Prologue

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.

 

Works Cited

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.

W12: The Partition

The Partition

A little BOY stands on tiptoes with his back to the audience, hands cupped around his face, which is pressed to a huge stone wall. An older GIRL stands to a side, anxious to leave.

GIRL. Let’s go.

BOY. Hold on.

GIRL. It’s time to go.

BOY. Not yet. Come here and look!

GIRL. I’ve seen it before. Besides, that hole’s not supposed to be there.

BOY turns fearfully away, back against the wall, drawing in on himself as if hiding from the hole in the wall where his face was.

BOY. Are we gonna get in trouble?

GIRL. No… don’t worry. The hole’s been there a long time. I used to look through it too.

BOY. Did you see the same things I was just seeing?

GIRL. What did you see?

BOY. Come here and look.

GIRL. No, I don’t want to.

BOY. (Slowly) You’re afraid.

GIRL. No…

BOY. Is it dangerous?

GIRL. No, it’s fine… I told you not to worry, remember. What did you see?

BOY. Lots. (Pause) Ladies passing by with their hair uncovered. Uncovered! In the street! Some of them walking by themselves – not a kid with them. Not a man.

GIRL. It’s not the same over there.

BOY. It’s a different world!

GIRL. Well, it’s a different country.

BOY pushes himself away from the wall, only to turn and tiptoe and peer through the hole again. A pensive silence.

BOY. It used not to be.

GIRL. What?

BOY. Those people… are our people, aren’t they? Adam told me – we were just one big country, once.

GIRL. Yes. Not terribly long ago. (Pause) But it’s better this way.

BOY. Why?

GIRL. Why what?

BOY. Why’s it better this way? And why… why’s it this way?

GIRL. Those aren’t our people, really. Our people are here, living with us, believing in what we do – we can live together because we believe the same thing. (Crossing over to where BOY stands.) Those people don’t understand us, and we don’t understand them. (Pulling on BOY’s shoulder so he turns away from the hole in the wall, tugging him away by his wrist as she speaks.) You can have fun watching them a while, sure, but you’ll put them out of your mind soon enough.

BOY tries to escape GIRL’s grip, but she tightens her hand around his wrist and marches him directly away from the wall. They come to stand downstage centre, looking out over the audience.

GIRL. You want to look? Look this way. This is your world.

GIRL and BOY look towards their city in the distance.

BOY. (Softly) This is our world.

GIRL. This is where we belong.

GIRL smiles, softening, and turns to regard BOY by her side. She puts her arm around his shoulders.

GIRL. Let’s go home.

They make their way slowly off.

BOY. (As they walk) Mira, what did you mean, we believe the same thing? What about the way our city’s divided into the different Quarters – Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and so on?

They exit. Though empty, the stage remains lit.

GIRL. (Offstage) But we all believe that we have to live absolutely according to the Word of God. We believe in the forbidden and the allowed, in Hell and in making sure we go to Heaven. And we believe in making everyone do the same. Don’t you know, silly boy, that’s what Partition did for us? It gave us this land of our own, separate and safe from those stinking moderates.

Lights down. End of scene.

In the creative response to this week’s readings, two ideas came together to inspire me: first, that of religious extremism and fundamentalism in societies, second, the history of the creation of Pakistan as a homeland for Muslims. Throughout this course, I have been unable to shake the thought that extremists of any religion seem almost to share a more similar mindset than do all members of the nominally same religion. So I tried to depict a world in which, instead of members of the same religion fighting for an independent homeland in which to come together and practice their religion freely, those who believe in living by religious stricture and imposing these beliefs on others (such as Maulana Bijli, whom we saw in the documentary on Salman Ahmad) have fought to live in their own society in which scriptural interpretations must dictate the actions of people. The idea of an inversion, and to present it as a story, was inspired by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream.

Within such a society, when the girl says, “that hole’s not supposed to be there”, the boy’s reaction is immediately to be repelled and fearful; in such a society the question of what is Supposed To Be and Not Supposed To Be holds all the power. When the girl explains the separation between the two societies to the boy, it sounds as if she is saying that they have pulled apart on the basis of religious difference – “we can live together because we believe the same thing.” It is only later, at the end, that it is revealed that the societies have pulled apart on the basis of their difference in levels of religious tolerance, and each lives in harmony that way. Would things be easier if the extremists of different religions and the moderates of different religions decide to split up into two different states? If dogmatic ideologues and their supporters rule over each other, and those who believe in freedom to practise or not practise one’s religion as one wishes (so dangerously liberal, as Bijli might say) were allowed to uphold their own ways of life, could there be more peace in the world? “The Partition” refers to both this fictional historical event, and its embodiment in the Wall that separates, physically and symbolically, two societies and philosophies, the Wall through which the boy peers. The piece is a tiny exploration, a sort of scene-setting, of what it might look like to live in such a world.

W10: The Battleground

This piece was inspired by our lectures and readings this week on contemporary Islam, especially with the focus on how social, political, and religious energies and conflicts play out on the body of the woman. A key point in the readings – particularly Weber’s “Unveiling Scheherazade: Feminist Orientalism in the International Alliance of Women, 1911-1950” – seemed to me encapsulated in lecture when Professor Asani referred to “Women as the battleground for ideological warfare between competing visions of Islam”. What was interesting to me was the extent to which these “competing visions” belong to men and belong to women. The traditional conception of female oppression is that men are the oppressors and women the voiceless, which may be true to an extent but is complicated through the angle Weber adopts, exploring how women themselves viewed the role of women, and through the quotes shared by Professor Asani, many of which came from women (and going a step further than Weber, Islamic women), and through the documentary clip we saw investigating Turkey’s ban on the veil, airing the views of women who believe in and don’t believe in donning the veil.

Therefore, in this piece, I depict a woman sewing what might be taken to be a hijab. For me, this addresses and presses the question of what Muslim women want for themselves and their fellow woman, and the question of their role in shaping society and society’s treatment of women. This draws on Shirin Ebadi’s sentiment, shared in lecture, “The humiliation inflicted on women is the result of a diseased gene that is passed on to every generation of men, not only by society as a whole but also by their mothers. It is mothers who raise boys who become men. It is up to mothers to pass on that diseased gene…” My focus here is not on the “humiliation” or the “diseased gene” but on the participation of women in shaping and influencing women’s roles and men’s attitudes towards women. The child rests against her mother’s lap as a representation of the object of these cultural, political, and social forces, someone who will or will not wear a hijab, someone who will or will not have the power to make that choice. The unfinished lines and feel of the entire piece, and the fact that the hijab has not quite taken shape, hopefully lend to that sense of ambiguity and lack of resolution, wherein the ‘question’ I claim to pose remains unanswered, remains open to interpretation and further questioning, perhaps even dialogue and discussion. The great empty spaces of the piece are thus filled with all that is as yet unsaid.

W8: The Voice of the Ass

The Voice of the Ass

“The most objectionable of voices is the voice of the ass.” (31:19) 

 

They were laughing uproariously, and it made him sad.

All it had taken was one note, one single little emission that swelled from the surging tide of emotion in him and burst joyously, audibly, from his throat… and then they were upon him, jeering and braying and stamping, with every screeching cackle, more and more viciously on the violently shrinking emotion inside him that had tried to escape the shell of his body and lay itself bare for all to see, hear, and share.

“Your voice is the ugliest voice I have ever heard,” guffawed one of his tormentors.

“It’s the ugliest voice God has ever heard,” corrected another.

“God covers His ears when you speak!” hooted a third, and the donkey tried to cover his own ears to the taunts, but he heard every one, and this one hurt him most of all.

 

That night, he found it impossible to sink into sleep. He shifted, and sighed, and sobbed, and tentatively, very tentatively, reached out for comfort from his God, as he had done on so many lonely nights before. But he heard nothing back. That night, God seemed far, far away from a creature such as he, one who, he realised, demeaned the one he worshipped by the very act and expression of his worship.

“If God is not by my side as I had thought, I will just have to travel to his,” he said to himself. Then he got up and left the warmth of his home, intent on making his very own night journey to God.

 

The donkey soon learnt he had undertaken a journey that could not be completed in a single night. It was an arduous journey; many times along the path he stumbled, and looked around in despair, and the moonlight was so very faint and the darkness loomed, and he felt sure he was lost. He passed the rushes by the river and they whispered, whispered, whispered in beautiful tones but when he listened, they had no words for him. He passed a camel waking from a dream, whose smile radiated with sleepy peace until her eyes lit upon him, and glared.

“What are you doing stumbling around in the dark like that?”

“I – I’m just looking for something…”

“What could you possibly be looking for?”

He was about to say, “God”, but the memory of the laughter came back to him, and he knew he was unworthy, so he said instead, “Singing lessons.”

The camel snorted, shook her head, and settled back into slumber, leaving him quite alone.

 

Night passed, and many days and nights after that, and he met all manner of beings along the road, who ignored him, or were cruel, or were kind, but could not help.

“Singing lessons,” he found himself repeating for the millionth time to a rose by the wayside. He did not notice the tear that welled up until he saw it drip onto a blushing petal.

“Oh, don’t cry,” said the rose. “You know, I think I just might know someone…”

The donkey tried valiantly to stem his snuffling as the rose called out to the nightingale. So absorbed was he in reflecting upon his own exhaustion, hopelessness, and hunger that he did not hear them conferring, or the voices calling out to him.

“OW!” brayed the donkey, his head smarting from the nightingale’s sharp peck.

“You’re going to have to learn to pay attention,” noted the rose in dismay. “Be a good student for the nightingale, please. I know you’ve had a hard time, and you should know it’s not going to get easier, but…” the rose was unable to finish her sentence, as the donkey erupted in expressions of profuse gratitude, relief, amazement, enthusiasm.

 

The rose had been right: the journey was nowhere near its end, and it was a whole new dimension of difficult. The physical difficulties were formidable as the donkey worked hard at his daily exercises, and the inner challenge was immense.

“I’m getting no better, am I?” sighed the donkey miserably at the end of yet another day.

“You’re fine,” said the nightingale, who was frankly impressed.

“This is terrible,” groaned the donkey, “but I should say it’s not as bad as when I was stumbling around alone in the dark. I’m so glad to have you now. You’re the best spiritual guide I could have found.”

“I’m your singing teacher,” amended the nightingale, bemused.

“Right!” said the donkey, pleased.

 

Years passed, and the creatures of the village were assembled in eager anticipation, craning their necks as they awaited the arrival of the famous qari’ who was to grace the village this day.

The reciter appeared.

A ripple ran through the crowd. A murmur struck up and grew in volume. Finally, the full sentiment was shouted, audibly, across the heads of everyone present: “The qari’ is a donkey? That can’t be!”

A familiar sensation assailed the donkey, but froze and fell away in the face of self-assurance painstakingly built up over the years. The donkey took a deep breath and smiled. “I’ll show them.” All he had to do now was let the Divine Word pour out of his soul through his throat, and it would captivate all within earshot. He opened his mouth, and began.

He barely heard the first boos and hisses, so preoccupied by his own panic was he. What was going on? What was going on?! The Divine Word, normally a running river of light, gurgled forth in fits and starts. His own voice, normally so beautiful that hearing it made him carry on even more beautifully, was weird and warped, twisting like the fear and shame that swelled inside him.

The famous qari’ fell silent, then fled on quaking legs.

 

He ran and ran and ran away from the terrible noise he had heard back in the village, the awful voice that had once been his. He ran blinded by tears so that eventually he collided into a solid mass and landed on his rump.

“It’s you!” grunted whatever he had run into. “What a ruckus you’re making. Sounds like you never did find whatever it was you were looking for.”

“Wh-what?” heaved the donkey mournfully, nursing his scrapes.

“Singing lessons, was it?”

The donkey looked up at the camel he had met a lifetime ago, and the memory of mocking laughter came back to him, and so did the memory of his first and secret answer.

“No… it wasn’t…”

The donkey studied the camel studying him sceptically, and thought about his journey, which he realised all of a sudden had not been towards God after all, but away instead from the shame heaped on him by his peers. And as the journey went on and the shame receded into a distant memory, he had not advanced towards God then either, but further and further in fascination with his newfound voice, his new image, his new and shiny self.

He looked wordlessly into the camel’s placid eyes, and as the jeers of a few minutes ago echoed and echoed in his ears, he realised he had yet to take even a single step on the journey he had set out on so many years ago.

What had he been doing stumbling around in the dark like that?

By this time, his teacher the nightingale had caught up to him, and perched by the camel looking very cross indeed. “What was that back there?”

“Vanity,” it dawned on the donkey.

The nightingale, not hearing, went on, “That wasn’t what I taught you.”

But that was all he had learnt.

“I’m sorry,” murmured the donkey, pensively picking himself up from the ground. He nodded, very respectfully, to his two companions, then turned, thoughtfully, and walked away in a new direction.

 

The camel and the nightingale looked askance at each other.

“Odd fellow,” said the camel.

“He’s alright,” replied the nightingale wearily.

“Wonder what he’s looking for,” mused the camel.

“Somehow I think this time he knows.”

They watched the donkey get smaller and smaller, until he disappeared in the distance.

The end.

The two main themes from the readings that inspired this creative response were, firstly, that of sama’ and “the power of the voice” (Ernst 180) and secondly, that of the Greater Jihad (Renard 98). The concept of writing this story through the eyes of the donkey came from the combined ideas of i. the unsuitability of the donkey’s voice as expressed in Ernst, who writes, “Many stories are told to illustrate the power of the voice, starting with the effect of the recitation of the Qur’an, the divine names, and religious poetry. Numerous hadith relate that the prophets have all been endowed with beautiful voices of remarkable intensity… In contrast, ugly voices are to be avoided. After all, in the Qur’an God said, “The most objectionable of voices is the voice of the ass” (31:19).” (180) ii. the notion, repeated over and over, that it is not just humans who love and praise God but everything around us in nature as well, such as the plants and animals, making me feel that a donkey could participate in this story just as much as a human would.

Much of the initial part of the story is concerned with the “rules” and outward manifestations of worship and communing with God, in a reflection of not only how sama’ acts as an instrument through which one arrives at ecstasy and some sort of union with God, but also of how it is governed by complex rules and understandings that try and determine who may effectively use sama’ and how. But the larger question of the story, that is much more fleshed out at the end but really tries to make an appearance from the very beginning, is how all these prescriptions and the concern about who, how, why, and so on is really centred on the fact that the material world, with all its entanglements, is very difficult to transcend. One may start off guided by the ‘right’ intentions and so on but the phenomenal world is so much more engrossing than the noumenal and one finds it very, very hard to extricate oneself and move towards a more enlightened understanding of or intimacy with the divine. I especially tried to express this in the first journey the donkey takes, wherein he parallels it to the tariqah, or the path from the external world to haqiqah (the ‘real’) as we learnt in lecture. Just as the Sufi shaykh is the invaluable guide on this path, the donkey feels that his teacher must be guiding him closer to his goal, but sometimes we just lack the complete consciousness to see and be aware of where we really are, and the fact that the supposedly spiritual journey is still subject to and submerged in worldly concerns.

The donkey’s failure on his return to his village illustrates how the success he had experienced just prior (as he gained fame as a reciter) was all illusory as true spiritual ascendancy was not after all within him, because he was too preoccupied with the worldly manifestations of success itself, and what it could do for him in terms of society rather than spiritually, bringing him closer to God (which he did intend, but the readings seem to teach that our pure intentions may be hijacked by our nafs). Finally, he realises that he must start over and embark on a true struggle, or greater jihad, against the ego or lower self (nafs) that has been driving him all the while. Yet I feel I must point out that the greater jihad does not start at this particular point, when he realises his vanity and preoccupation with himself; rather, he has been engaged in this jihad all along, but the whole circuitous initial journey just demonstrates how long and tough the journey overall really is, in order to even get a fraction closer to a consciousness of what is going on in one’s soul. While the donkey may at that point feel like he has taken one step forward and two back, the journey he took to develop a beautiful voice really was a part of his larger journey – as Renard writes, “The farther the mystic advanced, the more vividly he understood the infinite distance between himself and his Creator.” (230) In other words, it is not a simple, linear journey that the donkey in the story undertakes, but really the most intense, difficult, complex, and rewarding journey of all.

W6: “Spiritual Mathematics”

I wanted to bring many ideas together in this video, ideas of art, architecture, geometry, spirituality, divinity, nature, and interpretation. First, to explain the medium of a series of images and the pace – I wanted to create a meditative end product, one where all the various big ideas I was bringing together would be integrated quietly and invite contemplation, rather than with many things going on and flashing across the screen and being distracting. Next, to explain the choice of images – as I read Nasr’s Islamic Art and Spirituality, I was struck by the paragraph that begins, “There is within Islamic spirituality a special link with qualitative mathematics…” (47) As his sentences built one upon the other, with its references to Pythagoras and his art (his art being mathematics) and his sagacity, an image took shape in my mind, before I turned the page on this long paragraph, the image of a snowflake. The image of a snowflake, it seemed to me, in its “lucidity and perfection” (48) and its geometry, manifests Nasr’s point about Islamic art marrying the divine, the natural, the mathematical, and the architectural, articulated especially as he writes: “The use of rigorously defined geometric spaces, precise mathematical proportions, clearly defined lines and volumes relating to exact mathematical laws were means whereby the space of Islamic architecture, as well as its surfaces, were integrated. The principle of Unity as thereby made more manifest and the Islamic space within which Muslims carried out their ordinary lives as well as moments of worship were sacralised.” (48) Then reading on I realised it had seemed so to Nasr too, as he went on to use this very image as an illustration of his argument.

Furthermore, what Nasr does not mention is the way water crystallising into a snowflake might parallel the way in which he claims that the “great masterpieces of Islamic architecture… are like crystallizations of light.” (50) Thus the soundtrack of the call to prayer is meant to evoke not only the spiritual dimension but also more specifically the mosque, architecture, to underscore this reflection. I think the crystallisation of water into snow might also parallel the way in which he asserts that “the sacred architecture of Islam is a crystallization of Islamic spirituality and a key for the understanding of this spirituality.” (59) If we take Nasr’s word, a snowflake, too, with its breath-taking geometry, its exquisite perfection, its reflection of light, holds the key to understanding Islamic spirituality. I think a simple snowflake can be read as an ayat, a sign of the divine in nature, in everyday life.

Moreover and crucially, snowflakes are known not only for their geometry but also for their uniqueness. Kenneth Libbrecht explains, “The precise morphology of each falling crystal is determined by its random and erratic motions through the atmosphere. A complex path yields a complex snowflake. And since no two crystals follow exactly the same path to the ground, no two crystals will be identical in appearance.” (2004 6) The structure and appearance of the eventual snowflake is dependent on its environmental conditions – “How the water vapour keeps on condensing and where the snowflake falls” as well as temperatures is what shapes the snowflake. (Roach 2007) In this way the image of the snowflake also calls to mind for me Necipoglu’s historical, socio-political orientation, thus integrating Nasr’s focus on spirituality and aesthetics with Necipoglu’s emphasis on context.

Calligraphy Assignment

Just as the prophets were the sources of symbols and imagery for poets, and served as inspiration for the Islamic arts such as calligraphy (Asani, lecture), it was the prophets that inspired my design. Specifically, it was the concept that “Every nation has had a messenger” (10:47) and that these prophets make up a fraternity, an integrated understanding of humanity and divinity, rather than being pitted as rivals against one another to decide which is the ‘true prophet’, and what is the ‘true message’. I tried to express this universality and hope of mutual understanding through my design.

At the same time, that there is a distinction between the English letters and Arabic script and yet they are melded in the same word, image, or entity, is an acknowledgement (rather than glossing over) of our differences and yet an affirmation of our fundamental similarity. It is a similar message, I think, to that of Barbara’s kitchen, wherein different ‘dishes’ may be created, but all share the same underlying ‘ingredients’. As Sells wrote, “The experience of the Qur’an in traditional Islamic countries is very different from Western attempts to read it.” (1999:11) My design reflects the enduring hope that this difference is something to be celebrated, something that brings us all more knowledge, just as in the verse, “We (God) have made you into nations and communities so that you may know (learn from) each other.” Despite the multitudes that remain mired in mutual ignorance, there are also those who attempt to reach across boundaries (of language, of culture) to be able to see things from another’s point of view, and appreciate the ways in which that point of view echoes one’s own.

Although it may look different at different times and from different places on Earth, the moon is a constant in our sky; even when one cannot see it, it does not mean it is not there. I feel like this parallels the nature of Allah. We may each see something different when we look up into the sky, but the moon contains within its form all our fragmentary perspectives and understandings, and perhaps even is the richer for it.

W4: Who and What is Prophet Muhammad?

I dream of the Prophet
In the centre of the garden
he stands very still
Barging through and begging pardon,
I watch from the hill
All these people watching with me
aren’t just watching him –
Do they see a man a myth see
light, or human limb?
His bright presence is enchanting
and sets all aflame;
In their eyes I see them wanting
to call him by name
In their passion they start shouting
he stands very still
To their minds there is no doubting –
voices get more shrill
Mystic, model, intercessor
Light or human limb?
God’s beloved or oppressor?
Till the day grows dim.

The sun melts slow into the sea
and sets all aflame
I love the Prophet, who loves me:
that’s all I can claim.

This week’s readings were rich – dense, even – with ideas about and perceptions of the Prophet Muhammad, something of a challenge to wrap my head around. It seems that these poets, believers, worshippers, and religious authorities all have certain conceptions of Prophet Muhammad, which cannot always be reconciled (particularly across different or conflicting strands of thinking (e.g. Wahhabi/Sufi) rather than across different roles (i.e. poets can be worshippers can be religious authorities, and so on)).

This resistance to reconciliation in the many different views of Prophet Muhammad is not just a little problem for me in my attempts to gain a deeper understanding of Islam as it is understood, believed in, and practised by Muslims of all stripes; it is also, I think, a problem for said Muslims, or even non-Muslims, who raise their voices in passing judgment on what they perceive to be the reality.

While I do not quite have a solution to proffer, I return to the idea that, whatever one’s dearly-held opinion of him, his status, and his role may be, Prophet Muhammad is the key figure that unifies a factious, unruly, and often confused (but ultimately not more so than any other community one might point to) Islamic community.

Thus, in response to these thoughts, I have created a poem that in maybe an oblique way (such as in framing it as a “dream” – how romantic : )) echoes the love poetry, the devotional poetry, that we have read this week. At the same time, in this ‘love poem for the Prophet’, I focus not only on the persona’s love for him in whatever role she fits him into (which is my interpretation, not meant to be ungenerous, of the poetry I read), but first on these questions, to which love for the Prophet actually ends up seeming like a sort of answer.

W2: The Qur’an as Talisman

This piece was mainly a response to Abdullahi Osman El-Tom’s “Drinking the Koran: The Meaning of Koranic Verses in Berti Erasure” and the idea discussed in lecture and in section of the Qur’an as talisman. I wanted to create something that speaks to the understanding of the Qur’an as a text, particularly as a text with many dimensions and a lot of power. I also found this idea (first encountered in lecture) reflected in the El-Tom reading, where he asserts,

The Koran is regarded as containing divine power; thus, to possess the Koranic texts renders an individual powerful and protects him against misfortunes and malevolent forces. The highest form of the possession of the Koran is its commitment to memory, which amounts to its internalization in the head, the superior part of the body, whence it can be instantly reproduced by recitation. (1985:416)

I found interesting the idea that there is a sort of hierarchy to different ways of ‘possessing’ or ‘internalising’ the Qur’an. I was additionally inspired to represent a child’s experience by the early pages of Ziauddin Sardar’s Reading the Qur’an, which begins, “I grew up reading the Qur’an on my mother’s lap.” Thinking about a child’s experience, engagement, and understanding as regards the Qur’an made me choose the angle I did and heavily influenced the storyline; for example, it was important to me that it was the mother who held the deeper spiritual wisdom, and passed it on to her child.