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!

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