Prologue

Prologue

The overarching theme that has connected the various aspects of Islam studied throughout this course, the take home point, is the importance of the aesthetic experience in deepening one’s interpretation of Islam as a spiritual and cultural experience. This theme is present from the very core of the religion, with the emphasis on the Qur’an as an aural and oral experience, then a written experience in combination with the overall usage of calligraphy as a way of adding additional meaning to the message of the Qur’an. The usage of aesthetics as a way of enhancing religious meaning is pervasive through various elements of Islam, from the usage of architecture as a form of cultural expression in mosques, trance-like dance and poetry to reach inner Reality in Islamic mysticism, and the usage of visual and literary art as resistance against particular regimes. However, an overall theme from class that inspired this particular series of projects is the theme of turning one’s oppression into their source of power. This was first discussed explicitly in class during the explanation of the importance of Karbala as a representation of the ideology that pain and tragedy fuels the particular religious narrative of being on the side of the oppressed and working towards justice, but a central question that I have always asked myself throughout this class has been: who can be an oppressor? One important takeaway that this class has given me is that with different ideologies comes different types of tension, which applies widely to the world of Islam, whether it’s due to differences between Muslims and non-Muslims or differences within Muslim communities with ideological differences. This art series look at various ideological differences, and how art can be used in response as a form of empowering the oppressed, through telling their own story and providing more context on their own ideology and thus bridging gaps of understanding that may cause conflicts in the first place.

One thing that contributes to the differences in understanding even within Muslims is the sheer number of ideological differences within various Islamic communities, a theme that has been explored in various ways throughout the semester. This can range from the allocation of political and religious authority in one spiritual intercessor versus two separate people (Shia vs. Sunni Islam), and how the esoteric dimension of Islam through Sufism interacts with various other ideologies, to the rise of Islamist fundamentalism and the politicization of Islam through religious parties. The main point that I wanted to convey through this art series is the idea that there are so many components to an individual’s identity that they associate with being Muslim, and art is an important way to explore one’s journey with developing their own unique Muslim identity, through all of the potential trials along the way.

One aspect of the Muslim religious tradition for some individuals includes placing importance on ritual and its role in connecting the body and the soul. As was discussed in class, even the act of prostration during prayer is a physical ritual that can serve as a form of meditation and focus on one’s connection with God. This continues to the ritual of forcing oneself to cry when reading the Qur’an as another type of interconnectedness and melding between one’s bodily reactions and one’s emotional reactions to a sacred text, as illustrated in my first charcoal illustration. This idea of the importance of physical ritual in particular Muslim identities includes the usage of dance in various Sufi traditions including the whirling dervishes, in which these individuals enter a trance-like state through their physical ritual in order to be closer to their innermost Reality and thus God. One important discussion that we had in section with regards to physical ritual was on the authenticity of forcing oneself to feel a particular emotion associated with a physical ritual, to which this piece is a response: this piece responds by melting together the Arabic prayer and the physical tear that is brazenly falling from the eye, blurring the lines between physical and spiritual connection to God, challenging one to ask the question – is one’s spiritual connection any less authentic if a physical connection is needed to elicit an emotional response, as opposed to the emotional response coming first? This questions what one may think is the “right” way to have an emotional connection with religion, thus giving Muslims the agency to connect with their spirituality in whichever way they are best able.

The second piece, a photography piece centering on light and the Qur’an, brings to light the differences in experiencing the Qur’an as an oral and aural text versus a written text, while bridging together those two experiences through the ubiquity of experiencing the Qur’an as a Muslim. As is discussed in the explication for the photo piece, in Islam God is thought to guide His Light to whom He wills, which is an important point to remember when considering the transition from oral and aural to written, which although caused literacy to be a source of religious authority in the interpretation of the Qur’an, also increased the accessibility and global nature of such a scripture. This concept is also particularly interesting, as the intersections between aural and written Quranic traditions points towards the usage by particular Muslim communities (with higher socioeconomic status, higher literacy rates, and thus higher ability to interpret) to use this text as a form of oppression against the less literate. This piece challenges the notion that oral and written Qur’anic traditions (given efforts by interpreters to balance the neighborhood’s sociocultural climate) need to be mutually exclusive or are in any way better than each other for internalizing one of the most central parts of the Muslim identity, for many.

The third piece, a digital collage on the importance of social responsibility as a particular element of the Muslim identity, pivots a little bit from the intra-religious differences and focuses more on the role that such social responsibility can play as empowerment in intersectional movements, which include targeting Islamophobia. From the start of this class, we have talked about the importance of faith, salat and zakat, moral compass, and finally social justice as all part of the path to righteousness for a Muslim, and this digital piece seeks to show that Muslim visibility and action in social justice movements not only aids the diversity and enhances the approach of the movements themselves to become more inclusive, but also helps with interreligious understanding with regards to how Islam intersects with social justice issues: namely, that one can wear a hijab and advocate for women’s rights (as is further expounded upon in a late piece), that being Muslim and advocating for black and brown lives is important, and that Muslims and non-Muslims alike can band together against xenophobia.

The following piece, on the Mathnawi style with regards to The Conference of the Birds, thematically reflects the Sufi school of thought, in which one seeks to overcome one’s egotistical self and the apparent (zahir) in order to achieve innermost Reality. This is a representation of inner conflict in a person’s journey towards spiritual enlightenment, a different avenue of oppression than what was explored in previous pieces due to the oppression being societal norms of materialism. However, The Conference of the Birds explores the importance of shedding egotistical desire and seeking God within through these ideals of Sufi mysticism, and is able to represent a community’s ideologies as such through the art form of mystic poetry. The representation of such an art piece also increases the visibility of Sufism as a religious ideology and as a part of the Muslim identity, especially when considering the viewpoints on particular types of sound-art, the usage of dance, the role of the Qur’an as a covenant of love, and the theme of drunkenness in poetry as being negative in other Muslim communities of thought, while being an integral part of the spiritual journey for some Sufis.

The last two pieces are some of the more explicit in the role of art as empowerment and validation of particular elements of the Muslim identity, beginning with the first one on the hijab as a feminist symbol. Both this digital media piece and the literary piece on which it reflects, Charlotte Weber’s Unveiling Scheherazade, comment on how the differences both within Muslim communities as well as the differences in perception between Muslim and non-Muslim communities can take the agency behind wearing a hijab away from the hijab-wearer. This piece seeks to restore that agency by commenting on the patriarchal themes that often exist in Muslim societies where women are required to wear a veil, tracing back even deeper to underlying tones of the fetishization and intentionality behind seclusion of the female gender. As was mentioned in lecture, women’s bodies become the arena in which people work out their political conversations and disagreements, and this piece seeks to restore the power to choose back to the women. This also promotes understanding of why women should have the power to choose to wear a hijab to non-Muslims, through representing the themes of religious freedom and nationalism, both of which are ideologies that women have the right to access and express accordingly.

Finally, the last piece looks at the usage of literary art as a form of empowerment and representation of the Muslim identity through the work of Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis, a graphic novel depicting Satrapi’s childhood growing up during the Iranian Islamic Revolution. This is yet another representation of the differences in ideologies that exist within Muslim communities, ranging from fundamentalist to those communities that seek to actively reinterpret and modernize Islam in order to be more applicable to today’s society. The representation of this variability in Muslim communities of thought is important both for representatives of these communities to engage in dialogue, as well as for non-Muslims to understand that there is not just one particular Muslim identity, in direct contrast to how people may perceive all Muslims to have the same interpretations and enforcements of religiosity.

Ultimately, this project is able to show off the various elements that an individual may use to define their Muslim identity. The variability in Muslim identity can start at the most basic level, with regards to looking at differences in how people experience the Qur’an and partake in the ritualistic elements of prayer. This variability continues to expand when considering how people choose to engage with spirituality in the context of Islam, whether they identify as Sunni or Shia, whether they identify with Sufi ideologies, and whether they choose to express their spirituality through poetry, dance, sound-art, or none of those. Finally, there is variability in how social issues interact with Islam, whether it’s the various roles that Muslims can play in social movements, or whether it’s the way that Muslims engage with their own governments’ religious enforcements through the lens of social justice themes like feminism. However, the most important take-away from this series is the importance of validating all of these different types of Islam as part of a larger Muslim identity in which all of these elements coexist. Not only can understanding and learning about these different elements help bridge gaps of understanding between Muslim communities and lead to engaging in discourse, this visibility of the variety of the Muslim identity is something that the rest of the world also needs to understand, in order to reduce the stereotyping and fear that can often accompany many Western worldviews of Islam. Art is able to tell the stories of the people with these various types of Muslim identities, reminding us all that in the end, we are all human and thus should make it a goal to understand each other’s walks of life as deeply as possible, in order to inform our own.

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