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Blog Introduction

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.

Published in:Uncategorized |on May 7th, 2014 |No Comments »

“Journey Within,” Week 13: Islam in the West – Islamic Hip Hop and Punk Rock

“Journey Within” – a rap by Paoa Montgomery

(read lyrics posted below while listening to recording)

 Rap Audio Recording

 

Settin’ sail down the sunnah speaking shahadah

To find the Light in my soul is my one desire

On a mission to find my ambition

My identity in need of restoration

 

O Allah, take me on a journey within

My friends, join me on a journey within

O Allah, take me on a journey within

My friends, join me on a journey within

 

Walkin’ and prayin’ with outer impressions of tradition

But down inside I fight to survive modernization

My kurti ain’t sexy for Western fashion

It’s the ethnic exception not cultural expression

 

O Allah, take me on a journey within

My friends, join me on a journey within

O Allah, take me on a journey within

My friends, join me on a journey within

 

Watchin’ the morphin’ of trees gives to me nostalgia

Yet I must adapt not look back or lose sense of His power

Keep roots in the ground to which self is beholden

Introspect, reflect, and feel the core strenghten

 

O Allah, guide us on a journey within

My friends, unite on a journey within

O Allah, guide us on a journey within

My friends, unite on a journey within

____________

To reflect on the literature read and discussed this week regarding the rise of Islamic hip-hop and punk rock culture, I decided to compose and record my own rap song. Hip-hop activism has spread rapidly in recent years as a form of artistic expression aimed at spreading awareness and combating the display of “Islamophobia” in the West. Rap has been a particularly popular medium for getting important messages across about racial, cultural and religious sensitivity and identity. Therefore, my rap lyrics intend to capture the theme of “self-identity” and the struggle one goes through to define or find oneself and one’s place in the world. The inspiration for this rap came from reading Mohsin Hamid’s book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which tells the story of a young man’s life struggle to balance his Pakistani and American identity in an increasingly modernized world. As Changez, the young man, adapts to his new environment in New York City, he begins to lose his sense of self-identity and his connection with his culture and homeland (he’s from Lahore, Pakistan). His life story reflected a long personal journey of introspection and discovery whereby each experience led to a key self-realization.

The individual speaking through my rap mirrors this sense of introspection that Changez experienced in Hamid’s novel. The rapper is setting off on a ‘journey within’ down the righteous path (sunnah) set by the Prophet Muhammad in search of God (the Light) through whom she will be able to discover his own self and self-purpose. She calls upon Allah to guide her and her friends to join her on this journey so that her peers who come from the same background can unite together not only in finding their spiritual selves through God, but also in connecting through their common cultural identity. She encourages herself and those around her to adapt rather than resist morphing environments, but to stay rooted in your culture and background while doing so. So in sum, my rap speaks to never forgetting where you come from and what you’re culturally/religiously rooted in, but also to progressing forward on a journey of self-growth and discovery in order to find God within your soul and thus strengthen your core identity.

 

Published in:Uncategorized |on May 6th, 2014 |No Comments »

“Through the Veil,” Weeks 10 & 12: Muslim Women and Defining Identity

photo

Being exposed to the prevalent dialogue around the hijab, its meaning, its usage and its place in the world inspired me to create this watercolor painting. The portrait depicts facial features of a woman that lay behind a semitransparent veil and aims to capture the essence of the masked/blended beauty and identity of Muslim women. This notion is mentioned in the following selection from the Qu’ran:

“Prophet! Tell your wives, your daughters and the women folk of believers to draw their veils closely around them. This will facilitate their being identified for who they are and will save them from molestation….God is forgiving and merciful.” Surah 33.59

The woman’s hijab, originally believed to function as a marker of Muslim identity and a protector of sexual purity, has become a symbol of Islam in a modern construction. In an article we read by Rahat Kurd, she states that “The Quran commands men to lower their gaze and to dress and to behave modestly in front of women. Women, furthermore, are commanded to dress modestly so we will be publicly recognized as Muslims. These injunctions clearly indicate Islam’s support and approval not only of women’s access to public space but also their active presence in a multi religious, multicultural society.” So with that, the hijab should rather be seen as a positive indicator of one’s identity and one’s personal act of worship. The veil should not be seen as a cover-up against the threat of men or barrier to women receiving a modern education and exuding ambition.

Published in:Uncategorized |on May 6th, 2014 |No Comments »

“Ke Akua Mana E,” Week 8: Music and Dance in Sufi Tradition

“Ke Akua Mana E” – a hula by Paoa Montgomery

Hula

As a Native Hawaiian born and raised on the island of Oahu, I grew up dancing hula (the traditional Hawaiian dance/art form)  since the age of 5. Monarch of Hawaii, King Kalakaua, once said that “hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” King Kalakaua led a resurgence of hula in the 1870s after hula was banned in 1820 by Christian missionaries who came over to Hawaii and denounced hula as a heathen dance. Hula is now performed as both a perpetuation of the Hawaiian culture and our traditions as well as an appeal to Hawaii’s tourism industry. So in a sense, hula dancing today somehow reflects both traditional adherence and modern adaptations. For the individual dancer, hula is meant to take one into a trance while experiencing and telling the stories of our ancient Hawaiian ancestors, gods, and land through our body and facial expressions.

In this video recording, I aim to make a connection between the purpose of hula and the purpose of Sufi dance. I choreographed a hula dance to the popular worship song, “Ke Akua Mana E”, also known as “How Great Thou Art” (lyrics posted below). When dancing hula to Hawaiian music, the feeling that I have is something indescribable — the combination of this type of music and dance takes me into a trance where I can feel the spirit of my Hawaiian ancestors and the great love they had for our beautiful land and its wonderful creators. So through this mele, or song, I am able to connect with the spirit of a higher power and let that spirit share its message through my motions. This is also the point in Sufi dance rituals, whereby the combination of music and dance offers performers and observers a unique mystical experience that enables all to feel a Divine spirit. Sufi music and dance was also criticized (similarly to hula) for being distracting, intoxicating and erotic. However, the true intention of this artistic expression (once again similarly to hula) was and is to evoke remembrance of one’s true identity and awaken one’s soul through a moving spiritual experience.

E Ke Akua Mana E (How Great Thou Art) – lyrics

E mele au I ka Ho`ola e, He nani no, He nani no; E mele au I ka Ho`ola e, He nani no, He nani no

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee, How great thou art, How great thou art; Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee, How great thou art, How great thou art

Ua ana Oe i ka waonahele, A me na manu o ka lewa pu; Na kahawai, na mauna ki’eki’e, Hoike ana i Kou nani e

When through the woods and forest glades I wander, And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees; When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze 

 

 

Published in:Uncategorized |on May 6th, 2014 |No Comments »

“Hussein’s Martyrdom,” Week 5: Theology through Drama

Shi’i ritual involves commemorating and participating in the suffering of the Shia Imams who are the physical descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through Ali and Fatima. The “t” shape of this image I edited stands for “taziyeh,” which is a ritual drama depicting the siege at Karbala. The nucleus of the taziyeh, as emphasized by Chelkowski, is the heroic martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet. The image of the man in the “t” above comes from one of Chelkowski’s pictures of a man playing Hussein in an actual taziyeh performed in Iran. Hussein is preparing to confront death in order to save all believers. Therefore, the “t” is also meant to represent a cross, relating Hussein’s death to the crucifixion of Jesus whose life was sacrificed on behalf of all believers in God. So here we see a similarity in the interpretation and conceptualization of death as something sacred and prized for those who have followed a path of righteousness; thus, we draw a parallel between Christian and Shi’i tradition which interpret events of violence and suffering in terms of redemption and voluntary sacrifice.

“Digressions or Guriz were introduced to extend the scope of the Ta’ziyeh and to add variety and secular detail. These were based on episodes from Biblical or Koranic stories, and from national legend and tradition. Spectators were led to identify their own sufferings with those of these lesser heroes. For women especially, they served as a wound-healing agent, for the point was always made that all suffering was slight when compared to that of the victims of Kerbela.” –Peter Chelkowski, Taziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran.

Taziyeh, in fact, means expressions of sympathy, mourning and consolation. In seeing the brutal suffering of the most righteous, those being the Imams and specifically Hussein, spectators are led to sympathize with and mourn for them. Suffering and death of the martyrs of Karbala were instruments of redemption for all believers. Participation in taziyeh dramas, whether as an actor or an audience member, was an aid to salvation as Shi’ites believed that participants would gain Hussein’s intercession on the day of the Last Judgement. Thus taziyeh involves dynamic interaction between actors and the audience; the purity of this interaction is based on their common humanity and creates an inner harmony.

Published in:Uncategorized |on March 24th, 2014 |No Comments »

“A Celestial Ascent,” Week 4: Devotion to Prophet Muhammad

This abstract portrait, which I created out of construction paper, symbolizes the story of the mi’raj and isra’, or the Prophet’s “celestial ascent” and “night journey.” On this night, Muhammad travels with his servant from the sacred mosque to the farthest sanctuary, identified as the Dome of the Rock, atop a mystical creature called the Buraq. Through this journey, Muhammad ascends into the seven levels of heaven, meeting different prophets at each level and then God at the final level. The seven different layers of colors in my portrait represent these seven levels of heaven, with the first level being at the bottom (pink) and the last level at the top (white). The colors closely correlate with the characteristics of each level of heaven as mentioned by Knappert. For example, in the second heaven, the angel Kasim has a task to provide all creatures on earth with their sustenance; this is represented by the color green. The third heaven is made of copper (illustrated as orange), the fourth heaven is made of silver (ill. as blue), the fifth heaven is made of gold (ill. as golden-brown), the sixth heaven is made of rubies (ill. as red), and the seventh heaven is made of diamonds (ill. as white).

Different interpretations of the mi’raj and isra’ have indicated much speculation on the mystical or spiritual status of the Prophet Muhammad. The central element to the story of his celestial ascent, however, is a consistent element across most art and poetry venerating Prophet Muhammad, which is nur Muhammad or “light of Muhammad.” The light of Prophethood was primordial, transmitted through all prophets beginning with Adam. The prophetic Light finds its full expression in the historical Muhammad, who is depicted as a lamp in my portrait (the yellow squares) ascending through the seven levels of heaven. Muhammad is hence a guiding light both from and to God.

Published in:Uncategorized |on March 24th, 2014 |No Comments »

“The Noble Drink,” Week 2: Constructions of Islam

Our discussion during week 2 centered around the Qur’an and its influence on the construction of Islamic beliefs and traditions. Sardar mentions that the Qur’an, or the Holy Book, is often referred to as the “Noble Reading.” The majesty of reading the Qur’an lies in the deep internalization of the words, which El-Tom talks about in the reading Drinking the Koran. He claims that the highest form of the possession of the Qur’an is through memory whereby the words are internalized through the head and provide you with wisdom. By memorizing the Qur’an, you’re taking the sacred text and making it a part of yourself. Similar to communion in church, it’s as if you’re communing with the Divine and is thus an act of purification and centralization.

In addition to the figurative ‘drinking of the Qur’an’ through memorization, the Qur’an can also be internalized through the body by being drunk. The Berti do this through erasures, in which they drink the water washed off of a wooden slate that had written text of Koranic verses made of ink. This type of literal internalization of the Qur’an is believed to bring spiritual healing to the body as erasure was thought to cure diseases, protect against specific malevolent forces and to enable the consumer to achieve various desirable goals.

My drawing is thus a representation of the internalization, both figurative and literal, of the Qur’an. Engraved in the mug is the word “Noble,” showing that this is a drink meant to symbolize the Qur’an, or Noble Reading, itself. Written into the liquid that is pouring out of the mug are the words, “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.” Each erasure writing starts off with this line, which is frequently uttered to ensure blessings and ward off malevolent influences. So by drinking the liquid of the “Noble Drink” from this mug, you are internalizing the power of the Divine.

Published in:Uncategorized |on March 24th, 2014 |No Comments »

Blending Art Forms: Communing with the Divine [Allah] through a Mixed Expression of Calligraphy and Music

 Rumi, the famous 13th-century Persian poet, believed that music is divine and helps uplift people. Although some Muslims argue that Quran recitations and worshipping of Allah should not be associated with music, I believe that there is great power and merit in connecting with Allah through music. Music, as Rumi would agree, enables listeners to experience the sound of the Divine captured through the beauty and aesthetics of the melody. Through music, the human soul is taken into a trance in which one can connect with Allah on a deeper level and reflect upon His sacred word.

My calligraphic design resembles a staff with musical notation, similar to what you would see on a song sheet. Embedded in the first set of large music notes is the Arabic script of Allah’s name. The smaller notes that follow are meant to be aesthetic add-ins that represent the embellishment involved in music that leaves interpretation up to each individual worshipper. However, one thing remains constant — the focus on Allah. Hence why the beginning of the musical notation connects the audience with Allah right away, then leading them into a spiritual daze as the staff descends into a swirl.

Published in:Uncategorized |on February 19th, 2014 |No Comments »