Explorations of Islam

A Foray into Islamic Religion, Art, and Culture Using a Context-Based Approach

Month: March 2016



Week 6

Poetry & Film

This poem and video were inspired by week 6, “Shi’i Piety.” In particular, I drew from the Taziyeh plays, or the Iranian theatrical tradition which describes the martyrdom of Husayn. This event has incredible significance for Shi’a Muslims, and so I chose to focus my video on an alternate representation of this event.

The poem in the video is recited from the perspective of Zaynab, the daughter of Ali and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Like any member of Ahl al-Bayt, or the People of the Household, her biological relation to the prophet awards her special cultural recognition. Additionally, Zaynab also gave a powerful speech in front of Yazid following her brother’s martyrdom, making her an ideal narrator for this piece.

The piece begins by referencing the drums of war, a stylistic representation of the Battle of Karbala, and the blood spilled during that war, which was the blood of her family and thus, in some ways, her own blood. The line “the blood is ablution” hints at a theme in Shi’i piety, i.e., that the suffering of her family is cleansing and redemptive.

The middle of the piece uses the symbols of water and rain and occurs over the sounds of a thunderstorm. This storm is used to emphasize two dual pieces of the Battle of Karbala. First, the rain is used to represent the deep sadness of Zaynab and the rest of the family. Second, the thunder and lightning reference the power of Husayn, and his willingness to die despite this power, as discussed in the Taziyah:

Husain: … If I will, I can make the moon, or any other celestial orb, fall down on the earth; how much more can I get water for my children. … I voluntarily die of thirst to obtain a crown of glory from God. (Pelly, The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain)

It is only in the last verse of the poem that Zaynab is revealed to be the speaker, and this verse references her speech in the courtyard of Yazid and also the spiritual victory of her family. In some sense, the poem calls out Yazid for his false victory, which only belongs to him in the earthly realm. In the eternal realm, she says, the victory belongs to her family.

Importantly, and finally, the last verse of the poem also emphasizes the deep connection that Shi’a Muslims feel with the family of Ali. In the line “I am Zaynab, we are Zaynab,” the poem showcases the depth of this connection, which is also present at the Taziyeh: the members of the audience will often get entirely swept up in the play, experiencing the suffering as their own. Similarly, this poem shows that importance of the family of the Prophet and the depth of empathy that Shi’as feel in recalling the Battle of Karbala.




Week 4

Pencil & paper

This drawing pulls from week 4, “Prophet Muhammad as Paradigm.” In the above piece of artwork, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is symbolized as a rose, which a common representation in Islam, as described in Ghazal 19 by Hafiz and in a poem by Muhammad Iqbal:

We are like a rose with a hundred petals with one fragrance: He is the soul, he is the one. (Muhammad Iqbal, Asrar-i khudi)

Also, there is a halo of light around the rose, which connects to the theme of prophethood as divine light. For example, the Qur’an described Muhammad as light (“nur”) from God (5:15) and a radiant lamp (“siraj munir”) (33:46)

Week 4 focuses in large part on the love that Muslims hold for the Prophet. In the above drawing, a Muslim artist is depicted as lovingly painting the rose, showing the devotion of Muslims to the Prophet. Secondarily, this also shows the importance of Islamic art as a means of expressing this love and religious devotion more generally.

There is more to the drawing than love of the Prophet, however. In almost every context, Muhammad is seen as a role model, and Muslims throughout the world seem to imitate his beautifully righteous life:

Verily in the messenger of God you have a beautiful model for everyone who hopes for God and the Last Judgment and often remembers God (Qur’an 33:21).

The artist in this drawing is seeking to imitate the beauty of the Prophet; thus the name of this piece, “Imitation.” The way in which the artist paints the rose is an imitation of the perfect Rose that is the prophet. Just as the artist seeks to imitate the Prophet in his painting, so many Muslims seek to imitate the life of the Prophet in their own lives.

The final notable feature of this piece of artwork is that the rose in the artist’s painting is unfinished. This symbolizes the ongoing nature of followers’ relationships with the Prophet. The process of imitation is a lifelong journey for many Muslims, and so this artist is in the midst of his own spiritual quest to imitate the Prophet.


Leaf 1

Leaf 2



Week 2

Calligraphy & Photography

This piece draws from week 2, “The Qur’an, God’s Word as Sacred Design, and Calligraphy.” The photos above depict a calligraphic representation of Sura al-Fatiha, the opening sura of the Qur’an, using nature-based designs.

I chose to use calligraphy for this project given the importance of calligraphy in Islamic cultures. When recited, the sound of the Qur’an is exceptionally moving, and the beauty of the language is cited as evidence of its sacredness. Therefore, the written version of the Qur’an must also capture this beauty, and a major mechanism through which this is accomplished is Arabic calligraphy.

The importance of the written Qur’an is also emphasized in the original story of the revelation, and the acts of reading and recitation are closely related, as discussed by Khatibi and Sijelmassi:

Recall the first words revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, “Read, recite.” Does not the word Qur’an also mean the act of reading and recitation? Read the world and the heavens as a table of signs. You are first and foremost a reader, then a believer. (Khatibi and Sijelmassi, Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy)

The above quote also references the idea of signs, or ayat, as evidence of God. The Qur’an mentions that the existence God can be recognized or experienced through signs, some of which may be found in nature. The face of God is said to be reflected in nature and in the world; therefore I chose to create calligraphic representations of natural things–leaves and a dragonfly–to represent the signs of God that appear in nature.

Specifically, I used a dragonfly in the final image because of their agility and beauty; much like the signs of God, they can be difficult to spot, but once noticed they are often regarded as beautiful. I choose to photograph the final calligram on a human hand to emphasize that the signs are accessible to human understanding. By understanding the Qur’an, humans are able to remember (dhikr) God and can see His signs in the world around them.