May 9th, 2014
Can you make a promise?
Can we go for a walk in my world, hand in hand, and forget about all the prejudices while we do it? Don’t worry. You’ll be safe in my world. You will probably know a lot about me, the “me” before taking a class at Harvard – AUI54 – and the “me” after taking it.
I will try to share as much knowledge as I can with you while you discover (and I rediscover) many aspects of the class and the projects I had the chance to work on this past semester.
To make this interesting, I think you should know more about me, about the person I was before I came to Harvard, before I decided to take a class about Islam which I was very ambivalent about taking because I thought it might be a waste of time. Boy was I wrong.
Enough talking. Let me tell you more about the person I am or well, was.
Where did my morality come from? This question is, I believe, one of the hardest to answer but I can try.
I came from Tunisia, an Arab Muslim country, where I was born and raised for 20 years.
I went to Madrassa Qor2ania when I was 5. I’ve been exposed to the Quran for as long as I can remember.
Am I a practicing Muslim? I am not. Do I eat pork? No. Why, you ask? Because practicing Muslims don’t. My relationship with my religion is this complicated.
I claim to be an atheist but a part of me is still very ashamed of this claim. I don’t even know what some of my relatives’ reactions would be if they find out that I don’t say my five prayers everyday and that I’m not a practicing Muslim.
After my first college party here, a part of me was very disappointed. A part of me was whispering: « I hope it’s not your last night Mehdi. I hope you will wake up in the morning. » That is, according to Islam, I’d go to Annar (hell) if I die drunk. I obviously don’t want that to happen.
I really can’t understand where exactly my morality came from. I still can’t understand why I still can’t eat pork. Perhaps I felt morally obliged not to do so? But the question remained unanswered. Why?
I grew up in an environment where religion beats reason, -or even worse-, where religion is reason. I have been exposed to many awful descriptions of my body forever burning in hell, – with a new skin everytime, ready to feel that unbearable pain every minute of every day – if I don’t follow was God asks me to do, that is « Al Akhlak al Hamida »…
My morality came from a voice I have inside of me. That voice is the baby of my teacher’s warnings, some Tunisians’ radicalism, my society’s values and the religion that is a part of me, no matter how hard I might want to try to claim the opposite.
To put my creative projects in the context of the course, it is worth noting that the approach we took in this course is one that’s very different from any other approach I was introduced to back home while learning about Islam.
The approach I got used to in my studying of Islam in Tunisia is the devotional and theological one. It is one that is based on the study of texts, Quranic verses and Hadiths.
However, what we soon notice is that this approach leads to the “deification” of the text as Professor Ali Asani said in the first lecture.
What’s even worse is that this approach is basically the analysis of different texts that do not necessarily have any chronological order. It makes it much harder for us to understand the religion and the artistic manifestations of Islam in their context.
For that reason, Professor Asani opted for what he called the “cultural studies approach”. This way, it is easier for us to avoid the narrow-minded perception of Islam, understand the facts and the artistic manifestations of Islam in their right context, which says even more about the Islamic art and the religion more generally.
My first post, “The Labyrinth of Quran”, a colored pencils and pastels calligraphy, and my second post, “Take off the cover; Five pillars of Islam don’t make the Muslim a Muslim…”, a watercolors representation of Islamic faith and practice, focus on the content of the first part of the course.
In fact, for the first few weeks, we focused a lot on understanding the role of ritual in Islamic theology and learnt many terms like:
•Sirat al-mustaqim “the straight path; the path of righteousness”
•iman “faith, belief”
•‘ibadat “acts of worship”
•mu’amalat “obligations to society”
We also focused on the five pillars of Islam and the six pillars of Iman which inspired mainly for my blog posts.
In fact, we learnt that the righteous is the one who believes in Allah, and the Last Day, and the angels and the Book and the prophets and gives away wealth out of love for Him [God]
and performs the prayer and pays the zakat… (2:177).
We learnt that the five pillars of Islam are:
•Shahadah — testimony of faith
•Salat– ritual prayer
•Zakat — Almsgiving
•Sawm – fasting during Ramadan
•Hajj – pilgrimage to Mecca,if one can afford it
and that the six pillars of faith are:
- Belief in ALLAAH
- Belief in Allaah’s Angels
- Belief in Allaah’s Books
- Belief in the Messengers of Allah
- Belief in the Last Day
- Belief in Qada and Qadar; Predestination
My third blog post is basically making a point that those pillars are interrelated and that although some people might think the pillars of Islam are more important, that is not true since Iman is the first base of Islam.
My other blog posts are all much more personal interpretations.
Most of them fight against a narrow-minded perception of Islam, which we learnt to avoid in class because it is the base of all the prejudices, stereotypes, and labels that are harming Muslims.
Those include my interpretation of Persepolis, a comic novel we had to read, “The Color of Paradise” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (movie/book) which are two movies I also had the privilege to watch and that moved me in a way that made me react to them through my blog posts which I hope you are going to enjoy.
Now speaking of the narrow-minded perception of Islam, I find it very interesting that the order and content of the different weeks ended up forming a sort of a cycle.
In fact, our starting point in this class was how to use what we learn in this class to forget about all the prejudices, stereotypes, and labels, to finally realize that Muslims are different, that not “all Muslims are terrorists” like many people like to think, that we have to ask: “Which God? Which Islam?” every time someone tries to generalize facts that may trick people and leave them blinded.
Our motivation for that was specifically the clash of civilazations and most importantly the clash of ignorances. In fact, Professor Asani mentions in the first lecture Rod Parsley’s words: “I cannot tell you how important it is that we understand the true nature of Islam, that we see it for what it really is. In fact, I will tell you this: I do not believe our country can truly fulfill its divine purpose until we understand our historical conflict with Islam. I know that this statement sounds extreme, but I do not shrink from its implications. The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed, and I believe September 11, 2001, was a generational call to arms that we can no longer ignore” to show how concerning the situation is in the United States nowadays and that a complete understanding of religion is needed.
“Islamophobia is at once a deeply personal issue for Muslims, a matter of great importance to anyone concerned about upholding universal values, and a question with implications for international harmony and peace.”
What I find interesting is that the last portion of the course focused on that as well. Indeed, the Reluctant Fundamentalist which is both a book and a movie that inspired me to write my sixth blog post “COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS AND THOUGHTS ABOUT MORALS: The Reluctant Fundamentalist through the lens of an economist…” Sheds the light on that clash of ignorance as well since it’s all about not fitting in the American society even if one is born there, as long as a Muslim identity is imposed on him, even through the physical appearance.
When I was writing my final essay, I couldn’t help but think about an incident that occurred to me last August, when I was still a prefrosh coming from another continent, visiting the United States for the first time to spend four years in a place where I knew nothing, no one.
I was in the line, at the John F. Kennedy International Airport with my sister. After waiting for forty minutes, the officer finally opened my passport and looked at me in a way I got used to over time, just as much as I got used to the random inspections. “We have to check your documents.” He said. I was taken to a small dark room where I had to wait for two long hours. Eventually, a security officer called my name – Mohamed as it appears on official documents. He opened a folder and told me that he had to ask me some questions in order for me to leave. “Do you intend to commit any act of terrorism in the United States?” he asked in a confident way.
It was confusing. It was shocking. It was also somewhat funny. But wait… would I?
I have never asked myself that question before and I never thought I would. This question awakened in me many feelings and brought to surface the frustration I’ve always almost successfully hidden. I have indeed been born and raised in a country where religion does not allow violence, where adults had these long boring “lectures” about how we, Muslims, defend the ideals of love and kindness and faith. What was frustrating though is to see some of these same adults in favour of some terrorist acts. How is it that people who defend those ideals can be in favour of terrorism? How is it that these same people are suddenly in favour of terrorist attacks when it comes to the Palestinian cause for example?
The idea of terrorizing people terrorizes me in the first place. I don’t believe I would ever kill a human being. I think I would kill myself for committing such an inhuman act although, ironically enough, that would be another sin from a religious point of view. The kid in me still believes in these ideals of love and faith that I was raised to admire. I still believe that no matter how important the cause we are defending is, terrorism would not be the solution.
However, some would claim that it might be efficient in some ways. “Mandela became president after committing acts of terrorism. The Oslo peace process that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority is the fruit of many years of terrorism”, some would claim. That is not how I see things. Although acts of terrorism might prove successful under certain circumstances, the long-run effects are always negative.
After years of terrorism that involved “Muslims”, the people I care about are profiled as dangerous. Wherever I go, I can feel the strange look on people’s face when they know I come from a Muslim country. What’s even more saddening is that the media have succeeded in making some Muslims hate themselves.
I don’t think I would be able to commit any act of terrorism. I don’t think the kid who was involved in the marathon’s bombings last year was born with the idea of committing acts of terrorism. Human nature is filled with these ideals of love and faith. The little kid in me still has this strong belief. However, evil is everywhere and that is also what religion and life has taught me.
As I was sitting in this small room, I realized that it doesn’t take much to fuel feelings of hatred. I was in this small dirty room because of my name and my identity. These inspections were far from being random, and I am considered as a dangerous person to many people. If such an inspection in an airport made me feel that enraged then how would other people feel in extreme cases, in which peaceful and democratic methods have been exhausted, feel? How would they feel in cases of repression and suffering, with a cruelly oppressive state and no obvious possibility of international relief?
That is why I don’t think terrorists are the only ones to blame for such destructive acts.
This can’t be true.
As I am writing this essay, I really travelled back in time, to last August, and went through the same struggle again. But I feel like something changed. No, not the rage. The rage was still there.
It’s that I know understand how and why these people think the way they do, and I feel more equipped to face that kind of situation. I feel different. I have always been a very proud person, with an incredible ego. But somehow, for some reason, I now feel much prouder.
Thank you for the walk. I hope you enjoyed it.
I know I did.
COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS AND THOUGHTS ABOUT MORALS; The Reluctant Fundamentalist through the lens of an economist…
May 9th, 2014
For this blog post, I wanted to react to “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” just because I loved both the book and the movie. What I loved about it is that the author and the director weren’t scared to show “the whole picture” even though that involved bashing the United States in some ways.
The main character in the book and movie is a Pakistani American young man. During his time there he becomes a successful business analyst in a New York company after graduating from Princeton, and enjoys the trappings of his capitalist and materialistic lifestyle. However, he realizes later that no matter how successful he becomes, he can never be an American in the most fundamental sense, and that makes me think more about the American society, the injustice, the capitalism, and the inequities…
I feel like the movie condemns how materialistic the United States is becoming day after day, that its own benefits are way more important than anything else, even if that involved losing the lives of other human beings sometimes. For that reason, I decided to use this blog post to illustrate that point in the movie which wasn’t as explicit, but equally important to my opinion compared to other aspects of the movie that were probably much more obvious.
Take a green dollar bill out of your pocket. Can you see what I see?
“In God We Trust” is loudly shouting, “The dollars are what we worship nowadays.” The sacrilegious fact of putting the name of God on money was probably not a vain decision.
Today, we are living in a world ruled by the country that has the best economy and the greatest number of zeros on its checks, not because politics and culture are not valuable anymore but because all the sectors are now dependent on how much money the country has to make them grow.
We cannot think of a disease more threatening and common than Cancer during the past decade, can we? It would therefore be shocking to know that what the world lacks today to make a big step forward in finding a cure to Cancer is not the intelligence and skills scientists need but financing. Why is that? Two years ago, Researchers at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada have finally achieved what they thought were a big goal: They cured cancer. « Too naïve! » riposted the Pharmaceutical companies. These companies did not invest a single dime in this research because the method used could not be patented. No patent, no money. That was all what mattered. The same scenario is noticeable in more recent years with AIDS. This leads us to a very important conclusion. Man’s greed has been growing at such a fast pace that he has been losing his morals meanwhile. Today, almost every political, social, educational, and cultural project is evaluated, not for its absolute advantage but for its “comparative advantage” as economists say. What must be given up to benefit from this project?
Everything has become interrelated and decisions are being affected more and more by the cost benefit analysis. Worse still, what modern economists like Adam Smith are trying to tell us is even more frightening: Economists have nothing to do whatsoever with the growth of capitalism that caused the drastic shift in people’s mentalities. They are the only responsible. He claims in this context: « It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. »
Thus, the alternative to cost benefit analysis seems even harder to find since it would have to destroy what intrinsically qualifies man: Selfishness and greediness.
That is what Economists as policymakers have been trying to do to support moral theories in their economic principles. One of the most obvious is considering the big trade-off between efficiency and equality. In fact, equality is theoretically one of the aspects that every well-designed economic project should be based on. The “Welfare Analysis” being the criterion that economies are based on also “cares” about equality. Is that applied?
Needless to say, all these theories are rarely respected and more often than not, forgotten. Even the Non-governmental Organizations, whose aim is to support equality and morals in this world ruled by economical criteria, fails to be indifferent to the cost benefits analysis.
If we think about it for a while, I think it would all make sense. What are morals, before being known and well spread among people? What makes them spread? What makes them common? Influence. What brings influence? What makes a good idea worth sharing? Even morals nowadays cannot be separated from the circle of wealth, since wealth has recently become synonym of power.
Many attempts are being made today to reconcile the greediness that is now presiding the world with the morals that were once governing it.
However, we could stop feeling nostalgic for a while whenever “moral theories” are mentioned and ask ourselves: Isn’t it better this way?
Persepolis was by far one of the best books I’ve read for this class. What I particularly liked is that I read this book when I was way younger for an Arts class and it was a great read. We were all very happy to see the nice cartoon-y faces and very amused by the adventures of this little girl.
What really stuck in my mind at that time though were the scenes of her talking to God. I was very curious and asked my teacher if that was okay. “I heard it’s not okay for us to talk to God, is it?” She said it was okay and that the author is doing it in such an artistic way that it’s not an insult to the holy symbols of Islam.
A few years later, after the Tunisian Revolution and the rise of Islamist parties, I heard about many manifestations in the country about that same book where groups of people gathered to burn hundreds of copies of Persepolis, to show their anger and disapproval of the book.
I wasn’t sure if my teacher was right, or if they were. I mean, I honestly think my teacher is right. Isn’t the beauty of art, after all?
So after thinking about this for a long time, I decided to be twelve again, go out to the yard, see God, and have a conversation with him.
I already knew God was everywhere. That’s what people kept telling me since I was four.
I just thought it would be nice to be on my own in the yard, watch sunrise, feel God and talk to him.
From behind Memorial Church, he looked at me. He looked different though. That wasn’t a mosque I was staring at. That was a church. Memorial Church. I looked confused, scared.
“You are not my God.” I told him. You are the Christians’ God. He looked even more confused, maybe a little upset too.
I was indifferent.
“I want to talk to my God. You are not my God. I want to see the God who offered us the Quran as an invaluable gift. I want the God who believes in Eid Id’ha, not in Christmas. I want Muhammad’s God, not the father of Jesus. I want the God who will take me to heaven because I’m Muslim, and not take me to hell because I’m Christian. I want my God. Go away.”
“I am your God. I am the same God. I am Muslims’ God. I am Christians’ God. I am Jewish’s God. I am everyone’s God. Don’t be afraid.”
It was already 6a.m.
The sun had already peeked over the horizon. The sky had become pink like a sea of cotton candy, with the light of the sun coloring the clouds above with a pinkish hue, and the sky a deep neon blue as the light reached further out.
As a pale yellow mixed with blue was covering the pink sky, I turned twenty again.
On my way back to my dorm, I looked a last time at the sky, and realized how much I’d learnt in fourteen years and a semester.
Yesterday was a great day. I had a conversation with God.
May 8th, 2014
I wish some people would know that there’s seeing and SEEING.
Does that make sense? Probably not for you. Let me explain…
Seeing “The Color of Paradise” was definitely one of the highlights of this class. If you get too emotional, just buy some tissues. The movie was incredibly moving, filled with Islamic symbols, and signs of wisdom.
“The Color of Paradise” is about an eight year-old blind boy, Mohammad, attending a special school in Iran. It just doesn’t take too long for viewers to realize how sensitive Mohammed is to his surroundings.
To me, this movie has an extremely powerful message. It’s just telling the world that the definition of blindness is very different from the common one. Blindness is not about the condition of poor visual perception, or at least that’s what the director of the movie is trying to convey.
What I also loved about the movie is that it reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from “The Little Prince” by “Antoine De Saint-Exupery”: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.”
One of the moving scenes in the movie is the one where Mohammed rescues a bird, through sound and feels. He uses his other senses to return it to its nest, with a sensitivity and kindness that’s just incredibly moving.
In another scene, Mohammed caresses his sister’s face and tells her how much he thinks she grew up. The whole movie is about the warmth of human touch and the fact that it portrays that through the lens of a “poor” blind child who thinks everyone rejects him because of his blindness just makes it even more powerful.
Mohammed’s father rejects him throughout the whole movie. He begs the director of the school to keep him with him, tries to find a way to get rid of him, and ends up sending him to a blind carpenter many miles away from where he lives.
In the last scene, when Mohammed dies, the father holds his child and finally realizes he is the blind one in the story.
He’s the proof that being blind doesn’t keep you from seeing. In fact, he gets the meaning of life and perhaps sees the “Color of Paradise”.
Mohammed saw everything, lived his life to the fullest, and before the frame fades to white and the credits start rolling, Mohammed smiles.
He SEES what non-blind people couldn’t.
March 25th, 2014
Islam Creative Project is a poem and song by Mohammed Abdel Wahab (1907 – May 1991) who’s a prominent Egyptian singer and songwriter popular in the Arab world.
For this creative project, I decided to react to the readings and lecture about prophets, and especially Muhammad.
The song is originally about Sayyidna Yusuf and about an incident that says a lot about the prophet’s beauty.
Indeed, Almighty Allah related the scene of the banquet in His words: So when she heard of their accusation, she sent for them and prepared a banquet for them; she gave each one of them a knife (to cut the foodstuff with), and she said (to Joseph): “Come out before them.” Then, when they saw him, they exalted him (at his beauty) and (in their astonishment) cut their hands. They said: “how perfect is Allah (or Allah forbid)! No man is this! This is none other than a noble angel!”
For this project, I performed a mashup of the original Arabic version of the poem about Yusuf and an English one that I wrote about Muhammad.
That was my way of expressing gratitude for the last prophet muhammad and his crucial role in spreading the religion, learning, then teaching the “words of god” and the principles and muamalat in that critical period.
The role of the prophet Muhammad (Salla Allahu Alayhi wa Sallam) is obvious and is reflected on the period after his death, and most of the Muslim and even non-Muslims who know the history of Islam can confirm that.
That project was for the prophet Muhammad Sallah Allahu Alayhi wa Sallam.
For this project, I wanted to emphasize on the societal aspect of Islam and some values that are the foundation of the religion itself but that are neglected or sometimes even ignored by many people who claim to be Muslims.
To illustrate that, I started with a simple drawing representing the five pillars of Islam:
* Al-Shahadah * Al-Salah * Al-zakah * Al-Sawm * Al-Hajj
For each of the pillars, I wrote in a calligraphic way one verse from the Quran that shows the importance of that pillar in the religion.
For some pillars like Al-Salah, I included more information about them like the names of the five daily prayers for instance. (Al-Subh/ Al-Dhuhr/ Al-Asr/ Al-Maghreb/ Al-Eesha).
However, what really gives a meaning to the project is what’s coming next. In fact, if you check the back of the page on the corner, you’d see something else written in Arabic which is Iman (Faith) with its six pillars in the religion as well.
That is, I wanted to represent by that that there’s another side of the coin that is as -if not more- important than Islam. In fact, having it be the back of the page is like representing the Muslims in their depth. Their feelings. Their thoughts…
That is, many people today think that the pillars of Islam are what make a Muslim a Muslim. However, one can pray five times a day, give out the zakah, fast during Ramadan, goes to the hajj and says the Shahadah. Does that make him a true Muslim? That is debatable. If he doesn’t truly believe in God, commissioned Messengers (peace be upon them), revealed books, angels, the resurrection and the events of Qiyamah, the predestination by Allah of all things, both the (seemingly) good and the (seemingly) bad., it is hard to believe that he is Muslim.
I feel like that was brought up man times in lectures but wasn’t elaborated well enough so I thought I needed to shed the light on that particular point.
March 25th, 2014
This project emphasizes once again on the power of calligraphy and its crucial role in Islamic art. I though the first project (ALLAH calligraphy) was not enough to explore the rich universe Islamic calligraphy has to offer.
For this project, I mixed calligraphy with the lecture about Quran (by using Surat Al-Fatiha) and that about interpretations…
In fact, for this project, I created a labyrinth out of the first Surah in the Quran (Surat Al-Fatiha) by using a very unique type of calligraphy.
The reason why I mention interpretation is that the way the Surah was represented is full of meanings. I believe the Quran is a very powerful work of art where the readers get lost, just like Alice did in the wonderland… In fact, this sheds the light on the importance of interpretations and ijtihad in Islam since once ayah in the Quran can have many meanings. Getting lost in the labyrinth and finally seeing the light and finding the way out with a rational interpretation is what makes the Quran experience very unique for Muslims and non-Muslims.
As a side note, I wanted the calligraphy style to be one where there is no obvious end in the words to represent some situations we can face nowadays, where some debates are endless and where you can see neither the end of the arguments nor that of the debate…
I hope you enjoyed the labyrinth of Quran. Please read it. You might get lost. But hopefully, you will find yourself fast enough. That is all that matters.