis on in my blog posts. In fact, his tradition of poetry in Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, outdates the religion itself. In pre-Islamic Arabia, poetry was the most cultivated art form and poets were admired and feared because they were believed to be connected with the spiritual world. Within the community, poets held the position of figureheads, filling the role of journalist, propaganda-maker, historian, and entertainer. At the outset, the original relationship between poetry and Islam was quite negative, with poets displaying extreme jealousy toward the Prophet because they saw him as their rival. Similar to poetry, the Qur’an is written in aesthetically beautiful verses that compel and move the listener. Poets even accused Muhammad of writing the Qur’an out of egotistical desire to gain recognition. Despite this initial tension, the poets ultimately supported Muhammad after taking the lead of acclaimed poet, Zuhayr. Since this early history, Islam has maintained an emphasis on religious expression through poetic verse.

My blog posts feature several different works or genres of poetry, each of which engages closely with the religion. For example, Iqbal’s works, “Complaint” and “Answer”, discuss the reasons for the fall of Islamic power during the early 20th century and the influx of colonial forces. Iqbal conveys his argument through poetic verse. This work is discussed in the entry, “End of an Era”. The ghazal is a genre of love poetry that I analyze through my post, “Wine, Roses, and Nightingales, oh My!”. This genre expresses an all-consuming love of God through rich imagery and symbolism. The final genre of poetry that I pull from in my posts is the Mathnawi, or narrative epic, “Conference of the Birds”. This is an extended allegorical work of poetry that discusses the relationship between God and man. These poetic works are significant because they demonstrate the continual emphasis on poetry throughout Islam’s long history. Furthermore, these religious poems are utilized in order to convey important religious ideas and questions that are at the core of the faith.

Another aspect of Islam that is central to the religion’s identity is the emphasis it places on recitation. Oral performance of the Qur’an is of such importance because that is the mechanism through which the word of God was transferred to Muhammad. For this reason, the act of listening to the Qur’an allows for a more authentic experience with the word and God. In her entry, “The Sound of the Divine”, Kristina Nelson explains the relationship between reading and hearing the Qur’an. She writes, “The ears hear more than the eyes see in the written text, and it is only in the sound that the miracle is realized,” (Nelson 258). By this she means when simply reading the text, a component of the message’s beauty is forced to go unnoticed. Furthermore, the act of recitation allows for a more intimate experience between the performer and the text. The former must interpret the message for him or herself and must draw upon their emotional reaction in order to give their performance life through rhythm and intonation. It is not only the reciter who benefits from this mode of religious practice, however. Nelson writes, “Like all great art, recitation can be transforming, the participants touched and changed,” (Nelson 259). Here, Nelson indicates that the listeners, too, have a unique experience when they listen to a recitation of the Qur’an. They are able to appreciate the message in a more profound way than by simply reading, as the aesthetic beauty of the performance adds an intangible layer of meaning. While it is true that poetry is frequently recited, allowing this theme to tangentially relate to each of the poetic entries, the post, “Interpreting Qur’an Recitation through Movement”, engages most closely with understanding the importance of recitation, as I dance to a recording of the Qur’an. This allows me, the listener, to have my own interpretive experience as I listen to the recitation, which, in turn, is another individual’s interpretation of the text.

The final theme of continuity that I wish to put forth as a lense through which to analyze these blog posts is the perceived relationship between God and his followers. God has always been seen as a source of illumination and it is believed that he passed this illumination to each of his prophets, in turn, concluding with Muhammad. In his work, “Seven Doors”, Renard describes this relationship between God, mortal prophets, and followers, saying, “God has established, moreover, a history of revelatory communication embodied in a succession of prophets, beginning with Adam. Through that unbroken chain of spokespersons, God has continued his self-revelation through another sign, namely, that of the verses of the scriptures given to the principal prophetic intermediaries,” (Renard 2). This idea of illumination and guidance through scripture is one that has gone unchanged throughout history, as the breakdown of this belief would likely bring the integrity of the religion itself into question. More specifically, this relationship between God and prophets, which I discuss more in my entry, “Prophetic Light”,  is one that has also held throughout time.

The relationship between God and man is shown to have a much more intimate aspect than is simply dictated through scripture and prophetic intermediaries, however. It is a widely-held and longstanding belief that God is present in all living beings and even maintains an exceptionally strong presence in nature. It is thought that revelation can be reached through both introspection, where one looks within himself to find God, as well as by observing nature and looking for ayat, or signs, of God within it. Renard elaborates on this idea when he says, “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. More intimately, God communes with each animated being by infusing those same signs into every individual,” (Renard 2). These conceptions regarding the relationship between man and God are applicable to each work that the blog posts discuss. When reading the analyses, it is important to ask how this relationship manifests itself in the work and if there are any questions raised regarding the nature of that bond. If the work does raise such questions, consider how the post discusses or responds to those questions.

While considerable continuity can be seen throughout the religion, I would be remiss if I did not also highlight the ways in which the religion has diverged since its creation. In Islam, the two primary sources of guidance are the first and foremost, the Qur’an, followed by the examples set by the Prophet Muhammad. However, these two sources are not exhaustive, leaving considerable room for interpretation, which is necessary whenever one must determine how the principles of Islam fit into daily life and society as a whole. Furthermore, these interpretations are undoubtedly shaped by the world in which each group or individual finds himself. Thus, Asani suggests the cultural studies approach as a way to both analyze and appreciate the multitude of interpretations of the religion. Asani writes, “If we change our analytical lens from the poetic to the sociopolitical, we can consider the interplay between historical contexts and ideologies, such as colonialism and nationalism, in shaping contemporary expressions of Islam,” (Asani 16). By taking these historical and cultural factors into account when considering a given interpretation of the religion, a more meaningful appreciation and understanding can be gained than if one instead sets out to determine one “true Islam”. This increased appreciation is also discussed by Asani, when he emphasizes that, “In the course of historical evolution, such a dazzling variety of interpretations, rituals, and practices have come to be associated with the faith of Islam,” (Asani 12). Thus, an individual is only enriched by considering this more complex view of the faith that has developed through history.

In sum, this blog is meant to illustrate both the dynamic and enduring aspects of Islam. By doing so, it is possible to gain insight into the traditions and beliefs that lie at the core of the faith. Among these, I encourage readers to consider the intimate relationship between God and his followers, the importance of oral tradition and recitation, as well as the emphasis placed on individual interpretation throughout history. I hope the entries of this blog help to entertain these ideas and questions. Thanks for visiting!





Works Cited

Asani, Ali S. Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam. Introduction-Chapter

  1. 2015.

Nelson, Kristina. Popular Expression of Religion: The Sound of the Divine in Daily Life.

Accessed Online.

Renard, John. 7 Doors. November 11, 2014. Accessed Online.

The End of an Era

Filed under: Uncategorized — jenmurphy813 at 3:39 pm on Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Standing (sort of sad-looking =/)sandcastles, representing the height of the Mughal Empire

Standing (sort of sad-looking =/)sandcastles, representing the height of the Mughal Empire

Knocked-down sandcastles, symbolizing the fall of the empire

Knocked-down sandcastles, symbolizing the fall of the empire

This post draws upon themes in  Iqbal’s “Complaint” and “Answer”. The first image depicts a sandcastle, which is representative of the Mughal Empire during its glory age. As Professor Asani discussed, grand architecture was characteristic of all three of the gunpowder empires, the Mughal, Ottoman and Safavid. Furthermore, each of these three empires used architecture as a method of differentiating themselves from other major powers. Thus, I chose to represent the themes of the work through architecture because it is such a pivotal symbol of the empire’s power. The sandcastle is destroyed in the second picture to represent the decay of Islamic empire and Islamic hegemony in the region, as well as to insinuate the coming of colonial rule. This is the historical backdrop of Iqbal’s work, as described in the A.J. Arberry introduction. Arberry writes, “The subject was, of course, no new one; ever since the decline and final extinction of the Moghul Empire, Muslims in India had been searching their minds and their consciences for the explanation of so lamentable a disaster,” (Arberry VI-VII). It is this quandary that Iqbal entertains, first writing “Complaint”, where he adopts the voice of the people, who are asking God why they are in such a state, and then writing in God’s voice, to offer an explanation in “Answer”.

The message of “Complaint” is that the Muslims of India feel unjustly targeted by this tide of misfortune. They hold that they are ardent followers of the faith and feel that God has failed them. They place heavy emphasis on the fact that they have spent their lives fighting in the name of God, saying, “All our lives we dedicated to the dire distress of war; When we died, we died exultant for the glory of Thy Name,” (Iqbal 9). They are so resolute in their belief that they have acted as model devotees, that their frustration at the downfall of Islamic dominance and the encroachment of colonial forces has manifested itself as anger with God. The “Answer” refutes the idea that Indian Muslims are as devout as they claim, with Iqbal using God’s voice to say that the population has been neglecting their religious duties such as prayer and giving alms to the poor. Instead, they have been relying on the piety of their ancestors up until now to maintain their power and comfort. Iqbal’s view of the peoples’ neglect of their religion is seen when he writes, “In your hearts, there is no ardour, in your spirits feelings none. As regards to the Prophet’s message, why, with that you’ve long since done. Now, if any stand to worship in the mosques, it is the poor,” (Iqbal 50-51). In his view, it is this abandonment of the proper practice of the religion that is causing this decline of empire. Although “Complaint” and “Answer” articulate contending views as to why the empire is collapsing, both center around this downfall, which is depicted in my art project through the collapse of the sandcastle.

Wine, Roses, and Nightingales, Oh My!

Filed under: Uncategorized — jenmurphy813 at 5:06 am on Tuesday, May 3, 2016









This wine bottle is decorated using symbols characteristic of the classic Persian ghazal. Symbolism plays a key role in this type of poetry, as it helps to convey the main themes of the work and also maintains a degree of ambiguity that is characteristic of the style. This ambiguity allows for multiple interpretations of the symbol, and of the work as a whole. Elizabeth Gray discusses many of these key symbols in her work, “The Green Sea of Heaven.”

I chose to decorate a wine bottle because wine is an especially prevalent symbol throughout the genre of ghazal poetry. Wine and alcohol, although taboo according to Islam, are viewed in a positive light in this type of poetry. Alcohol can be used to symbolically refer to both earthly and divine love, and also as a source of mystical wisdom. The use of this symbol allows love and wisdom to be viewed as intoxicating, where the drunkards are considered heroes. Gray writes on this matter, “It follows from this that the entire universe becomes a tavern fragrant with the wine of merciful Being; and all creatures, all the “drunken ones” of the tavern of the Magi, are like so many cups, and each of them receives, according to the capacity which is his lot, a drop of that delicious drink; and the drunkenness from that drink lasts until the resurrection,” (Gray 25). This shows that this intoxicating substance is life-sustaining and lasts until the individual’s death, much as one may expect a deep love to perpetuate.

Gray also discusses the prevalence of both the rose and the nightingale, saying that both became popular themes in the Persian courts around the same time (Gray 6). Both are present in one line of a Hafiz poem that Gray analyzes, when the former writes, “At dawn the nightingale spoke to the newly-risen rose:” (Hafiz 19). In this context, I interpret the nightingale to fill the role of the lover and the rose symbolizes the beloved. This lover-beloved relationship is a key element to many ghazals and is frequently used to describe the relationship between God and his believers. Many symbols are used to represent this relationship, including a moth and flame, which can also be seen on the bottle. Gray writes, “The Lover seeks union with the Beloved, to give up his soul to the Beloved, to become lost or annihilated in the Beloved as the moth is consumed by the flame to which it is attracted,” (Gray 9) in explanation of this symbolism. Professor Asani also discussed the presence of a third party that competes for the beloved’s affection in some poems, creating a sort of love triangle. This is represented on the bottle by the golden triangles. Together, these symbols aim to give the viewer an idea of how different symbols found in the Urdu ghazal interact and inform the reader on the relationship between God and the Muslim community.

They see the Simorgh – at themselves they stare

Filed under: Uncategorized — jenmurphy813 at 4:24 am on Tuesday, May 3, 2016






In this post, I discuss the way in which the flock of birds in Attar’s “Conference of the Birds” are illuminated by their journey. The birds are originally plagued by discontent and discord, and are in need of a leader who can resolve these issues. The hoopoe, who is the wisest of all the birds, suggests that they embark on a journey to find the Simorgh, an omniscient power who can enlighten and guide them. The hoopoe says, “Listen to me: I know of a King who has all the answers. We must go and find him.” The King that he refers to is the Simorgh and his lofty expectations are demonstrated by the idea that the Simorgh has all the answers. This perception changes, however, once a group of thirty birds finally reaches the mountain upon which the Simorgh dwells. Attar writes,

“And silently their shining Lord replies:

‘I am a mirror set before your eyes,

And all who come before my splendor see

Themselves, their own unique reality;

You came as thirty birds and therefore saw

These selfsame thirty birds, not less nor more;”.

This quotation is telling because it completely reconstructs the conception that the Simorgh will be the leader and the birds will simply be his followers. Rather, the King says that he is merely a reflection of the birds. Each of the birds has the power and illumination within himself to lead. This relationship between the Simorgh and the birds is symbolic of the relationship between God and his followers. Attar is expressing his belief that God is within all Muslims and in order to follow His word, they must become introspective and look within themselves.

This scene and revelation is what I decided to enter this project around. I made thirty origami birds to represent the thirty birds that successfully make the journey to the Simorgh. They are situated on a grassy garden, as one might expect to find in a heavenly place where the King would dwell. Furthermore, they are clustered around a mirror, which is representative of the Simorgh, as he shows the birds their reflections. The origami birds are seeing themselves in the reflection, as the birds in the story see themselves in the Simorgh, thus depicting the relationship between God and his  Muslim followers.


The Prophetic Light

Filed under: Uncategorized — jenmurphy813 at 10:50 am on Tuesday, March 22, 2016
The Prophetic Light; from Allah to Muhammad

The Prophetic Light; from Allah to Muhammad

This is a watercolor painting depicting the Prophetic Light. The top circle is the largest and represents Allah, or al-nur, the ultimate source of light. The light glows in the middle of the circle and radiates outward into the darkness. This radiance illuminates the world and provides a context through which people can understand it. The further you go from God’s light, the darker it becomes, symbolizing the lack of a clear path. Allah is not the sole source of light, however, and has passed it to each of his prophets in turn, starting with Adam and ending with Muhammad. In this painting, the succession of prophets is represented symbolically by descending circles of light. Since Muhammad is the last prophet, the last circle representative of him. This continuity of illuminating knowledge is represented by the extension of the alif in “Allah”, which entwines each successive prophet, ending with Muhammad. In Muhammad, Allah’s light is still present, as seen by the candle filling the bottom circle.

This idea of the prophetic light is seen in the images of Marie-Rose Seguy’s  “The Miraculous Journey of Mahomet.” These images depict the ascension of Muhammad, or the mi’raj. In this story, the prophets are all seated and Muhammad is leading them in prayer. Each prophet has a lamp by him and Professor Asani emphasized that this lamp is a symbol of the prophetic light that each possesses. It is this God-given light that is depicted in the ascension scene that justifies the message that each of the prophets delivered.

Center versus Periphery Practices

Filed under: Uncategorized — jenmurphy813 at 9:11 am on Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Center versus Periphery Collage

“Center” Practices

Drinking the Qur’an; a periphery practice

Depiction of the Prophet; a periphery practice

Ta’ziyeh; a periphery practice

A Chinese-Style Mosque


In this blog post, I will discuss the theme of center versus periphery practices in Islam. Section leader, Ceyhun, defined periphery practices as those that were observed by only a subset of the Muslim population. Center practices, on the other hand, are closer to the core of Islam and are therefore practiced by a larger number of Muslims. I placed examples of “center” practices in the yellow circle. The Qur’an assumes its rightful place in the center, as it is the keystone of the religion. It is surrounded by a lantern, symbolizing the idea that Allah is the source of illumination, the shahada, a map symbolizing pilgrimage to Mecca, accompanied by a picture of the ka’ba, an image symbolizing the zakat, the numbers 1-5, representing the 5 times a day one must pray to Mecca, and examples of classic arabesque. These practices and images are at the core of the faith and are recognized by the vast majority of Muslims.

However, it is not uncommon for those who identify with communities of interpretation closer to the “center” to cast a wary eye on peripheral practices, as some see them as impurities in the faith. This is seen in the El-Tom’s “Drinking the Qur’an:The Meaning of Quranic Verses in Berti Erasure.” El- Tom writes with scientific authority, as he assesses the practice of erasure, or drinking of Quranic verses in order to aid the drinker in an array of different circumstances, in African-Islamic cultures (El-Tom, 1985, p. 417). El-Tom defines erasure as a periphery practice at the outset, saying, “The drinking of Koranic verses seems to be widespread only on the periphery of the Islamic world,” (1985, p. 415). El-Tom’s distinction between what he refers to as “classical” (1985, p. 428) and what is periphery carries throughout the work. He says that the meaning of Qur’an verses is “assigned and imposed” (El-Tom, 1985, p.428) by the Berti, further casting doubt on the practice. These statements raise a host of questions. Who has the authority to determine what is peripheral and what is not? In other words, why is El-Tom able to make this judgement about another community of interpretation? Does this type of assessment place some communities above others in terms of validity? My opinion is that if a practice allows individuals to feel closer to God, its legitimacy may be defended.

This theme can be connected to ideas seen later in the course. Three more such ideas are represented on the poster. The Chinese-style mosque shows the blending of Chinese-style architecture with Islam. The Ta’ziyeh is a passion play depicting the death of Hussein that is observed ardently, but only in Iran. A small number of communities of interpretation allow for the depiction of religious figures, such as the Prophet himself, while most consider that idolatry.


Interpretation of Qur’an Recitation Through Movement

Filed under: Uncategorized — jenmurphy813 at 8:08 am on Tuesday, March 22, 2016

I chose to create a blog post about Qur’an recitation because oral engagement with scripture plays such an integral role in the Islamic religion and culture. Qur’an recitation is a widely recognized practice among many communities of interpretation. However, as Professor Asani demonstrated in lecture, different regions have distinct recitation styles. The universality of recitation made it a fitting topic for a blog post. Specifically, I decided to hone in on an analysis of the Sells 29 Surat Al-Qadr recitation through the lens of dance and Al-Ghazali’s theory, as is laid out in Quasem’s “External Rules of Qur’an Recitation.”

It makes sense to analyze the conventions of Qur’an recitation through dance because the underlying theme of personal interpretation runs throughout both of them. When one recites the Qur’an, he relies on his emotional experience with the text and interprets that it a performance of remarkable aesthetic beauty. When one dances, a similar relationship is seen, where the dancer must interpret the music in order to generate an authentic and engaging performance. By dancing to a recitation of the Qur’an, I was able to display the ways in which I was affected by the performance. I was able to react to the reciter’s interpretation of the Qur’an, which in turn inspired feelings inside of me that manifested itself in my movement. For further appreciation of the recitation, I find it helpful to consider the main convention set forth by Al-Ghazali.

Two of Al-Ghazali’s main points are that the beauty of the text cannot become lost and reading must take place in a manner that allows the meaning of the text to be absorbed. The beauty of the text is dictated by the style in which it is written, the sound of the words as speech, and the intonation of the reciter. This emphasis on reading out loud underscores the importance of viewing the Qur’an as an oral work, whose beauty and meaning lay as much in the sound of the text as they do in the words themselves. Intonation is meant to improve upon this beauty, as it highlights the important aesthetic elements of the reading to the listener. The manner in which the text is absorbed is also important. It is emphasized that the reader should read at a pace slow enough for the listeners to internalize the message. If not, listeners are not able to appreciate all that the text has to offer and will be unable to deeply ponder the recitation. If all of these conditions are met, the idea is that Qur’an recitation will be both beautiful and enriching (Quasem, 1979, p.34-55). 

The Sells 29 version of Surat Al-Qudr follows Al-Ghazali’s theory in that the style is slow and meditative. This allows listeners to both ponder the meaning of the surat, as well as admire its beauty. There is a continuity of tone and rhythm in the recitation, which I believe is responsible for this meditative quality. When considering how to interpret this recitation as movement, the continuity manifested itself in a circular/spiraling motif that is seen throughout the dance. Another aspect of the Sells 29 version of Surat Al-Qudr is the frequent pauses throughout the recitation. This allows for reflection on the words just recited, which is also in accordance with the Al-Ghazali theory. Whenever a pause would occur, the movement also pauses. This reflection may be directed toward God, which is shown in the dane as an upward gaze or open arms, or a more internal reflection, demonstrated by a recoiling of the arms.

Given that each recitation draws from personal experience with the text, each version of the same Surat will sound slightly different. If this dance had been performed to a different version of the Surat, a novel set of qualities would have manifested themselves in the movement.


Hello world!

Filed under: Uncategorized — jenmurphy813 at 5:05 am on Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Welcome to Weblogs at Harvard. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!