The cultural studies approach in this class involved hands-on work by each student. The creation of six works of art constitutes a complete blog of our experience learning by this method. In doing so we sought to understand Islam and Islamic culture through lens of its art of all forms. When focusing solely on scholarly interpretation, one might lose the real-world manifestation of a society’s beliefs. A study of mosques, poetry, stories, songs, and theatre incorporates the human factor into the interpretation of religion. Art, by virtue of its universal attraction, makes the sometimes-foreign concepts, values, or traditions of Islam more relatable to a new audience.
The figure of Muhammad is as paramount to Muslims as Jesus is to Christians, if not more. The conception story of Muhammad reflects this sentiment. The story “believed by many faithful followers of the Holy Prophet” (Miracles of Muhammad, 66), tells of how Muhammad was born to a human woman by the name of Amina. In the Hadith, Muhammad says, “the first thing Allah created is my light.” God held in his hand a pile of pieces (25 to be exact) of His own light. These were sparks of His essence. From this pile of sparks, he picked the largest and most radiant and removed it for safekeeping. The rest of the pieces of light became a multitude of prophets who came before Muhammad. Adam was the first prophet to contain a piece of the light in his loins. The light of Allah was then passed from great man to great man. Each generation required a spark, until only one remained. This was the brightest piece that God had set aside originally. This great piece of light rested in the lions of Abdullah, who would be the father of the Prophet. Upon sleeping with his wife Amina, Abdullah gave this light life. The Prophet now grew and was born from the womb of Amina.
While not all Muslims believe this story, it tells a nice narrative of the conception of the Prophet of Islam and emphasizes the importance in Islam of the light of Allah and the connected light of Muhammad. This is the “Light of God’s wisdom… the light of Paradise” (Miracles of Muhammad, 66). The famous Surat An-Nur captures the essence of Allah’s 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.
My mix-media piece from Week 2 tries to capture some of the connection to Allah with which Muhammad was born. In this piece I used candle wax on paper to write Muhammad’s name in Arabic script. I first burned the candle for a couple of hours to ensure there was sufficient wax. Then I spilled the wax onto the paper and used an assortment of different tools to write the calligraphic form of the Prophet’s name in the wax spilled from the candle. In doing this project, I hoped to draw the connection between Muhammad and the Light of God. Just as a lamp requires oil to burn, so too does a candle require wax as a fuel. Here Muhammad is the fuel for the flame of God’s light.
This project also intends to draw attention to the importance in Islamic of the art of calligraphy. This importance is drawn form the centerpiece of Islamic devotional life: the Qur’an. In contrast to the Bible in Christian worship, the Qur’an is viewed as the living Word of God himself. Each surah is seen as an exact dictation from Allah, revealed to and recorded by the Prophet Muhammad. It is therefore treated with an almost unparalleled reverence. Writing the any portion of the Qur’an then becomes a devotional act within itself. It follows then, that the manner in which one writes a verse is extremely important. Beauty and sincerity is highly prized in recitation of the Qur’an. While the reciter must follow as strict set of codes, he or she has the leeway to make it as beautiful as possible within these boundaries in an effort to worship God. Similarly, Islamic calligraphers strive for beauty and aesthetics in the writing of the Word of God. This is a way of praising the Almighty. Calligraphy is also another fashion in which a Muslim might include their own interpretation of a surah or verse in the style or shape of their writing.
My second piece looks to represent one of the more interesting themes of worship of the Prophet Muhammad. This theme occurs often in Sindhi and Urdu poetry and devotional literature, where Muhammad is referred to many times as the “beloved.” In this literature, Muhammad is viewed as the bridegroom in a grand wedding attended my millions of angels and of splendor never seen before or since. I employed the concrete style of poetry to form the shape of a wedding ring while writing a devotional poem in a style emulating that of Urdu poetry, with a refrain and single-verse body. Islamic devotional poetry does often follow strict forms such as this. The Ghazal, common in Indian literature, follows a form quite foreign to anything seen in western literature. The poem is a series of roughly eight to twelve couplets. It forbids any form of enjambment, and rather than rhyming, the second line of each couplet ends with the same word or phrase.
Another area in which Muslims can show their differing interpretations of their religion is in architecture. The mosque is the central place of worship in Islam, and while there are some common themes across the world in the shape and design of these structures, differing sects and geographical regions incorporate their local culture or religious affiliation in the final blueprints of the mosques. The result is thousands of unique mosques, some similar, and some wildly different. For example, one of the class’s lecturers discussed the mosques of Bosnia. Before the conflict of 1994, thousands of mosques dotted the green landscape of Bosnia. These often featured incredibly colorful and ornate interiors with painted walls and calligraphy. Following the conflict–during which hundreds of mosques were destroyed or severely damaged–massive funding was required to restore these buildings to a usable state. Often, this funding came from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis saw this time of poverty and struggle in the region as an opportunity to expand their form of Islam. The mosques that fell under the Saudis construction or rebuilding efforts reflected the more radical form of Islam in Saudi Arabia. Gone were the ornate interiors and patterned floors. Instead, blank white walls and stark minimalism welcome a worshiper who steps inside. Even the calligraphy disappeared from the walls. Often these changes were not just reflected in new mosques but also in renovations of damaged mosques.
My artwork from week 6 tries to demonstrate the vastly different approaches to Muslim spaces of worship. I worked with layers of colored paper to construct an archway. The archway, however, is not symmetric. Instead, one side attempts to reflect the more intricate style of Islamic architecture, while the opposite side reflects the more simplistic style. By combining both styles in one doorway though, I hope to convey the idea that there are many different methods by which an architect may open the doors of Islam to a worshipper.
I continued this idea for my artwork for week 8, except in this case I dealt with the role of music in Islam. This is a controversial topic about which countless scholars have pontificated. There is a widely held belief that music is not allowed in the Islamic religion. It is forbidden to sing the Qur’an, and music in general is often viewed as an immoral sign of decadence. However, there are groups whose interpretations of the religion allow for and even encourage the use of music. The Sufi order of Islam employs music heavily in its worship. One of the traditional instruments used in their performances is the tanbur. I tried my hand at pen and ink and drew a tanbur. Flowing from its strings is a path of music notes that lead to a rendition of The Holy Qur’an. In doing this I was trying to capture the Sufi mentality that music–when played and listened to properly–can be a source of knowledge of the divine, similar to study of the Qur’an. This again reflects the differing methods of worship throughout the Muslim world.
These two art projects spring, too, from our class’s lengthy discussion about authority in Islam. As in any religion, widely differing interpretations abound. But who to believe? This problem reared its head in the very genesis of modern Islam. Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the question of who was to lead Islam divided muslims. Many believed that the greatest authority should fall upon the direct descendants of the Prophet. This school of thought became the basis for Shia Islam. The other side of the aisle wanted the leader of the religion to be a learned scholar chosen for his knowledge and prowess among the religious community. This group birthed what today is Sunni Islam. The fight over who has the right to interpret and whose interpretation is the truth continues today with clashes between modernist and fundamentalist scholars of all sects.
Many of the readings for this class involved discussion of Muslim identity; what it means to be a Muslim within or outside the Muslim world, and also what it means to be a Muslim woman. The acclaimed novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist details the journey of a young Pakistani man living in New York City who must come to terms with his identity as a Pakistani and a Muslim after the September 11th attacks. We witness how both his internal and external worlds evolve drastically in the months and years following the attacks. The manner in which he is viewed treated by Americans is altered in a negative way. So too, does his view of the American world he lives in.
We read, too the short story Sultana’s Dream. This fascinating 100-year-old story describes a world where women occupy many of the traditional roles of men. In the utopian world of Ladyland, men are confined to the house. They are mild-mannered, timid almost. Women occupy every level of government and all positions of authority, where they cause great advances in scientific knowledge and promote education of all people. In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi describes the true story of her upbringing in revolutionary Iran in black and white graphic novel style. Marjane faces a journey reminiscent of that experience by the young Pakistani in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. She captures beautifully the radicalization of Islamic attitudes towards women that many women have experienced throughout the Islamic world. Professor Asani has many times told of how politicians in the Muslim world will use religion and religious ideals as modes of obtaining power or instigating change. A taped interview with a sheik in Afghanistan illustrates the sometimes-radical nature of these ideals. When asked what he believes was the solution of the problems the country was facing, his response focuses on the tightening of moral codes and cutting of women’s rights. The families and girls the Marjane grew up with in Iran fought against people who had similar ambitions.
It is Marjane’s mentality I tried to capture in my Week 12 artwork. She speaks often in her book about the weighty symbolism attached to the wearing of the veil. In the opening pages, in fact, she describes the change in her school’s policy in 1980 that forced girls to wear veils. An end in coed classrooms accompanied this change as well. In my drawing I wanted to connect Marjane’s experiences with the imaginings of Rokeya Hossain 80 years prior. I emulated the graphic novel style employed by Marjane to place her at the gates of the fictional ladyland, with her veil clutched in hand.
The following works of art represent my personal understanding of a handful of major themes that our class engaged during this semester. The variety of media and forms I hope captures the idea that each individual worshipper views God differently, and there exists a nearly infinite number of interpretations of his Word.