Welcome to Embodied Faith,
a portfolio of artistic creations reflecting on the aesthetics of Islam
by Anissa Abdel-Jelil
I was initially hesitant to enroll in this course because I was nervous about the experience of learning about my own faith tradition within a classroom setting. My faith is sacred to me. Therefore, I thought a classroom setting would not honor its sanctity. I was right, but I was pleasantly surprised by the ways in which Professor Asani’s pedagogy centered the lived experience of Muslim practitioners throughout the ages. Oftentimes, academics remove “the body” from their pedagogy and neglect the deeply aesthetic and embodied aspects of religious traditions. This class’ focus on aesthetic and interpretive understandings of Islam allowed me to anchor my knowledge of my own faith tradition in the lived histories of practitioners who have come before me.
I chose to reflect on the teachings of this class with creative blog posts that spoke to the ways in which Islam is a highly individualized and deeply embodied religion. Although our class traced the socio-political histories of Islam and the key players in its reform and revival movements, I was most surprised to learn of the various artistic practices utilized for worship to the Divine. In some of the Muslim communities to which I belong, the arts are not highly regarded. Similarly, I can only think of a handful of circumstances in which devotional poetry or music would be viewed as halal or “permissible.” Moreover, each of these circumstances is dependent upon the status of the person performing the piece. This is to say that artistic practices used as a form of worship are relegated to a specific tribe or community whose role in society it is to create and perform devotional music. Therefore, I was delighted to learn about Islam’s rich history of artistic practices being used for the purpose of worship or praise.
One of the primary teachings I gleaned from this course was recognizing the value of employing a “cultural studies” approach to the study of Islam. Utilizing this approach allows us to highlight the ways in which religious institutions are shaped by cultural and historical realities – moving away from the idea that religious texts, such as the Qur’an and/or the Hadith, are the ultimate sources of religious authority. For example, in order to interpret the Qur’an, we need to contextualize it – not only in terms of where each ayat is placed within the mushaf (i.e the codified version of the Qur’an,) but also in terms of the time period in which the Qur’an was revealed.
I would like to think that I infused the “cultural studies” approach into the production of each of my creative blog posts by highlighting themes and teachings within Islam that stress the ways in which religious knowledge is embodied. I was inspired by the practices and rituals created around the Qur’anic recitation and ways the Qur’an can become deeply embodied knowledge – both literally and figuratively.
During our third week of classes, we discussed the power of the written word, particularly as ayats from the Qur’an are interpreted as forms of protection, healing, reverence, etc. As such, I was struck by the versatility of the “containers” for these words (i.e an amulet or a piece of paper, etc.). I believe each of my creative blog posts represents a different type of container for Divine teachings. I do not use written text in each of my pieces. Instead, I use a variety of different media to gesture toward the ways in which the Qur’an is, and has always been, a multi-sensory experience – particularly considering it was initially communicated orally. I would hope that those engaging with my creative blog posts would think about how each piece is contained. I would hope they would ask themselves the question: What is the significance of each medium used? Where is the Divine present? Is the Divine ever absent?
Additionally, I would hope that my creative pieces would prompt my audience to interrogate some of the stereotypes they carry about Islam and Muslim communities. Particularly by asking questions, such as: Who is benefiting from the portrayal of Muslim communities in this way? Whose Islam? Who is in a position of authority? And whose voices are heard vs. silenced?
Perhaps most poignantly, this class has made me think a lot about the role of the arts as a tool for resistance and reform. Through literature, praise poetry, devotional music, deeply physical theatre, among other artistic practices, Muslim communities around the globe have explored their relationship with the Divine and articulated their interpretations of Divine presence within the human experience.
As such, I have found it powerful to witness practitioners deepen their personal relationships with their faith through the arts. This is especially moving when these acts are a form of resistance to dominant norms that create barriers around access to Islam in the first place.
Through the diverse media and themes represented in each of my creative blog posts, I would hope that my audience would understand the sheer multiplicity of experiences within Islam. There is no singular form of Islam. There are as many types of muslims (lower case “m”) as there are people. Additionally, I would hope that they gleaned that Islam is a faith tradition that meets people where they are in their lives – one that promotes peace, justice, and healing.