a prologue

May 8th, 2014 by lydiachen

This blog contains a series of my first encounters and impressions with specific manifestations of Islam in traditional and modern contexts. My aim in taking A&I 54 was to better understand Islam as a religion, but like all religions, Islam is deeply embedded in local worlds, including culture, politics, and art. Although the overarching and fundamental challenge may be the divide between God and humanity, creative works of art and architecture can serve to connect the spiritual and the physical, the unseen and the seen, motivating the cultural studies approach to Islam that we utilized in the class. Although this approach may not be comprehensive, it provides a starting point for thinking about art in a larger social and religious context, and poses the very relevant question: which Islam?

Divine Versus Human Nature

Humans are, by nature, separate from God. Humans are flawed, forgetful, and finite; God is perfect in his eternal wisdom. These traits create a spiritual as well as temporal divide between God and man. Islam, like many other religions, grapples with bridging this divide. However, the Islamic characterization of this divide is also a fundamental aspect of the religion. With these blog posts and reflections I wanted to argue that although there may not be an easy way to achieve unity with God, it does not have to be difficult to start.

We started the course with the simple observation that the term muslim means simply “one who submits.” In this sense, all of Creation is a muslim. However, humans provide a unique challenge to this statement. “Do you not realize that everything in the heavens and earth prostrates / submits to Allah: the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the animals? So do many human beings” (Qur’an 22:18) In fact, I would argue that being able to choose is, in and of itself, the privilege of human beings, the one creation that is able to both remember and forget. This ability means that Islam is not a static or monolithic entity, to be imposed on modernity. Whether it is an illiterate young boy from Tajikistan whose recitation of the Qur’an moves his audience to tears, or the writings of a famed Islamic scholar, each manifestation of Islam bears the mark of those who believe, remember, and live it everyday.

Another view on the personal nature of Islam is presented in the famous Persian poem, The Conference of the Birds. A staple in Islamic literary tradition, the poem uses the metaphor of a quest through space and time to find a mythical ruler. The journey is undertaken by a flock of birds, each with a flaw that represents different aspects of the human condition and the ways in which it can distract us from the ultimate goal of knowing God. Drawing from Sufist ideals, the poem claims that God exists in all of Creation.

Being a Muslim means many things—its definition has changed over time, sparked wars, is constantly evolving even now. This struggle, however, may be closer than many people suspect. In the Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad states that the “major jihad” is the “jihad of the self.” In an individual sense, self-knowledge and realization may be necessary to gain control of the darker parts of human nature. However, on a social and cultural sense, I interpret this teaching of the Prophet in a broader manner. These weekly blog posts are an attempt not only to capture a facet of Islam, but also a glance into one Muslim’s life. Layered on top of that is my own experience and judgments, a glimpse into my own stories. Ultimately, Islam is a faith that exists in the gaps—from God to human, from human to human.

Interior and Exterior

In bridging these gaps, art can play a crucial, if controversial, role. In class we explored many very different conceptions of the nature of Islamic art—what constitutes it, what inspires it, what defines it.

For S.H. Nasr, Islamic Art is characterized by the batin, the “inner aspect” of a work. The ultimate sources of inspiration are divine in nature—the Qur’an, the Hadith, and inspiration that comes directly from God. His claim that “Islamic art is the result of the manifestation of Unity upon the plane of multiplicity” is one that I explore in detail in my post for week six. For Nasr, the audio-visual aspects of music, art, and literature are ways for the human soul to communicate with and understand a world that cannot be seen or heard. In this way, art is a very direct link between the Muslim soul and God, since all Islamic art is divinely inspired.

The opposing viewpoint, from Gulru Necipoglu, focuses on zahir, which refers to the exterior, the surface meaning of objects or works. For Necipoglu, Islamic art can be deconstructed into a series of symbols that are invested with many cultural and political associations that may change over time. This viewpoint is perhaps more easily conceptualized than that of Nasr, since we can easily pick out common motifs such as nature, arabesques, or alcohol in works traditionally considered to be Islamic in nature.

The public and private nature of art is a debate that I continue to struggle with, especially in the context of Islamic and religious creations. I suspect that the answer is some combination of the two—there is no question in my mind that artworks can be deeply moving on a spiritual and personal level, and in this regard may owe their power to what Nasr refers to as Islamic spirituality. At the same time, studying the mosques and artistic creations of this course in their sociopolitical and cultural contexts has been particularly illuminating and I find it hard to believe that secular and religious agendas can be completely separate. However, Necipoglu and Nasr agree that the traditional Western approach to Islamic art has been overtly focused on aesthetics and overlooks the multiplicity of styles, sources, and meanings that can be found in Islamic art.

Whether you believe Nasr or Necipoglu, both or neither, the contrast between zahir and batin is one that pervades Islamic thinking. In the design of mosques, in the composition of poetry, and in the recitation of the Qur’an, the distinction between seen and unseen, heard and unheard is an important one.

Ambiguity and Pluralism in Islam

I came into this class with many questions about Islam that I suspect are echoed by many: how it can espouse tolerance yet be associated with terror, how the Qur’an supports gender equality yet Islamic states mandate women to cover themselves. This confusion has not dissipated. Both lectures and course material alike were filled with exceptions to the rule. Some Muslims condemn music as a distraction and temptation; others see it as a way to connect to God and other believers alike. The Shia-Sunni divide is very nearly as old as Islam itself, even though all Muslims hold the Qur’an and the Prophet to be sacred.

The essay that began to mold all of these conflicting viewpoints into a coherent whole for me was contained in Ravishing Disunities. In it, Agha Shahid Ali argues that the charm of a ghazal comes from what he calls “considered disunity.”

When students ask about a poem such as The Waste Land—How does it hold together?—I suggest a more compelling approach, a tease: How does it not hold together? I underscore How to emphasize a craft. The ghazal has a stringently formal disunity, its thematically independent couplets held (as well as not held) together in a stunning fashion (Ali 2).

This essay was one of the turning points of this semester for me. Ali goes on to describe the Western concern with completeness and linearity, ideas he claims are not expected or in fact even desired in ghazal composition. Ambiguity of intent is also prized in ghazals, and the skilled poet is one who can tell multiple stories at once. These ideas were alien and at times frustrating to me, but if one takes the time as Ali suggests, to consider these “formal disunities,” the result can be enlightening. The linear, monolithic and logical manner of thinking espoused by Western traditions is not a suitable approach for analyzing many aspects of the Islamic experience.  Ghazals are merely one example. Another example is the way that Islam has integrated itself into the local cultures of so many different geographic locations, taking on a distinctive flavor in each. In South Asia, for example, Islam has flourished not by a top down takeover, but by fitting itself into the existing religious systems. Muhammad, for example, fits nicely into the Hindu pantheon. Moreover, Muslims recognize the legitimacy of ahl al-kitab, the people of the Book (referring to other religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, that have a sacred scripture). Within Islam, there is plenty of room to maneuver, room I once interpreted as incomplete or imperfect.

Pluralism of experience, as well as ambiguity, is an integral part of Islam, not a challenge to its legitimacy. Things often are not black and white. One work that expertly deals with the blurred lines in a modern context is The Reluctant Fundamentalist. A talented narrator manipulates and presents the story in a way that defies an easy conclusion. Another tale that narrates modern events is Persepolis. Marjane, the young narrator is pulled toward one ideology, then another: by her parents, her teachers, her friends. At the end of it all, I must repose Professor Asani’s first question: how do we know what we know? And moreover, is what we know ever more than just a fraction of the truth?

To end with the theme of ambiguity and pluralism in Islam is, I feel, appropriate. If this course has taught me anything, it is that I have that much more to learn. This whole blog is, in a sense, a prologue. It is part one of my experience with Islam, your preview into my opinions and thoughts, and an open-ended question about the future. For just a few minutes, we’ll let go of our compulsive need for completeness, and appreciate the one tiny, tiny facet of the entire Islamic experience that these six blog posts form.

Week 3: The Adorned Qur’an

Week 4: Space for a Prophet

Week 6: From the Ground Up

Week 10: Mirror, Mirror

Week 12: Keys to Paradise

Week 13: Skylines

week three – the adorned qur’an

May 8th, 2014 by lydiachen

adorned quran

This is sunna. The Prophet (may God bless him and greet him!) said, “Adorn the Qur’an with your voices” (Al Ghazali 53).

This week we spent a lot of time discussing the inimitability of the Qur’an. However, humans are far less capable of a divine and unchanging nature, and the interaction of human beings with the Qur’an presents an interesting point of friction.

The Qur’an, as a manifestation of the heavenly archetype, is believed to be perfect in its form. As we saw in class, the sounds, shapes, and script of the text are all considered to be sacred. Al Ghazali’s rules for the recitation of the Qur’an are the inspiration for this week’s collage. Although the text itself is unchanging and eternal, each recitation, reading, and writing of the Qur’an has a life of its own. Humans — their voices, their tears, and their hearts — are the adornments on a perfect text, giving each manifestation of the eternal words a unique flavor.

I’ve included some of the major adornments Ghazali suggests. The first letter is a red string. As humans tend to forget, they need a constant string around their finger as a reminder. The emphasis on memorization of the Qur’an is a testament to the importance of knowing, in the heart, the Word of God. The second letter is formed from the sun and the moon as a reference to the passage of time and the experience of the sacred text over time. The third letter testifies to the importance of sound in Islam, whether in spoken word or music. The fourth letter looks, in shape, similar to a dividing wall and I used this to represent the division of the Qur’an in to sura and ayat. Finally, the last letter is made of water and tears, acknowledging the experience of weeping while reading the Qur’an. Each of these are different ways to interact with the Qur’an, and they add a uniquely human element to the presence of the divine.

This project suggests that rather than being a challenge to the Qur’an, the nature of human beings — whether that is forgetful, volatile, or perfectly mundane — is an embellishment on the sacred text, ensuring its continued relevance.

Medium: Oil Pastel

week four – space for a prophet

May 8th, 2014 by lydiachen

A figure more loved and more hated than perhaps any other, the prophet Muhammad has changed the face of Islam in more ways than one. For better or for worse, he has become the symbol and the face of a religion that is alternately portrayed as vitriolic and tolerant, sophisticated and primitive. Although we have explored many facets of the Prophet’s role in Islam as a role model, intercessor and messenger, I was particularly fascinated by the discussion in Chapter 3 of Infidel of Love of Muhammad’s role as a bridge between cultures. This controversial figure is also one that has been adopted seamlessly into multiple cultural contexts.

Many Hui Muslims did not view their Muslim identity as something oppositional to, or even independent of, their Confucian surroundings. Rather, they sought to carve out a social and intellectual space that was as much Chinese as it was Muslim (Asani 143).

Having grown up in a Chinese and therefore heavily Daoist-influenced environment, I was very interested in knowing how Islam and Daoism would merge. As Professor Asani points out in his book, the context is heavily important. In my creative response for this week, I wanted to focus on the idea that individuals—no matter how famous or powerful—are ultimately embedded within a cultural context. Even messengers of God can change to match existing cultural norms.

context pieces

My creative response comes in multiple pieces. The two contexts I’ve focused on here include China and Arabia, where Muhammad was born. On the bigger white piece we see the shahadah, as well as Muhammad’s name. Meanwhile, the bigger black piece has the Chinese character 道 (dao), representing the dominant way of life followed by many Chinese then and now.

The idea of Muhammad as “the seal of the Prophets” became interpreted as “completer of the Dao”(Asani 144).

When the pieces are assembled together, they form the yin yang, a common symbol of Daoist teachings. The traditional interpretation of the yin yang includes a notion (very Chinese in nature) that harmony is achieved in balance. Life in this world requires some light and some darkness, some hot and some cold. Although Islam and Daoism are not opposing forces of nature, their combination can be harmonious. In the smaller circles, I have written the Arabic and Chinese for “teacher.” Though Muhammad has many roles, his teachings may transcend local worlds, finding new and continued relevance in a different context. China is just one example–we can imagine many religious, geographical, and even temporal contexts in which the teachings of the Prophet will continue to be important.

harmony in context

Medium: Calligraphy, Pen and Ink 

week six – from the ground up

May 8th, 2014 by lydiachen

From the Ground Up

In this week’s creative response, I tried to conceptualize and visualize some of S.H. Nasr’s arguments about religious spaces in Islamic Art and Spirituality (although this attempt may be, in and of itself, somewhat contradictory to his ideas). One of the fundamental parts of a religious space, Nasr argues, is the ground:

The carpet, whether of simple white colour or full of geometric and arabesque patterns and ornaments, reflects Heaven (Nasr 39).

In my work, the ground is the starting point for the growth of spirituality and inner knowledge. Trees, calligraphy, and Islamic arabesques sprout from the floor. As forms of Islamic art, Nasr argues that all of these things take root in an an archetypal reality. Each tree, as a manifestation of these realities, is different but still takes on certain spiritual aspects in the form of divinely inspired calligraphy and geometric form.

However, space also plays an important role in Nasr’s ideas of Islamic Art. I found the interplay of unity and multiplicity particularly interesting in his writings.

Islamic art is the result of the manifestation of unity upon the plane of multiplicity (Nasr 7).

During my research for this post I came across the Vanishing Mosque in the United Arab Emirates. This innovative space combines mosque and public plaza to reflect the increasing integration of religious and urban life. In the same way, I wanted to create a work that defies conventional ideas of  space. Playing with optical illusion and vanishing point perspective, we can visualize the multidimensional on a single sheet of paper, the living on the static, the many in the one.

It is true that this painting is likely not what Nasr had in mind when defining Islamic art. And although I continue to struggle with what truly defines Islamic art from other religious or secular art, I do agree with Nasr that in some ways Islam defines its own art. Ultimately, what matters is not the arabesque, geometric form or Arabic script — all of these specific shapes fade away. The truth in Islamic Art is not in specificity, but in unity, and the realization that many forms can reflect one reality.

Medium: Acrylic Paint

week ten – mirror, mirror

May 8th, 2014 by lydiachen


conference of the birds

This week I felt particularly inspired by the simple elegance I found in the writing and message of The Conference of the Birds. Although each bird had an elaborate tale to tell and plenty of words to explain their inability or unwillingness to seek out the Simorgh, they all seemed a bit empty in their claims of grandeur, weakness, purity, and so on. Ultimately, each story was a new excuse and I chose to represent this as words on each bird’s belly. These are things that they carry with them wherever they choose to fly; yet to them the words may be invisible. They show them to the outside world yet never stop to consider how the words might look or sound coming from their body.

the parrot the hawk

The hoopoe responds to each of the birds’ complaints and excuses in turn but for me, the ultimate response comes in the words of a dervish:

This various world is like a toy / A coloured palm-tree given to a boy / But made of wax – now knead it in your fist / And there’s the wax of which its shapes consist / The lovely forms and colours are undone / And what seemed many things is only one / All things are one – there isn’t any two / It isn’t me who speaks; it isn’t you (Attar 191).

Each of the things the birds hold dear, even the birds themselves, are made of the same material. Ultimately, though they may live a colorful and varied life, they should seek a return to and understanding of their primordial form, and important concept in the Sufi context. Besides the words that they say, and their basic form, I have stripped away the material possessions and superficial differences from the birds in their flight toward the Simorgh, to represent the realizations that must be made to attain the truth.


The final component of this creative piece is the mirror that exposes the words on the birds’ bodies. I found the twist—the play on the word Simorgh—delightfully clever. As the lake in the poem, the mirror here represents the Sufi belief that God is within all of Creation. The journey of the birds is one to find and understand themselves and their place in the universe as much as it is one to find and understand God, as these two things end up being one and the same. Alone the birds have only their excuses, but together they can discover the true face of God.

I am a mirror set before your eyes / And all who come before my splendor see / Themselves, their own unique reality.

Medium: Clay

week twelve – keys to paradise

May 8th, 2014 by lydiachen

The key to paradise was for poor people. Thousands of young kids, promised a better life, exploded on the minefields with their keys around their necks (Satrapi 102).

There are many images from Persepolis that I find hard to forget. One that struck me forcefully both at the time of reading and haunts me even after I’ve turned the last page is that of the keys given to young boys to encourage them to fight without fear. I’ve seen propaganda materials preserved in history books and magazines, seen the grainy black and white footage of angry diatribes egging a crowd to violence, but the understated sorrow and horror in seeing a mother’s perspective is what I tried to capture in my creative response this week.

It’s a plastic key painted gold (Satrapi 99).

key to paradise

key to fame

key to hope


My work is a series of keys and coffins made of paper. As in Persepolis, the key itself is worthless, made of plastic (in the book) and paper (in my work). Its value, supposedly, comes from the promise it symbolizes: paradise, hope, fame. But these things, ultimately, are superficial. Rather than religious fulfillment, they are empty specters propped up by military and political agendas. Behind each looms the real promise that underprivileged people in this environment can depend upon—death.

Persepolis addressed many of the modern conceptions of Islam in a way that was both touching and accessible. It does not shirk from the dangerous claims that people have made in the name of Islam and in the name of God. As the story progresses, Marjane’s conversations with God become less and less frequent until one day, the friendly, bearded man disappears entirely from her narrative. His disappearance is correlated, in my mind, with the fading of God from the political and military agendas of the time. Not one of the keys given to the children contain God—instead, they contain superficial representations of God. They are paper promises, keys only to a tiny coffin and an early grave.

Medium: Origami, Paper-cutting

week thirteen – skylines

May 8th, 2014 by lydiachen

I said I was from Lahore, the second largest city of Pakistan, ancient capital of the Punjab, home to nearly as many people as New York, layered like a sedimentary plain with the accreted history of invaders from the Aryans to the Mongols to the British (Hamid 7).

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a winding yet cohesive narrative—the story of Changez meanders through both time and space and changes do not happen all at once but rather, slowly. In the story Changez is clearly torn between his ties to his home city of Lahore and the glittering modernity that is New York City. The distinction between these two cities and how Changez views them is symbolic of his relationship with each country respectively. Over the course of the novel, each city that Changez lives in leaves its own mark, another layer of sediment in the history of his life.


With each skyline, I aim to capture the feeling that that city evoked in Changez and in the reader (although these feelings may not always coincide). More than specific details, the emotions and memories of each location reveal how one man changed and was changed by the places in which he lived.

At the very back, the oldest layer is Lahore, Pakistan in Changez’s youth. Although the city is full of warm memories, it is outshone by the sparkling vision that is New York’s skyline. As a young graduate, Changez is clearly impressed with the power and modernity that is Manhattan. However, a reminder of his old home comes when he visits Manila, a city with “walled enclaves for the ultra-rich” (64) and slums for the common man. In the face of this stark and uncomfortable reality, the twin towers fall in the attacks of September 11, 2011.

Living in New York was suddenly like living in a film about the Second World War; I, a foreigner, found myself staring out at a set that ought to be viewed not in Technicolor but in grainy black and white (Hamid 115).

New York no longer holds the same attraction—the country has become suspicious and Changez is becoming more disillusioned about the nature and intentions of those night lights. In the third skyline we see New York again, but radically different. Physically, the skyline has been altered by the removal of the twin towers but more importantly, emotionally the reader and Changez experience urban life as something strange and removed. Smoke billows from the place the towers once stood, and in their place the colors and hopes of America have become dark.

When Changez returns to Lahore, both he and the city have changed. Though the mosques and minarets remain in the skyline, the effects of modern events are also evident.

I had, in my own manner, issued a firefly’s glow bright enough to transcend the boundaries of continents and civilizations…I have felt rather like a Kurtz waiting for his Marlowe (Hamid 182, 183).

In Lahore once more, Changez chooses both to make a stand and accept his fate. The reference to Heart of Darkness, in conjunction with the careful hope he expresses in education, forms an ambiguous skyline. In the darkness there is a firefly’s glow—whether this is a light in a dark tunnel or the spark of war is a decision we all have to make.

Medium: Digital Art (Adobe Illustrator)