I consider myself a New Yorker through and through. I know the subways systems, I know the best restaurants, and I know the quiet spots. The famous 96th street mosque sat across the street from our apartment from when I was 18 months to 10-years-old. Oddly enough although we lived on the 22nd floor of a high-rise, an architectural mistake or perhaps just a atmospheric anomaly (I don’t know about these things since I’m a social studies concentrator) caused a sound tunnel to travel right by my parents bedroom window. When I was little I would often nap in my parents bed, because I shared a room with my older brother. Loud ambulances, people’s private conversations, and of course, the Muslim call to prayer ran up that tunnel right into our apartment. The call to prayer I remember vaguely, but to me it was just a part of the soundscape of my upbringing. I thought nothing of it.
For New Yorkers my age a part of our New York upbringing was 9/11. Everyone has a story. I was only 6-years-old when the planes hit the towers and I was more than 100 city blocks away, but I still remember it in great detail. I was too young to have any real grasp of religious differences, but I knew the attack was religious. In fourth grade, my best friend was an Egyptian Muslim. I remember going over to her house for dinner during Ramadan one time. I do not know why I remember this, but I remember her cousin saying, “Online it said that the sunsets at 6:14 but I usually like to wait an extra 15 minutes just to be sure.” My New York City private high school was filled with lefty ideas, analytical understandings, Bar Mitzvahs, Christmas assembly, but not a single Hijab. We learned religion from afar, detached, as though under a microscope. Each student too smart to allow ignorance to show, myself included, I truly did not know how superficial my understanding really was. Harvard is about picking and choosing. We pick which concentration to see on our diplomas, which courses appear on our schedule, which readings to skim, which to ignore entirely, which parties to go to, which people to have lunch with, and which questions to ask. I decided which superficial understanding to deepen (e.g. social contracts, 20th century playwrights, WWII), but it was not until my senior spring that I decided almost on a whim to take a general education course on Islam. So I registered for AIU54: For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures.
This blog is the culmination of my life experiences and the themes we learned about this semester. It employs music (because of the role sound played for me in our 22nd floor apartment and because of my time playing piano); it employed a picture I took myself in Jerusalem; poetry (as a nod to the hours spent on creative writing when I was younger and had time for that sort of thing); and a rudimentary video production (my brother is a film maker and has influenced me enormously). These mediums make this blog my own. The content held within those mediums was inspired by the themes of this course. The ambition of this blog is the marriage of my experiences and my education.
Considering all of this, the theme I most wanted to highlight in these six blog posts was the idea of perception and misperception. Each blog attempts to capture a different perception of Islam—as a faith, as a doctrine, as a practice, as a political reality, etc. This broad theme is addressed explicitly or implicitly in every single reading and lecture included in the course. For instance, Professor Asani’s book Infidel of Love addresses begins with this theme of perception. To begin his second chapter, Asani returns to the 2008 American presidential election, in which Barack Obama was attacked for being “secretly Muslim.” Asani points out that the purpose of this attack was to “de-Americanize,” then, Senator Obama in the perception of the American public. American political campaigns may be low-hanging-fruit when pointing to moments of purposeful warping of perception, but the following pages of Asani’s book then probes the more subtle (as well as the less subtle) evidences of Muslim perception in the US.
Further, much of Islamic doctrine seems to be rooted in God’s perception of the believer. The idea being that Muslims must prove their submission to God to God. Most of the course material speaks to this, and the week on calligraphy and poetry to the Prophet early in the course nicely exemplifies it. Why not just write the Quran in plain letters? It might even make an already complex text more readable. But the purpose of calligraphy, like Mosque architecture and arabesque walls, is that beauty is a reflection of devotion and love for God, perhaps even offering to God. Thus, art in Islam is a response to the belief that God perceives us, while we try our best to perceive Him.
As a final example of the theme of perception within this course, consider Persepolis. The autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi chronicles the Iranian revolution through the perception of a young girl. The medium and perspective of the narrator give the story a unique perception of the history. These points do not need to be belabored but suffice to say that in some way, obvious or subtle, perception was the motif that ran through every lecture and every course reading this semester.
The intention of each blog post is expanded below, but the following comments most generally. In this introductory essay I focus mainly on the theme of perception, while in the descriptions I tease out other themes.
The poem inspired by the photo in the Old City of Jerusalem speaks to perception through the relationship to the subject and the writer. The poem imposes as fictional emotive and narrative elements on a real photograph. The poem reflects my own perception of the boy and his mother’s story. The only “evidence” I had was held within the picture taken hastily with my Iphone. But of course, that perspective is turned on its head by the first person narration of the short poem. Within this blog post, my perception of the boy and (I think) his mother are transformed through my imagination into the perception of the boy as he walks to the midday prayer. This blog post is about mixing perception.
The “Historical Progression and Writing the Quran” and the “Paradox in Islam” posts are about visual perception. Somewhat subliminal or hidden messages lie in the visually depicted voice of Mohammed and theological paradoxes. These play with visual perception. In this course, we spent much time learning about the physical, aesthetic, and visual world(s) of Islam. In different ways, these two blog posts mix historical and theological themes with aesthetic techniques and visuals (e.g. the word Allah, Arabic writing, color, shape, etc.).
The soundscape (I would not exactly call it a song) blog post is meant to emphasize a subtle irony within Quran recitation. The call to prayer was such a central part of my initial perception of Islam and I wanted to find a way to include it in this blog. Thus, this post considers how the strict rules of recitation combine with the unknowable, complex, and even contradictory qualities of that which is recited. The implication is that millions hear the call to prayer everyday, and each person is going to parse it differently. The strict rules do not produce a single experience. Thus, this blog is meant to imply that a single experience (all perceive the same sounds and words echoing across streets and up to giant high-rises) becomes part of infinite perceptions of a neighborhood, a call to prayer, Islam, religion, etc.
The video montage post is meant to address partial perception. For instance, if one sees the image of a leopard running, then one might think of an African plain. But if one sees an image of a leopard running with three spokes within a circle placed in the bottom corner, then he or she is going to recognize it as not an image, but a Mercedes advertisement. This is a major theme within perception that Professor Asani emphasized. If you pick out one bit of Islam, then the meaning can become very different. If you separate out bits and pieces and choose to not look at the whole picture, perception can be grossly distorted. This goes for those picking out violent Quranic verses, for those condemning Muslims because of acts of terror they see on television, for those who equate Arabs with Muslims and visa versa, etc. For this post, I took the content completely out of an Islamic realm. Hopefully, the power of this post is through its implications.
Finally, the stop motion video of the Islamic woman is about lack of control. It addresses the way that visual appearance can affect the way women are perceived individually and also how others try to use women’s appearance to change broader perceptions. In the context of perception, this post emphasizes how the one perceived often has little control over his or her perception. This I think is particularly true for women, not just in Islamic cultures, but in all cultures.
In conclusion, the theme of perception and Islam is too broad to capture in just six blog posts or even in one semester. These blog posts are a piece of my perspective. Together the pieces are an attempt to represent the Perception (capital P) of Islam (capital I)—that is the collective perceptions of Islamic religion in all its facets. Of course, this attempt is always in vain, just as a single semester will never encompass the depths of Islam. But we try anyways.