Prologue

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Welcome to my Exploring Islam blog! This site is an aesthetically and analytically inspired reaction to the course I took: AI 54 – For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures. As a class, we approached the study of Islam with a strong emphasis on a contextual approach of examining Islam and Muslim cultures. Going beyond just a devotional viewpoint of studying the fundamental religious beliefs and practices that a devotional standpoint would focus on, the contextual approach considers Islam as a religion that developed and continues to evolve within a dynamic environment. The contexts span historical, geopolitical, socioeconomic, literary and artistic dimensions and more.

As I will uncover in my blog posts, I analyzed themes and patterns I saw emerging in the course material, relating and synthesizing what I saw and reconciling it with creative pieces of my creation. To channel reactions and discoveries, my constructed pieces spanned various mediums from hand-drawn illustrations and models, to digital visualizations, and even curated music playlists. I generally make the assumption that my viewer is a Westerner who desires to learn more about Islam beyond what they have seen and heard represented by the modern Western mainstream media. Fittingly, my ultimate objective with my pieces is to leave the viewer with an increased appreciation for the diverse contexts Islam can, and should be considered in. My collection achieves this objective by clarifying the common Western mis-equation of all things Muslim with the Middle East, instead highlighting Islam’s geopolitical and historical cosmopolitan underpinnings, and the overlooked pluralist theology roots of Islam.

 
The Stereotype Problem

Today in the US and other parts of the West, the media is filled with news stories and accounts of what’s labeled as fundamentalist Islam waging war against the West. Due to the availability heuristic after being exposed to such stories filling the news media, and the current geopolitical environment surrounding, Muslims and the Middle East have been essentially equated together in the West’s public conscience. Any mass-media consuming Westerner is bound to receive bombardment from media about anti-Islam interest groups. So it has become harder for Westerners to overcome initial stereotypical images of Islam and Muslims and see the intricacies of Islamic culture and the many contexts that Islam exists in globally.

In our final week of lecture we learned of the many interest groups that lobby US lawmakers relentlessly, hoping to prohibit Muslims from entering the United States. However, they claim this is necessary for keeping the US safe from a relatively small militant subset of Muslims set on waging jihad against the West. This simplified viewpoint of the other by Islamophobes casting all Muslims as Middle East born radical Sunni militants with close ties to oil money ends up leaving many Muslims effectively silenced. As a result, the other contexts of Islam do not receive the same amount of attention as the violent form receiving the bulk of modern geopolitical attention.

 

Muslim Diversity

There is a large amount of Muslim diversity today, and my selection of pieces deals with the theme of Islam as historically integrating itself into local cultures as a cosmopolitan phenomenon. I start by looking at the style of Islamic architectures across the world mapped out to show pattern as well as variation in spread around the Muslim world and beyond. I invite the viewer to look with their own eyes, to visually pick out architecture commonalities they see between the disparate mosques around the world: minarets, domes, tiling, archways, to name a few components distinct to local styles. I even look at Islam’s diversity from an anthropological approach, illustrating the multinational and multiethnic diversity embedded in Islamic Hip Hop. These pieces engage in a conversation about the breadth of Islam’s diversity. However, by also placing them side by side with pieces such as my model of Husain’s cloak, I also raise questions encouraging a deep understanding of different Islamic traditions.

How did diverse sets of traditions develop in the rich cultural contexts around them? In my case, Husain’s cloak, by being a prop illustration of Husain’s Martyrdom popular in Taziyeh tradition, demonstrates cultural diffusion of Muslim texts meeting Persian dramatic form. Meanwhile, my playlist for the Miraj in itself is a musical depiction of a variant of the Miraj story already embedded with local Swahili embellishments, which was then on top of that translated to English! These pieces support Islam’s history of embedding itself in many local traditions. Circling back, my blog on the cosmopolitan Islam in hip hop also touches upon one historical storyline that brought Islam to modern-day Ethiopia – from the movement of some of Muhammad’s first followers. My post on Mongol influence on Persian art also makes a similar point – the conquests of Tamberlane which coincided with the Timurid period, and coinciding with a possibly new dynamic style of Persian art once the Timurid rulers adopted the aesthetics of the Persians. Thus, the synergy of Islam and local traditions would not be possible without Islam’s history of persecution and conquest which influenced the migration patterns of Muslims who brought Islam with them where they went; however persecution and conquest are far from the only agents for Islam’s dissemination, merely the ones that my pieces can attest to.

While there is Islamic unity with the Qu’ran text and Allah, being a Muslim still spans a large swath of theological diversity. This diversity ranges from ideological divides based on how to decide Mohammad’s succession that created a Sunni and Shi’ite split. Not to mention the wide variety of integration of Sufi mysticism in the daily lives of Muslims across the globe. My piece on Husain’s cloak doubles as another conversation point for launching into the theological diversity discussion. Husain’s cloak not only touches upon the Shi’ite difference in succession ideology, but raises second level nuances: variance between the Sunni and Shi’ite Shahada with a clause about Ali, and the lineage of Shia Imams.

 

“The Silent Islam”

As interlocutors of this course, we explored what Professor Asani referred to as “The Silent Islam” – less-geopolitical, mixed and diverse faces of Islam that are less represented in the forefront of public attention today. These faces of the “Silent Islam” are there for us to see though if we look carefully enough! As our class trip to the Metropolitan Art Museum of New York City proved to take us through over a thousand years of Islamic art from different parts of the Islamic empires, we see that Silent Islam is about influence over a variety of factors both fast and slow changing. Aspects of Silent Islam reach quietly far beyond the oil regimes of the modern Middle East and the fundamentalist sects of Sunni Islam that modern day geopolitics is focused on today. Ultimately what drives Silent Islam is its pluralist roots which extend from the theological aspects of Muslim life to even the aesthetic.

One important aspect of Islam less considered by outsiders, is the intimate tie to other Abrahamic religions. Judaism and Christianity have much more in common with Islam than many Westerners may think. In our course curriculum, we touched upon shared beliefs such as the important role of prophets across the three religions; of course Muslims recognize the role of Muhammad as the last Prophet. However, much of Islam recognizes biblical figures such as Moses, Joseph and more. They are even held to high importance, serving as Muhammad’s interlocutors during his Miraj as explained in my playlist blog post. In my museum observations, I also included a piece from the Timurid period which serves as an example of how Adam and his role as the first human and first prophet was important in illustrated Islamic texts even 700 years after Islam’s founding in the middle of Iran when Mongols were ruling.

Meanwhile, our course also stressed the pluralist roots of the term “muslim”. Meaning believer, “muslim” was originally a term that meant anyone who took the Shahada, at one point arguably including not just followers of Muhammad, but followers of Allah/God. However in the dynamic changing context of Islam’s early days, there came a need to identify and delineate the separation between Islam and other Abrahamic religions, which spurred the adoption of the term “Muslim” to refer to practitioners of Islam who took the Shahada’s second clause as well – believing in Muhammad as the last prophet, and classifier non “Muslims” as infidels. However even then, most Muslims do not call for militant jihad against infidels. My Ghazal word cloud illustrates the centrality of God, and shows that for example, in the Urdu poems of poets like Iqbal, there are no signs of militant representations of jihad as focused on by the media. Instead Islam is structured around God, love and acceptance. This shows through in the core of the heart word cloud, but yet is unseen in our modern world today at the macroscopic level; there is a compassionate and passionate side of Islam as well, not just the popularized one that the Western world only knows for its strict sharia.

 

Send off into the Blog

It is my hope as the author that you as the viewer will come away with a greater understanding of the diversity within the Islamic world, and within Islam itself. Furthermore, I hope you can see beyond how Islam is covered by Western media today to experience the silent sides of Islam that are not as well represented and invisible to many in the West. With that, I invite you to explore these themes further, as I send you off to peruse my collection of aesthetic responses to this course.

Cosmopolitan Islam Influence on Hip Hop

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Illustration of "I Contact" Verses, by Wilson Qin

Illustration of “I Contact” Verses, by Wilson Qin

In the course material we discussed Islam influenced hip hop groups like Aki Nawaz and Propa-Gandhi of Fun-Da-Mental, who advocate “a certain Islamic orthopraxy, expressing total opposition to alcohol and drug usage” (Swendenburg 59). Nawaz characterizes the struggle against anti-racism as a militant struggle much like jihad, with a goal of uniting Asian, Afro-Caribbean and Islamic concerns in their music and statements. In particular shocking white people tends to be their style of music – making references to the “white devil” and also promoting Nation of Islam teachings in their lyrics (Swendenburg 61).

However, I would like to introduce a hip hop group I discovered in my musical listening journeys in recent past. They are an underground hip hop trio called Lunar Heights. They claim Rastafarian, Ethiopian, and Filipino roots. Although it is unclear they are all Muslim, their lyrics make frequent reference to Sufi mysticism, symbolism and struggle in suffering, which is at least Islam influenced. However, they take a completely different approach in getting their Islamic ties across.

From their song “I Contact” (see later in the post for the Youtube link) I have sampled some of their lyrics which I have chosen to illustrate with a sketch.

(3:13)
I can tell if you truly spiritual;
Got to buy spirit or something material;
Really though, you want to be a CEO?
I’d rather be a Sufi and let it all go!
No pain in suffering;
No pain in wondering
if we make it in this Babylon
Steps thundering
Rastafarian
Ethiopian
Abyssinian
African
Jern Eye from the Tribe of Dan
Rep the Philippines as original man.

My illustration takes the verse, and embodies the Ethiopian/Abyssinian/Rastafarian flag colors in the background at the top (is the color match a coincidence?), while lining Filipino flag colors at the bottom.Their diverse ethnic makeup is a testament to the cosmopolitan influence of Islam and how it has spread historically. Ethiopia and former Abyssinia was touched by Islam when an envoy of Prophet Muhammad’s first followers migrated there in the 7th century and integrated themselves into the Abyssinian society.

In the center is a crescent moon which also acts as a dinner plate, surrounded by utensils, with the absent space of the crescent moon filled with sketches of material things, referencing Lunar Heights’ call that buying “spirit” – in this case alcohol, or excessively spending on something material is probably the opposite of spiritual. However, their lyrics “you want to be a CEO? I’d rather be a Sufi and let it all go!”, seems a far cry from shocking non Muslims and white people the militant way Aki Nawaz’s lyrics go. If anything this is a lament in the context of the 21st century of materialism and capitalism in the global society, when the pursuit of finding the intrinsic spiritual self and its relationship with God has become distracted by extrinsic trappings  – especially the cribs (houses), cars, jewelry and alcohol and drugs mainstream hip hop culture has glorified.

 

Ghazal Word Cloud

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I compiled a selection of Urdu to English translated poems Allama Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Ahmad Faraz. The poems were sourced from a poetry compilation site. I took the word frequencies of the poetry texts and created a word cloud out of the word counts. The more frequently a word showed up, the larger it is in the heart-shaped word cloud.

Even looking at the piece at first glance, an invocation of Sufi mysticism through the poetry is evident. The central presence of heart, love, and God, remind us immediately of the love narrative that Ghazal tend to follow: the beloved, the lover, and sometimes the rival.  While we must operate with the constraint that this word cloud is based off a translator’s translation into English, we can still breakdown the centrality of these words.

The presence of God at the middle of the heart makes the observer of the word cloud take the role of the seeker or lover him/herself, invoking “the introspective aspect of mystic love that asks the seeker to plunge deep into his own heart and discover there the presence of the divine beloved” (Naim 189). The observer is thrown into the word cloud illustration, and luckily they are able to locate God within this external word cloud heart right away. However, would that be the case when these words are presented in their original form as the original Ghazal poems? It is hard to say.

When the observer finds Love at the center of the heart as well, we can even go so far to wonder if the translators chose translations where love is a proper noun and capitalized to “Love” on purpose. Is it an invocation of divine love as a proper noun? Is the passion of the beloved in pursuit of Love? In any case, the centrality of love embedded with Sufi mysticism is quite important to Urdu Ghazal poetry.

The most common words across a selection of Urdu Ghazal Poems.

The most common words across a selection of Urdu Ghazal Poems, visualized in an aesthetic heart shape. Created with the help of WordClouds.com

 

Top 20+ Words in Sampling of Urdu Ghazal Poetry.

24 Love
16 heart
14 love
11 God
10 garden
9 even
9 remember
7 man’s
6 now
6 Come
6 life
5 can
5 future
5 night
5 passion
5 life’s
4 cup
4 long
4 world
4 Like
4 day
4 till
4 song

Metropolitan Museum: Mongol and Persian Aesthetic Synergy

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The late 14th century marked the rise of the Turko-Mongol dynasty with the initial conquest of Samarqand by Tamberlane. Ruling over Iran and Central Asia, much of the rich Persian arts culture was adopted by Tamberlane and his descendants. This intermixing of Mongol rulers adopting many cultural traditions of the Persians they conquered was evident in the museum exhibits during the Metropolitan trip.

I noticed a visual pattern appearing in the paintings from the Iranian art – from the Timurid Dynasty circa mid 1400’s AD to the Safavid Dynasty circa 1500-1600’s AD. For the purpose of this discussion I will group paintings from the Iran region from these periods as “Mongol Influenced Persian Paintings”. What characterizes these Mongol influenced Persian paintings? In contrast from the Mughal period paintings from the Indian Subcontinent which stressed naturalism, still-life, and representing things realistically via objective observation, these Timurid and Safavid illustrations highlighted movement, dynamism. Since the rulers of those periods were the descendants of avid riders and warriors, I like to think of this painting style as the ‘sports photography’ of their day since horses and riding were an integral part of Mongol culture.

Here are some samplings of the Timurid and Safavid period illustrations from our trip to the Metropolitan Art Muesum of New York City. For baseline comparison, I also provide samplings of the Mughal period paintings. Note the dynamism of the subjects, the movements and fast-moving poses of the horse-riders, and the flowing of natural elements almost meld with human subjects. In their form, the paintings’ landscapes and subjects regularly bleed out into the margins of the texts they illustrate. Contrast this with the rather static subjects in the Mughal period, where subject isolation and realism are on display.

Bahram Gur Slays the Rhino-Wolf, Safavid Period, 1530-35, Iran.

Bahram Gur Slays the Rhino-Wolf, Safavid Period, 1530-35, Iran.

 

Bahram Gur's Skill with the Bow, Timurid Period 1430, Herat, Afghanistan.

Bahram Gur’s Skill with the Bow, Timurid Dynasty 1430, Herat, Afghanistan.

Adam Makes a Pilgrimage, Timurid Period 1425, Iran.

Adam Makes a Pilgrimage, Timurid Period 1425, Iran.

 

Caesar Captive before Shapur II, Safavid Period 1530-35, Iran.

Caesar Captive before Shapur II, Safavid Period 1530-35, Iran.

 

Spotted Forktail, Mughal Period 1610-16, India.

Spotted Forktail, Mughal Period 1610-16, India.

Prince Riding an Elephant, Mughal Period, 16-17th Century, India.
Prince Riding an Elephant, Mughal Period, 16-17th Century, India.

Tamberlane Invading Samarqand, by Wilson Qin

Tamberlane Invading Samarqand, by Wilson Qin

For my creative piece, I emulate aesthetic forms of this Mongo Influenced Persian period. I raise the question – how might a Persian rebel of the 1400’s time period have represented the Timurid takeover over what is now modern day Iran? Especially since that is a region where the Taziyeh tradition comes from, I illustrated a fantasy version of Tamberlane invading Samarqand, except the city has been replaced by symbolic green and white tents, and the invading army dons red all around – a suggestion to Karbala. In Taziyeh fashion, as the viewer, we take the viewpoint of the Mongol army – as we look in from the bottom left corner of the illustration, we have Tamberlane’s back here even bleeding into the margins, and we can feel his horse is in the position of mid charge fast approaching the attack point. This viewpoint immediately transfers us into the ranks of the horde surrounding the encampment – another nod to the Taziyeh style performance of Husain’s Martyrdom.

Mosques of the World – Debunking Misconceptions of Islamic Art

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Masjids of the World

For this piece, I created a data visualization, to illustrate a central point of Islamic Architecture being defined by local cultural contexts to enrich the subjects of debate between various scholars and critics of Islamic art. In the visualization, I map the geographic locations of various Masjids, by no means comprehensive, but my goal was to take a rather diverse sampling from them (in terms of style and geography).

 

By displaying the geographic spread of mosques around the world, I put into conversation the viewpoints of scholars such as Nasr, Faruqi, and Necipoglu. Here I will focus on Faruqi’s rebuttal to architecture scholar K.A.C. Creswell in Misconceptions of the Nature of Islamic Art and how it actually supplements Nasr’s consideration of geopolitical context for considering Islam. Contrary to Creswell’s belief that there is only a “Muslim architecture”, Faruqi rebuts that Islamic architecture as a category does exist (Faruqi 33). Through this aggregation of mosque locations, I show Faruqi’s point that Islamic architecture is defined by its unity across believers despite the wide geographic spread of Islam. The architecture, while stylistically regional and diverse, is nonetheless a feature of spreading Islamic influence reinforced by its architecture. Even though Islamic architecture rose out of regional diffusion and mixing with local architecture styles, it should not be ruled out as its own class of architecture simply because of its borrowing from local cultural contexts.

 

Furthermore, below the map, I created a panel that displays mosque details when their location dots are clicked. By displaying the mosque visuals as well, I invite the viewer to judge and find the patterns between the various mosques themselves. Here are a few to start. Can you see historical patterns emerge in the architecture? Which mosques have minarets? What about the particularly shaped domes distinctive of Persian influence?

My mosque image sources for this project are from Frishmann and Khan’s The Mosque.

The Cloak at Karbala: Inside-out

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A contemporary artistic take on Husain's cloak.

A contemporary artistic take on Husain's cloak.

A contemporary artistic take on Husain’s cloak.

As an artistic reaction to Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala, I created a miniature hand-sewn shirt-cloak inspired by Husain’s story of sacrifice. The base material is white voile fabric. The total size of the piece is 4’’ x 4’’.

 

Persian Taziyeh dramas honor the act of Husain’s martyrdom. Considerable emphasis is placed on the fact that even when faced with eminent defeat and death, Husain chose to don ragged robes over his garments. In reacting with my handcrafted piece I mirror the connection between the literary and theological in Husain’s clothing choice by focusing on the message of purposeful worldly transcendence.

 

First off, the cloak plays the role as a transformative symbol. Only after donning it, is Husain able to make his ultimate worldly sacrifice, giving his own life for his followers. Thus, his cloak intrinsically carries a power that is transcendent of exterior worldly appearance. This is reflected in The Miracle Play translated by Colonel Pelly, when Husain makes a request of his sister Zainab to fetch him his ragged dress:

 

“I am covered with shame before thee. I cannot lift up my head. Though the request is trifle, yet I know it is grievous to thee to grant. It is this; bring me an old, dirty, ragged garment to put on. But do not ask me, I pray thee, the reason why, until I think myself it proper to tell thee.” (Pelly 90)

 

On the exterior, the dress is unassuming, humble and perhaps even in the eyes of Husain’s enemy, an outwardly undesirable way to die. It’s a curious fashion choice. Other passages in Pelly’s translation label it as “tattered shirt”, “loathsome thing”, “ragged robe” and “mysterious cloak” (Pelly 91). However, despite the outward appearance of his cloak, Husain’s choice of clothing emphasizes the transcendent nature of his sacrifice.

 

My piece uses the lightweight and semi-transparent qualities of voile fabric to portray Husain’s cloak in an inside-out alternate rendering of his sacrifice. I choose a light cloth (in both color and weight) not just to honor the Taziyeh practice of casting protagonists in white or green, but also to make the theme of fleeting worldliness clear and visually surface the importance of intrinsic purity (Chelkowski 9).

As Husain utters that the “old robe close to my skin, though neither old nor new of this world can be depended on”, he actually preempts his own worldly transcendence as he departs and focuses importance on himself (Pelly 92). His divestment from the worldly signals his followers to invest more faith in the intrinsic than extrinsic; thus Shia recognize their Imam figure as a religious leader who draws authority by nature of direct inward relation to Mohammed through bloodline. The white of the cloak, with the running of white thread on the seams is a nod to the descendants surviving the last prophet’s prophetic light, raising suggested relation to Mohammed’s own cloak The Burda via the embedded color association. Ultimately, by putting the interior of Husain’s martyrdom on the exterior of a cloak, this piece challenges the viewer to think beyond the surface of Husain’s ragged robes and think about the implications of his clothing choice on the meaning of his sacrifice.

 

-Week 5

Contemporary Soundtrack to Miraj

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Medium: Mixtape/Playlist

 

In response to the Swahili Miracles of Mohammed, I engaged with imagining the various aspects of the levels of heaven during the Miraj and how the process of the journey could be conveyed with curating contemporary sound only. In particular I limited myself to choosing from tracks I could find on Spotify. I chose to break the night journey down into various stages, and match each with a contemporary song that embodied each stage aurally. The end result was a sequenced playlist which interprets the arc of the Miraj divided into five stages of the journey: Flight, Consequence, Ascension, Curtains, Return.

 

Flight

Buraq carries the Prophet from Earth towards Heaven. I chose “Nights Off” by Siriusmo for this stage. The first thing we hear is an arpeggiator synth (0:00 – 0:14) making a continuous pattern – oscillating between four different chords. This repetition continues throughout the entire song even behind the melodies, conveying a sense of constant and consistent kinesis of the flight. The listener’s heightened sensation of movement is further enhanced with the driving feel of later instruments such as the higher pitched marimba sound (2:15-2:30). These audio factors combine to generate a sense of traveling, mid-air flight, which conveys the Prophet’s journey with Buraq.

 

Consequence

The Prophet gets a glimpse of the Seven Hells. I chose “Redemption” by Zack Hemsey. Overall Miracles of Mohammed characterizes the scenes of this stage as “hard to describe”, making this a tough song to place overall – I chose to focus on the idea of judgment having a heavy auditory feel (77). The song’s first minute is eerie with the foreshadow of a heavy attack in the backdrop. Starting from (1:00 onwards) this attack of the timpani drums come in and act as the musical motif for judgment, and punishment as the heavy consequence of sin. The attack of the horns in new musical phrases accompanies each changing glance the Prophet makes at viewing another part of Hell – switching view from the evil men forced to drink from boiling cauldrons, to the woman being cooked over a fire alive, and so forth.

 

Ascension

The Prophet continues up the Seven levels of Heaven. I chose “Still Waters” by Breakbot. The important theme I wanted to convey here was the climb and a consistent but more nuanced sense of rising via ladders and stairs, rather than smoother ride on a flying steed as in the first stage. Even though the drums fall rather straight on the beat, the syncopation of the bass line (0:31 onwards) gives the song an organic stepping sensation while maintaining a positive vibe to accompany the Prophet connecting with the previous Prophets before him across the levels of Heaven each made of a different precious metal or stone.

 

Curtains

With God’s face-to-face revelation to the Prophet, I picked “Best Moments” by Kondor and Blazo to convey the beauty and holiness of the Prophet’s experience. Miracles of Mohammed reveals upon first meeting God, the Prophet even “fainted, but there was His own hand to support me” (82). This unsure moment of light-headedness is reflected in the beginning before the beat kicks in to regulate the ear. Later the musical motif of the angelic chorus creates musical halos in the listener’s ear, a reminder that divine light and prophetic light have met for the Prophet to receive the commandments, and the beauty of the Garden paradise is finally revealed.

 

Return

Finally I center on the transcendence of time and space as a theme for the Prophet’s return. With “True” by Spandau Ballet, I finally use a song that has lyrics (albeit rather limited). I did choose it for its calm feel, almost like a lullaby for the Prophet returning back to his bed to go back to sleep. However, more importantly it lyrically touches upon dreams and truth. “But now I’ve come back again”, and “I know this much is true” is repeated in the chorus, to remind the listener that the Prophet’s journey may have happened in a dream-like state, but that nonetheless it is true!

 

With this mixtape series of five songs and twenty-one minutes, I have created a musical arc representing and recapping the Prophet’s night journey, all expressed with contemporary music which I invite you to enjoy.

 

-Week 4

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