This blog showcases the various themes, notions, and ideas I have encountered in this seminar that have, to a considerable extent, resonated with me. Even as a Muslim, I found that I was able to learn valuable lessons from the seminar’s various readings, which in my opinion, illuminated important notions about not only the way we perceive religion, but also a realistic portrayal of the Muslim experience, rather than the fanaticism often depicted by the media.  Perhaps the most important ideal I encountered, early on in this seminar, was that one must take a cultural studies approach in seeking to understand a faith as multifaceted as Islam. While many view the religion as a monolithic entity, often in a negative context, it is important to take into account the countless factors, ranging from social, educational, political, and economic, that play into how one chooses to interpret his or her faith. Thus, one must take into consideration that the adherents of Islam come from vastly different backgrounds. Failure to do so, as we learned in the seminar, leads to widespread ignorance that perpetuates fear and hostility towards the religion as a whole, often thought of as a violent “other”. This theme of religious myopia and the media’s faulty interpretation of Islam also comes up in discussion of the hijab, which many believe to entail oppression and subjugation of women. However, as was illuminated by the seminar’s readings and lectures, the hijab holds a multitude of different contexts in different societies. For example, the hijab is often utilized as a status symbol. In one of my creative responses, I aimed to showcase this disparity between how outsiders to the religion view the hijab and how the women and societies themselves regard the hijab. I decided to draw a picture of a woman wearing hijab, writing out ignorant or negative sentiments and ideas associated with the hijab on the bottom, and more accurate sentiments on top of the woman’s hijab, like modesty, status, and power.

In addition to the plethora of different contexts in which to interpret Islam, one must also take into account the various sects of Islam and the fact that despite the beliefs that connect these branches, Muslims adhere to a wide range of different sects. For instance, one must take into account not only the Sunni, Sufi, and Shia branches and the various practices and traditions espoused by each sect, but also who holds true religious authority. In such a pervasive, diverse religion, it naturally follows that the different sects turn to different individuals for religious guidance.  This remarkable diversity was showcased by several of the readings, such as The Wedding of Zein, in which Haneen, a spiritual mystic, is revered by many in the village. Ironically, the Imam in the story, who many would assume to be the primary source of religious guidance due to his symbolizing a more institutionalized form of religion, is viewed with disdain and fear rather than reverence. This spiritual and mystical approach to Islam was also evident in The Suns of Independence, in which the protagonist’s wife Salimata depends on voodoo and charms to ward off evil spirits. In this same novel, the fetish priest and sorcerer practice customs native to the village. In this sense, the various cultural practices in The Suns of Independence are shown to have integrated with Islamic practices. As such, the characters in the novel espouse a way of life that exists at the convergence of the two. Throughout the seminar, I was highly intrigued by novels that depicted this phenomenon, because, in my opinion, this embodied and helped to convey realistic Muslim experiences, rather than society’s conception of what it means to be Muslim.

Another notion that proved to be an underlying theme throughout the seminar was the idea of the West, and all that Western societies embody, standing against the East, namely Muslim societies. Namely, in the novel Madras on Rainy Days, the protagonist Layla, who returns from America to India, her home country, is told by her parents to take advantage of the multitude of educational opportunities prevalent in the West. However, they vehemently oppose her integrating her own cultural roots with American culture, as they believe doing so will ultimately lead to corruption. Furthermore, the story itself demonstrated the contrast between Western secularism and the cultural practices prevalent in Muslim countries. For example, when Layla bleeds excessively due to a terminated pregnancy, the alim her family takes her to claims that her condition can be attributed to the evil spirits that have taken refuge inside her. However, throughout the class, various readings demonstrated the notion that despite this stark contrast, the two ideologies can exist simultaneously and enrich each other. For instance, in the short story “The Saint’s Lamp”, upon returning home to Egypt from his schooling in the West, the protagonist Ismail is appalled by the superstitious beliefs and practices prevalent in his village, which in his opinion preclude education and logic.  Furthermore, his family expresses discontent with the influence of the West on Ismail, proclaiming that he has returned as an infidel and abandoned his roots. Although this quandary presents the East and West as espousing antithetical ideologies that are unable to coexist in harmony, eventually Ismail comes to the realization that faith and logic can exist simultaneously provided that one’s spiritual superstitions do not overtake and obscure reason and logic. Furthermore, this short story illuminated the notion that one’s faith can fortify his or her scientific pursuits.

A theme I found particularly compelling as it reappeared in various readings was the notion of poverty and societal injustice sparking violence and disarray. I found this theme to be highly significant in that it reinforced the notion that it is not religion that fuels terrorist acts, but rather humans and human qualities, such as greed. Namely, in The Beggar’s Strike, those with power fail to sympathize with the poor, who constitute a significant portion of society, choosing instead to dehumanize them and view them as a problem, often organizing raids in an attempt to rid society of their influence. As expected, this ultimately causes an uprising in which the individuals in power are overthrown. The situation as a whole seemed counterintuitive to me, as I had always imagined that since charity, or zakat, is one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam, Muslim societies would strongly encourage altruism. This, however, was not the case in The Beggar’s Strike, which proved the notion that one cannot tie Islam, or religion as a whole, directly to the issues that arise as a response to such oppression. Such was the case in Naguib Mahfouz’ Children of the Alley, in which oppression and a blatant lack of effective societal structure culminates into widespread chaos and immoral conduct. As I read the novel, it seemed that there were multiple parallels between the society that functioned as the setting and societies in the Middle East. This apparent comparison was significant, since many wrongly assume that the turbulence prevalent in the region can be attributed to Islam, which is not the case. Thus, the events of the novel further enforced the idea that humans, not the Islamic faith as an entity, are the root cause of the problems that face modern societies.

Multiple readings in this seminar addressed a theme I found particularly intriguing: how Muslims faced with oppression and injustice cope with their circumstances in regards to their religion. I found it interesting how, in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the main character Marji seemed to turn away from her faith, losing her relationship with God due to her believing that her prayers have been left unanswered. Along those same lines, the renowned poet Muhammad Iqbal, in his poem “The Complaint” depicts a Muslim’s anger and frustration as he laments the state of chaos and defeat that has, unfortunately, proved common among Muslims today. By contrasting these circumstances with the high status of Muslims of older times, the narrator seems to accuse God of turning his back on his believers. While this way of thinking was, to an extent, understandable, I found it counterintuitive that the complainer saw his condition as an indication of God’s abandonment rather than as a test from God. Furthermore, I thought it was hypocritical that the narrator of the Complaint seemed to concern himself more with life rather than the afterlife, which contradicts the fundamental tenets of Islam. For this reason, in another of my creative responses, I decided to write an “Answer” to this complaint that was distinct from the original “Answer” written by Iqbal in that instead of attributing the adversity common among Muslims to their lack of sincere piety, I emphasized in my response that a truly pious Muslim would value his or her relationship with God more than societal status and material wealth.

Throughout the seminar, I found that many recurring themes illuminated the obscure, multifaceted concept of the true experience of being Muslim. Furthermore, shifting focus to a new region provided cultural context and demonstrated the wide spectrum of ways in which people can adhere to one religion. In these creative responses, therefore, I aimed to depict these themes in a way that illuminated their significance.


Learning about the Prophet Muhammad and his influence on the way in which Muslims everywhere choose to live their lives was highly intriguing to me. I found it incredibly moving that so many people venerate the Prophet although, as is unique to Islam, he is not to be seen as more than a human being, or likened to a deity. Instead, the vast majority of Muslims view the Prophet Muhammad as a paradigm for humanity whose qualities should be instilled. In class we learned about how many adherents of Islam express their love for and veneration of the Prophet through poetry and art. In particular, I was drawn to the idea of a na’t, which are poems highly common among Urdu poets. These na’ts are utilized to extoll the Prophet Muhammad’s many virtues. In this creative response, I had hoped to write a poem similar to a na’t that would showcase the Prophet’s many virtues and encapsulate how he is regarded by the Muslim population. Throughout the poem I wrote, I included information about how, as discussed in the previous blog post, the Prophet Muhammad signifies different roles to different Muslims. For instance, some believe him to be an intercessor on the Day of the Reckoning that would intercede on behalf of humanity, whereas many others see this as a transgression from human to deity that contradicts the notion of God’s oneness.Image 7


As we learned towards the beginning of the seminar, despite the remarkable diversity within the religion, a commonality that ties virtually all adherents of Islam is their veneration and admiration of the Prophet Muhammad. As we discussed, Muslims aim not to simply to imitate the actions of the Prophet, but also to learn from and instill his generosity, fairness, and selflessness. In particular, I found it intriguing that the role of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the extent to which he should be revered had proved to be such a contentious issue among many Muslims. For instance, while some Muslims hold the belief that Muhammad is the source of all creation, most simply view him as God’s messenger and last prophet. Furthermore, a significant number of Muslims believe that Muhammad, on the Day of Judgment, will assume the role of an intercessor, while others denounce this notion, claiming that such qualities would raise him above the level of a human, contradicting the notion of God’s oneness, which is fundamental to a monotheistic faith. Many express their love for and veneration of the Prophet through poetry, which can, in some cases, be likened to mortals who long for their beloveds. This comparison inspired this creative entry, in which a young woman looks to the moonlit sky, longing to curtail her detachment from the divine by uniting with the Prophet himself. In the background I wrote words that describe how Muslims view the Prophet, such as “intercessor” and “messenger”.

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Throughout the seminar, one of the works that I found to be particularly poignant was The Beggar’s Strike, due to the way in which the novel presented a contrast between the way the teachings of Islam regard the poor through the encouragement of altruism and the way in which the characters who have attained a position of power, Mour Ndiaye and Keba Dabo, view the impoverished majority in their region. I found it highly ironic that although one of Islam’s fundamental five pillars is “zakat”, or charity, these two characters, both of whom ostensibly espouse values of Islam, are evidently reluctant to understand the plight of the impoverished, regarding them as subhuman and criticizing them for begging. In addition, the two characters would continually plan raids in an effort to rid society of the impoverished, whom they take to be a “problem”. Furthermore, in the novel, even the wealthy who chose to give to their impoverished counterparts did so out of selfishness, as these actions had been carried out in the hopes of being seen as a better Muslim or to win God’s favors. As I found significant, Mour only espoused altruistic notions when he thought that in doing so, he would be able to attain a position of power. In reading the novel, I was immediately struck by this paradoxical situation and wanted to represent it creatively. In this blog entry, I drew the beggars standing in the background of image with Mour, meant to represent a cruel, authoritative figure, in the front ignoring their pleas.Image 2


After reading the graphic novel Persepolis, I was highly intrigued by the style, as it was presented as a visual memoir similar to a comic strip, making the novel as a whole more engaging and fun to read. For this reason, I was inspired to utilize a similar format in one of my creative responses. One of the themes that came up not only throughout Persepolis but also in various other works we read in the seminar was that of the individuals who have attained a position of power, by religious or political means, using their authority in a way that oppresses people and, ironically, directly conflicts with the teachings of Islam. For instance, in Persepolis, Marji is indoctrinated to believe that the oppressive Shah is a messenger of God and that his actions must not be questioned. Furthermore, in the novel the Fundamentalists’ actions against Marji’s mom and the women who choose not to wear hijab demonstrate oppression and intolerance, which conflicts with the fundamental tenets of Islam. The authoritative figures we have encountered throughout the readings, ranging from the Shah in Persepolis, whose power derives from his lineage, to the Imam from The Wedding of Zein who, despite his cruelty, uses Islam and his own religious authority to justify his actions. To convey the prevalence and significance of this issue making use of this medium, I decided to showcase instances of such figures taking advantage of their authority, using Islam as a justification for their oppressive actions.Image 3



As was discussed in this seminar, there are a vast multitude of instances in which the media has perpetuated a negative image of Islam. This phenomenon was sparked by the acts committed on 9/11, and has heightened dramatically in recent times, due to the many terrorist acts wrongly committed in the name of Islam. Oftentimes, Islam as a whole is portrayed as a religion that espouses violence and is wholly opposed to the West. This notion is ultimately highly detrimental, as it incites the concept of a “clash of civilizations”, typecasting all Muslims as the violent “other”. In addition to this politicization, the media also portrays aspects of Islam, such as the hijab, as symbols of oppression. As such, it has become common for the media to radicalize the religion, without regard for what Islam as a faith truly entails. Many, for example, turn a blind eye to the fact that the Qur’an itself espouses peace and tolerance, and that, as Muslims believe, it was revealed in the context of a war, which accounts for its passages concerning armed conduct. Furthermore, as was discussed in class, the concept of “Jihad”, which the media often claims to signify a holy war, primarily means “struggle”. In response to this apparently widespread religious illiteracy, in this creative response, I chose to create a collage that showcased images or words commonly, but wrongly, associated with Islam in the media as well as a few that signify a more accurate interpretations of the religion.Image 1

Response to “The Swallows of Kabul”


In the seminar, I particularly enjoyed the works of Yasmine Khadra, as I found that they effectively illuminated the ways in which they depicted the dire effects of the Taliban’s influence, describing it in the sense that it bleached the city of it’s beauty and subjugated its citizens to a lifetime of tyranny and oppression. Khadra’s work, in my opinion, really illuminated not only the extent of this oppression, but also its effects on the mindset and psyche of those living amidst these conditions. In particular, I found Yasmine Khadra’s work The Swallows of Kabul to be highly fascinating due to the way in which he used imagery to convey the circumstances in the city.  Specifically, I was moved by how he characterized Kabul as consisting solely of “battlefields, expanses of sand, and cemeteries”, which effectively contrasted the current state of Kabul with how it previously was by saying that the “dust has stunted their orchards, blinded their eyes, sealed up their hearts […] it seems that the whole world is beginning to decay and that its putrefaction has chosen to spread outwards from here” (Khadra). For this creative response, I wanted to depict the effects of the Taliban’s influence in a way that demonstrated the contrast between the beauty of the society with the bleak emptiness that became prevalent after the effects of the Taliban by depicting each on one side of the paper. To emphasize this contrast, I used color on the side of the page that represented Kabul before the Taliban and drew the other side with charcoal.

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First Four Creative Responses


In the seminar, we discussed at length the abstract nature of religion in general and Islam in particular due to the vast multitude of variation within different sects of the religion.  For instance, the two main sects Shi’a and Sunni, but also various other groups who believe in mysticism, such as the Sufis. Furthermore, various groups that are in some way distinct from one another have branched from the two main sects.  This very diversity, I believe, forces one to contextualize his or her approach of the religion, as it cannot be thought of as one monolithic entity. However, what I find moving is that despite these differences in the interpretation of the religion, the one commonality that ties all Muslims is the belief that there is no god but God and that the Prophet Muhammad is his messenger.  For this reason, in one of my creative responses, I chose to represent the religion of Islam as a tree, with the Qur’an, which is widely held to be the central sacred religious text, despite the many different forms of Islam that are practiced, depicted at the base, or trunk, of the tree.  Furthermore, I represented the two main sects of Islam—Sunni and Shi’a, as branches of the tree, with Baha’i and Ahmadi branching from Shi’ite and Sunni Islam, respectively. In order to demonstrate the link that ties all these forms of Islam together, I wrote, in Arabic, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad (peace be upon him) is his messenger”.  In this sense, my response depicts both the remarkable diversity within Islam and the crucial common belief that ties Muslims together.


One of the topics addressed in this seminar which I found extremely interesting was the multitude of ways in which the hijab is perceived by others. Many fail to take into account the hijab’s cultural context, immediately and simplistically assuming it to contribute to the oppression of women in Muslim countries, blaming such conditions on the religion itself.  However, one must recognize that the hijab holds numerous contexts, for example, in terms of politics, such as the requirement that women wear hijab in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan, and the fact that the veil is used as a mark of status in Mediterranean cultures.  While the necessity of the hijab, as well as whether it is liberating or oppressive, are points of contention even within Islamic societies, it seems that the media projects its generally negative view of the religion, categorizing Muslims as a violent, foreign, or even inferior “other”, onto our perception of hijab. This notion intrigued me, and inspired my creative response, in which I drew a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, and outsiders surrounding her. Next to these “outsiders” I wrote in words that embodied what one, paying attention solely to the media’s representation of veiled women, would feel or think about this Muslim woman. Above the woman herself, I wrote in words that would describe the way the woman herself may feel about her hijab, in contrast to how others would perceive her.  Thus, in my response, I aimed to not only contrast public opinion of the hijab with one’s personal opinion, but to also address the media’s categorization of Muslims as “the other”, a concept which was also discussed in class.


When I read Iqbal’s poem, “The Complaint”, although I enjoyed the way it was structured, like a dialogue between a devout believer of Islam and his God, I found that the “answer” to the complaint, which Iqbal presumably intends to appear as a message from God, only addressed the idea that a man who complains of his circumstances is selfish, due to the fact that he is not as pious as his predecessors.  Although the poem may have functioned more as a call to reform in the political sense, I still found it odd that Iqbal failed to address the all-important fact that one who has faith in God should not complain about his or her circumstances in the concrete sense for a variety of reasons: firstly, when a person faces suffering, it makes more sense for him or her to view it as tribulation sent from God, in order to test the person’s faith, rather than undeserved punishment. Furthermore, people who are truly pious value their relationship with God and ultimately, the afterlife, over their conditions in the material world, which the narrator of the complaint seemed to prioritize.  For these reasons, I decided to write an alternate “answer” in the form of a poem to Iqbal’s complaint as I imagined it would be.  In this poem, I aimed to retain the original “call to reform” that Iqbal seemed to address towards Muslims of today, while still altering it in order to call attention to the fact that one’s desire to adhere to Islam should transcend one’s own self-interest.


When I read The Suns of Independence, I was immediately intrigued by how the author presented a contrast between the cultural norms, especially evident through the superstition and mysticism evident throughout the novel, and the materialistic politicized world that has assumed power in modern times. I found that, in this novel in particular, cultural norms, in particular, Salimata’s brutal excision ritual, were labelled as regressive, having lost their value and importance. This notion was also enforced by the character of Fama, who belonged to a once-powerful tribe but is now regarded as powerless due to the power of the nation-state and diminishing significance of culture and tribalism.  This novel, for these reasons, presented the notion of the West, a society that embodies knowledge, education, political power, and for the most part, secularism, in opposition to the East, which embodies tradition, culture in a way many would find regressive.  This theme of East vs. West was prevalent throughout this seminar, most notably, in story of “The Saint’s Lamp” in which Ismael, the protagonist, leaves his village to go to university in the West, and soon comes to the realization that culture and logic can coexist, and reinforce one another.  To illustrate these themes in my creative response, I decided to draw a lamp (representing the one in “The Saint’s Lamp”) in the middle of the paper as a bridge between culture and wisdom/logic. On one side, in order to depict traditional culture, I chose to portray the scene from The Suns of Independence in which Salimata engages in superstitious practices in an attempt to stimulate her ability to conceive.  On the other, I portrayed symbols that embodied Western culture.hijab poem lamp tree

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