Introductory Essay

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An Islamic Self-Portrait

My pieces come together to represent an immigrant-based view on Islam. The pieces do not have a cohesive cultural or religious theme. Instead, they demonstrate a conglomeration of snapshots, sometimes competing with and sometimes complementing one another. Placed together, the six works aim to capture the tensions and nuances of growing up Muslim in a non-Muslim country. In short, this portfolio is an immigrant Islamic self-portrait. This essay will first begin by discussing major themes of the course and how they shaped my conceptualization of the Muslim identity. It will then focus on key theoretical components and their contributions to this essay’s focus on Muslims living outside Islamic countries. Finally, the essay will proceed chronologically through the six pieces, introducing and contextualizing each work by elaborating on its significance within the portfolio as a whole. This essay aims to show that each Muslim community has a distinct identity. It hopes to introduce the American-Muslim experience not as a derivation of one of the many Islamic traditions, but instead, as a unique religious culture in and of itself – one that faces its own distinct internal and external pressures. 

Part I: Course Themes

The course began with a general discussion of Islam and its core principles with an experience-based orientation instead of a legalistic one. From the first lectures, Islam was not presented as a strict doctrine, but rather as a set of beliefs manifested through oral, calligraphic, and community-based traditions. For me, Islam went from being an individual-based religion (one that emphasizes a person’s relationship with God alone) to a community-based religion (one that believes in bringing people together to honor God). Islam is often experienced alone, either on a prayer mat or with a Quran. By focusing on how the Quran was originally shared orally and not through text, the Islamic emphasis on shared experiences became clear. Seen this way, communal practices like Friday prayer are not an exception to the otherwise individual-based religion; instead, they are the focus of Islam. 

The course then moved to the development of the two major Islamic sects: Suni and Shi’a. Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Muslims disputed the rightful successor to the ummah. Sunnis believed that the prophet’s (PBUH) close companion and a preeminent Islamic scholar, Abu Bakr, was the rightful caliph. Shi’a believed that the prophet’s (PBUH) cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib (and later Ali’s children Imam Hasan and Imam Husayn) was the legitimate leader. At the core of this dispute is a disagreement over religious legitimacy. Does Islamic authority transition through legal knowledge or through charisma? Should the leader of the ummah be chosen based on their background in religious texts or based on their relationship to the prophet (PBUH) (implying a level of divine lineage). Additionally, by learning about the Battle of Karbala in a classroom setting, I understood the long-term philosophical differences that developed over the military encounter. Sunni have interpreted Islamic strength through political power ever since the prophet (PBUH) won the early battles against Quraysh and Yazid I triumphed over the Shi’a in Karbala. Shi’a on the other hand have understood Islam as a religion of perseverance and steadfastness. Political power does not equate religious strength. Not only did this unit develop my understanding, and therefore appreciation, of Shi’a beliefs, it also made me reconsider my Sunni identity and religious beliefs more critically. I walked away from this part of the semester understanding that even Islamic leaders did not go uncontested. Disputes over Islamic legitimacy are not a recent phenomenon. The Sunni viewpoint is only one way of seeing religious authority in Islam. The religion is not contained to knowledge of the doctrine. 

While Shi’ism broadened my understanding of religious authority, Sufism introduced me to a new conception of Islam entirely. I have always understood Islam through the legalistic approach that puts the Quran and the hadith at the center of the faith. Sufis however have a different orientation towards Islam. One becomes closer with God not by becoming closer to his texts; instead, a closer connection is built through love. Ishq majazi (human/worldly love) is seen as a step towards Ishq haqiqi (true love of God). Sufism sees love as a facilitator for people to transition from the zahir (external) to the batin (internal). Within this context, Islam became a much quieter force. One identifies powerfully with Islam not through adherence to religious codes but through the development of a deep, loving connection with God. The material on Sufism made Islam a much less bounded and much more forgiving religion. Faith is much more fluid than the five pillars. 

The course ended on the reformist/revivalist Islamic movements. Following the Great Western Transmutation where political power shifted from the Islamic World towards the West, Muslims entered a period of religious crisis. They saw the shift in power as a representation of weak faith. As a result, they interpreted global politics as a sign that Islam had to be reinterpreted either by reforming contemporary beliefs or reviving the tradition of the prophet (PBUH). This anxiety manifested itself in a number of different movements. We discussed the conservative (continues to interpret Islam according to the Sunni scholars: Hanafi, Shai’i, Maliki, Hanbali), back to the fundamentals (reorientation towards the prophet’s (PBUH) actions instead of the Sunni scholars’ interpretations), imitative (the recreation of Western religion-state relationships in the Muslim world), adaptationist/integrative (the integration of Western models in an Islamic framework), and Islamist (the adoptation of Islam as a political ideology by a nation state) frameworks. We also saw Nationalism and transnationalism (pan-Islamism) as vehicles to vocalize religious sentiments. This unit was a familiar topic for me (the politics of Islam) but with a new background in the Islamic tradition. With greater understanding of Sunni, Shi’a, and Sufi beliefs, I had a greater appreciation for the disputes on the co-optation of religious authority by various groups. 

For me, the course culminated in one of the final readings: Hanif Kureishi’s “My Son the Fanatic.” The protagonist, a young Pakistani growing up in the West, has a difficult time bridging his identity as a foreigner both in the U.K. and in Pakistan. When he visits Pakistan, he does not feel like he can relate to the religious traditions there. To complicate matters further, the protagonist appears to appreciate a third culture’s Islamic community more than the cultures in either of his other identities. He has posters and reads works by African-Americans: Elijah Muhammad, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali. The protagonist relates to figures that are neither from the U.K. nor from Pakistan, but rather African-Americans growing up across the Atlantic. This reading was meaningful for me because it showed the impact of globalization on Islam. If there was diversity in the Islamic tradition before, the increased access to information has made it even easier to question, critique, and adopt new Islamic beliefs than ever before. This feels pertinent to my experience growing up in America where there is a particularly wide variety of Islamic beliefs shared among even my closest friends. The second part of this essay will apply the themes introduced earlier to my portfolio within the context of my experiences as an American-Muslim. 

Part II: Personal Narrative

The first piece emphasizes the importance of science in the Islamic tradition. Oftentimes, especially being educated in a secular context, I have been taught that Islam is antithetical to modernization and scientitific development (a theme that I continues even in my GOV20 class at Harvard for cultural theorists like Samuel Huntington and Max Weber). Islam is seen as a rigid faith that imposes harsh, conservative religious doctrines that stand against scientific development. My first piece was in large part a reaction to the first unit of the course. Islam is not appreciated only through readings of the Quran and hadith. It can be experienced and felt in daily actions and beliefs. A person’s drive to learn, even if it is not directly related to religion can have deep religious underpinnings. In this piece, I have repurposed the traditional Islamic abjad numeral system and combined it with the scientific binary system. The piece shows how Islam is not just a rigid legal code, but rather, an animated religion that continues to adapt and motivate its adherents to explore. 

My second piece responds to the Shi’a literature that I read in class. Having learned about the Shi’a experience of Islam through loss, I used an example that I learned as a child in which the prophet’s (PBUH) life was at risk and he had to persevere. By focusing on his message to Abu Bakr that he should not be sad because God is with them allowed me to connect my own experiences and understanding of Islam to the Shi’i interpretation. I remember visiting Dearborn, Michigan as a young child and feeling that I did not understand the religious symbols, figures or history that the city’s Shi’a population used in their stores. The Shi’a tradition felt very distant to me. This piece allowed me to bridge that gap and see the Shi’a interpretation in my own conceptualization of Islam. Piece 3 served a similar purpose in allowing me to create an Islamic object that felt like my own by virtue of the religious significance I see in it (rather than the inherent religious value it carries). 

Pieces four and five were motivated by the broadening of my interpretation of what constituted an “Islamic culture.” Through my experiences in Islamic sunday schools, I had only seen Islam as a study of the Quran and its recitation. Culture and religion were separate. This course, especially the weeks on Sufism, has shown me that this is not true. I learned that religion is an experience; therefore, one’s encounters with religion are defined by the culture one lives in. The fifth piece shows how Islam can be approached from a variety of angles and that the purity of the faith can be found in all traditions whether it is Shi’a, Sunni, or Sufi. This also reshaped my understanding of what it means to be Muslim in America. There is not one single religious interpretation that I have to adhere to. The religion is fluid and dynamic. My cultural surroundings are an important part of how I experience the religion; they do not have to be removed for me to feel like a true Muslim or for me to be a part of the “True” Islam. 

The sixth piece made the conversations about reformist and revivalist movements personal for me. It related the theory and case studies back to my Palestinian identity. “My Son the Fanatic” played an important role in encouraging me to design this piece. I felt that even though I am a Palestinian, I do not have to necessarily buy the Islamic interpretations supported by some groups in Palestine wholesale. At the same time, as an American, I do not have to subscribe to the secularity of the West. It is possible to juggle two religious identities at the same time and identify with neither or both. Although the sixth piece makes a statement about Palestine, within the context of the portfolio at-large, it makes a second point about what it means to be both Palestinian and American without adopting either society’s view on religion whole-heartedly. This does not suggest that I have come to some sort of resolve on my Muslim identity. The final piece actually does the opposite. It shows that my understanding of Islam continues to be dynamic and malleable as I nuance my Islamic self-portrait.

Sources:

Asani, Ali. “Reform and Revival Movements” Gened 1087, 7 Nov. 2019, Harvard College.

Hanif Kureishi, “My Son the Fanatic,” in The Post-colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons, eds. Lain Chambers and Lidia Curti (London: Routledge, 1996), 234-241.

 

Art Portfolio Item 6

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Throughout and after the Great Western Transmutation, a number of Islamic reform/revival movements emerged. Many Muslims interpreted the transition of political power to the West as an indication of Islamic weakness. They believed that since Islam was becoming politically weak, that means that Islamic society as a whole must have become religiously weak. The belief that low iman was contributing towards political weakness was the undercurrent contributing towards the reinterpretation of Islam. Some took on more liberal approaches to Islam, adopting an “imitative” model in which Muslim-majority countries tried to copy Western church-state relationships. Kemal Ataturk and Mohammad Ali Jinna aspired to grant citizens freedom from religion. They wanted Islam out of the politics of the country and supported liberal reforms. On the other end of the spectrum, Ayatollah Khomeini and Zia ul-Haqq adopted an Islamist reform strategy. They wanted Islam to be the political ideology of the state and enacted policies that supported religious authority. This piece takes the same conversation about the role of Islam within the nation-state and applies it to Palestine.

In Palestine, society is divided over how religion should be embodied in governing institutions, if at all. My piece uses black to represent the sunni, shari’a-based (legalistic) interpretation of Islam as I have done in other pieces (piece 2 and piece 4). I used the black to depict a map of Palestine. I do this to show how Islamist movements use religion to define the state. Religious doctrine is just as firm as borders in determining the composition of the nation. I drew the black on a red background for two reasons. First, the red is used to depict the religious violence connected to the radicalization and extremist Islamist interpretations of religion and state. When political leaders can accuse others of being religious threats to the country, they can target and demonize opposing societal factions. Second, the red demonstrates the diversity of interpretations in Palestine of the appropriate role of religion in the state ranging from Islamists to Communists. 

I only drew a silhouette of Palestine and did not fill the map in because I wanted to keep the picture general. By only doing the outline, I aimed to convey that even though the disputes over religion happen to be occurring in Palestine, it is similar to the tensions that existed in Turkey, Pakistan, and many countries over the world. 

I used spray paint to show that the conflict over religion does not occur only at the level of the political elite. These disputes are usually carried over to the street. Whether it’s how women dress, what children are taught in school, or what literature people are allowed to consume, the tensions over the interpretation of Islam and the state is reflected in the nation’s culture. Using spray paint shows that street art is an important battleground for these conversations. 

 

Sources:

Asani, Ali. “Reform and Revival Movement Islamist – Pakistan” Gened 1087, 21 Nov. 2019, Harvard College.

Asani, Ali. “Reform and Revival Movements – Iran” Gened 1087, 19 Nov. 2019, Harvard College.

Asani, Ali. “Reform and Revival Movements – Turkey” Gened 1087, 12 Nove. 2019, Harvard College.

Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Complaint and Answer (Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa), trans. A.J. Arberry (Lahore: Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf, 1961)

Art Portfolio Items 4 & 5

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Art Portfolio Item 4:

Art Portfolio Item 5:

My 4th and 5th portfolio items are part of a single piece. The two are meant to be compared and contrasted with one another. Together, they represent opposite parts of Islam that intend to convey the same message: purity. Item 4 focuses on legal doctrine and fundamentalism as “pure Islam” while item 5 draws attention to pluralism. The two works draw attention to the divide in local cultures of Islam. Item 4 represents the belief that culture should be stripped away and religious texts should be the central, defining component of Islam. Item 5 suggests that culture cannot be removed from Islam, nor should it be. The purity of Islam exists in the “coming together” of all the different cultures in which it is experienced. Where all the different interpretations of Islam intersect is the core of what it means to be Muslim. 

The comparison between these understandings of Islam was inspired by course material on the Serbian invasion of Bosnia. Michael Sells’ “Erasing Culture: Wahhabism, Buddhism, Balkan Mosques” discusses the role of Saudi Arabia in providing aid to Bosnia following the Serbian invasion. He explains that claiming to provide “reconstruction aid,” Gulf states along with Saudi Arabia bulldozed Bosnian monuments as part of a cultural war on Bosnian interpretations of Islam. As a condition for Saudi aid, Wahhabi groups were given control over Muslim monuments and sacral architecture during the reconstruction period. Classical Balkan Muslim interiors lost their distinct cultural taste. Instead of replicating the Islamic tradition stretching back to the 14th and 15th centuries, the Saudis created what has been referred to as “hospital white” boxes. The Wahhabi sect “sees all popular Islam (shrine veneration, local pilgrimages) as idolatry.” Anything that deviates away from the religious doctrine and hadith is seen as a deviation from Islam itself. Therefore, the Saudi government’s cultural battle in Bosnia was a concerted, state-funded effort to strip the country from its cultural past in order to promote strict adherence to the Saudi fundamental interpretation of Islam. 

Item 4 reflects the Saudi view. The piece has no colors besides black and white which corresponds to the legalistic approach used by Wahhabis in interpreting Islam. Islamic text is the centerpiece of the work surrounded by black. Nothing exists outside of the religious texts. Item 5 takes an opposite stance. There is no reference to religious texts. This is not to reject the importance of religious texts in Islam. Instead, it is meant to highlight the importance of other parts of Islam. It focuses on what religion looks like outside of doctrine, shifting the emphasis to religion in practice. 

Splatter paint was used because much like culture, it is spontaneous and does not follow strict guidelines. Sections mix with one another freely. Even destruction (depicted through red splatter paint that is covered in black spray paint) can demonstrate a country’s Islamic tradition. In Bosnia, the Saudi government had tombstones destroyed. Recognition of grief, death, and devastation are also important parts of a country’s history and its experiences with Islam. There is still religious meaning in those moments that contribute to the concept of Islamic purity. Within this interpretation, the Bosnian mosques and their figures and embellishments would not be seen as a violation of Islamic doctrine. Instead, they are an extension of Islam itself. The religion is not separate from the way it is experienced by society. The representations of Bosnian culture are an important part of the Islamic tradition, not just the religious texts and doctrine. 

Early education is an important part of formulating these opinions. The children’s video from China shown in class on October 17th is an example of the significance of early encounters with Islamic interpretations. The video teaches young Muslims that even though they live in a different culture with different Islamic symbols, they are just as much a part of the purity of Islam. For this reason, I tried to incorporate components of childhood into both works. The 4th piece relies on handwritten Quran as the centerpiece. In traditional Islamic schools, children are expected to memorize and recite the Quran. Writing out Quranic verses is a common memorization tool used by students. I chose to write my own name in the top corner of each paper using a child’s handwriting to make the papers look like an assignment submitted by a child (I used my regular handwriting to write the actual Quranic verses out of respect for the text). The pages are crumpled to show repetitive use and rehearsal. It also appears like something taken out of a young child’s backpack. The fifth piece uses colorful paints and glitter to give a childish feel to the work.

Sources

Michael Sells, “Erasing Culture: Wahhabism, Buddhism, Balkan Mosques” Turkish Times, Jan. 15, 2002.

Asani, Ali. “Islam in Local contexts;  introduction — Prophet as avatara” Gened 1087, 15 Oct. 2019, Harvard College.

Art Portfolio Item 3

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Nasr’s Islamic Art and Spirituality creates a broad definition for what is considered Islamic art. Unlike Necipoglu who believes in the importance of historical and cultural contexts, Nasr argues that intentionality is key for considering an item to be an Islamic art form. He believes that art is a reflection of faith and that artistic inspiration can come from many directions. The many different pieces considered Islamic art illustrate the oneness of God. 

For my piece, I chose to create a 3-D object and used a simple geometric pattern. The work does not contain any overt Islamic symbols or text. The object is void of any references to religion other than the traditional design. By creating a simple plain item, this artwork aims to take a strong stance with Nasr’s interpretation of Islamic art. A meaningless stream of white Polylactic acid can be deposited on a glass plate with nothing else representing a connection to Islam, but the intention behind the object creates a strong religious attachment. My conception of the object as a manifestation of my religiosity turns the raw materials into an Islamic symbol. 

The aim of this project is similar to the Rubab presented in class. The instrument is created out of intestines and wood; however, the process of creation are critical in integrating a deep Islamic component. The Rubab becomes heavily associated with Islamic tradition. Even though the elements are no different than those used to make many secular instruments, the religious conception attached turns the final product into an entirely different creation. 

This piece also aims to draw attention to the possibilities that come with modern Islamic art. New generations are regularly given access to novel methods of representing their religious beliefs. Rubab players drew on a long historical tradition; Amirah Sackett made use of break-dancing as a method of speaking to her younger audience members. My 3-D design stakes a claim for a new method that contemporary Muslims can use to express their religious beliefs.

Sources

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality

 Gülru Necipoğlu, The Topkapı Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture: Topkapı Palace Museum Library MS H. 1956 (Santa Monica, CA: Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1995)

Asani, Ali. Gened 1087, 17 Oct. 2019, Harvard College. 

Art Portfolio Item 2

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Perry’s description of Karbala paints a grim picture. Husayn is faced by Yazid’s powerful army and is significantly outnumbered. He recognizes his imminent death and prepares himself for martyrdom. The conversations he has before he went into battle show that he is aware of what is to come. Nonetheless, he carries himself with pride going into the encounter. For Husayn, the conflict is not about emerging victorious – he is determined to die fighting in protection of his beliefs. This carries deep social justice implications within the Shi’i Islamic tradition. The martyrdom of Husayn presents difficulty and struggle as an essential part of Islam. The Shi’a lost the battle against Zayd I and thus understand Islam through mourning, loss, and most of all, perseverance. 

 

I chose ink on paper as my artistic medium because I wanted to emphasize a deep, historical tradition. A more modern vehicle such as film would break away from the message that this piece intends to convey. Calligraphy is a long-lasting part of Islam that was a part of many early Muslims’ experiences outside the oral tradition. Using calligraphy, I hope to show how the story of Husayn is also historical and part of the early, foundational experiences Shi’i Muslims have with Islam. I intentionally chose black because of its connotations as a color of mourning. The color is not inspiring or motivating. Just as Husayn was fully aware of the dismal situation he was entering, social justice efforts are not exclusively about a positive final outcome. Minority activist voices originate from principle – a personal commitment to convey and defend important political stances. 

 

Finally, the words spell out لا تحزن انا الله معنا, translated as “Do not fear for God is with us.” Muhammad (PBUH) said these words to Abu Bakr when they were hiding in the cave as members of Quraysh chased them. The Prophet’s (PBUH) faith in God can be reflected in the Shi’i interpretation that despite the difficulties they encounter, their efforts will be rewarded by God.

Sources:

 Sir Lewis Pelly, “Martyrdom of Husayn,” The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husein: Collected from Oral Tradition, vol. 2 (London: W.H. Allen and Co., 1879)

 Asani, Ali. “Postprophetic Authority 1 Shii Imams 1/3 Oct” Gened 1087, 3 Oct. 2019, Harvard College. Microsoft PowerPoint presentation.

 I would like to thank my colleague Abdullah Bannan for his assistance in showing me how to prepare this calligraphic design.

Art Portfolio Item 1

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Amirah Sackett’s presentation emphasized the importance of geometry in Islam. She discussed its role in Islamic art and the development of a tradition of mathematics. This work builds upon the Islamic attitude towards science and discovery. The pursuit of scientific knowledge is seen as a path that brings Muslims closer to God. It is clear how this is true for the natural sciences. A deeper understanding of the world’s biological, chemical, and physical behaviors create a deeper appreciation for the beauty of creation. In this item, I wanted to extend religious appreciation for non-natural sciences. To convey this message, I focused on computer science as another method of academic scholarship. 

This project writes out the words بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم (Bismillah Alrahman Alraheem) “In the name of God, the Merciful, Compassionate.” I relied on the abjad system to use text boxes as my medium. The abjad system assigns a numerical value to every letter in the Arabic alphabet. I converted each letter in the words بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم to its numerical representation. For example, ب was turned into the number 2, and س was turned into the number 60. Then, each number was converted into its binary value. Since the largest number (200 [ر]) requires eight figures, each letter was represented in binary using eight figures to maintain consistency. 2 became 00000010 and 60 became 00001111. 

Computer science creates an indirect method for building a closer relationship with religion. The development of data science and computerized methods have made it possible for Muslims to produce significant positive impact. The ability to collect and process data improves our ability to explore our world. Computer science allows for new fields of scientific development including cosmic and microscopic systems. Without the development of computerized systems, we would be limited in our ability to have deep insight into the world around us to greater appreciate God. 

Admittedly, it is possible to use computer science for projects with a primarily secular purpose. The religious implications of scientific inquiry is contingent on the individual introducing a spiritual angle. For that purpose, I have chosen to highlight the importance of intention. Bismillah Alrahman Alraheem translates to “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassion,” the focus is placed on creating a religious purpose for one’s actions. The individual’s ego is reduced and a higher Islamic motivation is made central. 

Sources:

 Sackett, Amirah. Gened 1087, 15 Oct. 2019, Harvard College. 

Asani, Ali. “Calligraphy II” Gened 1087, 17 Sep. 2019, Harvard College. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation.