An Introductory Essay to my Islam and Art Blog

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In this blog, I created a six art pieces of various mediums that drew upon the themes of Professor Ali Asani’s course, For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures. I decided to take the class because, although I am a practicing Muslim, I do not know much about the history of Islam and arts. My experience with Islam in the United States tended to be prominent Muslims on the news trying to prove that we are not terrorists or fundamentalists to nonMuslims in the West. They often tried to define a true Islam and juxtapose it against the actions of radical groups like Al-Qaeda. In doing so, these prominent Muslim activists created a monolithic Islam. It was out of political necessity- the United States was implementing, and still is, policies that target Muslims. While I care deeply about protecting Muslims politically, I still feel unfulfilled trying to engage with my religion in a way that moves past trying to prove that we are not terrorists. Because of the focus on the political, the spiritual aspect of Islam feels neglected, perhaps because I am not trying hard enough. How does the modern American Muslim connect with God and what is Islam?

In high school, I participated in a humanities program with students from different high schools, and there was a religion unit. As part of the unit, we visited different places of worship, from a temple to a synagogue to a mosque. At the moment, there was something that was dissatisfying about the mosque visit. Our presenter defined Islam in a strictly theological way. It felt like a classroom and it was dull. In contrast, the cultural studies approach of this class has broadened my understanding of Islam and the many ways in which its practice manifests. From literature to paintings, music and architecture, Islam is present in so many spaces which I could never imagine before. Although I grew up in a Muslim family, I still had a limited view of Islam. One of the primary themes of this course was the diversity of Islam, and it has Quranic roots. For instance, the following ayats show that God has a positive attitude regarding the differences of the Ummah, or Muslim community. “And of His signs is … the diversity of your [mankind’s] languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge” (30:22). “O mankind, we have created you … into nations and tribes that you may come to know one another [and not deny one another]” (49:13). The latter verse encourages Muslims to engage with one another and thus implying not to suppress unique cultural practices. The Islam practiced in India is thus just as legitimate as the Islam practiced in Mecca. Islam across the world was so much different from what I learned during the mosque visit in my hometown.

I also studied Sufism in Senegal during the summer of 2017 with the Harvard Summer School. Class discussions sometimes would cycle back to the legitimacy of Sufi sheikhs, such as Amadu Bamba. I felt like the cultural studies would have been particularly helpful to help redirect the discussion- studying religion should not be about questioning the practices of others, but learning about them and contextualizing them in the culture of that society. One of the most valuable things I have learned from Professor Asani is that one’s culture and society is perhaps the most major determinant of how they practice Islam. This leads to an interesting case of Islam in America, which Professor Asani has described as the most diverse Muslim community in the world. From African Americans who have lived in the United States for generations to immigrants from Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, and more countries, the American Muslim community is ethnically and culturally rich.  

Because of the diverse nature of the American Muslim community, attempts to unite the community to organize politically can lead to a monolithic definition of Islam. Yet, much of the American Muslim communities seems to center around social justice. Justice is an important aspect of Islam and a theme of this course. Not only do verses of the Quran encourage Muslims to stand firm against injustice, but so do historical events. For instance, the importance justice can be linked to the tragedy at Karbala where Hussein was martyred. For Shia Muslims, the events of Karbala need to be remembered and relived. The Iranian taziyeh is an avant-garde, theatrical re-telling of the martyrdom of Hussein to help people experience the emotional weight of the events that transpired at Karbala. Like generations of Muslims, I was inspired to make art that used the tragedy of Karbala as an archetype for injustice in the world.

For that piece, I wrote a short story about a Black Shia Muslim who has an uncomfortable encounter with the police. It is an emotional, and jarring experience for him. For someone experiencing injustice, the pain of that experience is violent. It harkens to the tragedy of Karbala where the Umayyads murdered members of Prophet Muhammad’s family, including Hussein. The lead character, named after Hussein, leans on remembering that the the battle of good against evil, good triumphs and that Allah is with the righteous. In this story, like many before it, Karbala is the archetype of injustice.

Even more-so than Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad is perhaps the most beloved figure in Islam. There are many works devoted to him from songs to poetry, and I wrote a poem in which the narrator is trying to draw upon the strength of the Prophet, or his light. The light of Prophet Muhammad has its origins in an ayat of the Quran. I am reminded of Senegal, where sometimes the veneration of figures such as Amadu Bamba might be alarming at first, but it has a strong history in Muslim cultures. For instance, in class we watched Sami Yusuf perform “Ya Mustafa”, a song about the Prophet, or Chosen One. We also watched a recitation of a qasida, which is a praise song of the Prophet. Devotional art and treating the Prophet Muhammad as an intercessor is not unusual, although I was at first shocked to find out that this style of music is widespread.

This class, and in particular the devotional songs for the Prophet, helped break down the barrier I created in my mind between music and Islamic. I previously thought that Islamic music was a contradiction. I had always been taught that it was haram. In my third blogpost, I manipulated a Quranic recitation to give it a more spacious feeling. Quranic recitations are separated from music, but after listening to the praise songs dedicated to the Prophet, they seem more similar than not. Therefore, editing the recitation in the same way one would edit a song did not seem sacrilegious anymore. Even reciters adjust how they perform a surat or chapter based on what emotions they wish to convey, similar to a singer.

While the first three of my blogposts were more disconnected, the next three are more related. Something that came up time and time again with these last three pieces was the voice of Muslim artists. The latter part of the course material covered Muslims in the modern era and felt more relatable to me. Colonialism created radical shifts in the discourse of the Islamic world. Islam became something to preserve and protect from the West. It was a marker of identity and became increasingly political. Thus arose the idea of an Islamic state which was not really present before; it is a modern invention. Before, the ulama, or religious scholars, did not have political parties or try to seek seats in government. Despite this, Muslim societies were not secular. Religion was not relegated to a private sphere. Meanwhile, in the West, Muslims are expected to practice quietly. From the exterior designs of mosques to wearing hijabs in schools, the expectation of assimilation is ever-present.

As an American Muslim that is fairly Westernized, I think a lot about the power that comes with being able to tell one’s own story and reclaim the narrative surrounding Muslims in this country where Islam is seen as backwards and conservative. The pieces are as much about my evolving understanding with Islam as they are about the themes of the class. I wrote a mini script for a podcast about a girl’s who feels isolated from Islam because she moved to a town with a new school and new Muslim community. Neither are particularly welcoming. After reading the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, I wanted to create something that also was about telling a personal story after being suppressed for so long. To speak about experiences such as that and to be vulnerable is cathartic and helps one heal. I chose to do this through a podcast rather than just a personal essay because of how exciting the podcast scene is and because of the intimacy of listening to someone’s voice rather than just reading it.

The painting I created is also about a Muslim girl and the binaries that are forced upon Muslim women. Muslim women are often told what they are and given limited option by society. You are either liberated and don’t cover your hair or you wear hijab and are conservative. It is oppressive to have other people tell your story and presuppose what you are like. Women’s bodies are used by Muslims and nonMuslims alike to represent a particular political ideology, nationality, or way of thinking. This painting tries to push back against that. The binary considered in this picture is that between religion and the temporary world. This choice forces a silence upon Muslim women who dare try to speak up. Especially during adolescence, this can be a difficult thing to deal with because common rationale is that the actions of a Muslim girl reflect on the state of Islam. For instance, I sometimes hear Muslim men complain about how hijabis wear jeans or tight clothing, and this is their evidence that Islam is in a state of crisis. 

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is about an Iranian girl who grows up during the Revolution. She is attempting to find herself as a young adult in Austria where her Iranian identity is a point of contention. As she becomes more Westernized to fit in with her peers, she feels like she is betraying her Iranian identity. The comic I made is similar- it is about a girl who begins wearing hijab. Both her parents and teachers fail to see how she is truly feeling. On one hand, she does not want to give in to the Islamophobia she faces at school, but it also was not quite her decision to wear hijab. I personally always wore hijab to school. I sometimes think about how I would handle it if I had to make the transition to begin wearing hijab after people have gotten to know me without a hijab. I imagine it would have been much more difficult. In this comic, I try to put myself in the shoes of a girl who had to go through such an experience.

In conclusion, the process of making the blogposts helped me feel connected to the traditions of Muslims all around the world. Creating the pieces required me to do research into the regions from which they came. I learned to be more aware of things I disregarded like calligraphy in mosques or the ornateness of my Quran. I now realize the function and intent of those arabesque designs that I am surrounded by. Not only did I learn more about Islam, but also more about many cultures. My conceptualization of religion has evolved from a strictly theological understanding to one that contextualizes religious practices in a culture, place, and time. The way I practice Islam is different from my grandparents in Somalia, and it is not less pure or authentic.