An Introduction

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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.

The Wait

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I loved Iqbal’s “Complain” and “Answer.” I wanted to continue it in the context of being an American Muslim in the 21st century. I imagine the complaint against my generation is that we’ve forgotten the importance behind rituals and are losing our grip on our historical identity and what it means to be Muslim. I believe that identity is not limited to the Arabia of the 7th century.

In Iqbal’s “Complaint” the narrator focused on the glory of his ancestors and how wronged his generation has been for a lack of worldly success and status of the Muslim. My response doesn’t rely on our rich heritage and tradition. Call it the arrogance or the ignorance of my generation, but I’m used to my status as a minority. My concern is the lack of unity I see and the loss of focus I feel. With all the distractions and opportunities in the world, what am I supposed to devote my life to? Who am I supposed to lean on? Where is this great Muslim Ummah?

As I try to broaden my understanding of my community, why do the differences get emphasis over the similarities? Iqbal’s “Answer” talks about the believers as lazy people who expect to reap the rewards of their forefathers, while they busy themselves with worldly objects and forget to exercise their faith. And then they ask where their reward is. My response portrays the feeling of discombobulation from a different angle. We’re over worldly wealth. What do we want? To be happy. What do we get? Confusion. Ignorance is bliss, but we choose to open our eyes and fight for social justice in God’s name. Call us misguided as long as you’re willing to guide.

 

 

The Wait

 

I walk around in Nike’s, looking up at the sky

Don’t worry about tripping with you at my side.

 

Are you sad I check email each time I hear the beep

But often push prayers aside for meetings or sleep?

 

Why are grand gestures easier than the daily deed?

I’ll sacrifice in your name but forget the Quran to read.

 

Yet armed with your mercy I continue on my way

With big plans to eliminate poverty in Chile.

 

Perhaps I should aim closer, looking into my heart

You are the Creator. What good can I start?

 

What difference can your servants make that disasters won’t undo?

You have the power to destroy. What do you want us to do?

 

Build sand castles in your name for your sea to then sweep away?

After each wave of waste you give hope and send us on our way.

 

Of course we’re confused and struggling to find your light.

Equipped with your Word but which interpretation is right?

 

So caught up in trying to separate what’s right and what’s wrong

Can’t hear us using different languages to sing the same song.

 

Why did you give us different languages when one would have done?

Failed tests today but who knows the outcome in the long run?

 

Oh, that’s right. You know your beauty can never be captured fully.

But two tongues add a breadth of knowledge one could not capture solely.

 

So I try to listen past my prejudice when I hear the foreign word

With good intent as my translator, what truth have I heard?

 

Once again I’ll take it on good faith and add it to your bills.

Strangely, my trust in others heals as your growing tab fills.

 

I start translating, hoping for some profound answer.

Then I realize we’re all dance directors without dancers.

 

Foreign quests with the same desire to fulfill our production

But unsure of what you want to see, awaiting your instruction.

 

Deeper

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In Attar’s Conference of the Birds was a story of  King Mahmoud and the Woodcutter. A king helped pick up some fallen wood for a poor woodcutter, who did not realize that the man who helped him was the king of the land. Upon finding out, the king offered to buy some wood at a reasonable price. The woodcutter asked for ten bags of gold, to which the king’s men scoffed, for the wood was worth very little. The woodcutter replied, “The wood itself is worthless, I agree / It is that touch which gives it dignity.”

I was touched by the truth in these lines and wrote a poem in response, stemming from the concept that our worth and dignity as humans comes from God, not from the cars we drive nor from how well-learned we can appear. I haphazardly came upon the image of digging for dignity. This took on the meaning of uncovering the layers of material wealth that constricted the access to spiritual self-actualization. My narrator needs darkness to cover her actions. Daylight is filled with artificiality, and there’s a role my narrator must play out. Nighttime allows her to act on her desire to find the dignity that is missing during daylight. I borrowed heavily from Sufi ideology of losing oneself in the process of knowing God. Amidst pain and gore, my narrator gains some peace she could not previously find.

 

 

Deeper

Searching for dignity, I dig a hole.

When it got buried, I’ve never been told.

 

Still I dig. Too hard to admit defeat—

That I’ve lost it: my place, my step, my feet.

 

I dig at night. Shame I someone saw me.

Someone like me searching for dignity?

 

“World class education, job, family.

Look! Dignity is in your destiny.”

 

Closing my eyes, I look, for it’s truth they speak:

Forever I may dig and find what I seek

 

Is not in this hole, not in this whole world.

This knowledge that it can’t be earned unfurled

 

In my mind and I start to sink inward,

As if with me the Earth’s core wants a word.

 

Confounded and falling I fear the heat.

Charring parts of me as I go to meet

 

This great center that seems unfazed by ash.

Dear Core, the pain increases as I thrash.

 

I dug a hole in search of dignity.

Dignity? Still it’s me It wants to see!

Mirror, mirror on the wall

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Who’s the fairest of them all?

I became fascinated with the character of Keba in Aminata Fall’s “The Beggar’s Strike.” Keba, a righteous man working for the city municipality, spent his childhood in poverty. He emphasizes the distinction between his mother, to whom he refers as one of the “genuinely poor,” and the beggars in the city “who do a real wrong to humanity.” If all a person has is dignity, then his world centers around it. When Keba sees a beggar asking for alms and when he sees others’ reactions ranging from annoyance to disgust, Keba has to reconcile with the inherent dignity of a beggar. His response then becomes that the people who ask for alms are not real beggars. If no one begged, others wouldn’t react cruelly, forgetting the humanity in front of them. Keba grounds this belief in his own childhood. Despite their circumstance, his mother never resorted to begging for food or clothes for her family. She worked and she relied on what she was given.

Keba takes his mother to be the standard for all suffering from poverty. He looks into his past, blindly snatches the actions of one woman from the perspective of her young son, and stretches it so that it will fit the context of his adulthood without regard to changing times and the circumstance of different people.

My response mimics the effects of Keba’s actions. His interpretation of his memory is a broken mirror, showing him a reality in different angles depending on which perspective he wishes to address. In the center is the word ‘selflessness,’ which gets distorted as it meets an edge. Part of the ‘f’ dissipates away, and the end of the word, when it travels to the next pane, is magnified in a way similar to how I imagine Keba may have magnified some actions or glossed over others.

I split part of a quotation that seems to be the essence of Keba. He says to his secretary on the topic of beggars, “Don’t you realise that everything separates me from them! Poverty has never compelled people to beg; poverty has never excluded self-respect, human dignity!” (Fall 44) This excerpt shows Keba’s reconciliation of himself as a boy and the poorest people in the city. I think he could be more at peace with his past and present and those around him if he readdressed what dignity looks like, where it comes from, and which human has the power to take it away.

 

The trouble comes in when look at the crux of the givers and receivers. Fall’s beggars believe “That’s what religion says: when we beg we just claim what is our due!” (Fall 61) And they believe that people “given out of an instinct for self-preservation” (Fall 22). And with the exchange of blessings for sustenance, the beggars are satisfied, yet Keba does not see it this way. He doesn’t comprehend the intrinsic dignity of a person given by God and unaffected by the actions of any man.

“The Kaba of the soul”

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This response is to a na’t by the poet Khalil in the Sindhi and Urdu Poems reading praising the Prophet Muhammad.

The phrases that moved me to think about my response are given below.

“Muhammad the qiblah (the direction of prayer) of the two worlds;
the Ka’bah (the site of the annual pilgrimage) of the soul;
[…]
None can go astray while following you, 
Because those footsteps are the lamps on the road of faith.”
From the poem, I focused on the central idea that the Prophet is focal point of Islam; through him we can know God. The other main idea that struck me was the role of the Prophet as a guide, the perfect example to follow ‘the straight path’ that leads to spiritual fulfillment. The Kaba is regarded as the center of the world for Muslims, and for the Prophet to be the Kaba of the soul marks his place with the ultimate importance. The Prophet is described as both the direction and guide as well as the manifestation of the Divine.
I wanted to combine the idea that the Prophet guides us to God, and we strive to follow his example because he embodies the Divine light, with the idea that he calls us to him, to God. We move closer to him, and he is stationary. The world may spin, but he remains unaltered because he is the center from which extensions of doctrine and rituals can be reinterpreted, but the tawil, the inner meaning, the ultimate Truth remains constant. I originally planned to use chalk on asphalt at an intersection to represent the center, but the unevenness of the asphalt made this unfeasible. Instead, I moved to the chalkboard. The blackboard represents the “road of faith,” and instead of an intersection, I started with a globe, with the Prophet at the center. Yellow light emanated from the center, but the shape turned into a droplet of light. This represents the nur of Muhammad from God. Some Muslims believe that all living creatures have a droplet of the Light of God within them, seeking to be reunited with the ocean of droplets of Divine light that is God. Surrounding “Muhammad” are titles given to the Prophet by Khalil or other poets in the reading and titles mentioned in lecture. Some of these titles include, “the rose in God’s garden,” “the seal of Prophethood,” “the illuminating,” “the asylum for the poor,” “the Kaba of the soul,” and “the solver of difficulties.” Different titles are separated by the letter “meem,” which is considered spiritually potent. I found the style of writing “Muhammad” through an internet search, and I picked this one because it reminded me of the distribution in space of the characters, from the starting meem and ending with the Daal contained within Muhammad instead of projecting outward in one direction. This was powerful because the Prophet is the center. The idea of the response was for paths to lead us to him from any direction.

The photo below has a glow effect to enhance the visual idea of the Prophet emanating Divine Light.

The photo below has a different effect, which focuses on the idea that the Prophet guides us to him, and through him, we find God. 

Note: This analysis was from the viewpoint of a Muslim, trying to deconstruct and reconstruct one interpretation from a muslim standpoint.

Without Meaning

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My response comes from Zia Sardar’s Reading the Quran. Sardar brings up the need to use reason to engage with the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad on multiple occasions. When he visits madrasas in Pakistan, he is disturbed to find that teachers use violence and fear to instill unquestioned, dogmatized knowledge in the minds of their pupils and deemphasize. Sardar compares the use of the Quran as a stick to force others views on an individual and an ornament “on which to project all one’s prejudices and paranoia” (Sardar 9).

 

My response to this reading was one of anger, disappointment and fear. I was angry to confront how religion is manipulated to support those who desire power. My disappointment came from the recurring reality that islam is an ideology often torn away from its contexts. Put into practice, Islam becomes a warped set of tools for those with ulterior agendas. Ultimately I was fearful because the ethics derived from religion and culture drive us. We are fortunate that our ethics often emphasize the same things.

 

I wish I could be without blame. As Sardar emphasizes, how can we not use the intellect we have to engage with what we are taught? How can we be so proud as to believe our human minds are grand enough to understand the Absolute (7)? I tend not to realize the potential of “the masses” and help put them down by not expecting each individual to realize his or her potential and engage with the beliefs he or she holds. My submission portrays a person incapable of speaking her own truth as she perceives it because she is silenced by the unquestioned Truth of the Quran. This is portrayed with the phrase “bismillah ar-rahman ar-raheem” covering her mouth and effectively silencing her. The phrase means “In the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful,” and it is often said before starting an action or deed. It can become such a common phrase that Muslims forget its significance. Similarly, “insha’Allah” or “God willing” has become a go-to phrase for some in situations where the person is too polite to refuse a suggestion. The words we speak have the potential to be powerful. It is wasteful if we don’t allow them the weight they have. Going back to the picture, the person does not see with her own eyes, through her own experiences. She accepts hand-me-down interpretations that act as blindfolds to other realities. The ‘alhamdulliah’ on the blindfold in the picture comes again from the loss of meaning that repetition can lead to. She points to a decorative piece that says “iqra” or ‘read,’ referring to the Quran. It’s not enough to read. Ultimately, I want to empower this person. She has the ability to reason, to incorporate new experiences into her paradigm and alter it to reflect the world as it is. My submission is as she is, but in her mind lies dormant the unseen potential to change.

Joint Response to Battle of Karbala with Sherry

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I worked with Sherry to reenact the Battle of Karbala.

Our response was to Sir Lewis Pelly’s The Miracle Play of Hassan and Husain. Imam Husain was portrayed as courageous and righteous but also more than willing to embrace martyrdom, a concept we found interesting. Why would someone with so much to give to his community and his family desire death? Just as the Prophet Muhammad is both a historical figure and a religious figure, Imam Husain has multiple roles. In our taziya, we incorporated the role of Imam Husain as the willing hero and martyr that Shia Muslims needed to see him as through moments where Shimar used his weapons to bring in a Husain who tried to fight the attraction. Throughout the taziya there are moments where Husain and Shimar are drawn together and pushed apart, signifying the unseen forces that our hero faces.

In continuing with the courage that Imam Husain displays, he enters the scene without weapon while Shimar is armed. We used dandiya sticks as weapons as one way to emphasize the storytelling in dance. Dandiya sticks cater to the visual and aural senses of the audience. Eyes and ears follow the sticks as they clash. In our reenactment of the battle at Karbala, Husain is without weapon, and Shimar, with his dandiyas, is a foil to Husain, highlighting Husain’s courage by repeatedly attacking him from behind. The struggle we reenact is meant to be seen and heard up close. We are surrounded by armchairs and couches, representing our audience, who can tell that Nikhat is playing Imam Husain because of the green she wears and that Sherry is playing Shimar because of the red he wears. The audience is supposed to be completely aware of what will happen, and at the same time, we want people to remember the parts of history that, for socio-political reasons, are not highlighted. Hazrat Fatima is the direct link for the Imams to the Prophet Muhammad, and we chose Nikhat to play his role because of the pivotal role that Hazrat Fatima had.

Martyrdom of Husain