Introduction

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My work reflects through a modern prism the diversity and depth of Islamic art. From poetry to art, dance to literature. Each creative project touches on a number of primordial themes, which go beyond the confines of any particular religion, society or period.

The transcendental quality of light, both in a figurative and metaphorical sense, is explored by black and white photography and the Haiku. It is also touched upon in the Ghazal. Key issues such as the importance of prescribed religious practice (which is especially interesting in Islam with the Sufi and conventional approaches) are expressed in the photo-collage and the illustrated short story, the later exploring this topic in relation to gender, a topic of my interest.

A common motif to all the projects is the desire for Tawheed, Union with Allah: The collage expresses this through architecture; the leaf picture alludes to the God’s imminence and presence within the entire universe. The Haiku attempts to move beyond an understanding of God based on intellectual understanding and rationality. The dance choreography and lyrics of the song express a desire for union with God who created human kind to find him. The illustrated story shows the liberation that can be achieved by following Allah’s rules and the Ghazal describes the journey of women to achieve Tawheed by experiencing the different aspects love. In the Quran, it is written that “Allah is closer to you than the jugular veins”. True to this motif, I have placed Allah at the centre of every one of these creative art mediums.

While creating each of these six different pieces, I sensed a different kind of freshness and closeness to the religion. In each of my creative pieces, I started seeing some multi facets of Islam that ran from veils to ghazal to dances.

Ghazal

Writing the ghazal gave me an outlet of expression. Initially started without any expectation of how much it was going to touch me. However, as I went on, it became a portal to connect to myself, albeit for a brief period. The beauty of its flow gave me a sense of peace. At each stage in writing this ghazal, I was encouraged by Kelly LeFave’s (Real Ghazals) description of how liberating the defined structure of the ghazal can be. I struggled to find the rhythm and rhyme for a large portion of the ghazal. For someone who does not consider herself to be very talented at singing, it was definitely a very interesting experience to go through the ghazal. I persevered and the poem eventually took a form of itself. I realized through this process that writing a ghazal does demand you to sing it at the same time as well. This is an art form that asks you to not only use your head, but also your heart and your voice at the same time. The parallel with the motifs in the course regarding the use of head and heart were not lost on me.

I was also reading about the ghazals before attempting to create them. I learnt then about the importance of idea cross pollination. Such cross pollination between Persia and India became apparent. I found it interesting that when Islam was brought to India that the culture of dance influenced the Christi Sufi order. Finally, having come from a different academic field than religion, the ghazal helped me to explore the side in me that I was not aware of its existence, my love for writing poetry.

 

Photography

My photography project was very much involved with the idea of light in Islam. When I learned about the importance of light in Islam, it reminded me of Hinduism.  I was especially reminded of Diwali, the key Hindu festival of lights. During Deewali, families come together to light the small clay lamps with oil to signify the triumph of good over evil. Amongst the many God and Goddesses worshiped during the festival, Laxmi the Goddess of wealth is one of the central Goddesses. Laxmi is thought to be benevolent to her devotees. . There is also deeper spiritual meaning to Diwali where the importance of awareness of the inner light is celebrated. A cornerstone of Hindu philosophy is that there is something beyond the physical body and mind, which is pure infinite and eternal called aatma. This is the human soul, which is then connected to the composite soul called Brahman. I could not stop thinking about the parallel between the Aaatman-Brahman connection in Hindusim against the connection between all humankind and Allah in Islam. These ideas all arose in my head when I was thinking about the importance of light in Islam.

Dance

The dance choreography was the most enjoyable part of the project for me. I was able to work in a group and collaborate to choreograph and dance on a beautiful Qawwali song by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan called Alla Hooin. Dance is an integral part of the Indian culture.  In this particular song, we repeated many of our moves to the dance beat, Allah Hoo.  This reminded me of the theme of repetition in Islam. Forgetfulness in humans is addressed by Islam by proscribing a repetition of rituals and cyclical requirements in Islamic life. Art and Architecture, another important aspect of Islamic culture, also employs repetition by the use of geometric patterns that is repeated infinitely to give a sense of timelessness and create the sense of infinite space.

Dancing together also brought a sense of community to the project. Community is a large part of many motifs of Islam. It also made the process of dancing less nerve-wracking and more fun.

Haiku

When I first wrote the haiku, I drew parallels between the haiku and Islam. I believe now that the greater parallel is between the Haiku and Ghazal. Both are art in their own forms and are gaining in recognition in the West. As a poetry form, they both liberate the poets by confining them to various artistic rules. In the Haiku, the artist is limited to five 5-7-5 syllabus whereas in the ghazal- same meter, rhyming couplets and idiosyncratic limitations.

What is interesting is actually the fact that by constricting me in the forms of what I was creating, both these forms of art allowed me the freedom to express myself. That brought questions of freedom to my head. There are many ways in which Islam sets rules for behavior for its adherents. These can be compared to constraints on the forms of behavior. Does that however mean that Islam actually allows a large degree of freedom on the expression of our interests and wishes? I could not answer the question, but the idea was interesting.

Photo Collage

On the photo collage, I have depicted the interiors of various mosques around the world ranging from mud construct in Djenne in Mali to man’s mosque in Esfahan.

Having coming from a Hindu background where there are different deities in various in temples, I get astounded with Islam where no deities exist. I understand that this is something that is a core part of the religion. According to the Quran, “No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision. God is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things” Qur’an 6:103. Maybe because of this, the interiors of mosques look very different

While researching for different kinds of mosque during my collage creation over the internet, I realized the beauty and diversity of mosques around the world. This surely has triggered my interest to visit the Islamic world and gain deeper understanding of its diverse culture and architecture.

 

Illustrative Story

I used the illustrative story to use my experience in India to connect with the important facets of Islam and its relationship to gender and the modern world. When I was working on the project, I started vividly remembering small details about the train trip in Mumbai I was taking last December. The wandering eyes of the men who were looking at me came back to me very clearly while I was drawing.

I also remembered the incredible feeling I had when I was wearing a hijab the next day. The freedom of not having to worry about someone looking at me was a new experience, and it helped me connect to myself more. I was reminded of this experience during Professor Assani’s lecture on gender and Islam. One of the interesting topics raised during the lecture was the contextual interpretations of the hijab, namely the question; is the veil oppressive or liberating? A quote that I found interesting was:

“Prophet! Tell your wives, your daughters and the women folk of believers to draw their veils closely around them. This will facilitate their being identified for who they are and will save them from molestation….God is forgiving and merciful.” Surah 33.59

This portfolio project has helped me to understand Islam using my head, heart and hands.  By studying the art and creative forms of the Islamic World, from calligraphy to poetry to architecture, I have gained a deeper appreciation of both the diversity and depth of Islam. I believe it has been insightful to study Islam through the lens of culture as often religion lives and breathes through the rites & rituals and the wider influence on society and not just in churches, temples, synagogues and mosques.

This has been a exploration which I have thoroughly enjoyed. I hope you enjoy the creative projects, which I am sharing with you.

Ghazal: Dust to dust, love to Love

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Dust to dust, love to Love

 

With cries opened my soft hands, jelled our hearts

The cord of life cut, and yet still, jelled our hearts.

 

Secure in sculpted life, nurtured gleaming smile

Each step held, even there to spelled our hearts.

 

Stars born to fill the night, music born to fill stars

Through crackbook and David Guetta yelled our hearts.

 

Cosmic winds conjoined two souls together

Ever since, in mesmerising dreams dwelled our hearts.

 

True blessing, new candle sparked into life

Twisting and playing in my womb, jelled our hearts.

 

For what? Reflecting inner self; meaning devoid

Fun, success, love, children, yet repelled our hearts.

 

Heart anguished like bloodied Karbala plains

Furniture washed, Ocean tasted; swelled our hearts.

 

Still, serene, with awe Sumi journeys further

Beyond all mind and values; weld our hearts.

 

 

The ghazal recounts life’s journey, from birth to death, through the prism of experiencing of different facets of love. The inspiration of the poem came from the Conference of Birds. Just as Attar describes how the birds cross the seven valleys to find Truth – from Talab to Fuqur and Fana – this ghazal describes the women’s path as a journey through seven steps of life.

 

The ghazal starts at birth with the love that the mother shows towards her baby girl. Even when the umbilical cord is cut, the heart connection between mother and newborn remains. The mother raises the child with love, providing a secure environment in which the child can grow and enjoy life with many smiles and laughter. The mother is there at each step of the child’s development, including helping with homework.

 

In the third couplet, the girl is no longer a child and experiences the love of friendship, clubbing and yelling at concerts. Wine imagery is often used in ghazals to describe forbidden activities as well as mystical wisdom along the path to ultimate intoxication (C Petievich). However, wine (in moderation) is not considered taboo in Western culture so my use of crackbook both symbolises the quasi-addiction that youths have towards Facebook to connect with friends, and alludes to crack-cocaine – considered by most to be very haram! In this couplet, I have attempted a Persian metaphor where the three different ideas of stars, music and a banned substance are combined to show the ecstasy and rapture derived a hedonistic lifestyle.

 

The woman grows out of her party days and encounters the love that is shared between soul mates. This love, in turn, leads to her experiencing another form of love: The love she has a mother for her own child and acknowledges that the child is a blessing from beyond.

 

The poem takes a somber turn in the sixth couplet as the women experiences a mid-life crisis. All the pleasures provided by good food, her house, health, loving partner and friends, riches, success etc, which pre-occupied her existence before, now seem hollow. She feels disconnected to herself, her loved ones and to God. In literature it is often after facing the lack of love that the expression of love is the greatest.

 

This state of depression is difficult and strenuous, leading to all her inner furniture being washed out. This is a literary reference to Rumi’s famous poem ‘The Guest House’ where he implores his readers to welcome all emotions that come their way from momentary joy to despair. All feelings should be welcomed because “even if they are a crowd of sorrows that violently sweep your house empty of its furniture… (they) may be clearing you out for some new delight.” Here, the woman’s mid-life crisis has left here heart feeling as desolate as Karbala but it ultimately readies her heart to truly seek God.

 

Her heart swells and overflows with Mahabba, the love that thirst to meet the Beloved. And as the time comes for the lady’s soul to depart this world, she is at peace having found Tawheed (Unity of Allah). In keeping with tradition, I sign the ghazal with the pen name Sumi, which is an amalgamation of Suniti and Rumi – my favorite Persian poet.

 

illustrated story: A glimpse of new experiences in Mumbai

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A glimpse of new experiences in Mumbai This story is inspired by my own experience in Mumbai in December last year. I was new in the city so I used to travel in men’s compartment in the train along with my friend.  There were very few women in the men’s traveling compartment (In Mumbai, there are women only compartments and mixed areas which are predominantly male). I felt stared at a lot, maybe due to my fair complexion (by Indian standards). Although I wrote about the hijab experience as if it were first day in the story, I actually wore it on the last day. It felt incredible to walk around wearing it. It gave me a sense of freedom to not be self-conscious and just fully experience the moment.

 

I was reminded of this experience during Professor Assani’s lecture on gender and Islam. One of the interesting topics raised during the lecture was, contextual interpretations of the hijab; Is the veil oppressive or liberating? A quote that I found interesting was:

 

Prophet! Tell your wives, your daughters and the women folk of believers to draw their veils closely around them. This will facilitate their being identified for who they are and will save them from molestation….God is forgiving and merciful. Surah 33.59

 

I was inspired to write a picture story and enjoyed reading Rokeya Hossain’s short story “Sultana’s Dream”. I thought that writing in such a simple way, as if a child had written the story, was a true case of less is more. The use of simple vocabulary, minimalist narrative and unadorned drawings, lets the message speak for itself. Here I attempt to mimic her style and recount my experience of wearing a Hijab for the first time.

 

Qawwali Dance

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nbsp;http://ge.tt/#!/6E8AhFH/v/0  Our inspiration for doing a Qawwali was the influence that it has had on modern music and dance in the Indian subcontinent. The qawwali is a group song associated with Sufism mainly prevalent in South Asia. Qawwals present mystical poetry that is charachterized by repetition and music with an intension of creating an intense sense of ecstacy amongst the audience. . In this particular song, we repeated our moves to the dance beat, Allah Hoo.

 

C W Ernst explains that whilst the Qawali is traditionally a musical theme where dance, if any, is un-choreographed the how the Mevlevi Sufi order has more of a tradition of accepting dance as an integral part of qawwali. He explains that one of the best-known traditions of Sufi music is practiced by the Chrishti order in India and Pakistan and many of the qawwali songs are in Indian languages including Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu. Obviously, being Nepali and having travelled in India it was useful that I could use bring my own culture to this creative project and collaborate with friends who also have roots in the Indian sub-continent.

 

I collaborated with Aditi and Theresa to dance on a beautiful Qawwali song by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan called Alla Hoo. Our intention was to bring our own interpretation to Qawwali dance choreography by using Indian-themed dance moves and dressing traditionally. During the middle of the dance we sat down. This, I feel represents being grounded and not been too drawn into the experience by keeping the dance as a longing for God and not a mere dance. When spinning, I believe this symbolizes being lost in the transcendental experience and a tribute to the whirling Dervish.

 

 

The lyrics sang in the song are…

 

Allah Hoo:

ye zamiin jab na thii, ye jahaan jab na thaa

chaand suraj na the, aasmaan jab na thaa

raaz-e-haq bhii kisii par ayaan jab na thaa

jab na thaa kuch yahaaN, thaa magar tuu hi tuu

 

The time when there was neither land nor the world

nor moon, sun or the sky,

[and] when truth was not known to anyone.

At that time there was nothing except you.

Link to complete song: http://nusrat.info/allah-hoo-allah-hoo/

 

I find the lyrics of the song go to the heart of understanding of God in Islam. C. W Ernst describes the Quranic theme of the covenant between God and the unborn souls of human beings when God asked:  “am I not your Lord?” (Quran 7:172) “Sufis describe God as having placed a secret into the human heart that they, which is concealed liked a spark in stone but which blazes forth when struck with the steel of sama.” The lyrics of the stanza we danced on speak to a time that God existed and humanity had yet to exist.

 

Rememberance of God through Patterns and Repetitions

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Remembrance of God is the essence of Islam. The reason the Islamic religion exists is to bring human beings back to a remembrance of Allah. Allah sent mankind prophets and revelations is to bring human beings back to a remembrance of Him. Man is prone to become distracted by the lure of the world in which he is immersed. He quickly entertains self-delusions and forgets that his whole life is under God’s command and that he owes every breath he takes to God. “So remember the Name of your Lord and devote yourself with a complete devotion” – Qur’an 73:8

Forgetfulness in humans is addressed by Islam by proscribing a repetition of rituals and cyclical requirements in Islamic life. The repetition Muslim life has many facets. There is the requirement of memorizing Qur’an from an early age (Z Sardar), the call to prayer (Azan) five times per day so that the day in started ended, continued and ended in remembrance of Allah, fasting once a year during Ramadan to dhikr – the tireless repetition of litanies of dervish. The act of repetition is strongly emphasized and is seen as a great devotion to faith.

Art and Architecture, another important aspect of Islamic culture, also employs repetition by the use of geometric patterns that is repeated infinitely to give a sense of timelessness and create the sense of infinite space. I have made a collage depicting the interiors of various mosques around the World showing how multiplicity and repetition is the essence of Islamic architecture. Mosques around the world are different ranging from mud construct in Djenne in Mali to man’s mosque in Esfahan, however, the fundamental idea of multiplicity of patterns in their interiors remain the same. This unity in the worldy diversity reinforces both of His transcendence and the concept of al-tawhid. “In all the cases of infinite pattern- which has no beginning or end and is self- conained- the design is at once symbolic of allah’s infinity” ( Necipoglu).

An expression of divine light

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Light is of central importance to Islam. It is written in the Koran that “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth” showing how Divine light illuminates both the terrestrial and spiritual worlds. For Shias, light has special significance in recognition of the idea of nur Muhammed (light of Muhammed). This Divine light is an emanation from God that is passed through prophets and finally reached Muhammed making him most perfect person and final prophet.

 

I choose use the medium of black and white photography because light is of central importance to that art form. With no color to distract the eye, the essence of B&W photography is to capture the spectrum of light that is reflected from the object and how those shades of light are interpreted by the viewer. In this picture, there is a great contrast between the light and the darkness on the leaf, emphasising the importance of light and expressing the duality between goodness and evil.

 

A leaf was chosen for the object of the photo due to the importance of the floral motive in Islamic art. To avoid idolatry (taghut) which is haram depictions of people was forbidden and many believe that for this reason Islamic artists perfected the use of the floral motive and geometrical shapes (G Necipoglu). Just like in Islamic art where the vegetable motif is stylised to such a degree that all resemblance to nature is lost, the focus of the picture is the the contrast in light and not the leaf per se. There is also mystical, Sufi dimension whereby art is a depiction of transcendental greatness of Allah reflected in the beauty of nature. This culminates in the expression of the oneness of God (Tawhid); as Rumi poetry describes perfectly:

 

What was said to the rose that made it open,
Was said to me, here in my heart.

A Haiku

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Supreme creator
Evergreen, leaves shelter souls
Loving unison

Humanity has increasingly sought Truth through prose and science at the expense of poetry and art. This begs the question what happens if one considers the postulate that there are truths beyond the measurable and outside our self-constructed analytical boxes? If, as Kristina Nelson describes in ‘The Sound of the Divine in Daily Life’, the meaning of the Qur’an transcends words then one needs to move beyond those very words to gain a greater appreciation of God. Recitation speaks to this shift away from a purely intellectual reading of the Qur’an but there is also a great heritage of Islamic poets who have used poetry to bring their audiences closer to God.

This is what inspired me to write a Haiku about Allah. Haikus are a traditional Japanese poem composed of kiru, morae and kigo. Just like a Japanese Haiku is untranslatable into English, much is lost when translating the Qur’an. The similarities extend further: Both the Haiku and Qur’an are enjoyed by many who do not speak Japanese or Arabic respectively as the Haiku has gained international popularity and Islam is present in all corners of the globe. The art form of the Haiku attempts to reveal a deeper meaning without recourse to grammar or discourse or a typical format of a western or Arab poem.

Allah means the One God and the Haiku praises Allah as the creator of all. The following verses from The Melvlidi Sherif describes how God predicates the existence of the universe

While yet the worlds were not, Allah had being,
Mighty was he, richer than all creation.
He was, while yet was found nor man nor angel,
No earth, moon, sun, nine spheres nor highest heaven
He was the art by which these were all founded,
Him they confess, his Unity they witness

Muslims believe that following the Islamic spiritual path brings us closer to God and shelters us from the harms that could come our way. Ultimately, however, the goal is to achieve perfect union with God (the mystic would contend that one is able to achieve union on earth). Al-Hallaj’s famous verse describes this union succinctly.

I am He who I love
And He who I love is I
We are two spirits dwelling in one body

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