Introduction

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View my introductory essay below or in this document

 

Key Themes in Muslim Voices in Contemporary World Literatures

In this class, we travelled around the world, from South Asia to Europe to Africa to the Middle East. We explored issues and topics relating to Islam, culture, and traditions and how they are expressed through prominent literary pieces from the regions. Through my portfolio responses, I reflected on these ideas and how they relate to my own life as a Muslim living in the United States. I learned so much about Islam as a broad term and how it is practiced in so many different countries, uncovering ideas that I had never realized about culture, authority, social justice, and extremism and their relation to Islam. I believe that these concepts are very important to understand and contemplate our diverse and vibrant society.

I discovered that there are many differing views even within Islam. Islam itself cannot take action, Islam is not able to make a decision, rather people are the ones who take certain views and act in specific ways. It can be easy to make claims such as “Islam encourages terrorism” or “Islam says women must wear a veil”, but it reality it is important to remember that Islam is not an actor and cannot actually say or do anything. The way in which people interpret Islamic ideas affect how they act and what they do. I grew up with a certain view of Islam, and I expected most Muslims to have the same views I did. Taking this seminar opened my eyes to the breadth of contrasting interpretations within the same religion of Islam. Islam in India is very different from Islam in Senegal, and even within the same area people can have multiple views on the same topic. This is an overarching theme that has been prevalent in almost every story we have read. I highlighted this idea in my responses to We Sinful Women, The Rainbow Sign, and The Suns of Independence. We Sinful Women demonstrates how women and men can have differing ideas on how a verse of the Quran could be interpreted, and the need for a gender-neutral reading of the text to promote equality. In The Rainbow Sign, tensions between countries are evident and the treatment of Islam in different parts of the world is brought to the forefront of the concept of an Islamic identity, which I contemplated by writing a postcard emphasizing the diversity of Islam. The Suns of Independence showcases Islam in Africa and how culture and Islam can be interwoven, affecting how one views elements of the religion, and I painted Islam as an umbrella encompassing these factors to represent this. In all of these reflections, it is evident that Islam is such a broad category that cannot be simply categorized as one viewpoint.

Important to this idea of differing opinions are the Quran and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), central aspects of Islam. The Quran originally functioned as an oral text during the time of the Prophet, and was later written down under a Caliph. Each Muslim has a different experience with the Quran, and there are different ways to recite the Quran out loud. Hearing a recitation is an experience within itself connecting one closer to God. In addition to the auditory element, calligraphy and visual features are key aspects of the experience with the Quran. In my response to An Egyptian Childhood, I highlighted the experience I had with Quranic verses around my home. The Quran is central to Islam and has a different effect on each person. Likewise, people view the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in a variety of ways. The Prophet exemplified the Quran in his own life, and people have connected the Prophet to many other prominent figures in history. The interpretation of the Prophet is connected to the context throughout history. We highlighted the various connections made to the Prophet in our discussion of The Suns of Independence, in which the African tribes interpreted religious ideas with traditional tribal customs. I reflected on this wide variety of customs relating to the umbrella term of Islam in my response to The Suns of Independence. In China, some Muslims connect the Prophet to Confucious, and in Bangladesh, the Prophet is connected to the 10th Avatara of the god Vishnu—the interpretations of the Prophet differ for different areas of the world.

While the Quran and the Prophet are key to all Muslims, different sects of Islam have different structures of authority following the Prophet. The source of authority for Sunni Muslims are the Ulama, or scholars, who learn through discursive knowledge and create a consensus ruling for the society. I reflected on this idea of becoming a scholar with The Egyptian Childhood, because in the story the main character aims to memorize the Quran only to earn the status of sheikh and gain the respect of the title. In contrast with the method of acquiring knowledge of the ulama, the Sufi shaykh has authority from spirituality and enlightenment. The Shia Imam gains authority from spirituality as well as inherited authority as a descendent of the Prophet and Ali. The differing sources of power demonstrate how Islam has branched off after the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The conflicting ideas between these branches is displayed in Persepolis. In my response to Persepolis, I highlighted the violence and sadness Marji had to live through in her childhood. This was caused by the oppressive regime of the Shah and the Iranian Revolution.  Iran has a long history of conflict between regimes that claimed to hold religious power, such as the Shah Ismail who claimed to be a descendent of the 12th Imam. The Shah Muhammad Reza Shah wanted to modernize Iran and become secular, but opposition rose against him and reinstated religious control. In this way, power struggles have been a major aspect of religion in countries.

Religious authority can stem from issues of social justice. Inequality in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries has been a consistent theme in the course. One lens of inequality we examined deeply is gender disparity. Many people may generalize and claim that Islam is a religion that oppresses women. However, Muslim countries vary in treatment of women, from Indonesia where women have many rights to Saudi Arabia where women cannot drive. It is unfair to make a broad claim about Islam. It is clear that women in Islam have come to the forefront of the Islamic debate: in We Sinful Women, feminist Pakistani poems portray a previously suppressed view that women should not be silenced and pressured, and in Sultana’s Dream the other extreme of locking men away is presented. My response to We Sinful Women explains how a patriarchal view of the Quran may have been the precedent in the past, but women are now calling for a more equal reading. I focused on two major issues, polygamy and the veil, and described how there can be restrictive or liberating views on each topic. Some people view Islam as a method towards treating women equally, and others perpetuate a patriarchal interpretation of Islam. Women are often pressured by society to act in a certain way, often based on religion. In India, women are held to high standards of modesty and honor, unlike their male counterparts, and can be valued only for their virtue. Madras on Rainy Days examines this idea and the inability of society to accept anyone who is different. Layla, the protagonist in the novel, is thought to be possessed by the devil when she no longer wants to get married. In my response to the novel, I reflected on the concepts of shame and honor and how we must appreciate women as people and not objectify them.

Inequality is also present in the treatment of the poor. Too often the minority is oppressed and kept in a state of poverty. In The Beggar’s Strike, the community realizes the importance of the beggars and the need to treat them with kindness after kicking them off the streets simply for appearance. I reflected on this idea by comparing begging on the streets with begging to God. It is important to have compassion for others and recognize what they are going through. Similarly, in Children of the Alley, the families not in power must live in poverty. While sometimes a leader rises up and promotes peace in the alley, the peace is short-lived and the alley returns to a poor and unequal society. I reflected on this by constructing the cycle of oppression present in the book. Prophets and religion were not able to create a lasting peace in the alley. The idea of corruption in a society is a very real possibility and is present in the oppressive regimes we see around the world.

  Oppression and extremism have become an increasingly larger part of the conversation surrounding Islam with the emerging of radical and terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS that act in the name of Islam. Some people have started treating Islam as an ideology for violence and tyranny, and view the West as an enemy against Islam. This theme of Islam vs. the West has been prevalent throughout the course. In The Saint’s Lamp, the protagonist Ismail leaves Egypt and goes to Europe for his studies, but loses his faith and belief in Islam and the power of Umm Hashim’s oil lamp to cure sickness. The West is seen as a corrupting force that causes people to lose their faith. In The Rainbow Sign, it is evident that the English discriminated against Pakistani Muslims and considered them “the other”. It is this feeling of marginalization and exclusion that can drive people to join extremist groups, desperate for a sense of community and the feeling of being a true member of a group. In my reflections, I tried to encourage pluralism and realizing that there does not need to be this dichotomy between Muslim countries and western countries. As a Muslim who grew up in America of Indian and Pakistani background, I have a strong identity rooted in American ideals but also believe in Islam. To some, this combination is impossible, but I believe that Islam and the West can be peaceful together if we keep an open mind, embrace other cultures, and do not stereotype either side. The Pakistani poet Iqbal viewed Islam as progress and thought that westerners were actually those who were acting as Muslims in spirit, by encouraging pursuit of knowledge and development. In my reflection, I created a t-shirt portraying these ideas to bring this concept of intertwining Islam with advancement to a modern platform. Among so much discrimination and stereotyping in the world today, it is important to keep the idea of building bridges across different cultures in the forefront of our actions.

Throughout my portfolio, I examine these issues plaguing our world today and use painting, drawing, writing, and digital technology to contemplate them. The underlying themes of the differing views under the term ‘Islam’ and an Islamic identity in different countries and contexts will always be applicable to the world around me. Voices have spoken out about these ideas through literature around the world, and I know these concepts will stay with me as I hear more about Islam in the news and media. As Islam or any religion or outlook can be presented with a bias, it is increasingly important to learn more about the reasoning behind actions and beliefs. I am happy that I was able to learn so much about different worldviews and how they apply to my own life, and I know that I now more fully appreciate different cultures and interpretations.

Portfolio Response to The Beggar’s Strike

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beggar's strike

 

I drew hands in dua (prayer, suplication) to God, Allah, to reflect on The Beggar’s Strike. The classic image of begging is holding hands out, desperate for money and help from others. The image of the poor and needy is stigmatized in The Beggar’s Strike,  and the government harshly punishes the beggars to clear the streets in order to create a better tourist destination for the city. I could imagine beggars holding their hands out to people on the street, just as I’ve seen beggars in India and Pakistan, in big cities like Chicago, and even in Harvard Square. The Beggar’s Strike brings to light the mistreatment of the poor and the outlook the characters had–viewing them as unimportant and insignificant.

I contrasted the idea of begging presented in The Beggar’s Strike with begging to God, that I learned is good and what Muslims ought to do, in the sense that we should ask God for anything and everything, and while praying it is custom to hold one’s hands out as if begging. In the drawing, it is possible to look at just the bottom half of the drawing and see a beggar’s hands on the street, trying to make a living off meager coins. However, taking in the entire picture with Allah written in Arabic above the hands makes it clear that this person is actually begging to God. I wondered on the fine line between these types of begging and how we should be compassionate to those who must beg because we do the same. It is necessary to respect all people and help the poor and needy.

Portfolio Response to We Sinful Women

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Slide1 Slide2

The collection of poems in We Sinful Women represent a feminist view in Pakistan, women rising up to act against oppressive laws and rules. We Sinful Women was an avenue for women to speak out and stand up for their rights in a society that traditionally favored men. In class, we discussed how key issues relating Islam and women have come to the forefront as women’s views are heard. For example, Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, and Shirin Ebadi, Irani activist, claim that patriarchial readings of the Quran are what cause oppression of women.

I wanted to showcase this idea by visually demonstrating how a verse in the Quran can be interpreted in a way that may benefit men more or in a a more egalitarian view. I started with the verse on the top of the page, then created a flowchart of the differing views on what that verse actually means. The first picture displays the verse about polygamy that we dicussed in class. Although it was revealed in the context of a war that killed many Muslims, some still view this verse as always permitting polygamy. In this way, it is easy to overlook aspects of a verse and interpret it in a way that benefits a certain group of people.

The second picture is a verse about the veil that we also mentioned in the class discussion. The veil has been a large topic of debate as western countries interact with Islamic countries. This verse can be interpreted to mean than women must always cover their hair and face, or could mean to simply dress modestly but not have to cover the hair. It can be difficult to determine which interpretation should be followed. However, the verse is not the only aspect to why a group may have a certain view on the issue, which I highlighted in the green box. For both pictures, I made the background a gradient with the clear white color on the top of the picture near the verse, representing the true verse directly from the Quran. The background then gets darker as it reaches the interpretations of the verse, representing the difficulty of understanding in a unified way and the murkiness of differing views on the same topic.

Portfolio Response to Complaint and Answer

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iqbal shirt iqbal shirt back

 

The Complaint and Answer poems by Iqbal brought up the frustration Muslims were feeling but then chastised them for not embracing progress the way westerners were. Iqbal brought a new way of thinking to the table and also likened man to God by writing God’s response, and addressing God directly.

I designed a t-shirt I think Iqbal would wear in the present-day. I wanted to capture the view portrayed in the poems in a modern light. Since the poem admonished the Muslims of Iqbal’s time for not prioritizing progress like the West did, it is evident that Iqbal viewed Islam as progress, knowledge, and potential for the future. He would make this message clearly and boldly, on the front of the shirt. On the back of the shirt, I added images of the ideas represented in the poem, connecting Islam to science and thinking, moving forward in knowledge. According to Iqbal, Muslims need to be more like the West for education and learning, and think about progress in the future. I portrayed this call to action with the phrases “we should embrace development” and “we should embrace the Western attitude”, making it clear that Iqbal is speaking to his fellow Muslims and encouraging them to realize that those in the West are the ones who are actually acting like Muslims and looking towards increasing knowledge. I created a bright orange shirt because Iqbal’s poem was bold and a new view that received criticism, but he was not afraid to make a statement and would not be afraid now to say this with a bright color.

Portfolio Response to Persepolis

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In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi reflects on her childhood during the revolution in Iran. Marji grew up around violence and oppression. I think this contrasts with the safe life I lived in the suburbs of Cleveland, OH.

I created a charm bracelet to reflect on this idea. Most young girls have charms to represent milestones or fun events in their life, such as a birthday, or favorites. I realized that Marji went through so much as a young girl without as many happy moments and many tough times. I created a bracelet for Marji, with key elements from the story. Instead of a birthday cake or cute dolphin, Marji’s bracelet has a crying eye, handcuffs, prison bars, a bomb, a sign, and her with a scarf.

Marji went through so many times of sadness and sorrow, symbolized by the charm of a crying eye. The handcuffs and prison bars represent the oppression experienced by Marji’s family, such as the imprisonment and execution of her Uncle Anoosh, and the constant surveillance and danger they were in. Marji experienced a war and bombings, symbolized by the bomb charm. In the midst of the oppressive government, Marji’s father protested the regime and as Marji grew older she took part in the protests. The “Down with the King” sign represents the protests surrounding Marji in Iran and the struggle for justice. The last charm signifies the veil scene in the book in which all women are required to wear the veil, and Marji does not understand why it is happening. Marji and women in Iran were forced to submit to a patriarchial view of Islam.

All of these aspects of the novel were struggles Marji went through as a child in the midst of revolutionary Iran. I think the bracelet embodies this concept and contrasts it with the safe childhood I had.

 

 

 

 

Portfolio Response to The Rainbow Sign

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aga khan postcardaga khan postcard back

 

A key theme in The Rainbow Sign  was the tension between countries in Europe, specifically England, and Islamic countries, specifically Pakistan. In class, we discussed how other countries in Europe also marginalized Muslims, such as in Bosnia and Spain. It seemed that there was so often the sense of the “other” and a need to find a sense of belonging in a certain group. I wanted to reflect on the breadth of Islam and the possibility of accepting other cultures instead of marginalizing them.

Over Thanksgiving break, I went to the Aga Khan Museum with countless artifacts of Islamic culture around the world, including European countries. There was a section on Spain and a description of the Reconquista, mentioning that most artifacts were destroyed but a  few remained and were on display. The ability of the museum to celebrate Islamic art and influence around the world even in a time of marginalization inspired me to consider even more being open to pluralism.

I decided to write a postcard to Hanif Kureishi, the author of the biographical story The Rainbow Sign, encouraging embracing different backgrounds and moving beyond a riddled past to promote racial and religious inclusion. I used pictures from the Aga Khan museum to illustrate this point even more: the map in the museum detailed many cities that were locations of collections of Islamic art and artifacts, showcasing the wide impact. The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was present at the opening of the Museum, and emphasized the efforts Canada is making to promote tolerance and diversity, sending a hopeful message of bridging the gap between Islam and the west. The two pictures of artifacts are from the Museum, relics of the Islamic influence in Spain–evidence that Islam is in Europe as well as eastern countries.

 

Artifact Picture Sources:

 https://www.agakhanmuseum.org/collection…

 https://www.agakhanmuseum.org/collection…

Stephen Harper Quote from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/stephen-harper-on-hand-for-aga-khan-museum-opening-1.2764535

Quote picture generated on http://quozio.com/

Portfolio Response to Madras on Rainy Days

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Shame and Honor

 

In some cultures

Women embody the honor

of a family.

Parents are strict to ensure their daughter

Is honorable. But value of

Intelligence, personality

Is disregarded,

The only worth of a woman is her body.

 

Women are considered submissive

Must follow the man in charge

Their whole lives

The father, the husband.

Without a man,

They are considered nothing.

 

This is not the basis of Islam.

Women should emerge from

the shadows, and become

able to speak for themselves

To be their own

person, to not condone

Being only considered a person if

tethered to a man.

Men and women should be held to the same standards.

 


 

A key theme in Madras on Rainy Days is the role on women in families. I decided to reflect on this with a poem highlighting the submissiveness forced on women in the novel. Layla was only valued for her virginity and hand in marriage, and when she is reluctant to get married her mother is astonished and considered her to be possessed by the devil. It was an impossible idea that a woman could even consider not getting married and also being controlled by a man. The only way Amme was able to protect Layla from her father was by ensuring that she got married and was no longer controlled by her father—there was no option for Layla to be able to be truly empowered.

I wrote the poem “Shame and Honor” to represent the requirement for women to be the symbol of honor and the slightest idea of straying from traditional values shames the entire family. I think that enforces this to an extreme dehumanizes a woman and values her only for her body, as I portrayed through the first stanza. I used the slant rhyme of “honor” and “daughter” and “family” and “personality” to include a further sense of incongruity with this idea of devaluing and objectivity women. In the second stanza, I develop this further by including no rhyme at all and emphasizing how women have to be controlled by a man. With the third stanza, I reflect on the need for this mentality to change and for women to be able to be treated as human and speak for themselves. I use the more congruent rhyming of “from” and “become” and “own” and “condone” as well as rhyming in lines directly following each other to convey a sense of approval with the idea of valuing women and allowing them to be distinct. I indented and centered the third stanza to represent taking a step forward towards valuing women.

 

 

 

Portfolio Response to An Egyptian Childhood

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The Visual Aspect of Quran

 

The Egyptian Childhood focuses on the memorization of Quran as an audio experience. The main character memorizes the Quran and later forgets it. It is obvious that the Quran plays a central role in the life of the characters—memorizing the Quran gives one the status of sheikh. However, the teacher is corrupt and only searching for money, not actually religious goals. Nevertheless, the Quran is a key aspect of the story.

 

The Quran has been an integral part of my childhood as well (although without the corrupt teachers). I did memorize parts of the Quran and listen to it during Islamic School—I think the Quran definitely has a key audio element and there are many different ways to recite it.  I wanted to reflect on other ways to interact with the Quran, such as the visual element. I grew up learning about the Quran and listening to the Quran, but I also read the Quran in Arabic and lived around copies of the Quran and Quranic verses in my house. Seeing this calligraphy and lines of the Quran on the walls reemphasized the Quran as a daily part of my life. I demonstrated this effect by taking photos of the pictures we have on the wall and creating a PhotoStory slideshow of them, displaying the beauty of the Quranic art. As I walked around my house, I realized just how many different pieces of art we had that incorporated the Quran—I had never actually noticed the amount of the Quran we had around the house, they became a normal part of my life that I took for granted. They have helped cement the Quran as an important aspect of my religious upbringing.

 

 

 

Portfolio Response to The Saint’s Lamp

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sarah portfolio response (1)

 

 

The theme of “Islam vs. the West” is prevalent in The Saint’s Lamp.  When Ismail leaves Egypt for Europe, he turns to drinking and relationships with women, actions that would not be condoned in Islam. He begins to put more faith in science and knowledge than religion, establishing a contrast between modernization and Islam. He no longer has faith in Umm Hashim’s oil lamp, trying to use medicine to cure Fatima’s eyesight. In this way, his faith is weakened from his time in “the West”. The medicine does not work, and Ismail searches for some aspect of the knowledge he gained in Europe to help him, but he cannot find it. He realizes that science and faith are connected, and regains faith in Umm Hashim.

Ismail’s trip to West “corrupted” him in the sense that he no longer had faith in Islam. I signified this mentality of the West vs. Islamic countries with a drawing of a tree, one side the West and the other side Islam. The leaves leaning towards the Islamic countries are bright green and alive, full of faith, while as they get closer to the West, they grow darker and begin to die, just as their faith weakens.

Although I do think western culture and Islam can be brought together, there is a view of the two ideas being polar opposites and mutually exclusive. The tree represents this; however, all the leaves are still part of one tree and are still connected, just as Ismail eventually regains faith and is able to practice science with his faith when he returns to Egypt.

Special Thanks to Yousra Neberai for her inspiration for this idea

Portfolio Response to Suns of Independence

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A key theme we have learned is that religions can be interpreted in many different ways—there is no one Islam. Particularly within The Suns of Independence, it is evident that culture can be applied to religion and result in different views of Islam. In the novel, the Malinke pray in Arabic for spiritual salvation and in Malinke for worldly requests, combining their culture with the traditional view of Islam. They also still considered their old religion, the koma fetish, as valid underneath the surface of Islam and combine those rituals with Islamic prayers. In this way, the Malinke tribe adapts Islam to their own interpretation. Other tribes may adapt traditional tribal dances to symbolize Islamic ideas, such as the bird from Mecca saving the day. These takes on Islam may not be what we initially consider “Islamic” because the Quran and Sunnah were placed in an Arab context, but still should be considered as a view of Islam.

There are examples of this variation of Islam in other cultures as well, as in China and Bangladesh where the Prophet Muhammed is connected with Confucius and the tenth avatara of Vishnu, respectively. These many syncretistic views caused me to consider Islam as an umbrella term, one that encompasses different opinions instead of simply one “true” version of Islam. I portray Islam as the umbrella in my painting to showcase the idea of the umbrella term and how Islam is an overarching label. Underneath the umbrella, I specify the examples of the Malinke, the Chinese, and the Bangladeshi takes on Islam and how they differ. They do all connect with the idea of God and the Prophet Muhammed, so I connected the separate interpretations with the handle of the umbrella as God and the Prophet.