In studying Islam through the arts, we make a few assumptions. First, we assume that there are subjective truths from which the audience and artists can benefit through dialogue. This reminds us that religion is not set in stone and that our understanding of the world is a human one, full of imperfections and biases. We also assume different interpretations can be valid in their own rights, and we tend to value diversity and innovation. For these reasons, composing a poem allows me to discuss aspects of my faith and spirituality that I feel inhibited from expressing in a speech or essay. Artists are expected to use creative license to provoke conversations that people may not feel comfortable bringing up in everyday life. Using art to study Islam, therefore, allows us to explore on an intimate level how people use Islam in their lives. Rather perceiving Muslims as ambassadors of their faith, we relate to Muslims as ambassadors of themselves as their faith interacts with their national, cultural, and social ties.
Consider the historical event of the Battle of Karbala, at which Shi’i Imam Hussain was martyred. In Iran many dramatic performances called taziyas center on this influential historical event. Everyone knows the story, yet the audience is completely absorbed in the reenactment. It is the interesting case of a community retelling the history of its defeat as a story of struggle and faith, one which meshes with the perceived Persian identity embedded in resignation, to which Satrapi’s Persepolis alludes.
Using the taziyas on Karbala to garner insight into the Iranian worldview, we see the forces of good and evil are very much alive, and people passionately root for the forces of good to win, all the while knowing that Yazid, the symbol for evil, kills Hussain, the symbol for good. Does that mean Iranians are losers and should simply accept defeat? What do Iranians gain from remembering and valuing such a loss? Firstly the taziya tradition emphasizes the reward and honor given to a true martyr and prioritizes success in the afterlife over success in worldly life. Hussain wanted to sacrifice himself. Giving Hussain agency, this interpretation of the battle helps Shi’i Muslims cope with their history, and it shines through the arts. I was touched to learn about the reenactment of Karbala and its reception because it legitimized a thought process so integrated into my worldview that I cannot ascertain how my faith, culture, and social and economic status in the United States came together to influence how I deal with success and loss in social and academic arenas. All I know is that I have the agency to allocate the level of hurt I am willing to suffer in every confrontation. Hussain didn’t allow Yazid to take away the most important thing to him because Hussain decided there was something more valuable to him than his life, so Yazid’s victory was empty to Hussain. Similarly, I determine the weight of my desires to minimize feeling defeat, which is more easily expressed in actions through dance or drama than in words.
Turning to literature as a social commentary, we examine Senegalese author Aminata Sow Fall’s novella “The Beggars’ Strike,” which invites questions on the roles of beggars and almsgivers in society and how these roles function and change in response to outside influences that mingle with Islamic notions of piety. As a boy, Keba watched his mother struggle through poverty and retain her dignity, and as a man he is put in charge of ridding his city of beggars. Fall describes a society with complex social interdependencies that unhinge under the pressure of Western notions of poverty. Not only do we see that beggars are a crucial part of the social structure in this society in their role as the vehicle for city folk to access spiritual blessings, but we also see the Western presence as a fog that clouds society’s understanding of this social truth. As people lose touch with their tradition and accept the Western view of beggars, we see that beliefs are harder to change than actions as the people still retain their own view of almsgivers. This is the challenge that everyone faces. Brought up in a changing, modernizing culture, how do we recognize which changes we should adopt and which we should let be? This problem has especially plagued Muslim communities around the world because they generate varying but significant amounts of internal pressure to stay true to their roots, which are traced to the Prophet.
Continuing to use literature as a lens to study Islam, we arrive at Farid ul din Attar’s work The Conference of the Birds, a famous epic that follows thirty birds in their quest to find their master by overcoming their egos through sacrifice. The stories recounted in this epic act as morals for the aspiring Sufi. The poetry is incredibly rich, but I pulled out two lines in the story of King Mahmoud and the Woodcutter that related to my growing understanding of Islam. My interpretation of the moral of this story is that dignity is not something humans earn and lose. Dignity is God-given. By playing their respective roles in society, those who give and receive alms are doing what they are supposed to do, and there is inherent dignity in that. Expanding this notion, I would argue that by being human—by acting in a humane manner—we are dignified. By acting humanely, by upholding the tenants of social justice, we worship God. In the West there is a strong paradigm of setting those who have higher education and access to technology and other resources on a higher plane. This means that unequal relationships are perpetuated when social justice obligations are evoked. Removing oneself from these notions and viewing each individual as a traveler on his or her own dignified journey, it becomes easier to see oneself as collaborating with others in the act of submission to God, islam. The most beautiful reward from this shift in viewpoint is that we no longer see as members of different religious sects or ethnicities or social strata. There is an inherent humility that comes with accepting one’s dignity as God-given because the individual has no reason to value worldly titles before God.
Following the interpretation of religion as a personal submission, islam, rather than a set of practices or doctrines, how does one deal with other Muslims who don’t agree with this mindset? A major effect of seeing each human as possessing God-given dignity means that it is not for one human to declare another impious. One of the things I value in my Muslim community at Harvard is the reality that each individual is called to be critical of only person’s faith: her own. It is no one else’s prerogative to be concerned with my faith. However, this is possible because a large part of the community holds stock in it. If the standard were to be judgmental, I would be inclined to judge others as I felt I was being judged. Similarly, when society has yet to see dignity as God-given, it’s difficult to hold on to such a belief.
Another challenge in getting society to accept its members as worthy of dignity without regard to social status is navigating the turbulent ocean of beliefs that our society floats around. New and old beliefs constantly crash and alter the status quo. This means that every generation deals with its own reinterpretation and reaffirmation of faith. Iqbal’s two poems, “Complaint” and “Answer,” deal with the discontent of a generation of Muslims in South Asia who have lost the political clout their forefathers had and believe that God is displeased with them for some reason. Iqbal gives this reason to be an affirmation of faith that this generation has yet to give. Disunited as a community and entranced with Westernization, how can this generation expect to inherit its ancestors’ worldly success?
In following with the idea that dignity is God-given and acting for social justice is crucial to being human, I voiced my interpretation of the conundrum of today’s generation of American Muslims. They face sectarianism just like Iqbal’s generation, but they are so plugged into pluralism and try to compromise religious beliefs to find a common ground. This may take the form of interpreting Hinduism as monotheistic in its foundation, which some Hindus believe but many do not. To what extent, then, are we trivializing faith to get along with one another? In the United States today, the difficulty is to accept different beliefs without trying to equate them. I have certainly fallen victim to this in my understanding of Islam. Our saving grace is the unity of God that all Muslims believe in. It is not the responsibility of the believer to make sense of how all of Creation fits together. It is enough for the believer to treat each part of Creation with dignity.
This is not a call to disengage one’s mental faculties in making sense of the world. Zia Sardar wrote about his travels to madrasas in Pakistan in his book Reading the Quran, and he was disconcerted with the absence of reason in the education of young boys. He found the Quran sometimes reduced to an artifact of decoration and other times a stick to prod believers into performing certain actions or holding certain beliefs without engaging with them. If we lose hold of the meaning behind our actions and beliefs, we will struggle to be vicegerents of God. This situation is similar to “The Beggars’ Strike,” in which losing the meaning of the social relationships between almsgivers and receivers left the society in chaos because, under foreign influence, the givers allowed themselves to feel superior to the receivers. If the context we live in constantly changes in a global environment, it becomes increasingly important to reaffirm our beliefs using reason and experiential knowledge to the extent possible.
The glue that holds a diverse, global community must be strong. The creed of Muslims is “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God,” which means there is a special place in the hearts of Muslims for this messenger of God. No matter the context or the interpretation, legitimate belief and practice must connect the word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. In tying different interpretations of Islam across different cultures and time periods, there is the notion that the Prophet is “the Ka’aba of the soul,” the spiritual center of Islam. Out of this idea grows a yearning to be closer to the Prophet and to be one with God. Though people may have different ideas of what it means to be Muslim and how to best serve God, they must recognize where they come from and where they will return. People long to be reunited with God, but different people realize this at different stages in their lives.
The similarities and differences in beliefs that Muslims espouse are a product of their environment and are affected by the arts around them. These beliefs translate into other artistic endeavors and affect more people, which is why the power of the arts on humanity is powerful. Its accessibility, appeal, and ability to absorb altering viewpoints make it an incredible lens through which to study Islam.