Islam is a multifaceted and diverse religion. It is adaptive and malleable, yet it is also grounded in fundamental truths and realities that persist throughout time. With seemingly contradictory and conflicting characteristics, it may seem difficult to study and understand the religion. One could fall into the trap of the Orientalists and create rigid and static constructs rooted in Western historical traditions that oversimplify the religion for the sake of convenience (Necipoglu, 62). Or one could study the minutia of the religion, becoming lost in its vastness and expansiveness only to give up its study before important realizations are made.
How then can someone who does not desire to be a scholar of Islam, yet wants to gain an understanding of Islam begin to learn about the religion? The solution to this question lies in the use of the cultural studies approach. The cultural studies approach allows one to understand religion in the human contexts in which they are situated (Asani, 9). Unlike other approaches to the study of religion, this approach is primarily concerned with the people who practice and interpret religion. It recognizes that religion is a fundamental and pervasive aspect of human experiences and thus encourages one to study religion through multiple, integrated “lenses”, including but not limited to, political, economic, cultural, and social lenses (Asani, Infidel 10).
One may think that this approach will complicate the study of Islam. However, at its core, this approach to studying Islam focuses on the people who practice the faith. It is my personal belief that studying religion through those that practice it allows one to understand the religion being studied at a much deeper and more intimate level because it makes the religion more relatable and more personable. It takes a monolithic construct and perception of Islam, and decomposes it into smaller, more diverse and approachable components through the study of the people who practice it. Thus, by learning about Islam through those that practice it, I believe one can slowly learn to appreciate the multi-faceted nature of Islam and learn the universal truths that define Islam and how these manifest in different contexts.
Through my study of Islam in this course, I have additionally learned that the art that is created as a response to religion can provide insights into the religion that cannot be grasped from just studying the practices and scripture that surround it. In particular, I have found that by studying “Islamic” art, one can catch a glimpse into the window that is the artist’s perception of Islam. In a truly imitative fashion, I have created multiple works of art related to different Islamic cultural contexts to put myself in those cultural contexts. Throughout the semester, I have found two things in particular very interesting. First, I have found it interesting how Islam has been used as a response to history and changing cultural contexts. Second, I have found it interesting how cultural contexts have been used to frame Islam in unique ways and how Islam has adapted to fit these cultural contexts. These two themes feature prominently in my blog entries. It is my hope that before viewing my entries, I can provide some insight into these two themes and how they convey knowledge about the diversity and malleability of Islam.
Islam has been used as a response to history and political in community specific contexts based on political realities as well as a response to changing cultural contexts across many different communities. I will first address how Islam has been used as a response to history by using the example of Shiism and how the political reality of defeat became a part of Shia ethos. Shiism, at its core, developed in response to a matter of succession after the Prophet’s death. Shias believed that Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, was chosen as the Prophet’s successor by the Prophet himself (Daftary, 164). In later years, his claim to authority evolved beyond just that of a political leader, as he was believed by many to be the “Hand of God” or someone who possessed religious and spiritual authority that expanded beyond human reason (Chelkowski, 2). One can then imagine the shock that Ali’s supporters suffered when Ali was murdered because of a matter of political succession. However, the community was even more shocked when Husayn, Ali’s son and successor, was murdered at the Battle of Karbala in a brutal fashion (Chelkowski, 2). It was at this point that Shiism emerged as a separate sect of the Muslim community and when several elements central to Shia ethos emerged (Daftary, 166), in particular that the suffering of Imams is because the righteous suffer in this world, and that this suffering is redemptive and leads to salvation in the after-life (Asani Lecture Week 5). Many thus commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn during Muharram as an act of faith and as a way to obtain religious salvation. In one particularly dramatic art form practiced in Iran called the ta’ziyeh, actors and the audience engage in a re-enactment of the Battle of Karbala, not only to hold solidarity with Husayn, but also as a religious act in the hopes that by suffering with Husayn, they can achieve redemption and Husayn’s grace in the after-life (Chelkowski, 3). One can thus see how the practices and beliefs surrounding a particular branch of Islam evolved in response to history, and how art can be used to observe this.
One can also see how Islam has been used as a response to changing cultural contexts. I will use the example of modernity, specifically the rise of the West, to convey this. With the rise of the West, many Muslims were confused about the changing political landscape. Unlike the Shia, a majority of Muslims were Sunni and had a history of political triumph, believing that such success was a sign of divine affirmation. Changing contexts thus troubled many (Rozehnal, 105). Because of the religious nature of political triumph in Islamic thought, responses to modernity were religiously oriented and varied. However, many were linked in that they wanted to define and interpret Islam in a modern context and in relation to the West. One group of responses attempted to reconcile Islam with Western thought. For example, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, the founder of the Aligarh Movement that aimed to educate Indian Muslims, believed that Islamic and Western thought were compatible. He believed that Islam, as properly understood, was progress and that there was no fundamental conflict between the modern practice of science and Islamic thought (Asani, Week 11). Some reformers went so far as to state that the West is Islam at its most fundamental level. The Egyptian reformer, Tahtawi, said the following after he visited Paris: “When I was in Europe, I saw much Islam everywhere but I saw very few Muslims; now I am back in Egypt, I see many Muslims but little Islam” (Asani, Week 11). We can see evidence of this assimilation of Western thought with Islam in the works of several Muslim artists. We see, for example, an American Islam that combines American music, like rap, with Sufi themes. We also see mosques that are distinctly Islamic, but which blend into Western environments (Asani, Week 13).
Other responses aimed to define Islam in opposition to the West, ironically, by using Islam as a political ideology to otherize others, similar to how Western countries used the concept of nationality to do the same centuries earlier. One particular response that did this, Wahabbism, began in the late 18th century by Abd al-Wahhab who strove to remove what he saw as imperfections in Islam. His intolerant views were adopted by the Al-Saud family as a way to rebel against Ottoman rule in Arabia. In a sense, Wahhabism became inextricably tied with Arab nationalism and was subsequently spread throughout the Muslim world through Saudi Arabia’s petrodollars (Asani, Week 11). The allure of Wahhabism for many non-Arabs occurred because of the perceived loss of inherited normative categories and practices that had come to define Islam, leading to a socio-cultural alienation in Muslim minds (Safi, 46). To cope with this, Muslims adopted the most reactionary and fundamentalist ideology that was presented to them: Wahhabism (Safi, 54). Thus, what had once begun as a movement to “purify” Islam by removing the multiplicity of interpretation in Islam became a source of nationalism, one that initially was exclusive to Arabian culture but which soon expanded to other regions suffering from the pressures of colonialism, modernity, and the absolute hegemony of the West (Safi, 43-44).
This response was not limited to Saudi Arabia and those within its spheres of influence. Iran, in a similar manner, developed Shia Islam, uncharacteristic of Shia values, as a political and nationalist ideology in response to Garbzadagi or Westoxification (Buchman, 87). This form of Islam was developed during and after the chaos of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini in part to address the Westoxification or the interference of the West in Iranian affairs (Buchman, 80-81). Fundamental Shia doctrines were altered to change Shia Islam into a political ideology. Islamic law, in the pre-modern era in Iran, was never enforced, as religious authorities did not have political authority except for the hidden Imam, who was in a state of occultation (Buchman, 82). However, Khomeini and his supporters specifically created a theological doctrine that would allow religious scholars to look back at the usul, or roots, to allow innovations in doctrinal thought. Eventually, this was used to create a strict political ideology that defined itself in opposition to Garbzadagi as a way, I believe, to promote a nationalist agenda (Buchman, 82). Evidence for this rests in the actions of Khomeini. He did not abolish secular institutions, like the government and the economic policies of the shah, but rather expanded these policies to solidify control and to create a “modern Islamic theology”, one that was used for nationalist purposes (Buchman, 91-92). Several artistic responses have emerged in response to the politicization and rigidity of Islam in these contexts. In Pakistan, a rock artist named Salman Ahmad has responded to what he views as increasing fundamentalism in his country (Asani, Week 12). A comic book artist, Marjane Satrapi in her comic Persepolis, highlights the rigid Islam forced upon many during the Iranian Revolution. And an author, Mohsin Hamid in his novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, shows the dangers of otherization in response to political and cultural differences.
We also see how cultural contexts have been used to engage with Islam. Cultural contexts have been used to establish a framework by which to evaluate Islam in ways that make it relatable to the indigenous population. We see this many times in many cultural contexts. For the sake of example, I will refer to different depictions of Muhammad in different cultures. In the Sindh region of Pakistan, depictions and love for the Prophet and the values of Islam are depicted in a uniquely Sindhi poetic form called the maulud (Asani, In Praise 160). The maulud, literally meaning newborn child, praises the Prophet in a manner that is patterned after indigenous poetic forms (Asani, In Praise 161). He is represented in symbols and idioms that are familiar to the Sindhi audience, the most common symbol being that of the virahini: a loving and yearning woman who is tormented by the absence of her lover (Asani, In Praise 162). The virahini is used in many different South Asian religious contexts, for example in praise of Krsna, however, we can see how it has been adopted by Sindhi Muslim poets to convey a love for the Prophet, and by extension Islam in a way that is relatable to the indigenous population. Muhammad, in this manner, is depicted as an archetype of sorts, someone who should be desired and emulated. In this way, the values of Islam are also depicted as desirable. Through this art form, we can thus see exactly how culture can be used to engage with Islam and its values, and the malleability of Islamic values to fit different cultural contexts.
We see evidence of this in the Swahili tradition as well. In Knappert’s translation of various myths and legends surrounding Muhammad, we can see an almost mystical depiction of the birth of Prophet Muhammad, reflecting the traditions of the Swahili that predated Islam (Knappert, 68-72). In a particularly interesting account of Muhammad’s ascension to the heavens, or Mi’raj, we see how such a pivotal event in Islamic history and theology has been adapted to fit Swahili cultural contexts. The Swahili version of this narrative introduces an innovation in the traditional telling of the story in that the Prophet also visited Hell. From this, we can catch a glimpse of various cultural and social realities of the Swahili people that were depicted using Islam and Muhammad’s journey. We see women who were tortured because they were unchaste, because they verbally abused their husbands, because they refused to lay with their husbands, and because they went out at night (Knappert, 76-78). We also see people punished for disobeying their parents, and people punished for being polytheists and dualists (Knappert, 79). This depiction shows not only the problems afflicting Swahili society at the time of the original telling, but also shows the relation of Islam and Islamic values to these problems. An Islamic framework was used to address, and potentially solve, these problems. We can see therefore, how different cultures and traditions can use a common story and figure, like the Mir’aj and Prophet Muhammad, to engage with Islam on a deeper, more personal level.
Samuel Huntington, a prominent scholar, proposed a thesis in which he postulated that the main source of conflict in the post-Cold War world would be differences in peoples’ religious and cultural identities. One can see how this relates to the West’s relations with Islam. The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, addresses this thesis by claiming that any conflict is not because of fundamental differences between civilizations, but because of an “ignorance of civilizations”. He says:
Those who talk about an inevitable “clash of civilizations” can point today to an accumulating array of symptoms which sometimes seems to reflect their diagnosis. I believe, however, that this diagnosis is wrong, that its symptoms are more dramatic than they are representative, and that these symptoms are rooted in human ignorance rather than human character. The problem of ignorance is a problem that can be addressed. Perhaps it can even be ameliorated but only if we go to work on our educational tasks with sustained energy, creativity, and intelligence. (Asani, Infidel 2).
According to the Aga Khan, many of the problems Islamic and Western civilizations experience today can be solved with an understanding of cultures and peoples.
It is my hope that I have imparted some of this understanding on the multiplicity of interpretations in Islam and the malleable nature of Islam, specifically that it can fit different cultures, politics, and peoples. I hope I have shown that it can used as both a response to the world and as a way to understand it. Most importantly, however, I hope you will realize that it is not a monolith and to consider it as such is to be ignorant. Now enjoy my blog entries and the multiple perspectives of Islam that they try to depict and imitate.
Asani, Ali. “In praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu poems.” Religions of India in Practice, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., ed. (1995): 159-186.
Asani, Ali. “Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam.” (2010).
Asani, Ali “Week 5”. AI 54. Sever 102, Cambridge. 24 Feb. 2014. Lecture
Asani, Ali “Week 11”. AI 54. Sever 102, Cambridge. 15 Apr. 2014. Lecture
Asani, Ali “Week 12”. AI 54. Sever 102, Cambridge. 22 Apr. 2014. Lecture
Asani, Ali “Week 13”. AI 54. Sever 102, Cambridge. 1 May 2014. Lecture
Buchman, David “Shi’ite Islam in Contemporary Iran.” Islam in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives (2004): 75.
Chelkowski, Peter J., ed. Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York: New York University Press, 1979.
Daftary, Farhad. “Diversity in Islam: Communities of Interpretation.” The Muslim Almanac. Detroit: Gale Research Inc (1996): 161-172.
Knappert, J. 1970.Myths and Legends of the Swahili. London: Heinemann.
Necipoglu, Gülru. Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture. Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities., 1996.
O., Safi,. Progressive Muslims: on justice, gender and pluralism. City: Oneworld, 2003.
Rozehnal, Robert. “Debating Orthodoxy, Contesting Tradition.” Islam in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives. Santa Barbara (2004): 103-131.