Introduction: Who’s Islam? Whose Islam?

I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.”

–Pete Seeger

When I enrolled in this course, the international airwaves were dominated by the latest violence and upheaval associated with the year-old Arab Spring. Civil and political unrest, beginning in Tunisia, had spread like wildfire through parts of the Middle East and North Africa. One after the other, heads of state stepped down or fled, in many cases ending decades-long rule. Frustrated adolescents took to the streets, buttressed by social media platforms like Twitter. The first six months of 2011 saw the successive ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Indeed, the Middle East had reached a boiling point, but I remained largely ignorant of the religious and historical underpinnings of these populist uprisings. After years of sectarian violence, it seemed like the Islamic world had finally declared total war on itself.

Yet Professor Asani suggested from the first lecture that perhaps this conflict was not tied to religion itself. He said, “Religion does not have agency. People have agency. People use their own interpretation of religion for their own ends.” It had always seemed to me that people committed acts of incredible charity, selflessness, and violence because that was what their religion dictated. Homosexuality, adultery, and murder were sinful because the Bible said so. Religion dictated what was right and wrong, and people acted accordingly—not the other way around. (For more on the power dynamics and politics of religion, see Creative Response: Power, Islam, and The Beggar’s Strike.)

I had long been taught that Islamic fundamentalism and Al-Qaeda were fundamentally at odds with the tenets of Islam. Islam was a “peace-loving religion” and the Qur’an preached a message of peace. These fundamentalists were outliers and did not speak for the religion itself. They were acting in the name of jihad and Islam, but what they were practicing was not Islam at all. When the United States went to war in Afghanistan, it was not an assault against Islam, but rather, an effort to stamp out the Taliban, a dangerous and violent fringe group. Unfortunately, the moderate Muslim mainstream was caught in the crossfire.

This course challenged my longstanding belief that there is an identifiable and definable Muslim mainstream. From Sufi shrines in South Asia to international Qur’an-reciting contests, Islamic practice is as broad and diverse as its followers. Some Muslim men wear beards to emulate Mohammad, while others scoff at the idea that physically impersonating the prophet has any spiritual value. In parts of Saudi Arabia, music and dance is scorned, whereas for many Sufis, music, dance, and poetry are fundamental parts of spiritual identity. In some predominantly Muslim countries, hijab is mandatory for women, and in other places, it is completely absent (see Creative Response: Women and Islam, Sultana’s Nightmare). In particular, studying Sufi mysticism, which is deeply connected to local culture in North Africa and South Asia, taught me that my understanding of Islam was based on an Arab-centric model.

At the most basic level, this course stretched the bounds of what I thought it meant to be Muslim. And by learning about Islam through the lens of the arts, I started to see the astounding diversity of Islamic religious expression. The texts ran the gamut: we examined early feminist utopian short stories (Sultana’s Dream), love poems, calligraphy, Persian dramatic plays, architecture, whirling dervishes, Muslim rock music, political posters, and memoirs about growing up in Iran and navigating American Muslim identity.

I had always believed that Islam had a basic paradigm (the one that is practiced in the Arab Middle East). Deviations from this mold were due to exterior political and cultural contexts, like Bengali Muslims who have incorporated Hindu prophets and rituals into their spiritual practice. (Many Bengali Muslims believe in the Ten Avataras of Vishnu and consider Rama and Krishna to be prophets. Mohammad is considered the last in this line of prophets. In Southern Pakistan, largely a Shia community, the last avatar is Ali.) This concept of connecting and blending into the pre-existing culture and belief system is called religious indigenization.

But I soon learned that religious indigenization was not limited to North Africa, China, and South Asia—which I perceived to be offshoots of the traditional Arab model. The Arab model, too, was deeply influenced and shaped by cultural and political context. For instance, the Hajj is based on a pre-Islamic ritual, and people had long been making pilgrimages to this spot for idol worship. Muslims redefined the purpose of the pilgrimage to connect with Abraham, Mohammad, and God. Indeed, a political context of violence and tribal warfare had tremendous influence on Islamic practice. As we saw in “The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husein,” the tensions between Sunnis and Shia date to familial and clan conflict.  Shia Muslims, in particular, emphasize the importance of suffering for spiritual redemption, an idea rooted in the collective memory of the brutal killing of Husein and his followers (see Creative Response: Hand of Fatima).

The Qu’ran gives few specific prescriptions about how religious piety should be practiced and expressed. The prescriptions are vague, conflicting, and open for broad interpretation. The hadiths, which recall Mohammad’s words and actions, have more nuanced advice, and are used to supplement the Qu’ran. But the hadiths, too, conflict and their reliability are disputed, as they are not the direct word of God and have been distilled through word of mouth. As a result, even the most basic ritual practices are open for broad interpretation.

Practices as seemingly fundamental and intransient as the Five Pillars are actually influenced by historical and political context. For Sunnis, the Five Pillars of Islam are the five fundamental practices of religious identity (orthopraxy). Yet there is no mention of the Five Pillars in the Qu’ran. The Qu’ran only mentions individual acts of prayer, Hajj, fasting, etc., but does not lump them together or call them the central pillars of religious expression. Instead, the Five Pillars are part of the hadiths. There are some hadiths that mention three, six, or other numbers of pillars, and sometimes include practices like caring for your parents.

In fact, the Five Pillars at the center of Sunni religious expression were established more than 300 years after Mohammad’s death. They were widely promoted by a Sunni Caliphate that was trying to consolidate power. (Shia Muslims do not give as much credence to the Five Pillars, and some have offered a sixth pillar for jihad.) Indeed, the emergence of the Five Pillars was tied to politics of the time. Ritual practice is a vehicle for differentiating and distinguishing yourself from the masses. It is a way of asserting and holding onto your cultural and religious identity when it is in jeopardy. Professor Asani suggested that the recent resurgence of the Five Pillars among Sunni Muslims is a response to the encroachment of westernization and secularization. It is a way of fending off these influences by uniting the community in their shared religious and cultural history. (For more on mediating the West and Islam, see Creative Response: Blue-Eyed Blues.)

The Qu’ran also has little to say on the subject of music and whether it is to be encouraged or forbidden. There are hadiths that say Mohammad himself listened—or didn’t object—to music. But many Muslims say that music promotes appreciation of created things for our own sake, rather than God’s sake. Music is satanic and possesses people like a drug or alcohol, removing their ability to distinguish between right and wrong. This transformative property brings the whole category of entertainment under suspicion, as people lose or forget themselves. For these critics, music is a force that is unruly and out of control.

Despite these criticisms, music and dance are at the heart of Sufism. Many Sufis believe that music is an avenue to God. For example, the famous Sufi whirling dervishes (see Creative Response: Whose Islam? Sufism and Religious Expression Through Music and Dance) are a reenactment of the process of remembering God through dance. Only those who have been sufficiently spiritually initiated participate in the dervishes. Participants wear a cloak of black material, and remove it as they begin to dance as a sign of spiritual rebirth. Casting off the black cloak is analogous to casting off the material world. The white shroud underneath symbolizes purity and starting anew.  (In a similar vein, many Muslims are buried in a white shroud to connect with the heavens, where their soul originated.)

For Sufis, music can incite ecstasy for those who are sufficiently spiritually initiated. Rather than the content of the music itself, there are strict guidelines about the proper audience for music. Music is reserved for a spiritual elite. It is only for those who will not fall into the trap of seeing music as aesthetic and pleasurable entertainment. Qawwali, a form of Sufi music popular in South Asia, incorporates poetry and is usually sung in Urdu or Punjabi. Qawwali is traditionally performed at Sufi shrines, which have gained international regard as popular tourist destinations. The rhythm of the music is supposed to pulsate like a heart beat. With the heart and the music beating together, people forget themselves and their corporeal existence, and tune into their primordial state. Because everyone has a different pulse, musicians will change their rhythms to synchronize with various audience members. Audience members respond to different rhythms. This sense of losing yourself spontaneously, and not through prayer, highlights the tension between ritualized practice and spontaneous feeling.

Reciting the Qu’ran is not considered music, though it is an oral/aural text. It is the recitation of the word of the divine. Qu’ran recitation is above any kind of human creation, like music or art.  It is in another spiritual plane, incalculably more divine, beautiful, and prophetic. Unlike the spontaneous creation of music, reciting the Qu’ran is a disciplined form of religious expression with strict instructions. Tajweed, or the Qu’ran’s rules of elocution, are incredibly complex and only the most schooled and disciplined can master them. For example, there are complex rules about where to place the tongue in relation to the teeth for a particular sound, how to pronounce individual letters, how to pronounce a combination of letters, how long a sound should be, and the like. Rather than something novel, the Qu’ran is recited so many times that it becomes a part of you. Music, in contrast, can be improvisational, evoking a different kind of spiritual state. Much of the criticism of qawwali and music centers on its hypocrisies: it is billed as being only for certain cultivated people, but its broad audiences at Sufi shrines surely include those who are not spiritually initiated. Moreover, qawwali has been used in missionary work in South Asia, and surely those who have yet to convert to Islam are not spiritually initiated.

Islam teaches that God is known through experience. Many Muslims adhere to certain physical regiments that they believe will help them achieve analogous spiritual states. For instance, prostration during prayer is a physical act of submission before God. This physical act is supposed to facilitate spiritual submission before God, which requires moving from an ego-centric framework to a God-centric framework. Similarly, Mohammad and his followers were said to have all wept while reciting the Qu’ran, overwhelmed by God’s presence. They wept for the simultaneous presence and absence of God, who is everywhere and yet cannot be fully understood. For Muslims, connecting with God is an act of remembrance (dhikr). Humans have forgotten what it feels like to be connected to God, so they must take actions to reacquaint themselves with God’s presence.

These practices are examples of the liminal state, a transition into another mode of being that is detached from everyday life. In liminal rituals, people remove themselves from their general (usually secular) activities to carve out a space for reflection, where they are transformed and then return to daily life. Salat (or prayer five times a day) is an example of the liminal state, as it is a space for reflection, meditation, and remembrance of God. Hajj is also example of the liminal state, as people leave their homes, men dress in special white garments, and people physically connect with the story of Abraham and Mohammad. Hajj requires people to completely abandon daily life for an extended period. When people return from the pilgrimage, they are sometimes transformed and have a new outlook on life and religion. Malcolm X famously took a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he interacted with Muslims of all races. The experience led him to recant some of his more polarizing views about black nationalism.

Islam’s diversity of religious expression is made clear by the numerous debates surrounding the acceptability of fine arts, music, dance, and the role of women. But I (and many other Westerners) failed to see the nuances of these debates, and instead believed all Muslims adhered to a narrow paradigm of religious expression. (This oversimplification of Islam by Westerners is particularly striking in Islamic art criticism, see Creative Response: Mediations on the Arabesque).

As sectarian violence continues to wreak havoc in many Muslim countries, there is the constant question of “Whose Islam”? Should sheiks, ayatollahs, and other religious leaders also have political authority? Is separation of religion and state tenable in predominantly Muslim countries? The question of “Whose Islam” has been hotly debated since Mohammad’s death. But this question is not to be found in the Qu’ran. Even the shahadah, the Muslim declaration of faith, is found in the hadiths. With little guidance from the Qu’ran, the question of “Who’s Islam” and what it means to be a Muslim becomes a cultural and political question. It is also a deeply individual question, one that can be challenged and mulled over, as we see in Michael Knight’s tumultuous spiritual journey. This course demonstrated the flexibility of interpretation that Islam allows, and its incredible malleability to local customs and cultures. Pigeon-holing Muslim identity, as I did, effectively creates an us versus them mentality. In discovering the flexibility and diversity of Muslim identity and practice, I learned to see the rigidity of my own stereotypes. Perhaps it is those of us in the secular West who need to loosen up our thinking and let go of our skepticism about spirituality and religious practice.

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The Hand of Fatima

Materials: cardboard, paper-mache, acrylic paint, glue, sand

This piece is an interpretation of the ubiquitous Islamic hamsa, also commonly known as the hand of Fatima. Hamsa means “five” in Arabic, a reference to the hand’s five fingers. The number five has tremendous symbolic significance in Islam. The Five Pillars of Islam are central to religious devotion and considered mandatory for all Muslims (with a few exceptions for illness, etc).  The Five Pillars include the declaration of faith (shahadah), praying (salat), zakat (alms), fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). Within the Five Pillars, Muslims are instructed to pray five times per day and must adhere to five guidelines when giving alms to the poor. Shariah law delineates five categories of human behavior: the mandatory, the recommended, the discouraged, the forbidden, and the indifferent.

The hamsa symbol itself predates Islam and has been found in Mesopotamian and Ancient Greek artifacts. It is seen as a universal symbol of protection against evil, connoted by the eye at the center. The hamsa has been adopted by various religions, especially in the Middle East. Jews frequently refer to the hamsa as “the hand of Miriam,” and the symbol was adopted first by Sephardic Jews, who hail from the Middle East and North Africa. Christians, mostly of Arab descent in the Middle East, have also adopted the hamsa, calling it “the hand of Mary.”

My piece addresses Ahl al-Bayt, Muhammad’s immediate family and descendents. In one frequent interpretation (especially for Shia), the hamsa signifies these critical five members: Muhammad, his daughter Fatima, his son-in-law Ali, and his grandsons Hasan and Husein. In “The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husein,” translated by Sir Lewis Pelly, there is a dramatic reimagining of the battle of infamous Battle of Karbala, in which Husein is brutally killed. This tragic episode is of particular significance for Shia Muslims, who believe the line of succession runs through Ali and Fatima’s family. It also has broader implications for Shia practice, as it reinforced the notion that martyrdom and unification with God is associated with suffering.

In my piece, the sand symbolizes Husein’s martyrdom, as he has returned to the earth and God. The “evil eye” is that of Husein’s assailants. Though Husein is physically killed, he is ultimately taken into God’s hands in heaven. The black designs demonstrate that the arts can be associated with religious devotion and connection to God.

   

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Mediations on the Arabesque

 

Materials: acrylic paint on cardboard

In 1978, Edward Said published a watershed book titled Orientalism, where he criticized Western scholarship for taking a patronizing and overly simplified view of Islamic art and culture. He wrote that Orientalism contained the false assumption that art and culture throughout the Middle East and other Islamic areas is stagnant, homogenous, and when compared to Western art, is inherently inferior. He suggested that this approach had a more pernicious subtext than sheer paternalistic ignorance: it highlighted the merits of colonialism. Colonial rulers justified their civilizing mission, helping a trailing culture adopt a superior Western culture.

Later scholarship built on Said’s damning portrait of Orientalism, and exposed further pitfalls of Western interpretation. S. H. Nasr argues that viewing Islamic art strictly through a sociopolitical lens takes the soul and spirituality out of it (even though it was created specifically for that purpose). He argues that Islamic art is not designed for passive observation, like a painting in a museum, but rather, is a functional tool for remembering and practicing Islam. Further, many of the symbols and schemes associated with Islamic art are not temporal, repeated over hundreds of years in different times and places. Western scholarship mistakenly situates Islamic art solely in the visual world, neglecting its spiritual significance that transcends a single context. Gulru Necipoglu takes a less skeptical approach, arguing that geopolitical and historical context is critical for understanding Islamic art. Necipoglu argues that Islamic art must be understood in its own context. For example, many mosques were built by non-Muslim Armenians and Greek artisans who were not versed in the spiritual subtleties of their work. Ismail R. Al-Faruqi agrees with Necipoglu, though he argues that Western scholarship is too focused historical context. He concludes that artistic meaning is not static and can evolve over time.

In my piece, I comment on the Western interpretation of Islamic art, which has emphasized the arabesque. Western scholars have used the arabesque to suggest that Islamic art is inferior to Western art, because Muslims were incapable of realistic and detailed representations of the natural world. The simplistic renderings of leaves and flowers demonstrate that Muslims were incapable of complex and intricate design. (Al-Faruqi quoting E. Herzfeld, Misconceptions of the Nature of Islamic Art, p. 30).Such Western scholars have cast off the arabesque, geometric design, and calligraphy as mere “decoration” or “ornament.” They are not complete and autonomous artistic works that stand on their own. Necipoglu explains, “Generally classified in terms of its geometric, vegetal, and calligraphic variants, the so-called arabesque (occasionally intertwined with stylized figures and animals) was assigned a purely decorative function that differed fundamentally from the iconographic tradition of Western representational art. The arabesque’s alleged absence of meaning facilitated its appropriation by modern European architects and industrial designers” (Ornamentalism and Orientalism, p. 63).

My piece is a small box that likely would have been classified as “ornament” by Western scholars of the last generation. The pattern of leaves, flowers, and interlocking vines runs along the sides of the box in blue. The top features a multi-colored geometric pattern that also has a vine-like and leaf-like quality. The geometric form at the center is a loose rendition of a flower. There are specs of gold paint to emphasize that the box likely would have been made with precious metals.

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Whose Islam? Sufism and Religious Expression Through Music and Dance

Materials: acrylic paint on foam board

The Sufi tradition transcends the Sunni-Shiite divide, though its status as legitimate Islamic practice is highly contentious. There are both Sunnis and Shia who identify as Sufi, though there are many who do not consider Sufis to be Muslims at all. In contrast, there are many who believe there is no other way of being a Muslim. They argue Sufism is at the heart of Islam.

The word Sufi is derived from the Arabic word suf, which means wool. The early Sufi mystics in Iraq wore wool garments, and the term has broadened to include any person who has a mystical or spiritual perspective. The Arabic word ‘faqir’ and the Persian word ‘darwish’ are also terms for Sufism, and these words connote a sense of poverty or absence. They do not connote poverty in the literal sense, but rather point to the Sufi idea that true richness and opulence comes in the next world with God.

The Sufi tradition centers on the idea that one can know God through experience, just as the prophet Mohammad did. Every human being can experience the mi’raj and have personal knowledge of the divine. For Sufis, the zahir are the external, physical and sensory aspects of life that rely on the intellect and contrast with the batin, internal and spiritual aspects of life that contain eternal and immaterial truths.  Sufis must follow “the spiritual path” (Tariqah) in order to experience the “the real” (Haqiqah). The biggest obstacle along the path to experiencing God is the ego. There can only be one ego, and that is God’s.

For Sufis, God is closer to us than ourselves, a notion encapsulated in the popular saying, “God is closer to us than the neck vein.” We can see God everywhere and in all creations, in trees, plants, flowers, and even human beings. Yet simply taking note of God’s physical creation is zahir, looking at material or external entities. For Sufis, everything has a spiritual truth, and this truth is revealed when we see not with our eyes, which is physically seeing, but when we see with the heart. When we get behind the wall of zahir, and transcend the physical, we reach the Haqiqah, the eternal and where God lies.

For Sufis, this ecstasy and understanding of God is achieved through experience, rather than the intellect. The process of achieving  “ecstatic consciousness” is called wajd, defined as “ecstasy and ardor,” “finding,” and “being” (Lewisohn, “The sacred music of Islam,” p. 22). According to the Sufi tradition, wajd is achieved through sama, or listening to music and poetry. Wajd is a spiritual sensation, an “exit from self-existence and an entrance into egoless consciousness” (Lewisohn).

For Sufis, there are four types of sama (translated as audition or listening): the lawful, the permitted, the disapproved, and the forbidden (Ernst, “Sufi Music and Dance,” p. 181). The acceptability of music (within Islamic law) is measured by the listener’s activity, rather than the performance. Sufis must be in a certain spiritual time, place, and company in order to properly receive music and have a chance at experiencing ecstasy.

The whirling dervishes, a form of Sufi dance and worship, have come under fire from Sufi critics, who view music and dance as self-indulgent and impious pleasure. This tension has been exacerbated by Western fascination with the whirling dervishes and other Sufi music and dance traditions. Critics have charged that these traditions are being used for tourist entertainment and commercial gain.

Yet Sufis argue that sama is not for everyone, and only people with extensive spiritual training should participate in these practices. It is true that for the general public, sama can be dangerous and ego-centric. But given a certain level of spiritual enlightenment, the whirling dervishes are experiential, a way to lose yourself and achieve wajd.

The whirling dervishes show that there are numerous mediums and avenues for connecting with God, outside of prayer. In my painting, depicting three participants in the whirling dervishes, the figures are painted in a shiny white and silver to represent cleanliness and purity, and ultimately, understanding of God. The black at the bottom represents the physical world, which the dancers have cast off with their outer layer of black clothing, and are trying to transcend. The figures are faceless silhouettes to demonstrate the anonymity and lack of ego-centricity required to understand God. The yellow streaks represent spiritual enlightenment and ecstasy. The rough lines represent the movement and experiential quality of the whirling dervishes, and the shiny paint—which reflects differently based on the light—represents spiritual awakening, achieved through experience.

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Power, Islam, and The Beggar’s Strike

Materials: acrylic paint and permanent marker on foam board

In this piece, I explore how Islamic identity in Senegal is influenced by the state and other power structures, and how these themes are encapsulated in the short story, The Beggar’s Strike.

The background of the piece depicts Senegal’s flag, which features three vertical stripes of green, yellow, and red with a green star in the middle. Senegal’s flag represents the country’s powerful, yet competing influences of French colonialism, Islam, and pan-African identity.

The flag was designed in 1960, a year after France ceded control of Senegal, and symbolizes the country’s colonial history as well as its newfound independence. First, the flag’s three vertical stripes are a replica of France’s flag, a nod to the country’s French colonial influence. Second, the three stripes of green, yellow, and red are the three colors that represent the pan-African region, a sign of Senegal’s solidarity with neighbors and the continent at large. Third, the five-pointed green star in the center of the flag represents Islam, and the religious tenets on which the new country was founded.[1]

Against this background, I painted the words “Allah” in Arabic and drew star and crescent symbols, seven times each. (The number seven has particular prominence in Islam. It is a holy number symbolizing perfection, unity, the seven days of the week, Mohammad’s seven heavens, the number of words of the shahada, and is incorporated in many other rituals, architectural renderings, etc.) The word “Allah” is painted in the same colors as the background of the flag, and the red, green, and yellow words blend into the background, representing the seamlessness with which Islam has been incorporated into the state and the country’s national identity. Islam is woven into the fabric of the country, just as the words Allah take on the colors of Senegal and blur into the background.  The star and crescent symbol, once the symbol of the Ottoman Empire, became the symbol of Islam in the mid 20th century. I used this symbol to demonstrate how notions of state and religion are fluid and redistributed, just as Senegal worked to establish its own Islamic identity after its independence from France.

Like my piece, The Beggar’s Strike explores Senegal’s competing power dynamics, including a young and weak government, a colonial legacy, Islam, and local culture and religious traditions like Sufi mysticism. The Beggars’ Strike exposes the tensions and hypocrisies that arise in Senegal, where bureaucrats employ self-serving and selfish government policies in the name of Islam. Yet The Beggar’s Strike is more than a metaphor for government corruption. It exposes the hypocrisy intrinsic to the Marabout system of sacrifice and reward, which promises prosperity or other desired outcomes in exchange for some sort of donation or sacrifice.

Mour Ndiaye, the title character in The Beggar’s Strike, is a hypocrite on many levels: professionally, he receives accolades for work he passes off to his subordinates; he is an absent father and husband who is ungrateful for his family’s loyalty through decades of poverty; and most jarringly, he officially destroys the Marabout-battu alms network, while personally continuing to support it by following the advice of his personal Marabout, Serigne Birama. He has put the competing power structures of government, Islam, and local culture to personal use, and ultimately, he is denied the vice presidency and is admonished for his hypocrisy by his second wife.

The Beggar’s Strike demonstrates that there are hypocrisies inherent in government, Islam, and local religious and cultural practice—none are exempt from condemnation, especially when they are used for personal gain. My piece also shows this tension, and hints at the danger of proclaiming the name of Allah and Islam in the foreground, while really working for oneself and the government in the background.

Another photograph taken in different light. Note the greater color contrast in this image of the word “Allah” against the background.

[1] “Senegal, flag of.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 03 May. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1355497/Senegal-flag-of>.

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Women and Islam: Sultana’s Nightmare

Materials: acrylic paint, pencil on newsprint; found objects

This piece, titled Sultana’s Nightmare, explores the tension between Muslim women and Western secular influences. Many Muslim women who wear hijab say they do not understand the perceived Western fascination, nearly fetishism, with the veil. Western critics and policymakers counter that the recent surge in the number of women wearing hijab is a physical indication of oppression and suppression. They say women’s faces are physically hidden, just as their voices are silenced in increasingly theocratic states. These tensions have come to a head in France, where the so-called burqa ban has roused debate about separation of religion and state, freedom of religious expression, Western secularization, and xenophobia.

My piece depicts a woman wearing a chador, which covers the entirety of her body except for her eyes and hands. In my rendering, the chador becomes unraveled on the woman’s body, maimed by encroaching Western and secular influences like alcohol, television, and consumerism. A sword cuts through and physically tears the woman’s chador, demonstrating how secular influences are trying to tear apart demonstrations of cultural and religious piety. My piece explores how these women respond to the overwhelming secular temptations that come their way from all directions.

Two works, Persepolis and Sultana’s Dream, explore these tensions in detail.

In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi must learn to reign in her secular upbringing, where she listened to punk rock and never wore hijab. We see how Satrapi’s childhood was profoundly affected by the war with Iraq and conflicting messages of piety and modernity.  Yet Satrapi manages to be outspoken and willful, even when it puts her life in jeopardy. In Persepolis, we also see that there is profound mutual love and respect between Satrapi’s parents. They are presented as intellectual equals who both had very progressive ideas about governance, liberty, and assimilation with Western practices. When Satrapi’s mother tells her why she must be sent to Vienna for her own safety, she remarks, “But considering the person you are and the education you’ve received we thought that it would be better if you left Iran.” When Satrapi protests that at age 14, she is too young to leave her family, her mother responds that she is confident of her daughter’s independence and ability to thrive abroad. She says, “Above all, I trust your education.” Presumably, she is referring to her daughter’s education at a French school. Persepolis demonstrates the tensions between theocracy and secularization, and how those competing forces make it difficult to establish lasting personal identity, when one minute you are taught that the Shah is a God, and the next minute you are told he is heathen.

There is an arm of feminist criticism that argues the West should not intervene in discussions of female subjugation in Islam. These critics suggest that feminism is a colonial construct, yet another “value” imposed on a different culture and religion. Sultana’s Dream, published in 1905 and written by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain as a letter to her husband in English, suggests that feminism (a term we now use retroactively) had muscle in South Asia, nearly a decade before it came to a head in the women’s suffrage movement at the end of World War I. This article, a utopian (or dystopian, depending on your perspective) imagining of a modern society devoid of war and ruled by women, shows that the notion that feminism is a secular, Western construct is misguided.

In fact, ideas about women’s rights transcend Western culture. It is arrogant to think that feminism is a purely Western construct, as narrow-minded as the notion that Islam is anathema to feminism and Western secularization. My piece plays on these fears, and shows that though Western influences may change the fabric and some physical components of the veil, they are not at odds with the tenets of Islam in a larger, spiritual sense.

Detail of woman in chador

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Blue-Eyed Blues

Materials: acrylic paint on foam board

In this piece, I examine Islamic-American identity formation, especially as it is explored in Michael Muhammad Knight’s memoir, Blue-Eyed Devil. Knight provides a physical and spiritual travelogue, detailing his years as a recluse and solo traveler throughout the United States. Knight’s travels and general disaffection toward mainstream society parallel now eponymous loners like Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) and Jack Kerouac (On The Road).

In all of these texts, the protagonists look to the road to escape the confines of convention, which they feel is stifling their personal development. They see the openness and isolation of the road as an idyllic location for a religious or spiritual pilgrimage, and ultimately, awakening. The ascetic journey for personal and spiritual insight has a long and storied history, dating to Odysseus and the Greeks, the Jews and the Exodus from Egypt, Buddha’s years of starvation and seclusion, and the like.

For Knight and his predecessors, isolation and asceticism are the most potent forms of protest against American material culture.  In his travels, Knight takes a particular interest in unconventional U.S. Islamic groups like Muslims for Bush and The Five Percenters. He explores how American Muslims grapple with politically-fueled Islamophobia and how a history of racial oppression influences religious identity. Though Knight has not faced these sorts of prejudices in his childhood, he has always felt like an outsider. Though he does not say it directly, it seems that much of Knight’s religious identity is tied to anger at his parents. His conversion to Islam was a rebellion of sorts—a means of escape, a way to find a community, and a way to revel in being an outsider as the only white person in the community.

In some respects, Knight emphasizes his firm integration into American culture. He listens to heavy metal, has trysts with young women, and has a rather mischievous relationship with the police and authority figures. He has a rocky relationship with the mainstream American Muslim establishment, provoking and rebelling whenever he can. Knight burns bridges as he builds them: in a telling example, Knight shows up to a conference carrying a Budweiser box filled with his books, to great effect. More significantly, he severs ties with the Progressive Muslim Union as he starts to take issue with the organization’s politics.

Knight is a rebel with many causes, and I tried to depict this fervor in my painting. He drives through pastoral Indiana, but he is full of anger and confusion. I tried to show this tension with the billowing red along the road, which adjoins a serene and idyllic green field. The red is ambiguous—it could be fire, blood, or even dirt along the road.  This tension is also evident in the sky, which is a perfect blue hue, but is offset by encroaching storm clouds. The star and crescent symbols of Islam are in the sky, presumably where spiritual awakening lies. Yet Knight is stuck firmly in the material world, on a road that is made of concrete and asphalt. Further, running alongside the road are telephone wires that look like crosses—the specter of Christianity and the mainstream follows Knight wherever he goes. Like this painting, Knight is trying to bridge his Muslim and American identities, a journey that is often chaotic and can feel full of frustrating contradictions.

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