When choosing the title for this blog, I wanted something that gave the reader a taste of what they would be reading before they started. This blog is primarily about responses to themes in Islamic art or culture, so that was the main idea I was looking to convey. I searched for a word with the perfect meaning and came across Antiphon. The first definition from dictionary.com reads “a psalm, hymn, or prayer sung in alternate parts.” At first glance this didn’t seem to be what I was looking for, but an alternate definition reads “any response or answer.” The word has Greek roots and is obviously rooted in religion, specifically that of Christianity. I thought this was a very interesting representation of where I am coming from when writing these blog posts. I grew up Catholic and went to a Catholic high school, but I haven’t practiced religion for a number of years. Being away from the homogenous community I grew up in has helped me to realize how little I knew about other religions. This blog documents my journey to understanding more about Islam as a religion, a political ideology, and an important influence on culture. Because of this, the posts are very diverse and explore a range of topics.
The uniting factor in this blog is context. Just as knowing the context for my writing of these posts is important for their interpretation, the context of each piece or theme I reflected on is important for understanding the meaning. One of my main takeaways from this class has been the cultural studies approach. The cultural studies approach takes context into account when studying a religion. It looks at typically excluded voices and incorporates them into a more diverse discussion about the religion. As Professor Asani says in the first chapter of Infidel of Love, it “helps us weave the voices of poets, novelists, short-story writers, folk musicians, and rock stars along with those of clerics, theologians, mystics, scholars, and politicians” to create a rich, inclusive, and complete picture of Islam. The cultural studies approach gives just as much importance to the context in which the work is made as to the work itself.
For example, Muslims are routinely outlined as following the five pillars of Islam: recite the shahada, the profession of faith; perform the salat, the ritual prayer 5 times per day; give the sakat, a portion of income for charity; observe sawm, the daylight fast during Ramadan; and participate in at least one pilgrimage to Mecca. But the Qur’an actually does not mention the five pillars in a defining way, and in different hadiths, the number of pillars is contested. If we were to take a cultural studies approach to this, we would think about the context of the pillars becoming this dominant identifier of Muslim faith. We would ask: who promoted this definition and what power did they claim to do this? What were the bases with which they decided five and not four or six pillars? And why was caring for your parents excluded?
Geography, politics, culture, art, traditions and more shape religion, so those factors must be a key part of any study of religion. Even the way we traditionally think of religion as uniform, homogenous groups is problematic. Religion is always changing as the people who practice it change, so it can’t be defined so squarely. We use this approach specifically to talk about art in Islam, but I think it would be beneficial to use this approach to study art, history, literature, and politics within any culture or religion.
The first art response I completed was that for my post titled “Listen.” One of the first topics we discussed in class was how the word of the Quran affects those who listen to it. If you speak Arabic and can understand the words, the experience is different than for someone like me who can only listen to the mood of the piece, but each of those experiences can be whole and meaningful. I came up with the idea to capture the experience of listening to a Quran recitation in an art piece. I thought about many different types of media and eventually decided photography was the best way to capture something so intimate and subtle. I took some of my block-mates aside, one by one, and played for them a recitation from my phone. They didn’t know what I was going to play, only that they would hear something and I would take a picture of them as they heard it. The result was a beautiful mix of facial expressions, which are shown in my art piece. The interesting part about this piece is that the context of the faces is completely and purposefully left out of the art piece. The viewer has no idea what those reactions come from, if that person knew what they were listening to, or if they could even understand the words. This shows just how similarly the Quran’s power affects the people who experience it, no matter their background.
My second blog post is “Roots.” This piece is a response to one of the more factual aspects of this class: the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. My main takeaway was that the differences are mostly due to context. Sunni Muslims have historically held political power, which has affected religious practices and definitions of good fortune. Sunni Muslims see power as a sign of God’s approval. Shia Muslims have experienced the opposite phenomenon, and therefore the struggle against an oppressive power is given a place of honor. I portray this with a flower representing Sunni Muslims and a cactus representing Shia Muslims. The idea is that the environments in which they were formed heavily affected their roots, i.e. religious practices, morals, power structure, and culture.
In the third art piece I completed , “But is it Art?”, context is extremely important, as looking at the piece by itself could be confusing. We discussed “Misconceptions of the Nature of Islamic Art” and the idea that some people don’t think that Islamic art is ‘real’ art. They think geometric designs and calligraphy are just decoration. This is obviously problematic, as the primary advocates of this philosophy seem to be western artists and denizens who are wary of something they aren’t used to. Just because an individual or a group of individuals don’t see something as art, that doesn’t mean it isn’t. This got me thinking about who decides what is art and what isn’t. I read a book in high school called But is it Art? which focused on this topic and explored many non-traditional art pieces that had been ridiculed due to their precarious standing in the realm of art. I decided to create a piece which echoed this sentiment, so I created “But is it Art?” which is simply a sheet of white paper with those words written in the center in black ink. It is visually appealing, yet one would be hesitant to call it art. It is a piece aimed to raise questions, but not necessarily provide answers. It prods the viewer to question their previously held beliefs as to the nature of art itself. My amateur calligraphy may not be art, but would it be if the context were different? Maybe it is my intentions as an artist, whether I am making something to hang on my wall or to evoke a feeling of closeness to God, which dictates the nature of the piece.
“Bridge” is a response to our lessons focusing on Sufism. This is another piece, which focuses more on the facts of our lessons. Sufism is an outlook, so any Muslim could be Sufi, and the ideology involves connecting with God on a more personal level. It also involves connecting with the divine in a way that is different than non-Sufi Muslims. The Earth is in the physical world and God is in the real or eternal world. These realms are separate, but some people, like prophets, can span the divide. This involves a personal transformation and a move away from the egotistical self. A very important aspect of this connection with the ‘real’ is art. In many Muslim groups, dance and music is frowned upon, but within Sufism dance and music can be important parts of worship. An example of this is the whirling by the Sufi Dervishes. In my art piece, I aimed to represent the struggle to bridge the gap between the fleeting and the eternal. I thought I could most accurately represent this with a flipbook to show the passing of time. In my art piece, a bridge is built spanning the divide to the ‘real.’
‘Mirror’ is my piece that reflects on our reading of The Conference of the Birds. The symbolism and inclusion of references in this epic poem was incredible. I chose to portray the final scene of the poem and tried to include symbolism in my piece to mirror that in the poem. Without knowing that this piece was a reference to The Conference of the Birds, it would look like a pretty odd cartoon of a bird looking into a mirror. A viewer familiar with this epic, though, could look at a bird, a mirror, a lot of other birds, and some valleys and know exactly what they were looking at. With just a very simple drawing, a viewer can be transported to a beautifully written and profound scene in a poem.
My final reflective piece is ‘Day.’ I wanted to reflect on the ghazal as a poetry form, and the best way to do this was to write a ghazal of my own. Historically, context has been very important to the ghazal. Because they are written so vaguely, they are able to contain references which show disdain for political authority or the religious elite without coming right out and saying anything directly. This was incredibly important for the safety of the writers themselves who could have gotten in trouble for the things they implied, but one cannot be convicted for implications. They also use a series of common characters and symbols, which mean certain things. A reader who looks at a poem without knowing the tropes could extract a completely different meaning than what the poet intended to convey. This also applies with idioms and references that would be common knowledge at the time a ghazal is written, but may not be known today or by the particular reader. For example, any Quranic references in a ghazal would go completely over my head, causing me to misinterpret the poem as a whole. In my poem, I strayed from the common theme of a tragic love story to embrace a simple depiction of the change from night to day. The reader may pick up on references, though, which could point to a deeper meaning between the lines of text.