I would like to start my blog off by thanking Professor Ali Asani and Teaching Fellows John Zaleski and Axel Takacs for teaching/leading such an insightful and enjoyable course. AIU 54 (For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures) enabled me to push my creative limits and truly achieve a deep ‘aesthetic and interpretive understanding’ of Muslim cultures. My experience creating these art projects has given me greater appreciation for artistic expression as an effective teaching tool that enables me to fully absorb and reflect upon lessons learned in class. I have gained a better sense of the spiritual/religious self within the greater historical, political and cultural contexts that influence the expressions of literature and the arts not only in Muslim societies but also in the world as a whole. This multi-disciplinary or cultural studies approach opened my eyes to the fact that religion is constantly evolving and is embedded in every aspect of the human experience. Creative art work is hence a great way to play with and connect imagery that is seen through the multiple lenses used by this approach to studying the religion of Islam. I am by no means a natural artist when it comes to drawings, paintings and things of that sort, but I do have experience with music, dance, and performing arts, and overall really enjoy expressing myself in fun and creative ways. So being able to exhibit my knowledge through art work made the themes from this course much more tangible and distinguished. The themes that inspired my work posted on this blog include internalizing the Qur’an, symbolizing the Prophet, revitalizing performing arts, mobilizing women, and contextualizing identity.
What fascinated me was assessing the evolution overtime of Islam as a religion and Muslim as an identity within each of these six themes. Much of the foundation of Islam lays upon the Qur’an, or the ‘Word of God’ for Muslims. The Qur’an is seen to be an experiential text — as a Divine Revelation, the Qur’an can be looked at from several perspectives and engaged with at many different sensory levels. The more obvious conception of the Qur’an is its function as a physical book and Sacred Text that can be held and read as a source of key concepts, ideas, metaphors, and symbols. On the surface, it may seem to be a sort of declaration of the rules and expectations for Muslims. But what I discovered was that the power of the Qur’an is more so attributed to its function as an aural/oral text to be listened to, memorized, recited, and experienced by the heart. The internalizing of the Qur’an then becomes a form of communing with the Divine, providing an Islamic soundscape that permeates traditions of spirituality and the arts of poetry, music and dance as vehicles to transcend the material or physical and access the realm of the spiritual. With this alternative take on the Qur’an – focusing on the spiritual connection rather than literal regulation – the ideas behind the text become more adaptable and it becomes easier for us to place the purpose of the Qur’an within a modern context. The meaning of the Qur’an changes depending on the circumstances of human life including the social, political, and cultural conditions of our times. This fluidity and spirituality of the Qur’an and its influence on the construction of Islamic beliefs and traditions is an important aspect introduced through my first post as a way to kickoff my reflections on the development of Muslim culture.
Another important piece of the foundation of Islam is the idolization of certain figures, namely the Prophet Muhammad. Prophets serve as messengers of God and paradigms for lives of righteousness; they are hence venerated by Muslims for being perceived role models and leaders towards God. These figures bring confirmation of scriptures, inclusive explanations, and guidance and mercy to all believers. Prophets thus play an important role in shaping devotional life as Muslims, in addition to worshipping God, also glorify Muhammad for his powerful and authoritative role of messenger, guider, and intercessor. The high position of Muhammad is not only reflected in the realm of religion, but also connected to larger societal beliefs; the interpretation of his role and relationship changes along with the historical and cultural contexts in which Muslims live. The role of Muhammad heavily influences the political sphere because authority over society and its rules/norms is often linked to both spiritual and physical descent from the Prophet. In addition to debates about the political impact of the Prophet, there also exists speculation on his mystical or spiritual status; I tell the story of his celestial ascent in my week four post, which is a tale whose interpretations sparked this mystical skepticism. It is traditional belief that Muhammad transmits the light of prophethood and is a reflection of the Divine, which is why Muslims turn to him with praise as a role model for the life of spiritual development. Devotion to Muhammad is often expressed by Muslims through art forms like poetry and illustrations, which are able to capture the mystic sense of authority the Prophet has over the spirit that translates down to perceptions of authority in all other aspects of society.
I found this idea of mysticism and spiritual authority that we learned about in this course to be particularly interesting, especially when contrasted with the more realist or physical view. Here is where I draw a comparison between Sufi and Shi’i ideals and the usage of performing arts by each group to reveal a difference in their approach to worshipping and connecting with God and His Prophet. The Sufi claim spiritual descent from Muhammad and aim to harness a spiritual connection with God through worship involving music and dance. The Shi’i, on the other hand, claim physical descent from Muhammad and base their authority on inheritance; they engage in more traditional or straightforward forms of devotion such as prayer, sacrifice, and community involvement. I highlight one such Shi’i performing arts tradition, the taziyeh ritual drama, in my week five post entitled “Hussein’s Martyrdom.” For my next couple posts, I was more inspired by the revitalization of performing arts and poetry in Sufi tradition. Though music and dance is not universally accepted among all Sufis and is being redefined in terms of contemporary Western aesthetic standards, I feel as though the power of music and dance to entrance the human mind, body, heart and soul is remarkable. The central concern of Sufi rituals is to evoke remembrance of real identity and awaken the human soul to yearn for union with God in a more mystical sense — music and dance has this effect. The two video posts on my blog situate this mystical purpose of performing arts into a more modern conception of music and dance that not only Muslims but also those of other religions and cultures can connect with.
Just as modern Islamic music movements like hip-hop activism have taken off and transformed the art of traditional poetry and music, so has the mobilization of women fighting to transform traditional views on the role of women in Islam. As a woman myself, this issue of the role of women in society and their interpretations of Islamic beliefs and spirituality was one that particularly stood out to me. With modernization has come liberalization of women’s rights aimed at improving the status of oppressed Muslim women. Traditional Islam took a patriarchal world-view whereby there existed strict segregation and no existence of a public role for women. Women were expected to submit to men, remain modest in their dress and actions, and keep their acts of worship (such as reciting the Qur’an) private. At the center of the debate in today’s world about the changing landscape of the role of women, in which women are now allotted a greater sense of freedom in public dress, expression, and initiative, is the symbol of the hijab. In the modern Muslim world, women have become agents of change and reform — greater emphasis has been placed on women’s education, and studying Arabic and interpreting the text has become empowering. Although women’s private ambitions have been free, their public appearance has been given new demands and criticisms that put pressure on their identity as Muslim women in a world of modernization/westernization. The hijab, as a symbol of Muslim identity and act of worship, has morphed among new contexts to represent women’s active public presence in a multi-religious, multicultural society rather than women’s response to the threat of men’s lust. The veil — depicted and discussed in the post of my painting — is no longer viewed as a barrier to education but rather just a marker of pride, ambition and identity.
Defining one’s identity is not only a salient issue for women but also for men in the modern Muslim world. I wrap-up my art project posts with a rap piece about finding one’s identity and place in the world, returning back to the idea behind the cultural studies approach. Like religion, individual identities are embedded in broader social, political, and cultural contexts that are constantly evolving and adapting to new environments. In the midst of westernization, Muslims must fight to hold on to their religious and cultural identity while also fulfilling their ambitions to succeed in the modern more globalized world. This is where devotion and reflection comes in as a way to stay rooted in one’s beliefs, strong in one’s spirit, and focused on one’s purpose; by connecting with God and keeping Him in mind through all intentions, one will be able to discover, grow and strengthen oneself. This notion of contextualizing and constructing one’s identity is something very significant for me that I struggle with everyday. Though I am not Muslim, I am a Native Hawaiian, Christian, woman having to adapt to and survive in the modern westernized world around me — I fight to stay rooted in my culture and religion while also striving to succeed in such a booming, modern, liberal, fast-paced atmosphere like Harvard and greater Boston. So these lessons, especially on spiritual and personal ambition, self-discovery, and individual identity, that I take away from this class can be applied to reflections on my experiences in all aspects of my life. I will continue to engage in self-reflection as I progress on my life journey, pushing myself further spiritually, artistically, academically, and professionally.