Creative Responses Introductory Essay

Sound, visual and literary arts are the most powerful manifestations of experiential Islam. From its source in the Middle East, Islam has spread and become the dominant religion in parts of West Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. These communities differ in both language and cultural practices. Islam can be viewed from two lenses: doctrinal and artistic. The artistic perspective reflects the diversity of Muslim communities that might not be readily visible from a doctrinal perspective. Also, while the doctrinal view tends to be rigid, standardized and societal-minded, art forms tend to be more fluid, dynamic and focused on establishing personal connection between God and humanity.


Islam has mainly been studied through the history of the major Islamic empires. The course: ‘Multisensory Religion: Rethinking Islam’ (GenEd 1087), adopts a different method – the cultural studies approach- which emphasizes the evolution of religion based on historical, political, economic and artistic contexts. The course focuses on artistic expressions of Islam through both literature and arts such as Quran recitation, calligraphy, devotional music and dance, architectural designs and poetry. The course employs works of art to explore the similarities and differences among Islamic communities of interpretation and the role of arts as a vehicle for social and political reform.


The overarching theme of this course is captured by these questions: ‘What constitutes Islam? Which Islam? Whose Islam?’. Through artworks and literature from around the Muslim world, we see that Islam is not a monolithic religion with a standard interpretation. The unifying feature among Muslim communities is the shahada – an expression of faith that entails acknowledgment of God as the master of the universe and the acceptance of Muhammad as His prophet. Religious practices in Islam are influenced by the prevailing historical and cultural contexts, a concept known as situatedness. Situatedness leads to different interpretations of the Quran and the hadiths which causes the emergence of different communities of interpretation. For example, the religious schism between the Sunni and the Shi’i communities arises from the succession dispute following the death of the prophet while the Sufi tradition arises in opposition to the luxurious lifestyle devoid of religious piety led by the Umayyad dynasty. The revelation of Quran in Arabic and the subsequent influence of Arabic culture on Islam is another example of situatedness. The questions ‘What constitutes Islam? Which Islam? Whose Islam?’ also bring to the fore two distinct forms of Islam: loud Islam and silent Islam. Loud Islam is the dominant, legalistic form controlled by the religious elites such as the nation states and the Ulama. These religious authorities are concerned with political power. Silent Islam is a more experiential majoritarian form focused on personal relationship with God.


Another major theme is mysticism and poetry. Mysticism begins with the prophet Muhammad’s journey to heaven and encounter with God – the Miraj. Mysticism later develops into a formal tradition in the form of Sufism through the efforts of great mystics such as Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi (Mevlana) associated with the Mevlevi order and Ahmadu Bamba Mbacke of the Muridiyya order. Sufism stresses love between God and humanity as both a cosmological and a primordial relationship. Famous poetic works of Sufi masters such Attar’s mathnawi ‘The conference of the birds’ demonstrate the estrangement between God and mankind and the efforts to reawaken the forgotten love.


Finally, the course investigates the effects of culture on religion as well as Islamic reform movements. The main questions are: ‘Is religion inseparable from culture?’ and ‘What is the origin of Islamic reform movements?’. Important topics such as patriarchy in Muslim communities, European imperialism and Islam in Europe are discussed. The association of ‘pure’ Islam with Arabic expression of the religion raises questions on the position of non-Arab Muslims in the global community of believers. The use of religion as an identity marker reflects the conflation of culture and religion. On the matter of gender equality, most Muslims believe the Quran to be egalitarian thus blame anti-feminist interpretations of the holy scriptures on patriarchal structures of various cultures. On the decline of Muslim civilization and political power with the rise of European imperialism, the course explores the evolution in the understanding of political power as a measure of success and manifestation of God’s favor. European imperialism and nationalism have led to the view of Islam as a foreign religion in Europe, thus the development of Islamophobia, despite the tradition being indigenous to Europe.


The six creative projects I came up with attempt to explore the aforementioned concepts in greater detail. My first project focuses on the evolution of the Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The death of the prophet creates a power vacuum with regards to both spiritual and temporal leadership. Since the Prophet Muhammad did not explicitly spell out how his successor would be chosen, his close companions disagree on the method of picking a Khalifa (successor) which leads to a fall-out. Over the following centuries, the differences crystallize into the two main communities of interpretation: Sunni and Shiite. The prophet’s successors in the Sunni community gradually lose spiritual authority to the scholars, ‘Ulama’, as the Islamic empire expands.


The second project illustrates the concept of the spiritual light according to the verse of the light (Quran 24:35). Allah is the source of all light and this light is manifested through two cosmological and complementary lights: Nur Muhammad (light of Muhammad) and the Nur imamat (light of the Imams). Nur Muhammad is the primordial light of the prophets with Muhammad as the full manifestation of the light thus the most significant prophet. Nur Imamat is a significant feature in the Shiite community of interpretations as Imams (the biological male descendants of the prophet) are believed to be the spiritual and political leaders of the umma (community of believers). The Imamate institution is also primordial. Each prophet is believed to have a complementary Imam even though the Imam might remain unknown to the people. Additionally, there has to be an Imam in the umma at all times even in the absence of a prophet. Every Shiite Imam has the knowledge of the inner meaning of the Quran thus provides an esoteric interpretation of the Quran known as ‘tawil’. A Shiite Imam picks a successor through a process called ‘nass’.


My third project demonstrates the concept of the beautiful names of God (Asma al-Husna) through a poem. The 99 names of God are classified into Jalal (majesty) and Jamal (beauty). The Jalal attributes emphasize the transcendence and incomparability of Allah while the Jamal category stresses a close God – humanity relationship through human attributes such as mercy, forgiveness and compassion. Despite being almost contradictory, the Jalal and the Jamal attributes are complementary thus demonstrate the perfection of God. The two categories combine to provide the full description of the relationship between God and His creation thus serve different but equally significant purposes in an individual’s spiritual journey.


My fourth project is a Swahili poem recitation that captures the concept of the major poetic forms among Muslim communities. Poetry had a prominent place in the pre-Islamic Arab community, and this continues with the revelation of the Quran in poetic form. Poetry is viewed as the source and product of mystical experience. Poets are believed to be divine inspired, and poetry is said to flow from divine ecstasy. The two main poetic forms that emerge in the Muslim community are ghazal among the Arabs and mathnawi from Persia. Mathnawi poetry becomes central to the Shuu’biyya movement’s efforts to preserve the Persian culture in the response to the fear of Arabification. The spread of Islam to the East African coast and the subsequent cultural exchanges between the Arabs and the Bantu groups lead to the emergence of Swahili as a lingua franca. Poetic forms such as mathnawi also take root among the Swahili people but evolve slightly in response to the local culture.


The fifth project covers Sufi mysticism and the revelation of God in nature through a circular picture collage. Sufi mysticism entails bridging the separation between human beings and the transcendental God by reawakening the primordial union of the two parties. Sufi doctrines and rituals are geared towards remembering one’s real identity beyond the physical body. Muslims of Sufi orientation believe in a direct personal experience of the Divine. At the core of Sufi mysticism are zahir and batin which correspond to outward (material) and inward (spiritual) manifestations of the divine. The innermost layer of the divine layers is called ‘haqiqah’ (the truth). While shariah is associated with the exoteric aspect of the Islamic tradition, the Sufi tariqahs (spiritual paths) focus on its esoteric aspects. Sufis believe that the spiritual layer lies within the material reality and can be accessed through a tariqah. With regards to the presence of God in nature, Quran 2:115 says “To God belongs the East and the West, wherever you turn, you will perceive the face of God”. The art of discerning the spiritual reality from the material realm is referred to as reading. Language facilitates the movement from the outer layers to the inner layers of spirituality.


My final project focuses on the concept of music and dance in Islam through Sama as performed by the whirling dervishes of Turkey. Music and dance are a significant feature of the Sufi tradition as a tool of meditation. However, given the controversy surrounding listening to music and dancing, rules are formulated to prevent misuse of music and dance. Such rules regulate when, where and with whom Sama can be practiced. Some Sufi authorities propose that Sama be a preserve of the Sufis who have attained spiritual ascension and spiritual novices be prevented from partaking in it. Spiritual practice of Sama was among the biggest casualties of Turkey’s secularist policy. As a result, Sama performances have taken more of a cultural than a spiritual role.


In conclusion, this course shows the validity of different interpretations of  the Islamic tradition. It achieves this by bringing silent Islam to the limelight and challenging misleading dominant public discourse on Islam.


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