Introductory Essay

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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.

Week 1: Paradox in Islam

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This blog entry was certainly the most difficult to execute (and I have done so to the best of my stunted artistic ability). This picture is taken from far away but the word “Allah” is nestled into a heart. This is one of the central paradoxes of Islam, which Professor Asani discussed in the first week of class. God is both intimate and close to each believer, and at the same time God is transcendent, powerful, and awe-inspiring. Allah is everywhere in the most mundane things and events and at the same time Allah is impossible to understand in His divine nature. The Quran inspires love and fear. John Renard in his book Seven Doors to Islam describes the theological contradiction between omnipotence and human responsibility—if God is all-powerful and, then how can humans be held responsible for their actions. He writes, “As we have seen, one can interpret the Qur’an in many ways; but, on the whole, it maintains a paradoxical balance” (12). These are all theological paradoxes. There are also historical paradoxes. For instance, a religion which instructs good morals and kindness has simultaneously been the cause of millennia of violent conflicts.  Part of this cultural studies approach was to encapsulate the irreconcilable aspects of Islam and actually celebrate them.

In the image above represents the way that God is both close and transcendent, in addition to other paradoxes. Each letter in the word “Allah” is rooted in a paradox. For instance, the top of the letter “L” is a rectangular, flat platform with a nonsensical staircase. Additionally, each letter has a different orientation. This alludes to the incoherence of faith. By definition faith does not make logical sense. Therefore, the paradoxes within Islam are not flaws but rather the substance of faith itself.

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Week 13: Cherrypicking

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This photographic montage is contains advertisements shown first without their logo or tag line and then revealed as advertisements. This simple technique is meant to expose how different a photograph can be viewed if one does not look at the entire thing. For instance, take the photograph of woman in the red dress with an ax. Without know what she is about to hit with the ax it might be seen as portraying female power, anger, and strength. But when the blackened parts become visible, it is clear that this is not at all about women, but rather about men. The advertisement is aimed as male consumers of automobiles. The line, “Jealousy,” implies, “Buy this car and women will want you.” The goal of the advertisement is not the relevant issue in this post, however. The main point I would like to relay is that looking at only part of an image can give you a drastically different perception of that image.

In the very first lecture, Professor Asani made it plain that through a cultural studies approach, this class endeavors to look at the whole picture of Islam. And he also made it clear that some of the most destructive ideas (both from within the Muslim community and about the Muslim community) stem from those who do not look at the whole picture.

In the background of the video montage is a 2011 Fox News interview between Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump on Muslims. The obviously narrow minded conversation was sort of low hanging fruit for me to make this point, but the issue of people forming to conclusions based on limited information is ubiquitous. The final lecture of the year as well as the book and film, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” drove home this very point. I saw this course as an attempt to combat “cherrypicking” (picking bits of information from which to form conclusions).

Looking at part or even most of an image can be drastically different from looking at the entire thing. However, unlike advertisements, looking at the entire picture of “Islam” is impossible. Thus, the point I think is that we should both shy away from generalizing and strive to widen our lens.

Week 3: Rules of Recitation

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This soundscape is inspired by the rules of reciting the Quran. The even, simple, three-tone chords back a confusion of notes and chords. The simplicity is meant to keep the soundscape from being associated with any type of music (though I think I failed in this attempt since the scale that the chords follow is a classical scale). The simplicity is also meant to create order and most importantly to follow rules. There are four beats per chord and the chords ascend up the scale in an orderly and boring fashion. As the listener can hear, this order and simplicity devolves into a medley of indistinct sound. This is why it is called a soundscape, because that confusion cannot be parsed into a melody or song. It is the marriage of order and chaos.

As pointed to in the Week 1 post, “Paradox in Islam,” there are complexities that are irreconcilable within the Quran. Simply put, there are ideas in Quranic text that we will never be able to understand fully. And so this post seeks to playfully point out the irony of the strict rules of recitation and pronunciation in contrast to the unknowable qualities of the content of that recitation. It is the juxtaposition and melding, the contrast and mixing, of clarity and chaos. I use the word chaos because to me it seems that there are so many interpretations that meanings seems to bump into each other, meld together, convolute, conflate, disintegrate, resurrect, etc. within those pages. Chaos seems to be a good word to describe that sort of environment within the pages of the Quran.

In the final seconds of the soundscape, the order drops off and the confusion reigns. This was a subtle statement that to me, the rules can never overcome uncertainty.

And yet, the rules are precise and well-defined. This comes up in Michael Sells book chapter on recitation, in Al-Ghazali’s work, and in the movie we watched called “Koran by Heart.” Al-Ghazali restated Umm Salama’s assertion that Quranic recitation must be “as clear and distinct in respect of every letter.” (Al-Ghazali 42) “They are encouraged to master the sound of the Quran, even before they can comprehend its meaning,” Kristina Nelson writes in her book chapter, “The Sound of the Divine in Daily Life.” The precision and attention to the sound of recitation is perhaps a way of knowing one small bit of the religious experience, which strikes me as overwhelmingly unknowable. Thus, again, the soundscape is meant to portray the marriage of order and chaos, precision and confusion, knowledge and interpretation, of man and of God, and from God and from man.

Week 10: Woman as a Battlefield

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Woman as a Battlefield Video

 

If video does not work, here is youtube link: https://youtu.be/9YteMT3JvmI

This video is simple—the stick figure shape, the plain white paper and black pen, and the nature of a stop motion video. The simplicity of the images and the complexity of what it alludes to is a reflection on symbols in Islam. In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi begins with the symbol of the veil. The cloth draped over a girl’s face is so simple and yet it stands in for the complexities of the Iranian political climate. Thus, in this post, simplicity stands in for complexity in yet another paradox.

The main idea behind this video is to depict the forces that act upon the generic “woman.” I think it is ambiguous in this video if it is one woman or many women. In lecture, John said that during times of conflict within Islam (between traditional values and reformers, for instance) women’s bodies become a “battlefield.” This term stuck with me. The lack of agency, control, and humanity of it inspired this video. Essentially, each piece of clothing, even her hair, is laid on top of her generic, unmoving body. The video obviously exaggerates the sentiment of John’s lecture, but of course that is purposeful.

One small piece I would like to point out is the “WOMEN’S RIGHTS” sign is representative of the entire video. The sign is placed into her experience by another, and not by her. Her life is changed by that sign, but it is not her own. That is the sentiment I took from the idea of women’s bodies as a “battlefield.”

Further, the two-dimensional stick figure is acted upon a real, living hand. The levels of hierarchy between a penned stick figure and a human allude to hierarchies within the reality of women throughout sects, religions, cultures, etc.

Why a stop-frame movie? I think the medium contributes to the conversation in two ways. First, it creates a relationship between change and time which is not fluid. All of a sudden a women has a burka on, all of sudden she wears jeans or a mini skirt. The suddenness makes the sentiment even more jarring, which I would imagine women feel at times as well. Second, this post was partially inspired by Persepolis and the stop motion meant to be in between the format of a graphic novel and a film.

In essence, this was inspired by a single phrase mentioned in lecture which seems to have gotten under my skin.  The overarching themes are control, agency, gender, veiling, protest, hierarchy and change.  To me this post seems to depict a problem.  That begs the question of what or who is the solution.  Is it the hand or the stick figure?

Week 2: The Intimacy of Islam

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Warmth around the back of my neck

My mother’s hand

Like a life jacket

Keeping me from sinking

Into the Crowd

The wind blows

With the people

Gusting toward kneeling

Prayer

A blue and white flag flaps

Criss-crossing triangles twist and bend

We walk past.

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“I grew up reading the Quran in my mother’s lap,” writes Ziauddin Sardar in the opening line of his book Reading the Quran: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam. The poem above was inspired by a picture I took over spring break in the Old City of Jerusalem just before the midday prayer. After closing the stores in the Bazaar, Muslims walked calmly to the mosque in a huge parade of men, women, and children, old and young. The Old City is home to relics of religious significance and sacred ground for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Archeological gold mines are layered one on top of the other underneath the stone streets of the living city. The image reminded me of the personal, intimate nature of Islam and the quote by Sardar. One of the themes of this class has been mixing personal stories and details of muslim faith with historical trends and global realities and with physical monuments like mosques. This blog entry aims at capturing a snapshot of the intimate and personal aspects of faith.

In contrast with the previous blog post on historical progression, which had a perspective with a very wide lens, this entry focuses on the individual. It is easy to forget when learning about religion, especially as an outsider (secular person), that religion is not just a set of beliefs or practices, but it is an individual experience. This short poem is intended to remind the reader of the lived experience in its unique details.

Further, the allusion to the Israeli flag waving above the procession of Muslims toward the mosque is both a very specific allusion and a generalizable theme. It is specific in that it refers to the moment in the picture above, to the Old City in Jerusalem, and to the situation in Israel. However, the coexistence of different religions is felt worldwide. Thus, those lines are both specific and generalizable. In relation to the intimacy of Islam, these lines are a reminder that although this entry emphasizes the personal nature of religion, that is not independent of the macro-scale study of religion. They are two sides of the same coin.

The poem has an almost meteorological motif running through it.  The crowd is like a flood and wind movement, as if the elements are sending them to prayer and not their own inclination.  With prayer isolated in its own line, the poem seems to pause on that word.  Before it moves on and finally lands on the line, “We walk past.”  That line is clearly following the description of the Israeli flag, but does it also have a sense of walking past the word “Prayer”? Past to where? Apathy? Heaven?  Also who is we? Is it the boy and his mother? The crowd? The boy and God?  These questions are unanswered.

Week 5: Historical Progression and Writing the Quran

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This image is meant to portray the transition from Quran as recitation to Quran as writing. The face on the rights side (as Arabic is read right to left) represents the Prophet Mohammed. From his mouth extends the Quran in swirling bits. Closest to him are intangibles of muslim faith (portrayed just as swirls), then the word “Allah” in Arabic is discernable in a swirl, next comes the Arabic alphabet (representing the writing and cementing of the Quran), and finally “The Opening” in English.

The image is black and white because it is meant to portray darkness and light. The gradient in his words (the swirls)—darker nearer to the Prophet and lighter further away—signifies how distance from the words of the prophet (in time, in language, in lifestyle, etc.) makes his words harder to interpret as versions are disputed, mixed, and convoluted. The gradient in the background—darker further from the prophet and lighter closer to him—similarly represents the confusion of the global community of Muslims as sects and ideologies split apart as history moves forward.

This blog is a creative depiction of the themes discussed in the historical explanation of Islam. I was thinking about the chart handed out of the significant figures for each sect of Islam. And also Professor Asani’s historical account of how Islamic teachings became codified into a book. Political and military powers were tied to competing accounts of the Quran. The more politically powerful created the lasting religious norms. To me this potentially could have convoluted the original words of the Prophet.

Finally the word “GOD” is hidden in the swirls. This alludes subtly to similarities of all monotheists. Underlying the words of the Quran, the Torah, and the Bible is a common concept: belief. Even through all of the confusion of history, faith as a concept remains strong.

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