Creative Project Portfolio Introduction
Two major questions that I took from the course were: 1) What is Islam? and 2) How do Islamic people express their devotion? By exploring how people express themselves, I was able to gleam a little bit of what exactly Islam is. In general, there are countless different ways people express themselves. Whether through prose, dance, song, artwork, sculpting, calligraphy, or any other medium, one common theme behind all these pieces was a very individual and intimate relation of the artist with God and the Prophet. From studying these different means of expression, I’ve learned that Islam, to me, is the following of one’s personal interpretation of the Qur’an and example set forth by the Prophet in order to worship God.
Different themes within this definition that I present appear throughout different pieces. My portfolio is embedded with the themes of the Prophet, suffering, and confusion. These were three major themes that I felt present during all of our topics of conversation throughout the entire semester. These themes, though not necessarily the only focus, have manifested themselves throughout several different means of communication. These different concepts all play major roles in determining the answer to the first question, “What is Islam?” By exploring these different avenues of expression, we can hope to see some common threads between groups and mediums of expression.
Muhammad is one of the key, if not the most important, aspects of Islamic culture. Everything revolves around him and what people believe he would say was right and wrong. He is a paradigm, a perfect example of how to live the way God intended. The Prophet was a major theme because it was the underlying current in many different artworks and different mediums of expression throughout the semester. He came up in calligraphy through hilye, or calligraphy in the shape of a man, or part of man, describing all the attributes Muhammad exemplified. He came up in music, as there were entire songs dedicated to him. He came up in poetry both as an example of the pinnacle of poetry expressed through the Qur’an and as the basis for countless poems of various forms, including the “Burda.” Other mediums also included the Prophet, included faceless images in paintings and paintings around Qur’anic texts.
Two of my projects are centered on the Prophet. The first is the incense burner I designed. I decided to make the incense burner because of our trip to the museum in New York. While we were there, a few difference incense burners fascinated me. There was one in particular, a dog statue, which I wanted to try and reproduce on some level. I molded the pot by starting with a mound of clay and by scooping out the insides using a metal spoon. After molding the base of the burner, that is the main section, I added on the ears and nose afterward once these were each separately sculpted. After the design was sculpted, I poked holes in it to let out the incense. Unfortunately I poked the holes too early, and they closed while the clay was drying. After the clay dried I refined the previous holes and tried to add more to let the incense fully escape from the capsule. These holes, though, were added too late, causing damage to the original structure. The last step in creating the incense burner is to fire the clay. Unfortunately I did not have access to the proper facilities to do this yet, though. Although not intended to be an exact replica of Muezza, it is supposed to symbolize incorporating cats into our lives. Muezza was, according to many sources, the Prophet’s favorite cat. This cat was very important to him, and cats in general have remained important to Islamic culture in today’s world. They are clean and pure animals, two qualities that are very important is Islam, signified by the necessary ablutions before prayer. Animals in general are very prevalent in art due to the concerns of portraying human figures. These reasons provided inspiration and direction pointing towards this animal shaped incense burner.
The second piece that is centered around the Prophet is the ghazal. This piece was inspired by Sultana’s Dream. The piece does not refer to him specifically, but rather to a rose. The rose is one symbol very prevalent in prose to refer to the Prophet. The Prophet is near to many people’s hearts, as shown by the quote given during lecture, “You can criticize God, but you can’t criticize the Prophet.” The Prophet is a crucial component of Islamic tradition, and exists as a delicate flower, guiding and informing those who follow the Qur’an. This flower has remained unchanged, but because of the different environments it has developed in, its perception has evolved and adapted to different cultures. While a “conservative” Muslim may say the Prophet would oppose using music in conjunction with worship, others say that music brings out aspects of worshipping that otherwise could not be accessed. These differences create divides between different communities of interpretation. Everything, though, derives from the Prophet and his teachings. The two “sides” of each divide will quote hadiths to support their argument. Because there is no all-encapsulating snapshot of the Prophet and his beliefs, though, the only thing available now to people to derive acceptable practices are these hadiths and the Qur’an that are open to interpretation. This piece was meant to capture the fragility of these primary sources, and that they should be to heart and kept close to every individual that loves the Prophet and his teachings.
Different communities of interpretation of the Islamic community stress different focuses. One interesting focus is that of suffering, primarily stressed by Shi’ite tradition. One of the main outlets and reminders of the suffering that initiated their formation is the ta’ziyeh. This is a practice that occurred once each year at the time of its original form. Members of the community would all contribute towards the building of a theatre of sorts, each contributing of what he or she was capable. Then, people would replay the massacre of Karbala in a play of extreme passion. Audiences experience the pain of watching their beloved leader and his troops slaughtered each year.
The piece of artwork titled “The Art of Tragedy” attempts to capture this pain and suffering through calligraphy. The words pouring out from the center of the stage are meant to communicate this sense of pain. The words I did not include, however, are those of empowerment to the audience. Reflecting on the project, one of the things I could have done differently was written these words in the pillars, instead of the five pillars of Islam, to show that through this pain and suffering the crowd feels empowered and emboldened.
One of the interesting things about the ta’ziyeh is the stance government officials take on the performance. Because it is expressing the empowerment and strength of those who do not hold any “power,” even Shi’ite leaders frown upon this practice. During the 1930s, the ta’ziyeh was banned by the Pahlavi regime. The practice survived, though, as performers moved to more rural areas and continued to practice the performance outside the reach of the government. Within the script of one version of the ta’ziyeh, Husain even claims,
Know, O young man, that we are never in need of the water of this life. Thou art quite mistake if thou hast supposed us to be of this world. If I will, I can make the moon, or any celestial orb, fall down on the earth; how much more can I get water for my children. Look at the hollow made in the ground with my spear; water would gush out of it if I were to like. I voluntarily die of thirst to obtain a crown of glory from God. I die parched, and offer myself a sacrifice for the sins of my people, that they should be saved from the wrath to come.
Here we see that even though Husain is seemingly powerless, he really isn’t, or at least claims to not be powerless. This idea of power within the powerless is quite clear here. Within my piece of artwork, the crowd, though faceless and individually powerless, holds the fate of the stage in their hands. They determine what happens, which is sometimes the case with actual performances.
The three other pieces all exist within the umbrella of confusion, though other themes may exist. This confusion has played an integral part in defining what exactly Islam is, which is a question that has been answered many ways. There is confusion amongst new generations on how to incorporate advances in technology to faithfully worshipping God and following the Prophet’s example. Some musicians believe they can spread the word of God through sound and music, praising the God and his Prophet and reaching new audiences while also experiencing ecstasy. Others believe, though, that music is intoxication like any other drug or alcohol and should be banned. Another example is the usage of calligraphic writing. Some people believe this is a beautiful expression of worship and love of God and believe this writing should be present on mosques, while others believe that a mosque should not have these ornate decorations.
The first piece that incorporates this theme of confusion is “Only for You.” This piece also incorporates the idea of pain and suffering as a way to gain favor with God, which was discussed in the previous section. Here, there is not confusion about defining what Islam is, but rather confusion in why we must suffer here on earth. The narrator of the poem realizes that this suffering is a test. We are not to succumb to the earthly pleasures that we may see others indulge in, but rather we are supposed to rise above those around us and do God’s calling, no matter the pains or hardships we may face.
The second piece is a water color painting titled, “The Straight Path.” Here, we see a juncture of many different paths a person may be able to take, each path leading to a different place. This painting shows, though, that although it may not initially be clear which path is the right path, if we are careful enough about our actions and the situations we allow ourselves to fall into, the right path, or the “straight” path, will show us the way to God’s favor. The second part of this painting is not only that there is a right path, but that this right path, once we find it, is much more serene, peaceful, and transcendent than other paths. The rolling green hills and forests are meant to express paradise in nature and tranquility. Once we are able to separate ourselves from the confusing decisions that present themselves to us each day are set ourselves on the right path, things will only get better. That life, in the end, is the only road that leads us directly to an existence with God.
The third piece is the 3-D geometry I created. This geometry exemplifies confusion through illusion. A part of the Sufi tradition is the existence of two parallel existences, that of eternity and that which we experience here on earth. The first reality, that of eternity, is the “real” reality. Our reality, which which we experience here on earth, is the “fake” reality that exists only as a reflection or a diluted part of the true reality. I used a 3 dimensional geometric pattern to try and show the existence of two realities simultaneously: the truth and what we perceive. Initially, one might perceive the pattern as extruding from the base. We can tell by using a different perspective, however, that this reality is “fake,” and that the true reality is that the pattern is indented into the base.
Another method that 3-dimensional patterns can exemplify confusion is through visual complexity. Although my pattern isn’t necessarily complex, a more complex pattern could prevent observers from understanding every aspect the design. This would in turn force audiences to view specific components of the design to try to understand each particular shape. Unfortunately, the computer I was using to run the software could not handle overly complex geometries. If I had not been constrained by this limitation, one of the things I could have done was used the structure that made the indent, the plus signs with points at each end, and made the arms of the object not only exist in the horizontal and vertical direction, but additionally the depth direction, or into and out of the plane of the computer screen. I could have used this to create a repeating pattern of intersecting geometries. If this had been successful, I could have then offset this structure in each the x, y, and z directions to create an additional pattern that would replicate the original, but just fill the empty spaces with the original pattern. This is a bit over-technical, but the point is that by starting with one geometric shape, one can add multiple new layers on top to confuse the viewer and force the viewer to focus on singular aspects of the geometry. This is very similar to what occurs with people trying to interpret how to live. Dealing with different daily interactions, many unforeseen by our ancestors, presents many different layers of complications that cannot all be addressed at the same time. By focusing on one of these issues, though, we lose our place within the whole. This is the difficulty people interpreting texts must confront. There may have been many layers of understanding of an original work. In the Qur’an, that number is said to be seven, with only God understanding all seven layers of meaning. By focusing too strongly on any one layer, we lose the other six.
By taking themes and mediums present in the course and present throughout works in Islamic culture, I attempted to gleam a first person perspective of what it means to be a Muslim and practice Islam. Through the various exercises and experiences throughout the year, I’ve developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for the strong emotional connection and devotion Muslims feel for their Prophet and God. Understanding how people express themselves through various mediums and understanding the underlying purposes for different practices through first hand experiences can help bridge cultures. Bridging this divide may be the key for dissimilar peoples to accept and embrace their diversity rather than perpetuate the “clash of ignorances.”
 Stall, Sam. 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization: History’s Most Influential Felines. China: Quirk Books, 2007, Hardcover
 Nevenka Korica Sullivan
 Malekpour, Jamshid. The Islamic Drama. Great Britain: Frank Cass Publishers, 2004.