When I proudly profess to people that I’m a Muslim, I quickly follow with a guilty “but not a good one” the moment their eyes dart to my naked hair. Many of my habits are far from virtuous, and I roll through my Arabic prayers with the thickest Dari accent to the point where I’m too embarrassed to say “Assalamailakum” to other Muslims, scared I might pronounce it wrong. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even spell it right. I could not differentiate between culture and religion, Muslim with a capital M and muslim with a little m, and instead saw Islam as this leviathan that could make even Hobbes shake in his boots. I took this class thinking I knew everything there was to know about Islam including the five pillars and the shahada and so forth. Five pillars? Well, actually, it could also be 7. The shahada? Well, depends on if you’re talking about the single or double shahada. Needless to say, I was extremely confused the first couple of weeks in this class. My mind was blown, I realized everything I had ever thought I knew about religion wasn’t really that true – but I loved every moment of it.
Professor Asani doesn’t describe Islam for you. Instead, he shows you how hard it is to describe Islam to begin with, considering it is more like a kaleidoscope consisting of different colored cultures rotating together around continuously changing patterns rather than a giant static monolithic entity. Islam is defined by those in power, and that’s why when you say the name “Islam” rarely does the image of Sheikh Amadou Bamba painted on walls in Senegal pop in your head, nor do you hear the howling of Turkish sufi dervishes. The Muslims and Islamic traditions that fall outside of the margins of the Arab world are many times neglected. The goal of these creative responses is to pay homage to the many different communities of interpretation in Islam. There exists no true monopoly over the definition of the “real” Islam. There is, however, tawhid or “oneness” within the many different Muslim communities. The common thread that runs through all these groups is the thread of the Brahmin. Khusrau says, “I am an infidel of love: I don’t have any need of being a Muslim. Every vein in my body is a thread. I do not need the tread of a Brahmin.” Nearly everyone is connected in their “otherness,” in their passion for God. Khusrau willingly accepts this “otherness” for himself. He realizes that he loves God so deeply that he has become an infidel in the eyes of the conservative, and that his love for God is so ingrained in him that it constitutes his veins like the threads of a Hindu, an “infidel.” He can no longer hide his infidelity, he is an “Infidel of Love” as Professor Asani puts it. This is the main theme of my creative responses. I talk about my own personal experiences of being the “other” and how this relates to larger Muslim communities who feel the same. We all express our devotion in ways that extend farther beyond the ritual prayers and offerings we make during Ramadan. We worship and express our heretical love for God through the arts.
I first wrote a poem using heretical imagery like wine, prodding the speaker to leave Mecca’s gates and to drink from Majnun’s cup to see what “intoxicates the sober and drunk alike” so that the speaker may find God. I come from a conservative community and so writing about wine and God at the same time is a thrill of its own. The poem itself is about the separation an immigrant or refugee feels from their own homes, and can also be interpreted as a symbol for being separated from God. As I explored how underrepresented communities were excluded from the definition of Islam, I started to explore how my own definition of Islam is underrepresented. Many of my creative responses deal with this subject, including this poem. As an Afghan in America, I can feel “The red-hot memory of my own motherland rubbing clean/ from the soles of my shoes” as I walk the streets here, collecting new memories, scared I might forget my origins. In response to this separation and the destruction in our homes, we turn our faces to the East and West in prayer, but cannot find God anywhere. This means that our traditional forms of devotion in praying and fasting are not enough. Instead, I have found new forms of devotion, learning to love strangers and reciting heretical poetry. Many references are made to Sufi symbols and imagery, a mystical community of interpretation in Islam that had been prosecuted in the past for their beliefs. These Sufi symbols are universal and everyone can relate, connecting our different communities of interpretation through the ideal of love and passion.
The second creative response talks about another forgotten people: the orphans. It is commonly known that Prophet Muhammad was an orphan, and though he was cared for by his extended family, this reality shaped Muhammad’s preachings and values profoundly. Muslim culture emphasizes providing your services for everyone in your community, and not just the orphans. Learning about Prophet Muhammad’s life made me understand why there had always been such an emphasis on social justice in my own Afghan-Muslim culture. My aunt would always fill a shopping cart full of food and cold juice during the hot months of Ramadan in Dubai and offer it to the construction workers who worked near her building. When I asked her why, she told me that to love God was to never hurt another Muslim, but to always do your best to keep them happy. I was confused at this answer because many of the construction workers were not Muslim and did not observe the ritual of fasting during Ramadan. I asked her about this and she answered, “Hama ma bandey Khuda haste,” meaning “We are all God’s servants.” She meant to say that we are all muslims in that we submit to God, whether we do it through Islam, Hindiusm, or even kindness. This allegiance we all have to the greater good connects us, so that we must all provide for each other as much as we can. I painted an orphan girl and a Senegalese religious leader named Amadou Bamba with black ink to show that to emulate the Prophet’s piety, one must provide for those in their communities. This, like the devotional art form of poetry, is one of the many different ways to worship God.
Shia piety has been for years another misunderstood form of devotion. Before taking this class, I must confess I would describe the difference between a Sunni and Shia as “political differences,” with a few “variations in praying and traditions.” Not only was I completely wrong, but I was also extremely ignorant of the rich traditions within the Shia community of interpretation. The Taziyeh was what triggered this change of thought for me. Taziyeh is a passion play born in Shia Iran that commemorates the tragic fate of Hassan in Karbala. It is one thing to study the fact that the Shia community has immense love and respect for the Prophet’s family, or the ahl-al-bayt, and another to experience it through a play. The play is not so much as a performance but as communal worship where actors lose themselves in the story and the audience will weep with grief and participate meaningfully in the play. The intense love, loyalty, and perseverance of the ahl-al-bayt and the Shia community is to be revered. The scene that captured this perfectly for me is a scene in the play where a dervish from Kabul asks Hassan how it could be that great men like him are dressed in tattered clothes, dying of thirst in the desert, while other dishonest men sit with jewels in their laps. Hassan, after having most of his army die or desert him, tells the dervish with parched lips, on the brink of dying from dehydration, that “We are never in need of the water of this life.” I constructed a paper collage of this scene, hoping to show how despite the fact that the “other” is continuously persecuted and pushed to sidelines, they hold fast to their beliefs and traditions.
While referencing to different cultures in these creative responses, I began to become conscious of how underrepresented Afghanistan’s Islam was. Maybe “underrepresented” would be the wrong term as it is represented in the media, but in all the wrong ways, as most people only think of the Taliban and burkas when they think of our Islam. I expressed my frustration at this through a personal story. It talks about my own struggle with having the headscarf be considered as a symbol of oppression. It also talks about how people within the Islamic tradition breed exclusivity in their definition of what is considered right or proper. The larger community this creative response addresses consists of women in Islam. I cannot speak for women in Islam. But that is my main point, no one should be able to speak for us. Let us share our own stories, let us make our own decisions to wear the headscarf or to not wear the headscarf. Our bodies, our clothes, our identities have become battlegrounds for the West and conservatives, each claiming their way will “free” us. We do not need to be liberated from Islam, we do not need to be liberated from Western imperialism. We need to be liberated from people who think that it is OK to speak for us as if we are one homogenous group rather than a community comprised of unique individuals. The same way Islam is not a monolithic religion, women in Islam are not a monolithic community.
Narrowing this lense, I chose to represent Afghanistan and so I chose to do a spoken word performance of Rumi’s Ney-name using someone else’s singing performance in the background. I chose this specific poem because it is one of the most famous in Afghanistan, and my earliest memories of Rumi consist of my mother humming it as a song while she would cook dinner. I perform it with a Dari accent, different than the Tehrani-Farsi accent most people are accustomed to hearing it in, carving again my own little place where I can belong in this tradition. The poem itself is about a reed flute separated from the reed-bed, the theme of separation scattered all throughout my creative responses, all alluding to the reunion a Sufi seeks with the origin.
As the creative responses continued, they became more personal because I was able to apply the tolerance I had learned to have for others to myself and my own traditions. My final creative response is a culmination of the theme of carving a safe space for my own personal “otherness” within the Islamic tradition. It is a traditional Pashtoon folksong that I performed, drawing connections to the South Asian tradition of Qawwali. This song is personal to me on many different levels. It is sung in my mother’s language and reflects our nomadic tendencies to get together and sing during large gatherings. The song is about a girl named Lailo, a Pashto derivative of the name Laila. The singer laments that it his beloved’s wedding day as it means that they will be separated. I would always sing this song with my cousin and best friend, also named Laila (who we call Lailo), jokingly telling her that I would sing her this song on her wedding day. The lyrics of the song reference the previous themes in my creative responses. He sings of separation like the Sufi tradition, of being like an orphan, and how he hopes no other muslim has to feel the pain that he feels from this separation.
Through these creative responses, I was able to explore my own conception of Islam. I did it first in the context of traditions and communities considered to be the “other.” As I learned to accept these neglected traditions, I learned to accept my own traditions and heritage as well. My responses gradually become more and more personalized until I was able to construct an image of my Islam.