Friday, May 2, 2014
This blog is a collection of creative responses to the weekly readings of a class titled “For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature and the Arts in Muslim Cultures”. The artworks gathered here represent an engagement with the ideas and themes of this course, the primary one being the cultural studies approach. Broadly, the works engage the idea of the cultural studies approach in three main ways.
For one, in different ways each time, the works evoke the idea of context – the works demand contextualisation, draw explicit attention to context, and look at objects, ideas, and actors as acted upon and shaped by historical and socio-political forces. A question often asked is, who or what shapes something, and how?
Second is the idea of dialogue, of views of religion and society that differ and even conflict, which are dealt with by putting them in conversation with one another. Often these questions are of authority, rules, and conflicting interpretations. Moreover, this relates to the idea of context as understanding contexts contributes significantly to an understanding of how various views came to be.
Thirdly, the artworks have a dimension of focusing on devotion to, and love and the beauty of, the divine; in other words, the works attempt to deal not only with political and social realities, but spiritual realities as well, in an acknowledgement of the fact that it is the combination of these aspects that more fully makes up the lived experiences of people.
People, I feel, are at the heart of the cultural studies approach, the entity under examination through which we may get to some sort of understanding of society and of religion; doing it the other way may produce more intelligible, simpler models, but elides the powerful notion that society and religion are not static, not monolithic, and have not the agency that people do.
In this essay, I will attempt to bring together these concepts with the artworks to illustrate their engagement with one another.
Context is crucial to the works presented here. On one level, the works must be viewed in their own context, as a series of creative responses to a college class employing a cultural studies approach to the study of a religion. While the works can be viewed without this information, the understanding does transform the works and the effect they have on the viewer, who brings new associations to the pieces that would not have arisen without it.
On another level, individually, the works draw explicit attention to the contexts of various viewpoints. For example, in “W4: Who and What is Prophet Muhammad?” a range of different ‘names’ for the Prophet are proffered – “mystic, model, intercessor… God’s beloved or oppressor” – and each of these names are unintelligible without an appreciation of the angle each takes, and the contexts in which they are rooted. To understand why anyone might call Prophet Muhammad “oppressor” requires an understanding of how he has long been viewed by the Christian West, for whom “the greatest misconceptions about Islam concern the figure of Muhammad” (Asani 107). The word “oppressor” is used here to conjure up the old suspicions and fears held against this Arab Other, and how “Muslim devotion and attachment to Muhammad were perceived as the greatest obstacles in fulfilling these goals” of “civilizing non-Europeans, particularly Muslims” (Asani 108). From such an angle it therefore becomes clear why someone might look upon Prophet Muhammad as an oppressor, a label that lacks meaning in the absence of context.
Explicit attention is also drawn to context in “W6: “Spiritual Mathematics””, where the images of unique snowflakes emphasise how “the precise morphology of each falling crystal is determined by its… motions through the atmosphere… And since no two crystals follow exactly the same path to the ground, no two crystals will be identical in appearance” (Libbrecht 6). This speaks directly to Necipoglu’s insistence on “carefully framed nuanced contextual studies” (82) because the “signification process” is “dependent on context”, historical, social, and political (221-2) – in other words, for deeper understanding, objects must be viewed not just in purely aesthetic and spiritual terms, but also in terms of how they have been shaped (literally, in the case of snowflakes) by historical, social, political, environmental forces.
In a final example, it is only an appreciation of societal contexts that allows “W10: The Battleground” to function as anything but a not-really-pretty picture. There is little access to the substance of the piece without considering the controversial and polarising relationship between women and young girls and the veil. This is exemplified in how the title, “The Battleground”, makes no sense if one views the piece with no idea of the societal contexts alluded to.
Thus, the artworks in this collection have attempted to draw attention to the utter significance of context as the grounds in which concepts, viewpoints, and whole religions are embedded.
As our exploration of contextual understandings has demonstrated a range of viewpoints depending on the angle one takes, dialogue comes into play as an important part of this process of a cultural studies approach to studying religion. While differences in fundamental beliefs may be difficult to talk about constructively, it is clearly important to do so, because our beliefs have real-world implications; furthermore, it is possibly easier to do so when the dialogue is approached with an appreciation of context, allowing different parties more exposure to where their opponents may be coming from, what are the essences of their beliefs, where surprising commonalities may be found, and so on.
The idea of dialogue features in every one of the pieces here, beginning in “W2: The Quran as Talisman”. Exploring the different forms and functions of the Quran and its role, such as a source of authority, a source of protection, and so on, the work gets at the idea of differing dimensions of a single thing – the Quran in this case – and the different angles from which one may approach it. The idea that there may be a hierarchy to these conceptions of the Quran and a hierarchy to how the Quran is ‘consumed’ so to speak, suggests that sometimes some beliefs assume ascendency while others are marginalised, whether rightly or wrongly.
In “W4: Who and What is Prophet Muhammad?” a similar question is explored, except the entity in focus is not the Quran but the Prophet who received it. The question is explored to a greater degree or more broadly, in bringing in nearly the whole range of interpretations of the Prophet and his role and setting them almost literally in dialogue with one another (as people start shouting at each other what they think he means to them). At the same time, in their fervour to express their own opinions, no one but the narrator is listening to what anyone else is saying. Dialogue is difficult to undertake, attached as we are to our own points of view. As or even more difficult than it is to listen to each other is to come to a resolution once all the perspectives are heard – the narrator settles for focusing on one of the least controversial and most arresting aspects of the relationship between Prophet Muhammad and his devotees, that of a deep love.
In “W6: “Spiritual Mathematics””, we have already seen how the piece brings in Necipoglu’s emphasis on context. But it goes further, in trying to put this emphasis in dialogue with another perspective: that of Nasr’s emphasis on aesthetics, spirituality, and universality. Nasr’s perspective is unmoored from societal specifics, in direct contrast to Necipoglu’s, and the video attempts to express both, giving them equal weight and respect, allowing a watcher to meditate on each and come to his or her own conclusions, be it in line with Nasr’s, Necipoglu’s, or an integration or rejection of the two.
In “W8: The Voice of the Ass”, there is an initial highlighting of the rules and outward manifestations of worship, a point of contention between religious individuals. Even aside from the rules of sama’ is the question of whether sama’ – “integrating music into the practice of meditation”– is even allowed, and the differences in opinion between “advocates, adversaries and moderates” are a good example of how religious debates and questions of authority and acceptability play out in the lived experiences of individuals (Lewisohn 1).
The notion of dialogue, or the coming together of diverse voices, is evident in “W10: The Battleground” even through the title. The battle of opinions plays out on the body and behaviour of women, who also have a huge stake in and have expressed their own – varying – perspectives on the issue. The child resting on her mother’s lap also calls to mind the question of not just what we say but whom we speak for. Presumably, the child has inclinations of her own on the matter, but the mother plausibly has her own ideas for the child’s future, and it remains to be seen whether through all this dialogue, the child will grow up to be able to make her own decisions or not.
Finally, “W12: The Partition” deals explicitly with the theme of dialogue in imagining a (admittedly simplified) world in which the ability and inability to dialogue have created two societies, one tolerant and harmonious, one which rests on the oppression of individuality on the basis of religious tenets. Perhaps it is a recognition of how dreadfully difficult it seems to be to bring some parties, insistent on the legitimacy of their own ideas and the nonsensicality of others’, to the table for talks that aim towards mutual understanding – a recognition that culminates in the wish that the difficulty could be circumvented by putting all such people together to impose themselves on each other as they wish, and leaving those who are interested in compromise and understanding to work, hard as it may be, towards harmonious relationships that take into account our differences. Of course, it is an escapist fantasy that itself questions the power of dialogue to achieve anything in intractable conflicts and a complicated world. Hopefully it can be seen as just one riff on the idea of dialogue and not the representation of the author’s entire view of how dialogue may function in our tumultuous world!
The themes of context and dialogue point to the figure of the individual as, if not powerful enough to always determine the direction of events and the composition of culture, then at least the basic building block of a full appreciation of the nuances of culture, religion, and society. Furthermore, the individual is animated and motivated not only by the external indicators of his or her socio-political context, but also by the inner, spiritual world as well. These are not two clearly delineated spheres; they share, as art compellingly demonstrates, a permeability in expression. Just as the conditions of the outside world informs our inner lives, we can draw on our spiritual understandings to inform the external reality, for example using art as an expression of that inner world as well as a vehicle of social and political critique.
Thus, the works in this portfolio have attempted to present that inner, spiritual dimension alongside the political and societal commentary. This may be seen in the expressions of love for and devotion to the Prophet Muhammad in “W4: Who and What is Prophet Muhammad?” and the depiction of how an understanding of the role of the Quran in one’s life transforms a little boy’s experience in “W2: The Quran as Talisman”. “W6: “Spiritual Mathematics”” is not purely an academic exploration (between Nasr and Necipoglu, as illustrated earlier) but also a meditation on the geometric, pellucid beauty that reflects divinity in daily life. “W8: The Voice of the Ass” depicts the inner struggle and journey of an individual whose one goal is to worship God as He deserves, but falls many time by the wayside, distracted by worldly entrapments.
In “W10: The Battleground”, a mother and child sit in an intimate setting, but their private moment is inscribed with the convictions and demands of figures around the world who make public exhortations to women, to take up or throw off the veil. It is my hope that through my collected artworks, introduced thus, we may gain insight into how these facets of experience interact with one another to produce the profoundly complex world we live in today. I have tried to present a view of the Islamic religious tradition, and Muslim communities, as diverse, sometimes with fascinating disjunctions, but beautiful in its manifestations, with many differing realities that must be taken into account before one can say one really sees a community or culture as it is. It is much more intricate and nuanced reality than the slick surface view one may get through a casual glance over from the West.
Asani, Ali. Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam.
Libbrecht, Kenneth G. “Snowflake Science.” American Educator Winter 2004-5. Print.
Necipoglu, Gülru. The Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture. Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.
Nasr, Seyyed H. Islamic Art and Spirituality. SUNY Press, 1987. Print.
Lewisohn, Leonard. “The Sacred Music of Islam: Samā’ in the Persian Sufi Tradition.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology Vol. 6 (1997): 1-33. Print.