Welcome to My Journey Through Expressions of Islam – A Preface

Introductory Essay

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A Modern Ghazal

Week 13

Is art timeless? Here I am setting a classic ghazal which I sing to modern music to experiment with the effect. In the musical expression we explored from Pakistan, words of remembrance of God were accompanied by music, sometimes even music that is reminiscent of that which is commonly used in secular songs. I know this is highly controversial as we learned from the video of Salman Ahmad that was played in class: music is banned in parts of Pakistan and yet people love listening to it and singing praises for Allah with music. In this post, I wanted to see what would happen if a classic ghazal was mixed with modern music. Would the music be perceived as Islamic or would the words of the ghazal be ignored and secularized?

It is interesting to pair something that is now taken as an Islamic form of art (Rumi’s Masnavi is equated to the level of a Persian Quran) with another form of art that is highly controversial and sometimes forbidden. Yet the ghazals are often of a controversial nature and topic. But despite the references to ideas that are often considered un-Islamic, such as the drinking of wine, the ghazal is considered an Islamic genre of poetry and many Muslims revere the works of Rumi and Hafiz as instructing and inspirational. Overtime, people have come to appreciate them as Islamic, but music hasn’t quite attained the same level of acceptance. Both forms of art used here are questionable–the question is: will there come  a time when there is a genre for “Islamic” music such as there is for Islamic art and Islamic poetry?

You may want to turn up your volume to hear the music.

Ghazal with Modern Music

This composition sets Rumi’s “Bi hamegan be sar shavad” to the music from Robbie Williams’ song “Feel”. The original song is about the feeling of love that is almost spiritual so the themes of the ghazal and the song are similar.

When singing the ghazal to different genres of music while I was experimenting, I found it hard to nail down a tune that would display the words of the ghazal without overpowering the composition. Once you set something to music, the danger is that the listener will get carried away by the music itself and ignore the words which the artist may want one to focus on. It was hard to find modern music that would match up with the sentiments presented in the ghazal while matching its the rhyme and rhythmic pattern, but I think the music from “Feel” does some justice to the ghazal. At some points, the music actually helps bring out the words more.

Something interesting I tried to do with my composition was to combine a classic Persian ghazal with Western music. This week in class we learned about Islam in the west through different musical genres and read The Reluctant Fundamentalist for discussion which is a controversial book in many aspects. It too attempts to combine and reconcile ideas from the east with those of the west. The main character is from Pakistan and he goes to the United States and learns Western ideals which he then takes back with his to the East. My composition takes a trinket from the East and immerses it in music from the West, forming a work that emphasizes the words from classic Persian literature with western-style music that hopefully makes the work accessible to a broader audience and allows them to gain meaning from the ghazal.

In combining two genres of art from two different geographic and idealistic regions of the world, I try to show that human experience and expression don’t have to be separated by categories. They can come together to form even more meaningful works. I hope you enjoy listening!

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Branches and Humanity – My Sama

Week 8

This week, we learned about the musical practices of the Sufis. Music (especially the Sama) is a way for people to become closer to God through intoxication with His presence. Leonard Lewisohn writes about the trance experiences that Sufis aim to achieve through their Sama practices and this week’s readings show that music serves a very specific purpose in bringing those on the tariqah (the path to the divine truth) closer to the truth and love that they are seeking. Reading about music and the Sama as the means through which Sufis remember God made me think of what my Sama is.

I am a very visual person and an appreciator of nature’s beauty. I have often looked out my window in the early morning and reflected upon the beauty of the rising sun, the freshness of the air and the clarity of the sky. Tuning in to this natural beauty never fails to remind me of the greatness of its creator Himself. Looking at nature and reflecting upon it is my Sama.

There is  a tree that I look upon from my room. It is big, beautiful and green with the arrival of spring. I have attempted to capture it’s beauty as I see it here in photographic form. I see it is an open symbol from God, as a piece of the garden that He created. It reminds me of much that we have talked about in class and what I have reflected upon during different periods of life.

Some time ago, in class we learned about how Sufis trace their spiritual lineage to Prophet Muhammad. This reminded me of how all of humanity (or at least those in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition) traces its origins to Adam and Eve. Islam, too, is like this tree. At its root is Allah. Further up, the turnk is Prophet Muhammad whom the Root has sent up to support the branches and the leaves. The branches are the different sects and ways of practicing the Islam brought to us by the Prophet. The leaves are the individual people and they may grow in groups or in isolation just as people have their own way of believing.

Through the photographs below, I tried to capture and express the similarity I see between the sign and what it inspires me to think. I have used Photoshop to depict the tree in different seasons, anchored in the same position and surviving all. Standing tall, weathering the trials of time, going through life and being  re-born after a period of near-death during the dead of winter, the tree is like the Sufis who trace their lineage back to the Prophet, the leaves connecting to their root, who have gone into hiding for fear of persecution and have lost their lives due to persecution–much like the wind has blown many leaves off this tree, to the ground. But this tree is also like the children of Adam, the human race who has gone through periods of war, famine, strife against each other but then made it to the spring of love in which we eventually see the sunlight that makes us grow and flower like this tree. And still the tree is strong. It stands and sings praises of God which human eyes can only detect as lush, green beauty.

The signs of God are everywhere: one need only look. The Sufis use music and dance to reach God, but one can also use the beauty that is found in nature to reach God by remembering him. Just within one tree, one can see a reference to any group of people (the Sufis, for instance) or to the entire race of humanity, a ticket to the veneration of God, and the beauty that is in all His work. It is a visual ghazal, a live performance, an open sign all contained in one seemingly mundane tree. The pictures can only capture so much and my words even less.

Summer

Summer

Fall

Fall

Winter

Winter

Spring

Spring

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Communities of Interpretation

Week 5

The Birth of the Communities of Interpretation

 

After the death of Prophet Muhammad, people were unsure of whom to accept as the next leader of the Muslims. Some wanted to follow Abu Bakr, a friend of the prophet, the leader who was picked by a group of people while the Prophet’s burial preparations were still being carried out. Others wanted to follow Ali, son-in-law and cousin of Prophet Muhammad, as some maintained that the Prophet had selected Ali as his successor while he was still living.

Here, I have depicted the scene after the Prophet’s death. As he is being carried by his people, you can already see a divide happening: the people are all carrying the body of the Prophet, yet you can see that one sect is turning to the right while the other is trying to turn left. Now, the interesting part is that you may think that the group of people to your right, meaning the right of the painting, are on the correct path, but if you think of it from the perspective of the body of the Prophet (I imagined that the crowd is carrying the body feet first), the people on the left side of the painting are actually turning right. In doing this, I have tried to capture the essence of the term “communities of interpretation“. As Daftary states in the Diversity in Islam: Communities of Interpretation, we will never know who is practicing the “correct” Islam simply because the earliest documents we can find were all written some hundred years after the Prophet’s death and show sectarian bias.

The setting of the sun symbolizes the end of one era in Islam and the rise of the crescent moon and the star (the typical symbol for Islam) heralds in the new era. I have chosen to use the night for the new era because the new day starts upon the eve in the Islamic calendar and also because the night brings darkness which symbolizes the idea of trying to find one’s way in the dark–an idea akin to the Muslims trying to find Islam after the Prophet’s passing.

There is diversity and disagreement in the new era, but there are also new ideas and different ways of answering each challenge that the nascent religion will face. The path which the crowd has been following so far is colored in dark because it was the one, sure way everyone followed under the Prophet’s guidance until now when the crowd forks. The middle path leads to Jannat-al-Baqi, the place where Prophet Muhammad is buried. The path to the left has more people, but you can see that there is a fork in that path, too. This is the path the Sunnis are following since the majority of Muslims today are Sunni and that the path to the right is the one Shiites are following as depicted by the small crowd there. I elected not to portray one single leader in order to capture the idea that there are several “leaders”–it just depends on which path you follow.

 

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The Adhan and its Plurality within Islam

Week 1

Go to any Muslim country and you will be sure to hear the adhan right before it is time to pray, 5 times a day, everyday. It is something you can almost expect in a location densely populated by Muslims. However, as we learned during the first week of class, the adhan is recited in a different manner depending on which country you are in and, at times, even where you are within that country. The way the words are pronounced differ a little from, say, Egypt to Saudia Arabia to Pakistan. Additionally, given the sect of Islam that is prevalent in the area, sometimes the adhan may contain extra lines. Here I am referring especially to the Shiite adhan in which lines praising the family of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, are added.

Here I have depicted mosques from different places around the world. The pictures are accompanied by a clip of the adhan from that area. For example, a mosque in Pakistan appears when part of an adhan clip from Pakistan is played. As we try to focus on Islam from a cultural studies perspective in this class, I thought this would make an interesting project since it shows the diversity within the religion. But at the same time, it is the concept, the purpose and the main wording of the adhan that stay the same no matter where you are. All are ways of calling people to prayer. All are made in the name of God. The mosques show the same pattern: they may look different from one part of the world to another, yet they are all places where Muslims go to pray and to bond with community. Each part of the adhan is from the country where the mosque depicted is located. The end result is one adhan recited by many Muslims around the world: one voice flowing into the next, the remembrance of Allah linked in a continuous chain.

 

Mosque and Adhans from Around the World

 

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Islam Through its Poetry

Week 4

Islam is a a widely followed religion so it isn’t surprising to find traditions associated with Islam to vary from one community to another. In week 4, we read poems from various parts of the world in praise of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

It was interesting to see how different poetry from the different traditions compares with each other. In the Sindhi works, the Prophet is often referred to as the bridegroom and the concept of a virahini (a bride waiting for her groom) is used to represent the state of the poet who is waiting for the Prophet. In the Urdu poems, usually called na’ts, as Prof. Asani writes, there is a mystical aspect and a also sense of praising throughout. In these poems, the city of Medina is mentioned often and the narrator expresses the wish to be blessed enough go there one day. In the Turkish poems we read, the Prophet was not mentioned as much and the focus was mostly on the reader or the poet repenting. The aim of the writer was to connect with God and to aid the reader in remembering God as well. In the poems where the Prophet is mentioned, it is with a distant, reverent attitude, much less personal than that of the Sindhi poems.

I know Urdu so I decided to try my hand at writing a poem in my native language to see what the result would be. Below are some lines that were inspired by the imagery presented in the ghazal merged with concepts found in other forms of Islamic  poetry, specifically Sindhi poetry. I tried to capture the lover-beloved relationship that is common in Sindhi poetry and combined it with the way in which ghazals rhyme. The focus of my poem is not on the Prophet himself, but rather the Lord that he loved.

As you can see below, my poem mixes the style of the ghazal with the personal way in which Sindhi poems refer to the Prophet, but the poem is addressed to God himself. The first stanza of my poem opens the poem and makes plain the yearning for the love of the Beloved. It describes the state that the lover is in: crazy in love like Majnu was for Laila, yet he isn’t really crazy–it’s just that the world sees him that way and this is what he is trying to tell us. This was a common theme for Sufis as we learned in class–sometimes they become so close to God that people see them as mad. The second stanza addresses the transitoriness of this life, a concept that is mentioned many times in the Quran. The real life is that of the hereafter. That is why the narrator has left the love of this world in lieu of a higher form of love. The lover feels like an insignificant creature among the many that God, his Beloved has created. The next stanza shows the narrator’s thirst for just one gesture from God that shows that his feelings are reciprocated, a sign that his love is acknowledged. The last stanza shows the narrator awaiting for the day when he will be reunited with his Love, namely the day he will die. This is another theme that is common in the ghazal and in Sufism; death is a day of celebration rather than mourning. It is like the wedding in Sindhi poetry and the virahini’s awaited reunion with her bridegroom.

Urdu Poetry

Translation:

I am yearning for your love,
An offender to this world–
Mad and crazy.

A mere, transitory guest here,
An insignificant human being.

Wanting in love,
I wait for one sign from You.

I am fed up with this world
Hopeful of a reunion with You.

I have also decided to record a recitation of my poem so that you can hear the rhyme and rhythm in the original Urdu.

Urdu Poetry

 

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Holy Nights

Week 3

I was listening to a recitation of Surah Al-Qadr when I realized that it sounded somewhat like  a Christian hymn. I couldn’t remember which one it was, so I searched until I came across Silent Night. Listening to it made me realize that both Surah Al-Qadr and Silent Night are centered around this idea of Holy Night on which something was given to humanity. In the former case, it was the Quran revealed to Prophet Muhammad and in the latter case, it was Jesus sent to the people. For Muslims, Laylat-ul-Qadr is a special night of  power and for Christians, Christmas Eve is the single most celebrated night of the year. I started drawing parallels between the two nights of “descent” and the result was a poem which considered the similarities and the differences between the two holy nights.

In class we talked about references in the Quran to Jesus, Mary, and the Bible and how the Bible is one of the 4 books prototyped from the Umm-al-Kitaab. My poem draws on that idea and looks at the two holy nights as a similar tradition in two different monotheistic religions. The tradition of recitation and poetry in Islam and our discussion of the Umm-al-Kitaab in class served as inspiration to write the poem that I share below. In it, I try to incorporate elements of both Surah Al-Qadr and Silent Night so some phrases may appear familiar.

 

The Muslim Holy night
Is when everything is calm and bright.
Down was sent the Quran tonight
It is a night of great power and might,
Worth a thousand nights.

The Christian Holy night
Is when everything is calm and bright.
Down was sent Jesus the Savior tonight.
It is a night to remember the starry light
That blessed baby Jesus and enveloped the sight.

Two symbols so different
Two symbols yet so similar
Separated by people and separated by time
Brought together by Umm-al-Kitaab’s bright shine
A heavenly prototype
Is this really artifice?
It must be coincidence!
Or is it Providence?

Symbols of heaven so revered
One talks about the other
But in a century not so near.
Jesus and Mary, holy mother and her son
The Quran, holy book of Muslims
So different in their followings, their times, their form
So incomparable
Yet both held in similar positions,
Albeit in different religions.

Holy night:
Do you separate them or bring them together?
What will make us understand?
Ayahs and signs,
Saviors and revelations
All point to the existence of God
And when we celebrate you, Holy Night,
We fulfill the same wish:
The wish to become closer to the Divine.

 

 

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