My blog is about the integration of life and religious belief, the lived experience of religion and context shaping each other, and diversity among Muslims—all expressed through art. To start my prologue, I would like to tell a little story.
I went looking for Islam the other day.
First I went to the Quran. Are you Islam, I asked. No, replied the Quran. I am not Islam. I am God in word. I am the holy book that contains the revelation of the final prophet. I come from the divine Mother of the Book. I contain the message of remembrance for God, the transformational love between man and God. I contain the laws and politics that would lead the world, should they be properly implemented in the spirit of God. I am supported by the hadiths so that men may better interpret me. I am the bride of many veils. But I am not Islam.
So next I went to the mosques. Are you Islam, I asked. No, replied the mosques. We are not Islam. We are the places where Muslims come to pray. Our walls reflect their ideas of what beauty is pleasing to God. Our minarets ring the call to prayer to all who will listen. We are a space for teaching and for learning. Our imams interpret the will of God from the hadiths and the Quran. But we are not Islam.
I went to the five pillars of Islam. Are you Islam, I asked. No, replied the five pillars. We are not Islam. We are cornerstones of religious practice. We are prescribed by the Prophet in the Quran and selected from among the sets of pillars. We help Muslims humble themselves before God and remember him daily. But we are not Islam.
I went to the Prophet. Are you Islam, I asked? No, replied the Prophet. I am not Islam. I was the last and greatest prophet. I received the final revelation and passed it on to men. I carry the original light of prophethood. I am the ultimate example for men. But I am not Islam.
At last I humbly looked toward heaven. Is Allah Islam, I asked. No, replied the Muslims. Allah is not Islam. He is the supreme creator of the world and above all others. He is the Merciful King, the Almightily, the Repeatedly Forgiving, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise, the All-Seeing, the All-Hearing, the Just Judge, the Gentle Nourisher, the Truth, and the Friend. He is the Giver of Live and the Bringer of Death. But he is not Islam.
Finally, I turned to the Muslims. Who is Islam, I asked. I have asked the Quran if it was Islam, and it said no. I have asked the mosques if they were Islam, and they said no. I have asked the five pillars if they were Islam, and they said no. I have asked the prophet if he was Islam, and he said no. I have asked if Allah was Islam, and they said no. So who is Islam, I asked.
We are Islam, replied the Muslims. When we read the Quran and try to understand its revelation, that is Islam. When we go to the mosques and pray, that is Islam. When we strive to apply God’s law to our lives and world, that is Islam. When we revere and listen to the prophet, that is Islam. And when we submit ourselves to Allah, that is Islam most of all. Islam is each of us who has ever submitted, who is now submitting, and who will ever submit to Allah. Islam is the actions and beliefs that we live out in service of Allah. Islam is each of us and all of us together.
Life and Belief
Earlier in this course, Professor Asani described two Islams. Islam with a capital I is a codified religion involving the Quran, belief in Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, and a set of rituals. Islam with a lowercase i is submission to God, or the private belief of Muslims. Both of these are somewhat abstract principles of religion. I am intrigued by a third Islam. This third Islam is the reality of how humans who subscribe to some version of Islam and/or islam shape religion and live out their lives. This third Islam is, at its heart, the actions and beliefs of all those who identify as Muslim.
My storytelling of hunting Islam above came from this idea of religious beliefs being characterized by a group to be a faith that held them together and permeated their lives. But this faith, its practices, and its tenets all stem from people over time. Islam is defined by its adherents, as are all religions. Islam is a codified set of beliefs and rituals, but only because some set of those practicing Islam have decided that Islam should be this codified set of beliefs and rituals. Regardless of the truth of any one way or aspect of religion, the reality of Islam yesterday, today, and tomorrow is the reality of those practicing Islam.
Islam is partially a set of general beliefs that people identify with, but it is the intermingling of belief with the lives of believers that creates the reality of a religion. Art, literature, politics, culture, daily life, food, tradition, relationships—these are the arenas in which a set of religious beliefs play themselves out. Each shape religion and religion shapes each of them. In the end, I believe it is the Muslims who create Islam, and I strive to understand their experience and context.
I was fascinated by the inextricability of the religion of Islam and the practitioners of Islam; Islam cannot be separated from those who practice Islam. This idea of Islam as fused into the people who identify as Muslim captures the heart of what I see in this course. There are Sunni and Shia, but both are part of this Islam. There are Sufi and Wahhabi, but both are part of this Islam. There are Muslims in the Middle East, in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, in the Americas, and in Australia—all are part of Islam. When I look below the surface of a religion, I see a thriving community of individuals spanning every continent. Each of these adherents of Islam contributes to what the religion means in practice.
Since my third Islam is the experience of each and every Muslim, it inherently encompasses their diversity. One of the main themes of this course has been that the practice of Islam differs across geographic areas, political groups, religious subgroups, genders and individuals. The experience of a Muslim male child in Indonesia is going to be very different than the experience of a Muslim female adult in the United States. The experience will be different if the individual lives under a predominantly Muslim government or a laicite government. The experience will be different if the individual is Sunni or Shia. The experience will be different if the individual believes in Wahhabi ideology or a Sufi mystic.
Given this diversity, most perspectives will focus on what some segment of the global Muslim community experiences. I’m intrigued by how these differences across space and people shape individual narratives. In my pieces, I implicitly acknowledge differences in opinion, belief, and experience between groups. From different interpretations for Muhammad’s birth story to the experience of an Arabic Quran by non-Arabic Muslims—I try to hint at the diversity within adherents of Islam.
Among the diverse interpretations of Islam, varied traditions of art represent different eras, geographical locations, and beliefs. In this class, we studied personal religious devotion manifested in art and daily practices. The reality of belief is embedded in a tradition of practice, in a diversity of artworks, and in the community that defines by their lives and creations what it means to share this faith. If religion is an extension of its believers, then Islamic art is a manifestation of those believers and their cultures.
Art can be divinely inspired, a very human way of connecting with religion. Art can be one way to experience this link between practice and belief. Mosque design, with its history the hypostyle design descending from the Prophet’s home and arabesque design invoking gardens of paradise. The Ta’zieh mixing Shia beliefs about Ali’s descendants and the practice of this drama form to create a fixture in Persian cultural tradition.
Art can also inspire religion and fuel the shaping of religious practice. The beauty of the Quran cited as proof of divine inspiration in a culture celebrating poetic tradition. The musicality of the call to prayer imprints itself into the landscape of daily life and inspires regular devotion.
These artworks see beauty and religion meshed, the practices and the religious beliefs indivisibly intertwined. Islam, as I understand it, is the people who identify as Islamic. That means wildly different lived experiences, but it means that art and beauty created by those individuals can share their personal views and hint at the diversity of views truly present. It means that looking at the art of adherents to a religion can share some of that religion, because the religion is their reality. They shape their art and they shape their religion, and religion and art can share each other with the world.
I was intrigued by this interplay of individual people both shaping and enacting their faith in their daily life. In my art pieces, I wanted to touch on various aspects of the beliefs and practices of Muslims to highlight this connection between the human beings believing Islam and the abstract concept of the religion of Islam. Furthermore, this emphasis on the human beings behind the religion inherently implies the diversity of beliefs and practices associated with Islam. I believe a religion is experienced as the interplay between beliefs about truths and one’s life. Belief shapes daily life. Daily life shapes belief. This interplay between belief and practice creates the diversity of Islam we see today, and I wanted to capture some hint of that in my blogs posts.