A blog by Sara Surani

Throughout my time in Ali Asani’s course “Muslim Societies in South Asia: Religion, Culture, and Identity,” I was heavily immersed in literature concerning the numerous elements that contribute to the emergence and persistence of Islam in the Indian subcontinent.  While the course addressed themes of religion and culture, it was also a religiously enlightening experience—I not only learned about Islam in a South-Asian context, but I learned about the history of my ancestors. Although my personal practice of Islam unfortunately consists of balancing on a fragile wire between commitment and convenience, religion continues to prevail as a central aspect of my identity.

I like to believe that I am a person of faith. I do not wear my religion on my sleeve, but when someone asks about my religious affiliation I proudly declare I am a Muslim. However, recently, current events have challenged my faith—not my faith in my religion, but my faith in humanity. Now, when people ask me what my religion is, I hesitate before responding. I look around before opening my mouth. I become cautious of my surroundings. I no longer declare those four words I was confident exclaiming to the world. Sometimes, I even stutter.

This Wednesday, I was riding on the MBTA to MIT to meet a friend for coffee. The ride from Harvard Square to Kendall Square, where MIT is located, is less than five minutes. Sometimes, I even try to time the ride to see how fast it can get there. Personal record? Four minutes and fifty-seven seconds. This Wednesday, I was timing the ride on the T when I heard the woman next to me ask a simple question: “Are you Muslim?” It was a question that was all too familiar to me. It was a question I was incredibly comfortable with. However, this time, I didn’t feel the same level of comfort. This time, I stuttered. “Um, ye-yes,” I started before gathering my incoherent thoughts, “Yes, yes, I a-am. I am a, um, a Muslim.” I was instantly anxious about what she would say. But she didn’t respond. She just moved one seat further away from me and motioned her giggling toddler, once playing between the empty seats, to come closer to her. She looked towards me, and I expected a biting remark. What I received instead was a look of fear. She didn’t say anything, but her silence said it all. I wasn’t sure how to feel.

Last night, I experienced the same feeling of emotional uncertainty. After getting coffee with a blockmate, I was walking in Harvard Square towards Johnston Gate. It was cold, so I draped my purple plaid scarf around my head. It didn’t look like a hijab, but I could understand the resemblance. While walking, a stranger pointed and yelled, “Fuck you! Go back!” Aware of the reality that the Square is a bustling place where people yelling obscenities is not outside the norm, I ignored the man at first. He probably wasn’t talking to me. For some reason, something in his voice made me turn around. I wish I didn’t. When I stared at him, he stared right back at me. He only said three words: “That’s right. You.” I didn’t understand at first. Me? Why me? Go back where? At first, I didn’t understand the connotations of his impulsive words. But, when I understood, my thoughts were even more aggravated: But I don’t even look Muslim? Why would he think I’m Muslim? Just because I’m brown? How can he stereotype me a certain way just because I look like I have ancestors from South Asia? How could he just assume?

The last question I asked myself made me stop and think: How could he just assume? I immediately recalled all of the times I assumed something–whether in a religious context or not. In the moment, I recalled my assumptions and perceptions about what it is to be a Muslim. Later, while reflecting on the event, I recalled some prior assumptions I had about Islam: Urdu is more Islamic than Hindi. Islamic poetry can never be sensual. The more conservative, the more Islamic. As I recalled all of these assumptions I once had regarding Islam, I couldn’t help but realize how ignorant I used to be. In reality, there is no right or wrong Islam and the history of Islam is not a monolithic one. Rather, there are different histories and different perceptions of Islam. It is very easy to slide into a monolithic history or perception of Islam. However, it is critical to keep an open mind and learn about Islam in different cultural contexts, rather than through a check-box approach where you come in with a concrete definition of what is “Islamic” and “un-Islamic.”

In order to further reflect on these ideas explore these fluid concepts, I decided to focus my blog on three distinct but interconnected themes: love, separation, and identity. Although these themes seem abstract and often indescribable, I realize that these are underlying concepts throughout the course. Love is not only expressed through literature, but it is one of the most constant factors of solidarity that impassions individuals and unites them. Separation encompasses notions of distance and the unfortunate reality that no matter how similar we are, our differences will sometimes divide us. Lastly, identity is a theme that is not only embodied by the languages we speak, our physical appearances, our political and religious views, and our mindset, but it also comprises of how we interact with people who are similar and different from us.

In order to convey love, I used two different examples of literature that express an individual’s love for one’s prophet: “The Bridegroom Prophet in Medieval Sindhi Poetry” by Ali Asani and Eaton’s “Sufi Folk Literature and the Expansion of Indian Islam.” Both of these examples reflect different portrayals of devotional expression. While Sindhi poetry describes love for the prophet as a more physical, sensual experience, Sufi literature and music portrays love for God as a spiritual journey–one that consumes the soul. This dichotomy between the two types of devotional expression exemplify how there is no right type of devotion. Although some types of devotional literature may yield judgemental undertones and criticism, this does not mean that one is more “Islamic” than the other. This reflects on the ideology that there is no right or wrong Islam. Although the Sindhi poetry may be deemed unIslamic, especially when juxtaposed with Sufi poetry, this is certainly not the case. Each style of devotional expression reflects a different religious tradition. In each tradition, the Prophet is depicted as an revered being of that tradition. In the example of the Sindhi virahini poetry I chose for this blog, the Prophet is depicted as Sindhi himself–he is not Arab, he is not the other. This illustrates the concept of the other and how in each each cultural tradition, individuals portray the Prophet as one of them in order to feel a deeper connection with Him. This also iterates the idea that local cultures and traditions within regions influence core ideas. As a result, the ideas and perspectives that are expressed are indigenous to the regions. As different cultural regions interact with one another, traditions of devotional tradition amalgamate, leading to syncretism. This syncretism also plays a vital role in acculturation and how traditions are shaped by their surroundings. Hence, these expressions of love and the way in which they are expressed form a central aspect of one’s religious identity.

Another theme that is reflected in this blog is the notion of separation. Although the concept that “differences often divide us” is prevalent in many pieces, the event that I chose to symbolize this idea is the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. The reading I included to correspond with this event is Sufia Uddin’s book Constructing Bangladesh: Religion, Ethnicity, and Language in an Islamic Nation. I chose this reading over other readings because of the various elements the book incorporates in effort to define Bangladesh’s identity as a nation-state. Moreover, I chose this reading because the separation of Bangladesh and Pakistan holds personal importance in regard to my own family’s history. However, the idea of separation is not unique to just this historical event. Prior to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan, Pakistan also gained independence from India. Although miscommunications and disparities in politics, economics, and ideologies played an important role in each separation, so did differences in languages, literatures, and cultures. These differences comment on different notions of defining identity and how sometimes separation comes to define our identity. This also emphasizes the idea that each separation tells a different story; each separation has a different history. However, it is critical to remember that notions of history are not linear. Similarly, notions of Islam are not linear. Because religion has so many layers, if you collapse all of these traditions and separations, you collapse all of the narratives. By collapsing the narratives, you collapse the diversity that is a defining element of Islam. Therefore, even though separations seek to divide us and sometimes sever bonds of unity among us, they also give us perspective. Separations and divides remind us that Islam is not monolithic, concrete, or explained by one definition. You cannot interpret Islam through the history of one country or one nation, you must analyze it from a multicultural and multi-contextual approach. There is not one language, one political structure, one ideology, or one culture that pinpoints Islam. Islam is syncretism. Islam is fluid. Each separation reminds us of this fluidity and reiterates how there is not one stereotypical identity for a Muslim. Rather, just like there are different interpretations of Islam, there are an unlimited number of different Islamic identities. This diversity in itself is not intrinsic to just Islam, but transcends to all religions.

The overarching theme that is pervasive throughout this blog is the theme of identity: gender identity, linguistic identity, cultural identity, intellectual identity, religious identity. In order to depict gender identity and the influence of gender on religious identity, I chose Farida Shaheed’s “Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back” and Peter Awn’s “Indian Islam: The Shah Bano Affair.” These two pieces portray how the culture of a society is influenced by how women are viewed. Furthermore, I incorporated reflections on Lawrence Ziring’s “Politics of Language in Pakistan: Prolegomena 1947-1952” and Rafiqul Islam’s “The Bengali Language Movement and the Emergence of Bangladesh” in order to illustrate how language influences one’s identity. These works were chosen to provide a unique lens to view language. Usually, language is seen as a unifying force that connects people of different identities. However, here, I attempt to represent language as a force that has the power to unite as well as separate. This idea challenges my previous assumptions of the power of languages and aims to challenge readers’ preconceived notions of language as well. In order to convey intellectual and religious identity, I illustrated and analyzed Fazlur Rahman’s “Muslim Modernism in the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent.” This work analyzed the dichotomy between structures that encouraged Muslim hegemony and philosophies that embraced a Western perspective. Personally, I struggle with a similar dichotomy as I balance on the wire between blind faith and religious commitment, and a culture of skepticism and convenience. Although these juxtapositions may seem like a result of cognitive dissonance, this is not the case. Rather, this conflict between two central perspectives helps contribute to the identities of many Muslims around the world. The quest for one’s intellectual and religious identities transcends beyond time and space, and alludes to the search for a universal truth.

These themes are not only significant to me, but they are also essential to gaining a better comprehension of Islam. As misconceptions of Islam plague societies view on this religion of peace, it is more important now than ever to open our minds and try to listen to one another’s perspectives. Maybe then people won’t yell profanities on the streets. Maybe then we won’t stutter when identifying ourselves as Muslim. Maybe then there will be understanding.

December 9th, 2015 at 11:58 pm | Comments & Trackbacks (0) | Permalink

In order to creatively express Eaton’s piece on “Sufi Folk Literature and the Expansion of Indian Islam, “ I composed this musical composition. In Eaton’s article, he details how expressions of love are often epitomized through songs and music. He notes the example of the songs women sang while working, and how these songs were a form of spiritual auditory adoration. These working songs are also evocative of the Sindhi virahini poems. Much like the working songs and virahini poems, this musical composition is used to express love for God and his Prophet. This song embodies the themes of love for the Prophet and a continuous quest for one’s spiritual identity. These are themes that are reflected throughout the course, especially in the context of literature from different Islamic traditions. The song commences with a series of repeated arpeggios, each arpeggio symbolizing a constant element in an individual’s life—whether it be family, religion, or an intellectual pursuit. After a short rest, a measure of five consecutive notes is played—representing the five pillars of Islam. This segment of the song reflects the beginning of a spiritual questioning, which is then signified by an extended trill. The harmonious melody that follows the trill indicates a spiritual enlightenment and an awakening of the soul. As the soul awakens from its period of skepticism and questioning, she is reminded of her love for God. The song ends with an organized hodgepodge of upbeat chords and trills that reflect a passionate and indefinable love for God and the Prophet. This love is reminiscent of the love that is represented in Sufi literature. This love is not just a spiritual love, but also a physical love that consumes every aspect of the mind and the body. The idea that love, a feeling, can affect the soul and human physique so intensely is a matter than often makes me wonder: How can love for an eternal spirit we have never seen consume every aspect of our being? How can you define a feeling like love that transcends our physical manifestation? If love is an element of our identity, and love transcends our physical being, then can our identity transcend the physical world?

December 9th, 2015 at 11:57 pm | Comments & Trackbacks (0) | Permalink

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This photograph was taken as a response to Khawar Mumtaz and Farida Shaheed’s “Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back” and Peter Awn’s “Indian Islam: The Shah Bano Affair.” These two pieces exemplify how women are often oppressed and thought of as inferior to men. Both pieces explain how political authorities and legal policies help place women in positions of subservience. Whether they are customs and archaic traditions that keep women in submissive positions, or the patriarchal structures that are often present in many Islamic societies, it is important to know that Islam as a religion does not discriminate against women. In this work, I illustrate the theme of identity. In particular, gender identity. In my photograph, a contemplative man is depicted. I decided to portray a man instead of a woman in order to challenge societal norms and question how our views on gender would be different if the roles were reversed. What if men’s participation was limited in the political field? What if the minimum age of men to get sent of to marriage was reduced from sixteen to puberty? What if laws were changed in order to finally give men the right to divorce from their wives if they are in an abusive, unfaithful, or unsatisfying relationship? What if men were viewed as inferior and women viewed as the superior gender? Usually, when one thinks of gender discrimination and inferiority (in the context of predominantly Muslim and South-Asian countries), one visualizes an oppressed woman. Yet, here, an oppressed man is shown. He is clothed in a black garb to symbolize a perceived loss of individuality and to emphasize how his identity is not limited to what he wears. I also attempt to draw parallels to the misconstrued motif that hijabs embody oppression. Moreover, he is depicted behind black bars—a metaphor for oppression. There are five bars in the photograph; each bar represents a different pillar of Islam. The man staring out into the distance signifies how it is not Islam that is oppressive, but rather, the politics and culture of the society he lives in. In other words, the oppression comes from external factors, “the outside.” Despite the apparent repression, the man’s face is illuminated with light. This light symbolizes hope—hope in the world, hope in humanity, hope that one-day individuals will be thought of as equals and will be encouraged to pursue their own identities.

December 9th, 2015 at 11:57 pm | Comments & Trackbacks (0) | Permalink

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This piece was inspired by Fazlur Rahman’s “Muslim Modernism in the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent.” The reading grappled with the dichotomy between old political and social structures that promoted Muslim hegemony and new structures based on Western and British rule. This also coincides with Ahmad Khan’s argument concerning how the work of good cannot conflict with the word of God. When I first read these works, I instantly felt a connection with them. Like the authors, I am also trying to find a balance between older theology and a more Western philosophy. Hence, this painting depicts finding a balance between the two. On the right side, the Earth is depicted. The Earth symbolizes all things wordly—it represents modern science and Western education. On the other side, the moon and the star are illustrated. These symbols for Islam represent the importance of faith and the influence of spirituality on both spiritual and secular communities. In between the earth and the moon is a grey schism that divides the two. This schism represents how the two are often viewed as juxtapositions. However, just because they are viewed as conflicting identities, this doesn’t mean that one cannot find the balance between the two. Hence, in the middle of the painting, a balance beam is depicted. This balance was created as a response to Rahman’s metaphor of “a man who would have the Qur’an in one hand and modern science in the other, and on his head the crown of ‘there is no God but Allah.” In his work, Rahman describes the vision of uniting science and religion. Similarly, I try to depict finding the perfect balance between the two as well. Overall, this painting embodies the theme of identity and trying to balance two opposing ideals and seek to find equilibrium. This theme is ever-present in the course, as our spiritual and secular identities often shape our personal philosophies and way of approaching different situations—whether these situations are personal relationships or political views. But, can equilibrium truly be found? Or will at one point man lose his faith in the name of modern science?

December 9th, 2015 at 11:57 pm | Comments & Trackbacks (0) | Permalink

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This piece was inspired by Lawrence Ziring’s “Politics of Language in Pakistan: Prolegomena 1947-1952” and Rafiqul Islam’s “The Bengali Language Movement and the Emergence of Bangladesh.” I created this piece to illustrate the influence language has on one’s identity. On a mirror, I transcribed the word “identity” in four languages: Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and Arabic. Each language represents a different tradition, and correspondingly, a different identity. I used a mirror for the surface of this work in order to show how the language one speaks is one reflection of one’s cultural identity. However, language is not just a reflection of one’s identity, but also a way by which society can label an individual. There is no way to look into the mirror without one of the four languages tainting your reflection. The only way to blur the authority of the language labels is to tilt the mirror towards a source of light. If you do so, then the words will appear to blur together, and the source of light (in this case, a chandelier) will be the main focus of the reflection. Similarly, the only way to escape the stigma of miscommunications due to different languages is to “seek a source of light” and open your heart and minds to understanding alternative points of view. However, just because someone has an alternate point of view, it doesn’t mean that they are wrong. Likewise, just because a language is spoken or written differently, it doesn’t make the language more or less “Islamic.” By this standard, what is “Islamic”? Is there a right or wrong language? Or is language a spectrum—the closer to Arabic, the more “Islamic” it is? The more “right” it is? If no language is right or wrong, then how can Islam have a right or wrong? Is Islam a box that can be checked if the language you speak corresponds with the tongue of the majority? Is Islam a prototype that can be duplicated by brushing the strokes of your pen a certain way? Is Islam a quintessential experience for the soul that can only be achieved through specific criterion for communication? Regardless of the answers, we must seek to find light through awareness and understanding in order to blur the miscommunications that seek to label and distance us from one another.

December 9th, 2015 at 11:57 pm | Comments & Trackbacks (0) | Permalink

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This pencil and paper drawing was inspired by Chapter 4 of Sufia Uddin’s book Constructing Bangladesh: Religion, Ethnicity, and Language in an Islamic Nation. This piece not only addresses the commonalities and differences between two cultural traditions that lead to misunderstandings, but it also reflects on another common theme in the course: separation. In this image, Pakistan and Bangladesh are depicted as lovers who were once united. Their gentle disconnection is reminiscent of a past that once consisted of solidarity. However, solidarity was not enough to strengthen the relationship, and eventually miscommunications led to the relationship fraying. The bold line that surrounds the parting couple symbolizes this solidarity and common connection—Islam. However, the streams of blurry and straight streaks and dashes represent all of the cultural and community differences between the two countries. Despite commonalities like religion, the two countries could not stay united. Eventually, they separated. The theme of separation is one that is pervasive in the course—whether Bangladesh is separating from Pakistan, Pakistan is separating from India, or more Eastern ideals are separating from the construct of Western ideals. Although separation seems like a simple theme, its implications are deeply rooted. Prior, there was a sense that religion could somehow create a union between individuals of different ethnic backgrounds. There was a belief that being “Muslim” could hold people together. Although this seemed prospective at first, this was certainly not the case. The once merry marriage between Bangladesh and Pakistan did not work out. This alludes to an overarching theme in the course about how people are constantly being distanced, whether by language, culture, or religion. This makes me wonder: Often, religion is interpreted to be one of the strongest forces of unity—but if religion cannot hold people together, then what can? Is there a force that is stronger than religion in terms of having the capacity to bring people together—and reminding them to stay together? Or is there always a notion of separation that underlies every source of solidarity in communities?

December 2nd, 2015 at 5:51 pm | Comments & Trackbacks (0) | Permalink

I think of you during the day,

When the sun comes out and the children come out to play.

Their loud laughter reminds me of your tender whispers in my ear

The whispers I long to hear when I fall asleep at night.

I think of you during the evening,

When mother makes her ginger and cardamom spiced tea

The gentle aroma of spices brings back memories of a more innocent time

When I was young and would recite words in admiration for you.

Over and over and over again.

Until you were the only sensation on my lips.

And the only thought in my mind.

I think of you during the night.

I try to find you in the complicated configurations of the constellations,

And try to meet you amidst the darkness that surrounds me

My eyelids flutter as I drift into a slumber.

I yearn for just one look at your face.

I crave for just one touch on my face.

I ache for you like a mother aches for her unborn child.

Save me, save me from this passionless world.

It feels like time has stopped, but yet you keep going.

Stop going away from me, come closer.

Stop my aching and come to me.

Complete my desires.

Take me away.

Take me with you.

Give me life again. 



For this creative piece, I attempted to recreate my own version of avirahini poem, as presented in Ali Asani’s “The Bridegroom Prophet in Medieval Sindhi Poetry.” I wrote this poem from the perspective of a young, passionate woman who longs to be reconnected and reunited with her lover. In the poem, the metaphor of the day is used to symbolize how the woman is constantly reminded of her love for the Prophet during every waking moment of her life. Her love for Him consumes her and she craves a spiritual connection. The passionate image of a woman yearning for her lover embodies the concept of a soul yearning for unity with its creator. Although this poem is sensual in nature, it explores a deeper love for God and the Prophet. Moreover, it seeks to personify the human soul. This poem is used to exemplify a theme that is pervasive throughout the course—the theme of unconditional love for God and the Prophet. In this example, unconditional love for God and the Prophet is expressed through poetry and literature. This is a very common form of expression, especially in Sindhi and Punjabi regions and transcends to provide us with a broader understanding of defining Islam through devotional expressions. Personally, when I first read this poem, I was shocked. Reading about the Prophet in such a sensual context was alien to me–it was completely foreign. How can you talk about the holy Prophet as a bridegroom? Is that sacrilegious? The way I view the Prophet is very different from the way the poet views the Prophet. This comes to show how there are different ways a symbol can be interpreted in different cultural contexts. My astonished interpretation of the Prophet as a bridegroom highlights my notion of how I see the Prophet. This notion is conditioned by my culture and the context in which I usually interact with religious literature. As a result, these factors condition my reaction to the poem. Although reading this type of “sensual” poetry may be deemed controversial in current times, it is important to consider Stewart’s theory of translation and how different forms of devotional expression highlight the influence of changing societal norms and what is deemed “Islamic” and “un-Islamic.”


December 2nd, 2015 at 7:36 am | Comments & Trackbacks (0) | Permalink