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                For the Love of God and His Prophet was a class that took me on a journey deeper into my inner life. The question, “What does it mean to be a muslim?” was the center of my focus with regard to this class. On a more personal level, it became important to me to know whether it was possible for me to embody the qualities and daily practices of being a good muslim without adopting the title of Muslim. It was also important for me to learn the many diverse ways in which Islam is practiced and affected by culture, tradition, and economy in different parts of the world. I greatly appreciated the cultural studies approach to learning about Islam, as well as the artistic lens through which we learned the daily practices of the average muslim.  The blog responses that I have created and presented below represent facets of Islam that I am both drawn to and about which I would like to understand the daily context in modernity.

I examined the themes of: interior design of prayer spaces, Sufi mysticism through Samat dance, modern views on women’s identity through exploration of their thoughts on wearing the veil, love and its expression through poetry, mathnawi narrative through composing epic verses, and the simplification of muslim identity through reflecting on the complexity of my own. In engaging hands-on with these topics through the use of visuals and art, I was able to have a better appreciation for perhaps the greatest theme of the course: that faith is complex because it is socially and culturally embedded, that Islam is a complex religion made even more complicated by cultural factors that have changed the way it is practiced over both time and space.

One of the most important themes significant in the pursuit of any faith and any art or magnum opus is the idea of building mastery through daily ritual. Just as in Koran by Heart, we see children beginning at an early age to participate in Qur’an recitation competitions, it takes a fundamental daily routine oriented towards achieving total understanding of a given subject in order to achieve total mastery of it. The blog posts are only the beginning of my foray into art in the Muslim world. They are basic, bare because they lack knowledge and talent that is refined over time to convey deep meanings concerning the Islamic faith and tradition. However, the act of creating something with the frequency of six times over the course of the semester allowed me to experience practicing the faith to some degree—practicing in the context of arriving at deeper understanding with every piece of art created. Practical or technical application to any abstract concept or theory seems to satisfy our brain’s needs to engage both its cognitive and affective sides. It seems to reassure or reaffirm the truth of one view of the world with the other’s view. By enforcing recitation techniques in younger children, for example, elders in Muslim communities around the world are establishing a foundation of faith in children before they can even begin to comprehend it by asking them to fulfill this less abstract activity. Once children reach the appropriate age in their development, they will discover for themselves the meaning behind the words that they proclaim. Such is the way art relates to this course. The more of it I do, the better I understand and remember the lessons learned from class.

A theme very specific to the prayer carpet I found and drew in the prayer space of Canaday basement is the centrality of God to arabesque design. This is evoked by the choice of this particular carpet design, and most mosque carpet patterns, in that they are all oriented towards Mecca. Walking into the empty prayer room at noon on a weekday, this is the immediate observation that called my attention. To know that entire prayer groups create their formation of prayer as a result of this rule set by faith and carried out by art was both surprising and moving, as the carpet serves as a kind of unifying force that reminds everyone in the room that all are united in prayer under Allah. The other striking feature about this carpet design is the very stereotypical arabesque “archway,” particularly its tip. Its tip, almost always a sharp point that is lifted upwards, parallels the beauty and centrality of the largest dome at the center of the mosque that is also facing upwards towards the heavens. Both serve as a reminder of the light that is Allah and his central role in Islam.

The Samat dance that I learned from watching videos of others perform it brought me to a deeper understanding of Sufi mysticism. Although I am only just beginning to understand how to perform the Samat, I am also beginning to get a glimpse of the ecstasy, divine and passionate love that characterize the Sufi tradition. In Samat dance, one is supposed to lose oneself in the spinning, focusing on a point beyond anything physical, such that the spinning does not affect the individual as typically spinning would do. The greater one’s focus and attention is on achieving transcendence of place with one’s mind, the more settled and balanced the dancer’s posture becomes, almost like a spinning doll. At perhaps the most involved point of the dance, it seems as though the energy of God runs straight through the spine of the dancer, connecting the physical body with the heavens. Though I did not feel as though I reached this point during my own rudimentary experience of dancing the Samat, complete mindful attention towards God is what I strove for. In the moments in which I was most successful at this, my dancing became better, and the spinning became easier to manage.

“Ode to Love” is a ghazal I wrote to better understand the nature of divine love as passionate love and to imagine what a ghazal could say about love itself as opposed to loving an object (in this case, God). Many of the ghazals we have read about through class material seem to be characterized by the intense emotions of a lover being consumed by his love, and in most cases, the pain of not having that love returned. I believe my poem addresses the many questions I have concerning this mode of devotion as being compared to the passionate love between lovers. The questions concern the benefits of sense of conviction of this love that the poet is feeling, whilst at the same time grappling with uncertainty with truth and God himself, as well as the pain of potential rejection. It also speaks to my curiosity as to why poets never wrote about the aftermath of that kind of love and whether that was too dangerous. Nevertheless, writing the ghazal helped me to appreciate how difficult it is to write poetry in couplet form and to express in words the depth of intensity of love described in other ghazals through the use of imagery.

One of the themes that stood out to me from the course was the influence of modernity on the views and practice of Islam, particularly as it relates to the status of women in society. By interviewing two modern Muslim young women—one of whom wore the veil and the other of whom did not—I learned more on what factors, whether societal or personal, are significant in determining whether, when, and how women ought to wear the veil. I learned the dual nature of the veil as being a protective unit for women and in providing that protection the veil itself is an empowering tool, as well as an obstruction to interacting socially and peacefully among the rest of one’s peers. When women are forced to wear the veil, they are stripped of their lack of freedom in needing to put on a full black suite. Nevertheless, the idea that fathers feel more relieved when their daughters put on veils seems to also suggest the hint of good intentions towards women.

The Conference of the Birds exercise was an interesting one because it allowed me to experience writing part of a mathnawi, a larger narrative epic, in which the ideas of every stanza of the piece has to connect to a larger theme. In creating a new character, the raven, for a particular section of the epic, I introduced a new perspective to the chorus of birds. It would have been interesting to compose a part for the raven throughout the whole epic in order to understand the role of a single idea or character changes the nature of the conversation amongst the actors. The Raven symbolically represents an idea that I have not yet found in the context of Islam as studied in this class: through the voices of the other birds, we can see the ways in which we deceive ourselves about our unwillingness to follow God through our capacity to reason (outside the realm of total, passionate devotion to God) with ourselves by coming up with excuses not to journey on the Way. In what situation or story represented in the Qur’an or hadiths do we see ourselves directly confronting our unwillingness to follow the Way, and then to overcome that fundamental unwillingness? In the hoopoe’s response to that direct confrontation that I composed, I could see no way to address this other than by reinforcing the idea that this journey is a choice determined by one’s own free will. I look forward to learning about other opportunities to study Islamic texts in greater detail to understand exactly what Muhammad’s (or Allah’s) answer would be to this question.

Perhaps the most poignant of all themes covered in this class relating to how one understands what it means to be muslim is identity and how one interprets it. The Reluctant Fundamentalist portrays the story of a young Muslim man who pursued and attained the American dream, only to have his identity torn between two different worlds both of which play an integral part of his development. Forced by September 11 to choose a side, he finds Erica, whom he believes is willing to allow him to have both sides of himself. When she leaves, he learns about himself that he cannot completely separate himself from his Muslim identity and uses his knowledge from America to educate his people back home in Pakistan. Thus, Changez is never really one or the other, but both. His character illustrates the complexity of people and their identities. Similarly, this class has taught that Islam also does not stand alone as faith existing in isolation, but that it is one embedded in a society and culture, making it more complex and nuanced but therefore much more widely appealing. In writing a reflection of my own identity for this blog, I recognize that I only acknowledge two aspects, whilst there are also others that also define me. In accepting the complexity of my identity, I hope to discover a way of life that allows me to be fully all of these parts. I aim to never reduce myself to fundamentals and to appreciate the complexity that is human nature embedded in culture and society.

Through these blog posts, I too have embarked on a journey. Whilst it is impossible to know whether I am heading on the Way that leads to the Simorgh, I have reached several conclusions as to what constitutes islam and one who follows it. A muslim is literally defined as “one who submits his will to God”. In essence, a muslim seems to be one who frees himself of his ego to submit himself to his creator. Four of the six blog posts that I’ve created directly concern the idea of submitting the ego to the creator: this is seen in the tips and directionality of the design on the carpet, the transcendence of self through Samat dance, the Raven’s dilemma, and the ghazal that speaks to the all-consuming love for God.  The other two posts concern the ego and questions of identity very directly in exploring women’s place in society as well as a muslim’s place in the world. While the first four representations of art speak to the submission of the ego as already having occurred, the latter two describes the struggle of letting the ego surrender to God, or the greater picture.

Can I then be a muslim? Having actively participated in understanding muslim identity in creating this portfolio, it seems as though I am at a stage in which my ego is still questioning itself, but is beginning to submit to a greater power, which I believe to be God. Should I complete this process and continue on this journey, I may be muslim after all.

May 10th, 2016 at 4:22 pm