An Introduction

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For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures contributed in a profound way to my understanding of Islam and its various, localized manifestations. Professor Asani made a concerted and deeply conscientious pedagogical choice to teach about Islam through a cultural studies approach; in my own study throughout the course, it became apparent rapidly that this was the most balanced, fair, and insightful way to do so. Indeed, if there is a single lesson to be reduced from the class, I think it would be, “which Islam?” As Professor Asani writes, this is to say that it is a deep, and often problematic, fallacy to cite “Islam” as “saying” anything.

Religion is experienced in a way that is multivalent, and an individual’s perception and practice of a religion is mediated by his or her more general spatio-temporality and his or her more specific age, gender, race, and sexual orientation. Often, for better or worse, discrepencies exist between Islam as it is written in the Qur’an and the Hadith and Islam as it is applied practically. These discrepencies exist before one even considers the possible contradictions within the Qur’an and Hadith themselves or the infinite manner by which both can be interpreted. The fact that there is no “one Islam” agreed upon by all Muslims exposes the need for scholars and laypeople alike to deploy more ethnographic methods in understanding how a religious text plays out in highly particular ways, mediated by local cultures and traditions.

This theme of cultural particularity is one that I think weaves a common threat throughout my blog posts. In some ways, my understanding of Islam prior to taking this course had been predominantly shaped through experiences of living and of visiting places. One of my first blog posts, for instance, speaks of the profound experience of living in a homestay in a Muslim subvillage in northern Tanzania during the summer two years ago, coinciding with Ramadan. Interacting with the Imam to plan health lessons in conjunction with the NGO I was working for, modifying my lesson plans to be culturally sensitive and practical, and breaking fast during Ramadan with hot porridge sitting outside on stools or buckets with my home stay mama and sisters are all ways by which I first understood an Islam in any substantial way.

Serendipitously enough, last summer I was again working for the same NGO in a different ward in Tanzania. My flight at the end of the summer had a layover in Doha, Qatar. We landed at 7:00 pm and my flight to the US didn’t leave until mid-morning the next day. I had perused a pamphlet about attractions in Doha on Qatar Airways on the flight from Tanzania, and was thrilled to learn that the Museum of Islamic Art would be open from 8:00 pm until midnight – special Ramadan hours. I was in the stunning building by 8:00 and left at midnight having absorbed Qur’anic manuscripts, gorgeous calligraphy, incense burners, and Persian rugs. Wandering the night market, amidst the smoke of hookah and the smell of Arabic coffee, I bought an embroidered taqiyah by which to remember my time. My understanding of an Islam grew a bit more, again outside of the realm of the didactic.

Just recently, I came to understand an Islam through the lens of Israel and Palestine. Ascending to the Dome of the Rock at sunrise, seeing beautiful Arabic calligraphy on the old walls of Jerusalem, and visiting Ramallah added to my small but growing reperatoire of what Islam means in different places – the commonalities and the stark differences.

As someone pursuing a secondary field in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations: Modern Middle Eastern Studies, I have had opportunities to learn about Islam, usually indirectly through regional studies, in a more didactic fashion. I’m currently enrolled in a class on Culture and Society in Contemporary Iranian, which partially explains my special interest in the Iranian Revolution and the ways in which Shiism was invoked by Ayatollah Khomeini and continues to be invoked by the current regime. In that class I was exposed to a range of ways that a particular brand of Islam is used for everything from justification of sex change operations to the illegality of homosexuality to the existence of the regime. This, of course, provides insight into an Islam widely regarded to be a perversion of “true Islam,” whatever the values therein may entail.

Finally, I really enjoyed learning from Professor Asani’s class about the arts in Muslim cultures. Exploring everything from drum ceremonies in Senegal to Persian ghazals to Sufi mystic chanting underscored the deeply diverse and beautiful ways by which faith and culture are expressed. I tried to contribute in my own small way to this expression in my blog with photo exhibits, my ghazal, a calligraphy project, a diptych, and my “Qur’an Cup” piece. I hope you enjoy!

Very Best,

KAM

Qur’an Cup

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cup

This piece responds to the reading Drinking the Koran: The Meaning of Koranic Verses in Berti Erasure. The author, Abdullahi Osman El-Tom, speaks to one mode by which the Berti people of Northern Darfur, Sudan, understand the Koran. He states:

“The highest form of the possession of the Koran is its commitment to memory, which amounts to its internalization in head, the superior part of the body, whence it can be instantly reproduced by recitation. But the Koran can also be internalized in the body by being drunk. Although drinking the Koran is seen as being far less effective than memorizing it, it is superior to carrying it on the body through the use of amulets.”

With this in mind, I decided to create an avant-garde art piece that literalized this practice by writing the following Surah on the outside of a coffee cup:

 

…Who created me, and

It is He Who guides me…

And when I am ill,

It is He Who cures me.

 

And whose help I need

On the day of judgment,

Oh, My Lord! Bestow on me

The wisdom of the prophet

And the righteous people.

 

By the sky

And the Night Visitant

Therein…

Surely God is able

To bring him back

To life after death.

Surah 26: 78, 80

 

Of course, this piece has a deep component of social commentary. Placing a Surah on the outside of a coffee cup connoted with a big American monopoly — a veritable icon — creates quite the juxtaposition. At the same time, it may suggest that were people to privilege symbolically imbibing the Surah as much as they privilege the rush, efficiency, and capitalism associated with to-go coffee from coffee monopolies, the world might be a different place.

Triumphant Civilizations

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pakistan flag

Moshin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells the story of Changez, a Pakistani man who comes to the United States to attend Princeton on a scholarship and is then employed as a consultant by the prestigious Underwood Samson firm in New York City. Changez conveys the story in a monologue, many years after he has returned to Pakistan, to an American at a café in Lahore.

Changez adapts extremely well to life in New York City despite his nostalgia for home. This is helped by his success as an analyst and the diversity of the city. However, after the attacks on September 11, 2001, Changez almost immediately begins to feel the encroachment of distrusting eyes and Islamophobia. Changez is less and less capable of focusing on work and spends much time reflecting on the absurdity of his job as a pricing asset analyst. In response to what he perceives as somewhat bizarre behavior on the part of the American people following the attacks in their return to old rhetoric of “duty” and “honor,” Changez also begins to reflect somewhat on the absurdity of American foreign policy from his perspective. He becomes quite angry at the hegemonic influence the US brandishes without apology. Eventually, his disillusionment with America in conjunction with his failure at a job and the death of his love interest, Changez returns to Pakistan.

I found the parts of the novel where Changez reflects on American foreign policy, especially in the context of Islamophobia, very interesting. He cites the audacity with which America makes claims on the world, and counters them with the great civilizations of the East. As such, I decided to respond to the novel by creating a Pakistani flag inscribed with a quote that was particularly compelling:

“For we were not always burdened by debt, dependent on foreign aid and handouts; in the stories we tell of ourselves we were not the crazed and destitute radicals you see on your television channels but rather saints and poets and — yes — conquering kings. We built the Royal Mosque and the Shalimar Gardens in this city, and we built the Lahore Fort with its mighty walls and wide ramp for our battle-elephants. And we did these things when your country was still a collection of thirteen small colonies, gnawing away at the edge of a continent.”

This represents Change’s reappropriation of his country’s dignity and of his identity within it.

Calligraphy Project

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Calligraphy

For my calligraphic exercise, I have chosen to superimpose the name of Allah and the shahadah on a taqiyah – the skullcap worn by many Muslims in everyday life or for the purpose of prayer. This specific taqiyah carries special meaning for me as I purchased it at a night market while in Doha, Qatar. It was approximately 2:00 am in late July during the midst of Ramadan. There was much commotion on the streets as those around me enjoyed food and hookah after a long day of fasting. I had just left the Museum of Islamic Art. I sipped Arabic coffee as I sat with the grandfatherly man who owned the shop where I bought the taqiyah as he told me of his life, his family, his perception of the monarchy, and his excitement for Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022.

On the most basic level, to be a Muslim means to submit to God. My concept for this calligraphy is likewise concertedly minimalistic. While there are many debates – sectarian, cultural, and otherwise – amongst Muslims regarding the proper practice of Islam, the idea of submission to God and the shahadah – the proclamation that there is no god but God and Mohammad is his messenger – are universally fundamental to Islam. To me, the taqiyah represents this submission both physically and psychologically. To cover one’s head out of respect for and submission to Allah in one’s everyday life is a symbolic gesture, and the taqiyah is also worn during prayer and prostration. For me, inscribing the name of Allah in silver on top of the taqiyah makes this symbolic act literal. Allah’s name is nestled between the domes of five mosques depicted on the top of the taqiyah – symbolic of the five universal pillars of Islam. Inscribing the shahadah along the border of the taqiyah focuses the gaze inward toward the star formed by the tops of the five domes and toward the name of Allah there inscribed.

Images and Martyrdom: The Iranian Revolution of 1979 & Green Movement of 2009

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In response to the readings on the Iranian Revolution of 1979, including Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, I have created a diptych that pits a propaganda poster from the Iranian Revolution against a poster resulting from the Green Movement, as a kind of failed Iranian revolution, of 2009. As class reading on Shiism has asserted, the phrase “every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala” speaks to the idea that Shiism’s self-identification is largely that of an underdog fighting for good against evil.

The Battle of Karbala of 680 A.D. underscores the longstanding conflict between the Sunni caliphate and the Shii Imamate, and gestures toward larger issues of succession from the Prophet and sectarianism in Islam. Ayatollah Khomeini and others appropriated the imagery from this narrative so as to play to common tropes familiar to Shiites and galvanize support for his coup. As we learned from studying the Iranian taziyeh, or passion play, Husayn, grandson of the Prophet, is depicting wearing green – the color of Islam – and Yazid, his murderer and an evil Caliph, is depicted wearing red. In much of the propaganda leading up to 1979, the West is depicted in red and the Ayatollah, or Iran more generally, is depicted in green. The picture on the left depicts the Ayatollah draped in green and holding up the Qur’an triumphantly, with a flag with the shahadeh flying in the background, while the West and the Shah are portrayed as downtrodden.

The picture on the right is from the Iranian Green Movement of 2009 that followed the presidential election in which Mousavi lost against Ahmadinejad. Protesters came out en masse demanding the ousting of Ahmadinejad. One such protester was Neda, a young, beautiful philosophy student who was shot by the Iranian police while peacefully protesting. I have chosen to depict her image against the one from 1979 so as to depict another conception of martyrdom – martyrdom for democracy. She, too, is bathed in green, while the blood from her fatal gunshot wound remains red – the color of Yazid, the color of evil. Beneath the picture of her face is her name, written simply in white – the color of Husayn’s horse at the Battle of Karbala.

Photos are sourced from:
 http://indianapublicmedia.org/arts/files…
 http://fc01.deviantart.net/fs46/i/2009/1…

Ghazal

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Ghazal for Blog

This ghazal encapsulates the theme of fleeting or fickle love that defines traditional, Urdu ghazal poetry. Consistent with Carla Petievich’s “Conventions of the Urdu Ghazal,” I take on the persona of an “ashiq,” or lover, in addressing myself to the subject of love. Each couplet, or she’rs, ends with the refrain, or radif, “in longing” to belabor the loneliness and agony of the subject as she yearns for the object of her love.

The reader may find it hard to decipher whether the subject of love in this poem is God or another person. This ambiguity is concerted and is consistent with the blurring of divine and profane love also discussed in Petrievich’s work. While the imagery of prayer and of attempting to pay what the subject seeks in this poem certainly lends itself to ideas of devotion to the divine, the emotions that manifest are consistent with emotions of heartbreak and the agony of a scorned lover or an unrequited love.

The imagery of the moth being so drawn to a candle’s flame, while knowing that its reunion with the flame will result in self-immolation, is one that is very prevalent in ghazals and in Islam more generally, as discussed by Renard in his “Seven Doors to Islam” and Gray in her “The Green Sea of Heaven.” The idea that this death will be sweet, because it will be the culmination of a worldly life and the mudane life’s substitution for a divine encounter with God, certainly carries spiritual weight. However, this sacrifice of the self in pursuit of the other also resonates in the self-sacrifice that consciously or unconsciously manifests in the all-encompassing love of another person, however ephemeral that love may be.

While imagery of wine is also very common in traditional ghazals and in verses in the Qur’an to symbolize both that which is forbidden and also that which represents the intoxication one experiences in loving God, here the wine could have a more literal or secular meaning. Similarly, the imagery of a prostrating figure could either invoke the prayer ritual common in Islam or could instead serve to express the complete vulnerability the subject experiences in submitting to an impossible love. The imagery of the sun’s rays, described in the ghazal as “signs,” similarly could gesture toward the idea of God’s divine touch being omnipresent, as discussed in the Qur’an and mirrored quite literally in the term “ayah,” or sign, to denote verses. Finally, the nom de plume, my own middle name Anneka, is included in the last couplet to situate the subject and reveal the identity of the lover, or ashiq.

Experiencing Islam in East Africa

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In this post, I want to combine responses to Professor Asani’s stress on the cultural context crucial to the study of religion and to the J. Knappert reading, Myths and Legends of the Swahili regarding devotional practices and myths from East Africa. I have spent the past two summers in Tanzania working for a small NGO. I was fortunate enough to stay with an incredibly loving and generous  homestay family in the tiny Muslim subvillage of Urangini within Bwawani ward. Because I lived with this family of devout Muslims for nearly two months, and especially because my time with this family coincided with Ramadan, I hope to speak to the manner in which this particular family practiced Islam in the cultural context of a small East African village. I also hope to speak to my experiential understanding of Islam within this context.

In most Tanzanian villages, there is a “mwenyekiti,” or village leader, with whom our NGO would consult and defer to regarding all decisions that would affect his village. In Urangini, the mwenyekiti worked closely with the imam of the small mosque, and because the constituents of the village were predominantly Muslim, having the respect of the imam was as important as gaining the trust of the mwenyekiti. I established a strong relationship with the imam, and he was enormously helpful in directing especially young Muslim men to our health education teachings. My homestay family had five children: Zulfa, Hajerah, Fauzia, Omari, and Shania. The girls and the boy left their heads uncovered except when going to the mosque or going to school, in which case the girls wore white, pressed hijabs. The boy and his father, Juma, went to the mosque several times a day in between tending the fields behind the house, while the mother went less frequently as she was busy taking care of the household. The call to prayer, as I recall, was mostly audible for the night prayers and the morning prayers. During Ramadan, the family fasted and broke the fast with porridge, “uji,” and a small iftar meal, usually composed of beans, corn, and kassava. They would then eat dinner, and would also wake up and eat a meal before sunrise at about 4:00 am. During the holiest days of Ramadan, I remember hearing congregations of people parading down the small dirt roads of the village singing and chanting in a mix of Swahili and Arabic to various drums and other instruments. I was back in Arusha Town by the time of Eid, during which a huge celebrations and dancing occurred, accompanied by massive amounts of delicious street food, sweets, and “Eid Mubaraks.”

Consideration of the Mi’raj & Isra’ from the Temple Mount

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In this post, I reckon with the importance of the Mi’raj and the Isra’ to the prophethood of Muhammad and to the Muslims who live by his example. I explored the Mi’raj and the Isra’ experientially during my visit to the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam. The Isra’ is the night journey that the Prophet made to the site of the Dome of the Rock, while the Mi’raj is the ascent, either physical or spiritual, of the Prophet during which he rode on the form of the buraq – a mystical creature with the head of a human and the body of a horse. Especially for more mystical Islamic sects, the Mi’raj is the prototype for the ascent of their own mortal souls to higher spiritual realms. In order to visit the Dome of the Rock, along with several of my cohorts on the Harvard College Israel Trek, I woke up at 5:30 am so that we could get to the line by 6:30 am and be first in line when the Dome of the Rock opened for the day. Evoking again the idea of the People of the Book within this Holy City and the various cultures and peoples that intertwine along the winding streets of Jerusalem, we bought challah for breakfast and waited in a line just parallel to the line for the Western Wall – the holiest site for the Jewish people.

In order to enter the Dome of the Rock itself, which is built around the rock from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended, and in order to enter the adjacent mosque, one must be a practicing Muslim and be able to recite the shahadah along with a select verse from the Qur’an. Those like myself were able to walk along the beautiful grounds in the shadow of the glistening Dome. The Dome pervades the skyline of Jerusalem unlike any other building of the Old City. As the sun rose, it hit the golden panels of the Dome, and our taxi driver emphatically yelled as we rounded the curve and our eyes met the Dome, “There it is! Isn’t it beautiful?!” To stand in the presence of the Dome was a transcendent experience, especially in the earliest hours of the morning. The beautiful Arabic calligraphy along the periphery spelled out verses of the Qur’an and embraced the geometric azure and green designs. The grounds themselves were serene – completely flat and marked with stone structures including a beautiful pink marble pulpit. Please enjoy the following photos while keeping the following Qur’anic verse in mind:

“Praise be to Him who made His servant journey in the night from the sacred sanctuary to the remotest sanctuary.” Sura al-Isra’

Ahl al-Kitab in the Holy City

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In this post, I want to speak to the concept of “ahl al-kitab,” or “People of the Book.” “People of the Book” refers to Christians, Muslims, and Jews. According to the Qur’an these people share commonality in that they have been selected by God to have been endowed with holy scripture through revelation to a prophet. The prophets preceding Muhammad, the last prophet, are recognized and revered in the Qur’anic revelation as brothers of Muhammad. Historically, where and when Islam has been hegemonic, People of the Book have been protected under the law. Because they are believed to have followed “paradigms of righteousness,” Christians and Jews have not been forced to convert to Islam and have benefited from the protection of Muslim armies under Islamic governance. Qur’anic verse 3.84 states, “We believe in God and what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and in what was given toMoses, Jesus and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between one and another among them and to Him (God) do we submit.”

Over Spring Break, I was lucky enough to visit Israel and the West Bank with the Harvard College Israel Trek. During the several days we spent in Jerusalem, I was able to see in the layers of the Old City the manner in which this city had been fought over, divided, destroyed, built up, and shared by the People of the Book. The Holy City, viewed from the Mount of Olives, holds the secrets, the triumphs, and the tribulations of these three peoples like nowhere else in the world. At once, I could hear the call to prayer from the local mosques, the church bells of the various Christian denominations, and the rhythmic prayers from the Western Wall. I hope you enjoy the following brief photographic exhibit composed of pictures I took during my time in Jerusalem. I hope they serve to collectively evoke the multilayered histories of the People of the Book.

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