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Introduction

I can gladly say this our Muslim Voices in Contemporary Literature seminar, has been one of my most cherished bonding experiences at Harvard. As I am writing this, we are playing Dreidel to celebrate the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, while listening to Atif Aslam’s rendition of Tajdar-e-Haram (from Coke Studio Pakistan). It is Tuesday 7pm, and we are in Barker 211. To be in a class with so many nationalities, religions, and life experiences is a unique situation in itself, but to be in a class where we actually share these differences with each other, is beautiful.

I think the most poignant fact that I will remember from this course is watching Professor Asani introduce the Aga Khan, and then hearing the Aga Khan speak. The Aga Khan, descendant of the Prophet himself, invoked some of the ideals we had spoken about in class through Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry. The idea that Islam, and maybe religion in general, is about civilization, growth, progress, was absolutely new to me. We always think of religion as a culture of the past – almost backward in some cases. But here, the Aga Khan spoke about Islam as a faith that promotes development. He used his position to build schools, and hospital and better welfare in struggling communities. I think this is the future of religion. I think this is how we should all see religion, as a path to a better tomorrow. And this is the message that will always stay with me from this class.

Through this class, I think we have all learnt to think about religion in a different way. We’ve learnt that yes, religious history matters, but what also matters is looking at the cultural development of a religion. This would be a more cultural studies approach. Through a cultural studies approach we can better understand why today’s misconception that the patriarchy is rooted in a specific religion is particularly flawed. The patriarchy is a socialized way of thinking, that arose out of the cultural environment, and must not be attributed to Islam – or any other religion. I had never known that the reason women cover their hair in Islam is because through history hair had been sexualized – not only in Muslim societies, but in Western cultures too, where women had to wear bonnets to cover their hair. I was most awed by the Pakistani feminist poetry we came across in We Sinful Women, especially Four Veils and a Chadur (Chador aur Char Dewari). Before taking this class, I was never very sure about the way Muslim women perceive the hijab, and was always under the misimpression that it was forced upon them. This misconception was portrayed through the media, and through some governments, that decided to ban face veils and burkhas, suggesting that they were “saving” Muslim women from oppression! But, after speaking to some of the Muslim girls in our seminar, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that often, Muslim women choose to wear certain hijabs because it makes them, personally, feel closer to God. Or they choose to wear it because it makes them feel independent underneath it, like Layla in Madras on Rainy Days. My favourite interpretation was the one that said that hijab is a covering, and does not necessarily mean a type of clothing, but can be anything from makeup to superficiality, that masks one’s true self and essence from society. All of these views must also be taken into consideration, before we come to snap “moral” or “right” judgments about issues that we are otherwise very ignorant about!

Having said that, I personally still do not agree with mandatory hijabs, as is the case under Taliban governments. It is also the case in Iran, where hair must be covered at all times. In such cases, it only forces women to rebel against their cultures, and allows other societies to judge the religion based on Iran’s supposed interpretation of it. In fact, this class was absolutely vital in my understanding of Sharia Law. I really enjoyed learning about how Sharia Law was rooted in its acceptance of different points of view, such that imam’s were allowed to have their own interpretations on religious matters, which were all considered valid interpretations of Islam. In this case, Islam would be open to interpretation, and would not be as rigid as some governments have made it today. In fact, by allowing different imams to hold different perspectives, it also prevents individuals in Islam from holding too much religious authority. This, I think, is the perfect example of conveying how Islam does not condone vying for wealth or power. Rather, in an Islamic Caliphate, the Caliph is not the utmost religious authority, because religious scholars focus on religion and do not care about material wealth or positions of power. I was most surprised by this, as I was always thought the Ayotallah was the highest religious authority, and he was in – by religion – expected to hold the ultimate power, as is in Iran. I did not know that Ayotallah Khomeini, himself, wrote the doctrine that gave him that power!

We spoke about incidents that pained us all in the class, such as the Paris attacks, or the Syrian refugee crisis, or even the rise of ISIS. But we spoke about it – not out of hate for any one community, as people tend to do on media platforms, but out of understanding their origins – and whether they truly align with the religion they claim to come from. Religion does not dictate violence though, we do. Religion is not a self-serving entity but is only a guide. We choose to interpret it the way we do, we choose to make of it what we do. We, therefore, must accept the responsibility of our interpretations. We should be held accountable, and we cannot blame our actions on any religion, or religious authority. Similarly, those committing violent crimes in the name of religion – they are the ones to blame. Not their faith, or their community, but them! It devastates me to see Syrian refugees being blamed for the very atrocities they are trying to escape from. I think this is an issue that we spoke about in class, which we will all continue to address until the crisis is solved. I think the class gave us a good grounding and foundation, to address such sensitive topics, without sounding ignorant.

In terms of dictating people’s lives, it always upsets me when people use religion as a justification against homosexuality. Madras on Rainy Days was beautiful in its portrayal of Sameer, as a man so conflicted within himself, that he tried to suppress his sexuality by lying not only to society but also to himself. Personally, I think religion is a personal journey that one has to experience individually. Yes, organized religion brings like-minded people together, who share a faith and ideology, to celebrate festivals together as a community. But religion is as internal and external, and nobody can dictate to you how you feel. Rather, I don’t think God would want to dictate our lives, because we are biologically all different – emotionally and physically. I think internal religion is essentially one’s relationship with God, and that must partially depend on the way we have been brought up, by our society, by our experiences. As a result, everyone shares a different relation with God, and a different understanding of religion. To some it might mean praying five times a day, as it makes them feel closer to God. To others it might be a casual conversation with God before sleeping – like Persepolis does, as a child. Both these relationships are equally connecting, and beautiful, and we need to learn to accept different religious experiences without invalidating some against others.

This brings us to the importance of respecting difference – different genders, nationalities, origins and opinions! We need to try to create a society where difference is celebrated, instead of ostracized. Furthermore, we must realize that difference does not imply superiority of one against another. Rather we must find equality within differences. What I think was fantastic about our seminar, is that because the topic was quite niche, only people who were genuinely interested in it applied to take it. As a result, we ended up in a class where everybody truly wanted to understand different religious traditions, and perspectives. I loved when we listened to the different renditions of the Quran, and Ashley compared it to the Gospels in Christianity. And I loved when we found Islam and Judaism’s shared roots. As a result, I was fortunate to learn about the revolution in Egypt, the Israeli perspective of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the difficulties of people in colour in the United States of America, and many other personal experiences. I got to celebrate the festivities, and foods, of so many different societies, while sharing a part of my own Indian, Hindu background. I think our class can be a representation of an ideal society – one that respects each other’s views – even when they contradict with each other, and celebrates difference.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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I was drawn to the last scene of In The Name of God by Yasmina Khadra, where the protagonist is perched on a chair like a predatory eagle, after killing another man. I’ve chosen to depict this in my create piece this week, presenting a bald eagle wearing a crown. The bald eagle, as we all know, is the emblem of the United States of America. It was chosen for its long life and majestic appearance, which is definitely something to pride one’s self on. However, the bald eagle was also chosen because of the belief that it was only found in the United States of America. This thought itself seems quite problematic. It reminds me of the Reluctant Fundamentalist, where the protagonist Changez, a student from Pakistan, moves to the United States of America to attend Princeton university and then tries to settle in New York City for a job.

Unlike the bald eagle, many Americans today have origins outside of the United States of America. In fact, the USA prides itself on its inclusivity and welcoming status. Metropolitan cities like New York City, especially, are known for their diversity. Having said this, racism is still a pressing matter. With movements like Black Lives Matter, and the cases of racism at Mizzou and Yale University, we are reminded every day of the “othering” of societies, and religious groups! Furthermore, the fact that leaders like Donald Trump have received so much publicity and limelight indicates that there are some Americans who are exclusive, and narrow-minded, in thinking that other (non-white) races and religions are inferior! Changez, in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was condescended to and patronized for being brown and Muslim, in the wake of 9/11, and he chose to leave the country and return to Pakistan. I wonder if such incidents worsen racism, by suggesting that racism does actually drive “others” out of a place, thereby satisfying racists by creating an exclusive, self-contained society? I empathize with Changez, as I can understand the humiliation a non-American goes through when an American patronizes their country, with questions like “how come your English is so good, and you don’t sound like Rajest Koothrapalli from the Big Bang Theory!” or, “We don’t say that in America!”

Madras on Rainy Days

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With the help of my friend Jingjing, I have depicted two women holding hands, but we can’t see their faces, their expressions. They could be lovers, they could be friends, they could be sisters. But, do any of these relations determine their faith?

Love is blind, and can be manifested in many forms. I love my brother, and I love my friend but in very different ways. I share different experiences with them, but that does not make me love either of them more or less – just differently. But, neither of these human relations changes my relation with God. I think religion is one’s personal relationship with God. I don’t understand organized religion in any way other than community building. It brings people who share similar ideologies together, and allows them to celebrate their faith together. Yet, each person – even in the same religion – shares a different understanding, and emotional experience with God.

Therefore, in Madras on Rainy Days, Layla’s Islam and Sameer’s Islam is different because they are different individuals with different experiences. Layla grew up in the USA and India, while Sameer grew up only in India. The fact that Layla is heterosexual, and Sameer is homosexual, is only relevant because of the way society portrays them; society forced Sameer into believing that homosexuality is against his religion, but his religion, like his sexuality, is his personal matter! I genuinely believe that as long as we are honest with ourselves, that is all God ever wants from us.

So it does not matter whether the girls in the picture are in love, or just friends, or related. What matters is how they see themselves, and the faith each of them believes individually. Society must never dictate who we are as individuals, as long as we are good people.

 

The Swallows of Kabul

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I was most hurt by the depiction of a scene early on in Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra, where young children, mostly boys, were stoning a stray dog to death. The dog was innocent, and had done nothing to offend the children. But, the children were getting some irrational thrill from their actions.

This scene mimics the execution by stoning a prostitute got simultaneously in the public square in the novel. The protagonist describes his horror at the thrill he himself received, in stoning the woman. He didn’t understand his emotions. Society told him that he was doing the “just” thing by punishing a woman who had wronged. Religion does not justify such acts of cruelty. Religion does not dictate rules, humans do. We interpret religion, and we create rules and regulations. In fact, we have been socialized into believing that punishing someone who has wronged gives us moral superiority, and makes us better people by following God’s path. But this is not God’s path – this is a governmental regime.

If we believe in religion, then God brought us into the world and he made us the way we are – different, but beautiful in our own way. And, he should be the only one with any right to take us from it.

Persepolis

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Inspired by the comic drawings in Persepolis, I did the best I could in my piece this week. I imitated Indian Warli art, which features the stick figures shown below. I have shown a circle of people, drawn in pale red, excluding a lone figure of stark contrast, shown in black. In Persepolis, the protagonist moves to the West, where she feels like an outsider, as the only Iranian. Interestingly, her boyfriend’s mother accuses her of being a threat to her son, as an “outsider.” What intrigued me was how a minority group can pose a threat to a majority group.

How does it affect a large group of Christians, or any other religion, to coexist with Muslims? Neither group needs to indoctrinate the other, or try converting everyone else to their faith. Society, therefore, needs greater religious literacy. We need to understand where religions come from, and why they are so important to their respective followers. We don’t have to follow the faiths ourselves, as long as we respect others’ rights in doing so. In saying that, we mustn’t strive for freedom FROM religion – as that only creates oppression, and discrimination, as we have seen in France. Rather, we must aim for true freedom of religion, where being a Hindu, Christian, Muslim or Atheist does not determine the way we are seen by society.

An ideal society would be one where individuals are seen for their actions, their compassions, and their contribution to society. How they live their personal lives should not be our concern. Rather, we should appreciate kindness, and courage, which are traits irrespective of faith and colour

Jasmine and the Stars

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Jasmine and the Stars was one of my favourite readings this course. The author managed to put into words – so eloquently – some of my own thoughts on inter-cultural interactions. That feeling of having to defend an entire religion, a whole nation is difficult to convey, but this book does it beautifully. She aptly describes the look of surprise – or what can be considered condescension, when the British or Americans learn about the beauty of Iranian culture, or advancements in the state. I think this draws us back to our central point of religious literacy, but also cultural literacy. Its not just important to learn about people of other cultures living in the United States of America, or the UK for that matter. We should also know about peoples lives in other countries – but not as a means of comparison to our own cultures! Each society has its positive aspects, and negatives, even if we tend to forget that sometimes.

My piece this week shows three feminist poems written in three different languages – English, Hindi and Urdu. What I wished to present by portraying them parallel to each other is that knowledge is powerful in whichever language it is conveyed. Scientific concepts do not change with language – whether I know Hooke’s law in English, or Arabic, it is still effectively the same science. Then, why do some native English speakers consider someone with weaker English, inherently inferior to them? Why are people in the UK, and in USA, so surprised – and often impressed – by my English? In fact, I know that in India, being able to speak fluent English gives many a sense of superiority compared to other Indians. I think people of different cultures must be encouraged to be proud of their origins, and mustn’t try to mimic the west! Ideally, cultures should integrate and mix and adapt with one another, but this is a longterm goal. First, we must respect different cultures, on an equal standing.

Suns of Independence

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Salimata undergoes a botched female genital mutilation, which was supposed to be a ritual introducing her into womanhood, followed by which she was raped. She is married to Fama, who has no descendant, and without one his line will die out. As a result, Salimata is desperate to become pregnant. Both characters are lost souls, and are trying to find themselves in society. Unfortunately, society has convinced the characters of this flawed understanding of their Islam, which is rooted in ancient, sexist rituals.

What really upsets me is how Salimata wants to have children, to prove her worth as a woman. Being a virgin on getting married, is one of the greatest “gifts” a woman can give a man. By taking his bride’s virginity, a man asserts his power and dominance in his wife’s life. In fact, being fertile is a woman’s most revered quality in her society in West Africa. Furthermore, giving birth to a son is even more respected. This mindset, most prevalent under a patriarchy, is most problematic. It is not an Islamic trait, or perspective, because Islam calls for women to be given utmost respect. It is a cultural flaw, a societal point of view that needs to adapt, which identifies a woman by her generative power, by her ability to procreate, and undermines any other qualities she might have. Salimata is never rewarded for her kindness, her goodness. She fears her own mistakes for not being able to conceive. But why do we confuse biology with personality? With a person’s character?

Women need to be seen as individuals separate from men – not as their wives, sisters, daughters, mothers, but as a separate entity. Having said that, they are not inferior to the male sex, they are different but equal. Men and women need to be given the same opportunities, but also the same respect. Sending a boy and a girl to school is not enough, if you treat education as the boy’s prerogative but the girl’s privilege!

We Sinful Women

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Stemming from our discussion of We Sinful Women; I was most intrigued by the different notions of “Hijab”. I was always under the misimpression that it was a requirement of Muslim women, under the name of religion – but after reading the specific mentions of modesty in the Quran, I think I understand it better. Personally, I think the levels and nature of “modesty” can differ from person to person – while some might believe in modest clothing, others could prefer modesty in behaviour and interactions with others. This distinction, and such interpretations, should be more widely understood and accepted; however, for this change, we need greater religious literacy.

My piece of art shows different versions of the Hijab, either through a purdah screen (as mentioned in Sultana’s Dream), or through a Burqa or even through make-up. Despite the nature of the Hijab, the woman behind it is the same. What she wears can never change that. Her essence cannot be determined by her physical appearance – and we need to remember that. No one form of Hijab is better or worse than the other – as long as it is the woman’s decision to wear it. It is when such decisions are superimposed on women, by the patriarchy or in some contexts the government, that we may question the reason behind such an imposition. My personal interest in women’s dress-code in Muslim majority countries, was sparked by My Stealthy Freedom – the popular movement to liberate women in Iran, where women must cover their hair as part of a formal islamic dress-code. The notion that women covertly take pictures of their hair, and feel a sense of independence and pride at this momentary freedom highlights the injustice in their society. However, this is not a critique of the religion – but of the political authority and leadership in Iran. Personally, I love when women in the UK or USA proudly wear head-scarves, or any form of Hijab, and defend their right to do so – because you can see that it is a part of their identity, which they have chosen. For me, it’s like wearing Indian clothes – yes, it is more modest clothing, but it is also my choice.

Salim – Sulaiman’s music video, ‘Allahu Akbar’; Ambiguous Adventure

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For this piece, I was inspired most by Salim – Sulaiman’s music video, for their newest song ‘Allahu Akbar’, which features a whirling dervish and a tree of life, bathed in bright light. The scene appears most peaceful and devout, almost transcendent really. I was fascinated to hear Salim – Sulaiman speak about the rhythmic and musical element – not only in the Quran, but also in the daily call to prayer ‘Allahu Akbar’. Despite contemporary critique against music and dance in Islam, Salim – Sulaiman emphasized in the devotional quality of their art and its age-old nature; this discourse highlights the various interpretations of religion.

The whirling dervishes dance in a Sufi trance, oblivious to the material world around them – they submit themselves to God’s will and power. Such deep spirituality reminds me of several figures in the stories we have read, such as Haneen in the Wedding of Zein.

I personally think that the art of the whirling dervishes can aptly define “islam” as utter “submission” to God. This notion reminds me of Muhammad Iqbal’s “Rumuz-e-Bekhudi”, which urges us to stop being self-absorbed, and emphasises on selflessness. My work also reflects the major theme in Ambiguous Adventure, about the need to divest man’s egocentric character. In the context of the book, Samba is taught to become less egocentric, and more humble and godcentric. Ego and materialistic needs are an obstacle to seeing God. The whirling dervishes are not held back by these obstacles, as can be seen by the freedom in their movements.

We’ve also seen many Coke Studio Pakistan’s devotional music, and therefore this piece is a response to art and creativity as a medium for personal forms of devotion and communication with God.

 

 

What is Islam?

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Carl Ernst’s Following Islam begins with a chapter titled, “Islam in the Eyes of the West”. Today, the Muslim world spans over fifty nations with a population of majority Muslims; they are well versed with a plethora of languages, ethnic groups and ideologies. Thanks to the growth of media – especially the Internet, no one community can be isolated from the rest of the world, and neither is Islam. In fact, today there are over 5 million American Muslims, and 10 million European Muslims. Surely with this global presence of Islam, one would expect greater religious literacy and respect for one of the world’s most prominent and revered religions.

Unfortunately, today Islam is being relegated by the media; it is misrepresented by extremist “Islamic” organisations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. However, pondering the question of what Islam is – I couldn’t help but learn about the Islamic golden age of academia, the beautiful Mughal architecture especially in India. When I look at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, I don’t see the Arab-Israeli conflict, or a conflict between the religions of the People of the Book. Rather, I see a beautiful structure with a rich historical context. Muslims believe that Muhammad was transported from the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to al-Aqsa. In my opinion, this mosque encompasses everything Islam stands for – its vibrant history, its submission and utter devotion to Allah. Built in c. 1055, the beauty and science of the building highlights the advancements of the golden Islamic age. It reflects the capabilities and potential of the Islamic community, which Iqbal also emphasized in his poetry. Therefore, through Islam’s revered sacred spaces and beliefs, we see its inherent peace and devotion – as opposed to its contemporary notions of conflict.