Introductory Essay

Peace and welcomings, everyone! My name is Nesreen Shukr, and I am a Lebanese-American Muslim student at Harvard studying biological sciences with the intent to attend medical school after graduation. After taking Professor Asani’s wonderful course this semester, Multisensory Religion: Rethinking Islam Through the Arts, I am intrigued by the culture and aesthetics of various Muslim groups throughout the Islamic world and would like to share with you several interesting concepts that have given me a better understanding of Islam as a multisensory practice. In an attempt to capture some of these concepts, I have created six original pieces of art that I hope will enlighten your endeavors to learn about Islam in a holistic context. Enjoy!

 

Part I: Thematic Takeaways from Multisensory Religion: Rethinking Islam Through the Arts

Islam is Not Contained in a Vacuum

Studying in the predominantly Western, secular context of the United States typically makes us believe that religion is compartmentalized from all other aspects of society; however, Professor Asani effectively disproved this assumption early on in his course. In fact, our elaborate in-class examination of the vast diversity of Muslim practices throughout the Islamic world would have been fairly meaningless had Professor Asani not taken the time to address one important introductory concept: Islam (and religion in general, for the matter) is never contained within a vacuum. Contrarily, Islam is deeply embedded in a multitude of societal elements within Muslim regionsmost notably culture and politics. To a certain degree, Muslim culture around the world, from Chinese-style calligraphy to Sufi music and dance, is a combination of ethnic traditions and religious identity. These unique cultures contribute to the great diversity of the Islamic world and its practices. Hence, Islam cannot be contained in a vacuum because of its various interactions with other societal factors. This idea leads us to one other very important takeaway: Islam is not one thing. In other words, Islam is not exclusive to any race (e.g. Arab) or form of interpretation (e.g. Sunnism). As a result of its diverse interpretations and practices throughout the Muslim world, it is difficult to designate one form of Islam as the “rightful Islam” in a Western academic context. Depending on their culture, tradition, and values, different Muslims express their relationship with Islam in vastly different methods; for example, some Muslim groups in Tajikistan value music, such as the playing of the traditional Rabob instrument, as a reflection of their spirituality, while other groups in Iraq perceive it as a reflection of their worldly desires that hinders spirituality. Understanding this key concept that Muslim diversity results in multiple versions of Islam allows us to embrace the various types of Islam for our academic purposes rather than ridiculing one among others. While keeping this in mind, we are able to gain a better appreciation for the diversity in multisensory practices of Islam and a better understanding of the extent to which they reflect Muslim spirituality. 

 

Islam is an Aesthetic Experience

As a result of its various multisensory practices, Islam values experiences by accentuating the human being’s perception of sound, sight, and feeling. These senses are most effectively embodied by the reading, writing, and understanding of the Holy Qurana Divine text that is collectively valued throughout the Islamic world. 

When the Quran was initially revealed by Allah to the Prophet Muhammad through archangel Jibrail in 609 C.E., it was released verbally rather than textually. This was important for several reasons. For one thing, the verbal message of the Quran allowed it to be released in fragments rather than all at once in a textualized manner; given that human beings are not granted the ability to “bear all the truth at once,” this increased the value of each individual Quranic revelation and allowed believers to embrace Islam at a pace that tailored to their cognitive and spiritual capacity (Sells 3). The verbal revelation of the Quran also effectively demonstrated the credibility of the Prophet as the worldly representative of Allah’s message; in fact, he came to be known by his followers as the “Walking Quran.” However, the most important effect of the verbal revelation of the Quran was its emphasis on the sense of sound. The sound of the Quranic recitation attracted several people towards Islam due to its remarkable beauty and accessibility, as it did not require literacy to connect with the Divine message. Therefore, the spread of the Quran through sound reflected the inclusivity within Islam and fostered its diverse population of followers.  

After years of verbal revelation, the Quran became textualized, which allowed it to be experienced through an additional sense: sight. As Muslims throughout the Islamic world began textualizing the Quran, they sought to reflect the beauty of the Quranic message by producing it in calligraphy. This specific style of Quranic calligraphy varies among different Muslim regions as a result of their culture and language. In Arabic-speaking North Africa, for example, Quranic calligraphy is typically in maghribi script, which is notable for its thick and well-defined Arabic writing. Contrarily, in Persian-speaking Iran, Quranic calligraphy is commonly crafted in nasta’liq script, which is more complex and graceful than maghribi Arabic writing (Calligraphy Lecture PowerPoint). In addition to the calligraphic design of the text, Quranic book covers are typically designed with intricate patterns and shapes resembling the geometric designs in Islamic mosque architecture. These patterns not only please the eye for their extraordinary precision and aestheticism, but they also please the soul for their beautifying representation of the textualized Quran. 

While the auditory and visual artistic expressions of the Quran correspond to the perception of sound and sight in Islam, the understanding of the Quran enables one last sense: feeling. Indeed, the Quran is revered by all Muslims for its remarkable intricacy. As Professor Asani notes, decoding the Quran is like unveiling a wedding dress with thousands of layers. Containing 114 chapters of varying length, the Quran covers a broad range of themes, including prophetic stories, “vivid eschatology” known as the Day of Judgment, tawhid, “kindness to orphans, and social justice” (Quran Lecture PowerPoint). These topics are purposely presented in a complex, non-linear format, which attracts readers and encourages them to continuously seek a deeper meaning within the text, which will ultimately allow them to feel a greater sense of spirituality. Unlike a worldly sensation, the feeling that people get when listening to and understanding the Quran transcends physical senses and unlocks a sense of profound spiritual awareness; as Persian poet, Saa’di, proclaims, “Every leaf of the tree becomes a page of the sacred scripture once the soul has learnt to read” (Fundamental Concepts Lecture PowerPoint). This metaphorical feeling is what ultimately attracts Muslims to the Quran and demonstrates the significance of enhancing the scripture through sound and visual art. 

Part II: Resonating Themes in My Daily Life

As a result of being raised in Dearborn, Michigan, a city known for its large Arab American Muslim community, I have admittedly associated being Muslim with being Arab, as these were the only types of Muslims I interacted with back home. Given that Islam is embedded within culture, as a Lebanese American Muslim, I mostly identified with my fellow Lebanese Muslim family and friends, who spoke similar Arabic, went to the same Lebanese-majority mosques, shared the same values, and wore similar hijab styles. As a result, I have developed a relatively narrow lens of the diversity of Muslims throughout the Islamic world due to my limited interactions with non-Lebanese Muslims, especially those who are not Arab. In an effort to broaden my perspective, I took this course because I was interested in learning about the racial, ethnic, and sectarian diversity within the Islamic world through one often overlooked lens: aestheticism. In the beginning of this course, Professor Asani emphasized the power of aestheticism for its ability to “humanize” a group of people by allowing us to focus on our similarities (e.g. for art and beauty) rather than our differences. For example, our class examinations of Sufi Muslims in Turkey, Pakistan, and West Africa performing choreographed motions and repetitive chants introduced me to the unique, aesthetic practice of Sufi dhikr. Although these specific performances were new to me, the concept of dhikr resonates in my Lebanese community’s value for Arabic supplications and prayer beads (which we use to keep track of the number of phrases we say in praise of Allah). As a result of this similarity, I became intrigued by other forms of Sufi aestheticism, including poetic expression. Throughout this semester, we sampled several renowned Sufi poetic pieces, including my personal favorite, The Conference of the Birds, by Attar, which embeds several mystical stories within its main focus of depicting the journey that a flock of birds take towards finding the Simurgh, (metaphorical symbol of the Divine), who was ultimately within each of the birds all along. The Conference of the Birds is essentially an allegory of the Sufi mystical bid to experience the Divine in a worldly context, and as hinted by the plot twist of the epic, the Divine is often closer to us than we think! Another fascinating poetic piece we examined was the Mathnawi, an extended poem by Rumi that focuses on teaching Sufis how to develop a deep, genuine love for God in order to increase spirituality. One of our many guest speakers throughout the semester demonstrated the value of the Mathnawi epic in the context of Azerbaijani culture and its dependence on repetitive musical notes from the tar instrument to enhance the spiritual significance of the poem. By exploring the vast practices of Sufi spirituality in non-Arab contexts, I was able to highlight one particular characteristic that unites all Muslims, regardless of race, ethnicity, sectarianism, and culture: our deep love for Allah and continuous efforts to develop a closer connection towards Him. 

 

Part III: What You Should Gain From My Blog

Islam is Religiosity and Spirituality 

Often times, we tend to distinguish the term, spirituality, from religiosity in order to credit religious doctrine and scripture as the only legitimate aspects that define a religion. However, it is important to keep in mind that although religious doctrine, such as the Quran and Hadith, is incredibly important factor of Islam, spirituality plays an imperative role in shaping the religion as well. Without spirituality in Islam, religious practices such as prayer and Quranic recitation become robotic motions that lack an existential meaning. The role of spirituality in Islam is essentially to keep Muslims engaged in the religion. Hence, throughout the Islamic world, Muslims practice various types of spirituality, most often in the form of dhikr and textual and recitational literature. In an effort to demonstrate some of these projects, I have sampled a blend of religious and spiritual Islamic forms of aestheticism in my creative projects. In Project 1, I have included my personal interpretation of the Prophet Muhammad’s first Quranic revelation through the perspective of archangel Jibrail in the form of a journal entry. This project allowed me to creatively engage with my Islamic beliefs by developing my own spiritual meaning on an important event in Islamic history. For Project 2, I recited a ghazal—a famous type of Sufi poetry—titled, “Tonight,” by Agha Shahid Ali, which unconventionally introduces Sufi spirituality to Western culture as a result of its English form. In Project 4, I focused on capturing the significance of prayer as a religious practice and form of spiritual dhikr through a series of photographs showcasing the stages of prayer. Lastly, for project 5, I recited a religious and spiritually-significant Quranic verse, Ayat al Kursi, in its traditional styles of recitation (murattal and mujawwad) along with its English translation. In these projects (which are described in more detail below), I hope you understand just how important spirituality is along with religiosity in shaping Islamic piety.

 

Islam Promotes Social Justice

Throughout this semester, we examined one of the most tragic events in Islamic history: the “Karbala” Massacre of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, ahl alBayt—most notably Imam Husayn, the grandchild of the Prophet. The Massacre was initiated by the 30,000-membered army of corrupt ruler, Yazid, in response to Imam Husayn’s refusal to bow down to his oppressive reign. As the flag bearer of piety and righteousness, Imam Husayn defended the message of Islam along with his 72 soldiers on the day of Ashura, when they were brutally martyred. The Karbala massacre is widely commemorated by Muslims (mainly Shia) throughout the world as they remember Imam Husayn’s timeless emphasis on fighting for social justice no matter the cost. I address this massacre in an aesthetic format in Creative Project #3, where I am giving a live speech depicting the tragic aftermath of the event at a Ashura program in Dearborn. In this video, you will see me recite a passage from the nightly Tears For Karbala series in Dearborn, which serves to preserve the message and history of the Massacre. Through this project, I hope to dispel the contemporary media’s depiction of Islam as a religion of oppression and provide evidence to what Muslims actually stand for—social justice. 

 

Islam is Beautifully Diverse

After taking this course this semester, I now realize the importance of examining Islam through aestheticism. As a Muslim who previously overlooked the artistic elements within Islam, I now have a greater appreciation for its beauty, which is largely due to the various types of Muslims who have contributed to its multisensory aesthetics. I believe that showcasing Islamic diversity through aesthetic practices is necessary in order to steer away from contemporary media’s “single story” of Islam that portrays it as a violent religion. I hope that my blog posts, particularly Creative Project #6, where I demonstrate the diversity of hijab styles worn throughout the Muslim world, will offer you a holistic introduction to Islamic aestheticism, which will ultimately inform you about the diversity of Muslim spiritual practices. 

 

Thank you for visiting my page and please be sure to look into the captions of each post for more information about it!

 

Sources: 

Asani, Ali. “Calligraphy” Gened 1087, 12 Sept. 2019, Harvard College.

Asani, Ali. “Fundamental Concepts” Gened 1087, 5 Sept. 2019, Harvard College.

Asani, Ali. “Quran as Recited Word” Gened 1087, 10 Sept. 2019, Harvard College.

Asani, Ali. “The Mathnawi/Masnawi” Gened 1087, 5 Nov. 2019, Harvard College.

 

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