Johannah Murphy's Blog

Just another Weblogs at Harvard Law School site

Introductory Essay


I have always been entranced with art as a way of opening up a different and innovative type of space. A space that no matter what, prompts one to be more creative, more open, and more apt to delve into and find truths whether spiritual or not. In one of our sections this past semester, we discussed the art form of the Ta’ziyeh, a theater art piece, or Passion Play depicting the story of Hassan and Hussein. The idea came up during our discussion of “art as a gateway to revelation,” art as a way of accessing spaces, as a way to access our imagination in a way that can be revelatory. Throughout this course we have delved into the cultures, practices, art, and societies of Islam using the Cultural Studies Approach. Diane L. Moore when describing the Cultural Studies Approach articulates how this method


is multi and inter-disciplinary and recognizes how political, economic, and cultural lenses are fundamentally entwined rather than discrete. This approach assumes, for example, that economic or political dimensions of human experience cannot be accurately understood without understanding the religious and other ideological influences that shape the cultural context out of which particular political or economic actions and motivations arise. (Moore, Diane L.



This definition brings up questions of how does one develop this lens that incorporates the political, economic, and cultural? How is one prompted to see through this lens? And how can one fully see the way “the religious and other ideological influences” shape these cultural contexts? Often, it is difficult for one to understand the how’s and why’s of how concepts such as culture, politics, and religion intersect. One way to begin to see these intersections in full, is to view them not only through art, but through the actual process of creating art. It is by creating that one has the opportunity to experience something revelatory in religion, even in a religion not one’s own.

This type of experience allows one to unlock creative parts of the mind that can become more open to experiencing how different contexts overlap. It also allows one a revelatory experience outside of their own religion, building a solid, stable ground for a true acceptance of other traditions that moves all to a space beyond tolerance.

My blog revolves around the theme of looking for revelation in different areas of Islam, through the act of creating art. These areas include Calligraphy, one’s relationship with Muhammad, the idea of “intoxication” within worship and theology, one’s relationship with Allah, the role of poetry in Islam, and the Ta’ziyeh.

The first post addresses an attempt to understand Allah as “all knowing” and “omnipresent,” while also investigating the importance of calligraphy. Through working on this collaged piece, I worked to find a way to relate to the feeling of knowing an omnipresent God. In this process I realized that for me, getting to know a God that is omnipresent, is learning to know a God that holds you, a God in which you feel held. I began this piece with the concept of wanting to portray the attempt to feel God in everything by showing hands both holding and trying to hold pieces of the world, pieces of Allah. After I had completed the piece I realized that in my effort to show this “grasp for God,” I had found in part how I grasp this idea conceptually and how for me being held is in part wanting to know a God in all, that if felt, would hold. This was my first entryway into thinking about Islam, not just as a religion or faith to be studied, but a faith to be felt, a faith to be experienced through art and possibly through an artistic gateway.

The next work shown on the blog is a response to the painting “Allegory of Drunkenness.” It explores questions of spiritual drunkenness, the want to be full, and spiritual practice. I find that a common misperception of many religions is that inherent in them is a certain “staticness,” a clinging to old and outdated views and beliefs that are always perceived as almost Puritan in nature, regardless of their affiliations to Christianity and the actual Puritans. I choose to respond to this art piece, as it demonstrates an almost insane motion of drunkenness. I experimented with this motion by putting it into a different scape, trying to place “drunken spirituality,” in another context to understand it better. I describe the viewing process in my blog “As both a viewer and reader of this painting, one can see the “spiritual transformation,” the idea of developing awakened love, and how all of this revelation is often only visible when “intoxicated.” In an attempt to feel this transformation, in an attempt to “artistically intoxicate,” I created this piece by changing the scape of a tall house to a bodyscape, a headshot almost.” This process allowed me a tiny start to building an artistic gateway, building and creating art with Islamic thought and influence in a context of my own.

In the next blog entry I talk of how “This art piece seeks to simultaneously explore one’s relationship to Muhammad as a yearned for beloved and Muhammad as prophet.” Not only does this piece explore the relationship mentioned above, but also my relationship to an idea of a “prophet.” Growing up in a Unitarian Universalist context, it’s difficult for me to fully understand the idea of a religious prophet. Part of my want to access revelation, is a want to see the revelation that others see. For many practitioners of Islam the prophet Muhammad holds great importance as a “revealer,” as one that has heard from and has been spoken to by God. Part of me is jealous of those who believe in, who have prophets. God for all is difficult to access, but to have a prophet provides a concrete, familiar, access point to God. This art piece though I didn’t recognize it at first, not only represents a general want for and search for a prophet, but my own personal want and search for a prophet. Here as well, the assistance of text, or taking hadiths briefly out of contexts and using them in an artistic context, allows for a construction, and a visualization of artistic gateways, a way into feeling, at least in pieces, part of Islam.

The next entry focuses on building this gateway via an examination of calligraphy and its both artistic and spiritual components. Calligraphy as I discuss in this entry is described in the context of Islam as “not only as a form that restructures visualization of a language, but as a art form that has a rhythm and that is in motion as it creates a image from a letter.” Again, though perhaps not consciously, I tackle another component of Islam that some, not all, see as a spiritual and important aspect to their faith and spirituality. Struggling with locating the possible meaning of calligraphy in my own context I work to create an art piece that opens an overlap of worlds in which one can begin to see calligraphy in not only its immediate aesthetic beauty, but in a beauty that transcends the worldly. In this piece I attempt to give “the text a physical motion that not only is represented in the mobility of the strung up flowers, but also in their motion of possibility as they give the idea that they could unfurl more, the possibility that they might bloom. Here, the flowers represent the beauty and mobility of the calligraphy instead of giving the text the beauty and flow of calligraphic design, I have given it flowers.”

The next entry focuses on the literary work of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and the insight to be gained through this piece of art. Even if I do not consider myself to be part of the population that discriminated against and nourished hatred and anger during and post the events of 9/11, there is a difference between being sympathetic and truly garnering sympathy. Though there were times after September 11th when the stories I heard attempted to draw out empathy, but left me feeling more sympathetic. There is however, a difference between feeling empathetic and sympathetic. Often, people talk about empathy being a form of sympathy with more of an understanding attached, a greater ability to share in someone’s loss or pain as opposed to just feel bad for them. Garnering empathy is feeling not regretful for someone, but feeling awful or possibly regretful with them.

With the understanding that it is difficult to feel empathy in full for someone who has had a experience one has not experienced themselves, I do think that often people come close to feeling empathic in situations outside of their own, when they are allowed a space to attempt to feel another’s suffering. Often when art or story is coupled with a story of someone else’s pain, the outsider has a better chance of feeling a part of something, or at least seeing the view a bit differently. This art piece explores my experience with trying to and wanting to be empathetic in the context of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

The second to last blog entry focuses on a public art piece still in progress. This piece again engages with the theme of art not only as a gateway, but a way of accessing space for productive ways of seeing Islam, and a productive way of talking. The public art piece stands as both a personal piece of art, yet engages with the wider community. The piece centers on the idea of a whirling dervish whirling in order to launch oneself from sleep away from the self, away from attachment, to a space of the divine. This piece engages with the poetry of Rumi and the whirling dervish to “launch” not only the artist herself, but to launch others in the outside community.

            The next blog post has a similar theme of exploring the idea of empathy in the context of the statement of “what I would like others to know…” in reference to the concepts and materials covered in this class. As one of the realms I operate in, is one of an aspiring minister, I constructed a service that focuses on the idea of Ta’ziyeh as a possible space for building empathy and as a performance that creates space in which to step outside oneself and experience not only another culture, but another way of being. Though many Unitarian Universalists consider themselves to be tolerant and accepting of different cultures as both individuals and communities, we are of course as fallible to intolerance as anyone else. Just because most UU’s pride themselves as being part of a “liberal” tradition, as part of a culture that as a whole has grown up in a middle-upper class racially white U.S. context, we are not automatically transformed into a group with no racist ideals or beliefs, in fact we as a group have many.

The service outlined in the blog post harkens back to the idea of building true empathy and understanding in a construction of art as a gateway. Traditionally, many UU ministers border on the line of cultural appropriation when they pick from different traditions what is most useful to them at the time of their Sunday morning sermon. Few services revolve around one religion outside of a Judeo-Christian context, though other religious thoughts, words, and scriptures are often just thrown into the mix of any sermon if the content is “relevant”. The service outlined in the post focuses on building a space to simulate a Ta’ziyeh as a way to open up a space of radical empathy. The Ta’ziyeh opens up space not only for a dramatic performance between an audience and actors, but a space where that very line is blurred. The service is structured with the goals of: 1.) Allowing participants to step outside their comfort zones and to actively participate in the service, 2.) Creating a space for one aspect of a varied and complex religious tradition to be experienced, 3.) Developing a radical empathy in a familiar context.

As is true in the context of many Ta’ziyeh dramas, the congregants will be asked to bring refreshments and there will three groups that will work prior to the performance practicing parts of the play that they choose and then make their own, in an attempt to achieve the feel articulated by Peter J. Chelkowski of “There are no barriers of time and space.” (9) The pieces performed by the congregants will be interspersed with musical pieces as well as a homily on empathy. The homily not only points to an empathy that arrives when there is suffering, but an empathy that unites people on the basis of all of our suffering, and from this place prepares us to love and support those who are different or who move in different worlds, when they suffer or when we do.

All of these pieces revolve around the concept of developing understanding of another religion not only through the different spheres and art forms it operates in and is shown within, but through the construction of an artistic gateway. A gateway that all of us in one way or another build, whether we choose to acknowledge it. When we see the gateways that we build, we can choose how we build them and delve in with a want to understand all the beauty that goes on around us and moves between and within us.

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