Introduction

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Throughout the course we have covered major themes that have sought to bring to light the different conceptualizations of Islam across different communities. These include poetic and musical traditions, drama, places and styles of worship, and the role of Islam in everyday life. Most interesting to observe has been the melding of ‘traditional’ Islamic doctrine, ideas drawn directly from the Quran and the Hadith, with local cultural traditions. Thus the emergence of the Ghazal in South Asia as a form of expression of Islamic ideas, and Hip-Hop in the US for example have indeed portrayed Islam as a universally adoptable tradition. Because it is the religion of so many distinct cultural groups in some form or another, and each group claims ownership of its practices and preaching’s, the big take away from this course, and what is a theme of some of my works in my portfolio is the inability to define a standard set of Islamic practices. Despite this diversity, it is indeed a beautiful thing that distinct cultures can still worship and recognize one and the same God, representing an overarching unity among these different traditions. My portfolio therefore strives to present as diverse a representation of Islam as possible, yet at the same time drawing on universal ideas of Islam such as God as love or God as light, and the story of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).  By doing so I sought to experience first hand different acts of religious practices because only by this experience would I get a true appreciation of the depth of human creativity, cultural diversity and love of God.

This portfolio of works consists of six pieces drawn from different cultures. The first piece is a visual representation of the seven Heavens as described by Muhammad during the Mi’raj drawn from the Quran and Hadith. The second is a musical rendition of the Ta’ziyeh, which is a traditional Iranian drama performed annually that depicts the martyrdom of Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, on the fields of Karbala on his way to Mecca. The third piece is a poem, written in no particular style representative of an Islamic culture, but tries to capture the essence of the Islamic faith by drawing heavily on the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. The fourth piece is a Hip-Hop/rap song set to the lyrics of a Ghazal, drawing from to distinctly different but still Islamic cultures to produce something interesting. The fifth piece is a mosaic of different face signifying the different cultures that represent Islam. This is representing the many faces of Islam that has been a major theme in the course. The final piece in my portfolio is a musical piece set to the theme of a Sufi poem. This piece depicts the intensity of love exemplified by the Sufi mystics and described in their works of poetry. These pieces therefore span the major themes brought up in the class, the nature of God, the beliefs of the Muslim, the love of God and the believer and the message of the Quran and Hadith. Each aspect however is looked at from the point of view of a unique culture, or in the case of the Ghazal set to Hip-Hop, from the intersection of two cultures and therefore adds variety to the entire set of works.

In the rest of this introduction, I will proceed to discuss in more depth the themes, the unique cultural perspective and the unique form of expression that accompanies each piece. I will conclude by relating each piece and theme to an overall idea that encapsulates the portfolio. A majority of the pieces however also come from a deeply personal perspective, shaped by my own experiences and beliefs, but in engaging with the topics and themes of the class, I endeavoured to separate myself from prior knowledge and engage in the material from an experiential point of view.

The first piece is a visual representation of the Miraj as described in a volume entitled ‘The Myths and Legends of the Swahili’. The Mi’raj and Isra are the two legs of prophet Muhammad’s night journey on the mythical Buraq. The first leg, the Isra, took him to Jerusalem to the Al-Aqsa mosque. In the second leg, Buraq carries Muhammad to the heavens where he is in the midst of angels and all the prophets that preceded him. In this particular version, the description of the seven heavens is so vivid and powerful, that I was drawn to the visual approach to try and represent it.  In this depiction of the Mi’raj as well we see cultural traditions infused with accounts from the Hadith. What the painting is trying to do therefore is to depict the seven heavens and the prophets from the point of view of the Swahili people. From their account, we get very detailed descriptions of the prophets that correspond with their accounts in the Quran. Limited to mostly colour in the painting, I tried to bring out these revealed personalities as best I could. The general brightness of the colours used tries to bring out how vivid the description of the journey was. All the prophets have some element of yellow as well for example, representing light, because there is said to be a prophetic light that was passed to every prophet, with Muhammad receiving the greatest amount. The most prominent theme of this painting in relation to the course is the primary role accounts in the Quran and hadith play in different traditions, and the manner in which these accounts are acclimatized to the local context.

The second work is a poem entitled ‘A call to prayer.’ Although I did not write it with any particular style in mind, due to its rhyming couplets it bears greatest similarity with the masnawi epic poem, though much shorter. The poem, as the title suggest draws from the Muslim call to prayer, the Adhan and in particular the Sunni version, which I was drawn to because in a nutshell it declares the Muslim’s faith and at once commands attention and authority. It is also perhaps one of the most visible elements of Islamic tradition as it can generally be heard coming from mosques even in predominantly non-Islamic areas. The poem therefore attempts to expand on the lines of the Adhan but drawing on Quranic sources and others that describe the nature of God as well as the believer’s relationship to God. For example the poem talks about God as the greatest and only love in the universe, as well as drawing on the idea that all creations are in constant praise of God. Relating this poem to the themes covered in the course, the main idea that inspired it was the fundamental nature and practice of Muslim faith, and how it can be seen as more than ritual, but as drawing from very deep and extensive traditions and ideas that can be found in various aspects of Muslim life. Furthermore, the poem takes a step back from the beauty of looking at Islam from a particular unique cultural perspective, to looking at the overarching beauty of the fundamentals of the faith that unify different peoples.

The third piece dips back behind the cultural lens in its perspective of Islam and draws inspiration from the Iranian Ta’ziyeh. The Ta’ziyeh is a traditional Iranian drama performed in festival yearly that tells the story of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein. During the leadership struggles following Muhammad’s death, Muhammad’s family line found itself on the receiving end of opposition and murder. In this particular account, Hussein along with his family was ambushed by Caliph Yazid’s army on the road to Mecca at Karbala. Here, the drama is created by the lament of Hussein, his family members, as well as the gloating and celebration of Yazid and his troops to always keep in memory the injustice of the event. Hussein was killed during the episode and is considered a martyr. The Ta’ziyeh is performed in Iran, predominantly a Shiite state, in remembrance of this past episode and to provide some kind of encouragement to the present day believers who may be going through similar persecutions and difficulties. The musical progression of this piece seeks to echo the events in the account of Hussein’s martyrdom.  I saw music as an appropriate medium because it is dynamic and deeply emotive and therefore could help a listener emotionally connect with the episode. From the history behind piece, we begin to see the branching of the Islamic community, in this case based on the structure of authority, which is indeed a major theme of the course.  Not only does this piece seek to look through the lens of a particular community, but it also looks at an episode of particular importance to this community showing that not only does the view point of the same ideas vary depending on the society, but also the events that different communities chose to emphasize.

The fourth piece in the portfolio is a rap song which draws it lyrics from the masterful translation by Dick Davis of Farid Ud-Din Attar’s masterpiece ‘The Conference of the Birds.’ This book uses the revealed characteristics of different birds to mirror human behaviour and attitude towards seeking God. In particular, the lyrics of this rap come from the description of the Simorgh, which signifies God. This description is given by the Hoopoe bird, the de facto leader of the birds due to its vast knowledge and wisdom. The Hoopoe’s description of the Simorgh is powerful, and the rhyme and meter in which even the translation is written in is indeed one of the greatest artistic feats. I therefore sought not to change any of the lyrics, but instead present them in a rap style to draw cross-cultural and inter-generational parallels between this classic work and modern day Islamic influenced street culture which forms part of the make up of hip-hop. Several highly regarded American rappers and rap groups are influenced by Islam, if not being Muslim themselves, and I thought it very interesting to view this modern day rap as an extension of the rich poetic tradition in Islamic culture, and as can be seen from this piece, is almost a seamless fit. The major theme of the course the inspired this piece is the underlying unity of different Islamic cultures, as well as the timelessness of Islamic tradition. Indeed through this lens, God can be seen God can be seen to be an omnipresent force.

The second to last piece is a collage of various images representing the different faces of Islam. A major theme in the course has been that there is no single definition of Islam, and in order to understand it, one must study the people who practice it. The reality is though that the people who practice it are so diverse, that simply observing this diversity gives one a deep appreciation of what Islam encompasses at the basic level, which is unity and love. The collage therefore shows images of Islamic figures ranging from Wallace Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, Ayatollah Khomeini, an Iranian cleric, Fareed Zakaria, editor of ‘Newswee’ to Ice Cube, an American rapper.

The final installation in this portfolio is a musical solo, which seeks to express love, exemplified by Sufi works. If at all there was a central theme that can be observed through the portfolio, it is the idea of love. Love is similarly a large part of the image of God, and is also seen as a large part of Muslim life. Because of this, I thought it would be a good piece to conclude the portfolio with. The piece is inspired by a ghazal by Hafiz, ghazal 19 in ‘The Green Sea of Heaven.’ Hafiz is an extremely revered poet, whose works are to be found in numerous households, and his quotes recited regularly in the Iranian culture. This ghazal, like others, talks about a very strong love, and I especially like it due to its strong imagery. Sufi mystics bring out an admirable passion for God that is unmatched by any other desire, and love is such a seemingly simple idea, but its ability to completely transform individuals is telling of its power and its truth. Indeed this piece engages with the course by trying to draw the listener into an experience of the kind of love that the course talks about.

These six pieces therefore summarize the most pertinent themes to me that I have come across in the class, and have drawn from a variety of sources. In all of them, I have tried to communicate emotion that I think is a potent way through which we can understand Islam and some of these cultures.

A Ghazal Tune

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A Ghazal Tune

This piece is a piano solo inspired by one of the ghazal’s by Hafiz, in particular ghazal 19. The reason I chose this ghazal is because of the imagery of the nightingale used in the poem. The nightingale is famous for its song, so I decided to use this imagery to actually set this ghazal to music. Like all ghazal’s, this one is about a strong love the lover has for the beloved. In particular, this ghazal has several lines that refer to wine or alcohol, emphasizing the state of one’s intoxication by love. Other metaphors are used, for example the rose, which is the nightingale’s beloved. The music therefore tries to echo this, though not line by line, it tries to represent deep love set by its melody which I tried to make as pleasant as possible. It also echoes the state of being overpowered by love as indicated by its easy tempo which makes it more lyrical. At the same time the tune also has a measure of joy in it, because ultimately the love the lover has for the beloved, and the idea of finally being with the beloved is joyous, and even if in this particular instance they do not end up together, with the ghazal, and with the kind of love spoken about in Sufi poetry, there is always hope for next time.

The Many Faces Of Islam

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This collage is a representation of the different ‘faces’ of Islam. Islam indeed cannot be understood from a single perspective, but from the perspective of the different cultural groups that practice Islam. The purpose of this collage is to present this idea of Islam being made up of diverse perspectives, but at the same time has a pervasive unity that brings all these different perspectives together. The collage is made up of images of different well known personalities who are Muslim, as well as individuals or groups representing diverse cultures. Of the more well known figures include Muhammad Ali, who initially was a member of the Nation of Islam in the US. He later converted to Sunni Islam and practices Sufism. On the collage there are also images of Rumi, a 13th Century Persian Sufi mystic, as well as Muhammad Iqbal, an early 20th century Pakistani poet. There is also an image of the Senegalese mystic Amadou Bamba who was a key figure in Senegal’s struggle against French colonial rule. Other well known muslims depicted are Shaquille O’neal, a now retired NBA player, Nas and Ice Cube who are key figures in American hip-hop figures. Queen Noor of Jordan is also shown who is a key figure in Middle East/ West diplomatic relations, as is Tawakel Karman from Yemen, winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. There are depictions of different communities, specifically Muslims from China, Indonesia, America and Kenya as well. Last but not least, Islamic scholarship is highlighted by the presence of Harvard Professor Ali Asani.

The Hoopoe’s Words – A Rap Song

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Words of the Hoopoe

This rap song is a fusion of a modern hip-hop/R&B beat and a passage from the ‘Conference of the birds’ by Farid Ud-Din Attar. It represents the timelessness of the poetic tradition of Islam, as well as the unity of two seemingly distinct traditions. The particular excerpt is from the Hoopoe bird’s description of the Simorgh, as well as of the Hoopoe’s experience serving King Solomon. This verse captures part of the essence of the piece which is to describe the nature of God and the nature of the journey to really get to know God. On the flip side, I set this passage to a hip-hop beat which also represent another Islamic influenced art form. Hip-Hop, which originated out of New York City in the late 60’s, is infused with slang drawn from Islamic influenced doctrines such as from the Nation of Islam, if not from other more populous Islamic groups such as Sunni muslims. Indeed Hip-Hop was a channel through which black Muslim youth would find a way to deal with and express their experiences with racial oppression. In this particular track, I created the beats and the instrumentals in a Hip-Hop style more influenced by jazz and R&B rather than the traditional breaks. It is a more mellow, lyrical and melodic form popular with a lot of ‘conscious’ rappers in the early 90’s (rappers who spoke directly on issues affecting the society seeking to make an impact). This style is appropriate for this passage because it is deep and soothing, putting the listener in a pensive state allowing them to focus on and really digest the lyrics.

The 7 heavens

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The painting was inspired by the Miraj, where Muhammad visits heaven in one night and meets the prophets that preceded him and receives instruction. From the Myths and Legends of the Swahili reading, the description of the 7 heavens (and hell), by Muhammad was so vivid that it prompted me to try and represent it visually (although I have no experience in painting). Though some elements in Muhammad’s description of the heavens are missing in the painting, I try and capture all the prophets and angels he meets shinning in gold, representing the light of Muhammad which was passed to all the prophets in some measure. At the very bottom of the painting is the earth, above which the heavens start. In the first heaven there is Adam in front of two arches, and on his right lies the garden of paradise and to his left lies the gates to hell. Above this first level is the so called sea of life, which leads to the second level where Jesus, John the Baptist, and an angel with numerous heads are found. In the third heaven there is Joseph, who I have tried to present in the colours of his magnificent robe of many colours. In the heaven resides David and Solomon and a sea representing Noah’s sea. In the fifth heaven resides the prophet Moses, and in the sixth there sits the angel of death with two lists, one (white) with the names of those that will live in that hour and another one (black) with names of those who will die. I represented the seventh heaven with scales which are said to be found there, and all of these heavens are subsumed by an angel whose feet are on earth and whose head is above the seventh heaven.

Tazyieh Rendition

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This composition is meant to mirror the drama that ensued in the Tazyieh that depicts Hussein’s martyrdom at Karbala. The piece starts in a slow and sorrowful tone to reflect the lamentations of Hussein at the beginning of the excerpt where he express great sorrow at the fact that he has no one to fight with him and his son has been killed. The music then gets louder and more agitated and this is meant to signify the abuse that Shimar and the rest of the enemy pour on Hussein, basically taunting him, which then deepens his lamentations and the music becomes slow and sorrowful again. When Hussein and his party realized that they are trapped on both sides by Yazid’s troops with no escape, the music tries to mirror that and becomes a bit more purposeful again but is more restless and is not allowed to drift too far to extreme octaves signifying the situation of Hussein. The music then moves into a more lyrical and melodic section which describes the dialogue that ensues between Hussein and the visitor who has brought water for Hussein’s daughter. This is a moment of temporary reprieve in the story as the dialogue is no longer one of pity but Hussein’s strength and spirit is displayed as he proclaims his lineage and the power that he has through God. After this visitor leaves, the Darwish army then comes to Hussein’s side responding to his cries for help. Here, the music tries to imitate the sound of horses galloping and the dialogue that takes place between the Darwish leader and Hussein. The army after that is turned back and the music slows down and assumes a steady rhythm as Yazid’s forces start to stone Hussein. As Hussein is subdued and comes under the mercy of Shimar, the last passage in the composition is a quiet and melodic section that tries to express the beauty of Hussein’s act of martydom, and reflects a mix of sorrow at his demise but also joy due to his heroic deed.

A Call To Prayer

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A Call To Prayer

As steady as the cock crow,
Answering the call from Adam’s meadow,
All creations rise and proclaim,
The one and true glorious name,
Those who can hear listen,
The Greatest we serve is in heaven,
There is no other but the One,
From the fading of the moon to the rising of the sun,
His message passed through Ahmad,
Who taught us the way of salat,
For which we now humbly prepare,
In search of peace for those in despair,
God is the greatest, God is the greatest,
Let all creation answer the call and bear witness.

This poem draws from a number of sources encountered in the course so far. Primarily, it draws from the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. Every line of the Adhan as recited by Sunni Muslims is represented in this poem in some form or another. However in composing the poem, I was trying to express the idea that all of creation in a sense is a testament to Allah and express some form of his nature, drawn from the idea that nature itself is a sign or Ayah of Allah. Therefore rather than having the voice of someone reciting the Adhan, I tried to portray the idea that nature itself, as it proclaims Allah’s greatness should therefore call Muslims to pray before God. Furthermore, I also tried to use ideas drawn from other sources, such as the Miraj that describes Muhammad’s visit to heaven, in the first heaven, he meets Adam who is guarding the entrance to the garden, and in that garden there is also a cock that is the lord of all cocks such that when it crows, all the other cocks on earth follow it. The poem in its entirety therefore draws from hadith or stories about Muhammad, the Qu’ran, custom and Islamic theology in order to present the call to prayer in a more unified form that in itself portrays many elements of the ideas of Islam. I also tried to follow a rhyme scheme that is in the style of Arabic poetry in order to make it aesthetically pleasing, because sound is such a big part of the experience in Islam, I thought it important that this call to prayer be aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.

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