Prologue

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For the Love of God and His Prophet
Prologue for the blog posts
Yewon Kim

My blog posts could be classified into major three themes;  Islam as a religion, Islam in cultural context, Islam in sociopolitical trajectory especially in post-secular world view. I wanted to explore diverse facets of Islam because it exists in diverse forms in every areas of human lives in Muslim countries. This course provided me with valuable insights about the religion which was considered to be a distant domain that I could reach out because of my religious background as a Protestant. I have always been interested in learning about other faith tradition, and fascinated by the beauty of Islamic arts. But it was difficult for me to start the studies about the religion since it’s theology, philosophy, cultural values, sociopolitical influence are vastly profound and complex. This class, taking cultural studies approach, allowed me to think about the religion in a more approachable and realistic way, especially as a person who is deeply interested in cultural aspects of human lives.
I believe human religiosity is universal. All human beings have some kind of religiosity even if they are not confessed believes in certain religious traditions. Every single human beings forms their spirituality in their own way, and has some kind of transcendental nature that can’t be fully described or explored through positivistic or logical language. The understanding of human religiosity may can’t be thoroughly addressed in theoretic, or formulaic way of thinking. However, perhaps the human nature inclining toward an Unseen Being could be more vividly appreciated when we pay attention to the cultural heritage that have been accumulated throughout human history or artistic expressions that goes beyond the realm of logics and can explore mystical aspects of human beings.
Art is an amazing way of exploring our humanness, and the world, and what is beyond the world. I believe art helps one to cultivate one’s spirituality, meditate upon God, and discover one’s own transcendence as a being who is more than a biological creature. I believe the act of creation of art reveals human’s nature that shares the divineness of God. Therefore, it was an interesting experience to reflect upon what we learned in the lectures and go through the process of creating something out of it. The three themes I explored through the blog post are as follows:
First, through the artworks “The Art of the Quran” and “The Ark”, I wanted to reflect upon couple of things among the essential elements of Islam as a religion. First, “The Art of the Quran” is about the sacred text of Muslims. The Quran is considered to be the revealed message throughout the prophet Muhammad and later it was recorded as texts. It is interesting that the message itself was directly stated from the Divine to the prophet and later preserved as the Quran. When I hear the Quran cited in Arabic language, I imagine how it would have been like at the moment the prophet heard the words at first. It is a mystical experience, and I believe, it derives from the artistic creativity of the reciters and the beauty of Arabic language, as well as the ‘divine quality’ of the message itself.
“The Ark” is meant to express the theological reflection on the theme of God’s chosen people. God in Abrahamic religions has the very distinctive character of showing particular favor and blessing on the people He chose. Salvation is given to them and it is for nobody else. The ark of the family in Islamic tradition originally represents the family members of the prophet, but I think it could be interpreted as symbolizing all the believers as specially chosen for God’s grace. I wanted to express my understanding about the theological implication of God’s judgment and salvation, justice and grace for human beings. Also, given the vulnerability of human beings being totally dependent upon God for their existence and redemption, I felt sublime awe in the face of the unfathomable depth of profundity and ‘strange principle’ of God’s salvific work.
“The Play of Symbolism” and “Rockers” are more focused on the cultural or artistic genres for human expression of religiosity. As stated above, art is a powerful way to meditate upon God and to explore one’s spirituality. Also, when it takes a form that is available for the public, it has another quality that allows it to communicate with other people. Therefore, arts can serve a force that can share one’s understanding of God or spirituality, and evolves while interacting with other people engaged in the activity of arts, and forms mutually shared sentiment or understanding on the subject when it is spread to the society. Sometimes, it becomes a ‘being’ that shapes the values, affect the way of thinking in people’s mind. Arts could just exist for the existence of arts itself, but can also serve as a realistic force in a society that is different from imposing or hierarchical powers.
Tazieh solidify the religious conviction through its ritualistic presentation and calls the audiences into the scene which causes them to be the part of the artwork. Tazieh is religious, artistic, and also social expression. Religious in a sense that it remembers the suffering of the prophet’s family and brings the question of theodicy. It is artistic in a sense that it allows tremendous creativity and possibilities for each enactment of the past. Also, it is social since it allows people to participate in the appreciation of the passion play whose themes is about the prophet’s family and respect for them which is a central value for Islamic societies. They identify themselves as the believers who shares the same belief and loyalty to the prophet.
“Rockers” represent two iconic figures in popular culture. One is an artist and one was an activist. But both of them might also be considered as artist and activist at the same time for their creativity that is not bounded by the authoritative way of thinking, and challenging the controlling powers with unlimited exploration of new possibilities that could bring changes in society. Especially, I was impressed by Salman’s contribution to the construction of new identity of contemporary young people that help them find balanced understanding on their tradition and also new waves from the western culture. Many countries, young generations fail to value their traditional values in the face of the foreign influences on their way of thinking. But I think the art and culture is one of the most effective ways to help overcome this challenge.
Lastly, Through “Post-secular Persepolis” and “Moon Becoming”, I explored the issue of the relationship between religion and society (or politics). Also, I wanted to address the issue of the limitation of modernistic way of thinking in search of ‘truth’ or in an attempt of understanding better of humanness.
In the comics Persepolis, Marji is a woman whose views on religion, society and politics is close to modern secularism. Islam in the  comics is not so much more than the backdrop of what is happening in the world in sociopolitical context. Islam gives voice to the people in positions, but not in its original piety for God but as adopted and distorted by the controlling groups. In the midst of social maladies, people could rely only on their own reasoning, secular philosophical theories, and protesting against or obeying to the oppressive ideologies or power in reality. God fades way from the scene of the public and lost His presence in the minds of people when they face the world full of injustice, suffering and violence. I wanted to imagine Marji, a modern secular woman, also attempting to explore God in the sacred texts. Post-secularism doesn’t mean that the spirituality of the people can go back to the traditional or orthodox way of believing. It is could be totally different from traditional way of understanding God. But post-secularism admits the failure of modernity and seek to foster one’s own spirituality. As one possible potential, I draw an image that Marji thinking about God as He is described in 100 names of God in Islamic tradition. I chose seven names among them which are already forgotten in the minds of modern people.
“Moon Becoming” attempts to draw a conceptual portrait of Pakistan. M. Iqbal is a kind of philosophical father of nation Pakistan who provided it with the state ideology. He presented a model for the nation that the people need to aspire to. The book “Muslim Becoming” by N. Khan well describes this concept of striving and aspiration for a perfect Muslim state. Khan is a philosophical decedent of M. Iqbal who argued that to be the object of God’s blessing again and therefore to be prosperous, the people should strive to become true Muslims. The problematic situation that many of Muslim countries are facing including poverty, political upheavals, is due to the lack of genuine piety toward God, according to Iqbal’s “Complaint and Answer”. Pakistan is a nation where politics and religions don’t have a clear distinction from one another. Religious claim has strong power in the political arena and God is manifesting His presence in the public sphere. Whether the religion is about real faith in God or about symbolic mode of guiding principle in everyday lives, it hold significance in this present time in the state. As Pakistan is on its ongoing process of becoming, or creative evolution, I wanted to depict its process and efforts through the image of moon becoming a full moon. As believers’ efforts to become perfect believers are often unending journey that could find its meaningfulness only in continuing its aspiration, the dream of becoming a perfect Muslim state could also be a hope for an ideal entity that exist only in the future.
It was a memorable experience that I had a chance to meditate upon the themes that I learnt in the class and reinterpret them through the artistic forms of expression. It enriched my understanding on the topics and broadened my insights on them while I explore the ways to portray them in different dimensions. Transformation of information in the process of creating is an fascinating quality that is observed in the activity of creating new things out of something other than that. The ineffaceable quality that is in the human nature of religiosity often finds its habitation in peoples’s creative and transcendental ability of creating the things that never existed before.

Post-secular Persepolis

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Post-secular Persepolis

It was inspired by a comics Persepolis. In the novel, Marji experiences sociopolitical upheavals in Iran especially during the war between Iran and Iraq. As grown up in a family of modern, avant-garde way of thinking, she finds herself being troubled by the situation around her in the country while developing her identity. Also, when the Islamic revolution took place the policy of veil for females troubles her. It symbolizes the oppressed self as well as the dark portrayal of the imposed values of distorted religious fundamentalism. Throughout the narrative, the Islamic religion is not described as a pure faith tradition in people’s heart but rather a kind of sociopolitical framework that is often wrongly presented by controlling powers according to their ideologies. Religious devotion is not the central theme of the novel as it is more focused on one’s life in the midst of modern struggles in a society that is full of political maladies.

I happened to imagine what would be a post-secular Persepolis. Especially, if the characters are more accustomed to post-secular way of thinking, would they try to understand the God as He is described in the sacred text? Of course they won’t be searching for God in a traditional way and perceive Him having only the typical characteristics of love, all-powerful, good, and etc. Certainly, post-secular spirituality is different from traditional one. But while in the modern context, God couldn’t be anything close to a powerful being who could do something to bring about justice and equality in the troubled society, post-secular Persepolis might rethink about God’s presence while they face the reality. I included 7 characteristics of God from the 100 names of God in Islam.

 

 

 

Rockers

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Sufi Rock is an intriguing and novel artistic genre. It combines western style rock music and the spirituality of Sufi tradition. Salman Ahmad who is the leading person of Sufi rock, works hard to ‘challenge religious fundamentalism and oppressive hegemony of political authorities in his country, Pakistan. He is also taking initiatives for promoting social justice. His great contribution is in the fact that his efforts is helping modern Muslims to successfully combine their heritage—western, Pakistani, and Muslim.’ (Transmitting and Transforming Traditions: Salman Ahmad and Sufi Rock, Ali S. Asani)
I depicted the paralleling portraits of Salman Ahmad and Che Guevara. Che was very different from Salman in most aspects including political ideologies, spirituality and life story. But there are several interesting similarities. They both fight against authoritative regimes even to the degree that they might seem as daydreamers or idealists. But they also succeeded in leaving valuable legacy in history and bringing changes in society. I used the style developed by Andy Warhol’s silkscreen series because I wanted to emphasize this fact that they are considered to be iconic figures or symbols of ‘spirit of freedom’. Warhol often depicted celebrities who were the symbols of pop culture and the social trend, and this method, in principle, allowed mass production for large distribution. Interestingly, Che is often regarded as the one who showed authentic ‘rock spirit’ in cultural sphere, and I believe it is because his pursuit of liberty and being ‘rebellious’ against the controlling power or way of thinking.
It is fascinating to observe how arts and culture can be the ‘soft power’ which can bring about impact on desirable social changes by appealing to the public rather than relying on authoritative power and arbitrary means of controlling groups. I find the outcome of Sufi rock is greatly valuable because its success in fusing their transitional religious spirituality with western style of artistic expression. Rather than accepting the flood of modern musical genre from the west, the creativity of the Sufi rock artists played an important role in rediscovering or further exploring the beauty of their own spiritual tradition and identity.

Moon Becoming

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moon
Moon Becoming
(Inspired by Iqubal Complaint and Answer)
M. Iqubal, who is the spiritual founder of Pakistan, who contributed to the establishment of the state by his artistic and philosophical expressions providing the spiritual principles that the nation could follow, wrote Complaint and Answer. Here, the narrator, presents several complaining questions to God regarding the current problematic situation of Muslim countries. The answer given to the inquiries is that it is because the deteriorated spiritual condition of Muslims. God can’t find true believers who practices the genuine spirituality of Islam. Here, Iqbal is presenting the ‘best possible solution’ to the complaining Muslims and the nation, especially Pakistan. It should be a ‘true Muslim country’ consists of ‘true believers’.
Before long, I had the chance to read the book Muslim Becoming by N. Khan. (2012) Khan was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Iqbal and the book well described how Pakistan is in its creative evolutionary process of becoming ‘perfect Muslim state’. It is idealistic but could be the driving force of the country to aspirer to improvement in their spirituality and sociopolitical circumstances as well. Iqbal said, “Poetry is half of prophecy” (d. 1938, Lecture Note, A. Asani) Through the poetry, he showed the state ideology that would serve the country’s prosperous future.
Through the images depicting the phase of the moon becoming ‘full moon’, I believe the nation Pakistan and many other muslim countries which strive to becoming ‘perfect Muslim country’ are in the process of its creation, and it is an ongoing process indeed.

The Ark

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The Ark

 

The dimension of consecration

The space of salvation

 

The sing for life

The memories of the perished

 

The passion for the unseen

The smile of the transcendence

 

The touch of regeneration

The sight of freedom

 

The floating of microcosm

The making of the universe

 

The breath of the divine

The swallowing of the material

 

The roaring of the night

The silence of the tide

 

The fathers of the earth

The remnants of the holy

 

Calling the senses from nowhere

Appreciating the infinite out of nothing

 

Giving the name of the beauty

Uttering the words for the ineffable,

 

in waiting for the love of God

 

 

 

This poem is inspired by the concept of the ark of the family in Hadith. The original source of the concept is from the story of Noah in the Hebrew Bible (or The Old Testament). The family of the ark in Hadith is also interpreted as the members who are consecrated by God and have the access to Him through the special human-divine relationship. Shii Islam believes that Ali and his descendents are appointed by God as the rightful successor of the prophet Muhammad. Regarding Imamate, the Quran itself has the verses showing the special treatment for the family of the prophet. “O you who believe, obey God, and obey the Apostle, and those charged with authority among you.” (4:59) Hadith says “I leave two great and precious things among you: the Book of God and My Household. Be careful how you behave towards them.”

Noah’s ark is full of spiritual symbols and gives numerous insights on human-God relationship. First of all, the ark represent s God’s protection for chosen’s people and giving them salvation and life. The flood symbolize the regeneration of human soul through death and revival. The ark if a multilayered metaphor for God’s judgment and grace as well. The ark connects quality of the seen and unseen, uproar and tranquility, ephemerality and eternity. In this poem I wanted to explore the minds of the ones who seek after God and strive to understand the nature of Him and His relationship with the created beings.

 

The Art of the Qur’an

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The Art of the Qur’an (Photography and Graphic)

The beauty and spirituality of the Quran is appreciated in various forms of art. The Quran motivates diverse human devotional expressions. This work represent the genres of sound art, calligraphy, and decorative or pure visual art that are at the center of Islamic artistic activities developed for the Quran.

In many Islamic societies, the recitation of the Quran is one of the most important religious activities. Hafiz(a)s memorize and recite the entire Quran and the professional masters of public recitation show the passion for the spiritual message of the believers. One would be amazed at the beauty of the sound of the Quran recited even in the absence of splendid artistry which is often intentionally refrained. The transcendental quality penetrates open space through the air, through the unseen realm. Even though the prophet Muhammad was illiterate, the divine message revealed through the medium of sound and it needed to be preserved in the form of text. In the Quran, it is written that “the ink -stand and the pen and all that they (the owners of the pen-the scholars) write, bear witness.” It is interesting that Islamic calligraphy make the most of unique visual aesthetic elements of Arabic letters in themselves and how the artworks partake of mystical quality comes from human religiousness and piety. Arabesque art which is often considered to be decorative can be both of pure artistic form and religious expression. Their beauty is observed in numerous places of Islamic cultures, including the cover of the Quran as in the image, tableware in everyday use, or the wall of an grand architecture.

I believe translating the sacred text into different languages or versions is another kind of artistry. While translators are interacting with the text, their ideas and creativity is inevitably reflected in the process. This also lead to a tension among scholars or different groups of faith or ideologies. Especially, there are diverse discourses and worries of Muslims scholars regarding the problematic translation of the Quran by the scholars outside the Islamic world for their intentional or unintentional misrepresentation of the text.

 

Play of Symbolism

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Play of Symbolism

Play of Symbolism Conceptual art, material used: construction paper

This work is inspired by the Shi’i passion play, Ta’ziyah and the color symbolism deployed in the artistic and religious expression of the play. Like Lucio Fontana who attempted to merge two-dimensional and three-dimensional realms in one piece of artwork by cutting the surface of a canvas, this piece attempted to blur the distinction between flat art and spatial/sculptural art. The implication derives from this is to appreciate the unique quality of Ta’ziyah, which crosses over the boundary of art and ritual, and also the dynamic changes in the role of the actors and audiences. Rich dynamics and artistic freedom is observed in the play when the actors often allowed to extend their movements beyond the typical setting of acting and audiences are directly drawn into the play as active participants.

Ta’ziyah uses color symbolism through the costume of the actors. The heroes who stood with al-Husayn in his suffering at Karbala dress in green and the antagonists in red. There are also white and black symbolizing life and death. In this work, each pieces of colors also represents the diversity and numerousness of individual souls that long for the presence of God and they eventually form circle which symbolize the universe and God Himself. God is eternal, encompassing, interpenetrating in all His creatures. God reside in every soul and material realms and also transcends them.

The passion story of al-Husayn gave me an opportunity to rethink about the question of theodicy.  As depicted in this piece of work, good and evil coexist in human lives entangled and juxtaposed even in one facet of space time. Then who is the ultimate author of evil and suffering? Is it God or His Adversary?

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