Muslim Voices in Contemporary World Literatures


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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