I conceive of this blog as responding to three questions about Muslim communities and religious traditions, which roughly correspond to the three segments into which the course was divided. (1) What ways of knowing God are possible? (2) What is the role of context in Islamic religious traditions? (3) In what senses are Muslim identities politicized in the contemporary world? These considerations are all closely intertwined with one another, and the work of answering each individual question simultaneously demands and provides insights related to the other two questions; reflections on each of these considerations can be found woven throughout my six blog posts.
Ways of knowing God
Islam is often understood as constituting two oppositional approaches that have long existed in tension with one another: the legalistic and the spiritualistic. These approaches reflect two ostensibly oppositional ways of forging a relationship with, and reaching an understanding of, God. I sought to explore these two interpretations in my artwork, but I also sought to show that they are not the totality of ways to understand Islam: many alternative conceptions exist – within, outside of, and offering reconciliation between the dichotomous approaches of legality and spirituality.
Legalistic interpretations posit “legal codes and pietistic norms” as a primary means of knowing God (Asani In Praise of Muhammad: Sindi and Urdu Poems). These are largely derived from the Quran, sunnah, and hadith. In including a Quran verse in my blog post “Islamic Conceptions of Righteousness,” I sought to clarify the central importance of Quranic verses for knowing God and understanding the conduct God demands from Muslims; just as al-Ghazali does in laying down “External Rules of Quran Recitation,” a legalistic approach suggests that one need only cite a Quranic verse or a hadith, as well as offer some brief commentary elucidating its tafsir, or outward meaning (Renard), in order to drive home a point or even render a position as objective Islamic fact, lying beyond the point of controversy.
A spiritualist approach to Islam is understood to oppose each of these preconceived notions about religion. Spiritualist Islam focuses on ta’wil, or the mystical, personal, inner meaning of scripture (Renard). Sufi spiritualism in particular suggests that one can attain experiential knowledge of God through intimate personal encounter, possible only by subsuming one’s ego into love of God. Many followers of Sufi traditions discuss, in art and poetry, experiences of being intoxicated with God’s love and beauty as a result of this immanent interaction with the Divine (discussed in Renard’s 7 Doors to Islam: “Painting and the Decorative Arts”). I was particularly interested in the ways in which Sufi Muslims have been persecuted under charges of heresy, and the resulting tendency in Sufi literature to subvert this paradigm and refer to legalist, hierarchical conceptions of Islam as consisting of little more than blasphemy and infidelity, while characterizing their own spiritual practice as rebellious. I questioned this dichotomy as one produced by political contexts rather than innate conceptual incompatibilities between spiritual and legalist orientations, and I instead sought to bridge the divide.
With this aim in mind, expressions of understanding and reverence for Allah that predominate in the Islamic religious tradition can instead be viewed as transcending the spirituality/legality dichotomy, calling into question the analytical usefulness of this dichotomy. Creating the works of art found on this blog helped me grasp the ways in which acts such as ritual performance, artistic creation, and righteous conduct can be considered as distinct ways of knowing and worshipping God, as each demands the simultaneous emphasis of both legalistic and spiritualistic elements of Islam.
Annual participation in the ta’ziyeh rituals during the month of Muharram is a prime example of the ways in which ritual practice transcends the legal/spiritual dichotomy. In a legalist sense, Shiites might understand the ta’ziyeh as part of their religious obligation to uphold the leadership of the Imams, in particular Ali and Husayn. Yet at the same time, participation in the ta’ziyeh necessitates entering a state of liminality, in which one conceives of the Muharram commemoration outside of space and time, so that one is simultaneously engaging in and remembering Husayn’s martyrdom – in creating and annihilating Husayn for my piece “The Remembrance,” a puppet alternative to the passion plays and the street processions, I felt myself playing this liminal role, and it seemed to me that this profoundly experiential understanding of the martyrdom goes hand in hand with a spiritualist Islam. Beyond the ta’ziyeh, more commonplace rituals such as the five daily prayers most Muslims observe also fit this description. Although Muslims may be responding to legalistic agreements between God and Muhammad during the mi’raj and following guidelines such as those set forth by Al-Ghazali during acts of prayer, they are also inevitably participating in a deeply spiritual act that implies the possibility of knowing some semblance of God through ritual and experience, rather than through scholarly and juridical study.
The literary, visual, and architectural arts also suggest a possibility of bridging this divide. Because the Quran is the word of God, it becomes a religious obligation to render it and its message as beautifully as possible. Thus, calligraphy and Quran recitation take on certain elements that are almost transactional, demanding that the participant satisfy precise rules of tajwid (Rasmussen). Yet they also demand an intense experiential encounter with the word of God, and participation in these rituals is expected to elicit murmurs, weeping, and other intensely bodily experiences that suggest the intrinsic importance of spirituality in abiding by the legalistic requirements of calligraphy and recitation (Nelson). In memorizing “Andak Andak” and in writing my own poem (found in my blog post “Self and Selflessness,”) I found similarly that adhering to conventions of Sufi poetry, learning proper Persian pronunciation, and emulating the respective styles of Rumi and Abd ur-Ra’uf offered me a form of spiritual, experiential understanding precisely through ritualistic, rule-conforming mimicry and fulfillment of obligation.
The importance of context
My blog posts also forced me to consider the centrality of a cultural studies approach in understanding how a religion generally equated with a single Prophet and the scriptural text revealed to him can manifest in so many variegated and complex ways. The Iranian ta’ziyeh’s unique fusion of narrative garden recitation with Muharram processions provides a prime example of this, which I examine in “The Remembrance,” an exploration of what the ta’ziyeh might look like if it had instead fused with traditions of puppet theatre. It is worth noting here that the existence of the Muharram observances is itself contextually contingent: it rests on a long history of Shiite oppression and resilience that is itself a consequence of politics (Daffarty).
I also explore the distinct interpretations the veil carries in different contexts, particularly in my piece “The Imperialist Gaze.” Muslim feminists understand that the veil’s “political meaning has varied over time”: it has constituted an oppressive source of exclusion from public life, a haven of protection from the male gaze, and – most recently – a symbol of resistance to Western imperialism, each perspective particularly salient in its own context within Islamic history (Weber 143). As Weber points out, Western feminists often fall into a trap of orientalism: they fail to grasp the depth and complexity of these meanings because they cannot fully bear witness to a context outside of their own, and they erroneously apply Western notions of public and private spheres, seclusion and suffrage, to non-Western contexts.
Lastly, I examined the ways in which context influences expressions of reverence and devotion, particularly in relation to oneself, God, and the Prophet. Ali Asani’s “In Praise of Muhammad” demonstrates that local literary forms are of central importance in determining how Muslims conceptualize these relationships. For instance, Sindhi poetry of modern-day southern Pakistan draws heavily from the tradition of the virahini, the bride or bride-to-be longing from her beloved, from whom she is separated. For this reason, the passionate, all-consuming adoration for the Beloved expressed in the poetry of Abd ur-Ra’uf differ significantly from the pleas for intercession found in the Urud na’ts, which in turn differ from the matter-of-fact, quasi-transactional approach taken in Legends of the Swahili. Similarly, Sir Muhammad Iqbal’s unique conception of the self as khudi, or agent of creation, breaks with conceptions of ego, or nafs, in Sufi works such as Conference of the Birds as a result of the intellectual context in which Iqbal’s ideas developed. In my blog post “Self and Selflessness,” I further explored these contrasting conceptions of relationships with self, God, and Muhammad by attempting to reconcile competing approaches, but it is of equal importance to note that orientations towards the self and the Divine vary because of their distinct cultural origins and influences.
The contemporary politicization of Muslim identity
As the previous section has shown, Islam is always already embedded in cultural, political, and sociohistorical context, and these contexts profoundly shape the ways in which Islamic religious traditions are conceptualized and practiced. From the first Caliphates to the Saudi dynasty to the War on Terror, power and resources are of pivotal importance in understanding how historical forces shape our understanding of Islam.
Our contemporary context particularly merits our focus, for it has led many outsiders to profoundly misunderstand and hyper-generalize concerning Islam, so that many non-Muslims today treat a declaration of religious faith or cultural heritage as having totalizing effects on an individual’s personhood, politics, and ethics. In effect, contemporary Muslims in the eyes of the West have been reduced to their Muslim identity, and this identity has in turn been inaccurately associated with religious fundamentalism and consequently criminalized.
This is why my three most recent blog posts, each in some way tied to this phenomenon, all depict Islam and Muslims in a collective sense – multiple scarves, each in a different state in a process of falling apart (“The Imperialist Gaze”); multiple posters of the Iranian Revolution, each communicating a message about Islam, imperialism, and modernity with slightly distinct contents and tones (“Avant-Garde”); multiple icons of self-assertion among Muslims and people of color, each arising to raise a fist of resistance and solidarity in its own context (“Listen To the Whole Story”). The collective nature of these pieces suggests that practicing Islam, particularly in the twenty-first century postcolonial world, constitutes a profoundly social and political experience.
This is true in two senses. The first is involuntary and oppressive, as individuals like Changez find themselves lumped together with those who hijacked planes on September 11th, 2001, and architects like Avcioglu find themselves reduced to minarets. The second offers a counterweight through forms of solace and solidarity, as Muslims seek understanding within communities of fellow Muslims. I found this in the embrace of Islam among black jazz musicians such as John Coltrane that Aidi describes, as well as the “pharaohism” of Akhenaton and the “religioethnic pride” among the Asian and Afro-Caribbean members of Fun-Da-Mental (Swedenburg). This experience of a collective, solidaristic Muslim experience is encapsulated in the observation from Grabar that “self-recognition within the Muslim tradition” is “primarily auditory and social.”
I hope that by bringing the sociopolitical realities of Muslim identity to light through artistic renderings of varied contexts and experiences, I will lead people to consider the personal and collective meanings of Islam for Muslims in different times and places – and, above all, to resist the tendency to reduce complex, varied individuals and societies to a monolithic Muslim faith.