Reflections!

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Dear Mr. Pro-Vocative,

How are you? How is your religious journey going?

I’m writing about areligion class that I joined this semester. My ideas about Islam were really challenged in that class.I came to this class thinking that Islam was monolithic and that there is one Islamic law. I mean… I understood that there could be many interpretations and much ijtihad in Islam, but I never thought there could be that much diversity in a religion that seemed so mono-colored. Last August, I was Angry with Islam – all the violence, forced marriages, compulsory veiling and those unbearably loud Friday prayers- , but having taken the time to read, write, reflect, ask questions, memorize poetry and even paint… I feel I’m at peace with Islam. I encountered Many Muslims and Muslim writers who came from entirely different religious traditions, and I was simultaneously fascinated and shocked at the amount of interfaith engagement that was involved.One of my favorite lines was when my professor said that if you give different people the same book and give each one a highlighter, each would highlight different parts; parts they could identify with. Islam no longer seems like one thing

I come from Egypt – a predominantly Sunni place. Growing up, I was exposed to the various stereotypes about Shi’s: that they believe that Ali was supposed to be the prophet, and that Gabriel mistakenly came to the prophet. Most Egyptians believed that Shi’s pray differently by putting a stone in front of them while praying. They think Abu Bakr and Omar are infidels and that they deny some of the prophet’s sayings and attribute it to Ali.They hate Aisha and to top it all,are insane enough tohit themselves and beat their sons with swords. On the day of Karbala, they are permitted to kill any non-Shi’a Muslim. They read heretical booksand the basis for their creed is unjustifiable. In a nutshell:Egyptians are shia-phobic. This phobia was so intense that one of my neighbors had told me that it is better to become friends with a kafir (a non-Muslim)than with a Shi’a.

When I started reading about Shism, I was fascinated at how similar Sunnis and Shias were. Everyone believed in the same God and the same prophet… the differences seemed trivial but I knew that these small differencescould stop so many SunniMuslims from getting married to Shi’a women and it was often the case that Sunnis would even be scared to visit a Shi’a house. All the readings and lectures on Shism made me feel like I had to actually experience this first-hand.And so, armed with my newly-formed understanding of the Shi’a creed, I travelled to Fresno, Californiaover my spring break. I stayed over a shii friend’s house partly because I wanted to watch him pray andalso because I had a huge amount of questions about how he approached religion. He organized a party to welcome me and invited all his very strong shii friends. I was blown away by their hospitality and their similarity to the Sunnis I grew up with. It was a moment of realization whenI felt like I was, quite literally, in Egypt. But along with the wonder and familiarity came sadness mixed with inspiration as I met with a young man who told me the story of how he fell in love with a Sunni woman and how her family rejected his proposal just because he followed a different form of Islam. He told me that he also had doubts about getting married to a Sunni women and was confused on whether the prophet would get mad or upset if he did this. He was very earnestly sad that I wanted to express this idea in poetry and that was how I wrote a poem onthe struggles Sunnis have when they fall in love with someone who follows a different form of Islam (in this case Shism), and howeven the smallest of differences can cause so much confusion.

Interested as I was, I asked so many questions that one of the leaders in the shi’I mosque I was invited to gave me a poster that said “la fatanelaaliwalasayfellazuo al fakar” . It was with excitement that I hung the poster on my dorm wall when I came back but when I was Skyping my mom she was furious at my hanging this poster. She reiterated that shi’s are wrong but then I start to tell her all about shism and told her that I was questioning my own faith and where I stand in this. It was through this conversation that my play,Kyaro Land,came to be.Theheroine,Nearaj, who really questioned her faith grew up believing in Kyaro and Petaloine (imaginary Gods), but she learns new languages and is suddenly introduced to all these new gods and she feels as though she knows nothing. She doubts God’s existence and just like in Iqbal’s poetry is constantly complaining to god about what her people are doing and where she stands. Nearaj finds it impossible to deal with all of this questioning and eventually kills herself. In her suicide note , she explains how important it is to question religion (and different forms within it), and how essential it is to find new ways to understand religion. The experience of Nearaj was somehow similar to my experience coming to America and learning English and reading about religion,particularly when I joined this class and saw the Asian paintings of the prophet, the congregational prayers led by women andthe movie on Iranian women and hijab. It was all really hard at times, and that is when I felt that I had to write this play.

My favorite part of this journey came later when I started learning about Sufism.  I felt that this was what I was looking for. Sufism has always been attacked in Egypt… and it was amazing for me to sit on top of the science center and just listen to Sufi poetry: ilburda, IbnFarid’s, al-romy’s poetry… At the beginning, it all didn’t make sense. Why would they use words like wine, intoxication? Then I talked to my favorite professors back home and realized that many of my favorite people back home were Sufis. I then started to take it seriously and I actually would sit on my own and listen to their poetry and signing. Part of me, however,always questioned the legitimacy of using music and whether it is prohibited (as my parents once have told me) in Islam or not? That was how my book Idea came to be. The title of the book was “what did the Quran say about Music?” andupon opening it, we find nothing. I spent an entire month reading a chapter from the Quran every day in March, and the Quran sounded and felt different, and there was nothing there that was against Sufism. I began to feel that that Salafis’ and Egyyptians’ understating of Sufis was wrong. They didn’t even try to understand who those wonderful people were. I then decided that I would try memorizing a Sufi poem and that I would actually try and understand it and work with it as a project for myself rather than it being just a project for my class.

I sat in my room for hours listening to it being sung from many Sufis who were literally crying.  It took me two days to memorize the poem, but I couldn’t think of anything else but the poetry for the next two weeks. I wondered what does it mean for a heart to be motlafi… and when I slept I dreamt of Ibnilfarid talking to me about his personal experience writing the poem. I changed my music playlist to Sufi poetry and music, andfelt great about it. I wanted at this time to actually go to a mosque and pray… I started reading MohiaKahf’spoem called My Little Mosque. The mosque was the exact opposite of the mosque that my house in Egypt overlooks. And I couldn’t help but try to visualize how a mosque with music, cigarettes, and a sign that says “Bad Muslims are welcome” would be like and that inspired my painting of her poem.

I was not particularly affected by this project, but I was moved by the idea of creating a mosque that truly accepts everyone and I started thinking of Harvard’s Islamic Society. The society was a practical example of everything I learned in the class…. Drastically different people with really different backgrounds coming to share their belief – or disbelief- in God without any criticism and with a mind open enough to not only grasp but also respect the differences. One of my main goals now is to take a class on Sufism. I feel that I still do not understand sufism – or “the mystical dimension of Islam”. I understand that sufishave been, and still are, attacked from Salafis and even some moderates, but I do not see sufism as esoteric. Sufis transcend conflicts and divisions. My goal for the summer is to read Mawlana Jalal and Rumi’sMathnawi.

Can I actually have a directand personal experience with God? I do not know. But one of the things I really believe in now is that there really is a Tariqah and a Shariahto what I do in life, and if I were to approach religion again, I would not only consider the Zahir, but would always think about the Batin and the internal, spiritual aspects of every action. I also feel okay with questioning religion.  When the professor talked about Moses’ story when he came to god and asked his lord to speak to him directly and said “MyLord, show Yourself to me: let me see You.” I felt that this is precisely what every Sufi asks – reassurance and a direct experience with God and I really respect and appreciate that.

For three months, I was really provoked, informed, confused, upset, satisfiedand certainly challenged. I started the class as an agnostic and I ended it as a “reverent agnostic”. I am not at all angry with religion and yesterday when I was flying back home, I felt that I could not wait to meet with all my family members and be able to finally comprehend that my unveiled aunt, my Sufi uncle, my totally covered neighbor, my “moderate” mom, my Muslim-Brotherhood-affiliated best friend and my questioning self all make sense – and that each one of ussimply highlighted and underlined different parts of the Quran.

I wonder how much my highlighted version will change,

Thanks for listening,

Nourhan

 

 

Complaint to Allah and its Response

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This is a response to Iqbal’s two poems, “Shikwa” and “Jawab-i-Shikwa” (Complaint to God and its Response). Iqbal starts by reminding Muslims of their glorious, conquest-filled past; a history that was inspired mainly by the adherence of the Muslims to the orders of God. He then talks about all the dilemmas facing Muslims today and expresses sorrow over their current state. I was quite confused, at times, and kept wondering if he was simply chanelling his own frustration, or if he actually was asking God for an answer. His despair seems to be directed at a number of things:
1. How can non-Muslims be better off than Muslims who are following the words of God?
2. How can God abandon Muslims? And did He actually abandon them?
3. What did Muslims do wrong?
He seems to be wondering if what was happening to them was God’s fault or their own. Most of Iqbal’s questions are rhetorical and I think they imply his close and intimate relationship with God as well as a true and sincere request that Muslims turn to piety once again. The urgency of the questions that Iqbal asks to God make one wonder if Iqbal is really expecting an answer from God. But I felt that he sees both hope and frustration. That is why I have the two completely different clouds. He is upset, and even disappointed, but he knows in his heart that there is only a single way out this –following God’s orders.

 

 

Roses

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The rose serves as a symbolic reference to the Prophet Muhammad. Certain cultures believe that the smell of the rose is that of the prophet’s sweat. Many Urdu poets call the prophet “the rose of God’s garden”. The beauty of the flower is a symbol of the beauty of the prophet and his teachings. As Professor Asani explained in class, the blossoming flowers might be a reminder of the miracle of creation.

Here I have chosen to portray the rose in its black and white. The two roses look different to capture how each of us might see the prophet differently. They use shades of black and white because I feel that none of us would comprehend all the colors and intricate complexities of the prophet’s teachings.

 

 

 

Yes! “Bad Muslims are Welcome”…

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his drawing is in response to Mohia Kahf’s poetry My Little Mosque.

In her frustration with the status of today’s mosques, she felt rejected in the one place that she felt was supposed to accept everyone. She feels that the mosque carries with it not values of acceptance but those of sexism and exclusion and that she cannot enter such a mosque unless she’s a “perfect” Muslim. She then starts to present her vision of the mosque: a mosque that is inherently different even in the way it looks: without a dome or a minaret. I was very inspired by her poetry and decided to draw this mosque. The mosque doesn’t indeed have a minaret or a dome. It’s just a simple, beautiful place for people to pray. There is a sign at the door that says “All Muslims are Welcome”. It’s for men and women, Sunni and Shia, even for Sufis. In short, it is a haven for anyone who wants a place to pray to God. All the musical signs surrounding the mosque, the Adhan and the Recitation of the Qu’ran, and the beauty and tranquility they carry with them, bring a feeling of acceptance and a sense of being welcome to every visitor of the mosque. There are two girls entering the mosque, one is veiled and the other might be a Muslim or not, but both are welcome. Music is not banned in the mosque.

The writer says:
“My little mosque thinks
the story I just narrated
cannot possibly be true”
But I felt that what she was asking for was very simple and beautiful. It is a mosque that loves women and accepts converts. It is a mosque that sees the human inside each of us, regardless of actions or creed.

 

 

 

 

 

What did the Q’uran say about music?

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Throughout the entire semester, when we talked about music, there was a lot of controversy regarding that issue. One of most explicit illustration of this controversy or ban on music was in Little Mosque Poems:

“Music is banned
at my little mosque
because it is played on
the devil’s stringed instruments”

This really shocked me especially after I had read Music and Dance in Sufism. Music plays a very important role in Sufism; it is a spiritual experience… a way of longing for God. They have the Qawwali and the Sama’. Qawwali music focuses on Hamd or praise for God and munajah or the conversations and gratitude the “singer” has with God. Sama’ also includes listening, dancing and reciting poetry; tambourine and flute are even used in Sama’.

In Egypt, I have heard many Imams arguing in Friday prayers that music is completely banned in Islam, and so reading about how essential it is in sufism led me to open the Q’uran again and find it what the primary source in islam says about music. I created this simple book entitled “What does the Q’uran say about music” and then when one opens the book, he finds nothing because the Qu’ran didn’t explicitly mention music or musical instrument and yet we have all those imams in Egypt and in other areas in the Middle east (the ones little mosque talks about), who repeatedly condemn music and view it as an imitations of “infidel” cultures.

Kyaro Land

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Calligrphy project – Ya Allah!

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Description of Calligraphic Art

            One of the very basic ideas of Islam is that Allah has created the world “It is He who created for you all of that which is on the earth.” (2:29) and “And it is He who created the heavens and earth in truth” (6:73) So the mountains, oceans, cloud and sun are there to express this idea they are all God’s creation; They are also ayat from Allah, or signs from God to help us reach him… the idea that God’s beauty is manifested in his creation and Muslims have to appreciate the beauty and elegance with witch God created the world. This is expressed many times in the Qu’ran: “On their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly” All of this is also مسخر for humans, so that they could worship God correctly and use all these resources to spread the words of god.

Even though humans are surrounded with various signs from Gods, they are often in a continuous search to find the true meaning of life… a purer understanding perhaps! And that is why God = “Noor ala noor”. Allah has illuminated the truth through the Ku’ran and his light guided humans and obliterated polytheism. In the verse of light “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things.”

The reason the equal sign is grey is because I don’t think the idea of light is a very concrete or clear one…. The idea of light implies infallibility – which is a very important notion for shi’i muslims and the one of the most important reasons they believe that the prophet’s successor has to be a descendent of the prophet. Many Muslims believe that the light of God is reflecting in the prophet and is reflecting in other prophets … and it is this light that guides muslims to the true path in life. But I felt that there was so much confusion regarding the nature of this light… and the metaphorical use of it that I felt it would make sense to say that God is “like” light… but doesn’t not directly equal it.

In the clouds, there is a jigsaw puzzle… to refer to muslims (and even any humans) continuous questions about the universe… where we came from… how can they worship God the right way… and even questions regarding themselves and their relationship to God… and I feel that from an islamic viewpoint, the answer to all this confusion lies in true yaken and true faith in God… and that is why the word Allah has all these different dots from different colors, to imply that no matter what one’s question is… the answer lies in approaching god and his light.

The word Allah has various dots from many different colors to imply that all the guidance is to be found in god. Everyone one of these dots is an answer to one of the question oen can have about the world. Muslims find truth, comfort and refuge in their God.

 

An Arabic monologue in praise of prophet Muhammad

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 لا أعلم من أين جئت ولا كيف اقتربت

ولكنك في قلبي وعقلي ترسخت

اقتربت مني أولا، ثم اقتربت أنا

ثم حاولت البعد فما استطعت

لا أجد تفسيرًا لما يحدث لي…

إلا أني في بحر دينك قد سقطت

وأني إن حاولت الخروج… فلن يكن لحياتي معني ولا مرد.

لكني يا حبيب الله مشوش العقل… حزين

أشعر أني تائه ما بين اللحد والدنيا…

أخاف أن أكون من الذين “يحسبون أنهم يحسنون صنعًا”

فالفرق كبير!

ما بين السنة والشيعة!

ما بين حبي لك، وحب أهل إيران لك…

شتان ما بين إسلامي وإسلامهم…

آه يا حبيب الله!

هل فعلا تفرقت أمتك إلي ثلاثة وسبعين فرقة…

ماذا أفعل إذا؟

أأتزوجها؟ والنتيجة مؤكدة!

أأتزوجها؟ وأنا أعرف أنها على خطأ؟

أديني أنقى؟ أم أن كلانا واحد؟ أم لا؟

أخبرني يا رسول الله؟!

إن حبي إليك يفوق حبي للناس…

إن عشقي لكلامك، يفوق الوصف والإحساس…

ولكني في عصر ضعف فيه الإسلام

وندر فيه السلام…

هل أستطيع أنا بخبرتي المحدودة أن أؤول كلامك؟

لقد ختمت القرآن

 ولكن هل هذ وحده كاف؟

هل هذا وحده شاف؟

أعرف أنك أنت الأسوة الحسنة…

أنام كل يوم وقلبي يتمي أن يزوره نورك…

يتمني أن تشفه من شلله المعنوي… كما شفيت البصيري

آه يا رسول الله…

أنت النور الذي أضاء الدنيا…

“أنت كالبشر… ولكنك لست كالبشر”

أين ذهب نورك؟ هل هو منعكس في الأئمة كما يزعمون

أم أنه موجود في كلامك الذي يحمل في طياته قمة العدل؟

أين ذهب ضياؤك يا رسول الله…

سامحني يا نور الله إن كنت أحببتها…

فإني أعرف أن الحب لا يكون إلا في الله

ولكن رجائي الوحيد أن أصل إلى نورك..

سامحني يا حبيب الله

 

This poetry tells the story of a Sunni man who fell in love with a شيعية   woman. In the beginning, the man describes his love for the prophet and that even though he doesn’t have the answer to many questions regarding religion, Islam and love for the prophet are deeply entrenched in him. He talks about how he fell in the ocean of islam and how his life would be meaningless If he were to be “rescued”.

After he admits his love and commitment to the prophet, he starts to talk about his conflicted state of mind and his fear that he might be in the wrong فرقة . He even doubts that he might be showing love to God and his prophets in the wrong way…

Now that he has expressed his doubts regarding which form of islam to follow. He starts to talk about an Iranian woman he loves… and how she also loves the prophet but that some of their fundamental ideas are very different. He wonders if would be wise to stay with her because he thinks that maybe sunnism is “purer” that what she believes in.

He starts to feel that his love for her might have exceeded his love for the prophet, so he apologizes and reiterates that he cannot love anyone more than the prophet… and that all he wants is to find a one true interpretation (ta’wil) for the prophet’s words… he tells the story of how he memorized the Q’uran, but that he still cannot reach the hidden meanings beyond all the ayat.

He shares with the prophet that his only hope now is for the prophet’s light to touch him and heal him the same way it healed il Busiri… he wonders where exactly could he find this pure light… Then he apologizes to the prophet for loving her… and tells him that he can only love people in Allah and that he is asking for forgiveness and cannot wait to truly experience the prophet’s light – that only leads to comfort and truth.

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