Prologue

Introduction

When I began the course AIU 54: For the Love of God and His Prophet, an exploration of Islam through art and literature, I was only familiar with the faith and cultural context of Islam throughout the centuries from what little popular media exposure had addressed. I knew about traditional clothing, extremist groups, and the general picture of Muslim devotion. However, I knew nothing of the diversity of Muslim peoples and traditions, the basic and central beliefs of the faith (expressed in the shahadah, or profession of faith), or the dynamic nature of Islam and its various artistic and literary interpretations. Two of the most important themes I drew from the course as a whole addressed 1) the Prophet Muhammad and 2) the dynamic and contextual nature of Islam – culturally, spiritually, and otherwise. I hope that in providing an overview of these themes, I can help readers gain a better understanding of these two themes and, more broadly, to adopt a more comprehensive approach to understanding something as complex as Islam.

Theme 1: The Prophet Muhammad

The shahadah, or profession of faith, states, “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God” and is recited before and after major events in practicing Islamic communities. Muhammad is known as God’s main messenger, through which the holy text of Islam (the Quran) was revealed, and a guide and intercessor for submitting Muslims. To say that the Prophet is highly regarded by Muslims would be an understatement; Constance Padwick, in Muslim Devotion, says that it is “impossible to truly understand Islam without appreciating the devotion, that lies at the heart of the tradition, for Muhammad” (p. 145). This same feeling was echoed throughout history by, for example, the poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal when he compared the Prophet to the one fragrance of the rose of Muslims and to the blood in the veins of the Muslim community (in his work Asrar-i khudi). The Prophet fulfills four main roles in the lives of Muslims, as outlined by Ali Asani in Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam: messenger of God, role model, intercessor, and spiritual authority.

Fraternity & Nur Muhammad

The Prophet Muhammad is importantly revered as the messenger of God, but God’s revelations began to manifest before the time of the Prophet. According to the Qur’an, several generations of messengers were sent before the Prophet to spread God’s message to different peoples of the world. Adam, known as the “Perfect Man,” had a “divine spark,” or revelation given to him by God and represented as light. This light of prophethood was conceived as part of the primordial covenant between God and his creations such that it was passed down from Adam through the generations until it reached its full manifestation in the Prophet Muhammad (nur Muhammad). According to the Qur’an 3:84, “Say: we believe in God and what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes, and in what was given to Moses, Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between one and another among them, and to Him (God) do we submit (literally, we are submitters, “muslims”).” As such, these generations of messengers are viewed as a fraternity and known collectively as Ahl al-kitab (People of the Book). It is said that God revealed his full word (the Qur’an) to the Prophet over a period of 23 years, after which it was passed from the Prophet to his family, followers, and to the general population. After the Prophet died, the oral records of the Qur’an were codified into writing. Both oral recitation and writing, calligraphic writing especially, are considered sacred acts to Muslims from this history.

Sunnah

The Prophet is sometimes referred to as the “Walking Quran” because he is considered to be the embodiment, the ultimate example, of Quranic teachings. As such, he serves as a role model to Muslims around the world. In addition to the codifying of God’s revelations given to the Prophet that comprise the Quran, several accounts of the Prophet’s habits and lifestyle were codified into hadith (which are considered commentary on the Quran in that they address issues contained or clear in the Quran)and known collectively as sunnah (customs). These sunnah establish the behavioral – spiritual, personal, communal – expectations of Muslims. Some hadith are considered obligatory, such as the expectations that are collectively known as the Five Pillars of Islam, and others are considered optional and have to do more with personal lifestyle habits rather than the spiritual practices of the Prophet. Another hadith describes the celestial journey (mi’raj) that the Prophet took: riding on the back of the mythical creature Buraq, the Prophet simultaneously completed the physical journey from Mecca to Jerusalem (Isra’) and spiritual journey into heaven (Mi’raj). This hadith has become an example of the spiritual dedication and journey required of Muslims as modeled by the Prophet. Other hadith similarly instruct Muslims in other aspects of life and faith.

Suffering & Authority

After the Prophet died in 632 CE, a debate as to whom then had authority. Muslims split into two main camps, divided on the answer to this debate: Shia Islam holds that Ali (the son in law of Muhammad) and his descendants were the successors to the Prophet’s authority, while Sunni Muslims believe that, depending on community consensus and who had discursive knowledge extensive enough to be authoritative, the ulama (learned) had religious authority and the Sunni caliph had political authority. Shia Muslims based their familial claims to authority in part on a hadith that says, “I leave two great and precious things among you: the Book of God and My Household” and one that claims, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate.” A widespread theme among Shia Muslims is suffering and martyrdom, exemplified by the Prophet’s grandson Imam Hussain. As depicted in an Iranian theater form called taziyeh, Hussain was sacrificed by the Sunni caliphate and therefore represented the ultimate form of suffering for the sake of righteousness and for salvation (known as “redemptive suffering”). Shia Muslims seek to mirror this selflessness and pious suffering in hopes of salvation and for the glorification of Allah and His Prophet.

Theme 2: The Dynamic and Contextual Nature of Islam

The second main idea that most caught my attention from the course was the dynamic and context-based nature of Islam. It is not a static religion, universal and unchanging through time and space. Instead, its interpretation and derived meaning are dependent on the political, economic, spiritual, historical, geographical context of a given example of Islam. This is most highlighted in examples of 1) different interpretations of “Islamic art” and 2) how reform and resistance to certain ideologies have helped to form the identities of Muslims differentially across time and space.

Artistic Interpretation

These varying contexts lead in one example to multiple interpretations of the same art or piece of literature. For example, the mosque, which is the traditional place of worship and prayer for most Muslims, has retained several common features throughout time. The Qiblah wall points toward Mecca, a holy city by virtually all accounts of Islam, and the mihrab is an alter-like niche in the qiblah wall. Often a minbar, or pulpit, features near the front of the prayer space of a mosque, and tall towers called minarets often flank the entrance to the main prayer hall on the outside of the mosque. However, styles of mosques and individuals’ interpretations of how these features should or should not be incorporated have changed over time. As Sufi Muslims argue, Islam is really about its esoteric – hidden, inner – meanings rather than exoteric, outward appearances or literal interpretations. This can extend from mosques to poetry and many art forms in between. As another art open to interpretation, poetry was once frowned upon because of its condemnation in the Quran; the Quran condemns the egotistical motivations of poets. However, once the ode “The Burda” was made to the Prophet, which proclaimed his worthiness and the truth in his words, poetry became the “heritage of Prophecy” (Asani, 2014).

Finding Identity in Resistance and Reform

Another dynamic area of Islam incorporated ideological and political reforms. Time and space context combined with controversial practices ranging from controversial Sufi music to imperial invasion to Western popular culture to create conflicting historical and ideological battles. Several figures throughout history had roles in various reformation and corresponding resistance movements. For example, the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb claimed that the modernization and intercultural influences left Muslims powerless and the solution to regain power was to practice Islam correctly. Others, such as Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, thought that modern/Western practice and Islam were not mutually exclusive.

Either way, these views were sometimes taken to extremes, and it was especially in these extreme times that Muslim identities were changed; one of the more prominent areas of influence was in gender dynamics. The reform known as “Back to Fundamentals” featured people called Wahhabi (after their leader) and prescribed a strict patriarchal worldview. Under the leadership of Pakistani General Za-ul-Haq, “Islamic” legislation was imposed that negatively affected women’s rights. The hijab, or veil, widely became a symbol of controversy and oppression, and also began to define identity of Muslims in stark contrast to Western individuals. These political movements were in opposition to traditional Quranic and hadith-derived views of women as examples of selflessness and ultimate devotion to God and the Prophet. Even the bridal symbolism of love poetry, in that the yearning bride was the perfect example of devotion to the Beloved God, praised characteristics traditionally termed “feminine.” Mixtures of meaning and identity per gender lead to much resistance and change in the political environments of Islamic societies.

Finally, exposure of traditionally Islamic societies to the West influenced the identities of Muslims. The best recent example is perhaps the effect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Muslims living in the United States. As recounted in numerous sources, such as the Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Muslims in a post-9/11 America faced huge amounts of fear and resulting hostility and discrimination. This example is another on the long list of ways in which Muslim identity and faith relations are dynamic and context-dependent.

Discussion

This background is intended to give readers an overview of two main themes of the course: the Prophet Muhammad and the dynamic and context-based nature of Islam through time and space. Each blog post incorporates one or more example or sub component of these themes.

Post 1: A Fraternity of Prophets & Nur Muhammad

Post 2: The Five Pillars in Cross-Cultural Poetry

Post 3: The Role of Women in the Taziyeh

Post 4: Same Mosque, Different View

Post 5: Identity Through Resistance

Post 6: Islam in the West

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