An Introduction

In this class we explored Islam and the many ways it is practiced around the world from a cultural studies approach. This means that rather than focusing on one sect or region of the world’s perspective as being representative of the entire religion, we studied many different practices and beliefs and looked at what they have in common, what they disagree on, and how such different perspectives come together under the term Islam. As a result, a significant take-away from the course has been that Islam, unlike how it is often depicted in the Western media, encapsulates an incredibly diverse range of devotional practices and beliefs and that any monolithic or homogenous presentation of it is only one of many perspectives. The confident statements often made about what Islam is and is not usually depict the religion inaccurately and exclusively, leaving out major regions of the world that consider themselves Muslim, and often do so with some form of bias (political, religious, or otherwise). In order to avoid bias when looking at distinct (and often conflicting) religious interpretations, the cultural studies approach does not view religion from a faith-based perspective, but rather sees it as a cultural phenomenon that develops in response to historical and social factors and is constantly changing and evolving even at the level of the individual who practices it. In this sense everyone practices their own distinct version of whatever religion they do (or do not) consider themselves a part of, and it is always important to realize whose perspective you are looking at when analyzing an opinion or belief.

While we looked at many different aspects of devotional life across the Muslim world, including various beliefs and practices, this course focused particularly on art as a form of religious expression and commentary. Art can be seen as an important means of expression for a number of reasons. Because art can often be interpreted in multiple different ways, its ambiguous message has historically allowed artists more freedom of speech than they may otherwise have been allowed in their time period, and so art can provide subtle insight into critiques of the norms of an era. Additionally, people are often able to connect with art through its aesthetic appeal in a very different way than they would with normal writing, and as a result art is often used to convey feelings and ideas that would otherwise be harder to grasp from a purely intellectual/analytical perspective. This is especially true for religious expression, which tends to focus on illuminating aspects of the world that are greater than what can normally be perceived on the surface. These are a few of the reasons why art was so heavily focused on in this course, and why the following responses to readings from the class are all pieces of artwork in various different media.

The course covered a vast range of topics, but my responses focused on a few particular themes that may require introduction. First of all, one common aspect of my artistic responses was that they all focused on quotes from our readings that depicted vivid imagery. I found that such quotes provided a lot of guidance for how to represent the message of the reading in a visual way (since I am not particularly talented in music or writing I tried to stay clear of non-visual media). While some of the metaphors used contain clear symbolism, others required more careful consideration and this careful analysis of imagery was something I particularly enjoyed and was able to do with this visual approach for my responses. This visual symbolism is itself something we’ve talked about in class, as it is said that the signs of God’s presence everywhere if you know how to look for them.

One visual theme that I bring up in my responses is Light Mysticism. Multiple verses of the Qur’an relate back to the idea that God first created light, and refer to God’s revelation and message, transmitted to humans via the Qur’an, as light that banishes the darkness that is ignorance of God. Muhammad, the central prophet in Islam who transmitted the Qur’an to mankind, is said to contain light (called the Nur Muhammad) within him, which according to some sects of Muslims gives him a greater connection to God and is passed on to his descendants who become Imams and have spiritual authority and special abilities such as intercessory powers (the ability to forgive people’s sins on behalf of God). This symbolism of light versus dark lends itself very well to different religious imagery, and is prevalent throughout much of Muslim literature, as well as in my artwork.

A connected theme that comes up is the veneration of Muhammad. Muhammad, being a prophet and the man that God chose to transmit the Qur’an, is often depicted as the epitome of a good Muslim. We even talked in class about the depiction of God himself as being madly in love with Muhammad. The hadith, a collection of stories concerning the customs and life of the prophet, supplements the Qur’an as a form of guidance for many Muslims around the world on issues of how to live life that are not explicitly talked about in the Qur’an. Some Muslims also believe that Muhammad has intercessory powers due to the Nur Muhammad, and so while God can at times be depicted as jealous or strict, Muhammad is usually depicted as a merciful and benevolent figure who strives to help mankind. As a result people have been known to compose poems and works of devotion dedicated to Muhammad in the hopes that he will stand up for them on Judgment Day to get them into heaven. However, this veneration of Muhammad is not a universal characteristic of Islam. Salafis/Wahhabis, for example, make up a sect of Muslims that views such veneration as conflicting with the monotheism of Islam. They do not allow veneration of Muhammad or the worship of other important Islamic figures, which is a common occurrence at various tomb shrines around the world where such figures are buried.

Regarding the different sects of Islam it is important to understand the division between the two major denominations of Muslims: Sunni and Shia. The division between these groups arose after Muhammad’s death when a decision had to be made about who would take over the role as leader of Muhammad’s followers. Sunni Muslims believed that the next leader should be decided by close companions of the prophet, whereas Shii Muslims felt that relatives of the prophet inherited some of the Nur Muhammad, and therefore also inherited Muhammad’s intercessory abilities and spiritual and political authority. As a result, Shii Muslims supported Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, as his successor, while Sunnis supported Abu Bakr. This caused a lot of violent conflict between the two factions that lasted for many years. At one point Ali was assassinated along with his eldest son Hasan. Shii Muslims gathered in support of his second son, Husayn, who posed a threat to the authority of Yazid, the Sunni Caliph (political leader) at the time. Husayn had an army sworn to protect him, but when Yazid was in pursuit they abandoned him. In the desert near Karbala (in Iraq) Yazid’s army surrounded Husayn and his family and waited, starving them out before Shimr, a leader of Yazid’s army, beheaded Husayn. Husayn has since been seen as a martyr in the Shia community and his suffering parallels that of many Shia groups who are often persecuted as minorities in Sunni-majority regions on the basis of their beliefs. Husayn’s shrine at Karbala, like the shrines of many other Shia Imams (the term for descendants of Muhammad who have spiritual and political authority according to Shia belief) is a popular destination for pilgrimages, even though the shrine itself has been destroyed. The story of Husayn’s martyrdom is retold through a play called the Taziyeh, which is performed every year in Iran (which is majority Shia). In the play the audience sits in a circle around the stage, mimicking Yazid’s army that surrounded Husayn at Karbala, and the Husayn dresses in green, the color of the prophet and his family, while Shimr dresses in red. The Taziyeh is a unique play in that, due to its religious foundation, it evokes very strong reactions from the audience, who are made to re-experience Husayn’s murder as if it were actually occurring, and audience-members often cry in anguish as the story plays out.

Another form of Islamic practice, whose participants can be Sunni or Shia, falls under the category of Sufi Mysticism, or Sufism. Sufi Muslims tend to believe that God is connected to every individual by a deep-seated love, and that experiencing God’s presence and love is the highest form of religious practice. Unlike other sects of Islam that tend to view such practices as heretical, some Sufis listen to music, dance, or condone intoxication with alcohol as a means of experiencing God’s love. While Sufis believe that it is possible to briefly experience aspects of God’s divine love, ultimately this world is often depicted as unreal and fleeting when compared to the Day of Alast (when all things were first created and in perfect union with God, before humans drifted away and became forgetful of their intimate connection to God). This connection is believed to be deep within everyone, but is obstructed by ones ego. Transcending the ego to realize ones connection with God is the central idea behind most Sufi practices.

Another theme discussed in this class concerned the contemporary reform movements in Islam. As Europe grew in global influence and Muslim regions of the world began to lose their prominence, there were many Muslims who were concerned that this was a sign that they were not practicing Islam correctly, and God was no longer pleased with them. As a result, many different movements arose, all attempting to regain God’s grace by reforming Islamic practices. The Salafi movement condemning all veneration besides that of God was one such reform movement. Others varied from altering Muslim practices for a more Western lifestyle to establishing Islam as the political ideology of a nation-state.

Other contemporary issues that were addressed included the place of women in society. Many reform movements saw the lack of religious education of women, who were responsible for raising children to be future Muslims, as a potential cause of God’s displeasure, so during this time religious education for women became much more popular. Some movements saw the westernization of the Muslim world as the problem, and encouraged, or even forced, women to dress more conservatively and wear veils which, although it also had precedent in parts of the Muslim world, was often a reactionary response to contrast the revealing clothing of the modern West. This covering up of women’s bodies is part of the custom of purdah, which is practiced in certain parts of the Muslim world. Purdah involves the separation of women from most men (besides those in their direct family), and can involve separating the house into certain areas (called the zenana) where only women are allowed and where women are often restricted from leaving. When women do leave or are in the presence of men, they often must wear some form of veil to cover their hair and/or entire face. While veils are often looked down upon in the West as restricting for women, many Muslim women choose to wear the veil as a sign of their religious identity, or as a means of protecting themselves from harassment.

While the themes mentioned above by no means encapsulate everything we’ve discussed in this course, they do provide much of the background information necessary to understand my artwork and responses to the various readings from this semester, so I hope you enjoy them!

– Caleb Irvine


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