Welcome to my creative blog for Harvard’s AI54, “For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures.” This is a brief introduction to the content of this blog, a collection of inspired posts based on the content of this course. I will highlight several themes of my work, my takeaways from this course, and what I hope that you gain from taking a few moments to delve a little deeper into a fresh look at what may be a new, old, or somewhat familiar topic to you, my readers.
In the first small group meeting of this course, there was a discussion had on the reasoning for the title of this course: “For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures.” Why the somewhat cliché title? If the title is parsed, what does each portion mean? To answer the first question, perhaps the title serves to highlight potential ignorance around Islam. Entering into the course with only a media’s portrayal of Islam, I for one did not understand Islam and its contemporary cultures as more than just a doctrine; this title illustrates that perception which I previously held, a clichéd and single dimensional view of a multidimensional religion. Maybe there was more in store for this course than just understanding the text of the Quran, something I had the privilege of discovering for myself over the course of this past semester at Harvard.
Now, to answer the second question: what happens when we parse the title into its components, what do we find? To start, there are three main focuses, the religious, literary, and artistic elements of Islam, thus giving already a hint to the depth covered in this course. In addition, “Muslim Cultures” is plural, not singular: this is a clear statement that there are many elements to Islam that cannot be captured within one population. Rather, there are many interpretations and variations to the same religion that are in turn expressed through variances in religious practices, literature, and the arts. And these three components go hand-in-hand, as variations in religion, such as sects and inner circles of meaning, as well as the politicization of Islam, have led to the introduction of various literary works and art, one example being Sufi art that is mystically inspired. The components come into play when discussing the overall themes of this course, as experienced by me.
The overall themes of my work center on those elements of Islam which both inspire me artistically the most, as well as intrigue me to think more critically about the context in which we are observing different elements of Muslim cultures, globally. The former shows in my desire to create aesthetically pleasing works of art, either through manipulating a photograph, creating my own piece of visual art, or the expression of myself through words (specifically referencing my Week 9 inspired ghazal). I have aimed to highlight the beauty of Islam; while not Muslim, I find numerous elements of the religion resonate with me and speak to personal trials and tribulations, and also my own devotion to Christianity (specifically as a Presbyterian). In channeling various forms of Islamic art, I have also simultaneously discovered another outlet for expressing values and ideas I hold dear, which are also, as I have learned, many Islamic values as well.
Personally, I am a very aesthetically motivated person: I am awed by grand architecture, wooed by lyrical poetry, and emotionally invested in artwork. Therefore, I strived to capture just that in my creative blog: the overwhelming beauty I have encountered in this course. In my blog, this is illustrated through my use of calligraphy, color, and creation of art that I hope captures the essence of the emotion I have felt in exploring new aspects of Islam. I am invested in creating work that shares that with my audience, and I hope I have achieved that goal.
In addition, I mentioned that I also created work about concepts that have forced me to think more critically about Islam in general and to challenge my preconceived notions regarding Muslim cultures. As a non-Mulsim, I chose some of the topics most relevant in my life and today’s society, and concepts to which I can relate the most. These themes include ignorance about Islam, the search for a greater truth, and beauty in all aspects of the word. Again, in tying these themes to a week of the course in which I have experienced these themes, I aim to create a greater experience in which others can get a different perspective and reflection on Islam.
For example, in my Week 8 blog post, I try to tie together multiple aspects of the course to perhaps shed new light on the topic of Sufism. I found myself very intrigued with Sufism, and strove to find new relatable ways in which I could express what I feel it means to be a Sufi Muslim. From where can we draw this concept of enlightenment? How might we be able to feel more connected with our spirituality, and if we’re looking for a greater meaning, how can we find that? My goal with these blog posts has been to explain these questions in more depth, and to potentially spark interest in the reader to inquire with their own questions as well.
As one of the very first lectures, Professor Ali Asani established this concept of what is known as a “cultural studies approach,” something with which I have had no prior experience nor knowledge. This idea encourages us to delve into every aspect of Islam, and to really gain familiarity with Muslim cultures, not just take a cursory glance and make the assumption that we understand all there is to know about Islam. For example, many perceive head scarves as an oppression of women; however, in learning more from the perspective of a Muslim women, it is clear that that are many perceptions on what the head scarf truly means to them.
A cultural studies approach is mentioned in the second chapter of Professor Asani’s manuscript, Infidel of Love. He poses the following questions to his readers:
“What specific ideals do Muslims associate with Islam? Who defines and represents them and on what basis? How do they influence understandings of what it means to be Muslim?” (Infidel of Love, p. 53)
These questions are crucial in this course: without understanding the basis for a whole culture’s actions, beliefs, ways of living, art, and more, there is no true knowledge, only judgements passed by a cursory and misguided view. In addition, Professor Asani warns against striving for religious literacy: when we view a culture from the perspective of a doctrine, we begin to parse the actions of that population in ways that are incorrect. In Islam, we see this manifest itself in one way by people trying to explain the actions of Muslims by interpreting—mostly incorrectly—phrases in the Quran. One cannot even begin to encompass the diversity of Muslim cultures just through studying the religious texts. It is absolutely paramount that there be an understanding and appreciation of the products of different Muslim cultures as well. That is why this course not only examines the religion, but also the arts and literatures of Muslim cultures.
In addition, a huge part of this course was predicated on individual interpretations of the literature, and engagement with the deeper meanings of the material. That is perhaps why we were challenged to create these blogs: to think more critically and more individually about material that we discuss at length during the course. This is one of the few opportunities we have to create something new in Islam, something untainted by others; indeed, a true expression of our own views and perceptions of Muslim cultures. In addition, these posts serve as a testament to our experiences: we are forced to examine aspects of Islam with which we have found meaning and inspiration, and to show our true appreciation of the course material, a chance we do not perhaps get elsewhere.
In one of the main texts for this course, John Renard, author of Seven Doors to Islam, mentions the following: “Qur’anic tradition demands a unique interpretation” (p. 261). This might possibly be the greatest takeaway from the course overall. We have spent an entire semester discussing an analyzing different interpretations of what it means to be Muslim, and from where these perceptions come. But all of these unique aspects of Islam have come from different individuals, different populations, different sects. And it is crucial that in this blog, I assess and acknowledge those unique interpretations, and also contribute to Islam through my own unique interpretation.
I cannot dictate what you, the reader of these blog posts, gains from my creative musings; I can only share and hope, hope that you get a sense of my personal experience with Islam through this course. And I wish that you understand my own context of Islam: as a devote Christian, I am inspired by Islam in a different manner than a Muslim, but inspired nonetheless. The various forms in which devotion is shown are exceedingly beautiful, and I have come to truly appreciate and understand the context of Islam both in past societies and the present.
Overall, this course has been one of my greatest academic pleasures in my college journey. It has forced me to reexamine previous notions, and approach new knowledge from all angles, not just one presentation of the content. Through a cultural studies approach to learning about Islam, I have steered away from the doctrine, and have veered towards learning about the ways in which Islam is an integral part to cultures around the globe. My sincere hope is that by looking through these blog posts, you, the reader, are able to begin to see the merit of a cultural studies approach to learning about Islam, a beautiful subset of our global community.