Introductory Essay

April 25th, 2018

Prologue: A Journey of Learning and Fulfillment

Having grown up in a Muslim majority country, I felt that I started this course with a decent understanding of Islam, particularly the beliefs and practices associated with it. However, I end this course with a newfound realization of how little I knew about a religion that I have practiced all my life – a realization that stems from a deeper understanding of not just Islamic history and tradition but also a newfound appreciation of the aesthetic side of Islam. From Sufiism to African-American Muslim experiences in contemporary America, the breadth of the material that we have covered in this course has been remarkable. Learning and reading about Muslim communities from across the globe was an eye-opening experience for me as it showed me that Islam is a lot more than what I had initially inferred from my limited experiences with it while growing up in Pakistan.

The course started with Professor Asani introducing an important distinction: one between the loud and silent versions of Islam. He then proceeded to ask a very simple, yet profound question: whose Islam are we talking about? I personally felt that this was a great way to start the course and introduce the idea that there is no monolithic Islam, a theme that I felt underpinned all the material that we covered throughout this course. From South Asian poetry to Iranian passion plays we were exposed to several forms of Islam conveyed through different artforms by people from across the globe. Yet, these different sides of Islam are seldom portrayed by the mainstream media that filters out the silent Islam and exclusively portrays the loud Islam. Therefore, I felt that the question posed by Professor Asani showed just how important it was for us to be aware of the reality that there are several sides to one story and, more importantly, that we may have only been exposed to one of those sides. Having been introduced to this powerful idea, I started my journey of learning that spanned the duration of this course, and through lecture, the weekly readings and our creative projects explored the silent Islam that was often overlooked: a religion of diversity, love, and compassion.

Firstly, I appreciated how in the first few weeks of the semester we approached Islamic theology in a unique way, highlighting the inclusivity and flexibility within it and focusing on the traditions common to all Abrahamic faiths. It was interesting to note the distinction between Islam with a small “i” and the exclusivist Islam with a capital “I”, and how there has been a recent trend towards exclusivist Islam. Our discussion of Islamic theology helped me contextualize these concepts as we learned how several Islamic theological concepts were common to many different religious traditions. It made me realize how the present-day barriers erected by Muslim socieities have no roots in Islamic theology, which emphasizes a more inclusive viewpoint based on submission to God—a feature common to most religions across the world. Another related idea from our discussions during the first few weeks that I found fascinating was that there are some Prophets that are not mentioned in the Quran or Hadith and how revered figures from other religious traditions, such as the Buddha, may actually be these “unknown” messengers of God. This was an idea that really struck me and was something that I also tried to convey in my blogpost “The Lock and the Chain.”

As the weekly readings, discussions, and lectures went on, I really enjoyed having the opportunity to critically reflect on the course material through the creative projects, the first of which was the calligram assignment. Most of the artistic works that we reviewed in lecture and section were rich in symbolism. Therefore, I tried to use symbolism in my calligraphy project to convey some important Islamic theological concepts that we were introduced to. Central to my project was the idea that was introduced in lecture of the Prophet Muhammad being the “light” of God and how he was the vessel through which God’s word flowed. I think that is a wonderful characterization of the Prophet and tried to convey it through calligraphy. Furthermore, as I worked on the project, I realized the value that every little detail carries in art. Even choices that may seem rudimentary like the choice of color can have increased significance when you are trying to convey a message. I felt that this really set me up with an understanding of how to approach artistic projects to convey a deeper message through them. I also realized that after working on the calligraphy assignment I could think more deeply about the works of Islamic art that were rich in symbolism—works that I would not have appreciated as much otherwise.

The other major creative project that I worked on, apart from the portfolio, was the urban mosque project, an equally enriching experience. I could never have imagined how little I actually knew about the important components of mosques until I started work on this project. The basic features of the mosque, such as the Mimbar and Mirhab had always been objects that did not have much significance in my eyes, and it was surprising for me to see how they were actually a feature that every mosque had to have. When it came to actually designing the mosque my group and I tried to incorporate some of the theological aspects that were covered early on in the course such as the ninety-nine names of God. Nasr’s book “Islamic Art and Spirtuality,” was one of the sources through which we got the inspiration of our project. This project and the calligraphy assignment along with the work that I did for them really added to my understanding of the aesthetic side of Islam, a side about which I really did not know much until this course.

The creative projects, however, posed a different challenge to me compared to the other two creative assignments that I just mentioned. I realized that they were a way for me to reflect on the course as a whole and it was difficult to distill all my learnings of the past thirteen weeks while planning my portfolio. Nevertheless, I tried to focus on a few themes that I found particularly enjoyable. The blogposts “A Poem in Devotion to God” and “Submitting to God’s Will” were largely influenced by the Sufi beliefs and practices that I learned about during the course as well as the numerous works of arts that we read about. Furthermore, a very important takeaway for me from this course were two interconnected ideas: that there is no monolithic Islam and that our perception of Islam is largely influenced by our own personal experiences with Islam. Though this is an underlying element of almost all my blogposts, I tried to convey these two ideas specifically in “The Many Forms of Islam” and “Forced Heaven.” As I have already expressed, I loved how the course focused on the use of the Arts in Islam, primarily because that was something that I had never experienced. The works that we were shown conveyed not only theological ideas, as in the case of the Calligraphy that we were shown and later did ourselves, but also served as a critique of society, as in the case of Persepolis. Therefore, in the two posts “A Tale of Two Bananas” and “The Lock and The Chain” I have tried to use visual art to convey a theological idea in the former and as a form of critique in the latter.

An overarching message that was present throughout this course and one that I have tried to convey in my blogposts is how Islam is a very diverse religion and that our understanding of Islam is influenced by our own personal experience. Both these points draw on the larger idea that there is no monolithic Islam, because in some ways Islam is an experience.  The rich diversity in Islamic practice, culture, and architecture is present because different cultures have chosen to experience Islam in different ways, and this theme of diversity is conveyed in my blogpost “The Many Forms of Islam.” The different pictures of Islamic architecture, ancient scriptures, and practices all enclosed in the outline of the word Islam is meant to show that Islam is multi-layered. The blogpost “Forced Heaven,” however, deals with Islam being an experience in a very different manner. It focuses on how people’s perception of Islam can change when you restrict the ways in which they can engage with it by imposing rules and regulations. This was best highlighted by Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis where in Iran islam went from being an essential component for freedom against oppression to another form of oppression in itself. The idea conveyed by this post is also a critique of the Wahhabi influence on Islam and the promotion of the “Salafi Aesthetic.” Both these posts, taken together, deliver the message that no one religion has a monopoly on the way that Islam can be and should be perceived and any restrictions only take away the freedom of experiencing the religion and reduces the rich diversity that is found within it.

Using the arts to convey messages is something that I have also tried to do in my blogposts “The Lock and The Chain” and “A Tale of Two Bananas.” In the Lock and the Chain, I have relied heavily on symbolism to convey the theological concept of Prophethood in Islam and how the Prophet Muhammad is the last of a long line of Prophets—both known and unknown. A tale of two bananas, however, is used as a critique of societal conditions in Pakistan and also to deliver a message about the importance of rigorously examining any information that we receive about religion. The title of the short comic is inspired by the book “A Tale of Two Cities” by a great social critic and novelist, Charles Dickens. Also, my decision to do this comic and show an experience that I had in childhood, one that always makes me smile whenever I recall it, was largely motivated by what I felt after I viewed the video from Salman Ahmed’s documentary in class. I really wanted to highlight just how Islam is manipulated in the region and how damaging that can prove to be if people do not question the religious knowledge they receive by people that sometimes are only looking to fulfill their own personal desires.

Lastly, as someone who has always loved listening to Sufi Qawwalis and reading poetry that draws inspiration from Sufi ideas, I was very excited for the part of the course that covered Sufiism. During the course of my childhood, I grew to admire the Islamic mystical tradition and was always enamored by the popularity of Sufi saints such as Bulleh Shah in cities across Pakistan. Therefore, I knew as soon as I saw the modules that I would be drawing on Sufi elements for my portfolio. This eventually resulted in me producing two short Urdu poems which share common themes, conveyed slightly differently. The poem “A Poem in Devotion to God” is definitely a lot more explicit in what it intends to convey whereas “Submitting to Gods Will” is more abstract as it tries to capture the angst and longing that is so prevalent in Sufi works—ideas that can never quite be delivered in an explicit manner. There is, yet, a theme of the “struggle” that Muslims go through that is common to both of these poems though each highlight different aspects of that struggle. A Poem in Devotion to God deals with the impossibility of truly being able to acknowledge God’s magnificence and the necessity of doing so. Submitting to God’s Will, however, deals with the struggle to truly eradicate one’s ego and undertake that “journey” towards fulfillment and tranquility. I felt that a perfect example of this journey was Attar’s the Conference of The Birds where the birds undertook a literal and figurative journey that eventually resulted in a destruction of their ego and the attainment of a sense of fulfillment.

Overall, I would just like to emphasize how I have enjoyed every bit of this course and how much I have learned from it. I feel that I leave this course with a deeper understanding of Islamic beliefs and practices, the issues that it is faced with in contemporary society, and how the religion is, in some ways, an aesthetic experience.

Thank you and I hope you enjoy my portfolio as much as I have enjoyed creating it!

Forced Heaven

April 25th, 2018

Medium: Drawing

Week 10 Response: Reform, Revival, and Muslim Women Defining Identity

Title: Forced Heaven

During the 10th and 11th week of lecture we looked at the Iranian revolution and some of the literature that was produced during that time. One of the things that I found very strange was how Iran was transformed from a country undergoing rapid westernization to an Islamic republic in a matter of days, and the only thing that really changed during these months were the people that were in power.

Suddenly, the veil was made mandatory. All schools were made single-sex. The country was now an “Islamic republic,” which in the eyes of those that had just come to power represented all the aforementioned changes. As Shiva Balaghi mentioned in his book Picturing Iran, “In the Iranian Revolution too, the commitment to break with the past provided the foundation upon which to build a new society.”

He further adds, “Accordingly, [the revolutionaries] set out to eradicate the hegemonic historical narrative of the Pahalvi dynasty by creating a counter historical narrative that was ideally structured to fit the new technology of the revoloution.”

The counter narrative that was used was that of Islam. It seemed a natural choice considering the country’s rich Islamic history and the historic struggle of Karbalah. As Professor Asani mentioned in lecture, this struggle was espoused by Khomeini and the revolutionary forces to stir up public sentiment by associating the Shah with Yazid.

Thus, in these circumstances the revolution happened, and Iran was changed in a matter of a few months. A revolutionary theocratic state was thus established and the new rules and regulations meant to Islamize the country were suddenly enforced.

This sudden shift in Iran is what I have tried to convey through this sketch. Even though men were not actually forced to wear anything ,I have tried to convey the same requirements that were imposed on women by showing what they would have been for men. You see the same man, in two very different situations voicing two completely different opinions.

The man’s perception of Islam has changed.  Islam is being forced upon him and is a manifestation of something that has taken away his freedom, which is a direct consequence of the state-enforced religious requirements.  The freedom that is inherent in Islam, the freedom that the man previously saw, is now a thing of the past. I feel that this quote by Shirin Ebadi that was shown in lecture best conveys the underlying message of this sketch:

“The mistake that some religious governments make is that they want to take their people to heaven by force, but a heaven that is forced on you is hell.”

 

Submitting To God’s Will

April 25th, 2018

Medium: Poetry

Week 9 Response: Sufi Piety II – The Ghazal and Mathnawi

Title: Submitting To God’s Will

 

Abhi Toh Niyyat-e-Safar Hai Ae Nafs

Aaghaz-e-Safar Abhi Baaqi Hai

O my mind, we’ve decided to go on a journey

But the actual journey is yet to start

 

Abhi Toh Asbaab-e-Taharat Tak Hain Pohanche

Ghusal-e-Taharat Abhi Baaqi Hai

We have only reached the means to purity

But the purification is yet to start

 

Karaar Ki Manzil Hai Abhi Dur Bohat

Ikraar Ki Charhai Abhi Baaqi Hai

The destination of tranquility is far away

And the ascent towards submission is yet to start

 

Kuch Bhi Bayaan Na Ker Paaey Yeh Zubaan

Bohat Kuch Seekhna Abhi Baaqi Hai

This tongue is not able to express anything

It still has a lot yet to learn

 

Saahil Pey Laaker Khara Ker Dia Ae Nafs

Saamne Samandar Hai, Doobna Abhi Baaqi Hai

O my mind, you have brought me towards the shore

The sea is in front of me but I have yet to drown

 

During the 8th and 9th weeks of the course we learned about a topic that has always captured my interest: Sufism. We read through several different artforms commonly used to convey Sufi ideas, including the Ghazal and Mathnawi.

In this blogpost, I have tried to write a short poem that is something similar to a Ghazal. Though this poem does not strictly obey all the conventions that were mentioned during our Week 9 reading, “the conventions of the Urdu Ghazal,” I have used an end rhyme consistently throughout the poem.

Fatima Keshavarz describes perhaps Rumi as someone who “understood the searching and restlessness as a kind of arrival.” This searching and restlessness is very common in most of the Sufi works that we have read in this course and is something that I have tried to incorporate in this poem.

The ideas that I have tried to convey through this poem are a juxtaposition of several themes that have come up in relation to Sufism, either in lecture or during the weekly readings. For example, this poem is basically one’s dialogue with his/her own consciousness. It has a sense of longing for the divine and conveys a struggle to reach the divine and therefore fulfill that longing.

Furthermore, the “journey” that I have mentioned in this poem echoes the journey that was portrayed in one of my favorite readings from this course, Attar’s the conference of the birds. The journey of the birds is basically one of stripping away of one’s ego. This is seen as a prerequisite to the birds finally reaching a state of enlightenment.

It was also very wonderfully conveyed in the dance performance of the conference of the birds where all the dancers underwent a painful process where they stripped away their old selves and were born anew. A similar journey is mentioned in this poem as well. The struggle against one’s own ego/mind is conveyed. Even though the destination of fulfillment is nearby, there is a further effort that needs to be made. An effort against the ego that is necessary to connect with the divine.

 

 

A Tale of Two Bananas

April 25th, 2018

Medium: Comic.

Week 12 Response: Literature and Arts as Critique and Resistance.

Title: A Tale of Two Bananas

In the 12th week of this course we learned about how literature and the arts have been used as a form of critique in contemporary Islamic societies. Two components of this week’s lectures and readings particularly struck me. The first of these was Salman Ahmed’s documentary from lecture and the second was Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, “Persepolis.”

I felt the video shown from Salman Ahmed’s documentary really underscored the spell of ignorance under while some Islamic societies have fallen, and I could closely identify with most of the sentiments that were expressed by Salman Ahmed in the video.

Whereas, Salman Ahmed used the power of filmmaking to show the condition of the Mullahs in Peshawar, I felt equally captivated by Marjane Satrapi’s use of the graphic novel to illustrate life in pre-revolution Iran and her coming-of-age journey.

Therefore, in my response to this week’s lecture I’ve tried to incorporate elements from both these works. Inspired by Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographic graphic novel, I have tried to convey an experience from my childhood that I felt closely relates to the message that Salman Ahmed tried to convey his documentary

Perhaps the most important message conveyed in this comic, is one that has been emphasized throughout this course. In particular, how politicians/religious scholars sometimes use religion to serve their own personal ends. This is particularly pervasive in Muslim majority countries, where Islam is frequently employed by politicians when they feel they can use it to their own advantage, and is discarded otherwise. In this comic, the “Qari Saab,” an Urdu term used to refer to Quran teachers, uses Islam to fulfill his own personal desire. A trivial example that underscores a non-trivial issue.

Another message that I have gleaned from this course has been the importance of individual research, especially related to matters concerning religion. This course has highlighted how Islam is fundamentally a progressive religion, but the recent trend in Islamic societies has been regressive.One aspect of this regression has been a move away from literacy and individual learning. This eventually results in a situation where so-called Muslim “scholars” are given unprecedented power as most people feel that their knowledge is inadequate and believe everything that they are told.

Therefore, I try to end this comic with the message about how important it is to cross-check everything that we are told, and how only then can we counter the toxic influence of those that instrumentalize religion and propagate messages that have nothing to do with Islam.