Islam can take many forms. There are the extremist movements that the West hears constantly about in the media and there is the Sufi mysticism that gets little attention. These categories of Islam are in a sense the two extremes in a spectrum of Islamic orthodoxy. The West is given a very one-sided presentation of Islam and the Muslim world filled with the conservative militants. But, there is much more to Islam than what is portrayed in the media. The purpose of this blog is to display the many varied faces of Islam as well as display how the Western view of Islam can and has been distorted. The posts will display the many different ways that people experience Islam, such as through poetry, music or architecture. Professor Asani reflects well on this idea: “identifying Muslim ideals is not a simple undertaking; just as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and adherents of other religions have varying conceptions of their traditions’ core ideals so do Muslims” (Asani, Infidel of Love, 53). The blogs will also show how Islam has interacted throughout history and continues to interact with the West. The blogs should challenge the misconceptions that people have about Islam, the Middle East, and religion more broadly. The posts should help show that despite the claims that America’s culture is filled with diversity and an appreciation for other cultures, American culture still remains unknowingly ignorant.
I personally knew very little about Islam other than Islam as a legalistic religion that involved praying frequently and the covering of the hair or head by Muslim women. That is why I was deeply intrigued by Sufi mysticism and its many wonderful elements. I was particularly enthralled by Sufi music and dance practices. Sufis believe that music can be used to get closer to Allah and enter a state known as Wajd by practicing Sama. Essentially the Sufi elevates themselves to ecstasy and closer to God by listening and experiencing music created from the Qur’an or Hadith. “The music of sama’ is nothing but the reverberation of that primal word of God…The Sufis describe God as having placed a secret into the human heart that day, which is concealed like a spark in a stone but which blazes forth when struck with the steel of sama’” (Ernest, 185). The common trend of experiencing Allah by living life and experiencing what it has to offer is a very common trend throughout Sufism which the music practices display very well. Not many traditions take a Sufi style approach to experiencing and interacting with God or even just music. Music is often an important part practice for religions, but it does not hold such a strong importance as it does in Sufism.
Sufism is not necessarily representative of the majority of Islam and there are plenty of people who disagree with Sufi ideaology. This does lead to the question of how can one even experience or define Islam, let alone religion. Hearing about Sufism certainly was the most eye-opening revelation regarding Islam I personally experienced. But, Sufism is simply one end of the spectrum of Islam; Sufism is a very liberal approach to Islam. Islam has existed for a while and has changed over time and with that time comes new movements. Some of those movements have a very orthodox and fundamentalist understanding of Islam while others, like Sufism are very liberal and interpretive. It is important therefore to examine many of the different practices and beliefs to acquire a broader and more nuanced understanding of Islam.
There are plenty of moderate Islamic practices and beliefs. For example, I was unaware of the strong tradition of recitation and memorization of the Qur’an nor its relationship to Persian poetry and recitation traditions. People of all ages memorize the Qur’an and learn to recite it properly. There are many specific rules regarding how to recite and pronounce the verses of the Qur’an such as sound length and inflection. The set of rules is known as the Tajwid. Furthermore, there is the Adhan, or the Muslim call to prayer which is announced over loudspeakers from a mosque. The Adhan is a very specific phrase repeated in a certain manner which roughly states that God is the greatest and that they bear witness to god. However, the Adhan and the Tajwid differ across cultures and countries and therefore are not incredibly strict. The movie Koran by Heart was a very moving film that provided excellent insights into the Qur’an recitation tradition and the largest Qur’an recitation competition. Not only did the film explain the rules of Tajwid, but it also portrayed Islam in a very human and relatable manner.
Additionally, there are the five pillars of Islam: the Shahadah or the profession of faith, the Salah or to pray five times a day, the Zakat or the giving of alms or charity, the Sawm or the fasting during the month of Ramadan, and the Hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca (Renard, 36-37). But, as John Renard points out in his book The Seven Doors to Islam, “some casual observers dismiss Islam’s ritual and devotional life as dry and mechanical, hardly worth of the name of the name ‘religion’” and therefore “one of the most important concerns governing the performance of the basic Islamic rituals is the intention of the worshipper” (Renard, 37).
Another popular method of expressing devotion is through poetry. Poetry is held highly because of the story of the Burda or mantle and because of its place previously in Arabic culture. Originally poetry was viewed negatively because Muhammad did not want to be branded as yet another poet spreading ideas; Muhammad actually had received divine law from God. Furthermore, many poets were criticizing Muhammad’s teachings and when Kab ibn Zuhayr began to praise Muhammad so Muhammad placed his mantle upon Kab ibn Zuhayr. From that point poetry was seen very positively. One of the most notable forms of poetry the Ghazal which is a poem expressing one’s love for Muhammad and the pains of the separation from him. But there are additional forms of poetry, such as the maulud which is a form of poetry “emphasizing the greatness of the newborn child” Muhammad (Asani, In Praise of Muhammad, 160).
The point of examining and explaining these different forms of Islam is to show how many different ways that Islam and religion can take form. This is ultimately the point of my blog as well as showing how western conceptions of Islam have been misguided and biased. For example, my blog posts will discuss the many artistic forms that Muslims express devotion and their beliefs, and specifically through architecture. Many western scholars argued that the geometric patterns that fill Islamic architecture were merely there for aesthetic purposes and that they had no deeper religious meaning. The details surrounding these claims are further explained in one post. This stems from the idea that Islam is does not display or portray religious figures. However, Islam’s depictions of figures is simply different than that of Western art. “For most scholars, the failure of Islam to produce a figurative art is the problem par excellence; and the Western prejudice has permeated the very question the scholar asked” (Al-Faruqi, 32). This is just one instance of how Western understandings of Islam and other cultures are not fully accurate.
In another post, I have created a short poem/writing from the perspective of a Muslim woman. A common understanding is that Islam essentially controls women and does not allow them much freedom. While it may be true that Muslim women are subjugated to certain beliefs that the West would consider sexist, such as the wearing of the veil, the writing should demonstrate that Muslim women are fighting for their right for equality and are even highly regarded in many Muslim countries.
The blog posts will also provide a new perspective for looking at Islam. In reality, my blog will be filled with second hand knowledge and interpreted through an American lens which could distort some of the accuracy in the details. But that perspective should make it more accessible to people outside of the Muslim community because the information is an honest attempt at understanding the religion from an outsider’s perspective as well as through a more creative lens than perhaps just an essay. People are naturally inclined to enjoy music which means that the discussion and playing of Sufi music should naturally excite people. One of the major themes of the class has been that it is important to try and understand other cultures because our perceptions can often be stereotypes and in general misinformed.
One of the main reasons I am stressing this idea so heavily is because of my personal ignorance regarding Islam and the Muslim world. I had previously taken a class in high school about the crises that were surrounding the Middle East and more broadly. In that class we discussed the origins of Islam and some of its basic tenants, however even after just a few lectures, I realized what understanding I had was simply incomplete and outdated. It certainly made me reflect back upon the culture that I grew up in, which was in no means intolerant. But, even in my own home town, I remember hearing not just anti-religious sentiments, but more hateful ideas. After taking this course I feel particularly motivated to discuss religion and the wonderful ways it improves people’s lives and its many beautiful components. After reviewing all of the information presented, it seems that people have these hateful views of groups they consider the “other” in part because they do not have an adequate understanding of them.
Therefore, these blogs will display that just as Islam can take many forms, so can religion more broadly. Just as people do not believe that the Klu Klux Klan is not representative of all of Christianity, Islam is not represented solely by ISIS or the Taliban. We unfortunately live in a time when a major presidential candidate is spreading hatred and Islamophobia. It is important to at least spread the concept of at least attempting to understand other cultures if not spreading the belief of tolerance. These blogs will likely not be revolutionary for many, but hopefully, they at least force the audience to question their understandings of Islam or even religion.
Al-Faruqi, Ismail R. “Misconceptions on the Nature of Islamic Art.” Islam and the Modern Age, 29-49.
Asani, Ali. Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam. Harvard University.
Asani, Ali. “In Praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu Poems.” Religions of India in Practice. Ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 159-186. Print.
Ernest, Carl, W. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997. Print.
Koran by Heart. Dir. Greg Baker. Artifact Studios, 2013. Film.
Renard, John. Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious life of Muslims. Berkley: University of California Press, 1996. Print.