Introduction

 

As we learned in class, religion is deeply interwoven in a complex web of historical, political, economic, and social contexts. As described in Infidel of Love, religious and cultural illiteracy defines the generalizations and misunderstandings that arise from an ignorance of Islam and the diversity of Muslim culture (Asani 1). In the following blog, the viewer will hopefully understand that Islam is not a monolith. There is not one way to practice Islam nor is there one “Muslim culture.” Rather, Islam is an ornate, complex faith that is modified and transformed based on cultural context. While we covered many topics throughout the course, my blog will focus on some aspects of the course that I thought embodied the cultural studies approach of Islam. The cultural studies approach describes a method for studying Islam that is distinct from the devotional and textual approaches to the study of Islam. The devotional approach emphasizes the perspective of a believer or practitioner through studying expressions of faith and religious tradition. However, this approach tends to simplify and generalize Islam in monolithic terms without taking into account the various forms of religious interpretation (Asani 6-7). In the textual approach, focus is placed on reading and interpreting sacred writings to understand Islam. Yet, reading the texts out of context and the presence of translator biases limit the effectiveness of this approach (Asani 7-8). While the devotional approach emphasizes study of the rites, rituals, and traditions of believers and the textual approach highlights the authority of the Quran as a sacred text, the cultural studies approach draws attention to the study of the people who practice Islam. The cultural studies approach emphasizes the connection between political, historical, social, cultural, and economic contexts and how these factors affect the people who practice Islam (Asani 9-10). Because the cultural studies approach allows variance in the practice of Islam in different times and in different regions of the world.

By exploring themes in the course that we studied through the cultural studies approach, I will present works through which I hope to display the diversity and complexity of Islam. Religious and cultural literacy is important in learning about and appreciating a religion, whether the religion is one’s own or that of another. Striving for increased religious and cultural literacy is a pursuit that has been very important to me in this class, and I aim to project that through the scope and diversity of this blog.

 

Religious stoicism and modernity

 

The first concept I discuss in my blog is the tension between religious and cultural stoicism and modernity. Since the practice of Islam is so deeply tied into the cultural practices of various Muslim communities, there many different interpretations of what modernity means.

 

Variety in expression of worship

As the religion itself is not a monolith, the forms of expression in Islam are not restricted to “discursive theological texts” (Asani 14). A widely employed form of worship, Islamic poetry is pervasive in Islamic worship and varies between Muslim cultures. In fact, poetry was initially seen as anti-Islamic but then became repurposed for worship. Through poetry, scholars transmitted history and provided criticisms of contemporary practices of Islam in their cultures. Perhaps the most important function of poetry in Islamic contexts is its use in portraying the relationship between humans and the divine.

In pre-Islamic Arabia, poetry was considered to be a way to communicate with the spiritual world. Secular poets ostensibly gained literary inspiration from jinns (genies) and spirits to write poetry to attack enemies. The holiest place in Islam, the Kaba in Mecca, is a structure that was thought to have originated in Abrahamic times, but it was used during this pre-Islamic period as a poetry place and a place for idol worship. Although the Kaba is now a symbol of the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage, and a symbol of Islam itself, it was also the site of a famous confrontation between the prophet Mohammed and Ka’b ibn Zuhayr. At this time, the secular poets and muslims reconciled and united.

For example, the ghazal, a popular poetic genre in classical Urdu, as a poetic form that centers on love as a central theme in one’s relationship with God. Traditional ghazals typically involve the ‘ashiq, the lover, as the protagonist who engages in a futile but intense desire for the mahbub, his or her beloved, who is God in many cases. In many cases, the ‘ashiq’s love for the ‘ishq-I majazi, an earthly, profane love is a metaphor for his or her love for the divine, or ‘ishq-I haqiqi (Pietievich 3).

Similarly, the taziyeh is a genre of Persian theater that is centered on Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed (Chelkowski 1). The literal translation of taziyeh is an expression of “sympathy, mourning, and consolation” and the motivation for the performance of Taziyeh plays was rooted in the remembrance of the grandson of Mohammed and in the hope that such performances would confer Hussein’s intercession on Judgment Day (Chelkowshi 2). The taziyeh play is borne out of the Persian Muharram mourning ceremony and became prominent at the same time that Shi’ite Islam became established as the state religion in sixteenth century Persia (Chelkowshi 2). Taziyeh plays were very emotional productions for the actors and the audiences. They depicted concepts such as love and devotion. However taziyeh plays were very influenced by the present social and political contexts. Prior to the Iranian Revolution in the late twentieth century, the plays portrayed secular concepts such as romantic relationships. However after the Revolution, the plays became more pious and conservative as society shifted in the same way [1].

 

[1] From section notes, February 25, 2016.

 

Sufi Mysticism

 

In my blogs, I also wanted to introduce certain aspects of Sufi mysticism, particularly the themes of self-annihilation and self-discovery, Sufi music and dance as forms of worship, and West African Mysticism.

 

Self-annihilation and self-discovery

In Sufi tradition, people cannot experience God in the material world. One must traverse the shariah, the outer, physical word to the haqiqah, or real world including the spiritual realm. To move from shariah to haqiqah, one must go on the tariqah, or path [2]. As one becomes more pious and devoted to God, it is necessary to annihilate the nafs, or egos, that prevent one from drawing close to God [3]. There are three nafs, or ego-selves that an individual through which one can ethically and morally transform in Sufi tradition.

  1. nafs ammara: the “commanding self”, characterized by selfishness, prevents one from experiencing God
  2. nafs lawmawa: the “blaming self”, representing the highest level of conscience and recognizing one’s own limitations (Afifi al-‘Akiti, 2012).
  3. nafs mutma’inna: representing the soul at peace, admitted into God’s presence; in this state one knows God by experience [2]

 

 

[2] From lecture notes, March 8, 2016.

[3] From lecture notes, April 12, 2016.

 

Whirling Dervishes

 

Although certain Sufi orders, including the Naqshbandi and Qadiris sects, do not support music and dance as worship forms, music and dance are important forms of worship in other Sufi orders. In early Sufism, the significance of music was placed on the experience of sama’, listening to recited poetry with or without music. The task of performance to accompany the recitation was initially borne by service professionals with low social status (Ernst 180). Sufi practice stipulates that “the sensitivity of the listener” is essential in [discussing] appropriate audiences of Sufi music. In fact, Ernst’s discussion about sama’ highlights the fact that sama’ is exclusive: the recitation of Sufi music necessitated skill and were not permissible for all (Lewisohn 2; Ernst 181). Many Sufi texts describe four types of sama’:

  1. Lawful sama’, “in which the listener is totally longing for God and not at all longing for the created”
  2. Permitted sama’, “in which the listener is mostly longing for God and only a little for the created”
  3. Disapproved sama’, “in which there is much longing for the created and a little for God”
  4. Forbidden sama’, “in which there is no longing for God and all is for the created” (Ernst 181)

Those participating in sama’ experience a hal, or spiritual state, of wajd or ecstasy representing a deep state of devotion in which the participant [3].

 

[3] From section notes, March 24, 2016.

 

West African Mysticism

 

In our discussions about Islamic practices in various Muslim communities, I have learned the importance of location in how people experience Islam and I have also learned that religion has to be contextualized. A specific example of this is our discussion about sheikhs and religious leaders in Sufi tradition. Sheikhs were individuals in society with special spiritual authority and were symbolized by different figures in different cultural contexts. For example, in Afghanistan and India, al-Hujwiri, or Data Ganj Baklish, was known as the first patron saint in Islamic India and was venerated by many believers. Similarly Ahmadu Bamba was the founder of the Muridin (disciple) movement in Senegal, and converted many Senegalese communities to Islam. As a marabout, he was seen as a central religious figure in many Senegalese communities [4].

 

[4] From lecture notes, March 22, 2016.

 

 

Women in Islam/Islamic feminism

 

In Muslim cultures, women’s bodies are often the medium for defining identity in Muslim cultures. Thus in my blog, I wanted to use feminism and women In Islam as lens through which I will discuss concepts like Muslim identity and Islamic orientalism.

Orientalism describes the depictions and representation of the East by the West (Weber 125). Western perception of Islam is one that “keeps women in a state of abject slavery” (Weber 125). Certain stereotypes, such as the harem and the veil, are prevalent in orientalist literature and perpetuate ideas of Muslim women’s oppression and eroticism.

One example of Islamic feminism is found in Urdu poetry. Here feminist poetry emerged as a stage for women to speak up in a typically male dominated space. As previously mentioned, Urdu poetry was typically very romantic, fantastical, and idealized. However, in the 1930s, the Pakistani poet Iqbal transformed the genre into a more politically and socially conscious platform (Ahmad 2-3). As seen in the works of Fahmida Riaz, contemporary Urdu feminist poetry was not only politically and socially targeted, but also pushed back against the conventional, idealized depictions of women in traditional Urdu poetry (Ahmad 3-4).

Outside poetry, groups like Sisters in Islam help women to assert their independent identity in Muslim cultures by providing legal services for women seeking divorce. In doing so, Sisters in Islam directly challenges the patriarchal interpretations of the Quran.

Rukhsana Ahmad captures the essence of Urdu feminism in her introduction to “We Sinful Women”:

I was not seeking gems of individual value but a body of work that represented the mood of a generation of women in conflict with tradition and, to some extent, religion, as interpreted by men and expressed in Fundamentalist Islam. I found the courage and spirit within individual voices of protest impressive. Their rebellion, their self-conscious links with other artists, activists and writers involved in the movement, their need to challenge traditional forms, their interest in what women were writing in other languages across the world, were all aspects which I wanted to represent (Ahmad 7).

Similarly, in my blog I hope to evoke the “mood” of Islamic feminism through my blog post. Islamic feminism is active, self-conscious, and rebellious.

 

Conclusion: Allah Mahaba

My blog is entitled “Allah Mahaba”, which means “God is Love” in Arabic. Throughout this course, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that although the manifestation of faith and devotion may differ between cultures, Muslims and muslims (believers in general) are unified through a common love for God.

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(Allah Mahabb, Google)

 

References (for entire blog)

 

Afifi al-‘Akiti, M. “The Meaning of Nafs.” Living Islam: Islamic tradition. < http://www.livingislam.org/nafs.html&gt;.

Ahmad, R. ed. trans. “We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry.” London: Women’s Press, 1991. [Introduction and the works of Fahmida Riaz]

Asani, A.S. Infidel of Love:  Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam.

Attar, F. U.-D. The Conference of the Birds. London: Penguin Books, 1984.

Chelkowski, P.J. ed. “Ta’ziyeh: Indigenous Avant-Garde Theatre of Iran.” in Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York University Press and Saroush Press.

Ernst, C.W. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boston: Shambhala, 1997.

Fall, A.S. The Beggars’ Strike (or The Dregs of Society). Essex: Longman, 1979.

Hafiz, Y. “‘Mipsterz’ ‘Somewhere In America’ Video Showcases Muslim Hipster Swag; Sparks A Passionate Discussion”. Huffpost Religion, 2015. < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/02…;

Lewishon, L. The sacred music of Islam: Sama’ in the Persian Sufi tradition. British Journal of Ethnomusicology, Vol. 6, 1997. p 1-33.

Nasr, S.H. Islamic Art and Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Necipoğlu, G. The Topkapı Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture. Chapter 5.

Pelly. Colonel Sir L. “The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain: Collected from Oral Tradition.” London: WmH. Allen and Co., 1879.

Pietievich, C. “Introduction to the Conventions of the Urdu Ghazal”. Assembly of Rivals, 1–11.

Renard, J. Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Weber, C. “Unveiling Scheherazade: Feminist Orientalism in the International Alliance of Women, 1911- 1950.” Feminist Studies, 2001. 27(1):125-157.