The Beggar’s Strike

October 27th, 2015

Heed heed our time of need,

God said give to us, it is the good deed,

We stand palms extended awaiting our pay,

Despite grimaces and sneers received all day.

We see the wealthy groan that we are filthy

Push us away into the dark depths of nothingness

Wishing to see us vanish from Earth

Hoping to continue their lives of riches and mirth.

They do not see that they need us to be,

Need our life to fuel their own,

For to whom can they give their alms 

And who can give them prayers.

Soon they realize they are the ones in need,

In need for our outstretched hands to feed,

In need of our poverty to fuel their prosperity,

They are slaves to our prayers and we are masters of their destiny.

And above us all, sits God himself.

The Beggars Strike was quite an interesting and captivating read in my opinion. The idea of alms giving forms a large part of islam and hinging the story on this particular factor formed an interesting and novel approach to the idea. This inspired me to captivate the essences of the novel in the above poem. What struck me initially was the presentation of beggars in the city and the adjectives used to describe them. They are perceived as sub-human pollutants who should have no place in the city among those who are more fortunate. Coupled with this prominent classist attitude which one can deduce is bred through political influence, there is also an intrinsic religious factor. When it is ultimately revealed that the existence of the wealthy depended on those who ask for sustenance as equally as it works the other way around, I was personally presented with a moral dilemma. Growing up, the notion of giving to the poor not only as a moral act but also a religious one has been ingrained within me. The question now arose whether this is done for the sake of God per se in an act of unadulterated faith, or whether it is done for selfish reasons. The novel presents a rather simplistic cycle of things: people give to the poor as a mode of making God happy – but ultimately so that God may grant them their own wishes. It is portrayed as a simple transaction wherein for every penny paid, a personal wish or desire will be granted. So is selflessness inherently selfish?

Quite ironically, despite this clear classism which superficially portrays the wealthy as being above the poor, the opposite is actually the case. The form of transactional religion which is practiced in the book means that the wealthy must seek out the poor in order to fulfill their own wishes. While the social connotations which suggest that the poor must exist in order for the wealthy to maintain their wealth is unappealing, this does in fact empower the beggars in a way. Ultimately, it is the beggars who dictate whether they are to give their prayers and wether they are to be satisfied with the alms presented to them. It is a situation in which one could even say that the wealthy are begging for prayers, quite a different but interesting way of looking at it. Through the poem I attempt to speak from the Beggar’s perspective, to convey the messages intended in the novel.


Sultana’s Dream

October 27th, 2015

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The role of women in Muslim societies has made up a large point of discussion over the past few weeks, especially the influence of islam in determining the status of women in these societies. On multiple occasions we witness a society in which women are marginalized and their existences limited to the desires and wills of men. We see this case very evidently in The Wedding of Zein, where the double standards men employ while treating women can only be described as atrocious. In this case, the men seek the women at the Oasis for sexual gratification and pleasure, and yet desire wives who are not privy to such things and take no functional role in society outside the households of their husbands. What was even more shocking, was the Sheikh’s objectification of the women. Supposedly a holy man, he represents the physical manifestation of hypocrisy, preaching a religion which tells its men to lower their gaze while watching a belly dancer with an animalistic fervor. In short, such a society places the role of virtue and piousness on an unrealistic pedestal for women.

Such a sentiment is spoken out against in the collection of poems entitled We Sinful Women. The collection offers a refreshing outlook on the once muffled voices of women. Similarly, the piece entitled Sultana’s Dream offered a refreshing take on this issue in which men are house-bound and women govern via science in a land of prosperity and advancement. The realities of women in today’s societies was made even more clear given the stark contrast in Sultana’s Dream.This inspired me to make the above interpretive piece since it shows the collective themes when it comes to women in the news. In taking each of these headlines individually we made gloss over them as a one time incident. However, it is clearly a collective issue which is revealing of how women are seen in both western and eastern societies. I found it interesting how even in societies where women are seen as enjoying a life of freedom and a lack of male control, there is still a qualifying factor of sexism. Note for example the Chinese restaurant which gives women discounts based on the length of their skirts, or the general objectification of women as they engage in the most basic day to day tasks.


The Wedding of Zein

October 27th, 2015

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The notion of ‘religious authority’ has for a long time been a misnomer to me, particularly when it comes to Islam. Growing up, I was acutely aware of the varying sources of religious input, each deeming itself the ‘correct’ source with the only valid voice worth hearing. I was also actively taught to be wary of the things I heard and learned with regards to religion, in an attempt to filter out the correct teachings from the wrong. Through my reading of the Wedding of Zein, I found myself drawing linkages between what I read and what I had experienced: religious authority is divided and diluted among many. As we see in the novel, there are four so called ‘factions’ of authority which loosely represent what can be seen in reality, depending on the country and its own traditions and cultural establishments or practices.

The first comes in the form of the Sheikh, seen as the most traditional form of religious authority and also described as a ‘necessary evil’. The sheikh comes to symbolize politicized islam, and the best real life manifestation I could find of him came in the form of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood which had political goals which were justified by religious ones. This faction can be seen in the lower left corner of my drawing as the ‘religion office’ which serves the purpose of engaging with society on a politico-religious level.

The second faction comes in the form of the gang which essentially run the village – best described as the government – or the balances of justice in the upper left corner. Such a faction may not be religious in and of themselves, but must deal with the necessary evil of the sheikh out of a knowledge that religion forms an ingrained and inextricable part of their society.

The third faction is represented by the mystic, Hanin, who’s spirituality extends above the mundaneness of Earthly material living, reaching directly towards the heavens above. Such is perhaps represented by the Sufi sect of muslims, but can also be likened to a variety of figures depending on country and traditions. One could also say that in general islamic engagement, certain activities aim to allow one to experience transcendence in a way or another.

The fourth, final, and perhaps most important religious authority comes in the form of the holy book, the Quran, and the words of the prophet Mohamed. I wished to represent these varying sources of religious authority in a single diagram. My interpretation is perhaps limited in that it suggests that each of these factions operate independently of each other. Naturally, this is not the case, and it is the varying levels of interaction that these factions have that give rise to drastically different interpretations of Islam around the world. 

 


Egyptian Childhood

October 27th, 2015

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Egyptian Childhood by Taha Hussein was one of the first novels we read as part of this seminar and provided an exceptional number of insights into the meaning of Islam and how it relates to the day to day lives of millions around the world. An important hinging point of the autobiography is that Taha Hussein was blind from birth, a point which made it interesting to see how he personally came to ‘view’ religion through his other sensory faculties and interpret it.

As we learned through our discussions, the factors which come into play when following a religion are many and varied. This was quite eye-opening to me since I had never before considered the nuances of religion beyond its holy book and the individuals who act as its proponents. This point was solidified through my reading of An Egyptian Childhood too. We came to see the young boys’ father pressure him into learning the Quran for the meager purpose of impressing his friends and fulfilling a societal and cultural duty. This Quran-learning was facilitated by a sheikh who had no interest in anything but the income generated from his profession and creating the impression that his young disciples had learned the Quran regardless of whether they had truly committed it to memory or even understood it. This was much the same narrative that I had seen in terms of religion. Little did I pay attention to the beauty of religious meaning, or the artistic beauty of religious scripture, whether visually or aurally, and the impact this played. Taha, however, being blind, was actively aware of the other manifestations of religion surrounding him, which lent him a satisfaction in hearing stories.

These factors, coupled with my new found fascination with the visual attractions of religion, led me towards the making of this piece of calligraphy (shown in the image above). It depicts an arabic Quranic verse, with the same verse written in arabic below it to show the visual contrast, significance and beauty. The three praying people atop the verse also depict one of the most important notions of Islamic tradition: the shahada (I bear witness that Allah is the one true God and that Mohamed is his prophet pbuh). These also symbolize what I imagined to be a young Taha praying. The choice of Quranic verse was also intentional. This particular verse means:

Allah does not burden a soul more than it can handle.

I found this particular verse to be fitting given the young boy’s condition and the difficulties he experienced which were revealed to us in the novel.