Creative Project Introduction
Up until a few months ago, my only source of information about Islam had been through the media. As Edgar Allen Poe once wrote, “believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” With these words ingrained in my head, it was difficult and confusing to understand exactly what this religion and its followers were about. September 11th, Osama bin Laden and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan definitely didn’t help clarify my understanding. It felt like everyday since, news outlets would report another Muslim had killed more American soldiers. I can remember asking myself why these people wanted to take the lives of those that were trying to help. All I knew about Islam was what the media was telling me, and very rarely were they telling me something positive.
Unfortunately, most Americans see Islam through the media’s lens of interpretation. Instead of explaining extremist actions as extreme, unique and bizarre, the media explains them through Islam. What I didn’t realize until recently (as a result of taking this class) was that the media’s attempt to do this is comparable to sticking a square peg through a round hole; it doesn’t work! How come the media didn’t try to explain the actions of Timothy McVeigh or Ted Kaczynski through religion? Instead, they were both depicted as crazy, irrational and far from normal functioning members of society. The media doesn’t show the same courtesy to Muslims who commit similar acts. It seems like anytime a Muslim does something out of the ordinary, religion is to blame. This focus on defining the actions of an entire people, especially the news worthy ones, through their religion, has lead to a misconception of what Islam is really about.
What I have been so grateful to learn over the past few months is that true Islam and true Muslims are about peace, love and understanding, qualities the media often leaves out. This course has helped me gain a completely new and unique perspective of Islam, one that I never thought I would have. From what I have learned, I’ve been able to help educate others, even if only a little, about what it can mean to be a Muslim. Each one of the creative projects helped me gain more intimate knowledge and experiential wisdom about Islam. Through the process of putting this portfolio together, I feel as though I finally have an idea of what Islam is all about.
My first creative project focused on the similarities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Because I had previously known so little about Islam, I was surprised to learn that both Jesus and Abraham were central figures in the Qur’an. My naivety had led me to believe that Islam had very little, if any, overlapping information with the two other religions I knew (or thought I knew!). Little did I know how connected the three actually were. As I soon found out, the figureheads of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all preached the same message: love the one God and salvation will be open to anybody. Upon learning this, I was embarrassed to have at one point thought that Islam contradicted Christianity. Learning this helped me fill the void between Islam and Christianity and was my first step in realizing that the religions were not so different after all.
As the course continued, I learned about the importance of Qur’anic recitations. I was surprised to hear some of the many views that Muslims have toward these recitations and music. I could not believe that some Muslims did not consider these enjoyable sounds to be “music” because music is a form of entertainment and Qur’an recitation is beyond music, so by calling it such would be downgrading. I was even more shocked to hear that other Muslims considered music to be an intoxicant of the mind because it removed reason from the brain. Others were of the opinion that music and Qur’an recitations were good because they would help you get from Earth to the other side. In addition, I learned that as one recites versus from the Qur’an, he or she is experiencing God through a host of mediums: touch, thought, sight and prayer.
My second creative project aimed to capture these Qur’aninc recitations in two ways. Firstly, by depicting how a recitation sounded to me, with the ups and downs of the reciters voice as well as the mental state the recitation put me in. Secondly, by depicting what I believed to be the reciter’s experience of God through the recitation. Upon hearing the recitation, the inflections of the reciter’s voice reminded me of the peaks and troughs of a mountain range. With this image in my head, I was instantly transported to a beautiful field overlooking jagged mountains. I think the reciter would have shared a similar feeling of awe and trance as he uttered each verse. Again, I saw another similarity between Christianity and Islam. Each religion emphasizes a “musical” rendition of verses from its holy book.
Moving away from Qur’anic recitations, I started to learn about God’s communication with creation through prophets. God made humans the noblest of all His creations and the prophets have been sent to us periodically as role models. Unfortunately, humankind tends to be forgetful and ungrateful of God and the many sacrifices He has made for us. We put ourselves first, becoming egocentric, forgetting the needs of others entirely. Because of this, God sent Prophets to show us the right way to live and get us back on the correct path. He sent Muhammad as a living embodiment of the Qur’an, so that we would have an example to live by. Through His Prophets, God communicates and intercedes on behalf of humans.
My third creative project takes this idea of God lighting the way. In the clouds I put the Qur’anic verse “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth” (24:35) using calligraphy. The Prophets act as lanterns with His message shining through them, showing us the true path back to God. He has the power to break through the darkness that exists in the world. Without Allah, just as without the sun, the world would descend into chaos, and darkness would reign supreme. Whether false idols or egocentrism, the Prophets show us how to live so that we may one day reunite with God in paradise.
After discussing God and His Prophets, the focus shifted to the importance of poetry in Islamic culture. I learned that poetry was a highly developed art form that played a central role in society. Poets in early Islamic cultures were sometimes viewed as intermediaries between the human world and the spiritual. Poets were feared because of their literary skills; people believed that a poet’s psychological wounds through poems were more harmful than any physical wounds one could incur. Understanding poetry and its culture is essential for understanding the Qur’an, because poetry is both a source and a product of the religious and mystical experiences in Muslim cultures. Prominent poets were highly regarded in Islamic culture. Arguably the most famous Islamic poet was Hafiz, whose work is so revered that certain Muslims treat with a respect often reserved for the Qur’an. Hafiz was not born a great poet. It was not until he saw a beautiful girl that everything changed and he became the literary genius we know him as today. After staying within a circle for 40 days and praying to God, an angel descended to him, asking what Hafiz wanted. Upon seeing how beautiful the angel was, Hafiz changed his mind and instead wanted to meet God. Hafiz’s expertise became love poems, known as Ghazals. In the Sufi tradition, ghazals are read as sacred, mystical commentaries on the Qur’an. Hafiz used imagery, rhythm and sound in his writing and required the reader to put their life into his work in order to completely comprehend his messages.
I did just this with Ghazal 14. Taking my own life experiences, I read his poem and applied his message to my past. The first two lines of the poem speak to me more than the rest, so I focused exclusively on them. Hafiz’s portrayal of love as a sea is right on the mark. Both love and the sea can be extremely unpredictable. Although we know this going in, we all seem to think that the worst that the love and the sea have to offer will not hit us, for one reason or another. There comes a point in any relationship or sea travel where you are so far invested in the other person or the trip that there is no turning back. And if the sea or the relationship kicks up, it will not be a pleasant experience. This is a risk that we all knowingly take when we expose ourselves to the volatility of love or the sea. As much as we would like to, and at times may think we do, no one can control love or the sea.
Expanding on this topic of poetry, I learned about the importance of mysticism, especially to Sufism. I heard the stories of Sufi mystic Rabia al-Adawiyya and her desire to burn Heaven and drown Hell so that people would stop worshiping God for selfish reasons and love Him without ulterior motive. I was told about Al-Hallaj, a man who had successfully gone from being egocentric to Godcentric. His closeness with God led him to famously proclaim “ana al- Haqq,” “I am the Truth”. Unfortunately for Al-Hallaj, this was not understood by fellow Muslims, who had him executed because they interpreted his transcendent utterances as blasphemy. I studied Rumi, who believed that love was a cosmic principle that underlined the entire cosmos of divine love. This belief is based on the fact that all creatures are motivated by love of God and that the universe came into existence in a loving response to God’s call.
My fifth project explored one of the most famous and well-known mystic Sufi poems, The Conference of the Birds. Of all the birds that went on the journey to find God, I saw parts of myself in three of them. Like the nightingale, I have been obsessed with love. Like the parrot, I too have wanted time to stand still so that moments would not pass. And like the hawk, I have let my attention for others come between my relationship with God.
In the final weeks of class, I learned about the shift in dynamics of global power away from traditional Muslim societies and towards European ones. Because of European Imperialism, colonies developed throughout the Middle East. With the colonies came the spread of new ways of living, thinking and praying, many of which did not fit into traditional Muslim ideology. Christianity and Nationalism were pushed onto many Muslims, forcing them to abandon longstanding tribal, ethnic and religious traditions. Although the colonies eventually dispersed, the ideological impact forever changed and shaped a new Middle East.
My last project examines these changes by depicting the Middle East with a net cast over it. The net does not only serve as a reminder of the manmade boarders created by European colonial powers, but also attests to the control and dominance that the Europeans had over the area. The very act of colonialism is arrogant and pompous, assuming not only that one’s culture is superior but also assuming that “the other” wants to adopt a new way of living. Muslims were not given a choice, but told what to do. The colonial governments controlled the Muslims like a fisherman would control a fish caught in a net, unrelentingly and overbearingly. Unlike the colonies, the net over the Middle East still exists today, where Western countries try to control and manipulate oil-rich countries.
It is my hope that these creative projects work to break the perceived barrier that Americans have been led to believe exists between Islam and Christianity/Judaism. I wanted to show the interconnectedness between the West and Islam by drawing out the similarities in history while depicting the beauty of Islam. Through the projects, I am confident that people with little knowledge of Islam, will see the religion and the people in a new light, much different from the media’s portray. Upon viewing my work, it is my wish that the audience gains a new understanding for Islam, appreciating Islam for what it really is: a beautiful, mystical and complex religion that welcomes all and preaches peace.
Over the course of the semester, I learned more about Islam than I ever imagined. Perhaps the most important of all the lessons was that, I, along with almost everyone else in the world, am a muslim. Regardless of which God you pray to, we all submit to Him, and this submission unites us all in a bond that cannot be broken.