The Saint’s Lamp

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Piece 1: The Saint’s Lamp/ Session 3: The nature of religious authority

The focus of this week’s readings was the nature of religious authority, and we began with traditional opposing forces of religious authority in The Wedding of Zein. In that story, we saw the differences between a mystic (Hadeen) and an Imam, as well as between political and religious authority. Yet, in Yahya Haqqi’s short story The Saint’s Lamp, we moved past the nature of authority within one society, and began to examine conflicting authorities in a global context.

With globalization, every individual around the world is presented with many versions of the world, one of which they have grown up with as their own view. This view, created by one’s parents and the environment one grew up in, is the default perspective until one actively decides to look from a new perspective. In The Saint’s Lamp, Ismail did exactly that, leaving Egypt for an education in England. Once abroad, he absorbed the ideas of “the West,” embracing science and secularism, and putting his Egyptian background on pause. However, when he returns to Egypt near the end of the story, he becomes utterly confused and can’t decide whether he likes Islamic or Western ideas more. This opposition is slightly misaligned because religion and a region are not parallel ideas. Yet, in the end it makes sense because he combines both. Like most people torn between different cultures, he must find a proper balance. In the end, he chooses to blend his two influences, mixing faith and science. What I find interesting about this story is that it points out that Islam and Western society are not at odds with one another, but rather contribute to different elements of life.

For this piece, I chose to create a colored pencil and pen ink drawing to represent the dichotomy of the East and the West. I placed the saint’s lamp in the middle to represent the fragility of the balance between the two influences, as well as the fact that while the lamp is at times his source of comfort and peace in the world, he ultimately breaks it. I drew it because it can be both peaceful and a reminder of his distress in sorting out his differences between the two cultures. I feel like this is a struggle that many people have today, as globalism points out the good and bad parts of one’s own culture in comparison to others. In opposing corners, I have two simple representations of the East and the West. The East, heavily associated with Islam in this story, is represented by and Egyptian mosque. The West is represented by Big Ben in England (Ismail’s place of schooling). What is interesting is that, despite the differences in roundness, many of the architectural elements of the two are similar, with low walls and high towers.

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