Reading the Qur'an

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Month: April 2016

Identity as form: the mosque in the West

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This small and admittedly lumpy model of a dome and minaret reflects some of my thoughts on Nebahat Avcioglu’s essay, “Identity-as-Form: the Mosque in the West.” Avcioglu shows figures of mosques in Schwetzingen, Germany; London, UK; Potsdam, Germany; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Woking, UK, among other locations. All share a very similar dome, minaret, and stereotyped arabesque design. Avcioglu calls the minaret and dome “a structural metonym of Muslim identity that ca no longer be read in any context other than the one in which it predetermines” (92). Though some mosques lack these defining features, Avcioglu explains that their omnipresence and importance shift image into identity and identity into image. The boundary of mosque as dome and minaret echoes and reinforces the us-versus-them boundaries of Islam in the west, and highlights Islam as a cultural and national marker, almost more than a religion (93).

Avcioglu challenges my own image of what a mosque should look like. Despite reading about the diversity of beliefs, practices, and forms of expression covered by the term islam– submission to God- I definitely still imagine the prototypical mosque in the West Avcioglu describes when I think of a place of worship. However, after this essay and at the conclusion of Professor Asani’s class, I am increasingly intrigued by how “the sheer idea of a mosque lacking a minaret and/or a dome has now come to present a challenge of an existential kind” (103). What differentiates a place of worship from a poem about the search for God or a piece of artwork depicting his greatness? Why can these other forms express cultural and historical context, mixing elements of pre-Islamic belief or practice, while the mosque, especially in Europe and the United States, largely conforms to an imagined past?

My model is built from Plasticine clay, a modeling material designed not to harden. Though its form follows a common model, it cannot stay in that shape, and even as I took the picture for this blog, the arches began to sag. Even if some see a mosque design as out of history, it cannot help but change. I also flattened a design of the continents across the top. Even where it seems not to, a mosque in the West reflects a global heritage.

Through another’s eyes: Persepolis and “Sultana’s Dream”

After discussing the role literature and the arts can play as forms of discussion, critique, or resistance to particular theologies or ideologies, this week we read Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis and Rokeya Hossain’s short story “Sultana’s Dream.” “Sultana’s Dream” as much as Persepolis intrigued me for Hossain’s unconventional choice of medium for her story-as-resistance. Instead of her native Bengali or any other of the several languages she spoke, Hossain wrote her critique of purda, the seclusion of high-class Muslim women in her society, using English to tell a short, imaginative story. The narrator dozes off, then is woken by a women she takes as her friend, Sister Sara, who subsequently guides her through a beautiful, well-ordered world where men instead of women are isolated in the zenana. Hossain’s “Lady Land” lacks crime. Work is efficient and limited to two hours a day. The only religion is love. Hossain seems to hide or package her message within this beautiful imagined world, as well as by her choice to encapsulate it within a dream, and as well as by writing in English. Hossain’s unconventional choices let her speak more freely about what she observes of purda and how her society might reform. Similarly, Satrapi uses the less common format of a graphic novel for her irreverent and critical portrayal of growing up in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. Her images provide new points of entry into her narrative, and her choice of a child narrator lets her play with serious topics. Again, she writes in English.

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Both stories prompted me to think about the importance of an author’s perspective and the veils she uses to write her message,  as well as about how these works might give a window into their authors’ lives. In response,  I created a small collage with two eyes. The narrator’s large, bright eyes and observant frown on the cover and in the first few panels of Persepolis captured my imagination more than any other text and images in the story. The eyes seem to let me imagine myself as her, but Satrapi’s eyes also look out through personality, culture, history, and religion different from my own. Accordingly, I cut panels of different colors, leaving only small pupils empty for the viewer to really look through. Though “Sultana’s Dream” and Persepolis give me a window into their writers’ worlds, I still feel that window is so small and so filtered. 

The Conference of the Birds

This week for section, we read Farid Ud-Din Attar’s twelfth century epic poem “The Conference of the Birds.” Attar, a Persian mystic and poet, was also a perfumer and herbalist; however, he is remembered mainly for this and his other allegorical verses. The poem describes a group of thirty different birds who, led by the wise hoopoe, search for the Simorgh, a mystical bird similar to the Western phoenix. Just as Sufis- followers of the inner or esoteric aspects of Islam- read seven levels of meaning buried in each Quranic verse, the reader of this poem can perceive many dimensions of interpretation, even if she fails to immediately comprehend them in their tangle of translations. The birds seek the Simorgh for their king, perhaps a symbol for Allah or for the divine. The hoopoe describes this potential leader, “And He is always near to us, though we/ Live far from his transcendent majesty” (43). Each bird seems to represent a human flaw or characteristic inhibiting the search for the divine.

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At the end of their long and difficult journey, though, they find only a lake in which their reflections together appear. Si morgh also translates directly to “thirty birds” in Persian. I choose to depict the birds at the end of their search through a small flock folded out of paper. Just as Attar carefully constructs each bird from a human foible and collection of short parables and narratives, I wanted to construct beautiful and careful, if not biologically or realistically accurate, representatives on their journey towards the divine. Though I did not fold the full collection of thirty who reach the lake, I hope the diversity of form and color represents some of the wide range of characters Attar builds and carries through his story. I arranged the birds around a small lake in a white bowl, and although their reflections are not quite visible, I hope the birds’ shadows convey the same sense of reflection and revelation. Finally, I intended the collection of birds holds to hold a form and beauty lacked by any individual, just as the “si morgh” of the story are only present in their unity.

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