Introductory Essay

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I created this artwork in the spring of 2014 to express themes studied in an Islam through the arts class taught by Professor Asani at Harvard University. I am not a professional artist, but enjoyed the opportunity to express myself academically through the arts for the first time in several years. The course was 13 weeks long, and each week’s readings, class lectures, and discussion sections contained several themes expressed through Islamic art, architecture, and culture. The structure of the class was non-linear, and the themes did not build off of one another like blocks, but rather functioned independently as part of a vast cultural web or landscape. The themes that I chose to illustrate through colored pencil drawing, collage, cartoons, poetry, personal essay, and photography were: Geometric design in Islamic architecture, Taziyeh: Iranian passion plays celebrating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, Light: a trope in the Qur’an and Islamic art representing the divine, Qawwali: A form of dhikr (Sufi music and/or dance), Feminism in Islam, and the Experiences of Contemporary Muslim Immigrants in the United States.

The central point of the first few classes was the fact that there is no single “Islam” and that “Islam” does not say or do things. Similarly, “Islam” does not have singular opinions or universal rules. The only central belief common to all geographic expressions of Islam is the Shahadah: “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger” (plus an additional phrase about Ali if you are a Shia Muslim). We also learned that various forms of Islam have five or more “Pillars”. The most common five are reciting the Shahadah, performing the “salat” prayer five times a day, giving “zakat” alms to the poor, fasting called “sawm” during the month of Ramadan, and going on the “hajj” pilgrimage to Mecca.

The class was intentionally taught using a Cultural Studies approach. This means that we studied a variety of aspects of Islamic art, architecture, society, and culture through the lens that everything is interconnected, and culturally specific to the region in which it appears. A common critique of the Cultural Studies approach is that the course felt scattered and inconclusive. A common praise of the Cultural Studies method is that we were exposed to a wide variety of cultural expressions of Islam through readings, multimedia, and lecturers, in order to appreciate the vast diversity contained within the religion.

As a student studying Islam for the first time, I appreciated the Cultural Studies approach and felt it was a successful way to gain an introductory appreciation of the nuances of such a complex topic of global importance, without oversimplifying the religion into generalizations. As a student minister of a local Unitarian Universalist church, and a student at Harvard Divinity School studying to be a Unitarian Universalist minister, I appreciated the emphasis the course placed on multicultural experiences of similarity and difference, interfaith communities, and geographic variation in worship, art, and culture.

I believe that studying the Arts of a religion, country, or identity group is an effective way to learn about their history, culture, and beliefs. Arts are simultaneously local and universal. They are “local” in that they express the history and culture of the specific place and context for which they were created. On the other hand, the beauty of the Arts speaks a universal language, which transcends nationality, religion, race, gender, politics, etc. You do not have to be a Muslim to appreciate the beauty of Islamic art and architecture, including the beautiful song, dance, architecture, mosaics containing passages of the Qur’an, poetry, novels, or film. I am not a Muslim, yet I could experience spiritual transcendence while listening to Pakistani Sufi Qawwalis, which I discuss in a post on this blog. This class was a special opportunity for me to experience for the first time a wide variety of Islamic art, learn about its cultural context, and admire its beauty.

The central theme of the course which I touched upon in my last blog entry is the idea that Muslims believe there is only one God worshiped by all monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, sometimes includes Hinduism), and as a result many Muslims are tolerant of other religions. This was a major theme of many of the multimedia sources we watched, read, and listened to in the class, such as the film New Muslim Cool, and stood out as a source of optimism and hope for the future of our politically-divided world. We kept returning to the idea that Islam has a long history of tolerant, moderate, and progressive relations with interfaith communities of friends and neighbors of other religions. Fundamentalism and Extremism were portrayed as fringe elements and anomalies in the class, products of recent Islamic politics in the Middle East and the rise of Saudi Arabian influence. (Such as in the film Koran by Heart, for example.)

As a student minister of an interfaith religion in which members can be atheists, agnostics, pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. I especially appreciated the attention given to the history of Muslim tolerance, liberalism, and progressivism. Respect for other religious traditions is one of our core Unitarian Universalist values, and I was happy to see that it shared by many Muslim communities worldwide. All to often Islam is given a bad reputation in the West by people (media, politicians, etc.) who overestimate the significance of Islamic fundamentalists, extremists, and the small group of Islamic terrorists compared to the vast array of different types of Islamic liberals and moderates. It is my hope that more people in the US come to see Islam for the various and diverse religion it is, and come to know Muslims as individuals within geographically and culturally distinct groups, as opposed to stereotypes and generalizations. In this way I hope the culture of blatant Islamophobia in the West, and in the United States in particular, can evolve into an atmosphere in which moderate and progressive Muslims and Muslim communities are accepted and welcomed.

The first blog post I did was one of the most meaningful for me. In it I wrote a poem to express my reaction to studying patterns (geometric, floral, etc.) in mosque art and architecture. In my poem I treat my house as a mosque, and analyze its patterns of design to see what meaning the art and architecture of my house conveys. I found that my house is covered floor to ceiling in patterns drawn from nature, essentially making it a temple for the worship of the unity of the pattern/design that pervades the natural world. This is especially appropriate because my fiancée and I are farmers and stewards of conservation land. We both value nature above all, and it was a profound realization that our house, which was not decorated or furnished by us, but by previous generations, matches our values and beliefs. Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe this consciousness frozen in the art and architecture of the house is actively passed down through the generations through oral tradition, lifestyle, and local culture. Or maybe it is just an extension of the environment on which the house is situated, the values and beliefs a natural consequence of living on such a beautiful piece of land. Writing the blog post prompted me to see my surroundings in a whole new way, in light of the cultural studies approach. From now on I will consider what the specific art and architecture of a place says about the values and beliefs of the people who built it and/or live there. Often times the things we worship as a culture are reflected even in the design of our supposedly secular spaces.

Another theme of the course that struck me was Feminism in Islam. Unsurprisingly, Islamic feminism comes in many culturally distinct forms, such as were expressed in the graphic novel Persepolis, satirical story Sultana’s Dream, and poem “We Sinful Women.” I was surprised by the theme that women who wear hijabs can be feminists, and wear the hijab as a reclamation and statement of their identities as Muslim women. I was raised to understand that the hijab was a marker of patriarchy’s sexual suppression of women in conservative Islamic communities. As such, it took me a while to get used to the idea that Muslim women who wear the hijab could think of themselves the same way Muslim women who don’t wear the hijab think of themselves, and/or the same way non-Muslim women think of themselves. The hijab may have been a product of a male-dominated society and enforced by patriarchy, but it has become so much more. It has become a politically-charged signifier and tool for female religious and/or political expression. While I still believe it should be a woman’s choice whether or not to cover her head, and not a government’s mandate (for or against), I learned from the various multimedia in class, especially films and interviews, that women’s clothing means different things in different countries, and is a more complicated subject than I had originally thought. For this reason I made a character in one of my blog posts a woman who wears a chador, a conservative article of clothing for a Muslim woman, but who expresses feminist values in other ways, through her actions and speech.

I believe that one of the best ways to learn about Islam is to interact socially with Muslims in your local town or community. Meeting and getting to know Muslims from three or more countries and as many US states taught me how important regional differences in Muslim cultures are, and how diverse the religion of Islam is. My fear of people in Muslim clothing decreased dramatically after I made Muslim friends. This is the case with any ethnic, racial, religious, etc. minority in a city, state, or country. People naturally fear what they do not understand. I think that intelligent films and documentaries about Muslim cultures such as the ones we watched in this class can help non-Muslims understand and relate to their neighbors. Intercultural understanding is a first step towards acceptance and peace.

One could make the generalization that for hundreds of years, Catholics and Protestants feared, discriminated, and warred against each other, Jews were oppressed and attacked by Christians, etc. Now it seems like the problem of the decade is religious conflict in the Middle East, between such groups as Hindus and Muslims, Muslims and Jews, and between Muslim communities and the predominantly Protestant Christian United States. I wrote a blog post about learning from my Moroccan friends who are Muslims for this reason. They taught me to be more open-minded about cultural difference, and more importantly, to start to see cultural similarities between us. This class taught me to appreciate the geographic and cultural diversity of Islam, and to start to see the universality of its central faith in God. I was left feeling hopeful about the potential for reconciliation between the US and the many Muslim communities worldwide.

Introductory Essay

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WEEK 13 : Contemporary Muslim Immigrant Experiences in America

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For this blog post I was inspired by the Film “New Muslim Cool” and the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which both contained the theme of telling the stories of the experiences of contemporary Muslim immigrants (or converts) in the United States. This made me think of the stories I have to tell about my interactions with a local Moroccan community. I have had moments in this community in which I have been acutely aware of our cultural differences, and moments in which our similarities rose to the surface.

For this blog post I wrote down a few of those stories, and drew a picture of the cous cous bowl we sit around when we visit. At first I was surprised to see eight or more people from different families eating from the same bowl with their hands, but I got used to it, and now it doesn’t surprise me anymore. The cous cous bowl is a metaphor for the way the community shares resources with each other, in an intimate way, and trusts God’s plan.

 

“The Couscous Bowl”

A few years ago, five or so Moroccan families became friends of the farm where I live, and started coming out to visit us once a year.   This was my first exposure to a recently immigrated Moroccan community, specifically Muslims who knew each other back in Morocco and belonged to a close group of extended families. In each nuclear family unit, the young unmarried man came to the US first, found a job and an apartment near family, and went back to visit Morocco to get a wife. Their children were all born in the US, and range in age from six months to thirteen years. When they come out to the house, they bring four generations, throw a big party, cook Moroccan foods, and make mint tea on a wood fire.

The women are all differently dressed, speak different languages, and interact with each other and with the men in varying ways. Some wear the hijab over a loose dress, others wear it over a Western outfit of tight shirt and tight pants, and others don’t wear a headscarf at all. The men all wear things like jeans and a polo shirt, as do the children. Some of the women are outspoken, and others are quiet, same as in any group of people.

This interaction based on having them over to the farm and visiting their houses for cous cous and lamb with my fiancée has given me wonderful opportunities to ask questions about Moroccan culture, and about one community’s experiences of being Moroccan Muslim immigrants in Massachusetts,.

If I had to make generalizations, I would say that they tend to be much more generous and hospitable than the typical person in the US, and that family is very important to them. The women give the impression of doing all or most of the household chores, cooking, and child rearing, while the men go to work or get together in a group to talk, smoke, and arrange business deals for relatives.

When we spoke about religion and Islam, they explained that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all ok, since all three share Abrahamic monotheism. One person explained that these religions all worship the same God and are basically the same religion. My friends from Morocco are very distrustful of people who are not believers in God, however, like atheists, agnostics, and polytheists, who they believe are on the wrong path.

After a long conversation about how each couple met and fell in love, and after seeing wedding albums, and talking with a woman in this group who was pregnant with her first child, I became deeply impressed that they had a lot of faith, courage in adversity, patience, trust in fate, belief in miracles, and that their worldview was remarkably similar to my own. We see eye to eye on the meaning of life, at a fundamentally level deeper than our individual religious contexts.cous cous bowl 1

WEEK 12 : Islamic Feminism

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The theme that struck me this week from reading Persepolis and Sultana’s Dream was the theme of various expressions of Islamic feminism. For this blog post I decided to draw a cartoon strip in the style of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, in order to illustrate an excerpt of the poem “We Sinful Women” by Kishwar Naheed. The poem begins with the powerful sentence: “It is we sinful women, who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns, who don’t sell our lives, who don’t bow our heads, who don’t fold our hands together.”  I could relate to its clear message of strength of character in the face of cultural sexism—sexism that encourages women to demure to authority, be crippled by fears/doubts/ insecurities, and jealously covet material possessions.

“We sinful women” reminds me of an excerpt from the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou: “Now you understand 
Just why my head’s not bowed. 
I don’t shout or jump about 
Or have to talk real loud. 
When you see me passing 
It ought to make you proud. 
I say, 
It’s in the click of my heels, 
The bend of my hair, 
The palm of my hand, 
The need of my care, 
’Cause I’m a woman 
Phenomenally. 
Phenomenal woman, 
That’s me.”

(On the theme of Islamic feminism, I was surprised to read on the class handout in week 10 that Surah 4:34 in the Qur’an advises men to a progression of punishments for disobedient wives, ending in beating them. This strikes me as a potential danger to women in nations with Sharia law, and a cause for concern, proactive feminist leadership, and laws outlawing domestic violence.)graphic novel strip 1

WEEK 8 : The Dhikr: Music and Dance in the Sufi Tradition

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Dhikr means “remembering” and is a Sufi devotional practice that varies from region to region across the Muslim world. In “Sufi Music and Dance” from The Shambhala Guide to Sufism (1997), Carl Ernst writes that “whirling dervishes” and the modern qawwali ritual are contemporary manifestations of earlier Sufi traditions (180). The following themes came up in my study of music and dance in the Sufi Tradition, and I incorporated them into my drawing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing a qawwali, which is a kind of dhikr.

In “Sufi Music and Dance,” Carl Ernst writes that the critical issue in this musical performance is the sensitivity of the listener (181). Sama‘ means “listening”. Ernst writes, “the source of sama‘ is…the rapture or attraction (jadhb) of God, a kind of energy that irresistably draws one towards him” (185), and, “the effect of sama‘…is ecstasy (wajd)” (182). In my opinion, the rhythmic beat of the qawwali does indeed create opportunity for ecstasy and spiritual transcendence, regardless of the religion of the listener.

Secondly, in class and in discussion group we talked about the issue of whether or not secular audiences understand Sufi music the way it is intended to be understood in Islamic contexts. Ernst writes that secular concerts of this spiritual music are growing in popularity, and the context in which the music and dance is experienced increasingly includes people who may not understand the words or share the Muslim religion. (191) I would fall into this latter category myself. Personally, I suspect that my understanding of dhikr is limited by my inability to understand the language more than it is by my religion.

Finally, in “The Sacred Music of Islam: Sama‘ in the Persian Sufi Tradition” Leonard Lewisohn writes, “Geographical features, mountains for instance, are here no longer merely physical features; they have a significance for the soul; they are psycho-cosmic aspects.” (14) I wonder what happens to music containing geographic meaning specific to the landscape for which it was composed, when the music is played on a different continent with a distinctly different landscape and geographical features. Perhaps it evokes images or feelings of the landscape in which it originated? Here I tried to evoke the feeling of the Punjab province of northern Pakistan where Nusrat and his Qawwali are from, which is mostly flat rich agricultural land but has some steep hills.Nustrat Khan 1

WEEK 4: Light

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The theme of Allah’s divine light pervades the poetry in praise of the prophet.  All three of the readings for discussion this week mentioned the divine “light” of Allah, passed down through the prophets, ending with the spark that became Muhammad’s soul.  In the Knappert reading, “light” also represents Allah’s brilliance and wisdom (Knappert 66).  Asani discusses the mystical dimensions of Allah’s “Light” in the prophet Muhammad (Asani 175).  Finally, Celebi mentions light a few times, including in the verse, “I drank it, and my being filled with glory, nor could I longer self from light distinguish” (Celebi 23).  I was especially moved by this beautiful passage from the Mevlid-i Sherif, and chose to do a project illustrating the idea of a human soul ceasing to distinguish itself from the light.  The light in this case represents the Allah’s light placed in the prophet Muhammad, passed down through the 25 prophets and divine word of the Koran (Knappert 66, Celebi 39).

There seems to be a theme of a human being encountering God and being filled with/ becoming light itself.  I was interested in the idea of the human body and mind becoming vessels for the universal spirit.  In my art project, I cut a hole in a blue paper pre-printed with a swirled design, and placed a blank white paper behind it.  On the white paper I drew with colored pencil the image that would complete and match the larger design.  The hole represents the fallible human being, and the pre-printed paper represents the world, or God’s design.  Both are constructed in the same image, with signs of a pattern of universal beauty.  In relationship with light, the human drawing appears to disappear into the light, and/or meld with the surrounding beautiful design that represents Allah.

WEEK 4: “Nor Could I Longer Self from Light Distinguish”

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WEEK 5: Ta’ziyeh

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Colored Paper Artwork illustrating Taziyeh:

This week I was inspired by our study of the Shi’a “passion plays” called Ta’ziyeh (Shahidi 42).  The word Ta’ziyeh means “mourning” or “consolation” (Chelkowski 2).  In the Ta’ziyeh tradition, Imam Hussain and the family of the prophet (the “good guys”) are always depicted in green.  The actors wear an article of green clothing, or some other green identifier.  Shmr and the enemies of the family of the prophet, (the “bad guys”), are always depicted in red.  The actors wear an article of red clothing, or some other red identifier.  Anything that is on Hussein’s side is green, and anything that is against him or betrays him is in red.

I was interested by this color dualism as a visual representation of the idea of an eternal struggle between good and evil.  Within the predominantly Judeo-Christian culture in which I grew up in Massachusetts, the dominant visual paradigm used to represent dualisms like good and evil was “black and white”.  For this reason it surprised and interested me to learn that red and green could be used as signifiers of a similar relationship in another religious culture.

To visually illustrate this dualism, I created a piece of artwork using layers of green and red colored paper.  The outer square which sparkles with many shades of green represents the prophet Muhammad, Hussein’s grandfather, whose life and works form the spiritual backdrop of Taziyeh.  The overarching love of Muhammad (and Allah (Pelly 93)) surrounds and informs the story of Hussein.  The center square is half red and half green, representing the dual nature of the human heart.  Shi’a Muslims watching the Taziyeh participate in the play by crying, weeping, and feeling as if they are witnessing the betrayal and death of Hussein first hand.  Unable to stop Hussein’s murder, they experience both the feeling of having betrayed him, and the overwhelming urge to serve and protect the family of the prophet.  In this way, participants experience both good and bad within their own nature.  The good part is more beautiful and arguably wins when religious and spiritual faith in Shi’a Islam is reinvigorated by the experience.  (Some also believe acting out the play gains Hussein’s intercession on Judgement day. (Chelkowski 2))

Week 6: Sacred Space, Sacred Patterns

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WEEK 6: Sacred Space, Sacred Patterns

 

“The use of rigorously defined geometric spaces, precise mathematical proportions, clearly defined lines and volumes relating to exact mathematical laws were means whereby the space of Islamic architecture, as well as its surfaces, were integrated. The principle of Unity was thereby made more manifest and the Islamic space within which Muslims carried out their ordinary lives as well as moments of worship were sacralised.” (Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality, 48)

(Photo of plant trays)

 

Poem:

 

The House Faces South

 

When this house was built,

All houses faced south —                                    5/5

South towards the light, and

The mid-day sun’s heat.                                    5/5

Architecture aligned

—Practical knowledge.                                    6/5

 

What would thoughtful art

historians notice?                                                 5/6

Would they notice an

old woman had lived here?                                    5/6

Every odd surface

is covered with flowers.                                    5/6

 

Persian rug with flowers,

Trees on Chinese fruit bowl,                                    6/6

Clock with German flowers,

Bird and branch sugar bowl,                        6/6

Flower lamp, and flower cup,

Leaf on a model ship —                                    7/6

 

Symbol language of

a natural world.                                                5/5

Gendered testament

to a builder’s plan?                                                5/5

Our daily life a shrine

to God’s creation?                                                6/5

 

This poem is a response to the ideas in WEEK 6 about math, geometry, and the unifying nature of repeated imagery in Islamic art, specifically around mosques.   I left the numbers on the right side of the poem to show that the number of syllables in each line intentionally forms small repeating patterns.

I was moved by the idea that the art becomes a part of daily life, by being engraved on practical objects like lamps, pitchers, bowls, etc. that are meant to be used.  I liked the idea that using the art object in daily life (such as a water pitcher with a verse from the Qur’an carved into the spout) is a form of prayer.  The ordinary becomes sacred, until everything one sees and touches is sacred, testament to the Unity and ever-present nature of God.

I was moved by the idea that the art covering the surfaces of mosques speaks a language, communicating information about the people who made or bought the art.  In my poem I tried to communicate this idea that the art of a place forms a unified skin (Necipoglu, The Topkapi Scroll, 221) laden with layers of meaning.  I explored what language my house would speak to an art historian, and found that the common language uniting 99% of the art on our everyday objects is plants, animals, and flowers.  This makes sense, since we are environmentalists and nature is our unifying vision of the all-powerful and ultimate.  Our house seems designed from the very beginning to worship nature, like a mosque designed to worship Allah.  It faces the object of our worship (the sun) and every surface is covered with the name and signs of God (nature, plants, animals).

To add some nuance and depth to this idea I drew from the debate in our discussion group about the different ideas of Nasr and Necipoglu, specifically the debate whether the important thing is that the art is intentionally spiritual and universal (Nasr), or the important thing is that it contains layers of social, cultural and political meaning specific to the place and time in which it was created (Necipoglu).  The builders had practical economic reasons to build this house facing south, and the old woman who lived in the house before us had gendered reasons to buy objects with repeating flower patterns on them, so there are many meanings we can glean from the art and architecture of the house, in addition to spiritual reverence for the Unity of Nature.

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