Bismallahi r-rahmani r-rahim.
True to its title, this blog, “Explorations of Islam,” attempts to capture a process of discovery: it documents a journey of religious exploration, in which knowledge and a deeper understanding of Islam were produced as a result. Specifically, this blog is a record of my experiences in this class and the knowledge that I gained over these past thirteen weeks. However, I constructed my posts and artworks with a broader audience in mind, and I hope aspects of my intellectual journey might ring true to others who have spent time studying Islam.
In viewing this blog, it is critical to keep in mind that my foray into Islam was profoundly shaped by the contextual studies approach. As Professor Asani discussed in class, there are a multitude of ways in which one might approach the study of religion. One might undertake a devotional approach, studying a religion as one of its followers; one might take a textual approach, focusing on the sacred texts and documents; one might take a comparative approach, attempting to understand a religion by highlighting its similarities and differences to other religions; or one might take a contextual approach, delving into the nuance of a religion and exploring its various manifestations depending on the cultural and historical background in which it is practiced.
It is this final method of study—the contextual studies approach—that was employed by this course and that therefore affected the direction of my exploration. The contextual studies approach allows for a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of Islam. The other approaches allow for only limited, and comparatively shallow, perspectives: the devotional approach cannot explore beyond the viewpoint of the believer, and the textual approach cannot consider anything more than the religion’s written doctrine. By contrast, the contextual approach is able to recognize a diversity of beliefs, understand the history behind religious texts, and explore the complex relationships between religion, culture, history, region, and the individual.
These aspects of the contextual studies approach make it uniquely suited to combat religious illiteracy and foster a genuine, nuanced understanding of religion. The process of understanding Islam—and indeed, any religion—is necessarily a gradual one, and in the beginning it is necessary to progress more slowly, taking the time to understand the basics. However, as one’s knowledge progresses, the cultural studies approach allows one to understand the vast spectrum of beliefs, practices, viewpoints, and ideas encapsulated by the term Islam. The more one learns, the easier it is to appreciate these differences, and the easier it is to dismiss a monolithic understanding of Islam. The basic and stereotypical understanding of Islam is thereby replaced by an appreciation of Islam as a diversified and individualized system of beliefs.
Through these blog posts, I use artistic projects to capture this growing and increasingly nuanced understanding that I gained as I explored Islam using the contextual approach. In particular, as the blog posts are read chronologically from the first to the last, it is possible to detect two important trends. First is the complexity of the blog: the posts get less basic and more nuanced in their representations of Islam. Second is the type of knowledge employed in created the posts: whereas the beginning of the blog employs mainly discursive knowledge, the later posts increasingly rely on intuitive understanding and individual interpretations in their expression of Islam. I’d like to delve into both of these trends in turn.
The earliest blog post—“Revelation,” representing Allah’s ayat as calligraphy—is easily the most basic of the collection. The inspiration for the artwork came directly from the Qur’an. This first post reads almost like a textual studies approach, such is its reliance on and direct relevance to the Qur’an, the holy text of Islam. Indeed, it is very much a revelation in the sense that it is a new beginning, the start of a new awareness that did not exist previously.
The second and third blog posts address mostly similarities among Muslims across a variety of contexts. The second post—“Imitation”—shows a reasonably common desire among Muslims to imitate the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), while the third post emphasizes an emotional connection to the family of Ali, which is common among a subset of Muslims (Shi’a). Both of these posts show a deeper understanding of the religion than the first one, and both focus on the experience of Islam instead of the text. However, these posts have not yet progressed to exploring explicitly the variety of differences that exist between cultural and local contexts.
The halfway point of the blog marks a shift, and posts four and five begin to explore the diversity of perspectives within Islam, as well as the ways in which these perspectives might shape the lives of individuals. The fourth post explores the intersecting identities of womanhood and Islam, and the hijab represents the plurality of understandings and perspectives among Muslim women. The fifth post explores the variety of ways in which Islam might shape the perspectives and actions of its followers: it might act through literature, graphics, music, or other means. Whereas earlier posts were more general, these posts begin to explore some of the more specific yet diverse experiences that Muslims might have.
Finally, with the poem in the sixth post the blog becomes exceedingly individualized. The poem captures the experiences of a single individual, influenced not only by religion but also culture, location, gender, and a myriad of other variables. This piece provides a stark contrast with the beginning of the blog: whereas the first post expressed a part of Islam that was more “universal,” the final piece, by emphasizing the uniqueness of a single voice, likewise emphasizes the great plurality of voices within Islam. Nothing about the final piece is, or tries to be, monolithic or universal; rather, it embodies the nuance that comes with individuality and the complexity that comes from understanding the individual within one context among many.
As the complexity, nuance, and individualization of the posts is increasing, a second shift is also taking place, one from discursive to intuitive knowledge. While the beginning of the blog relied more on traditional knowledge—the specific words in the readings and a meticulous adherence to the ideas expressed in lecture and section—the end of the blog was much less regimented. Instead, as I learned more and became more confident in my (discursive) knowledge, I was able to explore these concepts with more freedom and take an intuitive approach to creating blog posts.
Beginning once again with a discussion of the first post, it is easy to see that this post is based mainly in discursive knowledge. The existence of “ayat” or signs is documented in the Qur’an and was discussed extensively in class and section. It is something that I very clearly learned about, something that I could take notes on, read about, study, and even define on a midterm.
As the posts progressed, intuition began to mix into my artwork along with discursive knowledge. A prime example of this is the fourth blog post, depicting a hijabi in a Western context. One can read about the decision (and sometimes, the necessity) to wear a veil and learn about its history in an academic context. However, I also began to exercise my own intuition and empathy in this post: how might it feel to be a hijabi living in the West in the modern political climate? How might the stereotypes (which we can learn about in an academic context) manifest themselves in the daily social and emotional lives of these women? What interests, personality traits, and characteristics might hibajis want to express by wearing the veil? For this, pure academic knowledge was insufficient, and I found myself turning to intuitive knowledge to fill in the gaps.
Whereas the first blog post was almost exclusively discursive knowledge, the last drew almost entirely from intuitive knowledge. It was noticeably less regimented than the first: I would have had trouble finding passages in the Qur’an to justify what I had written, and much of the symbolism I used cannot be found anywhere in the course syllabus. Instead, it was inspired mostly by the penultimate lecture, which encouraged us to use our own imaginations, perspectives, and understandings to define sacredness. I left the lecture feeling almost mystically inspired: Professor Asani, John, Ceyhun, and the numerous authors consulted by the course had given me the foundation I needed, but it was my own internal sense of the divine that allowed me to compose this piece at all. Alternately put, this course was the horse that took me on much of my journey to better understand Islam, but for this piece, I had to walk on my own.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about both of these trends is that neither one was intentional on my part. I neither tried to make my posts increasingly complex nor consciously relied more on intuitive knowledge as time went on. Both of these trends were accidental, or perhaps it is better to say they were organic: they were the natural result of my exploration of the religion using the contextual studies approach. As the course progressed, learning about the diverse, multifaceted, context-dependent manifestations of Islam increased both the complexity of my understanding and my ability to use intuitive knowledge to engage with the material more deeply. Looking back on my blog posts, I find that this evolving and increasing understanding came through in my artwork without any conscious effort on my part.
I believe that my evolving understanding, as expressed in my blog, is powerful evidence for the importance and power of the contextual studies approach in understanding Islam specifically. In the context of the 21st century, wherein non-Muslim Westerners tend to view Muslims with suspicion, the contextual studies approach represents a unique tool for combatting stereotypes and promoting greater understanding and acceptance of Islam. Almost by necessity, greater exploration of the religion of Islam builds greater tolerance, trust, and respect, allowing non-Muslims to dismiss the caricatures of Islam and see the humanity underneath. This class began by talking about the “silent voices” in Islam, and at that point, I don’t think I understood fully. Now that I know how to listen, I feel that I can hear a chorus of voices, at times harmonizing and at time discordant, but a beautiful multitude nonetheless.