I went into this course with barely any knowledge of Islam, let alone religion in general. I now have not only a fundamental understanding of the different religions of South Asia, but also a greater recognition of individuality and how religion plays a part in the process of self-identification. As somewhat of an agnostic, I did not have many expectations for the course. I had been exposed to conversations of Islam frequently during my travels and everyday interactions. I had often felt I had no voice in these conversations. I did not think that I had enough background knowledge to even form an opinion regarding such a deeply rooted topic. Through Professor Asani’s course, I thought I would simply learn about how Hindus and Muslims co-existed in South Asia across various platforms of society. The course went so far beyond this initial belief. My studies have allowed me to look at Islam through the broader lenses of religious communalism and individuality.
Professor Asani encouraged the class to take into account the multitude of viewpoints being presented in the various readings. Depending on the environment and background of the speaker, there exists a wide range of interpretations that must be considered while reading. Many historical papers challenge current theories and established constructs. Throughout history, the conceptualization of Islam has been approached from a range of perspectives. Interpretations depended on the ethnic and cultural background of the speaker. Initially, I did not take this predisposition of the author into much consideration. I have now come to appreciate how these varying lenses of history are crucial to understanding the phenomenon of religion. Because religion, specifically Islam, is imbedded in a complex web of social and political contexts, these historical analyses also demonstrate such complexity. They all ultimately attempt to conjecture the diverse experiences of being Muslim in South Asia. I struggled to grasp onto the underlying concepts of the readings with regard to the broader questions of Islam. Similar to the modern historians’ accounts of Islam, I misinterpreted the role of religion in South Asia in highly nationalistic terms. By analyzing the interpretation of Islam from not one, but many, historical viewpoints, I was able to conceptualize the function of Islam in the greater picture of South Asia.
I found that a central theme reoccurring throughout the course readings is the ways in which authorities played a major role in the emergence of religious identity. The heterogeneous nature of Muslim communities facilitated indefinite boundaries between groups that were upheld by individual attempts to define Islam and lay the basis of Muslim identity. Despite a common culture among Muslims, religious identity became convoluted across dimensions of caste, ethnicity, sect, etc. Some experiences and voices took precedence over others and a clear division developed throughout South Asia. The papers show the way religious divisions created cultural distancing and negatively influenced the emergence of communal identity.
What interests me most about the readings and discussions this semester is how Islam functioned as, not only a binding, but also a dividing factor in South Asia. It amazes me how a religion, something that should unite different groups of people, often operated as an isolating force among communities. This division can only circle back to the issue of identity. It remains difficult to form a Muslim identity when no one knows what truly constitutes a Muslim. There is no right or wrong Muslim. The lack of a concrete definition of the religion made it difficult to determine what was proper devotion. With this said, the interpretation of Islam was subject to manipulation. Anyone of authority could define the religion in whatever terms they warranted beneficial. This controversially led to the development of many Islams from the many layers of authority seen throughout South Asian history.
I chose to make this idea of multiple Islams the central theme to my creative responses. Although it is a very broad theme, I did not know how else to capture the true complexity of Islam across such a varied geographical span and a rapidly evolving social context. Many of the readings drew upon how the often contradicting sides of Islam became woven into society. As the course progressed, I learned to conceptualize the different applications of Islam in a more connected, formulated manner. I can now better rationalize why a single Muslim community or one Islam may never exist. The social context of Muslim communities is constantly evolving, creating varying perspectives within respective religious communities. With this changing environment comes a continuous need to reformulate ideals to fit within new frameworks. My seven creative pieces explore the varying ways in which Islam has been constructed and reformulated to satisfy the interests of different authorities and to cater to the changing social climate.
My first response directly addresses how the multiple Islams affected the development of Muslim identity. This piece addresses Islam from a broader perspective, incorporating the many different interpretations that have emerged throughout the course. I wanted to show how Muslim identity became divided through these different interpretations across various sects. The consciousness of individual sectarian identities formed a basis for communal ideologies. The opposing ideologies often clashed, demonstrating how Islam played a divisive role in religious communities. My poem “What is Islam?” shows how the ambiguous nature of Islam allowed different sects to reconstruct their own Islam. I chose the medium of poetry because it played a critical role in the Muslim experience and functioned as one of the few uniting factors in society. Sufis used poetry as a means of developing the self in their vision of Islam. Unlike many factors of society, Sufi poetry was open to all communities. Although Islam can be intepreted in this inclusive way, the poem also shows how religious groups interpreted Islam in exclusive terms.
I found the inclusive principles of Sufism highly inspiring throughout the course. I wanted to illustrate the Sufi interpretation of Islam through the lenses of a silent and loud Islam. “Silent vs. Loud Islam” depicts the discrepancies between these broader ways in which Islam has been reconstructed through time. I show this distinction in my clay figurines. The small figure represents silent Islam, whereas the bigger figure represents loud Islam. The course has allowed me to identity the distinctive interpretations of Islam that build off principles of a silent Islam and those off of a loud Islam. Similar to Sufism, the principles of Iqbalian philosophy reflect the nature of a silent Islam. Both Iqbal and Sufi principles interpret Islam purely upon an individual connection with faith. In contrast, loud Islam with a capital “I” is bounded with power as an ideological identity. Loud Islam posits itself against ‘the others’, where all non-Muslims are viewed as the enemy or invader. We discussed how this category of interpretation created many issues among communities, particularly with the emergence of Pakistan as a religious state.
I demonstrate the conception of a silent Islam by directly connecting classical Sufi thought with Iqbalian philosophy in my piece entitled “Transforming the Self Through Islam”. Of all the topics over the semester, the poetry of Iqbal and his notion of self-transformation had the most impact on me. I wanted to visually connect his inclusive interpretation of Islam with the principles of Sufism. I use Iqbal’s symbol of the garden and the desert to portray the theme of transformation seen throughout Sufism. Pinto demonstrates the role of dargah and the Pirs as one example of this transformation in “The Mystery of Nizamuddin Dargah: The Accounts of the Pilgrims”. The Sufi principle of spiritual self-transformation translates into the notion of leaving the egocentric self behind in the garden in order to develop the self among the harsh environment of the desert. Both Sufis and Iqbal define Islam in highly individualistic terms. The two interpretations urge the individual, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, to take an active role in emancipating their selves through selfless love and their relationship with Allah. The concept of self-transformation really inspired me in this piece and throughout the course. I respect how this notion of Islam applies to all human beings, independent of their religion, who simply seek some sort of improvement. In this sense, the individual is given purpose and responsibility with regard to their religion. The individual acts as a coworker with God, as opposed to simply as submitter to God. Sufis emphasize this role of God as “Wali”, who can intercede on behalf of devotees in their journey towards enlightenment.
Despite the inclusive nature of Sufism, Islam can be used as a means of exclusion. I literally depict this exclusion using a Venn diagram called “Labeling Islam”. This piece demonstrates how authorities used religious labels, specifically with architecture, in order to maintain control over non-religious aspects of society. Throughout the course, we discussed how the adherence of religion to these different aspects of society created many issues. These religious labels allowed authorities to take ownership against ‘the other’. Communities not only became divided through the religious labeling of architecture, but also through the labeling of language. Altogether, such religious labeling was driven by a desire to exclude the ‘other’ and reinforce political dominance over another religious authority.
This concept of the ‘other’ forms the basis of an exclusivist interpretation of Islam. With the introduction of Pakistan as a nation-state towards the end of the course, the rejection of the ‘other’ became a repetitive theme throughout the readings. For that reason, I wanted to include two pieces regarding the role of Islam as a divisive force in Pakistan. I highlight Sardar’s “That Question Mark” in my piece entitled “The Survival of Pakistan” to emphasize how Islam has been interpreted in highly exclusivist ways as a form of nationalism. With the emergence of Pakistan, Sardar alludes to the ‘chain of deep state’, where religion mediated all political and social aspects of society. After being exposed to the many versions of Islam, I was able to conceptualize how religion intertwined with politics to form an ideological basis for the secular state.
The establishment of a secular government created issues among clashing authorities, particularly in defining the state in terms of religion. Abbott’s paper “Pakistan and the Secular State” analyzes how authorities could not come to agreement on the defining the role of Islam in Pakistan. My creative response entitled “Framing Islam” depicts the issue of forming a secular state built upon a common religion. Abbot addresses conversation regarding whether Pakistan is truly a religious or a secular state. He mentions the ways in which the traditional system of Islam and what is perceived as a “theocratic state” was replaced by modern interpretations to support the interests of authorities. The separation between state and religion ultimately depends on who has authority.
With that said, Pakistan set an example of how authorities inappropriately used religion to maintain order in society. As somewhat of a social experiment, the creation of Pakistan on the basis of a common religion proved divisive. Religion provided an outlet for authorities in taking advantage of ideological division among communities in order to maintain control. The fact that Pakistan had “not yet, in fact, discovered a simple, objective definition of a Muslim” (Abbot, 364) made it even more difficult to assert Islam into Pakistani politics. In order to channel the account of Abbot, I use a framed, divided shadow box to indicate the different aspects of the Islamic state that attempted to manipulate Islam into its framework. The divisions of the frame into economic, political, legal, and military units of society respectively show how authorities clashed in attempt to fit Islam into their own vision of the nation state.
Much like how religion became politicized under these authorities, historical accounts also used religion in a highly politicized manner through their portrayal of Indian history. The varying constructions of the past were a way of asserting religious authority in the form of nationalism. My final piece reflects how Indian historical accounts have been simplified down to a singular tale of Hindu history as an effort to promote nationalism among the Hindu community. Pandey’s “the Appeal of Hindu History” inspired my piece entitled “Funneling Time”. I attempt to show the different aspects of a heterogeneous Indian history that were reduced into one monolithic construction of the past. The motivation behind this reduction of history parallels the reasoning behind the various interpretations of Islam mentioned earlier. Just like these interpretations, the formulation of one Hindu history intended to create exclusion of the ‘other’ or Muslims.
Altogether these seven creative pieces all reflect connect to the overarching theme of, not one, but many different Islams. The variety of definitions of Islam, in both inclusivist and exclusivist terms, is one of the main concepts I took away from the course. I came to understand how ambiguity can foster manipulation. In other words, the ambiguity of Islam made the process of defining the role of the religion in society accessible to a range of authorities. I found myself constantly asking how I would come to define Islam and what it means to me as someone who is not devoted to the religion. In my opinion, Iqbal provides the ultimate answer to my overarching question of What is Islam?. The answer to this question does not lie in the mosque or objective practices within the religion, but in the human soul. We must look at Islam and any religion through the broader context of the universe and how the individual evolves within these many worlds. The definition of Islam applies to any system of belief in any corner of the world.