May 9th, 2014

An Introduction: Reader’s Guide

Throughout this course, I have been fighting to define every piece of literature and art as my own. This course has been about exploring the meaning of Islam and its many meanings to many peoples around the world. I have discovered what it means to me—and it seems to be something more than a religion. Islam is a belief system, a culture, an art form that is easily relatable, especially for a non-religious person like myself. I have created works of art to match my thoughts and feelings throughout the learning process. This portfolio/blog offers a conclusive example of what can be experienced and achieved when subjected to new and thought-provoking ideas.

Professor Asani and the second chapter of Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam inspired my first portfolio piece (Week 2). This first piece is simple in construction: pencil and paper. I used a four-inch by six-inch piece of paper to reconstruct my own version of a framed poem in the traditional Persian style. Colored-pencils bring the outside border to life and are strategically designed and placed in a symmetrical style—I worked hard to create a border that was complex and reminiscent of nature. The center of the frame is dedicated to a poem by Rumi. I wrote the poem in English in a style reminiscent of calligraphy—it is graceful and beautiful to look at, and perhaps difficult to read. This poem was analyzed in Asani’s second chapter and served as my inspiration. I have never interpreted Rumi and his work through a religious lens before and exposure to this perspective came as a welcome shock. This poem in particular drew my attention because of the fine line it walks between religious love and romantic love. Asani has interpreted the poem as one of religious love, but compared to the poetry included earlier in the chapter (like that of Al-Hallaj) it seems definitively romantic. This is where Asani and I differ in opinion, perhaps only because of the argument Asani uses to defend his opinion. For Asani, Rumi is clearly interpreting God as Love. However, reading this interpretation for the first time, I am not so certain. Asani does not seem to logically defend his point or provide definitive proof of Rumi’s Love-God perspective. This left me in disagreement and eager to share my interpretation. It is because of this controversial position this poem maintains that I dedicated a work of art to it. A simple yet beautiful portrayal of a poem about love; a love that the reader can interpret as their own, whether romantic or otherwise.

Asani and the third chapter of his work inspired my second art piece—a modern day buraq (Week 4). Throughout his third chapter and within class discussion, the mi’raj was discussed as a significant, grounding moment for the Prophet Mohammad. I considered myself to be well informed on Islamic practice before this course, however after reading the Prophet’s ascension story, I was surprised. I have never thought of the prophet in this mythical way before and it immediately brought about a Mohammad-Jesus comparison. I wanted to draw attention to this story through my artistic interpretation of the buraq—a mythical winged creature that flies Mohammad to Jerusalem. The creature has been a great source of artistic interpretation, all of which are fairly dated. With this in mind, I worked to create an updated version of the buraq—less vintage than prior depictions (See Figure 1). I used a standard sheet of paper and a common fashion magazine. From the pages of the magazine, I cut different patterns and textures to build a horse-like body with flying mane and bee-like wings. The collage was finished when I included a background of sorts through the small buildings in the bottom right corner of the image, giving the creature a sense of flight. Although this modern version of a buraq is characteristically wild, I believe it represents an important element of Islamic culture: that is the mystic side. The mythical history of Mohammad is important and was previously unknown to me. By creating my own interpretation of the story, Mohammad’s own ascension became a tangible element of my understanding of Islam and an element that I may question and find fault with. The story may be entertaining however the religious validity of it is questionable. Mohammad in this magical story changes my understanding of him as a normal man—not worshipped like the prophet Jesus—to a super human figure.

The third art piece I created represents the role the Quran plays in Islam and the many interpretations with which it may be understood and utilized (Week 3). To best embody the sentiment I wanted to capture, I staged a photograph. The image is of a woman, holding a book in her lap—the Quran. She is surrounded by black except light emanates from the book on her lap, illuminated her figure and face. This light is meant to represent knowledge and enlightenment to the word of God. The word of God is said to be Light and this image literally captures that idea. Michael Sells book Approaching the Qur’an inspired this image. The discussion that surrounded the book within class emphasized the different role the Quran plays for Muslims around the world. The one idea I found to be universal however, was that o the Quran as Light. No matter the interpretation taken to the holy scripture, whether devote or a source of musical inspiration, the book is illuminating. In the image the light from the Quran mainly affects the face of the woman, symbolizing the direct power of the scripture on the mind and life of humanity.

The Sufi practice of Samā, its mystical nature and controversial practice inspired a piece of artwork that questions what Samā may actually accomplish (Week 8). In reading Leonard Lewisohn’s “The Sacred Music of Islam: Sama’ in the Persian Sufi Tradition,” I learned about the purpose of Sufi practice but also began to question it. At first, Lewisohn expresses the act of Samā as a religious practice, a kind of meditation that brings an individual closer to god. However, even as a spiritual event, the parameters surrounding the act are extremely metered. Lewisohn’s shows that there are four distinct steps that must be followed; this element of the Samā changes how it is understood. I created this digitally manipulated image to depict the many sides of Samā as well as the most fundamental meaning behind the act: oneness with god. The image is a self-portrait with a repeated image of myself digitally altered in a variety of ways. The background is a blend of colors—neither appealing nor unappealing—to signify its relative unimportance in the Samā process. The purpose of the altered images of myself is to symbolize the many things Samā can be, even for the same person. I chose to exhibit the more mystical side of the practice in this way and therefore promote the Samā as meditation rather than as an action.

Conference of the Birds, the epic narrative poem by Farid Attar was the inspiration for my fifth portfolio installment (Week 10) . The meaning of Attar’s poem is clear by the end of the story, however the severity with which one takes their interpretation varies. The poem is often seen as a religious narrative that emphasizes the role of self in finding god. Each of the thirty birds whom take the journey to find the simorgh (the king of birds) holds a deeper meaning as well as a character flaw that must be explored and remedied before the journey itself can begin. In this way, the epic serves as a personal guide to the reader, identifying their flaws and offering the moral solution for it in order to guide one closer to god. It is the conclusion of the story that truly inspired me and I like to interpret the ending in less of a religious light in order to identify with it. The thirty birds accomplish their journey and travel far to reach the lake where the legendary simorgh lives, but when they get there, all there is a lake, and looking upon it they see their own, thirty reflections—a pool of thirty birds, which translates into Persian as sī morgh. Attar plays a trick on the reader and I believe it is what defines the story. From a religious point of view, we may conclude that the King of the Birds—metaphorically humans—is not a living entity but our own selves and the life inside us: God. In looking at our own reflections, we are parts of god and should therefore rule ourselves in the proper and best way possible. The nonreligious side to this theme is the exact same without the emphasis on god. It is an idea that is easily translated into a non-religious context and perhaps, for this reason it truly spoke to me. I created a calligraphy pen drawing to represent what I gained from the epic. I drew the phrase “thirty birds” in Persian in a shape like that of a bird. Within the black outlines of this calligraphy, I used color to rewrite the Persian word for “bird.” The one bird is therefore made up of many, like the point of Attar’s story. The world is made of many and the best ruler this world can have is when all act as one. The poem speaks of the basic nature of humanity and the complexity from which we act.

The last installment in my portfolio was inspired by Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis and speaks for my family’s personal heritage (Week 12). The piece is a digitally altered image of myself: two self-portraits, one with hijab one without, superimposed upon each other. The end result is a complicated, graphic looking self-portrait—the hijab maintains a key focus. Persepolis was an unusual choice for the purposes of this course, however I am lucky to say it was included. It is a novel that examines the significance of Islam in a life as well as the political function a religion can play. For Satrapi, as a young child in revolutionary Iran, religion held little importance until it was imposed. After which, her character poses as an outspoken child, wearing hijab but on her own terms. I found it easy to identify with Satrapi through my own experiences in post-revolution Iran. Her focus on the veil in her book brought out my own thoughts on the matter, and I found they were positive. Unlike Satrapi, although the veil was an imposition, it became a relative positive for me. The hijab as a blessing is not thoroughly analyzed in this portion of Satrapi’s tale but it was a opinion I have recognized. The image I created was my effort to embody and show what the hijab actually is, that is, a piece of cloth. With the two images on top of each other, the distinction between them is hard to define and I meant for it to be that way. A person with or without hijab is the same—in Iran and around the world. In a way, I have used this piece to proclaim my own political message. Women in Iran are not defined by the hijab and neither am I. The image is my proof and my stand. Satrapi’s emphasis on the veil is from the point of view of a child; she is witty and harsh. I built off of what Satrapi offered the reader to form my own opinion and understand my own feelings towards the hijab from my own experiences.

This portfolio offers many ideas on a variety of elements within Islam and Islamic culture. As a nonreligious person, my perspective is very different than those of others and I hope to offer a critical, illuminating eye from this point of view. Islam is beautiful; it is both a religion and an art. And, like others of its kind, it is many things to many Muslims. Exposure to the many facets within Islam brings about new ideas and new questions, and I look forward to continuing my exploration of Islam—more than a faith.

Asani, Ali. “Defining Islamic values and ideals.” Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim         Understandings of Islam. 54-104. Print.

Asani, Ali. “Following God’s Beloved: Prophet Mohammad as the ideal Muslim.”          Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam. 105-153. Print.

Attar, Farid. The Conference of the Birds. New York: Penguin Books, 1984. Print.

Lewisohn, Leonard. “The Sacred Music of Islam: Samā’ in the Persian Sufi Tradition.”           British Journal of Ethnomusicology Vol. 6 (1997): 1-33. Print.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Paris: Pantheon Books, 2003.   Print.

Sells, Michael. Approaching the Qur’an. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2007. 199-    223. Print.

Appendix

Al-Buraf_Hafifa

Figure 1: A reproduction of a 17th century buraq depiction. A Buraq seen on a reproduction of a 17th-century Indian Mughal miniature. Digital Image. Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 10 April 2005. Web. 3 May 2014.

May 7th, 2014

My Own Persepolis

Rereading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi brought back all the family stories and heritage I expected. Her story is not too different from my mother’s or countless other Iranians who left Iran prior to and after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Someone recently called the general movement away from Iran the “Iranian Diaspora,” and I believe that sentiment is a perfect description. After all, Marjane and my mother had to leave their homeland. I know for my family, there was no history outside of Iran, no past homes or future plans for departure. Of course, this was before the revolution and before trouble began.

Instead of using this post to document my family’s history in the Iranian Diaspora, I will use it to describe my own (few) experiences with Iran. Satrapi spends a significant amount of time in her graphic novel critiquing the hijab. And from the view point of a child, I think she offers the reader a more well-rounded view–it can be a fashion statement, something to ridicule, or just a plain imposition. The way she categorizes the accessory in the book is similar to how I would describe it in my experience, although I would be more positive in my experience. In the summer of 2011, I traveled to Iran with my mother for a period of two weeks. That was two weeks of hijab. I did not think much about the imposition before arriving in the country, but as a feminist and someone who has never been told what to wear, was very hostile to the idea… at first. It takes getting used to, but after a few days, it felt normal. Looking back, maybe my fondness for the hijab stems from my desire to belong and my tendency to hold dear all that Iranian culture has to offer. But my family has no Islamic past, Iran to me is not Islam but a culture and identity. Wearing the hijab, I felt right. In fact, I felt beautiful: confident and comfortable, in a way I have never felt before. And when I no longer had to wear the scarf, I found I missed it. Sure, maybe it was a security blanket, or maybe it was just fashion.

In this piece, I have used a photo editor to blend to images together. Both are self-portraits, one on me in hijab and one of me without. Through the compounded image, I hope to convey the depth and complexity of the hijab issue itself as well as pose several questions. Does a scarf change who I am? Or what I look like? From these questions we should consider not only the social implications of the hijab but also the political.

Me x 2

April 13th, 2014

The Thirty Bird

After reading “The Conference of the Birds,” I was inspired to make a play on the story just as Ferdowsi does. The story follows the journey of 30 birds as they seek out the One whom may rule over them all. In Persian, the phrase for 30 birds is sī-morgh. The fantastical king of the birds that they are looking for is called the “Simorgh.” At the end of the tale, this play on words is realized as the 30 birds who journeyed far to find the Simorgh discover only their 30 reflections in a lake. It was not the end of the journey that was the reward for the birds, but the journey.

I will not dive into the true meaning of the story in this post, but will provide you with what it has inspired. The image below is a calligraphic trick similar to that of Ferdowsi. In black, we se the persian phrase for 30 birds, “سی مرغ.” This literally refers to the 30 birds who sought out their ruler and the mythical bird itself. Making up the body of the bird and turning the calligraphy into a bird is repetition of the Persian word for bird. Through this visual, individual “birds” really do make up the Simorgh. The multiple colors that make up the addition to the calligraphy are an important element of diversity in the drawing. The birds that make up the Simorgh are all different and offer a different trait and/or life lesson to the story. These differences should be represented not only through the many colors but also the multiple patterns that the bird’s body includes. Alone these components are random and meaningless, but placed in the context of the calligraphy–together they make up the Simorgh. A single bird with the meaning of 30. Not only this but also a representation of the lessons learned by the 30 who make up the 1 Simorgh, lessons through travel and lessons through their leader, the hoopoe. 

March 31st, 2014

Sama & Ecstasy

The Sufi practice of sama produces ecstasy in the participant. An ecstasy unique to the practice itself. This ecstasy is different than what we know because of its religious context. Sama is the religious practice of Sufism that drives the participant to listen deeply to music and through their concentration, achieve an ultimate oneness–ecstasy–with god.

I have interpreted this basic definition of the sama practice as a kind of meditation. Through music, Sufis may achieve a clarity and oneness with the world similar to that of Buddhists. Of course, these practices are special to their religions and I practice neither. Therefore, as an outside observer I interpret the practice and make it my own. This digitally manipulated image is my representation of of the ecstasy sama produces. The horizontal landscape has a background of many blended colors; through this ambiguous background I hoped to represent the mystical level the practice may produce. The image is mainly composed of a copied, manipulated image. A took a self-portrait of myself in a submissive pose (to show submission to god), sitting cross-legged in a way similar to that of basic meditation. This image is repeated in the image to show different stages of who I am and will become through stages of ecstasy. The pictures vary from blurred to colored. You may view how different the picture becomes from the original–the image in the center surrounded by light. This central image represents the luminosity achieved once ecstasy is reached. The light may be outwardly emitted but the levels of ecstasy and growth as a person remain within.

Through the sama experience, who you are changes and reality is transcended–perhaps we are many as well as one with the world at this point: one real but many in spirit. This image is my attempt to express this sentiment.

March 1st, 2014

Allah as Light

We commonly associate the might and awe of Allah with light. In this picture, I played with the idea of God as light. In the image we see a woman reading from the Qur’an, which in the image is, the source of light. Everything surrounding her is dark and blurred, however the text is illuminated before her and brings light to her own features. The contrast between the black and white helps to emphasize this interpretation of the image. The severe difference between the dark and light is forced upon the viewer. By creating this dramatic scene, I sought to elucidate the underlying meaning–the word of god is light and everything good. The Book may be represented as a saving grace, a light to the needy when all is dark.

As a representation of light, the word of God should be respected as holy; it was dictated by Allah. In this way it is able to bring enlightenment to the reader. The Qur’an is a tool and product of Allah and an embodiment of His wisdom. In the image, her face and the book itself are the areas with the most light. These areas draw the viewers attention and connect them, the book with the head–the “leader” of our body. By reading the Book, the woman experiences the light of the God and learns. This image attempts to show that education and the illusory, divine power that comes from an understanding of the Quran.

 

Special thanks to Kat Tchebotareva.

February 21st, 2014

A Modern Day Buraq

The myth of Mohammad’s ascension has spurred on a variety of artistic themes. Perhaps the most mythical of these themes is that of the buraq,  a steed that allows the prophet to transcend into the heavens. The buraq is commonly portrayed with a horse-like body, wings, and humanoid head. The significance of the buraq in Islamic art has inspired me to recreate my own version of the buraq–something I have imagined while reading the story. My interpretation of the buraq is a creature that although horse-like, is never just one animal. For me, it has to be something more complicated than just a horse and more magical than humanoid.

This collage represents that complexity I imagined. By using a fashion magazine, I cut and compiled a horse-shaped buraq with a human head. The cut outs of buildings below the buraq represent the supernatural abilities of the creature. The “textures” of the images I used illustrate the changing animal that I have imagined the buraq to be: there is snake skin, fur, fringe, wool, etc. It is a modern interpretation of the mythical creature and I think this point is particularly important. Instead of following along with past Islamic art interpretations of the buraq, I pulled from today’s media to create a kind of “updated” version.

February 8th, 2014

Persian Poetry in Modern-Old Medium: A Piece of Inspired Art (Week 2)

The required readings for Week 2 inspired me to create my own version of stylized, framed poetry as seen in Islamic art. I chose to focus on a piece of poetry by Rumi, which was featured in Professor Asani’s second chapter of reading. Taking that poetry as inspiration, I drew a detailed frame for the poem. I put much effort in making the frame as symmetrical as possible, a trend in Islamic art, as well as including geometric patterns and elements of nature. I chose blue hues to match the bright blue commonly featured in Islamic art and architecture. The poem itself is written in sections of the frame in a type of English calligraphy. Although slightly difficult to read, I wanted the poem to be accessible to English speakers while maintaining some of the beauty a Persian, calligraphic representation would possess. The poem reads:

 

Don’t take account of a life that goes without love;

Love is the elixir of life:

Accept it in your heart and soul;

Know that, except for lovers, one is a fish without water;

he is dead and withered, even though he be a vizir.

– Rumi

February 7th, 2014

Hello world!

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