Creating six projects of my own choosing rather than researching and writing papers for this course seemed a delightful diversion and alternative to study. What I found was that I researched just as diligently as when I write papers and had to supply thoughtful attention to the matter, both intellectually and symbolically. It required the use of both sides of my brain thus providing deeper meaning and ensuring the retention of material. Working with religious themes necessitated the creation of the objects with respect and awareness of the divine. Seyyed Nasr says it better than I could, “[Divine Law’s] role in art . . . is in moulding the soul of the artist by imbuing it with certain attitudes and virtues.” I strived for that goal and hope I achieved it. Looking back over the projects there are three overarching consequences that resulted from the work. I will outline the three and then highlight each project specifically as it pertains to the categories.
The first consequence was a deeper understanding and appreciation for the practices and concepts of Islam. In some cases I learned basic information such as the development of Arabic when we wrote calligraphy, or the various types of Persian poetry so that we could compose our own poem. In other situations the concepts and ideology of Islam were made clear. An example of this is how the mosque is viewed as a place of prostration, but so is the entire world, so any place can be sacred. Seeing this spectrum of Islamic practice and belief, it became clear that Islam is just as diverse as most other religious groups are. Individuals within a particular tradition make meaning of the foundations of their faith in their own way to some extent. The religious tenets of a tradition may be different from how it is actually practiced. Fundamentalists, extremists, liberalists, and ecstatics might all be found within the same tradition, whatever that tradition may be.
The second benefit of creating these projects was a connection I felt to humanity, artists in particular. Struggling with the meter of a poem or of achieving the desired effect of watercolor paint allowed me to relate to Muslim artists as human beings, regardless of faith. All artists endeavor to express some truth. Nasr wrote of the power of Islamic art, but it could apply to all art, so I alter his statement somewhat here: Art conveys a spiritual message through a timeless language which, because of its symbolism, is more effective than most verbal explanations. As a gallery instructor at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston I see the affect that art has on people once the effort to relate to it and make meaning of it has occurred. To be on the creating side of an art object was a unique opportunity for me to experience the artist’s role.
Unfortunately the third result of this creative work was not necessarily a benefit. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I do not know; and that is frustrating, although humbling at the same time. In the process of making a piece, I could see numerous possibilities before me and in deciding which option to choose it became apparent that I needed to know more in order to make an informed decision, one that was true to Islam. For example, when I wanted to engage the senses in devotion I decided on a sachet. Then the question arose as to which flower to choose that would have some meaning, and then what color flower to choose since colors carry meaning. This required knowledge of Islam. The questions go even further: should the flower image on the outside be a bud or in full bloom? There is so much I do not know still. This cautions me to be mindful when I speak of Islam, or any faith tradition, to remember that I do not know it all and should not speak as an authority.
The first creative project I completed was a Qur’an cover. In the course we learned about the sacred nature of the Qur’an as the actual word of Allah; that it is recited, not sung; and about the non-linear arrangement of the surahs. I wanted to create a cover that would signify the unique nature of the Qur’an and make it obvious that this is not merely a book. It needed to be special and show devotion to the word therein. After completing it, I came to understand the outrage that Muslims experienced when a Qur’an was “accidentally” burned by American soldiers. I was filled with disbelief that someone could burn a Qur’an, not recognizing what it was. What I still have not experienced, concerning the Qur’an, is the depth of emotion that the recitation of it evokes for Muslims. Watching judges cry over the beauty of a child reciting Qur’an is difficult for me to relate to, probably for cultural reasons. I cannot appreciate the verbal intricacies and nuances that are part of this tradition of recitation, although I can respect, admire, and enjoy it.
Since I love working with my hands, making the rose petal sachet was great fun. As mentioned earlier, I learned about which flowers are significant to Islam and the symbolism of colors. This was my introduction to Sufism. It was exciting to think about engaging the senses in worship and devotion, to demonstrate love of Allah not just through salat, but in other ways and at other times. Exploring the esoteric aspects of faith was appealing. It provided for me a means by which to relate to God on a different level than the usual formal practice of prayer. Sufism allows for greater and more pervasive participation of the individual’s soul. More than the head for remembering prayers, more than the body for assuming the postures and gestures appropriate to prayer, Sufism enables the entire being to communicate with Allah. This direct and personal relationship with Allah, without an intermediary, was another important aspect of Islam that I came to understand. I realized also that there are probably other scents that facilitate Muslim worship about which I still need to learn.
The global mosque presented some challenges. I wanted to be inclusive by showing all the continents, but that would have meant splitting the Earth in half and showing it as two globes or using an ovoid image that distorts the Earth’s shape and stretches it out. The former would have not represented the unity that I wanted to convey and the latter would have reduced the size of the continents to such a degree that I would not have been able to affix the soil and sequins. I settled for the ubiquitous Western hemisphere view of the Earth. Conceptually, I learned that the whole of Allah’s creation is holy and that “mosque” means place of prostration. I realized that a mosque can be any place on Earth where you prostrate yourself. This enables a devotee to incorporate their faith into their everyday life regardless of where they are when they feel so moved. Worship does not have to be restricted to a particular place at a particular time on a particular day, as it is for many Christians, but can take place as the spirit is compelled. Specifically, I learned the difference between Sunni and Shia opinions on mosque decoration and use. Mosques are also important places of community involvement beyond structured worship services. The communal aspects of worship were familiar to me, so I was able to relate to group worship and ritual practice, thus finding common ground. What I felt was missing for me though was the mosque as experienced by a Muslim. Attending a service might help with this, although the gaps in my knowledge of Arabic and the Qur’an might still render it inadequate.
For my fourth project I made a watercolor painting of a scene from Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds. I am most proud of this piece. It satisfied the vision I had better than the other projects, which each fell short in one way or another of that for which I was aiming, either technically or symbolically. This, like many of the pieces, was about Sufi expression. Like a ghazal, which can be interpreted and understood on different levels and in different ways by the audience, this painting could be understood through aesthetics alone or the deeper religious meaning could be discerned. For some it may be a lovely image of birds flying over some valleys. An observant viewer might notice that the flock of birds forms the same shape as the wing span of each individual bird. For those who look more closely, though, they will detect that the flock of birds is arranged to represent the Arabic “Allah.” They will realize there are seven valleys and thirty birds-this is Attar’s story. This painting, and the story that goes with it, represent for me the journey we all make through life. Whether we are searching for God or release from the suffering of this world we are each on an individual journey, a journey that is actually part of the journey of all mankind. No one travels through life totally alone, even though at times it may seem so. The soft blur of the watercolor represents the lack of clarity we have of life, even though the shapes are delineated enough that we think we know what we see. In the making of this painting I experienced the connection to all humanity that underscores our very existence. I suspect that if I could understand this story in the original language it would provide many more layers of appreciation.
Envisioning a whirling dervish in a two-dimensional form was another step in my understanding of Sufism. I was challenged to take a three-dimensional expression of devotion and reduce it, minimize it, to a two-dimensional one. The control that is such an important component of the dervishes’ dance was a new concept for me. Seeing the dance in this simpler format demonstrated more acutely the controlled aspect and pattern of the movements. I learned that apparently unordered and ecstatic worship can actually be just as functional as more formally ordered prayer sessions. I was able to reconnect with the Spirograph of my youth and the hours of pleasure I found in making designs. I also connected with those who “surf the web” as I searched for a site that could do what I needed done. What I still do not know is the experience of such ecstasy by the dancers. My particular church does not engage in ecstatic experiences and, I suspect, I would be a bit frightened by them if they were to occur. My puritanical New England upbringing has influenced me so that it would take some work to be free of that to the degree necessary to engage in such ecstasy.
My final project was writing a ghazal; this one, of a more political bent than the one I wrote that was required for the course, concerning the veil. Since my other projects were all in the visual arts field, I thought it would be beneficial to try something different. I love writing poetry and really enjoyed composing the first ghazal, so I decided to stretch myself by engaging in the contemporary socio-political theme of veiling. I learned about Persian poetry and poets and about the issues facing modern-day Muslim women. The wearing of the veil is a complicated topic that has both supporters and denouncers. It engages political and social elements, not just religious ones. As mentioned earlier, I felt very connected to poets of any or no religious persuasion when I struggled with rhyme and meter. Add to that the hope of doing justice to God’s word and the pressure is only increased and so is the appreciation for those poets who have been able to write such incredible pieces. I also learned that as beautiful as they are in English, they are probably even more glorious and meaningful in the original Urdu. That is a loss that I will probably never be able to correct. Hearing it in Urdu would be lovely, but there are nuances of language in the original that just cannot be replicated in English or appreciated if Urdu is not understood.
One additional consequence of this course and these projects was that my own Christian faith was transformed by my study of Islam. In Christianity there is a lot of emphasis placed on right behavior as a way to avoid Hell and reach Heaven, salvation. From Islam I came to understand the self-centered nature of that view and that love of God, Allah, is a more worthy and accurate response to God. All the blessings of our lives are gifts from God and it is fitting that we show our gratitude. By extension, love of others is inherent in our worship of God. Salvation will come, or not, but the most important action of humans is to love God and neighbor. I am practicing putting salvation as a goal behind me and focusing instead on adoration of God.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic Art and Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.
Renard, John. Seven Doors to Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.