I identify as a Muslim, a Nigerian, an American, and a Woman. My youth was filled with weekly Sunday School classes, where I learned enough Arabic to read the Qur’an and took classes simply entitled “Religion”. Sunday School ended in high school, but my desire to learn about my religion did not. Entering college, I welcomed the opportunity to learn about my religion in an academic setting. With Professor Ali Asani’s course, for once I could spend my time studying something I could personally relate to.
The syllabus for “Aesthetic and Interpretative Understanding 54: For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures” states that “An important aim of the course will be to explore the relationships between religion, literature, and the arts in Muslim societies, together with the ways in which historical, political, and cultural contexts influence these expressions.” Looking back at this semester, I believe that we have reached this grand goal. We have achieved a lot this semester. We have surveyed the differing Muslim practices over a huge part of the globe, from the practice of Drinking Koran in Sudan, to the Taziyeh in Iran, to the experience of Muslims Americans in the aftermath of 9/11. We have been given a brief, but thorough, history lesson on the spread of Islam and discussed the more recent Iranian Revolution. But by far the most enjoyable part of the course for me has been Professor Asani’s use of Multimedia Resources to expound on these topics. From calligraphic art, to documentary and fiction films, to music, practically no artistic medium was left untouched. Growing up with a traditional Islamic education, some of the things shown in class were shocking to me. For example, I was surprised to find that figural depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are popular in Iran. I had always been taught that figural depictions of humans and animals, even including photographs of family members were forbidden in Islam. I also was under the impression that there was “one” Islam, and that Muslims all over the world worshipped in more or less the same way. This course has really opened my eyes to the diversity of the Muslim experience and has actively worked to overthrow this idea of “one” Islam. This is also what I tried to do with my blog. Although my blog posts address many themes that came up during the class, one overarching theme supported by my blog is that Islam is not monolithic; it is not a static or unchanging religion. This is one of the biggest lessons I have taken out of the course, and I hope to portray this idea to others through this blog. The other themes present in my blog are: Merging the Traditional with the Contemporary, Breaking Down Stereotypes about Islam, Music and Islam, The Cultural Studies Approach, and The Inherent Beauty of Islam.
Merging the Traditional with the Contemporary
A goal of this course was to combat religious illiteracy. Some ways that religious illiteracy manifests include: failure to recognize that religion is embedded in context; using religion as the exclusive explanation for someone’s actions; holding an entire religious community responsible for the actions of a few extremists; and viewing religion as monolithic. One way I sought to show that Islam is not an unchanging religion was to merge traditional Islamic elements and art forms, with Contemporary and Western mediums. My blog post “An audition for Husain” is the most obvious example of this. The Ta’ziyeh is a passion play commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husain, a very important figure in Shi’a Islam. This art form is exclusive to Shi’a Muslims in Iran, and is the only form of drama that comes from Islam. I really enjoyed learning about the ta’ziyeh because theater is a passion of mine. In Sir Pelly’s translation of the ta’ziyeh The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husein, I saw a similarity to the plays of Shakespeare. This inspired me to create a video in which I read from the play in a hypothetical audition for the role of Husain in the play. In this way I took a traditional Islamic art form, the ta’ziyeh and merged it with the contemporary practice of recording audition videos, thereby bringing the ta’ziyeh into the modern age.
This theme also applies to my blog post “A Reluctant Ghazal”. The Ghazal is a traditional form of poetry, especially popular in the Urdu language. There is a long-standing tradition of poetry in the regions where Islam first started, and the ghazal is a way for me now, to connect to that culture. I created a new interpretation of the ghazal by combining it with the 2007 novel by Moshin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. This novel recounts the story of Changez, falling in love with a woman in the throes of mental disorder, and falling out of love with America, his home for four and a half years. By making Changez the narrator of the ghazal, I am able to use an old art form to interpret new events.
Breaking Down Stereotypes about Islam
The theme of breaking down stereotypes goes along with the effort to combat religious illiteracy. Since 9/11 Islam has been portrayed particularly negatively in Western media. Negative stereotypes have arisen, such as: Islamic countries as ‘backwards’, Muslim men as bearded terrorists, and Muslim women as abused sheep unaware of their own oppression. I sincerely hope that my blog as a whole can break down some of these stereotypes. My blog post “#MIPSTERZ” was created for specifically this purpose. There is this conception, especially in Western media, that the hijab is a mark of a backward culture and oppression of women. Even within Muslim countries some Muslim women who advocate against the hijab frame it as advocating for freedom, as shown on page 5 of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. However this does not have to be the case. Women can wear the hijab, and dress conservatively, while still being fashionable and trendy. The #MIPSTERZ Youtube video “Somewhere in America”, showcases young Muslim women who are able to do just this. Their name #MIPSTERZ perfectly encompasses this idea. The word “Mipster” comes from combining Muslim with Hipster. The twitter hashtag and Hipster style are current social media trends, and connecting Muslim to these trends shows that Muslims can be trendy. My photoshoot was inspired by this video. Although I do not choose to wear the hijab daily, I take offense to the way the hijab is manipulated into a hateful symbol, by people who are not even Muslim. I hope my photoshoot is able to show that the hijab does not have to be an opposition to Western ideas of style.
The Cultural Studies Approach
A theme repeatedly revisited in the course, was the concept of the cultural studies approach. This is a way of examining Islam, and all other religions, while taking into account the fact that Islam is embedded in context. Islam has spread to many vastly different regions of the world, and these different cultures have affected the way that Muslims practice in those regions. The most common way for people to learn about a religion is to practice said religion, a devotional approach, or to study the sacred texts, a textual approach. But, this Cultural-Studies Approach is necessary to have a more complete understanding of all the subtleties of a religion. In my blog post “What I wish others would know” I attempt to diagram the different ways to study religion, while putting an emphasis on the cultural studies approach. I chose to make a graphic design to convey this idea because it is a fast and clear way to get my message out. The style and bright colors are intended to attract a young college educated audience, and the medium is great for sharing with friends through social media.
Additionally, the diversity of my blog as a whole is an attest to the cultural studies approach. My blog posts use Islamic art forms that span many different regions. The “An audition for Husain” post draws from the Iranian ta’ziyeh, the “A Reluctant Ghazal” post uses the Urdu ghazal form, and the “#MIPZTERZ” post highlights an American Muslim experience.
Music and Islam
The permissibility of music is a controversial topic in Islam. In a video we watched in lecture, Salman Ahmed sang a verse of the Qur’an while strumming the guitar. This short display inspired angry reactions from the Muslim men he was conversing with in the relatively moderate madrasa. I, along with other Muslims in the class, was shocked by this as well. Because we are taught that music is Haram; the idea of singing the Qur’an is unheard of. However Salman’s beliefs are along the lines that, if his music can bring peace into people’s hearts then God must not be angry. I am more inclined to support Salman’s beliefs, than the idea that all music is Haram. This view can be seen in my first blog post “ A Transcendent Recitation”. In this I took a beautiful Qur’anic recitation by Seemi Bushra Ghazi, and translated it into musical notes, creating an otherworldly musical track. Even as I made this I wondered if this exercise was somehow wrong. But in the end I rationalized it because the track is not meant for popular entertainment. Instead this aural translation can be used to connect non-Muslims to the beauty of the Qur’an without them having to understand Arabic.
The theme of music comes up again in my #MIPSTERZ photoshoot. In one outfit I am wearing a t-shirt for the band Skillet, a Christian rock band. I chose to wear this because music is very important to me, and forms another big part of my identity, even though I am Muslim. And I am able to listen to a Christian rock band because they promote many of the same ideals that I have as a Muslim. In fact I would rather listen to their lyrics, than to the poisonous lyrics of much of popular hip hop and pop.
The Beauty of Islam
Above all else, this course reminded me of how beautiful Islam is. This beauty comes from the Qur’an, the sacred text. In Islam there is this concept of Ijaz, or the “inimitability” of the Qur’an. This is the concept that no human speech can match the beauty of the Qur’an, which is proof of its divine origin. One example of the beauty and poetry of the Qur’an is the famous Light Verse, which inspired my blog post “The Lamp”. This can be interpreted as a beautiful comparison of Muhammad to a Lamp, and the light of Prophethood. I tried to capture some of this beauty in my graphic design, incorporating some names used for the Prophet. My blog post “A Transcendent Recitation” also highlights the beauty of the Qur’an. I was inspired to create a music track by the soothing voice and beautiful melody of Seemi Bushra Ghazi’s recitation. I feel like her recitation in particular highlights the idea of the Qur’an as “sacred sound”.
To conclude, I would like to thank the Professor, Teaching Fellows, and Guest Lecturers for a unique and eye-opening General Education course. To whoever is reading this blog, I hope this art inspires you to abandon any misconceptions about Islam and appreciate the diversity and beauty of Islam.
You’re more harmful than a flame’s rays Erica
That attracts moths from faraway Erica
You shone much brighter than the sky
Your beauty turned my night to day Erica
The small cracks in your mind grew wide
Before my eyes, you drift away Erica
Our shared bruise is nothing compared
To the deep pain of my hearts frays Erica
My competitor proved too strong
Even though he is dead and gray Erica
Change can not bear to stay so close
Now I must be on my way, AmErica
For this post I wore a ghazal to accompany The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The Urdu ghazal is one of the most famous forms of poetry of the Urdu language. These poems are always narrated by a tortured lover “hopelessly in love with an indifferent, even cruel, beloved” (Petievich 3). This is the scenario that Changez finds himself in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. He is in love with Erica, she is in love with her childhood friend Chris, who died recently. His death did not sever her deep connections to him, and Changez has no hope of eating her away from him. As Erica sinks deeper into her mind and her nostalgia for Chris, she become the indifferent, and unknowingly cruel beloved of the ghazal. The narration of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is very poetic and Changez describes Erica using some of the common images employed by Ghazal writers. Therefore, it seems possible that Changez could write a ghazal like the one I have written above.
My ghazal follows the basic rules of all ghazals, but with a twist. My meter comes from the last line of each couplet having 11 syllables, and the first line having 8. All ghazal’s have a radif, a repeated word or phrase preceded by a qafiyah, a rhymed syllable. My radif is Erica and my qafiyah is -ay. However the last line of my ghazal ends with America. I chose this play on words because I believe Mohsin Hamid purposefully meant for the name of Changez’s love to closely resemble Erica. Changez’s relationship with Erica is a close parallel with his relationship to America. As Erica sinks into nostalgia Changez’s believes that “ America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia” (Hamid 53). Even Changez’s name seems to be a play on the English words “changes”, which inspired me to use Change as the pseudonym in the last couplet.
Throughout the ghazal I used traditional Urdu imagery along with imagery that Changez uses to describe Erica. In the first couplet I use the image of a moth and a candle inspired by this quote, “whenever a candle-flame is mentioned in the ghazal, a moth is not far to be found” (Petievich 6). The inspiration for the third couplet comes from Changez describing Erica’s eyes, “ I perceived that there was something broken behind them, like a tiny crack in a diamond…” (Hamid 27). The fourth couplet refers to the bruise Changez’s gets from a scooter collision that is in the same spot as a bruise Erica gets from tae kwon do.
During Week 12 of the course, we read Persepolis, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. In Persepolis, the veil is often violently forced upon women. Marji attends an anti-fundamentalism demonstration that turned violent when a group of men attacked yelling, “The scarf or a beating” (Satrapi 76). Another example of this violence comes from women and is directed to women. The women’s branch of the Guardians of the Revolution “had been added in 1982, to arrest women who were improperly veiled” (Satrapi 132).If this group of women captured Marji, they had the power to “detain [her] for hours, or for days. [She] could be whipped. In short, anything could happen to [her] “(Satrapi 134). These portrayals of the veil might support the stereotypes that the hijab is something Muslim women are forced to wear, and is a way of suppressing women. However, in most part of the world, wearing the hijab is a choice that each Muslim woman makes. For these women, the hijab is not taking away any freedoms; it can bring them closer to Islam. Also in Persepolis, the most conservative form of the veil, the chador, is seen as a marker of fundamentalism. But the hijab does not need to be a symbol of fundamentalism or backward-ness. This idea is what the #MIPSTERZ movement is trying to combat. In their video “Somewhere in America” the women show that wearing the hijab and dressing conservatively, does not stop them from being stylish and hip. The outfit Marji wears on page 131, is one that would surely earn the approval of the Mipsters!
My artistic response was inspired by the “Somewhere in America” video shown in lecture. Like the video, I decided to do a mini photoshoot around Harvard. This was a very personal undertaking, for I do not usually wear the hijab outside of the mosque or my home. Living in America, wearing the hijab often makes you stand out; and considering America’s recent history much of this attention is unwanted. Yet for this photoshoot I had to walk around my dorm building, and Harvard Square while wearing the hijab. I also chose outfits that represented multiple parts of my identity at once. In one such outfit (top and bottom left), the shirt I am wearing is one half of a traditional Nigerian outfit. I usually do not wear these ethnic clothes except for special occasions and holidays. With this outfit I am putting both my Nigerian and Muslim identities on display. The last outfit (top and bottom right) has a “punk” or “rocker” look. In this I am wearing a t-shirt for the band Skillet. This outfit shows that I listen to music, a controversial topic in Islam. Also Skillet happens to be a Christian rock band, which is quite ironic in this case. The “Not Art” element was unplanned. During the photoshoot we ran into the guy responsible for the NOT ART graffiti spreading around Harvard square. I think the image with the sticker is conveying a strong message, that is completely open to the interpretation of the reader. Is the hijab art? Is my face art? Is the graffiti in the background art? Is the photo itself art? Or are none of these art as all?
I chose to represent the concept that Islam, as all religions, should be considered from many different approaches. This is a vital concept, because of the amount of religious illiteracy that is so apparent in American culture. In my design I tried to highlight the Cultural-Studies Approach, a concept that was a big focus for the course. It is important that people understand that Islam, like all religions, is embedded in context. One person’s actions can not be explained by their religion alone, something that media outlets seem incapable of understanding. Also, through this method of studying people can see that religion is not timeless or monolithic. My design shows these ideas in a clear, colorful diagram, that provides examples of the different approaches.
I chose to create a graphic design because i believe it conveys my message in a clear succinct way. The medium is very accessible and easily spread; for example by sharing the image on Facebook or posting it onto a website. This is great way to reach my target audience, which would be college students. I chose to focus on students my own age, because I feel like they are the most open to new ideas and the most willing to change their views. I think this is because college students are actively in the pursuit of knowledge, and because of age. Once older, people can become close-minded; it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks as they say. And younger people may not fully understand the issues, or may be too closely influenced by parents and teachers to really form their own opinions.
“God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp
the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star
Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the West,
whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it
Light upon Light! God doth guide whom He will to His Light
God doth set forth Parables for men: and God doth know all things.”- Qur’an (24:35)
In Week 4 we learned about the Prophet Muhammad, and the special relationship Muslims have with him. The Prophet is revered by Muslims, like Jesus Christ is by Christians, without him being deified. Muslims see him as the Walking Qur’an, and the Perfect Man. Muslims strive to become like the Prophet by imitating his sunnah, or practices. Still he is seen as human, the Perfect Man, which is the biggest difference between Muslims’ relationship with Muhammad and Christians’ relationship with Jesus.
For my artistic response, I created a non-figural representation of the Prophet Muhammad. The verse quoted from the Qur’an above is the famous light verse. Ali Asani in his book Infidel of Love, narrates “According to Muqatil, the lamp, in this verse, is a fitting symbol for Muhammad, who has been described elsewhere in the Qur’an as a “shining lamp.” ” (Asani 133). The Prophet is often connected to light imagery. He is described at times as being a reflection of God’s light, being surrounded by light , and casting no shadow. My image is based of the light verse (above) and the comparison between the Prophet and a radiant lamp “siraj munir”. I drew an outline of an oil lamp in the style of Islamic Art, and filled it with attributes of the Prophet. These attributes are connected to Names of God in Islam. For example Al-Rahman, The Merciful, is a name of God while the Prophet is rahmah, mercy. The lamp is filled with, and radiates, the light of the Prophet.
rahim – beneficent, merciful
karim – generous
nur – light
halim – forbearing
mu’allim – teacher
sabur – patient
‘azim – sublime (character)
wali – guardian (of the Believers)
siraj munir – radiant lamp
AI54 Husain Audition
In week 5 we learned about the Ta’ziyeh, the passion play commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husain (the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) performed in Iran. This is a unique practice in Islam, specific to Shia Muslims. The ta’ziyeh is the only form of drama originating from Islam.
The ta’ziyeh differs from Western theater in many ways, as shown in our discussion reading Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran by Peter Chelkowski. For Shia muslims the ta’ziyeh is more than a dramatic performance, it is a religious ritual. Through it the audience is transported back in time to Karbala, as if they are actually witnessing the death of Husain. The audience is overtaken with emotion, and the actors use this as part of the performance. The audience is an essential part of the ta’ziyeh, in a way not realized in traditional western theater. In the 19th century, the ta’ziyeh was performed in large arena theaters, and actors would often make entrances and exits through the audience. Depending on the staging, the audience could be celebrants of the wedding and mourners of Husain at once. Avant-garde theater artists now, like Jerzy Grotowski and the “poor theatre”, strive to reach the visceral connection with the audience that the ta’ziyeh has been creating for centuries.
For my artistic response, I decided to play on the comparison between the ta’ziyeh and Western theater. I made a mock audition video for the role of Husain in a hypothetical Western production of the Miracle Play of Hasan and Husein by Sir Lewis Pelly. I thought this would be an interesting way to represent the ta’ziyeh and highlight some of the similarities it has with Western theater. Reading the Sir Lewis Pelly translation reminded me of Shakespeare. I could imagine this play being performed as a Shakespearean tragedy. It is interesting to note that I read the role for Husain as a woman, because female roles in the ta’ziyeh are usually played by men, another feature held in common with Shakespearean times. I also wore green, because the family of the Prophet usually wears green in the ta’ziyeh, while the opponents of Husain wear red.
“The ears hear more than the eyes see in the written text, and it is only in sound that the full miracle is realized. Thus, while the meaning of each word may be translated from the Arabic, the Qur’an itself is untranslatable.”” – Kristina Nelson, “The Sound of the Divine in Daily Life”
In Week 3, we learned about the Qur’an and the art of Quranic recitation. We discussed how the Qur’an is a text that has to be experienced through sound, and that its recitation is a way to commune with the Divine through sacred sounds. The clips we listened to that week, really exemplified this “sacred sound”. The clip that stood out to me the most was the recitation of Surah Al- Qadr by Seemi Bushra Ghazi. Firstly because it was one of the first times I had heard a recording of a female reciting the Qur’an. All of the CDs of the Qur’an that my Dad owns are always recited by men, for example. This gender imbalance struck me, especially since in Western culture having a beautiful voice is a quality more commonly attributed to women. Ghazi’s tone of voice also made her recitation stand out to me. She does not adorn her voice as much as some reciters do, which often strike me as excessive. Instead her voice sounds like a soothing lullaby. For the first time I understood why weeping is seen as the acceptable response while listening to a recitation. I could feel her recitation triggering an emotional response.
For my artistic response I took Seemi Bushra Ghazi’s recitation of Al-Qadr, and then attempted to translate it into musical notes played through a synthesizer. The effect of this is a breathy out-of-this-world track to the melody of her recitation. I decided to do this to highlight the transcendence of her specific recitation, and the idea that the Qur’an recited with tajwid is the sound of God. It was difficult for me to pursue this idea at first, because of the ongoing debate about music in Islam. I realize that many Muslims think that music is haram, and would therefore take any comparison of Quranic Recitation to music as sacrilegious. Discussions in class pointed out that the main difference is that music is used for entertainment and recitation is used for a higher purpose. I posit that the project I have made is not for mass entertainment, but a form of aural translation in an effort to connect it to non-Muslims who have no connection to Arabic. By stripping the recitation of the words, reducing it to its melody, I show that knowledge of the Arabic language is not necessary to connect to the transcendent quality and beauty of the recitation.
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