Prologue

Hello!

Thank you for visiting my blog, Crafty Contemplation! My name is Julie and I am a Master of Theological Studies candidate at Harvard Divinity School. I’m am grateful to Professor Asani for this opportunity to consider some of the themes from the course, For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures, through such a creative format. The course embraced the cultural studies approach and applied it to the study of Islam, so I will begin my introductory remarks with an outline of this method.

Next, I will briefly consider some of the themes from the course that I hope to have embraced for this series of creative reflections. These considerations will be focused on the following topics: 1) grounds for dichotomies and the diverse communities of interpretation in Muslim cultures; 2) art and religious symbolism; 3) the role of women; 4) pluralistic roots in Islam; and finally, 5) the grounds for comparative theology.

The Cultural Studies Approach

From the beginning of this course, Professor Asani has impressed upon us the essential role that the cultural studies approach plays in breaking down misconceptions and monolithic notions of religion. This methodology, originally described in Diane Moore’s book Overcoming Religious Illiteracy, stresses the vitality of understanding the contexts in which religions are situated to be able to genuinely interpret their roles, functions, and essence. Furthermore, it emphasizes the deeply interconnected nature of religions with other forces such as politics, social structures, socioeconomic conditions, etc. Without paying proper attention to these factors, one cannot adequately claim to understand a specific religious tradition. All of these elements emphasize the role of the individual as a practitioner of a certain tradition; here, with the individual, lies the essence of the tradition. It cannot be summarized with a concise and quantities formula of beliefs and doctrines. Moore describes the benefits of this method in overcoming religious illiteracy with these points:

1) it is the most accurate in depicting the complexity of religion and its influences in historical and contemporary contexts;

2) it emphasizes the diversity within traditions as well as between them; and

3) it represents a method of inquiry rather than the content of knowledge alone.[1]

Professor Asani’s course embodied these pedagogical techniques, both through the presentation of material and through the creative assessments in which students participated, which always compelled one to consider both the contexts and content of the material at hand.

The final lecture for this course touched upon the essential nature of this work as Professor Asani restated that religious literacy is absolutely crucial and fundamental for democracy. A lack of understanding leads to a process of dehumanization that targets race, religion, etc., in such a way that has very real and dangerous consequences. Thus, in this way, Asani believes that “the class of civilizations is not between Christianity and Islam, but between people who want to live with respect and trust and those who want to impose a hegemonic view.”[2] As such, the arts are an integral component to promoting literacy, as they are a means for “humanizing the face of Islam.” While this is an extensive and intensive pursuit, it is within this orientation toward the discipline that I intend to engage in submiting this final blog project.

Grounds for Dichotomies 

To expand upon the role of the cultural studies approach and its inherent ability to break down one’s monolithic conceptions of religions as cohesive entities, I would like to begin with a very brief consideration the various communities and methods of interpretation present within the Islamic traditions. In the broadest sense, two orientations toward the writing of the Qur’an can be summarized as categorical vs. allegorical; or put another way, external, historical vs. hidden, internal meaning. John Renard encapsulates a potential rationale for each perspective in this way:

Some argued that it is best simply not to ask questions at all about the scripture’s reference to God’s face or hands, or any other attribute to which ordinary human experience provides the only analogy. They argued that God chose to describe the divine reality in these terms, and it is not up to human beings to second guess or speculate. Others insisted that since such anthropomorphic features clearly compromise God’s transcendence, on has no choice but to understand them in a purely metaphorical way.[3]

Michael Sells, on the other hand, provides a useful explanation for the allegorical interpretive method, noting that, in reference to the Qur’an, these “signs of a reality that cannot be directly expressed but understood only through a sustained process of reading and interpreting.”[4] Thus, in his reading of the mystical perspective, there is an inherent call for interpretation. While this theme of variants of interpretation is most explicit in my post, Between Mullahs and Mystics, I think it is only fair to be explicit in my general tendency to embrace an allegorical reading of the poetry and Quranic passages I have selected for the basis of my creative reflections. In highlighting the potential for dichotomies here, I hope it is clear that my inclination toward an allegorical methodology is a stylistic and personal choice, and in no way indicative of a particular community of interpretation within Islam.

Art & Religious Symbolism

 To return to the initial topic of religious literacy and the role of the arts, I think this course’s continual focus on specific examples of art in its various contexts has been extremely useful in demonstrating that both the human and cultural are important in parsing out the modes and mediums by which people embrace as the practice of Islam. These artistic works have greatly complimented my understanding of religious themes within Islam. For example, having an awareness of the sacred nature of writing calligraphy helped me unpack the divine nature of the Qur’an and the possibility for one who writes, calligraphy or poetry, to participate in the act of creating. I’ve included one example of calligraphy in my blog, as a means of experimenting with this process essential to the tradition, and it has given me a deeper respect for the profound undertaking that developing one of these crafts is. The opportunity to create a series of artistic reflections for this project provides a new lens for considering how the “relationship between form and meaning, between the hidden and the manifest,” in the Islamic traditions.[5]

Early on in the course, I was also struck by the vast examples of depicting religious symbols of the prophet, the lamp as a symbol for the manifestation of God’s light, etc. as I had been under the false impression that depictions of this sort were considered idolatrous. The topic of light captivated me, and this is evident in my post, On Prophetic Light, but this notion is also fundamental in my reflection, Free to Love?

The Role of Women

While this is not explicitly a focus of this blog’s reflections, I did choose this as the site of reflection for my first post about the ways in which children learn about religion. I think the following is a helpful quote from this course on the topic of women in religion:

Women have been the greatest friends of religion, but religion has been the greatest enemy of women.

This statement powerfully encapsulates the notion that women’s bodies have become the battlefield where religious ideologies for competing visions of Islam are played out. While my reflection embraces a very positive and gentle depiction of the process in which a religious tradition is passed down from mother to child, I think it would be unfair not to acknowledge that the role of women in Islamic societies is controversial.

Pluralistic Roots in Islam

One of my favorite topics to learn about this semester has been the roots of pluralism in the Islamic tradition, and in particularly, the ways in which the faith originally maintained a very open and inclusive definition of a Muslim as “one who submits to God,” which then evolved to become more exclusive as qualifiers were added to the shahada.

Just yesterday, in listening to a Muslim classmate reflect upon her participation in the Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative, I was struck by her motive for engaging with other traditions. She shared the passage the following passage from the Qur’an and I was moved by her interpretation of it.

The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them.[6]

She explained how her allegorical reading of this passage extended the permission of interfaith exchange in a variety of arenas, not just that of food, and how it is a means of inspiration and foundation for peace work she engages in the educational sphere.

In my own musings in this blog, I explore this theme through the indiscriminate nature of the divine light of God and I think that this has been a central and critical theme throughout the course.

Grounds for Comparative Theology

As a final note, one may notice the reflective approach this blog takes from a theistic perspective. This is in part because of my focus area at HDS is Comparative Theology. This methodology allows “us to make deeper sense of ourselves intellectually and spiritually, in light of what we find in the world around us.”[7] I used this as an opportunity to exercise this method, and also, because I found it conducive to the personal nature of this assignment. In the process of producing the artistic reflections, I found the themes that inspired the art resonated deeply with me. In this way, I embraced this exercise as an opportunity for some concluding reflections on my learning and faith journey as I prepare for graduation.

[1] Moore, Diane L. Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education, (p. 54). New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

[2] Asani, A. (2016, April). Islam in America. Lecture conducted from Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

[3] Renard, J. (1996). Seven doors to Islam: Spirituality and the religious life of Muslims, (p. 113). Berkeley: University of California Press.

[4] Sells, M. A. (1999). Approaching the Qurʼan: The early revelations, (p. 211). Ashland, Or: White Cloud Press.

[5] Renard, 107

[6] Qur’an, 5:5

[7] Clooney, F. (2010). Comparative theology: Deep learning across religious borders, (p. 5). Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell.

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