Prior to taking Professor Asani’s class For the Love of God and His Prophets, I knew as much about Islam as a physics concentrator would know about musical theory (and I use extreme comparisons here to indicate my utter lack of knowledge.) My perception of Islam was composed of so many ignorant misconceptions that now, looking back, I find appalling. I was entirely unaware of the severely distorted understanding I maintained. I feel that Swiss author Roger Du Pasquier sums up not only my prior understanding of Islam, but also Western civilization’s ignorance at large, quite accurately:
“The West, whether Christian or dechristianized, has never really known Islam. Ever since they watched it appear on the world stage, Christians never ceased to insult and slander it in order to find justification for waging war on it…One symptom of this ignorance is the fact that in the imagination of most Europeans, Allah refers to the divinity of the Muslims, not the God of the Christians and Jews; they are all surprised to hear, when one takes the trouble to explain things to them, that ‘Allah’ means ‘God’, and that even Arab Christians know him by no other name.”
While I was never really sure of what Islam was or upon what foundations the religion was established, I had a few unfavorable notions of what I thought Muslims endorsed, including the following: religious intolerance, terrorism, and female oppression. Then why, despite having such steadfast negative conceptions of Islam, would I even dare to take this class? I’m not exactly sure but something certainly caught my interest.
Looking back, I think that if I had to point to one particular aspect of the class that was appealing to me, I would have to say it was Professor Asani’s method of teaching through experiential learning. As I have learned throughout the semester, experiential learning is the process of gaining personal understanding of a subject from direct experience. Unlike conventional textbook learning, experiential learning focuses on the learning process of the individual through observation, listening, watching, or creating. It involves the individual making personal first-hand discoveries of the material that may be seemingly nonexistent to another student. Through Professor Asani’s method, we were able to understand Islam as a cultural phenomenon, as an intricately intertwined web of political, social economic and literary influences. In this way, the study of Islam became not solely about theology and religious doctrine, but about the more humanizing factors that gave way to my appreciation of Islamic practices in a more culturally enriching light.
In October of this year, Professor Asani was quoted in The Crimson, “if you look at religion through other lenses like art and literature, they actually bring people together and promote understanding” (Feldman 1). In the context of this class, this statement could not be any more true.
Through our assignments, which included six creative responses to readings, a calligraphy project, a mosque design project, and a ghazal recitation, we were forced to think outside of the normal academic context, to work with classmates of different backgrounds, and to pursue a higher level of creative understanding in order to reach a level of engagement with the material that would mold our personal experience with it.
Throughout the semester, I learned that Islam is the fastest-growing religion, yet is terribly misunderstood by millions. I learned that it exists in all parts of the world, bringing people of all ethnicities together through their belief in ethics, harmony, peace and faith. I learned that Islam is not a religion of cruelty and violence, but rather one of respect for all humans, regardless of religious backgrounds. I learned that adherents to any religion are muslims and those who practice Islam are Muslims. I learned about Islam’s origination and the life of the Prophet Muhammad and how He was the divine human being, setting an example for all Muslims to follow. I learned about Islam behind the stereotypes that I once held and by doing so, I was able to create six creative projects in response to readings we studied and discussions we had in class.
Professor Asani left the assignment of the six creative responses open to our interpretation. With such liberty to create responses as we please, I was able to focus on the material that left an impression in my mind and avoid the material that did not have a meaningful impact on me.
For my first project entitled, The Rose of God’s Garden, I found inspiration in an Urdu poem composed by Salim Ahmad in which he describes Muhammad as the “rose of God’s garden.” Comparing Muhammad to often what is considered the most beautiful flower in a garden reminds me of the almost romantic relationship between Allah and Muhammad but also of the ideal manner in which Muhammad lived his life. Like a rose is the perfect flower, Muhammad was the perfect human being, living exactly how Allah wanted all humans to live. I wanted to emphasize this relationship so I rewrote the words of the naat to depict a beautiful rose growing from God’s soil. The stem of the rose represents the physical human connection Muhammad had with the followers of Islam while the Sun represents His reliance on Allah as the illuminator and light of the world. I thought that creating a visual image with the words of the naat would solidify the poems meaning and highlight the beauty that exudes from the author’s imagery.
For my second creative project, I focused on the understanding that the Quran was not revealed all at once and rather was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over a period of 23 years during which the angel Jibril came to Muhammad to share with Him Allah’s message for the world. For this reason, the Quran is not linear and does not have to be read from start to finish in order to understand it’s meaning. Professor Asani once compared the Quran’s non-linear compilation to a flowing stream, for it does not have a beginning or end, rather it flows smoothly and can be understood from any point. Even within any one sura, the Quran reads like a stream of consciousness rather than story. In continuation with the metaphor that the Quran is a stream, I wanted to depict the image that came to mind during class when Professor Asani described the Quran as a stream of revelations. When he said this, I envisioned a stream of the Quran’s words and stories flowing continuously around rocks and waterfalls. As shown in my project, people, places, and aspects of the Quran that we have learned about in class are flowing down the stream in harmony.
I entitled my third creative project Tears of Karbala because I wanted to depict the sorrow that was felt in 680 CE when the Prophet’s grandson was brutally slain. I decided to use modern day imagines of the reenactments of the Ta’ziyeh passion play to incorporate the continued pain and sadness that modern day Muslims feel each year on the anniversary of the Battle of Karbala. I found an image of a grieving Shia woman’s face to act as the backdrop of the three teardrops. In each teardrop, there is a reenacted scene from the Battle of Karbala. Inside the first teardrop is Imam Hussein as he prepares to meet death. The second teardrop shows Zainab after witnessing the bloody massacre of her sons, brothers and nephews. Lastly, the third teardrop depicts the sorrowful reality of Imam Hussein’s dead body after the Battle of Karbala. All three teardrops represent a different aspect of the Battle of Karbala; however, all three share a common theme of sacrifice, grief, transcendence and salvation. I hoped that this type of unconventional art would portray both the past and the present into the remembrance of Karbala. As we learned in lecture, it is through the sacred act of communal suffering that Muslims around the world are reminded that they are not alone in their personal troubles.
I decided to use photography as the medium for my fourth creative project and did so in order to emphasize the themes of love, intoxication and madness in Hafiz’s poetry. Hafiz seems to be inspired by the tension and interplay between love and reason, irrationality and sanity; and he often represents this unbalanced state of mind with drunkenness. I wanted the cup of wine in my picture to be interpreted as the heart of the lover containing the potion of life: Divine Love. In my photograph, I also hoped to depict how the intake of Divine Love will eventually lead to union with God, the ultimate Beloved, so I took a photo on a day with the clearest of skies to relate the sense of divine clarity that one feels when he or she attains fana, the complete denial of self and the realization of God. The photo is undeniably simple but that was my goal, for I wanted the simplicity to be representative of the purity of spiritual union with Allah. The notion of tension between outer and inner meaning reminds me of how, in many of his poems, Hafiz criticizes the hypocritical Sufi as one who perfectly demonstrates the law outwardly but disregards the inner spiritual significance of the law, and for this reason, I hope that the photo’s simplicity emphasizes its underlying spiritual sentiment.
My fifth creative project is based upon Farid al-Din Attar’s poem, Conference of the Birds. This poem is a metaphorical description of the complexities and evils that prevent the human soul from attaining union with God. Attar uses the story to describe how humans must give up all worldly desires to fully achieve spiritual faultlessness. As we discussed in section, the use of the story is a common tool in Persian Sufi poetry—by relating Islamic teachings through storytelling, individuals are able to incorporate their own experiences to their personal understanding of what the author is trying to convey. While I read Conference of the Birds, I noticed myself comparing various aspects of my personality with those of the birds in the poem. I later realized during section, that I was doing exactly what Attar had hoped would happen: I was ingraining the story into my memory by relating my life experiences within the context of the poem’s spiritual meaning. In order to depict how I felt when reading it, I placed an image of a mirror with five birds that best represented me inside of the center of an eyeball. Complicated to describe in words, the actual image quite clearly demonstrates the notion of a reflection of myself looking into a mirror, paralleling the image of the birds looking into the lake.
For my last and final creative project, I wanted to write a ghazal, a type of poem popular Urdu literature. Ghazals are typically characterized by the expression of agony and lovesickness associated with the separation of a loved one as well as the demonstration of the remarkable beauty that is found despite the pain and longing. In continuation of my fifth creative project mentioned above, I make reference to Attar’s poem Conference of the Birds as an allegory of the Sufi journey to attainment of oneness with Allah. Just as in Conference of the Birds, Attar guides the lover in my ghazal to give up all worldly goods in order to reach union with his Beloved. The lover in my ghazal reveals his weakness and lovesickness, admitting that he will do anything to be with his Beloved again and that despite the pain, the lover with “wait for an eternity” for the Beloved. I also make reference to the theme of intoxication and drunkenness, a theme rife throughout Persian poetry. A glass of wine and a drunken state is popular in classical Persian imagery and can be understood as the heart of the lover that holds Divine Love, the elixir of life, the consumption of which ultimately leads to union with the Beloved. In Persian Sufi poetry, the state of intoxication is one of madness that results from submission to love for the Beloved.
By taking this class, my eyes have been opened, my perceptions have been altered and my appreciation for religious diversity has increased. Through experiential learning, I was able to express how particular readings, documentaries, music and artwork affected me on a spiritual level. I found it interesting to hear about other students’ interactions with the assignments and how their experiences differed from my own. By looking at Islam through an artistic, social and cultural lens, our class, comprised of people from diverse backgrounds, was able to come together to reach a higher level of shared understanding.
Feldman, Jacob. “Ali Asani Named Head of Islamic Studies Program.” The Harvard Crimson. [Cambridge] 3 October, 2011. <http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2011/10/3/asani-islam-harvard-program/>.