Final Essay

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Growing up in a highly religious Christian household, I was never encouraged to educate myself on other people’s beliefs and creeds. As a child and even now, I have been a bit apprehensive about exposing myself to the writings of other faiths because it might force me to be more critical of my own. Although I had many Muslim friends in middle school and high school, I never bothered to talk to them about their religion or their culture. I believed that their religion was too intertwined in their culture to the point that is was practically one and since we were not allowed to discuss religion in class or anywhere in school, I always felt like it was not an appropriate subject to discuss. However, my opinion has changed drastically after participating in this course.

There were many themes and topics that were discussed in the course that I found very interesting. Since the professor was aware that not everyone in the class was all too familiar with Islam, he took his time to thoroughly explore the basics of the faith. This was very helpful in that it helped me establish a solid foundation of understanding before we began to delve deeper as the course progressed. We spent an extensive amount of time discussing the central focus of the faith, Allah. This was a fabulous way to begin the class. Helping everyone understand the divine spirit that the faith was based upon enabled each student to view the course with a more informed perspective. Allah is known to be an omnipotent and omniscient God. He is perfect and pure and has many symbols such as water and light that represent Him, His power and love.

I did not realize how prevalent the Arabic word for Allah was in not only Muslim art but art in general. Artists were very clever in the way that they seamlessly tied in Allah and other figures and quotes from the Qur’an in their art pieces. After watching the movie, “Islamic Art”, I had a new appreciation for the intricacies within Arabic art and the extensive thought process that went behind all of their artistic choices.

We also focused a great deal on the relationship between Allah and his prophet, Muhammad. Learning about this relationship was especially important to me since it’s basically a direct comparison to the connection between God and Jesus Christ in Christianity. I learned that the main difference between the two was that people of Islam did not consider Muhammad and Allah as one. Unlike in Christianity where the Trinity (God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit being one) exists, in Islam, Muhammad is not to be praised or worshipped as if he was Allah himself. He is supposed to be seen as a normal man who, unlike Jesus in the Christian faith, is not considered to be divine. I found this to be a bit confusing especially when we started learning about Muslim songs and poems of praise. I felt as though many of the poems and songs that we read or heard about Muhammad sounded like praise and worship, which suggested that the people did hold him up to a certain holy pedestal.

As the Qur’an explains, Muhammad was Allah’s chosen one. It was him that Allah spoke his teachings and words to which Muhammad then memorized and began teaching to followers. His role in the establishment of Islam was crucial because Allah’s words were not initially written so it was Muhammad’s responsibility to teach the people of Islam essentially everything just the way Allah wanted it. Until the Qur’an was written, it was Muhammad that people looked onto for guidance and direction in order to walk the righteous path of true Muslim people.

Learning so much about Muhammad in the course made me wonder if Muslims even believed that Jesus existed at all. I understand that their “chosen one” is Muhammad but I still wonder if they believe that Jesus ever walked the earth or if Christians and Jews are the only groups that believe in him being a true figure. Hearing the different stories about Muhammad helped me to not only see similarities between him and Jesus but also between him and Moses. It seems as though Muhammad was like a combination of the two. In the Christian faith, it was Moses that was given the 10 Commandments by God on Mount Sinai. This story seemed very similar to that of Muhammad’s such as during the Mi’raj and Isra’ when Allah gave him instructions to give to His people.

Once the foundation of basic Islamic knowledge was laid, we were then able to begin exploring different types of literature (i.e. short stories, poems, novels, songs, etc.) and analyzing the messages, lessons or ideas that arose. Some of the readings that I was especially fond of were “Conference of the Birds”, “The Beggar’s Strike” and “Sultana’s Dream”. These three pieces were able to simultaneously critique societal or individual flaws and spread Islamic teachings and sentiments by presenting it in the form of an interesting story. I found this method to be very effective because it prevented the class or the content of the lectures and sections to be dry or uninteresting.

Creative responses were made in order to better understand the course content and solidify what we had learned throughout the semester. I chose to write a shape poem for my first creative response. The poem entitled, “The Lamp of God” was about the relationship between Muhammad and Allah. I began with a quote from the Quran that discussed this relationship.

“O Prophet! We have sent you as a witness, and a bringer of good news and a warner, and a caller to Allah by His permission and a light-giving lamp. Give good news to the believers that they will receive immense favor from Allah”. (33:45-47)

The verse presented the prophet Muhammad as a “light-giving lamp” so I chose to have my poem be in the shape of a lamp to represent him and the rays of light, which was literally the word “Allah” repeated. The poem discussed Muhammad’s relationship with Allah and how he was the vessel through which Allah could send his message and teachings to His people. As God’s messenger, he was required to memorize God’s words and live by example. His unique relationship with God is why the Sunnah is so important in Islam since believers regard him so highly.

The second creative response was an animation video entitled “Pillars of Islam”. In the video, the five pillars of Islam, which are the basic acts and practices that followers should abide by, were slowly erected. Then the word “Allah” (in Arabic) appeared on top of each pillar and all five smaller texts of “Allah” slowly rose up above all the pillars and merged into a larger “Allah”. I did this to send the message that if someone lives by the five “pillars” then they will become closer to God. The first pillar is the shahada, which tells its followers that there is no God except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. The other four pillars were the salat (daily prayers), zakat (charitable giving), sawm (fasting during Ramadan) and the hajj which is the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in an individual’s lifetime.

The third and fourth projects focused on the topic of faith. My haiku entitled “The Prophet’s Mantle” was about the poem, “The Burda”. I chose to write a haiku instead of a longer poem because the simplicity of the poem allowed the reader to focus more on the actual story instead of my words. Al-Busiri was healed of his paralysis because he had undying faith in his religion and in the powers of God through Muhammad. The sincerity of his poem was what moved Muhammad to heal him.

In my other faith-based project entitled “Faith”, I chose to accompany my photograph with the following quote.

“Then do ye remember Me; I will remember you. Be grateful to Me, and reject not Faith.” [2:152]

My photograph is supposed to be seen from the point of view of a prisoner in the darkness looking out into the light. It represents hope and faith and is meant to encourage whoever sees it to continue to persevere and have a positive outlook on whatever situation they may find themselves in. Allah encourages His followers to continue to have faith in Him. No matter what temptations or obstacles they may find themselves facing.

“A Woman” is my fifth piece and it was in response to Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s story, “Sultana’s Dream”. In Hussain’s story, a “feminist utopia” called Ladyland is presented. It is a world where women are the leaders and men are the ones that have to practice purdah. The freedom that the women were given in this world allowed their talents, beauty and strength to flow through.

The concept of Burqaas and the practice of purdah always saddened me. Many Muslim women are forced to participate in purdah. Their faces and bodies are covered completely leaving nothing but their eyes exposed. The women are also sometimes confined to their homes during the day. These circumstances prevent them from expressing themselves through appearance and through general interactions with society. It is so strange to think that cloth and fabric can symbolize oppression, feelings of inferiority and potential low self-esteem unlike in my culture (African but more specifically, Nigerian) where cloth is associated with very positive and uplifting sentiments. Therefore, in my piece, I wanted to question what made a woman, the best woman she could be and how cloth could play a large role in this analysis.

The main focus of the art piece is the Muslim woman in the center hidden behind the many layers of fabric. Her eyes show a limitless amount of potential and ambition being held down by society’s rules and taboos. The two pictures at the bottom are examples of how cloth can represent positive characteristics instead of the insecurity, weakness and dependence that the Burqaa creates. The cloth on the left being used to carry the child represents strength and the cloth on the right being used as an accessory represents beauty. I believe that these two traits are the most essential in becoming a woman that has reached her potential.

My sixth and final project was entitled “Humility, Priorities, and Focus” and it was in response to the literary piece, “Conference of the Birds”. Throughout the course, self-reflection and bettering oneself was a recurring topic and reading “Conference of the Birds” encouraged each student to take a step back and really think about their personalities and some ways that they could improve. Therefore, I chose to create a piece that brought up humility, priorities and focus which are all things that I constantly remind myself to be aware of.

In my photograph, the Harvard crest and class ring is the focal point of the image. It represents overflowing pride and success. In the background is a veiled frame that holds a picture of my siblings and I, and in front of the frame is a pen. I chose to veil the frame in order to symbolically preserve that that is most important to me. The pen represents continued dedication, focus and hard work. A lack of humility and focus on what’s really important, like the peacock had, can cause one to lose drive and will eventually lead to his downfall.

By being able to openly discuss religion in such an unconventional and non-confrontational way was very effective. Through various mediums of art, I have gained a greater understanding and respect for Islam and am now very comfortable with learning more about other people’s religions and beliefs.

Priorities

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I entitled my mathnawi, “Priorities”, since many of us often have to reevaluate ours from time to time.

 

Priorities

 

It’s always about you,

And all the activities and programs that you do.

 

Constantly thinking about your next move,

You have absolutely no time to waste or lose.

 

Your world is so full of responsibilities

That your future goals and ambitions are your sole priorities.

 

You’re studying, running organizations

And applying to grants so you can travel to different nations.

 

Resume workshops, Wall Street networking sessions,

Pre-med office hours – yes, those are your obsessions.

 

So caught up are you with your numerous obligations

That you don’t seem to notice her sadness or her frustrations.

 

You fail to notice that her usual spark has been disappearing,

Her silent calls for attention you’re just not hearing.

 

Dinners and gossip you two used to share,

Now, to her, it seems like you don’t even care.

 

She can’t scream out or tell you how she feels

Because within these Ivy walls, one’s feelings always have to be concealed.

 

She’s stressed, she’s scared, she wants you by her side,

Since in the past it was in you that she used to confide.

 

But you’re so busy being busy that you don’t even know,

All the secrets and sadness that she’s trying hard not to show.

 

You see her in passing and do your usual cheery wave,

But precious bonding time you cannot save.

 

Priorities, priorities, priorities -reevaluate your priorities,

For taking time for your friends should be one of these.

 

We are so conditioned to put ourselves and our ambitions first,

This is why some say that Ivy League minds are sometimes cursed.

 

Open your eyes and really take the time,

To make sure that she really is fine.

 

For her joy, sanity and effervescent glee,

Is greater than any job offer, award or Harvard degree.

– Ngozi Nwaogu


Humility, Priorities and Focus

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A main theme of this course has been self-reflection and bettering oneself. In Conference of the Birds, each bird was forced to reevaluate his perspective on many aspects of life and alter some elements of his personality. I chose to create a piece of artwork that presented a topic that I often think about – humility, priorities, and focus.

Being at Harvard University can make one lose track of what’s really important to them. Our ears and minds are constantly flooded with praises and adoration from the media, faculty, and everyone on the outside looking in. With all the prestige that the institution carries, its easy to be blinded by the glitz and glamour of these Ivy walls but we should always take the time to get our minds focused back on the real motivators in our lives such as our family.

In my photograph, the Harvard crest and class ring is the focal point of the image. It represents overflowing pride and success. In the background is a veiled frame that holds a picture of my siblings and I, and in front of the frame is a pen. I chose to veil the frame in order to symbolically preserve that that is most important to me. The pen represents continued dedication, focus and hard work. A lack of humility, like the peacock had, can cause one to lose drive and will eventually lead to his downfall.

Faith

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“Then do ye remember Me; I will remember you. Be grateful to Me, and reject not Faith.” [2:152]

Being a truly, righteous individual who follows the words and rules of Allah can be very difficult in a world full of temptation, occasional disappointment and confusion. With all of the doubt that can fill someone’s mind, it takes a person that wholeheartedly believes in his faith and the power of Allah to stay strong during moments of trials and tribulations.

My photograph represents hope and faith. Allah urges His followers to trust in Him and his power. No matter what prison of hopelessness or disillusionment that one might find himself in, they should always look up from the darkness to the light and believe that everything will be taken care of.

A Woman

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Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s piece, “Sultana’s Dream”, introduced a world where many Muslim women would find difficult to believe. In her story, Hussain walks the reader through her “feminist utopia” named Ladyland. In this world, women are the leaders. It is the women that hold powerful positions and the men that are forced to practice purdah. The freedom and confidence that they were given in this land allowed their talents, beauty and strength to shine through.

In my piece, I wanted to question what made a woman, a woman and how cloth can play a large role in this analysis. The main focus of the art piece is the Muslim woman in the center hidden behind the many layers of fabric. Her eyes show a limitless amount of potential and ambition being held down by society’s rules and taboos. The two pictures at the bottom are examples of how cloth can represent positive characteristics instead of the insecurity, weakness and dependence that the Burqaa created. The cloth on the left being used to carry the child represents strength and the cloth on the right being used as an accessory represents beauty. I believe that these two traits are the most essential in becoming a woman.

The Prophet’s Mantle

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Wrote words of healing

Recited to him with faith

Gave what inspired

The Burda, or the Prophet’s Mantle is a poem that was written by the Sufi Shaykh Imam Sharafuddin Muhammad Al-Busiri. As the story goes, he wrote the qasida or poem while suffering from a stroke, which unfortunately paralyzed part of his body. He prayed sincerely to Allah begging for Him to heal him and fell asleep during the prayer. While asleep, Al-Busiri had a dream in which he recited his poem to the Holy Prophet, Muhammad. After hearing his moving words, Muhammad touched the paralyzed portion of his body and placed his cloak over him. When Al-Busiri woke up, he was miraculously healed and he spread the news of the wondrous event that had just occurred. The Qasida tu’l Burda became very popular because of its healing powers. Many memorize the verses of the poem and inscribe the words of the qasida on the walls of the public institutions and other buildings.

The haiku highlights how important knowledge of and commitment to one’s faith is. Al-Busiri spoke eloquently and passionately about Islam, which pleased Muhammad who then rewarded him for his faith by letting God heal Al-Busiri through him.

Pillars of Islam

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“Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.” [2:177]

Allah (through the Qur’an) helped his followers learn the appropriate way to live and worship. Through Allah’s guidelines, which are referred to as the Pillars of Islam, Muslims can be assured that they are living righteously in a way that is pleasing to God. These basic acts are to be viewed as the official framework for worship and a sign of commitment to the faith. The first pillar is the shahada. This creed professes monotheism and accepting Muhammad as God’s messenger. The second pillar is the salat or daily prayers. Believers should dedicate time each day to prayer. It is during this time that they can connect with God and self reflect. The third pillar is zakat or charitable giving. Sharing one’s wealth and helping others is necessary in Islam. For how can Allah help one when he himself is not helping those that are less fortunate. The fourth pillar is sawm, which refers to fasting during Ramadan. By fasting, the individual loses his reliance or attachment to material, earthly goods and instead focuses on purifying his heart and getting closer to God. The fifth and final pillar is the hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in an individual’s lifetime. With all of life’s temptations, it is important to establish certain acts that believers can follow in order to stay on the right path on their walk with God.

The Lamp of God

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“O Prophet! We have sent you as a witness, and a bringer of good news and a warner, and a caller to Allah by His permission and a light-giving lamp. Give good news to the believers that they will receive immense favor from Allah”. (33:45-47)

In the Islamic faith, Allah is known to be an omnipotent and omniscient God. The Qur’an says that believers are to learn His words and teachings. According to the Islamic faith, the prophet Muhammad was given these words through the angel Gabriel so that he would teach the people of the world. As God’s messenger, Muhammad was required to memorize God’s words and live by example. This is why the Sunnah is so important in the Muslim faith.

In the shape poem, the lamp represents Muhammad and the rays of light coming from within it represent God. The lines of the poem itself discuss the prophet’s connection with Allah and his responsibilities to properly lead believers in their Islamic journey. The Shahada reinforces their relationship by stating that Muhammad should be accepted as the Messenger of Allah. It is him alone that should be regarded as the true interpreter. Due to his important status in the Islamic community, his family is also considered to be special. In Shia Islam, the Ahl al-bayt or “People of the House”, are revered; the Shi’ites closely identify Muhammad’s family (especially Ali and Hussein) with the imams.

It is because of his unique connection with Allah that people of this world are able to learn and understand the will and the way of God.

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