Introductory Essay: Accessing the Divine Through Artistic Expression

LINK [Word]:  Accessing the Divine Through Artistic Expression – [Please click the link to view the introductory essay]

LINK [PDF]: Accessing the Divine Through Artistic Expression – [Please click the link to view the introductory essay]

Sacred Sound

Week 3: God’s Word as Sacred Sound

This was my favorite piece to create.  I’ll start by explaining the different audio tracks, and then explain what ties them all together.  I pulled from many audio sources, all of which I can provide as needed.

The track consists of sounds from nature, ambient urban traffic sounds, a few musical selections, some voiceover audio, and concludes with a prayer in English.  As the different selections become audible, the emerge and die off into Qur’annic recitation that plays throughout (with some variety of verse and reciter), if quietly at times.  The big idea is that sacred sound in Islam is the word of God as expressed in the recitation of the Qur’an, but it is also found in nature because evidence of God is omnipresent.  The track begins and ends with sounds of nature from which the recitation is born and to which it returns.  This serves to emphasize recitation as a core practice of Islam.

Nelson’s selection from this week’s reading concludes with discussion of the ubiquitous, diverse, and quotidian nature of Qur’annic recitation in many Muslim communities. I tried to incorporate the atmosphere of ambient noise in different settings into the piece.  I like to think of this work as a meditation on the idea of having “as an integral part of your day, a sound with all the implications and power and beauty and prestige of the recited Qur’an.”

  1. Jaggi Vasudev, or Sadhguru, speaks about the re-emergence of Rumi’s popularity today.  He also discusses passion and extremism in expressing love.  This touches not only on the role of poetry as “divine sound,” but also represents a more mystic interpretation of Islam outside of the Qur’an.
  2. Rappers AZ and Nas perform a selection from “Essence” in which they praise Allah, representing a western, current-day manifestation of a different kind of “divine sound.” They continue against a background of traffic noises and (almost inaudible) recitation, which highlights the underlying influence of God in the creation of both art (rap) and the mundane (traffic, e.g.).
  3. Grace Nono performs an indigenous Phillippine vocal piece.  This audio seems to compete with the recitation, the volume of both tracks waning in and out.  The idea is a revival of the notion that religious practices and spiritual expression may sometimes be in conflict, but everything comes from the same ultimate source – they are both expressions of God’s creation. Grace closes with a prayer of peace and of unity, calling upon the creator to bind together old and young, male and female, animals, plants, and nature.

The unifying theme throughout is the irrelevance of time in expression of sacred sound – the merging of old and new as sourced from nature, the ultimate evidence of Allah.



Jazz & Race in the US

Week 13: Islam in the West:  Islamic Hip-Hop, Jazz, & Race in the US

This audio project is composed of selections from two versions of the Ballot or the Bullet speech as delivered by Malcolm X (public domain) in 1964 in Ohio played over the jazz piece “Part I: Acknowledgement” from John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” album released in 1965.  This piece responds to Aidi’s Rebel Music reading from this week.  In particular, Aidi cites the mass conversion of American black jazz musicians in post-WWII to Islam and the notion that conversion was a response to racial segregation to help escape discrimination.

The Ballot or the Bullet speech is one of the most famous speeches in US history in part because of the nature of the message – blacks should assert their political right to vote or their right to take up arms in political revolution.  Malcom X starts out the speech by addressing his Muslim identity.  I chose selections of audio in which he explains the importance of separating his racial identity from his religious identity.  He avoids addressing the role of his faith and instead rallies the crowd to unite under “black nationalism.”  However much he avoids bringing religion into the conversation, we cannot escape the fact that such an influential and famous figure in the history of black civil rights in the US was Muslim and he often credited his own conversion to Islam as the catalyst for his social justice consciousness.

Combining selections from the Ballot or the Bullet speech with the music of John Coltrane highlights their mutual influences.  Aidi mentions the academic study of “how Malcolm X’s speaking style was influenced by the big band sounds of the 1940s, and how, in turn, this fiery Muslim leader’s rhetorical cadences would influence jazz artists like Coltrane… dubbed ‘Malcolm in the New Super Bop Fire.'”  The connection between these two through Islam is made real in audio interplay expressed in this track.  Finally, Malcolm’s voice fades out into the apparently ambiguous “a love supreme” (or “Allah supreme” depending on who you ask) repeated over the piece’s rising, swaying baseline.


Muslim Women Defining Identity

Week 10: Reform, Revival, and Muslim Women Defining Identity

LINK:  Women in Islam  [Please click the link to view the artwork]

Scheherazade’s text from this week provides the central theme for this piece: “[Western feminists] were not only blind to the degree of social influence Muslim women actually possessed, but they also failed to consider how Muslim women interpreted their own status and needs.”  The main point I tried to convey with this digital piece is that the issue of women’s empowerment against a backdrop of patriarchal societies is not about someone in power deciding what social norms should be enabled/enforced, but instead about how a woman herself thinks about her own agency and power.

For this piece, I started by taking a photograph of a friend of mine in whatever outfit she had on for the day, and then digitally and manually (with marker) edited different versions of the same photo to produce varying degrees of “conservatism.”  I also took another photo of her in a different outfit she had chosen to wear another day.  I put myself in the work by marking up and editing the photos to represent side-by-side varying views of “progressive” women’s wear – I represent the patriarchal society who expresses opinions (in the form of editing choices) on women’s fashion.  The center photo is the original, unedited, posed (and approved) by the girl in the photo.  The left and right photos are filtered in greyscale to emphasize their artificiality.

The title across the top begs the question of what direction from the center is progress. This refers to conflicting views about how communities define progress.  One might consider Islam as a progression out of the Jahiliyyah (“Period of Ignorance”) and the modesty of veils as a sign of modernity.  On the other hand, one might consider veiling as oppressive, as in Persepolis’ graphic portrayal of the 1980s obligatory veiling of women in Iran.  The quote bubble above the woman addresses the question of progress by implying that the question is misguided, and in fact the real issue is considering a woman’s interpretation in a given context instead of projecting biases onto someone in a different context than your own.


Muslim Devotional Practices

Week 7:  Muslim Devotion in Local Contexts

LINK:  Muslim Devotion in Local Contexts  [Please click link to view the artwork]

In response to this week’s readings I decided to create a series of complementary journal entries that exhibit the diverse and often directly contradictory interpretations of the Qur’an, hadith, and the Prophet’s teachings as manifested in daily acts.  Renard states, “rituals help members of social and religious communities negotiate moments of special significance,” (p.35-36) but I argue in this piece that even daily practices that are not “special” require often religiously-based ethical evaluations.  This is shown through portraying the authors’ descriptions in these journal excerpts as mostly mundane, still rooted in religious interpretation, and sometimes with powerful consequences.

The text is organized into three days, with a journal entry from two different men – one writes on the left side, the other on the right.  I use different handwriting to distinguish the two authors as well.  On the first day, I address the interpretation of an unkempt man’s beard as a sign of emulating the Prophet versus the idea of “cleanliness is close to Godliness.” The idea is that people may feel “closer to God” by performing opposite rituals.  On the second day, both men happen to pass by the same beggar, and the difference in their reactions is reconciled by the fact that both of them perform the ritual of zakat, just in their own ways.  I try to make no ethical judgement between the two men by leaving the interpretation of their respective flaws up to the reader.

On the last day, Friday, both men attend Jumu’ah prayer at the mosque, but they express directly opposing views of the role of graveyards/gravestones in religious life.  The first man plans to help with the destruction of a graveyard in Borçan, Kosovo, while the second man finishes a painting he plans to place at his dead beloved’s grave site as an expression of love.  I purposefully take the reader through the discussion of idolatry in shrine creation and prayer before portraying the husband who longs for his dead Fatemah.  I try to balance the sympathetic situation of the second man with the seemingly unemotional reaction he has to the beggar on the previous entry.

Finally, I tried to weave a bit of the theme of liminality into the art piece by attempting a realist approach.  I wrote the entries by hand in pages of my personal journal, and dictated the second man’s text to a friend to differentiate the handwriting.  I wanted to convey the sense that as one reads the text they could be reading a real person’s private journal, and I hoped to mimic the experience of entering a consciousness not entirely your own – as some religious rituals can do.

Cultural Contexts: La Virgen de Guadalupe & Persian Theater

Week 5: Post-Prophetic Authority, communities of interpretation, and Shi’i Piety

LINK:  Muslim Devotion in Local Contexts  [Please click the link to view the artwork]

This week’s readings focused mostly on the history of Islam after Muhammad’s death and the growing differences in interpretation of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s teachings as the religion spread to new areas.  With this digital art piece I chose to compare two examples of how the spread of religion into new communities incorporates pre-existing elements of the culture that then become linked to the religion itself.  Specifically, I place the Virgen de Guadalupe of México next to a portrait of Husayn, representing the Persian theatrical tradition.  Both these examples directly relate to the expression of religion in different cultural contexts.

The Virgen de Guadalupe was derived from the pre-Columbian Mexican religious figure Tonantzin, whose imagery and legacy became appropriated over time by the Spanish as a symbol of Catholicism.  The image of the Virgen is still today a powerful sign of indigenous culture and the Catholic church.  The Grabar reading (from Week 13) names symbols in Persia that became associated with Islam over time: “There are in Islamic art certain themes such as the whirl, the lion, the bull, and the signs of the zodiac which are historically older than Islam and which… have been maintained in the new culture.” I found this to be related to the adoption of Persia’s pre-existing theatrical tradition into the Islamic custom of Muharram.

For this digital art piece, I place these the Virgen next to Husayn, both of which look outward onto their respective country’s (present-day) outline.  The Virgen observes indigenous artwork and another pre-Columbian figure, Tonatiuh, the sun god within the shape of México.  The calavera, or painted skull, represents an another cultural mixing in the non-Christian but religio-spiritual tradition of the Day of the Dead.  Her shadow is the most recognizable of Christian symbols, the holy cross.  This is meant to represent the idea that although her image was not originally tied to Catholicism, that connection is now inescapable, following her like a shadow.

Husayn observes an Iran with imagery of the lion, the Faravahar, the Griffin, and a painting of the Taziyeh.  These images are indicative of pre-Islamic Persia.  Husayn’s shadow represents the inescapable link between the Arabic “Allah” of Islam and the Persian theatrical tradition as exemplified by Taziyeh performances. The main point I want to get across is the importance of recognizing the expression of religion in different cultural contexts, and how the connotations of different symbols and imagery change over time.


Architecture Case Study: Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz

Week 6: The Art, Architecture, Symbolism, and Décor of Mosques

LINK: Bab-al-Mardum Architect  [Please click the link to view the art piece]

In this pencil and pen sketch, I’ve taken on the persona of the architect of the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz (then known as Mezquita Bab-al-Mardum), a 10th century mosque built in Toledo, Spain.  This is the only existing mosque in the country that remains architecturally, largely as it was during the Moorish period.  It has a square floor plan; the façade is made of brick, decorated with a series of arches that call to mind the Great Mosque of Cordoba. Inside, horseshoe arches support nine vaults, whose design varies in different areas of the nave. The transept was added when it was consecrated for Christian worship, along with a Mudéjar-style apse decorated with blind arches (see the monument’s website for more).

Through this week’s readings we learn about the basic components of mosque architecture and popular patterns and decorations that are found in different parts of the world, but what I found interesting was a lack of focus on the architects themselves in the creation of these spaces.  In this piece I explore the motivations behind the work and the process.  Faruqi critique’s M. S. Dimand’s view of Islamic architecture as “essentially one of decoration,” noting that this implies a lack of content.  I also challenge Dimand’s view by focusing on the more structural components of the Bab-al-Mardum mosque’s design.  I thought that this mosque in particular was actually relatively simple in is square layout, and a bit played-down with its brick façade.

Secondly, I wanted to challenge the notion of “Islamic architecture” by choosing this mosque because it was re-purposed as a Christian place of worship in the 12th century.  Necipoglu emphasizes the importance of recognizing the diversity of mosque architecture and the context in which such a space is created.  I thought it was interesting that a Muslim likely built this place of worship and couldn’t have imagined Christians worshipping in the same building many years later.  With this generally atypical mosque design (no minarets, e.g.), I extend Necipoglu’s argument by including the importance of temporal context.

Finally, I include a translation of the inscription from the Qutb minbar gateway: “He who builds a mosque for Allah, Allah will build a similar one for him in Paradise.”  I imagine that this could have been the architect’s motivation in designing the mosque, so I place it at the very center of the work.

Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, Toledo Spain

Mosque of Cristo de la Luz

Mosque of Cristo de la Luz

The Mosque of Cristo de la Luz… [Inside 3D Photo Sphere]







The Mosque of Cristo de la Luz…


Cultural Contexts

La Virgen de Guadalupe

La Virgen de Guadalupe


Ta'ziyeh Performance

Ta’ziyeh Performance