Muslim Voices in Contemporary World Literatures

Introduction

December 10th, 2014 · No Comments

At the beginning of the semester, we discussed how each person has a “Worldview”; this worldview differs from person to person depending on their personal experience. This helps people form their identity; people also, subconsciously, project their own worldview onto their perception of other people. For instance, the things people notice or pick up on in other people have more to do with the person perceiving as opposed to the person being perceived. The idea of different world views is very important when talking about religion and reading different religious texts and texts involving religion. In our class, each person arrived at Harvard and in this seminar with a different background. Everyone has different experiences, upbringings and interactions with religion and which means when we are in conversation with each other discussing different books we each have different opinions. When it comes to religion, and religious texts specifically, historically, people have very different interpretations of the text. When people read the Qu’ran, each person is bringing their own Worldview, their own personal experiences, and taking different things from the reading. When approaching a text like the Qu’ran, people are likely to remember and highlight the parts of the text that apply to their lives. An important aspect of this seminar was responding each week to the readings, but something that was even more important than our personal response was the fact that we got to hear about everyone else’s responses. The time we took to share each week helped me look at the readings in a different light and think about them in ways that I had not before.

A vital aspect of this course was the fact that we were able to use what we learned in class about Islam in each region in the world in combination with the reading we did and finally add aspects of our own lives to the creative pieces. Each creative piece forced us to focus on an interesting thread or symbol we found in each weeks reading to create something that is relevant and interesting. I found the idea of responding through art as opposed to solely through academic writing to be very revealing and true to the way the class has been working so far. By having the culminating project be visual or auditory, other members of the class are able to see what everyone is doing and be inspired by others. Everyone will have different interpretations and different ways of responding to a reading and the visual aspect of this is very interesting. Similarly, there is a big difference in religion when it is transformed from an oral tradition to a written text. The creative projects in this class allow people’s thoughts, creativity and knowledge to be shared with a wider audience. This blog is more easily shared than an academic essay and as a result can be passed on in a similar way that religion was passed on before the written text. The fact that this class focuses on contemporary literature also reveals how religion is still changing today and makes it even more relevant to our everyday lives. 

Each week we looked at different texts and different people’s experiences as Muslims in different parts of the world. By focusing on a specific region at a time, we were able to understand certain intricacies about Islam, but also understand how Islam changes depending on the society. As the semester progressed, there was something about Islam, and religion, that was revealed, through the texts and through discussion; I was able to understand that religion is alive and constantly changing. This is not to say that Islam or religion can be viewed as a person that “does” things, but since people are still interpreting the Qu’ran and adapting Islam to their lives and traditions that existed before Islam, it is possible to see how Islam is constantly in flux and people are using it for different reasons. Through the readings, we can see that there are “multiple Islams” that each depend on the context. The Qu’ran is meant to be experienced, as opposed to read; it originated as an aural scripture. As a result of this, people try to use religion, Islam and other religions, as an excuse for their actions. Since there are so many ways for people to interpret a text, who is to say what is correctly interpreted or not. This becomes dangerous when people start to say “Islam says…”, although religion is constantly changing and alive, Islam is not a person, and cannot do things. As a result of looking at different interpretations and the different ways people practice religion in other parts of the world, I was able to understand that through religion, and through Islam, we were able to use Islam as a lens to look at the world. It is particularly interesting to note how people make certain assumptions about others and about religion without trying to inform themselves. There is a certain cultural illiteracy common especially in the United States and the West about Islam. People like to make assumptions about Muslims without taking the time to educate themselves. Something that I found interesting, and unfortunate, about this was that even though there is so much information easily accessible, people do not take the time or, actually, ignore the resources they have to educate themselves. With the rise of the internet, religion is changing and people are using this for good and for bad. We see how extremists use the internet to spread false information and various interpretations of the Qu’ran. 

At the beginning of the semester, I did not know a lot about Islam or religion in general. I knew basic ideas about religion, but it was never something I studied in an academic setting. I did not grow up in a particularly religious family, but I did live in a place where there were people of all backgrounds, practicing, or not practicing, different religions. Arriving at college, I felt that it was important for me to begin to have a more in depth understanding of different religions. By taking this class, I feel I have a global understanding of what it can mean to be a Muslim in various parts of the world. It is important to me to have this general background and gain a certain curiosity to understand how people live. Overall this class has made me more curious about other cultures and the interactions and intersections between culture and religion. We were able to see how religion and culture work together. The people, themselves, may not even know, or need to know, what comes from their religion and what comes from their culture. 

As I was deciding what to do for my creative pieces, it was interesting to see what aspect of the readings stuck out for me each week. Depending on the reading, I would either focus on a small aspect of the story, an element or a symbol, or I would focus on the reading as a whole. Each way was a valid interpretation and response for me. It is interesting because when I touched upon a single element in the reading, I was able to have a more encompassing representation of the reading. For example, my creative piece for The Saint’s Lamp was an oil lamp that I made out of clay, this lamp was a physical representation of the lamp from the story, but I was able to draw more from the story than just the symbol of the lamp. The symbol of the lamp does not stop at its physical representation; the lamp carries even more weight and symbolism, it is more than what is visible at a first glance.  

Throughout the semester, we discussed the importance of the written word and spoken word and the roles that people took on from this in society. There was a specific type of poetry reserved to praise Muhammad called the na`t. In The Complaint and the Answer, Iqbal uses poetry and speaks through the voice of a regular man to address God. Poetry is seen as a higher form of writing and is taken more seriously, but it is still on a human level. It is interesting that Iqbal chooses for God to respond to the man in poetry as well because He is lowering himself to the same level as the man. In several things we studied throughout the semester, we learned how Muslim art was not praised or shared with the world. Not only was their art not celebrated, but people often overlooked their thinking and their work in philosophy. When people visit museums the art that they see from the Muslim world often has to do with utilities, things that are for working, as opposed to artistic creation. This highlights another reason why the fact that we are doing creative responses for this class is important. By creating artistic responses to the works, we are not only highlighting readings from Muslim authors and scholars, but also creating work that represents important themes in Islam. 

Each artistic piece allowed me to understand each reading more deeply and ultimately bring my own perspective to the piece. By using various mediums to create the pieces, I was forced to think outside of the box. I do not consider myself an artist, or at least, there is not one specific art form that I spend a lot of time perfecting, so this project pushed me in different directions to rely on different things to get my thoughts across. I do not feel that this project relies on perfected art, if there is a such a thing. The quality of the visual outcome of the project seems less important than the process that went into creating the project. Each project has intricate details or different meanings that do not necessarily come across just by looking at it. People can see a piece of art and overlook certain things and take away different aspects depending on what they see. Even the art that we are creating will go through the same process that a religious text or a novel will go through, that the person interpreting the piece will bring their own worldview into the interpretation and therefore will come out with a different meaning than the next person. 

The projects that I created for this portfolio span various mediums and highlight different aspects of Muslim culture and of life to represent only a small portion of what I learned this semester. Through these projects, I hope the variety of lifestyles within Islam comes across. These creative projects serve as a window into the readings from this semester, as well as represent connections between my life and the lives I experienced through the reading. It would be impossible, and uninteresting, to create art in response to these works without incorporating my own perspective, my own worldview and my own personal experiences. My response to Persepolis mixed what happened in the graphic novel with my own life experiences and as a result I think I was able to connect more deeply to the characters and the experiences of the characters. By examining my own experiences and seeing how my life and my upbringing compared to the experiences of the characters in the readings, I feel that I was able to make more meaningful connections and observations. I hope these creative responses represent what I have discovered this semester as well as represent myself through these readings. These creative responses allowed me to combine what I learned from the readings with what we learned in class to give others a glimpse into this world through the visual experience of the work.

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A Different Type of Book

December 10th, 2014 · No Comments

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An Egyptian Childhood focuses on the study of the Qu’ran as is done in many places. It showed the importance that memorization plays in the learning of the Qu’ran. The Qu’ran is meant to be an aural scripture so the experience of memorizing the Qu’ran is very important because it allows the person to recite the Qu’ran as opposed to read it. For this piece I created a book open to a certain page that compares the written word with something more visual and easily accessible to all. This response was interesting for me, because it helps show the different between the written text and the aural or any other form when experiencing a text, religious or not. Before reading An Egyptian Childhood I did not realize how important memorization was for enriching the experience with the Qu’ran. I remembered traveling to Senegal and visiting a Qu’ranic school where we observed students chanting verses and memorizing from the Qu’ran. This was a different view of education for me, but this experience, in addition to reading An Egyptian Childhood helped me understand that education means different things for people depending on where they are from and what is important to their identity. It makes sense to me now that a lot of people believe that once you are done memorizing the Qu’ran there is nothing else you need to know. If someone has committed the entire book to memory then they can pull out whichever part they need when they need it and apply it to their life. An Egyptian Childhood was a very revelatory story for me, because it helped me understand the importance of the voice and the difference in educations. 

 

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Westernized Scarf

December 10th, 2014 · No Comments

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This creative piece not only represents my response to The Reluctant Fundamentalist but also represents a more general view of Islam in the West. This scarf was made by laying different colored tissue paper on a white silk scarf and spraying it with water and product to allow the colors of the tissue paper to soak in. After I let the colors soak in, I removed the tissue paper and the colors remained. I think this scarf can be an accurate symbol for the lives of Muslims in the West. This is not to say that everyone’s experience is the same, but as we saw in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, people often have to hide certain parts of their identities in order to conform to the society in which they live. In France, for example, women are not allowed to wear burqas. The scarf that I made represents a westernized version of a hijab and is supposed to be a symbol of how people are forced to express their religion and their faith in different ways depending on where they are. Additionally, the scarf has purple and pink spots on it that are not completely overlapping and do not cover all of the white on the scarf. We had an interesting discussion in class about assimilation and what would happen if people did not have things to identify them, if everyone was on the same level as a way to eliminate oppression and discrimination. I believe that the different marks on my scarf are marks of individuality and the inability to completely assimilate. As Changez experienced in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, even though he had a high valued job and an expensive education, he could never fully conform or lose his identity as a Muslim Pakistani. Despite the Americanization that people go through, willingly or not, there are always parts of their religious and cultural identity that remain. This piece was interesting for me, because it is a different piece entirely when you lay it flat compared to when it is worn. When you wear it, you cannot completely discern all the details from the scarf, but when it is examined on the floor, you begin to see all the aspects that come together. 

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A Look in the Other Direction

December 10th, 2014 · No Comments

Walking through the streets

Everywhere I look I don’t know what I see

No one here is who they used to be

Swarming in like bees, the shopkeeper is on his knees 

The men approach like stone cold walls 

Hit him hard until he falls

Former friends won’t meet my gaze

They said join or don’t hold us back

We’re marching and we form a pack

There is no way I can ever return

Who knows what happens when it’s my turn

In The Name of God deals with what happens to a society when extremist groups and violence appear in everyday life. One aspect of the novel that I found interesting was the capacity everyone has for evil. In addition to this, we see throughout the novel that most people have to decide to either take part in the violence or turn a blind eye. It is easy to say what you think you would do in a certain situation, but the reality of the situation is often different. It is a scary thought that you do not really know how you would act or how the people around you would act given certain circumstances. In my creative response, I chose to write a poem in the perspective of an anonymous person living in the town when it is going through changes. The person in the poem sees a group of men attacking a shopkeeper that they used to be friends with. This shows how much the violence around you can affect people’s actions. The poem is written in the first person and as it continues, we see that the speaker had to choose between being violent and leaving his former friends. We can see that it is not always safe to protest against the majority, but if everyone remains silent you are only letting the violent people win. Desmond Tutu makes an accurate statement on ignoring the injustices that surround you, he says, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. I believe this is an appropriate quote to use in relation to In The Name of God,  because it highlights the part of the novel where people became tolerant of everything that was happening around them. 

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The Journey

December 10th, 2014 · No Comments

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The Journey of Ibn Fattouma was written by the same person, Naguib Mahfouz, that wrote Children of the Alley. For this reason, I chose to do a similar creative response that, in comparison with Children of the Alley, highlights relevant plot points from the novel. I thought an interesting point of the novel, The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, was the fact that the novel was really focused on the Journey as opposed to the arrival in the land of Gebel. The novel was really not focused on Gebel, but on the different places that Qindil (Ibn Fattouma) went on his journey. The different lands in the story correspond to different ideologies or things we can see in the real world. In Children of the Alley, it was the descendants of Gebelawi that represented different prophets and therefore their stories were representative of the different religions. I find it very interesting how Mahfouz uses these things inadvertently to create a story that is informative. My creative response to The Journey of Ibn Fattouma highlights different plot points from the story in drawing to form a visual path to the land of Gebel. Similarly to how it is done in the novel, I left the land of Gebel out of sight, because the importance of the novel did not rely on whether Qindil reached the land of Gebel or not, but on the journey that he went through. The first image that I have is a silhouette of a female body to represent his wife, Arousa, in the land of Mashriq. The path continues to a jail cell to represent the many years Qindil spent in the land of Haira in jail. Finally the path leads to the mountains where Qindil spots the land of Gebel.  

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The Complaint and The Answer

December 10th, 2014 · No Comments

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For The Complaint and The Answer, I chose to use calligrams that show the profile of two faces looking at each other. Each face is composed of verses from the poem. The face on the left represents the man who is complaining to God, the face on the right represents God answering the man. An aspect that I found interesting about this poem was the fact that God was addressing the man on the same level that the man addressed him, through poetry. Iqbal puts God on the same level as this man. Through the visual representation, I decided to replicate this idea and put God and the man on the same level. The faces are looking at each other, which shows that God is in conversation with this man. Although, the man who is complaining is speaking disrespectfully towards God, which was controversial at the time that Iqbal wrote this. I chose to include important phrases from each side of the poem, first the complaint, then the answer, that I felt resonated with the general ideas of the poem. I very much enjoyed this poem so I thought it would be interesting and appropriate to use the words from the poem as opposed to my own words for this calligram. Calligrams are interesting forms of art because they use the words themselves to make the shapes. In this case, the words that I use to make the face represent the words that are spoken by the face. This shows that what is coming out of their mouth is coming from their heads in a very literal way. Through these calligrams, I felt that the themes and general set up of the poem were able to come across.

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Beggar’s Hands

December 10th, 2014 · No Comments

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In The Beggar’s Strike, the people of the novel learned how important the beggars were to everyday life and religion. For this creative project, I chose to sculpt a pair of begging hands out of clay. These hands are a symbol of beggars across societies. In general, hands lifted toward the sky represent people waiting for an offering. In The Beggar’s Strike, when the beggars disappeared, people were unable to function, there was no one for them to help. In our society, people ignore and turn a blind eye to beggars, pretending they do not exist. I believe the act of sculpting something is very personal, because you are making it come alive with your own hands, it is a very primitive thing, but becomes so much more than just a physical representation of the symbol. The act of sculpting is perhaps even more important than the outcome of the piece. When you are sculpting something, you really have to think about how everything works together to have it be an accurate representation. This piece was especially interesting because I was making hands with my hands. Although this might seem trivial, hands are such a vital part of our body, especially in the story The Beggar’s Strike, the hands are basically the livelihood for many people. I thought to make these hands, because when you see the hands, they look like they are just waiting for something. Although basic, I think it is a very striking piece that reveals more than it seems at a first glance. 

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We Delicate Women

October 31st, 2014 · No Comments

It is we delicate women who carry our own weight

We delicate women who venture out into unchartered lands

We delicate women fight for our power

We delicate women who defend our own for their rights 

To live, to dream, to act, to succeed

While those with power try to strip us of our dignity, our rights, our choices

It is we delicate women who stand up for our rights to choose how we dress,

Whether that is a miniskirt or a hijab, or a miniskirt and a hijab.

It is we delicate women who discover our own buried

In the rubble of the walls we are tearing down.

We delicate women who find that we cannot be condensed to a singular adjective

That our worth cannot be determined by people unworthy of our accomplishments.

We strong women, we ambitious women, we exceptional women, we brave women.

 

We can find more accurate words to describe us,

But a single adjective or an assortment of words cannot encompass 

                                                       The multitude of perspectives, lives and dreams that we have.

We Sinful Women is a collection of poems written by women that explore life for Muslim women. These poems represent a perspective that is ofter overlooked or under appreciated. The poem “We Sinful Women” deals with things women have to deal with in the world and in Muslim societies. The title itself is represents how women are being characterized by men as “sinful”. Throughout the poem, the author is using sinful and is defending women against what people say about them. The author brings up relevant points about things that women have to deal with. Throughout the poem, there are mentions of different constraints women have to deal with and how in reality it is often times the men who are sinful or held to very different standards than women are.

As a response to the poems, I chose to write my own poem stemming from “We Sinful Women”. I chose to keep certain ideas in my poem, such as a title that shows reproaches women in the world have to deal with and then continues with things that women have overcome and are still dealing with. I chose the word “delicate” to base my poem on, because I felt it accurately characterized a sentiment that people have that women are weaker and less able to handle things. Delicate at first seems like it could be a positive thing, but really only demeans women. There are a lot of similarities between my poem and “We Sinful Women” and I feel that my poem represents a different angle and perspective of a common feeling.

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A View into the Alley

October 31st, 2014 · No Comments

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Children of the Alley by Naguib Mahfouz is the story of an alley and one family throughout multiple generations. Different descendants of Gabalawi, the owner of the house at the beginning of the alley, represent different prophets and religious figures. There are multiple sections in the novel, each pertaining to a different religious figure, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad. Other sections deal with people like Cain and Abel and even the push towards science as opposed to religion.

In my creative response, I chose to draw the alley and represent different elements of different sections, and of religion. The house at the beginning of the alley belongs to Gabalawi, who could represent God or just religion in general. The window into the house shows the sun and how in each generation there was a motivation to reenter the house of Gabalawi to help the people of the alley. Similar to God, the people in the alley had not seen Gabalawi, but believe, for the most part, in him anyways. The snake represents the story of Gebel, a snake charmer who could be said to represent Moses in his values and his actions. The water pail on the left side of the alley represents Rifaa and his life of purity and his desire to purify people from their sins. Rifaa would represent Jesus. The man meditating represents Kassem in the desert, next to him is a book that represents the message that Kassem has been given by Gabalawi’s servant. Kassem would represent Muhammad. There are other elements in my drawing that represent ideas in the novel such as the rocks in the desert and the tent next to Gabalawi’s.

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My Saint’s Lamp

October 31st, 2014 · No Comments

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In The saint’s lamp by Yahya Haqqi the protagonist, Ismail, grows up in Egypt and then goes to Europe to study medicine. When he returns after his long studies, he has trouble accepting the difference between science and religion in his home. At home, a lot of the healing is derived from faith and religion, after studying to become a doctor, he no longer understands how people can choose religion over science. Throughout the novel, there is an oil lamp, a saint’s lamp, that is used to heal people. Ismail’s wife is losing her sight and Ismail must overcome his new aversion to religion in order to combine science and faith and save his wife’s eyesight.

For my creative response, I molded an oil lamp out of clay and wrote different words in Arabic and Urdu that I believe related to the story. Words such as faith and God are inscribed on the oil lamp to visually represent what the symbolic meaning of the oil lamp in the story was. I thought the idea of making an oil lamp out of clay was interesting because compared to other mediums, shaping things out of clay has less to do with sight and more to do with feel. I feel that the process of making the lamp paralleled the process Ismail went through in healing his wife’s eyes.

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