Drunk in Zikr

Worshipping through the Arts

Introduction

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.

Maazdigar sho Lailo

 

 

Maazdigar sho Lailo, kelai khabar sho Lailo nende wade dai

It has become evening, Lailo. The entire village is aware, Lailo, that today is your wedding day 

Sta pa tama zde me khawre pa sar sho lailoo, nende wade dai

My heart waits for you. Dust fell on my head, Lailo, today is your wedding day

 

Che sta dolai ye pa ma rawde(2)

When they brought your dolai (wooden structure covered by a veil in which the Bride sits and is taken to her new home, lifted by four agnatic kin of the groom)

Leka yatim de dewal khewata wedredema(2)

I stood like an orphan next to the wall [as I watched you go] 

 

Maazdigar sho lailoo, kelai khabar sho lailoo nen de wade dai

It has become evening, Lailo. The entire village is aware, Lailo, that today is your wedding day

Sta pa tama zde me khawre pa sar sho lailoo, nende wade dai

My heart waits for you. Dust upon on my head, Lailo, today is your wedding day

 

Beltoon de shney lakhtey gozaar dai(2)

Seperation is like the pain of a green branch hitting upon me

Rab de jumla musalmanan te wosatina(2)

May God keep the community of Muslims protected [from this kind of pain] 

 

Maazdigar sho lailoo, kelai khabar sho lailoo nende wade dai

It has become evening, Lailo. The entire village is aware, Lailo, that today is your wedding day

Sta pa tama zde me khawre pa sar sho lailoo, nende wade dai

My heart waits for you. Dust upon on my head, Lailo, today is your wedding day

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Week 8: Sufi Piety I – Shaykhs, Pirs, Music, Dance and Poetry

Medium: Song

Qawwali is a musical genre that has manifested from the Sufi tradition in South Asia. The performers sing mystical poetry that comes from the Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Hindi traditions and the music is used by the audience and performers as a form of devotion. Without realizing it, I had already been exposed to Qawwali prior to taking this class. Because of my mother, I grew up listening to a prominent Qawwali performer called Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I would tell people “I love Qawwali!” without really knowing what Qawwali meant. I started to dig farther into my memories to try to think of other mystical music that my mother exposed me too. Many things came to my mind, including last winter when my aunts and my mother sat in the dark with their eyes closed, moving their heads left and right to the sway of the music as they listened to an Irani song. When I asked my aunt what they were singing, she leaned into me, still with her eyes closed and said “Man mastam. Darya mast. Darakhta mast. Hama mast,” which meant: I am intoxicated. The ocean is intoxicated. The trees, intoxicated. Everyone and everything, intoxicated. I nervously laughed at the thought of my pious aunt talking about being intoxicated, not understanding that she was talking about the Sufi kind of “mast”, where everyone and everything is so overwhelmed with love for God that it feels like they are intoxicated. This made me realize that so much of the music I had been exposed to and that is part of my heritage could be considered Qawwali without traditionally being thought of as Qawwali. My mother comes from a nomadic Pashtoon family, and Friday nights for us consist of everyone congregating around a drum to sing traditional folk songs passed down from generation to generation. These folks songs are my Qawwali. For this reason, I chose to sing one of my favorite Pashtoon folk songs within the context of the Qawwali. The song is about someone in the village watching the wedding festivities of the girl he is in love with named Lailo. Lailo is a pashtoon derivative of Laila, a name meaning “night” in Arabic and made famous by the love story Laila Majnun. It is also my name and my cousin’s name. As a joke, we sing this song together while my mother plays the drums and the rest of the family claps their hands rhythmically, very much like how Qawwali performers perform their songs with instruments and clapping. The lyrics of this poem speak most to the type of Qawwali that expresses emotional dimensions of mysticisms in ishq (love), firaq (separation) and wisal (union). The love the singer feels is intense, he says “dust upon my head” that today is your wedding day, speaking of the soil someone throws over your grave once you’re dead like dust on your head. He compares himself to an orphan as he watches her go, signifying how alone he is in this journey for love. When he sings of the separation, he compares it to the pain of someone repeatedly hitting him with a branch that is mockingly green and bright. Here, one can see how this folk song can be interpreted not only as someone longing for their beloved, but someone longing to be reunited with God. He prays that no other Muslim should have to feel the pain of this kind of separation. When he says Muslim here, I believe that the singer speaks not about the Muslim in the traditional sense, but as one who submits to God. He means to say, may God protect anyone who is on this journey of reunion from the pain that it will cause. The pain of this separation is intense, and the wisal (union) seems unlikely as the Bride is being carried to her new home, out of his sight. However, the repeated line about dying reminds the reader that maybe upon death, there will be a reunion with the beloved, and in this case God.

Rumi’s Ney-Name

 

Beshno az ney chon hekaayat mikonad

Listen to the (ney) reed flute as it tells a tale 

Az jodaayee ha shekaayat mi-konad

Complaining of seperation 

 

Kaz neyestaan ta maraa bebrideh and

Ever since I was separated from the reed bed 

Dar nafiram mardo zan naalideh and

My lament has caused man and woman to moan 

 

Sineh khaaham sharheh sharheh az faraagh

I want a chest torn by severance 

Ta begooyam sharheh dardeh eshtiyaagh

So that I may unfold the pain of love desire

 

Har kasi ku door maand az asleh khish

Whoever remains far from where they belong 

Baz jooyad roozegareh vasleh khish

Should seek the day of reunion again

 

Man be har jamiyati naalaan shodam

In every company I uttered my wailful notes 

Jofteh bad haalaano khosh haalaan shodam

I consorted with the unhappy and happy 

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Week 9: Sufi Piety II – The Ghazal (love lyric) and Mathnawi (narrative epic)

Medium: Spoken Word

Persian poetry puts to words the relationship between man and Creator. The masnawi is no different. It is a form of Persian narrative poetry that consists of rhyming couplets and a moral lesson. I  decided to recite the first ten lines of Rumi’s Ney-name that is a part of the Masnawi tradition. I used parts of another person’s performance of the poem (his song can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbyWwZxH-VM) as background music. Sufi poetry, like the Quran, is an oral tradition and is meant to be experienced by the listener and reciter. Its in saying the words out loud that one can understand their meaning and come closer to God. In this way, recitation and singing can be considered a devotional exercise the connects the performer and listener alike.

The story Rumi tells is of a reed separated from the reed-bed so that it can be formed into a flute. The reed flute bemoans his separation, and cries out. This separation alludes to the idea that people are separated from their origin, namely God, and now must suffer through the pain. The reed says “I want a chest torn by separation…/So that a I may unfold the pain of love desire.” Here you can see that it is through pain and separation that you can understand the depth of your love. Learning to love this way is important because Sufi mystics believe that love is the steed that can take you to the Divine. The choice of using a reed as the narrator is significant too. For a reed flute to produce music, it must first be hollowed out, in the same way that Sufis believe you must empty yourself of all egocentric tendencies before you can experience the divine. Only once the flute is hollow, can it produce music. The way music is produced is through someone blowing air into the flute, mimicking the act of God breathing life into his creation.

This poem is not just about the author, but it speaks for all of people who are separated from their origin, whether the origin be God or their home country or any place that they feel like they belong. My mother’s favorite line is “Whoever remains far from where they belong/Should seek the day of reunion again,” because it reminds her of how she was separated for years from her family because of the war in Afghanistan, and now is slowly starting to find forms of reunion, however small they may be. In this same way, Rumi’s end goal is for the flute to be returned to the redeemed, or for him to be returned to God.

But you’re not Muslim, right?

“But you’re not Muslim, right?” a fellow Harvard student asked me during freshman year in Annenberg once he learned I was from Afghanistan.

“Not the greatest,” I joked, “But nope, still a Muslim. They don’t randomly select me for extra screening at the airport because they think I’m cute.”

Clearly the joke did not land, because he scrunched up his eyebrows in all seriousness, leaned in and softly said, “But you’re not wearing a hijab.” That wasn’t even a question. He just said it like a fact, almost apologetically as if I was not aware of this before he had mentioned it.

At the time I wanted to laugh at the thought that to be Muslim you had to wear a headscarf. But that chuckle pretty quickly died down into a “hmm…wait a minute.” Does this guy have a point? Have I been doing it all wrong this whole entire time? I started to rummage through my memories to figure out if this had happened before. Turned out, it wasn’t the first time someone had an opinion about my identity and how I dress and about my faith.

The first time it happened, I was in sixth grade and it was Ramadan. I grew up in the Netherlands, but I would say I adjusted pretty well when we moved back to Afghanistan when I was 10,  at least as well as you could expect someone to adjust to unreliable electricity and showering using a bucket of water. I grew up speaking our native tongue and in a Muslim household and so I thought there wasn’t much more information I needed to fool my classmates in Afghanistan into thinking I was born and bred in the same city as my parents. I was wrong, because it turned out my information about Islam was kind of different than the information about Islam many of my other friends were getting. Some of my wealthier classmates in Afghanistan had a Qari that would come to their house to teach them about Islam and the Quran. My Islamic education was mostly non-formal, and with that I mean non-existent. I think my father once tried to explain to me that we were all made out of clay and that God breathed life into us with His breath, but then he quickly gave up when I kept asking him why we don’t break if we’re made out of clay, and how God has enough breath for all the people in the world, and what an allegory was. Beyond that, my parents just honestly did not have time to sit me down and teach me about Islam. They worked in a restaurant from morning till night as immigrants in the Netherlands, and then once we went back to Afghanistan, in the Ministry of Education from morning till night where their college degrees actually meant something. Besides, my parents had never been strict with enforcing the rules of Islam (whatever you might think the rules for Islam are). Even if you ask my mom now what religion means to her, she’ll say “love.” I know a couple of Qari’s who would disagree with that.

All of that is to say that my Islam was basically anything I wanted it to be. That meant talking to God before every Math test to ask him for a good grade, and performing traditional salat on a prayer mat without actually pronouncing any of the Arabic words correctly. More importantly to the main theme of tonight, it meant that I would fast during Ramadan without my headscarf on. It was sixth grade and I went to an international school where many of the girls chose not to wear a headscarf within the compound, including me. But during Ramadan, the lunch area would be dotted by colored headscarves of girls sitting next to boys, nervous with hunger but smiling in the summer heat with those same parched lips. Girls who usually would not wear their headscarves and who were not expected to at all decided to wear their headscarves while fasting. I thought nothing of it initially. Until a girl came up to me and said, “Aren’t you fasting?”

“Yep.”

“Why aren’t you wearing a headscarf?”

“Because….my hair looks really good today? I don’t know. So what?”

“You do realize your fast doesn’t count if you don’t wear your headscarf?”

“Yeah it does.”

“No it doesn’t.”

“Says who?”

“Says everyone.”

“Well, I don’t care,” I ended the conversation as bravely as a sixth grader could, meaning with a tiny apologetic smile that said “but we’re still friends though, right?”

I stuck to what I had said and didn’t eat anything during lunch even though there were plenty of kids who decided not to fast, and didn’t drink anything even though this horrible substitute teacher made us sprint back and forth in P.E. class. All along, I felt something gnawing at my stomach, and it wasn’t just hunger. It was more like a mixture of guilt, a sense of failure, and pride that had been severely bruised. I wanted to say that I really did not care if people thought my fast didn’t count, but at at 4 pm, an hour before the sun was going to dip down and we were allowed to break our fast, I grabbed an apple and bit into it. I put the apple down after a bite, I wasn’t even really hungry anymore anyway.

Fast-forward ten years later to now, I’m still that little girl, awkwardly squatting on the border between wearing a headscarf and not wearing a headscarf. I wear my headscarf when I walk the streets of Kabul. My closet back home is so full of headscarves it sometimes vomits out a color of the day on the floor without me having to go actively pick one for myself. And I love it. I love the patterns, the colors, the smell of the dust in my scarves when I bring them to America. I love wrapping myself in a big black blanket of a scarf when I feel unsafe as men stare at me in the bazaar. I love sharing my scarves with my friends. I love stealing the crisp and ironed ones from my mother’s closet every morning before school. I love the act of carefully and expertly drawing a scarf over my head when it’s time for prayer. But as much as I love the act of putting it on, I love the act of taking it off too. The moment the plane from Kabul to Dubai lands, I shed my scarf like an extra limb I realize I don’t actually need anymore. All of freshman year, I would still hesitate before leaving the room, looking under my bed, checking my chair, thinking “where did I leave my scarf?” until I realized that’s not a part of my life here in America anymore and that I don’t need to put it on before leaving the room.

I still cannot explain to you how I see it as neither a symbol of liberation nor as a symbol of oppression. All I know is it is a part of my identity, and that it gets tiring having to explain to people who you are on a daily basis. A couple of days ago, before leaving my friends room, I looked in her mirror (astonishing to me at the time because I don’t own a full-length mirror of my own) and drew the scarf I was wearing around my neck on top of my head. In that little small gesture, it was as if I had been transported immediately back to Afghanistan. I walked out like that, not caring if my scarf didn’t belong in America. Two minutes later, my scarf slipped down, and I didn’t immediately rush to put it back on, not caring if my Islam didn’t belong in this world.

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Week 10: Reform, Revival, and Muslim Women Defining Identity

Medium: prose

Charlotte Weber questions in Unveiling Scheherazade: Feminist Orientalism in the International Alliance of Women how Western leaders of the international women’s movement view women from our countries, meaning how they view the “other.” Many times, there is this unchallenged premise they usually start with: that the Western way is the best way, that our women are oppressed and must be liberated at once! Someone at Harvard here (being super vague on purpose) was heard to say  “This is not Afghanistan for our women to be treated this way!” So, what is it about our women that needs saving, and why has no one told me who signed up to save me? This problem is not unique to only Afghanistan. People do not seem to realize that the issue of women’s rights is far more complex than what many people are making it out to be. I met a woman once who told me that Afghanistan’s democracy would never work and that Afghanistan would never be at peace as long as it’s women wore the hijab. This statement alone fails to address the fact that women’s rights aren’t a direct result from any single religious or traditional practice, but that the reasons for women’s rights issues are varied and complex. Women and men alike have turned our bodies into a battleground for the debate between the West and Islam. I attempted to articulate my own frustrations with this through the form of a short personal story. Many women are left to defend their right to wear the hijab and others are faced with the sad realization that to be considered “Muslim” one must wear the hijab. There are no gray areas between wearing the hijab or not wearing the hijab, there are no choices. It seems everyone is speaking for us and everyone is deciding for us. For this reason, I chose to use this space to articulate my own feelings and emotions, knowing that this might be one of the few spaces someone would listen to our stories and our side.

We are the Wanderers

We are the Ahl al-Kitāb [1]
We are the orphaned wanderers
The soles of our feet now sticky
With the imprint of lands sweet like poisoned honey
We sip from their rivers flowing with milk
But are thirsty
for the thirst we felt in our own deserts
Hungry
for the hunger we felt in our own mountains
The seas that we cross
Have not been parted for us
and are not Red
The only Red we see
Is the mark of the sajda [2]
On our foreheads like a Sindoor [3]
We turn our faces to the East
“Assalamu’alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh [4]
Where is God, my brother?”
We turn our faces to the West
“Assalamu’alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh
Where is God, my sister?”

 

Where is God not? the Dervish [5] from Kabul answers
Do you not see the Ayat [6] that He has left for you
Written on your palms
In the curve of your lover’s lips
On the skeletons of leaves as you watch them burn
How could you?
When you close your eyes,
As you turn your face to the East and West.
When you cover your Saaghar [7] with your hand,
Frightened that it will overflow with wine.
If you want to find God’s house,
Do not come knocking at Mecca’s gates.
If you want to learn to love God,
Do not look to the Men of Letters who collect books
Look to the wandering Majnun [8] instead
And taste what God has poured in his cup
That intoxicates the sober and drunk alike

 

I smile and reply I am no Dervish,
But I am a weary wanderer too,
The red-hot memory of my own motherland rubbing clean
from the soles of my shoes
As they collect grime and grub
From the Pardes [9] I walk through
And on this journey
I have found no home
But the home in Him
So place a tombstone made of camel hair upon my head, Brother
Wrap me in your own white shroud
And ask My Prophet to take back his black Burda [10]
So that I may return to where I belong
Because when all was lost
And everyone left,
And it was time to turn off the lights
In my heart there was a niche,
And in that niche there was a lamp,
And in that lamp was God’s light
And within me, I found that which I had sought all along

 

Now when I turn my face to the East,
and I turn my face to the West,
I find that I have turned my face to God
Assalamu’alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh
Assalamu’alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh
Assalamu’alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh

Week 2: The Qur’ān, God’s Word as Sacred Design, and the Art of Calligraphy

Having perused through the many calligrams and scholarly texts offered during Week 2, I have become aware of the fact that devotion to God does not merely mean turning your face to the East and West in prayer. Instead, Muslims worship God and celebrate his Prophet on a daily basis through various art forms such as poetry, music, and art. These different forms of expression lead to many different interpretations of Islam and it therefore can be difficult to celebrate these differences while still acknowledging the tawhid, or oneness of the Muslim community. Professor Asani introduces a commonly shared ideal in Chapter 2 of his Infidel of Love that expresses the importance of “Selfless love for God.” I attempted to express this important ideal in the form of a poem, by drawing on “heretical” imagery and language commonly used by important poets of the past and from excerpts of poems Professor Asani included in his own creative analysis. I also mixed English with words borrowed from the Hindi, Arabic and Dari/Farsi languages to reflect the tawhid of the Muslim community despite their differences.

The poem starts with “We are the Ahl al-Kitab” (people of the Book) to remind the reader of the family that they are a part of. The second line stands in stark contrast to this solidarity and sense of belonging. We are also isolated in our journeys to the extent that we are like orphans without a home. This journey is both a spiritual and physical one. It specifically refers to the experience of being a refugee and immigrant, longing for the familiarity and safety of your home-country, while also being a wandering mystic seeking for Truth and longing to be reunited with God. The poem draws clear inspiration from commonly used symbols in the Abrahamic traditions such as the image of a land flowing with milk and honey and the parting of the Red Sea, while even drawing direct quotations from the Quran like the Surah an-Noor. The poem expresses the idea that there is more than one way to find God, and that to be one with God, one must lose themselves, be “intoxicated” with his love so to speak. The poem ends with the poet accepting the Sufi tradition that to know God, you must sacrifice your ego-centric tendencies and allow yourself to be annahilated (fana fillah) so that you can dissolve into love and experience God. This acceptance of fana relieves the tension created earlier when the phrase “Assalamu’alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh” is said twice, instead of the customary three times at the end of salat (prayer). The poem resolves itself by stating the phrase three times, symbolizing the completion of his life’s devotion and reunion with God.
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[1] Ahl al-Kitab. Arabic for “people of the book” and refers to those who follow monotheistic religions based on divine revelations written in holy books that were transmitted to people by God’s messengers, some examples of ahl al-kitab including Jews and Christians.
[2] Sajda. Arabic word meaning “prostration to God” by pressing your forehead to the ground.
[3] Sindoor. Red pigment applied as a dot to the forehead or in the parting of the hair of a married Hindu woman.
[4] Assalamu’alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh. Arabic phrase meaning “May the peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah be with you.” This is commonly said as you turn your head to the East and the West a total of three times after a prayer to signify you wishing your neighbor peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah.
[5] A Dervish is a member of a Muslim Sufi religious order who has taken vows of austerity and participates in devotional exercises.
[6] Ayat. Arabic for “evidence” or “sign.” Also refers to phrases in the Quran.
[7] Saaghar. Dari for a cup with a stem and flat base, used commonly for drinking wine.
[8] Majnun. Arabic meaning “mad man.” Refers to the famous love story between Qays and Layla, Qays becoming so mad with love for Layla that people forget his real name and call him the mad man.
[9] Pardes. Pardes is Hindi word made of par (other) and des (country). It therefore means “foreign country.”
[10] Burda. Arabic for “cloak.” It refers to a poem written by Kab ibn Zuhayr who at first was a rival to the Prophet, and to seek forgiveness offered a beautiful poem to the Prophet. The Prophet was so moved by this poem, that he took off his cloak and placed it on the shoulders of to the poet.

We are Never in Need of the Water of This Life

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Week 5: Post-Prophetic authority, communities of interpretation, and Shi‘i Piety

Medium: Paper Collage

Love for the ahl al-Bayt (“People of the House”), specifically Ali and his progeny, is central to Shia piety. For this reason, the tragic death of Hassan and Hussein has important implications for the Shia community. Taziyeh is a passion play born in Shia Iran that commemorates the tragic fate of Hassan in Karbala. As opposed to Western theatre, the audience is very much a part of the play and will weep with emotion during the play. In this creative way, the Shia community is able to express their grief, commemorate their beloved leaders, and express their devotion in a form of communal worship.

Inspired by the powerful imagery of the Taziyeh and the love story between Qasem and Fatimeh, I created a collage made from paper. The collage depicts the resilient Fatimeh with her arms tucked neatly by her sides as she stands in a sea of blue water. The water imagery is inspired by the moment Hassan tells the dervish from Kabul with parched lips that “…we are never in need of the water of this life.” Retaining pride and dignity in the face of defeat and brutality is one of the resonating messages in the Taziyeh. Fiery flames surround Fatimeh, reminiscent of the desert’s heat. Fatimeh’s face is pale and she is on the brink of death from dehydration, yet she refuses to lift her hands to drink from the water that she is engulfed by. If you look closely into the water, you will see hints of people drowning in the water. The people drowning warns the audience of what might happen if you partake in the consumption of the water of this land, meaning if you let yourself be consumed by earthly desires. She wears a sweeping green head scarf that reminds the audience that she is of Ali’s house, and that she is a widowed bride, still wearing the traditional green that Muslim brides tend to wear on their weddings. She does not take off her green wedding veil, instead she will wear it until she is reunited with Qasem on Judgement Day.

The Orphan and the Prophet’s Shadow

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Week 4: Prophet Muhammad as Paradigm, the Mi‘rāj, and Poetry in Praise of the Prophet

Medium: Black Ink on Paper superimposed on a wall

The Prophet Muhammad is God’s beloved, or habib Allah. Muslims all over the world have such respect and love for their Prophet that they honor him by following his traditions and way of life, or his sunnah. They celebrate this love creatively through artistic forms such as poetry and art. I chose to create a scene using ink that celebrated the uniqueness of Muhammad as a prophet. It is commonly known that Muhammad was an orphan, and though he was cared for by his extended family, this reality shaped Muhammad’s preachings and values profoundly. Though piety is stressed, there is an overarching theme in his teachings that emphasizes the ideal of social justice. Muhammad himself was a pioneer of social justice during his time. He encouraged giving alms to the poor and taking care of the orphans, and stressed that aiding the needy is just as important, if not more important than worshipping God through prayer.

I had taken a picture of a little orphaned girl begging on the streets during a harsh winter in Kabul, Afghanistan and used this as a template for my painting. The little girl can be seen leaning against a wall bundled in many layers as she looks to the side, anxious in the cold. Hovering above her is the image of the Senegalese religious leader: Amadou Bamba. One cannot be quite sure if his image is hovering above the girl like an angel, or painted by a human being onto the wall. Either way, his presence holds significance for the little girl because he is the only other subject in the scene, symbolizing how the rest of the world has abandoned her, and so she now only has the painted memory of Amadou Bamba to give her barakat (blessings). The irony of this situation is that though people give money to beggars hoping to get their barakat, it is the beggars who are in greater need of God’s material blessings. When the Prophet passed away, he left the people who needed him the most: the poor, the wanderers, the orphans. The Senegalese think that some of the Prophet’s goodness is found in others, and that Amadou Bamba is one of those people, left in charge to take over the Prophet’s work. The orphan girl does not know that Amadou Bamba is there to look after her and give his blessings because even though he is hovering above her left shoulder, she is looking over her right shoulder for help. This, too, reflects the idea that God’s blessings are there, even if you might not see them at the time.

The message of this piece is that if one loves their Prophet, then surely they must love all of the Prophet’s children, the orphans.

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