My Reflections/ Introductory Essay to My Portfolio

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Course description: “course surveys the literary and artistic dimensions of the devotional life of the world’s Muslim communities, focusing on the role of literature and the arts (poetry, music, architecture, calligraphy, etc.) as expressions of piety and socio-political critique.” CB 12: For the Love of God and the Prophet

        The choice to enroll in this class was one out of my comfort zone for two reasons: First, I had very little understanding of Islam. And secondly, as far as I know myself, I was not at all confident about my artistic abilities.

A little bit about myself: I’m originally from a small town in Kenya. Kenya has a significant Muslim population, most of who reside at the Coast. Figure 1, shows a mosque in Nairobi (Jamia Mosque). Approximately 4.3 million, or 11.2% of the Kenyan population profess Islam, in a predominantly Christian nation1. First Muslims arrived at the Coast as traders around the 8th century. Over the centuries, Islam failed to spread to the interior, and largely remained a coastal phenomenon. I grew up in a Christian household. Growing up, I was always intrigued by the cordial relationship that existed between Christians and Muslims in Kenya; unlike the case of here in the US. I did gain an understanding of sharia law from the debates on its constitutionality; it is anchored in our constitution (In 1967, Kadhis’ Courts Act established six Kadhis’ Courts for the application of Muslim personal status law). Islamic law is applied by Kadhis’ Courts where “all the parties profess the Muslim religion” in suits relating to “questions of Muslim law relating to personal status, marriage, divorce or inheritance2. When it came to discussing Islamic art, body art (henna) is what came first to my mind. I have encountered a lot of Kenyan Muslim women with henna, especially during celebrations like weddings. A lady cousin of mine was married off at the Coast, and she had henna on at the wedding. Figure 2 shows a woman with henna. It’s just breathtaking. From research I gathered that, henna is a cosmetic and a medicine, but most importantly, it is a marker of beauty, auspiciousness and celebration. Henna painting is considered a woman’s art form, often to mark special events in a woman’s life, especially marriage3

[Figure 1 (top) –Jamia Mosque in Nairobi, Kenya; Figure 2 (bottom)- woman with henna on her hands]

 

If there’s one thing I learnt from this class; it is that art is an intricate part of Islamic life, both at the aesthetic and devotional level. Islamic art tradition embodies the words of God and Muhammad as a living presence through “epigraphy [inscriptions on religious building, objects], calligraphy and illumination, and the creation of a range of related objects of practical as well as ritual and symbolic significance”4. My portfolio of creative responses was a personal journey, through which I explored various themes within Islam. I used art as a lens to study Islam. The descriptions on each of the responses reflect my understanding of the themes. Through different media such as multimedia, poetry, drawing etc, I do explore the following themes –Submission, Divine Love, islam vs Islam, Pillars of Islam, Sufism and so forth. Let me take through my portfolio.

Poetry as an art form is a critical foundation of Islam. Three of my creative projects involve poetry as media to explore the above themes. On my first piece, I show a public figure (poet) standing on a pedestal (higher ground) facing the skies. The person represents a poet in pre-Islamic times in the Arabic societies. Poets were considered divine. Poets were seen as connected to spirits.  This drawing was meant to highlight the role of poetry during those times; and how it became central to Islamic expression. My inspiration was a discussion we had in section. I remember this intriguing phrase from the TF (Oludamini) –“Poets could literally destroy Kingdoms”. On this piece, I explore the power of poetry as an art form in pre-Islamic/Arabic societies. This poetic culture was preserved in the Islamic era. The poems then did illuminate about the life during the early years of Islam.

“A Prayer to Allah” is another poetic piece. In this 5-couplet prayerful poem, I touch on: “Pillars of Islam” (Shahadah– professing Muhammad as God’s messenger, Zakat -practice of charitable giving by Muslims), “Divine Love” (Ishq), “Monotheism”(-belief in only one God, Allah). This piece is a ghazal. My other creative response “Nightingale, the Lover”, is based on a poetic masterpiece, “Conference of the Birds” by Attar. Attar poetically tells the story of a group of birds, under the leadership of one of the birds (“hoopoe”), on a journey towards the land of “simorgh” (God)5. My piece is a drawing of an “immobile” Nightingale, one of the birds in Attar’s book, as it struggles with the attachment towards worldly love/attraction. The “shackles” (worldly love) limits the Nightingale from getting to Simorgh (realizing the true nature of God). Poetry was used to explore various aspects of Sufi tradition. That’s how poetry is significant.

If art is that important to Islam, then can it be interpreted the same way by muslims and non-muslims as well as across different times and cultures? On the response “Debates on Islamic Art”, I present two schools of thought on this debate offered by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Islamic Art and Spirituality) and Gulru Necipoglu (The Topkapi Scroll). On my response, I show a clip of crescents; a crescent is considered not only an important symbol of Islamic faith, but also a historical symbol in the Ottoman empire. In short, Nasr argued that Islamic art were timeless forms with a mystical dimension. A certain level of spirituality and devotion was required to get to the inner meaning. Necipoglu, on the other hand, argues that Islamic art should into account the time periods and cultures at that time they were created.

Finally, I wanted to get to back to the central theme of this class: Understanding Islam. Prof. Asani referred to this concept- “cultural-studies approach” – gaining understanding of Islam by studying the literature and arts of Islamic communities; understanding how they view Islam and its meaning to them. My last two pieces are on Islam and how it’s understood in two different cultures; US (Western world) and Senegal (based on Aminata Sow Fall’s novel, “The Beggar’s Strike”).

On the piece “(Mis)Conceptions of Islam”, I look at how Islam is perceived in the Western world. This was especially important on the backdrop of the 9/11 tragedy. For this piece, I asked people what came first to their mind when they heard “Islam”. The responses were posted randomly on a board. On this creative project, I wanted to clarify and highlight some of the key tenets of Islam, and especially define “Islam and islam” –islam being “submission to God” while Islam is the name of the religion. One important concept I need to mention here –tafsir/ta’wil –commentary or interpretation of the Qu’ran. Interpretation of the Qur’an is becoming a big issue today as more and more people have become literate, but don’t have the necessary background in history to fully understand the text, and therefore interpret certain passages too literary. For this reason, there is a rise in fundamentalism and people like Osama bin Laden, who did not receive a proper education in Qur’an interpretation, draw meaning from the Qur’an that is not necessarily there.

Aminata Sow Fall’s “The Beggar’s Strike” highlights conflicts within the intersection of Islamic institutions and beliefs and the different spheres of life –politics, marriage & family etc, of the Senegalese people. On the final piece, I look at Islam in Senegal, and how piety is viewed from a religious and cultural context. The piece is a picture of a beggar, with a placard written “DONATONS 4 PRAYERS”. In the Senegalese society, the rich people give charity as a form of sacrifice to the beggars in exchange for prayers and wishes for long life, prosperity and pilgrimages from the beggars. At a beggars’ protest; “And no more prayers for their welfare till we’ve received a good fat donation!”6. This form of sacrifice is considered “pious”. What is even more interesting, is that the existence of the poor and the rich, with their respective “roles” is justified from a religious and cultural perspective.

 

Enjoy the pieces of art!

 

Thank you.

 

Lawrence Barchok

 


1 Kenya 2009 Census

3 American Museum of Natural History http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/bodyart/…

4 Renard, John : “Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious life of Muslims”

5 Attar, Farid.  “Conference of the Birds”

6 Aminata Sow Fall. “The Beggar’s Strike” (pg23)

Calligraphy Project

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On this project, I chose to represent Allah as “the only God, creator of the Universe, and the judge of mankind”. The calligraphy “Allah” is written with green leaves; this highlights the significance of the color green/vegetation in Islam. Of particular importance is the description of Paradise: Islam venerates the color green, as it expects paradise to be lush with greenery. But how is Paradise relevant in Islam? This brings us back to Allah as “the only God, creator of the Universe, and the judge of mankind”.

In Qu’ran 9:72;

“Allah has promised the believing men and believing women gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein they abide eternally, and pleasant dwellings in gardens of perpetual residence; but approval from Allah is greater. It is that which is the great attainment.”

 

In describing Paradise, the Qur’an states that the inhabitants will be “reclining on green Cushions and rich Carpets of beauty” (sura 55, verse 76)“Upon them will be green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade, and they will be adorned with bracelets of silver; and their Lord will give to them to drink of a Water Pure and Holy.” (sura 76, verse 21)

 

 


Beggars’ Strike

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Aminata Sow Fall’s “The Beggar’s Strike” highlights conflicts within the intersection of Islamic institutions and beliefs and the different spheres of life –politics, marriage & family etc, of the Senegalese people. On this final piece, I look at Islam in Senegal, and how piety is viewed from a religious and cultural context. The piece is a picture of a beggar, with a placard written “DONATONS 4 PRAYERS”. In the Senegalese society, the rich people give charity as a form of sacrifice to the beggars in exchange for prayers and wishes for long life, prosperity and pilgrimages from the beggars. At a beggars’ protest; “And no more prayers for their welfare till we’ve received a good fat donation!”1. This form of sacrifice is considered “pious”. What is even more interesting, is that the existence of the poor and the rich, with their respective “roles” is justified from a religious and cultural perspective.


1 Aminata Sow Fall. “The Beggar’s Strike” (pg23)

Ghazal Project (Drunk with Love)

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                          Drunk with Love

 

Sitting here drunk with love,

Still not sure how to express it to you.

 

Just like excessive wine in the body,

You feel it at every corner of you.

 

Bitter and sweet to the heart,

Like a flame, it burns the inside of you.

 

And in this spirit of love,

My heart is crying out for a piece of you.

 

Feeling intoxicated with this passion,

Like the thirst you feel, as saqi1 turns his back on you.

 

Who cares if they think I’m drunk,

For my love belongs to you.

 

And in the darkness and times of uncertainty,

Let my heart be at peace with you.

 

And out of the emptiness in this world,

I long for you.

 

 

 

 

Analysis

 

In my 8-couplet composition, I try to explore the traditional theme of love. Through images such as “intoxication”,  “flame”, “wine”, “passion”, I try to illustrate a certain level of obsession of this love.  I do juxtapose the effects of love and wine on a human body to provide a better imagery to this “intoxicating love”. Love as we know has passion, desire and some “intoxication”, and the poem is aptly titled “Drunk with Love”.

 

I decided to choose the subject of love (ishq), “you”, as the poem’s radif. As a poet, my sole goal is to express my true undying love to Allah (“you”). “According to Sufis, the mystic’s desire to know God is the manifestation of true love (‘ishq-i haqiqi)” (Peteivich, 5)2. But it can be quite interesting trying to discern this kind of love, with that of fellow human beings. “It [mystic’s desire] is paralleled on the profane level in human beings’ desire for union with human beloveds.” (Peteivich, 5).

 

 

 

 


1 1Saqi: a wine-server in a medieval Persian tavern

 

2 Carla Petievich. “Introduction to Conventions of the Urdu Ghazal”

 

A Prayer to Allah (Ghazal)

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I decided to write a second ghazal as a creative response. I did enjoy the process of writing the ghazal project, and I thought I could write another one. Here it is;

 

A Prayer to Allah

With this precious ink and pen,

Let me praise you with a loving heart.

 

With Muhammad as your Messenger,

Let me live with a submitting heart.

 

With a past full of pain and misery,

Let me live with a forgiving heart.

 

With a life full of trials and temptations,

Let me not live with a misgiving heart.

 

With a world full of underprivileged,

Let me live with a giving heart.

 

In this 5-couplet prayerful poem, I touch on a couple of themes we did in class: “Pillars of Islam” (Shahadah– professing Muhammad as God’s messenger, Zakat -practice of charitable giving by Muslims), “Divine Love” (Ishq), “Monotheism”(-belief in only one God, Allah). I chose “Heart” as the poem’s radif; this is meant to symbolize the emotional nature of the poem.

 

Nightingale, the lover

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One of my favorite books in this class is Attar’s masterpiece, “Conference of the Birds” (Reading Week 10). It is a celebrated example of Persian poetry. In a captivating poetic style, Attar tells the story of a group of birds, under the leadership of one of the birds (“hoopoe”), on a journey towards the land of “simorgh” (God). “Hoopoe” is the wisest of them all. While each of the bird aspires to realize the true nature of God, they each have limitations and weaknesses that they have to overcome. In my drawing, I try to highlight the limitations of one of the birds: the Nightingale. Nightingale symbolizes the lover. The shackles attached to it represents the Nightingale’s attachment towards worldly beauty and love.

 

 “A bird who cannot leave his beloved

“Great hoopoe’, said another bird [Nightingale], ‘my love/Has loaded me with chains, I cannot move./This bandit, Love, confronted me and stole/ My intellect, my heart, my inmost soul/ The image of her face is like a thief.. /Without her I endure the pangs of hell/ Raving and cursing like an infidel;

……

The hoopoe answers him [Nightingale]

The hoopoe said: ‘You are the prisoner of/ Appearances, a superficial love;/ This love is not divine; it is mere greed/ For flesh- an animal, instinctive need./ To love what is deficient, trapped in time/ Is more than foolishness, it is a crime”

 

In the Middle East and India, the nightingale is associated with lovers and longing. It sings at twilight, meeting time of secret lovers. In the poem, Nightingale’s attachment towards the “superficial love” is a weakness towards attaining enlightenment (“simorgh”). In the Sufi tradition, this love (“ishq”) represents one of the stations one is required to pass in order to realize the true nature of God.

 

Attar, Farid -Conference of the Birds (pg 122-123)

Debate on Islamic Art

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Clip on crescents

This piece was inspired by week 6’s debate on Islamic art. Through the piece, I hope to bring to light questions of accessibility to Islamic art, and/or their interpretations through different lenses. Through the piece, I hope to represent the different schools of thought on Islamic art, offered by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Islamic Art and Spirituality) and Gulru Necipoglu (The Topkapi Scroll). On my short video clip, i show different slideshows of crescents and how they are represented as important symbols in different cultures and time periods. The crescent itself is a perfect representation of the two schools of thought in that, it is an important symbol in the Islamic faith, but also was a historical symbol of the Turks, associated especially with the Ottoman empire.

 

Nasr argues that Islamic art should be composed of “timeless forms that echo transcendent archetypes”1. In essence a static tradition, where symbols of Islam have unity in meaning across time, and ignores the historical and traditional cultures. And that it takes a certain level of Islamic spirituality to be able to penetrate the inner meanings of the art. Islamic art should reflect the mystical dimension.

There is nothing more timely today than that truth which is timeless, than the message that comes from tradition and is relevant now because it is relevant at all times. Such a message belongs to a now which has been, is and will ever be present. To speak of immutable principles of heavenly origin and of their application to different moments of time and space… Islamic civilization presents an eminent example of a traditional civilization wherein can be clearly observed the presence of certain immutable principles that have dominated time and space.”1

 

Necipoglu, on the other hand takes a view that I’m more sympathetic too. She argues that reflections of Islamic art should take into account the historical and cultural period during which the art was created.  In essence, her view appreciates some of the works considered as Islamic art, but were created by non-Muslims, for instance during the Ottoman empire.

 


1 G. Necipoglu, The Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture

 

(Mis)conceptions of Islam

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image 1: A visualization i created from a software

 

image 2: a visualization i created manually

 

On peace: “Of those who answered the call of Allah and the messenger, even after being wounded, those who do right and refrain from wrong have a great reward.” Qu’ran 3: 172

 

On Submission: there is no god but God, and Prophet Muhammad is the messenger to Allah.

“whoever submits his whole being to God and is a doer of good shall have his reward with his Lord and all such need have no fear and neither shall they grieve”  Qu’ran 2:112 (cited in lecture)

 

“Islam is not a religion but a violent political system bent on the overthrow of goverments” Pat Robertson

 

This piece was inspired by the discussion on islam vs Islam, and how the religion of Islam, and its followers are perceived around the world. In a post-9/11 world, where the perception of Islam was, and continues to be shaped by the events of that fateful September, I think the discussion both in section and lecture did a good job in highlighting the key tenets of Islam, and what it means to be Muslim. For this piece, I went around asking folks in my house what first came to their minds when they hear the word Muslim or Islam. Examples – PEACE, LOVE, JIHAD, HATE, EXTREMISM, TERROR, QUR’AN, SUBMISSION, DEVOTION, ALLAH, etc.

 

This is what I learnt in class. islam means “submission or surrender to God”. Anyone can practice islam. In the Qu’ran, the word islam is used to for one who submits to God. Islam on the other hand is the name of the religion. Islam is a religion of peace; s,l,m form the root of the word salama, which is peace in Arabic (and I should add, also Swahili). Muslims are the followers of the creed preached by Prophet Muhammad; the messenger of Allah. Prof. Ali shared a very interesting story in lecture, about an American representative who was greeted during Arab/Israeli peace talks, and asked “are you a muslim?” The lower case muslim in Arabic refers a person of peace.

Poetry in pre-Islamic times

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This is a response to the discussion on the role of poetry in Arabic/pre-Islamic societies. Poetry was a very highly developed art form in pre-Islamic societies. This poetic culture influenced the structure of Quran. Quran itself is poetic in nature, with rhymed prose and complex sound patterns. My piece highlights the importance of poets in pre-Islamic societies. It shows a public figure (poet) on a higher ground facing the skies. The person represents a poet in pre-Islamic times. The poets were considered inspired/divine, and were feared. They were seen as people who were connected to the spirits. The poet filled the role of historian, soothsayer or propagandist. They could destroy kingdoms literally. That’s how powerful they were. They represented a tribe’s prestige and importance, and denigrated other tribes in mock battles of poetry, that would stand in lieu of real wars.

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