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.