Exploring Islam Through Art, Culture, and Literature

Exploring Islam: An Outsider’s Perspective – Introduction

May 4th, 2016 · No Comments

Exploring Islam: An Introduction

            August in Southwestern Ohio can be brutally hot and humid, so a bit of rain during cross country practice was always a welcome relief for my teammates and I. However, during one such storm, while the rest of us were embracing the cooling effect afforded by being soaked, I noticed that my friend Amir was running with his head almost to his chest, a marked difference from normally impeccable running form, actively avoiding the rain from hitting his face as much as possible. When we asked him what he was doing, he explained that he was fasting for Ramadan, and couldn’t drink anything until sunset – not even a few drops of rain that might make their way into his mouth and quench the inevitable thirst that comes from doing mile repeats under the midday summer sun. We all remarked at the strength that he must have had to endure that suffering at practice, while still pushing as hard as the rest of us, and then left it at that.

That was about the extent of my interaction with Islam growing up, with Amir being one of two Muslim students in my high school. It always remained a foreign religion to me, especially colored by the focus of the news at the time on the conflict in the Middle East and the doings of Islamic extremist groups. Though I was fortunate enough to have been raised to be tolerant and accepting of other’s faiths and ideas, this implicit bias towards associating Muslims with their depiction on the news pervaded my environment and ultimately masked any further attempt to understand what it truly meant to be “Muslim”. Furthermore, growing up in as homogenous a community as I did, perhaps I never truly felt the need to actively improve my, as Prof. Asani describes in Infidel of Love, religious literacy. However, as I have ventured further into this more heterogeneous world, I have begun to the realize the great disadvantage that being “illiterate”, as I was, conveys in terms of understanding the lived experience of my peers at school as well as those that I might interact with on a daily basis. Thus, it was my goal in taking this course to improve my religious literacy and chip away at the stereotypical, monolithic Islam that I had been exposed to growing up, to reveal the varied, diverse tradition that I knew existed underneath. In doing this, I also hoped to understand the various historical, sociopolitical, and artistic contexts that have shaped the multiple facets of Islam, as prescribed by the cultural studies approach to considering religion, as well as the role of the West in shaping these contexts. The art pieces depicted in this blog hopefully serve to convey my progressive debunking of these stereotypes throughout the course.

Of course, perhaps the most prominent of these stereotypes is what I would consider to simply be the idea of Muslims as the “dangerous other” or the “enemy within”, per as described by Prof. Asani in chapter two of Infidel of Love. In considering this caustic claim, it is important to first consider that, at its core, Islam is simply a religion of submission to one, and only one, God. A religion based in monotheism, it is perhaps not so different from the “Christian values” that many of the anti-Muslim proponents in the United States pit the tradition against. In fact, early Muslims, include the Prophet Muhammad himself, lived alongside Christians, Jews, and a host of other practitioners of various faiths. Furthermore, there is the idea that all of these people are Ahl al-kitab, or people of the book, or the Umm al-kitab – God’s prototypical scripture from which all of holy texts are derived. Similarly, many important figures are shared between these faiths, including Jesus, who appears as one of God’s prophets in the Islamic tradition. While the Prophet Muhammad is considered to be God’s final prophet, the others nonetheless still serve as role model Muslims to this day.

Similarly, in stark contrast to the imagery of Muslims as a “Trojan horse” sent to somehow destroy the United States from within, the basic tenets of Muslim identity, referred to as the Five (or Seven, if considered from the Sunni perspective) Pillars of Islam by the majority of Muslims, portray a tradition of peace and compassion, with followers united in their love for God. These include the shahadah, or testimony of faith, salat, or ritual prayer, zakat, or ritual almsigiving, sawm, or fasting during Ramadan, and finally the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca if one can afford it. While of course this idea of “five pillars” is very much dictated by the majority sect, in this case being a Sunni concept, with Shia followers adding in the condition of believing that Ali is the first imam, at their core, these rituals serve to promote a peaceful culture, again based on love, that many outside of the faith fail to recognize. I think this is best exemplified through the zakat, or ritual almsgiving, as depicted in the photo of outstretched hands offering food and money to a “beggar” from my first blog post. In doing this, one is able to purify themselves from greed, and thus share in their God-given wealth, ultimately serving to better their own community – something that most people, regardless of religion, would hopefully agree with. Thus, by gaining even the most basic understanding of what defines a person as a Muslim “with a capital M” as opposed to simply a “muslim”, or believer, one can begin to breakdown these preconceived notions surrounding the faith.

Of course, in simply comparing Islam as a single entity to other traditions, namely Christianity, one runs the risk of perpetuating the monolithic vision of Islam, failing to recognize the diversity of people and cultures within the tradition. Throughout the course, I was amazed to learn about the wild array of different means of practicing one’s faith in this tradition, from poetry to architecture. Often times, it seems that there is this conception of Islam as being like the white washed walls of a Saudi or Wahhabi mosque, devoid of color and other so-called “distractions”, when in fact it is quite the opposite. Even Quranic recitation, one of the hallmark practices of the faith, has a specific, almost music like quality to it, with even non Arabic speakers able to “understand” God’s power and beauty upon hearing or simply reciting the “sounds” of the verses, without necessarily understanding their meaning. Similarly, I created a comic depicting the Prophet’s interactions with Moses and Allah during the Mi’raj during which it is agreed that Muslims must pray five times per day for my second blog posting, in part to maintain this “accessibility” of the faith, especially for an outsider who might see the strong ritual practice in the faith as a bit intimidating. Thus, my use of a comic there hopefully helps to exemplify the role of the Prophet Muhammad within the tradition, acting as an intercessor between God and His people, while also showcasing the Prophet as a model Muslim, prostrating in his presence, but also being comfortable enough to debate with him on behalf of his followers, indicative of the strong, love-like bond that they share. In this way, I again hoped to show that Islam is not so much rigid or inflexible institution, but rather a fluid culture that is shaped by its surroundings. While that context can vary, such as varying the intonation of a Quran recitation depending on the time or place in which it is recited, in this case I attempted to put the tradition into terms that a relative outsider to any sort of religion, such as myself, might be able to understand.

Nowhere else is this context dependent interpretation of Islam more evident than with the differences in mosque architecture seen in Muslim communities throughout the world. Perhaps one of the more classic images of the mosque in the Western mindset is that of a domed building, with a minaret beside. Of course, these are simply constructions of western scholarship on the Middle East, with mosque architecture truly being contingent upon the local climate and environment, as well as a more local cultural context. This is clearly seen in considering mosques around the world, from pagoda-like architecture characteristic of the “far east” in Chinese mosques, to the open-air mud mosques of West Africa. In other words, while these mosques all serve as places of worship, and have the characteristic minbar from which the imam leads prayer, the qibla facing Mecca, and other features that have accumulated over Islam’s spread away from the Prophet’s home in Medina, they are also the product of local cultural influences. Of course, in that same vein, mosques have been used as symbols of nationalist power, ultimately serving to strip away the identity of a place and their local culture by imposing the architecture or style that the government in power sees fit. This is clearly seen in Southeastern Europe, particularly in the Balkans, where a cleansing of local mosque architecture and Muslim culture by the Saudis has served as not only a terrible loss of the history and culture of an entire people, but also to fuel the idea of a singular, fundamentalist Islam. Thus, I chose to combat this monolithic “other” created by these fundamentalist movements in my third blog posting, in which I created a sculpture of a mosque with components taken from different mosques architecture from around the world, forming a sort of “conglomerate mosque”.

Similarly, in contrast to the strict, conservative notions of Muslim culture bred by the western focus on fundamentalist movements, there is in fact a rich history of poetry, music, and literature among Muslim communities throughout the world, with poets such as Rumi being literally worshipped as religious figures. Of all of these traditions, one that particularly represents perhaps the antithesis of the fundamentalist movement (hence its promotion by many Western governments among Muslim youth) is that of Sufi mysticism, and the music and poetry in the form of the ghazal, or love poem, associated with it. The tradition promotes song and dance that can aid the practitioner in transcending this material world, losing one’s personal ego, and essentially entering the spiritual realm to become one with God. With poems from the likes of Hafez offering descriptions of wine-drinkers, taverns, and being intoxicated with love, the ghazal actively refutes the strict interpretations of the Quran by the ulama, or Islamic scholars, instead promoting this idea of passionate love, and the suffering associated with it, being the route to attaining spiritual enlightenment to be with God. This batin, or inner meaning, can perhaps only be attained through becoming God centric, as opposed to being human-centric and having forgotten God. This is exemplified in the Conference of the Birds, with many of the birds being unwilling to undertake the journey to God as a result of some insignificant material attraction, such as wealth or jewels. I personally felt that this Sufi focus on the losing the self and the focus on the material was highly relevant to people of all faiths and ideologies, especially in today’s material-driven world, and thus serves as a common ground through which outsiders might be able to relate to the tradition. Thus, I attempted to capture my own personal experience with passion and losing “the self” and the shedding of material wants and worries with my own ghazal in my fourth blog post.

Of course, in addition to considering the great diversity in traditions that exist beyond the fundamentalist monolith that captures the fear of so many Americans, it is also prudent to consider the context in which this fundamentalism itself developed. After all, per the cultural studies approach, one must consider religion as the result of the social and political factors that affect its practitioners. To that end, one must look towards the influence of colonialism and the imposition of westernization on many of Muslims societies. With this loss of independence, some, such as Iqbal, encouraged Muslims to essentially pull themselves up by their bootstraps essentially and re-find the “way” or their faith, thus alleviating the suffering they currently faced, as described in his Complaint and Answer poems. Others found in Islam a way to unify the populous to generate a nation-state in response to colonial powers. In Iran, for example, some took this westernization, and support of the oppressive Shah by the US (in an attempt to subvert the spread of communism in the region), as a sign of a return to the jahiliyya, or the return to the days of ignorance and savagery before the time of the Prophet. Thus, Islam came to serve as a political ideology, with a return to the “fundamentals” of Islam, as it was during the time of the Prophet, when Muslims were not in the “decline” depicted by many leaders in opposition to westernization, being one solution to the this loss of independence. To explore this further in my fifth blog post, I took one of the most contentious symbols of Muslims in America – the veil – and explored it’s role in nationalist movements, as well as the broader role of women’s bodies as essentially a battleground between the two sides. In failing to grasp the relevance of the veil as a part of a Muslim woman’s cultural identity, and ultimately removing a woman’s own agency over her body, western scholars have perhaps been to quick to characterize Muslims as “backwards” or behind in modernization, thus fueling the creation of the stereotypical “other” that the fundamentalist movement represents.

Taking this the example of the veil into consideration, perhaps the best way to combat Islamic fundamentalism is to first eliminate the idea of Muslims as the “other” and instead work to understand the socioeconomic and political contexts that generated these movements in the first place. In doing this, one begins to realize that this movement is perhaps more a result of poverty, lack of education, and oppression by colonial powers more than anything else. Perhaps more importantly though, it is imperative that the “religiously illiterate” understand the true diversity of Muslim communities across the globe, each with their own specific traditions, architecture, and rituals, such that they cannot all be grouped into one singular category. With Islamaphobia at some of its highest levels in recent years, as well as the upcoming presidential election (given a candidate who wishes to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States), it is important to recognize the daily discrimination and stereotyping that many Muslim-Americans face on day-to-day basis. I thought this was captured well by Changez’s experiences in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, especially regarding his beard, so for my sixth and final blog post, I chose to create a collage of a influential African American Muslims hidden by a Muslim man’s beard, representative of a culture and religion that is an integral part of our nation’s history, but is instead overshadowed by fears over facial hair.

Personally, I am happy to report that I now have a better understanding of my teammate’s reasoning for suffering through those August practices. Much like Husayn refusing water during his final battle with Yazid as a representation for the collective suffering of the righteous people in the world, as depicted in the Persian play known as the Taziyeh, perhaps he too was attempting to suffering to show his devotion and deep love for his God. While that is perhaps a love and compassion that I will never quite know as a mere “scholarly observer”, I can now certainly appreciate its importance in the lives of Muslims, and the fact that it is truly the motivation behind much of these practices that might have seemed so foreign to me before. Hopefully through these blog posts, others might be able to look beyond the monolithic Islam that pervades the media in the United States, and reach that realization as well.

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