Welcome to Halal Thoughts! This portfolio is a collection of my artworks discussing the role of arts and aesthetics in shaping Islamic culture and experiences around the world.
When discussing the Islamic faith, many people who do not possess a nuanced Islamic background, such as unfamiliar non-Muslims, or even many Muslims who are uneducated in the faith, tend to characterize Islam as a monolith, a uniform, ideological box, with a singular perspective on the faith and outlook on life. In certain ways, this may be true, for example in fundamental theological beliefs, such as the belief in the Oneness of God, the prophethood and spiritual authority of Muhammad, the basic pillars (rituals) of the faith, and universal Islamic values: seeking knowledge, combating injustice, engaging with others peacefully, etc.
In a majority of ways, however, interpretations within the faith vary tremendously, for example in differences between the main communities of interpretation (Sunni and Shi’i), to the mystical Sufi orientation, to differences in gender dynamics . A Bosnian Muslim’s perspective and experience is not necessarily that of a Pakistani Muslim, and a Chinese Muslim’s perspective and experience is not necessarily that of an Australian Muslim or a Sierra Leonean Muslim. Not all of these differences in interpretation necessarily originate from the faith itself, but are by-products of cultural, political, social, and economic dynamics.
When individuals fail to examine the faith through this holistic lens, they fall prey to generalizations and oversimplifications, which, more often than not, result in negative consequences for Muslims, and even those who appear to resemble Muslims, such as Sikhs. Islam is monothilized and demonized, and its adherents are othered, brutalized, and deemed as incompatible with the “West” and Western values. Perceptions of the faith are influenced and distorted by political propaganda, hearsay, or certain media snapshots of certain Islamic communities or those who claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims, and nuance is thrown to the wind. Most significantly, human connection and empathy are thrown to the wind.
Art is an incredibly powerful tool in combating ignorance. Art is used to capture one’s subjective experience and convey it to others in sensory, comprehensible way. From illustrious paintings, to profound poetry, to elaborate dances, art allows people to step into the shoes of the artist’s life and experience the world, however briefly, the way that they do. This creates an empathetic connection, a human connection, with individual perspectives on a level that simply cannot be obtained by hearing descriptions of the faith from outside sources or reading a textbook.
Islam is profoundly a multisensory experience. From hearing the adhan broadcast five times a day in the mosque, to listening to Qur’anic recitation during prayers, to whirling and chanting with Sufi mystics, to gazing at intricate calligraphy designs that adorn mosques, to engaging with the community over suhoor (morning meal) and iftar (evening meal), Islam is primarily experienced through the senses, and it experienced in a different way for every individual.
Throughout each of my blogs, I strove to depict this message of utilizing art media to convey a multidimensional experience, though not comprehensive by any stretch, but a diverse array of experiences, for who wish to take glimpse in the life of a Muslim. I am an African-American, first-generation Sierra Leonean, Sunni Muslim from Rockville, Maryland, and I am thoroughly aware that my experiences and perspectives are far from universal. However, this blog is not meant to highlight my interpretations of the faith perse, rather it is a brief snapshot of the history, themes, and traditions that I have engaged with throughout this course.
My first blog, Surah Najm (The Star) involves Qur’anic recitation. I connected this blog to Al-Ghazali’s Recitation and Interpretation of the Qur’an: Al-Ghazali’s Theory, in which he discusses external rules of Qur’anic recitation.
Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the Holy word of God, revealed by the Archangel Jibreel (Gabriel) to prophet Muhammad over twenty years of his life, partially during his life in Makkah (13 years) and Madinah (23 years). The Qur’an is considered one of the greatest miracles given to Muhammad, for a number of reasons. Its poetic beauty and rhythmic elegance was utterly unmatched in the Arab world, during a time when poetry was valued as one of the highest and remarkable skills one could possess. One of the greatest allures of the Qur’an was its aesthetic power, one that utterly captivated the hearts and minds of those who heard it, recited it, and studied its meanings. The Qur’an has a number of different recitation styles, which were all utilized by the prophet when he was alive, and reflected variations in Arabic phonetics throughout the various dialects of the surrounding region.
Recitation of the Qur’an has a certain set of stipulations, or conditions. Ghazali lays them a few of them out in detail. One must be ritually pure, as commanded by Allah: “None may touch it, save those who are pure” (56:79). To achieve ritual and spiritual purity, we perform wudu, or spiritual ablution, and physically wash certain areas of our body with clean water. We must also recite the Qur’an in a steady, rhythmic manner, not rushing or mumbling over words: “And recite the Qur’an with tartil (a slow and distinct manner)” (93:4). Furthermore, we must recite the Qur’an with passion and concentration, pondering its meanings and examining it in light of our own lives. If we don’t understand the meanings, we can read the translation as well. Reading the text passionately and contemplating upon it is of such significance that the prophet Muhammad famously said: “Read the Qur’an and weep. If you do not weep naturally, force yourself to weep.”
The Qur’an presents a number of varying themes, stories, and lessons throughout its text. Revealed in 114 chapters, each verse (or set of verses) was revealed at a particular point during the prophet’s life, with specific context and significance surrounding its revelation. The Qur’an tells stories of prophets and nations of previous times, from Adam, Abraham, Moses, to Mary, to Jesus, and so many more. It describes Paradise, Hell, and the events of the Day of Judgement in great detail. It also contains various legislative verses, which were mostly revealed in Madinah, when the Muslim community was growing sustainably and independently, and interacting with different tribes and members of different faith backgrounds. Interpreting the Qur’an is a diverse science known as tafsir. Before one can give legal rulings or remotely definitive rulings based on the translations of the Qur’an one must first be thoroughly educated in the science of tafsir.
My second post discusses traditions honoring prophet Muhammad. Different cultures honor the prophet in a variety of styles and art forms, from visual art, to nasheeds (songs), to South Asian poetry. This post was inspired by Ali Asani’s In Praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu Poems. This article discusses the various genres of Sindhi poems created to eulogize the prophet, which originated in Sind, a province in southern Pakistan. Of these, the maulud, madan, and majat, are among the most prominent. The maulud, which translates to “newborn child”, honors the prophet’s birth and his honorable characteristics as an adult. Both the madan and majat are honorary, celebratory poems composed of about fifty verses or more, and are similar in meter and rhyme scheme. The former places more emphasis on praising the prophet, while the latter places more emphasis on the reader’s supplication for the prophet.
My third post discusses a fundamental Islamic concept of no compulsion in religion. I connected this artwork to Ali Asani’s Infidel of Love, which explores Muslim understandings of Islam, fundamental concepts, themes, and values of the faith, and contemporary political relevance within America. My connection was the fact that regardless of one’s interpretation of the Qur’an and its messages, it is impermissible to impose on anyone but themselves, as this would be in direct contradiction with the fundamental values of the faith.
My fourth post discusses the Sufi tradition, as well as the various art forms this Islamic orientation has espoused. I connected this artwork to Carl W. Ernst’s The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, which discussed various art forms that originated from the Sufi tradition. Ernst discusses the interesting role of music and dance within Sufism, which is quite controversial topic throughout the Islamic world. Many more traditional scholars condemn music as prohibited by Islam, and many Muslims cultures deem it as un-Islamic, despite the fact that is is not prohibited in the Qur’an.
Ernst also discusses the origins and types of sama, or chanted poetry. The types of sama are distinguished by the levels of the listener’s longing for God and creation.The first is known as lawful, in which the listener is totally longing for God and not longing at all for the created. The second is known as permitted, in which the listener is mostly longing for God and only a little for the created. The third is disapproved, during which there is much longing for creation, and a little for God. The fourth type is the forbidden, in which the listener is longing totally for creation and not at all for God. These nuances in intentions are completely between God and the worshipper, and not to be judged by others. In order to listen to the music and chanting in a manner longing for God, one must purify themselves spiritually, performing ritual ablution, and focus on understanding the words from a spiritual perspective, rather than a worldly, sensual perspective.
My fifth post discusses the pluralistic nature of Islam, and touches on its relation to other faith communities, particularly those of monotheistic varieties, such as Judaism and Christianity. This post was inspired by an excerpt from Malcolm X’s autobiography, in which he narrates his journey to Makkah for the annual Hajj, the Holy Pilgrimage. On this journey, Malcolm details his experiences interacting with people of all shades, ethnicities, and socioeconomic levels, yet every one of them treated him like a brother. Contrasted heavily with his experience in the United States, where racism, discrimination, and violence against minorities were quite rampant and destructive, and no Caucasian person had treated him with the slightest ounce of respect, he sees his journey as one highlighting the true nature of Islam, where all humans are treated equally, and with respect. On a broader level beyond Islam, Muslims are encouraged to treat all human beings with dignity and compassion, and uplift those who are oppressed, regardless of their background or religious affiliation.
My final post discusses God’s attribute of An-Noor (The Light). This post was inspired by Muhammad Iqbal’s The Complaint and The Answer, during which the first speaker, the complainer, voices the grievances of Muslims from several Muslim countries around the world who had witnessed the tragic decline of Muslims politically, economically, and spiritually. The second half of the poem, The Answer, details the response of the Creator to the narrator’s complaint. Critical of the human impudence, the Creator reproaches the narrator, citing how Muslims have abandoned the Qur’an and Islamic values.
I interpreted this exchange as the speaker’s lamenting the loss of God’s light from the Earth, which stems from a notion of divine affirmation through political power. One theme that is heavily present throughout Islamic spirituality is that God’s allocation of physical resources to His creation is not necessarily reflective of His love of certain individuals. The fact that some people or nations are poorer or wealthier than others is not a reflection of their faith level, moral superiority, or favor from God. It is simply God’ will, and a test. As Allah says in Surah Saba, the chapter of Sheba: “And they said, ‘We are superior in riches and children, and we are not going to be punished.’ Say, ‘In fact, my Lord extends provision to whom He wills, and restricts it (for whom He wills), but most of the people do not know.” (34:35-36). In these verses God highlights the erroneous assumption made by those who denied the truth of His message, that their material resources are indicative of their favor with God and their superiority over the prophet. In reality, God’s light, guidance, and mercy is bestowed upon those who strive to live righteous lives and uplift those around them. As He says: “O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into races and tribes so that you may identify one another. Surely, the noblest of you in the sight of Allah are the most pious. Indeed, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware” (49:13).
One of my main takeaways from this course was the power of art, not only in shaping people’s experiences with the faith, but in giving people a voice, a platform to express their views and convey them to others in a profound and powerful, yet personal and intimate fashion. Another big point is that religion does not exist in a vacuum, as many people fail to realize. Religion evolves with the times, and is heavily influenced by socio-political and economic factors. Furthermore, every individual has a unique, valid experience which shapes their outlook on the faith differently, and once people begin to examine Islam through a cultural studies-based, holistic approach, they will finally begin to understand it is not just a static set of rules–it dynamic, complex, and personal. It is a way of life.