Throughout the course we have covered major themes that have sought to bring to light the different conceptualizations of Islam across different communities. These include poetic and musical traditions, drama, places and styles of worship, and the role of Islam in everyday life. Most interesting to observe has been the melding of ‘traditional’ Islamic doctrine, ideas drawn directly from the Quran and the Hadith, with local cultural traditions. Thus the emergence of the Ghazal in South Asia as a form of expression of Islamic ideas, and Hip-Hop in the US for example have indeed portrayed Islam as a universally adoptable tradition. Because it is the religion of so many distinct cultural groups in some form or another, and each group claims ownership of its practices and preaching’s, the big take away from this course, and what is a theme of some of my works in my portfolio is the inability to define a standard set of Islamic practices. Despite this diversity, it is indeed a beautiful thing that distinct cultures can still worship and recognize one and the same God, representing an overarching unity among these different traditions. My portfolio therefore strives to present as diverse a representation of Islam as possible, yet at the same time drawing on universal ideas of Islam such as God as love or God as light, and the story of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). By doing so I sought to experience first hand different acts of religious practices because only by this experience would I get a true appreciation of the depth of human creativity, cultural diversity and love of God.
This portfolio of works consists of six pieces drawn from different cultures. The first piece is a visual representation of the seven Heavens as described by Muhammad during the Mi’raj drawn from the Quran and Hadith. The second is a musical rendition of the Ta’ziyeh, which is a traditional Iranian drama performed annually that depicts the martyrdom of Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, on the fields of Karbala on his way to Mecca. The third piece is a poem, written in no particular style representative of an Islamic culture, but tries to capture the essence of the Islamic faith by drawing heavily on the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. The fourth piece is a Hip-Hop/rap song set to the lyrics of a Ghazal, drawing from to distinctly different but still Islamic cultures to produce something interesting. The fifth piece is a mosaic of different face signifying the different cultures that represent Islam. This is representing the many faces of Islam that has been a major theme in the course. The final piece in my portfolio is a musical piece set to the theme of a Sufi poem. This piece depicts the intensity of love exemplified by the Sufi mystics and described in their works of poetry. These pieces therefore span the major themes brought up in the class, the nature of God, the beliefs of the Muslim, the love of God and the believer and the message of the Quran and Hadith. Each aspect however is looked at from the point of view of a unique culture, or in the case of the Ghazal set to Hip-Hop, from the intersection of two cultures and therefore adds variety to the entire set of works.
In the rest of this introduction, I will proceed to discuss in more depth the themes, the unique cultural perspective and the unique form of expression that accompanies each piece. I will conclude by relating each piece and theme to an overall idea that encapsulates the portfolio. A majority of the pieces however also come from a deeply personal perspective, shaped by my own experiences and beliefs, but in engaging with the topics and themes of the class, I endeavoured to separate myself from prior knowledge and engage in the material from an experiential point of view.
The first piece is a visual representation of the Miraj as described in a volume entitled ‘The Myths and Legends of the Swahili’. The Mi’raj and Isra are the two legs of prophet Muhammad’s night journey on the mythical Buraq. The first leg, the Isra, took him to Jerusalem to the Al-Aqsa mosque. In the second leg, Buraq carries Muhammad to the heavens where he is in the midst of angels and all the prophets that preceded him. In this particular version, the description of the seven heavens is so vivid and powerful, that I was drawn to the visual approach to try and represent it. In this depiction of the Mi’raj as well we see cultural traditions infused with accounts from the Hadith. What the painting is trying to do therefore is to depict the seven heavens and the prophets from the point of view of the Swahili people. From their account, we get very detailed descriptions of the prophets that correspond with their accounts in the Quran. Limited to mostly colour in the painting, I tried to bring out these revealed personalities as best I could. The general brightness of the colours used tries to bring out how vivid the description of the journey was. All the prophets have some element of yellow as well for example, representing light, because there is said to be a prophetic light that was passed to every prophet, with Muhammad receiving the greatest amount. The most prominent theme of this painting in relation to the course is the primary role accounts in the Quran and hadith play in different traditions, and the manner in which these accounts are acclimatized to the local context.
The second work is a poem entitled ‘A call to prayer.’ Although I did not write it with any particular style in mind, due to its rhyming couplets it bears greatest similarity with the masnawi epic poem, though much shorter. The poem, as the title suggest draws from the Muslim call to prayer, the Adhan and in particular the Sunni version, which I was drawn to because in a nutshell it declares the Muslim’s faith and at once commands attention and authority. It is also perhaps one of the most visible elements of Islamic tradition as it can generally be heard coming from mosques even in predominantly non-Islamic areas. The poem therefore attempts to expand on the lines of the Adhan but drawing on Quranic sources and others that describe the nature of God as well as the believer’s relationship to God. For example the poem talks about God as the greatest and only love in the universe, as well as drawing on the idea that all creations are in constant praise of God. Relating this poem to the themes covered in the course, the main idea that inspired it was the fundamental nature and practice of Muslim faith, and how it can be seen as more than ritual, but as drawing from very deep and extensive traditions and ideas that can be found in various aspects of Muslim life. Furthermore, the poem takes a step back from the beauty of looking at Islam from a particular unique cultural perspective, to looking at the overarching beauty of the fundamentals of the faith that unify different peoples.
The third piece dips back behind the cultural lens in its perspective of Islam and draws inspiration from the Iranian Ta’ziyeh. The Ta’ziyeh is a traditional Iranian drama performed in festival yearly that tells the story of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein. During the leadership struggles following Muhammad’s death, Muhammad’s family line found itself on the receiving end of opposition and murder. In this particular account, Hussein along with his family was ambushed by Caliph Yazid’s army on the road to Mecca at Karbala. Here, the drama is created by the lament of Hussein, his family members, as well as the gloating and celebration of Yazid and his troops to always keep in memory the injustice of the event. Hussein was killed during the episode and is considered a martyr. The Ta’ziyeh is performed in Iran, predominantly a Shiite state, in remembrance of this past episode and to provide some kind of encouragement to the present day believers who may be going through similar persecutions and difficulties. The musical progression of this piece seeks to echo the events in the account of Hussein’s martyrdom. I saw music as an appropriate medium because it is dynamic and deeply emotive and therefore could help a listener emotionally connect with the episode. From the history behind piece, we begin to see the branching of the Islamic community, in this case based on the structure of authority, which is indeed a major theme of the course. Not only does this piece seek to look through the lens of a particular community, but it also looks at an episode of particular importance to this community showing that not only does the view point of the same ideas vary depending on the society, but also the events that different communities chose to emphasize.
The fourth piece in the portfolio is a rap song which draws it lyrics from the masterful translation by Dick Davis of Farid Ud-Din Attar’s masterpiece ‘The Conference of the Birds.’ This book uses the revealed characteristics of different birds to mirror human behaviour and attitude towards seeking God. In particular, the lyrics of this rap come from the description of the Simorgh, which signifies God. This description is given by the Hoopoe bird, the de facto leader of the birds due to its vast knowledge and wisdom. The Hoopoe’s description of the Simorgh is powerful, and the rhyme and meter in which even the translation is written in is indeed one of the greatest artistic feats. I therefore sought not to change any of the lyrics, but instead present them in a rap style to draw cross-cultural and inter-generational parallels between this classic work and modern day Islamic influenced street culture which forms part of the make up of hip-hop. Several highly regarded American rappers and rap groups are influenced by Islam, if not being Muslim themselves, and I thought it very interesting to view this modern day rap as an extension of the rich poetic tradition in Islamic culture, and as can be seen from this piece, is almost a seamless fit. The major theme of the course the inspired this piece is the underlying unity of different Islamic cultures, as well as the timelessness of Islamic tradition. Indeed through this lens, God can be seen God can be seen to be an omnipresent force.
The second to last piece is a collage of various images representing the different faces of Islam. A major theme in the course has been that there is no single definition of Islam, and in order to understand it, one must study the people who practice it. The reality is though that the people who practice it are so diverse, that simply observing this diversity gives one a deep appreciation of what Islam encompasses at the basic level, which is unity and love. The collage therefore shows images of Islamic figures ranging from Wallace Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, Ayatollah Khomeini, an Iranian cleric, Fareed Zakaria, editor of ‘Newswee’ to Ice Cube, an American rapper.
The final installation in this portfolio is a musical solo, which seeks to express love, exemplified by Sufi works. If at all there was a central theme that can be observed through the portfolio, it is the idea of love. Love is similarly a large part of the image of God, and is also seen as a large part of Muslim life. Because of this, I thought it would be a good piece to conclude the portfolio with. The piece is inspired by a ghazal by Hafiz, ghazal 19 in ‘The Green Sea of Heaven.’ Hafiz is an extremely revered poet, whose works are to be found in numerous households, and his quotes recited regularly in the Iranian culture. This ghazal, like others, talks about a very strong love, and I especially like it due to its strong imagery. Sufi mystics bring out an admirable passion for God that is unmatched by any other desire, and love is such a seemingly simple idea, but its ability to completely transform individuals is telling of its power and its truth. Indeed this piece engages with the course by trying to draw the listener into an experience of the kind of love that the course talks about.
These six pieces therefore summarize the most pertinent themes to me that I have come across in the class, and have drawn from a variety of sources. In all of them, I have tried to communicate emotion that I think is a potent way through which we can understand Islam and some of these cultures.