March 2016

In this post, I am continuing my thread of exploring Shia Islam and aspects of Islam that are less present in scholarship and media. Week 7 discussed various forms of Islamic devotion. John Renard, in Seven Doors to Islam, characterizes devotion as temporarily living in “liminality.” Here, the state of liminality is a sacred space, a suspension of earthly life for the sacred, where one can express vulnerability and catharsis. This manifests in both ritual religious practices, such as the Five Pillars of Islam, and communal devotion unregulated by law. Each practice has a reasoning, “draw[ing] its sacralizing power from the custom of the Prophet himself” (Renard 39).

For the Nizari Ismaili, belief in mysticism reigns. Ismailis strive for unity with God, and because the Imam is the link between the earthly world and the spiritual world, a closer relationship with the Imam translates to a closer relationship with God. This relationship is illustrated by a marriage metaphor, where the follower is the bride waiting for his/her union with the divine. It is sung as hymn-like poems called ginans.

The bride metaphor works well in several ways. For one, it shows a bride in longing, much as a person is in longing to be with God. Two, the bride is youthful and can’t wait any longer until her wedding, like a “soul [that] feels it is mature for divine union” (Asani 60). Third, this is something she has been promised, and it is only a matter of time until the fulfillment. This reasoning fuels a follower’s devotion, in which constant prayer and practice will be rewarded.

Liminality is intensified during satadas, period of seven days and seven nights when there is a collective push for unity with the divine. Ginans are sung before the session to set a spiritual mood.

The poem below is my own version of a ginan. Rather than a traditional version, this poem reflects upon the surprising, yet enduring bride metaphor. The first stanza describes a traditional bride, the second stanza expands on her actions, and the third stanza describes the extent of her love and waiting. The fourth stanza is the reveal – she is waiting for her spiritual partner, not a physical husband.

In general, I tried to make the form of the ginan reflect the action or description of the poem in the moment. For example, the word “Down” is deliberately on a different line, dropped down from the word “Streaming,” and the word “Waiting” is deliberately split in two to show how torturous and long the process of waiting for the beloved is. I also chose words specifically to invoke an ethereal, but painful atmosphere. For example, the word “gossamer,” which opens the poem can mean “light, thin, delicate material” or “the fine, filmy substance consisting of cobwebs spun by small spiders” which is an interesting juxtaposition of the beautiful and the creepy in one word. Words like “veil” and “streaming” follow in this vein. The third stanza is unique because it is all direct speech (or direct thoughts, depending on your interpretation) from the bride. I chose to write this part using simple, direct words, because the essence of waiting for the beloved is that simple and if a layman read this poem, this is a part he/she could easily connect to.



Like veil on the bride’s

Forehead. Streaming


Blending with the great white trail

Of her wedding dress.


A young woman

In bloom

Like a fresh rose,





“I think of you

And want nothing else.

You are the match for me,

And I am ready

To be the match for you.

I will give you my all,

Everything to please you.

Where are you?

When will you be here?”


The wait for the divine

Is winding



I was inspired by the ta’ziyeh, which was highlighted in Week 5 along with the divide between the Sunni and Shia communities (effectively called “communities of interpretation”). Firstly, the ta’ziyeh, as an art form and practice, is very moving. It is the dramatic reenactment of the massacre of Hussein and his followers by Yazid, on the plains of Kerbala in 680AD. Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was the leader of a faction that believed descendants of the Prophet had the divine right to rule, while Yazid was the leader of a faction that believed in religio-political authority, beginning with the election of Abu Bakr. The former became the Shia Muslims and the latter became the Sunni Muslims. Ta’ziyeh uses spare props and costumes, is performed “in the round” (immersing audience in the action), and is performed annually in Iran where there is a large Shia population. In class we watched a clip documenting ta’ziyeh. It showed audience members of all ages are crying, even though they have seen this reenactment many times. It is not surprising that the story is often touted as the greatest act of sacrifice.

I was also inspired by what Ceyhun said in class. The theme of Western scholarship is an undercurrent that runs through this course. I appreciate that we examine how Western notions have colored perception, and in the instance of the ta’ziyeh, it draws onto a larger conversation about how Western studies have placed Sunni beliefs and practice above Shi’a ones. That is why studies in ta’ziyeh are lacking/stalled, why one of the articles was from the 1979 and are both by Peter Chelkowski. Western control on information is more pervasive than we sometimes realize. I noticed this in my personal life as well. As an actor, I have studied the works of Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski. In “Time Out of Memory,” Chelkowski writes that these artists were informed by ta’ziyeh’s performer-audience dynamic. Never once had this been mentioned, and I became angry, because these men are renowned theater makers in the Western world, whose works are seen as “original” and do not mention the appropriation of Persian sources.

Thus, the close study of ta’ziyeh enables the preservation of a specific and unifying art form. It allows us to consider the large scope of a cultural studies approach and zoom into the Shiite experience, which is often untouched.

Combining ta’ziyeh and the need to expand beyond scholarship dictated by Westerners, I decided to write a fictional diary entry of a Westerner, who is watching a ta’ziyeh for the first time, at the Lincoln Center in 2002 (as mentioned in “Time Out of Memory”).I chose a Western perspective, because this is a viewpoint one does not ordinarily read about or expect when it comes Shi’ite rituals. I chose a documentary-style approach to emphasize the immersive experience that one would undergo, to allow the reader a pseudo-firsthand experience.

The entry begins with some mundane details, which serve to ground the reader in the story and create a more believable narrator. By the third paragraph, he/she mentions ta’ziyeh and his/her lack of knowledge on the subject. I tried writing this in a conversational tone so as to not seem didactic. The next paragraph describes the drama, but in terse, broad strokes. This is because after watching the ta’ziyeh videos myself, I realized that I didn’t understand much of it. I only remembered particularly vivid moments and the general energy of the production, so instead of describing the event in detail, I recounted it as a person who has just experience something new would. Finally, I end with the writer’s musings, to show that the event sparked something in him/her and hopefully he/she will learn more about it.

Date: July 17, 2002

Today was not different than any other day. In fact, I walked up 9th avenue as I often do each morning. It was brisk day, not unbearably hot. I stopped at 112th street and made my way back to Columbus Circle.

What was extraordinary was my ticket to the ta’ziyeh performance at the Lincoln Center. Mark’s ticket, to be exact, but he had a last-minute conflict so I went in his place.

I admit, I should have looked up ta’ziyeh in a dictionary or on the web, because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Mark mentioned that it was a Persian drama, but left me wholly unaware of plot and details or language! Would I understand the performance?

I walked into the theater, 15 minutes early as I often am and waited in anticipation. I was expecting a ritual. But the next – oh, I can’t remember how long it is – the show – the drama – flew by. It was the most interesting performance. The performers were intensely physical, dancing, projecting, in a way that was at once presentational and evocative. Their steps were deliberate, controlled; their motions were explosive. At points, it was very graphic. One of the actors wiped his sword back and forth in a menacing manner. 

And the voices. Clear and strong enough to move mountains. If there is one thing I want to remember from the play, it is the strong voices.

I can’t say I understood it – the nuances and all – but it was downright visceral.

I questioned Mark about it later. He knows quite a bit about it. Long time fan, he said. Anyways, it is the specific story of Hussein and his entourage in Kerbala. His massacre by an opponent (I forget his name) is what marked the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims. And supposedly, performed every year in villages and large public spaces. I realize now, too, that this is the form Peter Brook was raving about – “extraordinary theater,” he called it – and I am glad to have seen it.

The theme of Week 3’s readings was the practice and significance of Qur’an recitation. Qu’ran recitation has special rhythms and pitches, which is designated by the rules of tajwid, and separated into two distinct sounds: murattal and mujawwad. Murattal is used in pedagogical settings and private contexts, while the latter is used for performances and competitions. Recitation preserves the divinity of Gods message, specifically how it was delivered. As Kristina Nelson writes in “The Sound of the Divine in Daily Life,” the Qur’an “is considered to be the actual sound of the Divine, the model of perfect beauty” (257). And as it is an oral tradition, the text is supplementary to the recitation, rather than vice versa, as Westerners often believe.

Proper and full recitation involves many factors. On one hand, it calls for technical aspects, like weeping and prostration. As “External Rules of Qur’an-Recitation” reads, weeping is important because the Qur’an was revealed in grief and the Prophet commands so. “External Rules,” especially, codifies recitation, including the number of times one should read the Qur’an each week. On the other hand, recitation involves an unexplainable but definitely universal and emotional quality. We see this in Koran by Heart, a film documenting the esteemed recitation competition in Cairo. The contestants were judged on a point system based on their technical skills, yet the competitor who received the highest distinction was the boy from Tajikistan. His training was less formal than the other winners’, he sung with his eyes closed, and at one point he even confessed that he did not know tajwid. His recitation was more valued than the others’ because of a certain quality that moved the audience and the judges.

Both film and text emphasized the communal aspect of recitation. The rules and competition are important parts of recitation, but at the very core, recitation is transmitting the word of God and that it is a continuous part of Islamic life

.Post #1 Illustration

My drawing reflects this very idea. The mouth is a universal one, symbolically depicting the act of recitation. Instead of a tongue, the mouth is filled with different houses, like the one inspired by Chinese architecture, to symbolize the worldliness of recitation. The smoke rising from some of the buildings reads “Allah” to show that this act is coming from homes and work environments and mosques. The whole of the drawing emphasizes the oral tradition – that it is pervasive in Islamic communities and that it forms the “music” one grows up around (as Nelson says). Most of all, it emphasizes that each recitation comes from within (the mouth representing the reciter’s own connection and knowledge) and from without (the tableau of buildings representing the community, the tradition, the Qur’an).