The themes that have been approached in this portfolio are numerous, and as such, detailing each of them in turn would be a task far beyond the scope of an introductory essay. My aim in this short introduction is to explore some of the most compelling ideas that we have encountered throughout this semester, and that have inspired my responses in this portfolio. Some of these themes have grown to carry a deeply personal and spiritual meaning as we have explored them in depth. For others, I understand them as vital components of particular Islamic subcultures and they have therefore played a vital role in my understanding of Islam as a doctrine that lends itself to an infinite variety of interpretations. It is perhaps this fundamental understanding that Islam does not have any one defined “correct” interpretation that is my greatest take-home from this course. I have grown to be deeply suspicious of any attempt to categorize any view or belief as the correct Islamic stance on a given issue. As I now understand, Islam as a doctrine is a deeply individual and personal experience for the average Muslim, and though there is a pronounced emphasis on the role of communal unity in the faith, the interpretation of the religion must be recognized as the result of personal reflection and inquiry. Through my creative responses, I have aimed to undertake personal reflection on the meanings of these doctrines and have often discovered through the result of artistic endeavor aspects of the beliefs that were not apparent before. As such, the use of art has been for me a vital tool in the exploration of these themes and in the expression of my findings.
1)The Role of the Written Word in Islam
One of the most significant themes that we have explored through the course of the semester is the enormous emphasis that is placed in the Islamic tradition on the importance of literature, textual reference, and scriptural authority, all of which can be broadly classified under the label of the “written word”. Perhaps the greatest source of spiritual authority in Islam is the Quran, and it could be argued that it is from the book itself that Muhammad (pbuh) draws his spiritual significance – he is first and foremost the messenger to whom the scripture was revealed. The Quran however is not restricted to being a written text. As K. Nelson makes clear in the article “The Sound of the Divine in Daily Life”, the greatest exposure that many Muslims will have to the scripture is not through the reading of the text itself but rather through the listening of its recitation in a seemingly infinite number of everyday scenarios. What is interesting, however, is that the importance of the written word in the Islamic tradition extends far beyond the Quran or revealed scripture alone. Perhaps the most distinctive and easily recognized of Islamic art forms, calligraphy, is at its most basic and most rudimentary level a representation of the written word. In exploring the spiritual significance of the calligraphic art form, I discovered the immense symbolism that is concealed in plain sight in this artistic practice. Any Muslim that grows up in a Muslim community grows so accustomed to seeing the characteristic curves of the various calligraphic styles that the verses themselves that are being rendered into works of art fade into the background. In exploring the spiritual theory that lies behind calligraphy I discovered the immense philosophical implications of the craft. In my creative response entitled “Nun wa al-Qalm” I explore these philosophical and spiritual implications by employing the idea that the letters that compose the Arabic script themself are considered primordial. The Islamic creation story featuring Adam and the serpent is not unlike the Judeo-Christian creation myth, however, many Islamic traditions will also feature stories of the primordial time before the existence of the created realm. In these traditions, the letters feature significantly as the rudimentary units of the divine prelapsarian language. According to Abu al-Abbas Ahmed al-Bhuni, “letters arose from the light in the pen that inscribed the Grand Destiny on the Sacred Tablet”. According to another tradition, the angels were created according to the name and numbers of the letters. There is also a custom of personifying the letters themselves and endowing them with agency; one tradition for example holds that the letter Alif prostrated himself to God and was rewarded by being included in His name. Significantly, the Quran states in both Surah Yusuf and Ashura that it has deliberately been revealed as an Arabic text, suggesting that the language itself has a particular importance. When exploring the elevated role that language, particularly in its written form, plays in the spiritual understanding of primordial existence in the Islamic tradition, I could not help but notice the analogy that can be drawn between the existence of the primordial intellect in Islam and the “Om” in Hinduism. It appears that both belief structures cater to the same basic human need to understand the primal origins of man, and more significantly, the origins of the human intellect that define the human experience.
Islamic cultures have developed a keen appreciation for the literary arts, particularly poetry. Different Islamic subcultures have precipitated different poetic forms. In my creative responses I have employed two of these forms: the rubayi structure which I have used to compose a “naat” or ode to the prophet, and the ghazal form which I have used to create a traditional love ballad. As we learnt during our exploration of these poetic forms, the genius of the poets does not necessarily lie in their ability to present novel content but rather their ability to represent the expected content in an unexpected manner, while remaining confined to the literary strictures of each form. There is, I now recognize, something to be said for the pre-Islamic origin of many modern-day poetic forms that are conventionally associated with the Islamic tradition. The ‘hanging-odes’ which were hung on the walls of the ka’ba before the advent of Islam employed poetic forms that subsist today without significant alteration. As such, poetry represents a historical relic that has, over the centuries, been endowed with an Islamic identity but has pre-Islamic origins.
2 – Pre-Destination and Divine Decree
The notion of predestination or destiny is perhaps one of the most complex concepts of the Islamic faith, and indeed of any religious doctrine in which it features. It would be wrong for me to claim that it is a concept that I have been able to gain a complete understanding of over the course of the semester, but I can claim with confidence that I now much better appreciate the full complexity and intricacy of the principles at play. The core questions that come to mind when grappling with the concept of predestination are as follows: If my actions are pre-determined, why am I held accountable for them? If God already knew that I would have to suffer in Hell for my sins, why did he create me in the first place? If my actions are already written into the “sacred tablet”, do I really have free will? Perhaps my greatest understanding of these concepts came from a study of the story of Hussain’s martyrdom and its prominence in the Shiite tradition. In reading Sir Lewis Pelly’s play adaptation of the Battle of Karbala, perhaps the most striking element of Hussain’s characterization was his apparent desire for martyrdom, and the ensuing spiritual reward associated with it. When the leader of the jinn, Jaffar, approaches Hussain and offers to obliterate the opposing army to allow Hussain and his family to leave the battleground unharmed, Hussain refuses him. Hussain’s choice is significant because it demonstrates that while God may know, through his omniscient nature, what Hussain would choose, God himself did not make the decision for him. Rather, Hussain was presented with the opportunity to escape his death, and made the informed choice of going onto the battlefield. Thus, God’s prior knowledge and decree of Hussain’s martyrdom did not interfere with Hussain’s ability to make his choice. This essential nuance of the concept of predestination was something that I hoped to explore in my interpretation of the taziya through dance. The choreography of the dance, especially in regards to the movements of Hussain, was created keeping in mind the complexity of his decision to take on the battle with Shimar. His decision was deliberate and conscious but also the result of a greater spiritual pull that drew him towards his purpose.
3 – The Relationship Between Man and Allah
In the later part of the course when we engaged more specifically with Sufi ideologies and the foundational concepts of Islamic mysticism, I developed an appreciation of the relationship between God and human beings that was entirely novel to my understanding of the faith. In my response entitled ‘Ana al-Haq’, I hope to explore the notion that God as an entity is not external to the human consciousness but rather that he is an inherent part of the human being. This notion has important existentialist implications, because it changes our understanding of the human purpose from the duty to worship to the duty to find reunion with the divine entity. The idea is immensely appealing on a basic human level while at the same time bearing a uniquely Islamic philosophy. The idea that life itself is a testing ground for the hereafter is core to the Islamic tradition; Sufi doctrine interprets the same belief with the modification that success in the “test” results in the reunification with the divine and attainment of the state of wajd, or perpetual ecstasy. As Muhammad Iqbal highlights in his Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa, the position of the human being in relation to God is a very particular one. Humans are depicted as being higher than the angels, they are superior creations and therefore the angels are commanded to bow down before Adam in the Islamic creation myth. What exactly makes human beings superior is vital: it is the fact that Adam was taught the names of all things, and as such shared the knowledge of God. What is particularly intriguing about this aspect of the Islamic tradition is that it makes knowledge itself a divine and sacred attribute, capable of elevating one creature over another. As human beings have been endowed with knowledge and the capacity of rational thought, they are granted the status of “ashraf-al-makhluqat”, or the “highest of creation”. For the Sufi tradition, this elevated position is also a consequence of the primordial relationship of love that was established between human beings (the created) and God (the creator). Though the human being has been separated from his beloved (i.e God) by being sent down to the terrestrial world, he still enjoys the privilege of addressing his complaint directly to God, much as a lover would address their beloved.
Over the course of the semester, we also developed an understanding of what is understood by the notion of “knowledge”. There is an important distinction to be recognized between “ilm” and “ma’rafa”, though the nuance that distinguishes them is lost in translation. Whereas the former deals more with a textbook understanding of the faith associated with “Aql” (rationality) and the ritualistic elements of Islam, the latter is acquired through experience of the faith over the course of the Sufi’s lifetime and cannot be taught or learnt. The Sufi apprentice thus acquires ‘ilm’ through his readings and study and then is granted Ma’rafa through the course of his lifetime. Ultimately, knowledge of the divine reality is what guides the Sufi on his path towards reunification. It is hard to ignore, given the role of knowledge as a guide to the spiritual path, the imagery of the story of Miraj in which Gibreel acts as Muhammad’s guide to the heavens, showing him the way to the presence of God. Rational thought however can only carry Muhammad so far, and ultimately Gibreel (a representation of the ‘Aql’) must leave Muhammad to his faith and love of God which allows him to have communion with Him.
May 3rd, 2012
This piece was made in response to our readings from week 8 which deal with the role of music/sama in the Sufi tradition. Particularly, the piece was inspired by the whirling dervishes of the Mevlid order of Turkey. The dervishes believe that the state of wajd/spiritual ecstasy can be accessed through physical movement accompanied by Sama. When the dervishes whirl, they hold their hands in specific positions. The palm of one hand is turned upwards toward the sky while the palm of the other is turned downwards towards the earth. There are many interpretations of the significance of this positioning of the hands. One tradition claims that the Mevlids are thus testifying that God is both above and below. This interpretation seems to go hand in hand (pun not intentional!) with the Quranic verse “wherever you turn, there is the face of Allah” (Al Baqrah 115). Another tradition holds that the dervishes, in their state of wajd, enjoy a particular closeness and spiritual proximity to Allah, and thus can access the “Barka” or blessings of Allah. The positioning of their hands is then explained by saying that the dervishes act as intermediaries between Allah and the human realm – they accept barka through one hand (the hand turned upwards) and transmit the barka to the world through their other hand (the hand facing downwards).
April 30th, 2012
This piece was made in response to Farid-ud-Din Attar’s “Conference of the Birds”. The text relates the story of a large gathering of birds as they set out to travel across a vast landscape in search of the legendary simourgh that will become their leader, only to find in the end a large pool of water in which they observe their own reflections. The lesson of the text is deeply personal to each person who reads it. For me, Attar’s message mirrors closely that of Al-Hallaj and his famous declaration “Ana al Haq”, or “I am the truth”. The message is key to the understanding of divine reality in the Sufi tradition. At the time of Alastu when God asked of creation “Am I not your Lord”, the created world did not exist in the same manner that it is understood to exist today. All creation was unified with God and proclaimed its love for Him. When man was created and given life and form, he was separated from God. The aim of the Sufi tradition is to reunite man with God, but in order to do so, the sufi apprentice must understand that God is not a distant or external entity but rather an inherent part of the self. By letting go of the ego and the markers of self identification that separate the human from God, the human being can achieve a state of reunification with God, which is a state of pure ecstasy reminiscent of the state of Alastu.
In my response, I have used a template of Allah rendered in a digital calligraphic script. The alif, which is the first letter of the word Allah, has been removed. The alif is written in Arabic using a straight vertical line. In my response, I have replaced the alif with a human form and thus incorporated the human element into the name of God. The whole idea of Attar’s text and Al-Hallaj’s doctrine was based on the premise that God is not an entity that is external to the human being’s existence. As such, by incorporating the human form into the name of Allah, I have evoked the primordial relationship between man and God: they are both inextricably linked.
April 30th, 2012
Were not we once as one, till life thus afflicted me?
How dare this created world and body separate you from me?
You reigned over the night, the moon pristine and pure,
Till rose the wicked sun and chased you far from me.
Come swiftly saki and bear the noble wine in your hallowed cup,
And pray ,my love, that it dissolves the veil that conceals you from me.
Dead you are now to my cries of pain and ardent supplication,
Awaken, gorgeous idol, and return the heart you stole from me.
The nightingale and moth are my peers in this divine anguish,
Breathe your perfumed breeze this way and lift this curse from me.
This Ghazal was composed as a response to our reading ‘Ghazal and Taghazul’ by C.M. Naim. The poem follows the conventions of the traditional ghazal form, with the characteristic rhyme pattern of aa ba ca da ea.
The ghazal begins with a ‘Matla’ in which the radif of “from me” is established. The first couplet is inspired by the Sufi notion of “alastu”, which often features in the ghazal tradition under the guise of the “night of union.” When the poem asks “were not we once as one,” there are two possible meanings that can be understood. Firstly, that the aashiq and the beloved were together at one point in the past and have since been separated from each other. Secondly, that the human being was, at the time of “alastu”, part of the greater entity of God and did not exist as a separate being, until he was created in the human form and separated from God so that he could eventually find his way back to Him. The second verse of the Matla continues this idea of the human being eventually overcoming this reality and casting away the human form to return to the eternal beloved, God.
The second couplet incorporates the image of the moon that is a prominent motif in the ghazal tradition. The beloved is represented by the moon, which is beautiful and pristine. Again, the imagery of the night of unison reappears in this couplet as we are told that the ashiq and his beloved (the moon) were together in the night when the moon was clearly visible, but as the sun rose and morning appeared, the unfaithful beloved disappeared. As the ghazal continues, the saki, or spiritual leader, is summoned. The verse commands the saki to “bear the noble wine”, a clear nod to the imagery of intoxication that is characteristic of the ghazal tradition. As the poem makes clear, the purpose of the wine is not intoxication itself but rather the use of intoxication as a means to remove the barrier between the ashiq and the beloved.
In its penultimate couplet the ghazal employs the motif of the “sanam” or stone idol. The ashiq is so lost in his love that he supplicates to the idol instead of to God. Alternatively, the verse can be interpreted as a complaint against God, calling him idol-like and therefore unresponsive and unyielding. As the ghazal draws to a close, three more elements of traditional ghazal imagery are introduced: the moth, the nightingale and the perfumed breeze. Each of these represents a romantic pairing of a yearning ashiq and a proud beloved: the moth is in love with the flame, the nightingale with the rose, and the breeze with the rosebush. By calling them his peer, the poet joins the ranks of these legendary lovers who continue in their quest for the beloved.
March 8th, 2012
NUN WA AL-QALAM
This work was made in response to the reading “Calligraphy and Islamic Culture” by A. Schimmel. Specifically, the work was inspired by the section of the reading that deals with the relation of calligraphy and mysticism. The response has been done in soft pastel, and depicts a deep blue background on which a tablet of sandstone floats mystically. Next to the tablet is the letter Nun, which acts as a holder for a scribe’s pen. The work is a visual representation of the mythical origins of the written word, the scripture and divine predestination and decree. Schimmel explores a side of the Islamic origin myth that tries to explain not just human existence, but the more essential idea of primordial existence itself. Sura 68 begins with the verse “Nun, and the pen…” The meaning of this beginning, as Schimmel points out (78), has never been clear. According to a prominent tradition of the Prophet that Schimmel quotes, however, the pen (al-qalam) was the first thing that God created. It was capable of writing on the Lauh-e-Mahfooz, the well preserved tablet. According to one tradition, the pen has already dried up and therefore man can do nothing to change his fate or destiny. It is this notion of a pre-written fate that is depicted in the work, where the words “Al Naseeb”, “Al Maktub”, “Al Qismah”, and “Al Qudra” are written, each of them pertaining to the idea of predestination and fate. Specifically, “Al Maktub” means “that which is written”, and as such, cannot be changed.
The Nun serves a great symbolic purpose in the work. Ibn Arabi related one tradition according to which the Nun is associated with an angel, An-Nuni, who is the representation of the First Intellect, and is distinctive in its ability to “contain” knowledge. As Schimmel points out so accurately, the shape of the letter recommends its use as the ‘primordial inkpot’ (79) and it is this notion that is represented in the work. The two tradtions have been mixed together in the work: the Nun, representing the inkpot, is shown as being empty, and so the pen has dried up.
March 7th, 2012
To read the original Urdu text of the naat, click on the image below to enlarge it, and then click on it again to magnify further.
Khuda’ay Raheem o Kareem nay bakhsha humain
Ik insaan banaya jis nay banaya insaan humain
Hataya jiss nay humain buton say paray
Aur ik khuda ka batay humain
Khuda ka jo paigham tha, sikhaya humain
Muhabbat ka, ulfat ka paigham tha, sikhaya humain
Qabeelon qafilon main jo batay thay hum
Dar-e-khuda pay la kay bithaya humain
Soch samajh kay Buraq par bithaya humain
Hum jo bigray thay, mi’raj par bithaya humain
Haqeeqat-e-Muhammad yehee hai, pehen lo burda-e-Muhammad
Un pay qurban yeh sab, Sale-Allah nay sikhaya humain
God, in his mercy and benevolence, granted us a treasure,
In creating a man, to give mankind it’s meaning,
A man that rid us of the idols that plagued us,
And spoke of the One God, such was he
The message of God, he taught us
Of love, of passion, he taught us
Broken into fragments, tribes and castes were we
Until in in the House of God he united us
With wisdom did he show us Buraq
Spoilt and rotten we were, until he shared the Miraj
The reality of Muhammad is plain: seek comfort below his mantle
For his sake all my world is naught, such was the love of the Beloved
This na’t was inspired by our reading In Praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu Poems, by Professor Asani. The poem is written in the Rubay’i format, which as the reading explains (p173) is a poetic form composed of quartets that follow the rhyme pattern aaba. The na’t is composed as a tribute to the prophet, and as the reading makes clear, it has certain characteristic elements that make it a distinguished style in and of itself.
This na’t begins with an affirmation. The first verse, when translated, speaks of how God has “granted” us “a mercy”. The use of the Urdu verb ‘baksha’ here is deliberate, as this carries two distinct meanings in the language. The first, that of granting someone something, and the second, that of forgiving someone. The verse therefore has a subtle complexity which might at first be missed. In ‘granting’ Muslims the figure of Muhammad as a guide, God has in effect forgiven them for their sins because they are now guaranteed his intercession on the Day of Judgment. The na’t continues with praise of the Prophet, referencing in the first quartet the historic occasion after the Conquest of Makkah when Muhammad removed the pagan idols in the ka’bah. In the second quartet, the poem refers to love and passion, and the Urdu terms used are “muhabbat” and “ulfat”. The use of these words is a deliberate nod to Urdu love poetry and, as the Asani reading makes clear through the example of Firaqi’s na’t (p179), there is a custom amongst Urdu poets of mixing the traditions of love-poetry and na’t. In Firaqi’s case, he refers to the epic romance of Laila and Majnu, incorporating this typical element of the Urdu love poem into na’t writing as well.
The final quartet is filled with more imagery from the Islamic tradition, but with a pronounced Sufi feel. The idea that the reader too was show Buraq, and taken on the mi’raj is reminiscent of the Sufi belief that the mi’raj is/was a spiritual journey that all people make in their lives. In the final lines, another Sufi symbol of the ‘haqeeqat-e-Muhummad’ appears and reference is made to the ‘burda’ (mantle) of the Prophet as a sanctuary. This final reference was inspired by the Quranic verse in which Muhammad is called upon with the words “O thou wrapped up in the mantle!” (Quran 74:1).
March 7th, 2012
This was a joint project done in collaboration with fellow student, Nikhat Dharani
Please click here to see our rendition of The Final Battle at Karbala
Our response was to Sir Lewis Pelly’s The Miracle Play of Hassan and Husain. Imam Husain was portrayed as courageous and righteous but also more than willing to embrace martyrdom, a concept we found interesting. Why would someone with so much to give to his community and his family desire death? Just as the Prophet Muhammad is both a historical figure and a religious figure, Imam Husain has multiple roles. In our taziya, we incorporated the role of Imam Husain as the willing hero and martyr that Shia Muslims needed to see him as through moments where Shimar used his weapons to bring in a Husain who tried to fight the attraction. Throughout the taziya there are moments where Husain and Shimar are drawn together and pushed apart, signifying the unseen forces that our hero faces.
In continuing with the courage that Imam Husain displays, he enters the scene without weapon while Shimar is armed. We used dandiya sticks as weapons as one way to emphasize the storytelling in dance. Dandiya sticks cater to the visual and aural senses of the audience. Eyes and ears follow the sticks as they clash. In our reenactment of the battle at Karbala, Husain is without weapon, and Shimar, with his dandiyas, is a foil to Husain, highlighting Husain’s courage by repeatedly attacking him from behind. The struggle we reenact is meant to be seen and heard up close. We are surrounded by armchairs and couches, representing our audience, who can tell that Nikhat is playing Imam Husain because of the green she wears and that Sherry is playing Shimar because of the red he wears. The audience is supposed to be completely aware of what will happen, and at the same time, we want people to remember the parts of history that, for socio-political reasons, are not highlighted. Hazrat Fatima is the direct link for the Imams to the Prophet Muhammad, and we chose Nikhat to play his role because of the pivotal role that Hazrat Fatima had.