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Introducing “Ray Of Light, A Blog”: Experiencing and Learning by “Talking to Myself”

Talking to Myself

Punish me for I’ve written the significance of the dream

in my own blood written a book ridden with an obsession

Punish me for I have spent my life sanctifying the dream of the future

spent it enduring the tribulations of the night

Punish me for I have imparted knowledge and the skills of the sword to the murderer and demonstrated the power of the pen to the mind

Punish me for I have been the challenger of the crucifix of hatred

I’m the glow of torches which burn against the wind

Punish me for I have freed womanhood from the insanity of the deluded night

Punish me for if I live you might lose face

Punish for if my sons raise their hands you will meet your end

If only one sword unsheathes itself to speak you will meet your end

Punish me for I love the new life with every breath

I shall live my life and shall doubly live beyond my life

Punish me for then the sentence of your punishment will end.

-Kishwar Naheed (trans. Rukhsana Ahmed)

 

Kishwar Naheed’s (a Pakistani poetess whom we studied in class, see blog V below) poem, Talking to Myself, is talking about violence, but she talks about it with an eye to the significance of rhetoric, of art in experience, of knowledge-power and the creation of symbols, societies, and resonant social action and stories. She points to a few of the quintessential intents of a class taught through a cultural studies approach, an arguably contentious affair and a risk in the world of academia. Welcome to Ray of Light. This blog is a series of six posts in which I, Kirin, am reflecting, as a student in Professor Ali Asani’s AIU 54/HDS 3627: For the Love of God and his Prophet: Religion, Literature, and Arts in Muslim Cultures this Spring 2014. This blog is a series of moments of talking to myself: of challenging what I have been taught, imparting my favorite lessons, of reading too much into a single moment in a text or experience.

The course title says much of what my reader should know about my blog – this course was a journey through different Muslim cultures that took many shapes. My feminism is a part of my understanding of Islam and it’s different manifestations and arts, and understanding the experience of a religion or attempting to express its meaning through gendered lenses was an important way of seeing in this course that I hope is imparted in my writing and in some of the ensuing posts. Gender and the ways it is poetically enshrined, politically handled, relegated to being understood only through certain symbolic repertoires are all questions I found it important to ask and will raise again here, for the sake of clarity, and in hopes that I haven’t oversimplified in the following posts. It is impossible to do justice in any kind of teaching or learning (or even reflection, which I do find so valuable and which is the theme) – sometimes the only way of delivering a way of knowing is to offer up an experience, as this course often did. Experiential learning can mean sitting back and closing one’s eyes, letting the qawwali music wash over you. It can mean reaching forward and feeling your way through the simulated construction of a mosque, for which you must come up with your own generative design principles. It can mean painting with brushes, or your fingers, and shaping the contours of pottery into the vessel you imagine. It can mean the ink bleeding over your fingertips until it appears to flow from underneath your nails as you illustrate a love letter or practice your new calligraphy.

The blog includes a few such experiences.

This series of entries runs in the order of creation, as follows:

I. Re-conceptualizing Jihad (re: Week 2)

II. Traditions of Muhammad (re: Week 4)

III. The Strength of Silence (re: Week 3)

IV. Cupbearer, fill… Connecting human & divine love (re: Week 10)

V. The grass is also like me: multiple “natural” truths (re: Week 12)

VI. A Rain of Pearls, Cascade of Wine (re: Week 9)

This blog became such a salient part of my learning in this class because it enabled me to engage with the concepts from the reading on a personal level, in a way that went beyond the initial reading of a poetic form or an artistic symbolic repertoire. The blog was a space to connect those symbols, forms and patterns to actual lived experiences and the trains of thought that regularly run through my head. A blog forces you to ask: How does this concept connect to my identity? Where have I learned the things I think I know? What is it that I think I know?

A blog forces you to look around you and at the current news and history from a multiplicity of places, and to think twice about the modern manifestations of these forms, patterns, and symbols that resonate through the different cultural art-styles that we studied. When I wrote my first blog entry, Re-conceptualizing Jihad, and designed the presentation, I did it with the intent that my form of “teaching presentation” would convey my sentiment of learning when I myself read about the political origins of the term “jihad” (see blog/video for further philological discussion). I was shocked and surprised to finally get a sense of the history of the term “jihad,” and immediately wanted to share that lesson – or at least my sensation of shock (and embarrassment that I hadn’t known) with others. I was immediately driven to share in a way that would convey that I thought it was an important lesson. It was so relevant to our lives – all of us – and I hadn’t known the first thing about it.

The shared aspect of blogging is a way of connecting not only your own personal experiences and identities with the material you pick up in class, but also of engaging with the reactions of others. Engagement with others as a way of learning further calls to mind the famous maxim, “you never know something until you teach it.” Blogs, I believe, are a way for us to imagine or practice our own teaching. What would I want someone else to know about this?, we have to ask, to distill what is most salient to issues that affect more people than just each of the bloggers on a personal level. Who is affected by the way I perform my identity?, we must know, in order to play directly to the audience we think is out there to absorb our content. Thinking about audience is also a large part of shaping the actual content we produce.

What kinds of art are accessible and post-able? With the Internet as the mediating force between the content producer and consumer, one must ask the inevitable question of how art comes to be seen and which forms of art we choose to transmit which messages. After the video and the card, I found myself gravitating to the more compact photocompositions, because I felt they conveyed my message and yet maintained an aesthetic that was appealing and easy to consume. It is a bittersweet irony to reflect on making this decision. I hope the viewer will take time to think about the different mediums I used, and the progress that the messaging takes through the different posts. The media we to which we are accustomed does indeed produce bite-size images, consumable stories, and flattened, legible concepts. This is what we use to organize our thoughts and this is what I myself was drawn to produce because I felt that in presenting this to my audience, I would be giving something in a form they would not have to grapple with too much and yet would hopefully be able to still learn from. This plays directly into our pervasive societal conception that the best-presented ideas are simple-but-appealing. I would argue that gone are the days of glorified academic papers that spoke loftily through citational hierarchies and presumed a canon or three of knowledge. What is admirable today is the ability to package a statement and make it easily consumable – in fact, so easily consumable that it is infectious and instantaneous: what does the word viral mean if not this?

I took this course because I wanted the complicated version. I think this blog has its strengths and its limitations. It is strong in its ability to talk to itself, in its reflective qualities and its willingness to admit ignorance and try and impart new lessons. The way that this course challenged me to explore art through the culturally/historically variable edicts of different forms of Islam, I want to challenge my viewer/reader. I think the blog does some of that – it issues certain challenges, but in some ways, it works too hard to creatively produce an “easily consumable” summation of the lessons that are multi-layered and complex. This is a complexity that is difficult to convey in a blog post – and perhaps the nature of the beast is the medium with which we are working, in the same way that language bounds my ability to articulate my sentiment now, as I retroactively compose a preface to these artistic interludes, interacting with the text. Here I am again, hoping to gain some insight, grateful for these moments of learning through self-reflexivity – and encouraging my readers, my friends, and my future self to keep in dialogue with all the ideas we are presented with. Writing means re-thinking, even if indeed bounded by categories and language. And we never connect with ideas so well as when they are deeply connected to that which we can identify with. Islam is a part of my history – it is a part of my disjointed clan in Pakistan and India, a part of my culture and my own history as that which is passed down – in hate and prejudice, in love and faith, and in boundary-building and breaking enabled by artistic reflection and rejuvenation of religious ideas. Thank you, reader, for joining me in this ephemeral posting, which I hope reflects some of my (always incomplete) conversations with myself.

A Rain of Pearls, Cascade of Wine

 

(medium: photocomposition, response: week 9)

There are two primary things that I want this photocomposition, which pulls text and image from Ghazal 21 of Hafiz’s The Green Sea of Heaven, to evoke:

1)    The “rain of pearls” referenced in this photocomposition is part of my consideration of our Week 9 readings on how ghazals are composed and the central structural elements explained in “Ravishing DisUnities.” The “rain of pearls” to me is a metaphor for the disunity of poetry that defines the ghazal. It is that very disunity that makes the ghazal form so compelling to me, and perhaps to others. There can be an internal thematic content, but each couplet is disjointed from the others. This “disjointed” structure is something I appreciate deeply and which I think is essential to representing actual patterns of human thought. The image of the “rain of pearls” (see p. 10-11 of The Green Sea of Heaven) is a powerful one because it can also be connected by a concerted effort into a string of pearls. The string of pearls is perhaps a forced or temporary unity, but nonetheless, each pearl is a valuable human thought – in its own right, and also as part of a potential whole. This, to me, is the beauty of a ghazal’s structure.

2)    The symbol of wine, which is pervasive in ghazals and other forms of love poems, has been compelling throughout (its influence is also evident in my other blog posts). The reason I find the metaphor of wine salient extends beyond the theme of intoxication. Intoxication certainly lends itself to an understanding of the inaccessibility of God, of a fulfilled love – there is no true trance state – wine, poetry, and ritual practice are all ways of engaging the higher senses in order to get closer to God. But beyond this, we have the image of the spill, because the fluidity of the image is part of what appeals to the listener – it is a dangerous fluidity, enabling one to cross boundaries and access some partial segment of the beyond. The photo itself, with multiple colors and a depiction of the liquid nature of the wine, is intended to indicate that boundaries between the divine, love, physical, and intangible are all more permeable than we imagine.

The grass is also like me: multiple “natural” truths

(medium: photo composition, response: week 12)

“The grass is also like me” and other poems by Kishwar Naheed, the Pakistani feminist poet (here translated by Rukhsana Ahmad), speak to the reader/listener both politically and emotionally. Ahmad makes the argument in her introduction to We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry that this Urdu poetry departs from many of the traditions of the classic ghazal, but I believe that resonant image clusters do remain a significant part of Naheed’s poetry. In this very poem, the images of the self as nature/yearning/seeking the inaccessible are utilized. However, compared to the mystical, disjointed nature of the ghazal, these images refer to a political reality more than a personal relationship with God, and the metaphors are elongated and elaborated. It is the subversion of that literary form, though, not the eschewing of it wholesale, that produces such a powerful effect. Kishwar’s poetry harkens to a sense of colonial patriarchy that is carried forth in new, reproduced and re-sourced contemporary manifestations, under religious justifications that hold no logical weight. It is the ‘natural’ and intrinsic justice to which she calls in order to make her point; read here in the drama of the photo composition.

The “woman in nature” that Naheed imagines is entirely separate from her completely unnatural, “civilized” or “Islamicized” position in Pakistani society. In fact, in these political institutions of certain forms of dress, purdah she is intentionally erased by such corruptions of “what we imagine as nature.” Naheed picks apart the claims and knowledge production that attempt to naturalize the subordination of women in powerful, extended metaphors of competing truths of nature.

This poem drew at me separately from the poetry we read excerpted from the collection We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry for Week 12, because of the use of nature and the analogy with women – the process of denaturalizing supposedly innate systems of domination is at the heart of feminist deconstruction. It is for this reason that I chose the nature metaphor, over the scathing critique and satire of the poem “We Sinful Women” (p 31). I believe that this poem denaturalizes domination without offering an essentialist vision of ‘female unity,’ a difficult achievement in the ambiguous, porous boundaries of poetry – but part of my own interpretation. I intend for the photo composition here to reflect some of this, and to appeal to the same metaphor as the text, offering multiple possible truths and thus disrupting the monolithic representation of a ‘female nature’ that needs to be civilized/subordinated using decontextualized religious justifications/politically managed.

Cupbearer, fill the bowl with blood, not wine: Connecting human & divine love

Image 1: The Front Face of the Love Letter/Card

Image 2: The Card Opening

Image 3: The Inside Face of the Card

(medium: cardstock/black ink – love letter/card, response: week 10)

In response to Farid Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, I crafted a love letter (with the potential to be sent, should the need arise) that reads with the following text from the epic poem itself:

“Heart’s blood and bitter pain belong to love,
And tales of problems no one can remove;
Cupbearer, fill the bowl with blood, not wine –
And if you lack the heart’s rich blood take mine.
Love thrives on inextinguishable pain,
Which tears the soul, then knits the threads again.
A mote of love exceeds all bounds; it gives
The vital essence to whatever lives.
But where love thrives, there pain is always found;
Angels alone escape this weary round –
They love without that savage agony
Which is reserved for vexed humanity.”

― فرید الدین عطار, The Conference of the Birds

This form of creative interaction with the text seemed appropriate to me, because what was most striking in reading the book was the way in which it imagined acts of human love to be part of a guide/an instructive tool for enacting divine love. These forms of love – which are linked to pain, the idea of loss, and the symbolic spilling of blood, impress upon the reader the difficulty of finding and loving God. There is a sense of yearning in each of these poems that have to do with love that implies that the end goal can be characterized by its unattainability.

The card is an aspirational symbol of expressing one’s love, because it projects hope for positive reception, but cannot ensure it. The form interacts with the content itself. “Hoping for love in return” is an emotion embodied in the sending of a love-letter or a card of this nature. The personal effort and hard work that gets poured into handmade drawings and the writing out of a selected set of words is part of the image of “spilling blood.” It has to do with the “spilling of sweat” that is involved in making something to give to one’s beloved.

There is no guarantee in the one-sided sending of a letter or a card, just as there is no guarantee when one pledges their love and devotion to God, who presides over all. In the attempt to perform an act of sacrificial, risk-taking human love, one begins to understand what it means to give up parts of the self in order to love another fully and without reserve. Herein lies the allegory I most wanted to interact with – human love as a pattern and example for divine love.

 

The Strength of Silence

(medium: photography/photo editing, response: week 3)

In al-Ghazali’s External Rules for Qur’anic Recitation, the idea of silent recitation as a devotional practice on the personal level was particularly powerful. The potential for a strong interaction with God in a silent reading stood out to me as unexpected. I was ready to find the celebration of aurality that is such a prominent piece of devotional practice, as Rasmussen points out about traditions in Indonesia (and as we hear from the accompaniment to Sells’ book). Yet I hadn’t given much thought to the importance of the pure venture of reading itself.

Since the Qur’an was an oral/aural text before codification, it is a significant shift to move into the act of reading itself and alone. Reading can be independent of other ways of experiencing the Qur’an – certainly independent of the concept of recitation. It appears to me to be a very different, innovative-to-the-point-of-sometimes-radical (in an identity-moved, interaction-based, deeply personal) way of interacting with the concepts of the text itself.

This photo and quote composition shows the silent space of a woman reading. The implication is of more room for the liberated understanding of the Qur’an. The Qur’an becomes accessible in individual reading, as a text that can be read by anybody when there are no rules of recitation to draw harsh lines around the interaction. While the aural tradition that we have studied is beautiful and rich in so many ways, there is also value in the open book, open heart of a silent interaction/reading. The passage from al-Ghazali that struck me deeply was important enough to extract and place in here as a quote, to get the most pertinent idea across.

The interacting text and photo are intended to raise questions for the viewer: In contrast to the Sama polemic and the fervent debate over the place of music or instrumentation, what is the value of an absence of noise? What does that leave space for, between the individual and the Qur’an, especially for women, who may be disallowed from public recitation? In understanding the self in the context of the Qur’an’s powerful ideas and injunctions, what is the value of silence?

Traditions of Muhammad

(medium: poster art, response: week 4)

The readings for Week 4, filling in our discussion on the different traditions of glorifying and understanding the Prophet Muhammad, and Prof. Asani’s Chapter 3 in Infidel of Love, prompted an exploration on my part of the different depictions of the Prophet. There are so many culturally and historically influenced “ways of fitting him in” to the existing forms of knowledge in different ‘Islamic’ societies. In this poster I have sketched out some of the emblematic depictions that pay homage to the Prophet and indicate how he exists across different societal conditions.

How does the Prophet as a figure in both history and a personal example come into dialogue with local folkloric traditions? The South Asian idea of an incarnation of existing powerful spirits, a beloved for whom the feminized soul yearns (with deep gender-power implications in the tradition of the virahinī in Sindhi poetry), the tradition of a Prophet of God (one among many, 28 listed in the Qur’an), or a Chinese sage (alongside Confucius) are some of the standout depictions of the Prophet to me.

Each phrase I chose to write into the calligraphic illustration left a distinct impression on me of all the different ways his greatness is depicted. Perhaps the most prolific is Muhammad’s position as a human exemplar of a well-lived, pure life. Clearly, these are time- and space-dependent, but the rich ways in which these imaginings of the ‘same’ historical figure and figure of faith differentiate themselves from one another is embedded in histories of politics, mythologies, and repertoires of metaphor that already exist in societies where Islam may come to be an essential part of a larger culture.

Significant questions that this exercise and illustration raised for me include:

  • What are the theological implications of the Prophet having the ability to play an intercessory role?
  • What is the difference between a figure of faith and a figure in history who is remembered as a great political and temporal leader?
  • What are the implications for the continuation of political/religious authority; i.e. how would claims come to be based in the legitimacy of certain ways of seeing the Prophet?

 

Reconceptualizing ‘Jihad’

A New Understanding of Jihad

Watch video here: http://youtu.be/9oMDe8ZEEzU

(medium: video, response: week 2)

This video is a presentation that re-conceptualizes “jihad” according to the new histories/philological understandings that I acquired in reading Week 2’s Chapter 2 of Professor Asani’s manuscript, Infidel of Love.

The Google definition begins with the short pretext: “(among Muslims).” This is the caveat that is necessarily put before the definition “a war or struggle against unbelievers.” (One thing worth considering is the idea that many Americans have today that only Muslims ever take issue with people who have divergent beliefs than themselves. Not that some Muslims do not, but so do some Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Democrats, Republicans, socialists, feminists, anti-choice activists, etc.)

Another definition is given before with the pretext ISLAM, which reads “the spiritual struggle within oneself against sin.” I’ve never seen a definition qualified so many times, and to the same purpose – to illustrate how the concept is Other, alien, and divorced from our ways of knowing and from Western action in the world. Perhaps that is to be expected from the linguistic origins, but it is also simply a word from Arabic that has been trans-culturated into common use – it could, the same way “crusade” has been divorced from it’s linguistic/cultural origin and is applied at large – be used more liberally and without the Otherizing sense of belonging to that monolithic, Islamophobic conception of “violent Arab Muslims.”

I had somehow never learned or been taught (perhaps not that surprising?) that the US was responsible for the training of the leaders of Hamas and Al-Qaeda, down to the ways of speaking about Islam and for what many would consider a subversion of the concept of jihad. Much of this links back to Prof. Asani’s original question at the beginning of our course: How do we know what we know about Islam?

Correspondingly, what is the incentive for the media and politicians to frame the ideological conflict, dualisms, and ongoing physical wars in the ways that they do? The section in Infidel of Love on the oft-cited ‘sixth pillar’ of Islam was fascinating to me and illuminated a historical context applicable to the modern concept of jihad – the way it is enacted in the public imagination. Worth noting is the below graph of how the use of the term has increased over time – considering mapping the change of meaning, as I try to show in the film presentation, as drawing so many messier lines over the exponential increase.

Use over time for term: Jihad

I end with a question that became far more stinging to me upon realizing how recent the manipulation of language around the idea of the struggle/ effort truly is:

Can over a thousand years of nuance and dialogue over the meaning of this concept be flattened into the contemporary political scare tactic we are seeing played out?