Me and Islam: A Journey through Art and Spirituality
Over the course of this semester, I’ve been exposed to a variety of new forms and styles of art that come from Islamic spirituality. I’ve learned about the Islamic faith from the revelation in the cave to Islam around the world today. Some of these concepts have stuck with me, and inspired growth in my own style of art. I find the image of the revelation in the cave in particular to be quite profound, for example, and I’ll discuss why this image sticks out to me. My decision to take this course stemmed from my trip to Saudi Arabia this past January, which was a life-changing experience for me. Never had I been to a place that was simultaneously extremely foreign and very similar. My experience on that trip can best be summed up in one image- while waiting in line to get something to eat one morning, I watched a woman dressed in black from head to toe, with her face completely covered except for a small slit for her eyes, order a Frappucino from Starbucks. As she took it, I noticed that her fingernails were brightly painted, and that she was wearing elegant and stylish high-heeled shoes that poked out from under her black robes. This is a metaphor for my experience so far with Islam. While the outside image may be foreign and at times mystifying, once we look a little closer we find something that we can relate to and understand. We’re all just people, after all. My approach to this class came about as a result of this philosophy. I didn’t take this class to be an expert on Islam, or a connoisseur of Islamic art. I took it in the hope that it would make Islam more real and relatable to me. I think that, in this respect, I’ve succeeded.
The first concept that has stuck with me throughout the course is light, as anyone familiar with any of my creative projects will see. From using a template to project a calligraphic “Allah,” to references in the poems I wrote to light and revelation, to an actual light plot that I constructed to react to my experiences listening to Sufi chant, light means a lot to me and it shapes my point of view. I’m a lighting designer for a number of theatrical and dance groups on campus, so I tend to see things in colors and angles and hues. I know how a well-directed light can change a perception from drama to tension to warmth to exuberance. This aptly describes the experience of Mohammed in the cave as well. His transition from ignorance into knowledge came directly aided by the light of Allah and his angels. Moving from the darkness of the cave into the light of knowledge is a metaphor that I can relate to. Looking specifically at the creative responses that I’ve made, light factors into three of them significantly. My first poem, which I made at the beginning of the semester before I knew about Ghazals etc., is a poetic response to Mohammed in the cave. It captures the transition from darkness and isolation to vision (literally) both from divine insight and sight. My Ghazal also features light prominently, and muses on the varieties of meanings of light and being lit. The first couplet deals with fire and passion, the comparison of a burning flame and a burning desire or longing for something. In this case, I compare the light given off by a burning flame to the light given off by passion for God. The fourth couplet deals with lighting up a person’s face, which is something that happens when somebody’s emotional state transforms from sadness or ambivalence or boredom to excitement or joy. In a sense, light is very much tied to inspiration. To say that a light bulb went off for Mohammed in the cave is perhaps a poor description, but the essence of the comparison makes sense.
The final creative response that I made that has to do with light is an actual light plot. This is the creative medium associated with light design in theater and entertainment- the designer uses this plot to plan out how the space will be lit. This is by no means a single state of light. Each of the lights is independently operated, and can be on or off or somewhere in between at any time. As such, a plot describes a variety of potential states of light. I wish I could have gone further and actually constructed this plot (and a corresponding set) so that I could provide some pictures of its potential, but that’d cost me a few hundred dollars and a week in a theater space, neither of which seem likely to come my way any time soon. I’ll settle for a brief description of the images that I’d create with this plot. The scene that it is supposed to accompany follows a Sufi chant that grows in intensity and pace as it progresses. As such, it opens with a single spotlight on the singer, and perhaps a dim amber wash of light over the rest of the chanters. As the flute enters to echo the melody, the spotlight on the singer dims and a cool blue wash covers the entire ensemble. As the chanting gets faster, the blue fades into a brighter amber and then a red, and front light comes up on the ensemble to highlight their swaying. As the chanting nears the rate of a rapid dance, I mix the amber wash with a bit of red and cool front light to accent the movement. At the end of the chanting, though it stops rather suddenly, the light takes a long time to fade, giving the audience time to reflect on where they have been taken to.
The second theme that pervades my creative responses is family and roles. In Islam, family is exceptionally important, starting with Ahl al-bayt, the family of the prophet. Unlike in Christianity, where the central family is holy and ends with Jesus, Islam has a central figure with both mortal parents and mortal children. In this sense, we get to see Mohammed as a husband and a father. We are also familiar with each of his wives starting with Khadijah, and they are real humans with real qualities that can be emulated. While Christianity encourages its devotees to be Christlike, emulating the divine, Islam provides an example of a real family that can be followed. Also, one of the central tragedies that we discussed is the massacre at Karbala where the grandson of the prophet and his family were killed. This alone doesn’t justify why family is so important in Islam, and it’s difficult for me to present a single reason why it is. There are certainly different family values in Islamic cultures than in Judaism and Christianity (and in other cultures around the world). It’s also unfair to generalize across all Islamic cultures. However, family seems to have taken a role in Islam that is both unique and telling.
The concept of family extends further in Islam because of Islam’s claim to be the final word on Abrahamic religion. In many ways, The Qur’an sees other religions that follow the same one God, the Ahl al-kitab, as a sort of family worthy of fair and courteous treatment. However, this teaching seems to be subject to interpretation. Just as some Americans have had difficulty respecting Islam and seeing it as a familiar, nonthreatening thing, some Muslims have difficulty respecting Judaism and Christianity. This brings us to one of the central points of this course, which is that though the Qur’an may say one thing, the actions of Muslims will be guided by the interpretations of their communities. Culture is not a simple thing.
Family shows itself in my creative responses in a few different ways. First, in the ghazal that I wrote, the aura of a family and a household are present in a number of lines. Though the ghazal itself revolves around the phrase “when lit,” almost all of the central couplets involve household imagery. The second couplet, referencing light making rooms in a house more welcome, relates to Islam in that enlightenment, or the presence of God, is a force that brings us together and helps us be a family in the greater sense. The Ahl al-kitab all live in the house of Abraham, which is lit by the light of God. The third couplet, which discusses cooking and enthusiasm for earthly pleasures, relates to the multiple meanings of pleasure. While appreciation for cooking can literally mean taste in food, it can also mean satisfaction or a sense of being full or nourished. Cooking is creation, and enthusiasm for creation is devotion to God. God is in the song of the birds and the beauty of the trees, and God is in my mother’s cooking. The fourth couplet is, in a sense, a testament to this feeling. There are strong women in Islam, and the roles of women have been historically very important. Though we often hear criticism of the way women are treated in a number of Islamic societies, it is important to take these critiques with a grain of salt. Based on what I learned this semester in class, it seems to me that there is nothing about Islam as a religion that sees women as any less important than men. While Islam and Islamic societies have often had very specific gender roles, both genders are valued for their contributions.
At this point it’s fair to segue into the final creative response that I’ll discuss here- the set I designed for a short play based on Sultana’s Dream. I was surprised when I read this story to see a woman speaking so forwardly about the different roles prescribed for men and women, especially at the time period in which the story was written. At a time when most Western countries had still not given women the right to vote, a woman in Madras was writing a feminist science fiction novel about a world where the characteristics of women lead to a productive and peaceful society. It’s difficult to know how to treat this story, as there are elements of absurdity along with elements of social commentary. As such, I chose to focus fairly little on the science fiction elements of the story in my set design and mostly on the characters. The set is modest and very centered in the space. It’s designed to allow the two main characters to present their ideas without tremendous distraction, though in a defined garden setting. The story itself is upbeat, despite its heavy subject matter, so it is appropriate that the setting is pleasant and warm. The lighting, at least for the dream sequence, ought to be warm and open as well. I plan for the play to open with a spotlight only on the central chair, which returns at the very end. In this way, the audience is expected to see that the science fiction utopia depicted in the dream is much more open and exciting than reality, but reality is what we must return to.
To be honest, I don’t think I know a significant fraction of what there is to know about Islam or Islamic Art. I think this class was only the very beginning, a first step into the subject matter. What I have gained from this class, both from lectures and sections as well as from my creative responses, is that Islam is a very complex religion with many manifestations and many different meanings to people around the world. I’ve only begun to find the pieces to which I relate; I picked up a sense of family while I was in Saudi Arabia, and certainly the Saudi sense of family is very different from many other Islamic conceptions of family, but even there in what might be one of the most socially conservative places in the world I found people that I could relate to. Their beliefs, which had previously seemed so foreign to me, became slightly more understandable. This trend has continued throughout this semester, and I hope it won’t stop with the end of this school year.