May 2016


When I stumbled into AI 54 this spring, the first thing I realized was that I didn’t know what I was doing there. I was sure of two things – that I did not know much about Islam and that I should probably learn more about Islam, if not only as a citizen in this United States – but why I wanted to take the class, that eluded me. The first class was interesting, but no extremely memorable. I learned a bit about Allah, the geography of where Muslims lived around the world, and read some quotes from the Qur’an. However, later that week, in our first section, something clicked. Our TF Ceyhun, after introducing himself, asked us to reciprocate and add a sentence or two about why we were interested in the class. I sat there, thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to come up with something witty.” My peers were announcing their inspiring intentions – some studied religion and wanted to deepen their knowledge, one girl’s mother was Jewish and her father Muslim, one girl was from Iran and wanted to learn the Western perspective of the culture she grew up in – and I had no idea what I was going to say.

And then it was my turn.

I started with a nervous laugh.

“My name is Karoline.”

Another nervous laugh.

And then the words just flowed out, as if I had buried them inside of my consciousness for longer than I remembered.

“I’ve tried all kinds of religion. When I was younger, my family went to the local Buddhist temple. When we stopped doing that, I learned the ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ prayer and prayed every night. In college, I went to church with my friends and really tried to be Christian. And now…well, I don’t know much about Islam but I am interested in finding out?”

I had forgotten all of these experiences. I had forgotten that I, personally, was compelled by religion from any early age and sought to absorb it in the forms that were available to me. And so, I came into AI 54 with an intense need to understand myself and the world I live in; I was choosing to explore how other people have understood themselves and their world.

Firstly, I learned the general tenets of Islam and what being Muslim generally (but not always) involves. It is a monotheistic religion that believes that Allah is the one and only God and Muhammad is His Prophet. Along with Christians and Jews, Muslims are considered to be ahl al-kitab, or “People of the Book.” The Qur’an is the key religious text, verbally revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. The hadiths are secondary religious texts, stories about the Prophet Muhammad’s life that inform a Muslim’s everyday conduct. The hadiths include the Five Pillars of Islam. Different communities of interpretation have formed depending on their interpretation of the Qur’an, who they believe in as the rightful successor to the Prophet, and other ideological differences. For all groups, however, recitation and writing (and the writing utensils) are paramount, because these were the methods by which the holy word was delivered. I learned that art forms – painting and calligraphy and architecture – emphasize God’s omnipresence. He is in nature and humanity and every creation. Literature, in particular, emphasizes the believer’s longing to unite with God and the long, trying journey of waiting for this union. Worship is also conducted with music and dance, although both have been contentious among various communities. Even when permitted, both have strict structural requirements and emphasize the desire to be closer to God rather than the act of performance itself. Being Muslim is a way of life, with sounds and tastes and practices that vary by region and by community.

Secondly, I learned to reevaluate my standing in the Western world and how our media affects public perception. This class worked to redefine stereotypes and expand commonly-held, but flawed notions of what sort of Islam is practiced and where it is practice. I learned that, many times, what we understand as “conservative” Islam is what our government has dictated as “conservative Islam.” In reality, “conservative” refers to Islam interpreted by the Sunni scholars in the 9th and 10th century. This differs from the “Islamist” movement, which we perceive to be “extremist” but often conflate with the word “conservative.” The Islamist movement seeks to interpret Islam for a nation state and implement their interpretation of Islamic values in all aspects of society. This is the group al-Qaeda belongs to, and the number of people involved are much less than Western media portrays.

I appreciated the focus on less mainstream topics, such as Sufism and the Islamic practices in South Asia. This was the first time that I realized that 80% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni while only 20% are Shia, that what I knew has been shaped heavily by Western perception and ideology. From this, grew my specific interest in the anti-Western observation and analysis of Islam. From my English junior tutorial last fall, I was growing increasingly aware of Western influence on everything we read, especially non-Western works. I was aware of literary colonization, which manifests when white authors assume Western views as the standard for measuring worth or opinion or experience, but didn’t realize the extent to which this affected Islam. In hindsight, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, since the West has a history of taking advantage of non-white cultures. However, there are still terms like “Orientalism” which refers to the scholarly study of the Middle East that seem like the anachronistic and problematic word. No one has brought up this fact, though. Perhaps it is because the term has been circulated so heavily, and without repercussion, but “Orientalism” refers to a patronizing Western view on Eastern societies often used to justify, subtly or not, Western imperialism.

Too often is the Western gaze applied to the global understanding of non-Western cultures. Too often is Western gaze the starting point for dialogue, the measuring stick for all other cultures, the final and most powerful voice of approval. I appreciated the selection of course material that fought to remove Islam from that gaze. We read pieces authored by South Asians and radical feminists and cultural icons. For example, I was quite struck by the incisiveness of “Unveiling Scheherazade” by Charlotte Weber, which not only outlined rising feminist perspectives of Islam but how those critiques were also skewed. The course fought the Western gaze when we studied the Iranian Revolution, which emphasized the collective spirit of Iranians turning away from Western modernization and turning to more traditional codes of conduct. Their efforts to do this reflected their need to reclaim their Muslim identity amidst the influx of Western influences.

I was drawn to the multimedia use, which I felt added a visceral component to the lecture experience. Immersion via videos and paintings and photos, like those practicing Muslims are exposed to and venerate, made me feel more invested in the culture. I felt like a teenager growing up, surrounded by the sounds and sights of living in a Muslim community. It helped bridge the otherwise vast distance, both geographically and personally, between my life and theirs. I was especially intrigued by “Muhammad Walks” by Lupe Fiasco, an artist I like. Whilst a commercially popular rapper, his religious background is rarely mentioned, even though it is clearly a vital part of his life. My exposure to and subsequent enjoyment of this song was a surprising moment of connection to the course material.

Each of my blog posts was written with the above concepts in mind. I focused on the weeks in the course I was most interested in and honed in one aspect of the course. In fact, you can think of each blog post as a funnel. The start of each post highlights the overarching topic of the week, the middle of the post discusses what I am specifically examining, and the creative portion is an extension of both, looking at the same topic through a different lens. Thematically, the posts feature less mainstream topics in literature, visual art, and performance (recitation or otherwise) and are connected in more ways than one. Post 1 and 5 both feature illustrations, but Post 5 also relates to Post 4 and Post 3 with their emphasis on less mainstream topics Post 2 and Post 4 focus on theater, a communal activity, but they relate to the oral tradition and the communal energy of recitation in Post 1. Post 2 and Post 5 focus on Iran in two different ways, just as Post 3 and Post 6 focus on worship through literature in two different ways.

The art forms in each of my posts are deliberately chosen. I am attracted to art that follows a logical line of thought (in this case, adherence to the themes of the blog post) but also creates tension or unexpectedness in some way. I believe the best art, and the best means of reflection, involves a distance between meaning and representation. In this regard, I chose forms that would respond to the blog’s topic (like composing a ginan for Blog Post 3) but would surprise the reader as well.

Blog Post 4 is a special one for me. As an actor, I find theater a very compelling medium. It is thrillingly ephemeral, but there, in its brevity and “liveness,” lie its true power. On the page, the theatrical takes a different form, albeit just as lively. I am intrigued by the spaces between the words and the lack of stage directions, because these are the places that rivet the reader’s imagination. Because a play is meant to be performed, the reader is even more compelling to “play” their version of the play whilst reading. It is an intimate experience that is at once more and less than enough. When it came to merging my love for theater and writing a blog post, I decided on writing a short scene. It would have been too literal to write my own ta’ziyeh (and besides, we did that in section), so I pondered where else I could explore the dramatics of the performance. We have often seen court cases dramatized on TV or religious stories narrated in children’s books so I wondered what the combination of the two would be like. I wanted to bring the rationale to life in a way people could connect to.

I encourage the reader to peruse with an open mind. That is, read with the knowledge that what you know may not be the full story and that even if you are familiar with the topic, your conceptions might be altered. Read carefully, but not daintily; try to be okay wandering in the unknown and try to resist translation. Don’t try to compare what you’re reading to a Western standard; rather, wallow in the awkwardness of not knowing. If something is striking or odd or unfitting, question it and then question how you are questioning it. What are your own biases? Are they coming into play at this moment? Delve into alternative routes of thinking, routes that are not the white-male-dominated scholarly field. All this and more have I learned from the cultural studies approach in this class, and I hope you will embark on your own fruitful journey.

In Week 9, we focused on sufi piety through ghazal, also known as the lyrical love poem, and mathnawi, also known as the narrative epic. There was particular focus on works by the 13th century poet Jalaluddin Rumi, Hafiz, and Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (which we read for section in a different week but is an example of mathnawi). For my ghazal/mathnawi project, I focused on the ghazal “Andak Andak” by Rumi, so I thought this would be a good chance to focus on a mathnawi.

The Mathnawi is a long poem (and technically, they can be never-ending), usually detailing a moral lesson and composed with a specific structure. John Renard, in Seven Doors to Islam, writes that “religiously oriented mathnawis have three kinds of content: romantic, ethical, and mystical” (117). All three kinds are less passionate and personal than ghazals as they focus more on themes than on interpersonal relationships. In A Two-Colored Brocade by Annemarie Schimmel, the author describes the poem’s formal requirements. The overarching metric system is called arud and it dictates the length of syllables. Each poem consists of bayt, or sections of two-lined verses, which rhyme. These are further divided into hemistichs and then divided again to form four sections, called musammaj. Poets vary in their fluency of the form, with some like Rumi writing so fluently that one cannot read or hear its constraints. Additionally, as with ghazals, mathnawi are often ambiguous and harbor wordplay.

The Mathnawi began in Iran, with San’ai penning a poem about Sufi traditions and stories from India. Attar came next, but it was Rumi who truly shined with The Mathnawi, commonly referred to as “The Persian Qu’ran” for its magnificence and stellar use of the form. This 50,000 line epic flows in and out of hadith quotes, local stories, and commonly told fables. It ends with the lesson that one must be less earthly and physically-concerned to connect fully with God, a message similar to that of The Conference of the Birds, when the birds, who began the arduous journey self-centered, reach a lake and see their own reflection rather than Simorgh.

With the inspiration of themes from A Two-Colored Brocade, I have composed my own mathnawi below. Common themes include people from the Qur’an, the concept of “amana” – the burden of love earthly beings had to carry instead of being in heaven – the names and beauty of the beloved, nature and natural elements, and the story of Joseph. The best stories are ones that detail a lover’s patience or the triumph of love over evil forces.

I have decided to write about the moment the Zulaykha and her women saw Joseph and were immediately entranced by his beauty. This story was one of the first stories we read (in the Renard readings) so not only is this a compelling story about a follower enveloped in love for his beloved, but as my last blog post, it brings the lessons of this class full-circle.

 

The capable leader invited them, the ladies sat composed

Around the ornate rug they waited, this was only supposed

 

“Ladies, I have a wish,” she exclaimed, and they listened eagerly

For each woman gathered, to see more than chief’s wife hopefully

 

A hush falls like a heavy footfall, as she explains her urges,

She spills the secrets of her inner source, and the tension among them falls and surges

 

Fruits like precious jewels glisten, their hands begin to peel

Each woman whispering to herself, what exactly is his appeal?

 

“A treat,” she says, “and a lesson for you all”

She calls out to Joseph, who waits down in the hall

 

His light tread, just one foot placed

A sudden rush, their eyes make haste

 

His pupils touch the floor, his breath a light breeze

Stately calm stature, the most perfect knees

 

Light upon light, beauty upon beauty!

His innocence and radiance, his serenity and purity

 

Truly a prince, enveloped in the ethereal!

Truly a prince, there can be nothing more real!

 

Astounded were the ladies, as they looked down

The flesh of their hands cut, and red dew drops on their gown

 

“Oh, this is not a man!” the cries echoed around them

“This is an angel,” the whispers swirled around them

 

She stood in her place, and looked with longing and need

Like Bilqis and Solomon, a union not yet complete

 

“Now you understand,” she announced quite boldly

“What I mean when I say, I love that man dearly.”

 

Not a sound in the room, for the women believed it so

That the fault was not their queen’s, it was the way, too, their hearts would go

 

I took care to rhyme the couplets and honor the hemistich structure. I tried to use words that had more complex meanings like “suppose” and “surges” as well as metaphors like “a hush falls like a heavy footfall” and variation in phrase lengths to add ambiguity to the poem. The eighth couplet features “Light upon light,” a favorite line of poets to describe the beloved’s radiance and so here, I have employed it to describe Joseph’s overwhelming radiance. The Bilqis and Solomon line references the story of the Queen of Sheba, who is summoned by Solomon, recognizes the throne he disguised, and accepts his faith. Theirs is a love story, based on Sura 27, about a lover submitted to her beloved, so I thought it fit aptly here when Zulaykha admits she is overwhelmed.

In Week 8, we discussed the music and dance of Sufis, who believe in the inner mysticism of Islam. One such manifestation of their worship is Sama, which means “listening,” and one specific form of Sama is whirling by the dervishes of Turkey.

In Sama, as its name indicates, listening is paramount. The performance is a mode for which listening is made possible. The voice is very powerful, and can affect life and death in its listeners. When music is involved, it must be evaluated for its ethical content, based on who, when, and where it is performed. One should perform music very seriously and listen to music not for pleasure, but out of longing for God. This way, true ecstasy can be achieved. The preservation of these measures is important, because it allows the worshipper to channel all of his/her joy into the revelation of God.

Dancing in Sama is specific to the Mevlevi order, founded by Jalal al-Din Rumi’s son Sultan Walad. He created a system for his dancers, by first creating poetry for them to learning and recite, and then training them to spin around “a large nail placed between the big toe of the left foot and the toe next to it” for 1001 days (Ernst 192). The dance became a tourist attraction performed on the hill of Galata on the Golden Horn, but has also, at times, been banned. Even now, the question is still: are they performers or are they worshippers?

In fact, one of the heavily debated aspects of dancing is its legality. The British Journal of Ethnomusicology details several arguments in its favor. For example, all Sufis who dance have legally justified their activity with material from hadith, including one particular story where Zayd ibn Haritha, Muhammad’s adopted son, and ‘All and his brother Ja’far begin leaping with joy in front of the Prophet. Since leaping is part of dancing and the Prophet bore witness to it but did not stop it, then all dancing must be considered legal. Nevertheless, there are additional rules that keep dancing worship-related rather than entertainment or indulgence-related. The dancing must be genuine and follow constraints of the ritual. The dancer’s limbs must be still before dancing to show the separation between non-ritual and ritual. The dancer must be attentive to the speaker and when they launch into motion, the person must be in his/her own world, not influenced by others estatic states. And finally, only when one is overcome with religious desire, should one dance.

I decided to present one aspect of the “Is dancing legal or not?” argument with a fictional scene between two characters, Ali and Aydin. I chose this medium because legal accounts and hadiths often have narrative arcs that mimics the narrative arcs of plays. In the context of the legality of dancing, I thought it would dramatize the issues in an effective way. I won’t provide more explanation because I think the scene will explain everything.

Enter ALI and AYDIN. Both are 14 years of age, early puberty.

 

ALI

Hey Aydin!

 

AYDIN

Ali!

 

They share a secret handshake.

 

AYDIN

How was basketball?

 

ALI
Oh it was great! Jeremy and I tied with Raquel and Jacob.

 

AYDIN
That’s intense. I hear Raquel is getting really good. Wonder if I could beat her?

 

ALI

I doubt it.

 

They laugh.

 

ALI

What’d you do?

 

AYDIN

My dad and I went to a whirling dance at our mosque. I’d been once before, but this one was especially cool, because my uncle was in it. And he wasn’t too bad.

 

Aydin laughs.

 

ALI

Huh.

 

AYDIN
What?

 

ALI

I just – I dunno. It’s a little confusing. For me, at least.

 

AYDIN

What do you mean?

 

ALI

You’re talking about a Sama right?

 

AYDIN

Yeah.

 

ALI
Well…hmm okay. I’ve always thought that – not saying that you’re doing anything wrong, but doesn’t dancing sort of go against everything we know?

 

AYDIN

Like dancing is banned?

 

ALI

Yeah?

 

AYDIN

Hmm. My mom told me this story a while back and it’s helped me explain it to myself and some other people. Once when the Prophet complimented his adopted son and his friends, the guys jumped into the air in joy. Since we jump when we dance, technically, they were dancing. But the Prophet didn’t say anything about it or punish them, so technically, it’s okay.

 

ALI

I kind of like that.

 

AYDIN

Yeah?
ALI
Yeah. There’s something nice about the Prophet’s approval. Is it in a hadith?

 

AYDIN

Yup.

 

ALI

But I guess I’m still concerned that it’s like entertainment? Like dancing can get out of control pretty quickly?

 

AYDIN
That’s true. I don’t know all the rules yet, but my uncle says we treat it like a ritual. We make a clear separation between non-dancing and dancing and we only dance when the desire for God becomes too much. And then we release it through movement. And that’s how we show our devotion.

 

ALI

Okay. Okay.

 

AYDIN

I’m sure we can ask my parents – they know more about it than I do.

 

ALI

I’ll have to think about it on my own first.

 

AYDIN

Of course.

 

ALI

Thanks for explaining, Aydin. See you in class tomorrow?

 

AYDIN

Yeah, see you!

In Week 11, one of the central points of discussion was the Iranian Revolution, which lasted from 1977 to 1979 and was a mostly-nonviolent shift that exiled Mohammad Pahlavi and established Ayatollah Khomeini as the head of a new Islamic Republic. It is anti-Western, totalitarian, and uses Shi’ite Islamic law. As noted in Buchman’s “Shi’ite Islam in Contemporary Islam,” Iran experiences a sharp disconnect between its Westernized stores and surroundings and its strict government-mandated code of dress and behavior.

Given how heavily Islam involves symbols and its belief that Allah is manifest in natural and manmade creations, I was interested in the iconography and propaganda that emerged around the Iranian Revolution. In “The Art of Revolution and War,” Chelkowski writes how Shi’ite teachings suffused posters and billboards and became powerful transmitters of a political ideology. These missives streamlined the ruling agenda in a country where most people, pre-Revolution, were illiterate. Artists sought to subvert and oppose the status quo, in more ways than just the “traditional” merged with the “modern” that scholars usually discuss. Their images were complex, specific, and bold. They pursued an “insurgent consciousness,” and from the readings, we see the repetition of symbols such as the face of Khomeini and the clenched, punching fist. Their images do not promote a juxtaposition of issues – rather, symbolism flows naturally and in many layers, like the poster depicting Zeinab, which simultaneously encourages women to oppose the Pahlavi monarchy, and encourages the shattering of the Shah’s crown.

Poster

I created a poster to explore this phenomenon for myself and see just how universal these strategies are. I drew the majority of my inspiration from the “Poster with a chained hand” on page 93 of “Multiple Iconographies” by Haggai. The poster advocated the movement “towards a classless tahwidi society,” a kind of unified classlessness for the people. As a racial revolution occurs in America and Harvard debates the validity of its final clubs and the role of its white patriarchy, I thought this was an especially fitting message. Harvard, within the context of the United States, is also grappling with being anti-colonial, like the Shi’ite Muslims were, and being dismantling its pervasive class structure, like “tahwidi” in this context is saying. The fist in my poster, which has its own storied history as a symbol of solidarity, especially with the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, is akin to the “clenched fist freeing itself from the chains of bondage” (93). Both are fighting for a communal right and breaking away from oppression. On the upper right of my poster, I have drawn a picture of Dean Khurana who is leading this movement, like Khomeini in the original illustration. On the lower right, I have drawn black tape, which symbolizes the hate crime against the black professors at the Harvard Law School last year, and on the lower left, I have drawn the façade of a Harvard final club, which is one of the movement’s major problems. And finally, on the top left corner, I have written #BlackLivesMatter, which is the equivalent of “towards a classless tahwidi society.”

In doing so, I am engaging both the modern Black American revolution and the Iranian Revolutionary spirit.