The Joy of the Journey

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At the beginning of the semester, Professor Asani challenged my Culture and Belief class with the question:

“How do you know what you know about religion?”

This was a tough question for me. I had never really thought about it before. Other questions started circulation in my head: why had I gravitated to this introductory course on Islam? What were the stereotypes that I was holding onto about Muslims? What did I hope to learn?

The answer to those questions now is represented in this blog.

What follows is one 21-year-old’s exploration of Islam. Never having had much exposure to Islam growing up, I had foggy and fuzzy ideas of what being Muslim entailed. Through these six creative pieces I explored different concepts of the Islamic faith and tradition through a wide range of mediums. While intellectually I learnt a lot about Islam through the lectures, readings and discussions, I feel that these creative projects have allowed me to experience and engage with Islam in a personal way, giving me a more profound understanding of the religion.

My creative piece, “Road tripping with religion” looked at religion as being a journey, with many different routes leading to the experience of God. In the Sufi tradition there is a concept of tariqah, which is a mystical path, way or method that the believer follows in order to achieve ḥaqīqah, which is the “real” or ultimate truth.[1] There are many different stages, and it is a process of learning that cannot be undertaken by oneself. The role of the guide or sheikh is very important. Although there is no profound meaning or lesson to be learned from my blog, I equally feel that without guidance or explanation, you, its reader, will get lost. In the next few paragraphs I hope to demystify elements from it, and take you on a journey of my creative endeavors over the last few months.

In my art projects I explored new mediums that I had never tried before. There was a wonderful parallel between my entering blind into the world of Islam, and embarking on projects where I didn’t have that much technical skill. As I went about firing my first clay piece, figuring out what paint was best to use on canvas, and how to capture still life photographs –I was also taking introductory steps in the classroom, learning about the five pillars of Islam, and meeting Rumi for the first time. As a beginner in both the creative and academic aspects of this journey, this process was a rewarding adventure into unknown territory.

Although my pieces vary from music videos on ethereal concepts, to specific depictions of poems that I connected with, there is a common theme of multiplicity and interpretation in the way I chose to display my projects on the blog. I took each of my pieces and photographed them from different angles, and often in different settings, to show how there could be numerous interpretations. This resulted in many different views of the same project, which often looked completely different depending on how they were photographed. Together each photo grid provides a window into the different stages of my creative experience, giving the viewer a more nuanced view of the process. In this course, which had a strong focus on how art and literature could be used to represent different interpretations of Islam, I wanted to stress the importance of looking at objects and ideas in multiple ways.

This central idea of the plurality of Islam was reflected in my blog post about Islam being similar to a saltcellar. I wanted to stress how religion can be a transformative element in people’s lives but that it can flavor, instead of completely alter, people’s already existing cultural traditions. This was apparent when looking through the many different styles of mosques for the Mosque project. The basic architecture and design was similar, but the ornamentation, style, decoration and materials used,  reflected the different cultural influences of the regions. Just as with food, I feel that Islam accommodates different understandings in different settings. In an article by Daftary, he discusses the origins of the diversity in Islam and the multiple “communities of interpretation.”[2] It is important to realize that “Islam” is an umbrella term for a whole host of different Islamic interpretations. The distinction between Sh’ia and Sunni, merely skims the surface of a much wider pool of interpretations. Yet despite these variations, the ideological base is the same, and the teachings of the prophet, the hadiths, and the Quran link these groups of people. As Daftary points out, the plurality of Islam needs to be acknowledged and celebrated in order to assure harmony for the future generations of Muslims in our quickly globalizing world. My saltcellar is covered with calligraphy and Islamic designs to symbolize how Muslims have the same overarching beliefs. However the use of the salt amongst the different people at the dinner table is not uniform, and shows the plurality of the Islamic tradition.

This course has shown how arts and literature have expressed the different faces of Islam, but it has also explored how these creative mediums mark the similarities. Plays like the Taziyeh describing the battle of Karbala, tell an important narrative for Shi’ah Muslims all over the world. They are connected by Hussein’s act of sacrifice, and he is a symbol of good triumphing over evil. My creative project of a turbah stone was an exploration of how these stories can be represented in physical form. The turbah is used by many Shi’ah Muslims in prayer. The incorporation of this stone as part of this fundamentally Islamic practice five times a day shows how these cultural pieces live past the boundaries of merely being art and are used in practical day-to-day living as well.

The tradition of the Taziyeh originated centuries ago. A lot of the literature, poetry and artwork that we looked at in the course went back hundreds of years and when I first glanced at the syllabus I thought that I would not be able to relate to all these old and translated pieces of work. However, like I mention in my piece on the nightingale and the rose, thinking about these works in terms of creative projects and being open to their lessons, allowed me to find universal truth in their messages. This ability to transcend space and time is testimony to the important role of literature and art in helping capture the experience of religion. The use of poetry and the power of its words in society for me was a new experience, and showed me the beauty and richness of Islam.

This course put a lot of emphasis on experiential learning, showing films, music videos, and recitations of poetry, chants and singing. In a way because of this, I thought that it was appropriate to do a piece that shows experiential forms of devotion. The whirling dervishes were a good example of believers who found connection with God through movement to music and poetry. This was controlled and structured, but at the same time shows how worship is an expression that can take many forms. Muslims believe that “dikhr” loosely translated as “remembrance”, needs to take place in order to remember God and can take the form of different devotional acts. What Sufis stress, especially when up against criticism for the music and dance associated with their practices, is the intention of the performer and audience of the event. Participation revolves around the purity of intention of the people involved, with the desired state being that “the listener is totally longing for God and not at all longing for the created.”[3] This emphasizes how both the person engaging in the art form, as well as the person appreciating it are actively engaged in an experience which is helping them become closer to God. I found this particularly poignant, especially since I felt that I could relate to it because I felt very invested in a lot of the creative work I did for this class.

Following the desire to experience what Islam meant, I decided to engage in a creative piece where I dressed in a hijab and walked around Harvard to get a sense of what this felt like. As a woman living in a modern, Western society it was a way of my trying to understand what being female in a more patriarchal and traditional system would be like. It made religion real for me, as my hijab shouted to passersby ‘my’ system of beliefs and ways of living. Although in many ways strange, it made me realize that Islam wasn’t as foreign as I thought, and I could directly relate to Muslim women.

This was one of the last projects that I did and it marked the progression of the semester. In the beginning, Islam was a confusing and distant concept. I felt comfortable engaging with it from afar, through the books and newspaper articles that I read. It was not something that I could personally connect to. However through the music, plays, stories, art, creative projects and discussions this semester, Islam is no longer limited to foreign ideas. I have engaged with it, experienced parts of it, and creatively reinterpreted it in my own ways. This blog is not only a collection of ideas, it is representative of my new acquaintance with Islam.

Like the road trip that I went on with my sister over the summer, I embarked on this learning expedition, unsure of the outcome. However during the course of the journey, I discovered lots of new, beautiful things about a culture and religion that I had never experienced before. It challenged my stereotypical ideas about how God and religion should work in people’s lives, and has made me think of creativities role in helping me, and people around me, engage with the questions about life all around us.

I would like to thank my “guides” Professor Asani, Oludamini and Andrew for helping me on my journey.


[1] Ali Asani, Culture and Belief 12 Lecture, “The Sufi Tradition”, Spring 2012 Week 8.

[2] F. Daftary, Diversity in Islam: Communities of Interpretation, in Muslim Almanac, 161-173.

[3] Carl W Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, 181.

Dancing with Dervishes

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The story goes that Jalal ad-Din Rumi was walking through the Market one day, and heard the rhythmic hammering of the goldbeaters as they went about their work. In this beat he heard a dikhr, and overcome by ecstasy, he starting spinning in circles.[1]

And so the whirling dervishes were born…

Whether or not this is the exact origin of the Mevlevi Sufi order in the 13th century, it does pays tribute to the importance of the “Sama” practice in Sufi traditions. Directly translated, “Sama” means “audition” and Sufis interpret it as hearing with the “ear of the heart.”[2] Persian scholar, Leonard Lewisohn, describes it as “an attitude of listening to music with the intent of increasing awareness and understanding of the divine object described.”[3] Sama happens at events with music, poetry and dancing, and it is at these services where the whirling dervishes spin.

I was inspired to paint a piece on the dervishes, because I feel that they are representative of the many ways and forms that people can use to worship God. This act of spinning is a way for them to connect with the divine and reach a state of ecstasy (wajd).[4] It is a true expression of religion as being an experience. Prayer does not need to be confined to words, thoughts or scriptures. In the dance there are many elements of symbolism, and I decided to paint my picture in black and white to show this. The black represents the black cloak that the dervishes start out wearing, and the white is the white skirts they reveal underneath, symbolizing spiritual rebirth.[5] They are simple colors, because I wanted the focus to be on the movement of the figures in the painting. My use of negative and positive space, distinctly identifiable by the opposing colors, is blurred through the grey edges of their skirts, drawing attention to their movement. The figures faces are unidentifiable, as I wanted to show that they have dropped their ego and individuality as they reach oneness with God.

There has been a lot of controversy over the role of music and dancing in Islam, and the dervishes have come under criticism for their practices. However they make the strong argument that it is not the spiritual form, but the purity of intention and the sensitivity of the listener that should be the cause for concern.[6] Like one early Sufi said “”Sama” is forbidden for the masses, so that they may preserve their souls; it is permitted for ascetics, so they may attain the goal of their efforts; and it is recommended for our companions [the Sufis], so that they may enliven their hearts.”[7] I can’t think of a more beautiful expression of love than this connection with the divine, and hope they keep spinning for centuries to come.

 


[1] Ali Asani, Culture and Belief 12 Lecture, Week 8 Spring 2012.

[2] Lewisohn, The sacred music of Islam in the British Journal of Ethnomusicology, vol.6 (1997), 4.

[3] Lewisohn, The sacred music of Islam, 4.

[4] Carl W Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, 182

[5] Ali Asani, Culture and Belief 12 Lecture, Week 8 Spring 2012.

[6] Carl W Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, 181

[7] Carl W Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, 182

 

Beyond the Burka

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From the controversial conversations in France about their role in schools, to their strict enforcement in Arab countries like Iran, the burka and the hijab have remained hot topics of conversation in feminist discourse around the world. No other clothing statement seems to have evoked such passionate outrage on both sides of the religious debate. But is it simply a religious issue? Or does this speak past the pages of the Qur’an to a more fundamental societal problem?

I wanted to explore this question further, so for my creative project I decided to experience wearing a hijab. I wanted to get a sense of what a hijab felt like, to turn it from an intellectual idea that I had discussed with friends, to a cultural observance that I had personally experienced. After inexpertly watching a few youtube videos on how to wrap a hijab, I went for a walk around campus. Although I definitely got a few glances here and there, the major difference was how wearing the hijab made me feel. I felt like my identity or self wasn’t overtly displayed and it seemed as if I was much more closed off from the rest of the world. I knew that no one would be able to recognize me, and this made me feel anonymous, yet at the same time on display. Although people did not know my individual identity, I knew people would immediately stereotype me as being Muslim. As someone who is not used to defining her religious beliefs to strangers, I found it interesting that people – who had no idea who I was, what I did, where I was from – were able to distinguish my religion from seeing the hijab. I also knew that by wearing my hijab with my western style clothes, backpack, and blue eyes, I was defying the stereotype of what they expected a ‘Muslim’ to look like as well.

My hijab experiment was inspired by Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. In this novella, the gender roles are reversed and instead of the women living in purdah, the men are the ones kept inside. I found this an ingenious piece of feminist literature, because it was not prescriptive. It reveled in its absurdities, and labeled itself as fiction. At the same time it raised profound and poignant questions. It forced the reader into a world with different realities, empowering women in its pages by giving them the responsibility of running society.

Like in Royeka’s story, my hijab experience was not indicative of my reality, I was respectively “role playing” in order to understand more fully what I had been learning about. I don’t plan on changing my fashion style to include a daily hijab but in this short span of time, I caught a whiff of what this might be like. It made me challenge how I define myself as a women, which I believe, was Rokeya’s goal when she set out to write her story.

Reflections of my Nightingale

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When reading the dustcover of Farid Attar’s Conference of the Birds, its description reads: “Composed in the twelfth century in north eastern Iran, Attar’s great mystical poem is among the most significant of all works of Persian literature.”  I misinterpreted the value of reading this piece, thinking, how was I supposed to connect with a work so foreign, so different from anything I had ever read? Words like “mystical,” “Persian” and “twelfth century” made me doubt its relevance to my own life. I was amazed that despite my initial skepticism, I was able to connect with this work in a profound way. Through this poem about birds, I encountered what it means for a work to be timeless, universal and to transcend boundaries. I was so drawn to characteristics in its birds that I saw in myself, that I decided to make a clay nightingale and rose birdbath as one of my creative projects.

The hoopoe speaks to the birds, encouraging the need for them to seek the Simorgh as their new king. At first the whole assembly of birds are positive and “all rose impatient to be on the wing; each would renounce the self and be the friend of his companions till the journey’s end.”[1] However as the perils and challenges of the journey become apparent, the birds’ resolve weaken, and Attar uses this to explore different human vices. I most closely associated with the nightingale. He is so caught up in the rapture and obsession of his love for the rose, that the thought of leaving, even to find the Simorgh, cannot be tolerated. He declares that “my love is for the rose: I bow to her; from her dear presence I cannot stir.”[2] He wants nothing more from life and “her worship is sufficient life for me; the quest for her is my reality.” [3] I feel that in life I too sometimes become obsessed with a project, that I have passionate bouts of enthusiasm for things that are short lived. The hoopoe advisers the nightingale that his love for the rose is a “superficial love which makes you quail” and that it is an empty love that is but a “fleeting turbulence”[4] which will quickly fade.

At the end of their journey the birds arrive at the dwelling place of the Simorgh, “thirty exhausted, wretched things.”[5] Yet instead of encountering a Simorgh who will rule over them all, the Simorgh is “a mirror set before your eyes, and all who come before My splendour see themselves and their own unique reality.”[6] They learn the great insight that “’we’ is not distinguished here from ‘you.’”[7] In my initial distancing myself from the poem, I made the same mistake as the birds. I couldn’t see my reality in the distant realm of Attar. Through my reading of the book I too learned how my existence is reflected in unlikely places. This idea of reflection and “mirroring” was the reason that I made my nightingale rest on a bird bath. I am hoping that through his contemplation of his reflection he will be able to leave behind the absurdities of his rose and follow the Simorgh’s advice: “You find in Me the selves you were before.”[8]

 


[1] Farid Attar, “The Conference of the Birds” (London: Penguin Classics, 2011), 45.

[2] Attar, “The Conference of the Birds,” 46.

[3] Attar, “The Conference of the Birds,” 46.

[4] Attar, “The Conference of the Birds,” 46.

[5] Attar, “The Conference of the Birds,” 230.

[6] Attar, “The Conference of the Birds,” 234.

[7] Attar, “The Conference of the Birds,” 235.

[8] Attar, “The Conference of the Birds,” 235.


Islam is like a pinch of salt

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“Islam is like a pinch of salt.”

This unusual statement might leave you baffled and confused. But through learning about Islam, the Qur’an and Muslim practices, I feel that there are many similarities between this sacred text and the humble saltcellar on your kitchen table.

Salt is one of the basic human tastes. The Qur’an helps answer human beings primordial questions; about life, its meaning and how to go about living it. Islam, is not something that you necessary see out right when you encounter someone – but like salt – although you can’t see it, it flavors life, and once added it becomes a part of a person, and extremely hard to extract. Salt is an integral ingredient in every meal, and often you will notice when it is missing. I feel that the Qur’an and its lessons permeate every aspect of Muslim living – not always consciously, but subtly playing a role.

Salt is an addition – it doesn’t take away from the flavor of your food, and no matter what your meal is, chances are that it will work well with the addition of some salt. Persian Scholar, Farhad Daftary speaks about how diversity in Islamic beliefs has always existed, and how it is important to recognize the plurality of Islam.[1] One of the integral lessons of this class, has been looking at the many different interpretations of Islam, how Islam can exist and be practiced in many different settings, cultures and countries. Like Islam, salt can be used just as well in an American tacos context as it does in a Thai curry. The heart of any religion is people. While God creates meaning, it is people that interpret this meaning in varying ways. This results in many different “Islams” as opposed to only one single “Islam.”  The different schools of thought create a variety of different dishes, keeping the table of Islamic interpretation interesting.

However the salt itself is pure and unchanging. Salt does not change flavor or substance depending on what type of food it seasons.  Although Islam may be made up many different doctrines, the practices remain the same throughout the Muslim world, creating unity through the five pillars that Muslims subscribe to. While orthodoxy and orthopraxy are both important, Islam focuses on orthopraxy. There is an emphasis on the living out of Islam, rather than strictly ensuring the uniformity of people’s beliefs. Salt can be used on a wide variety of meals, and still have meaning.

When I ask someone to “pass the salt” at the dinner table next, I’m going to be reminded of how people all over the world can incorporate salt into their lives, without drastically changing their diets.

 


[1] F. Daftary, Diversity in Islam: Communities of Interpretation, in Muslim Almanac, 172.

 

Road tripping with Religion

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I see religion as a journey and for this creative project, I decided to explore Islam through the lens of a road trip that I went on with my sister through South Africa.

We started with an end destination in mind: Johannesburg, home. However the other logistics of our route didn’t matter so much, as long as we had our maps, guides and phones to call friends and family for help. What followed was a beautiful adventure that took us through the many differing landscapes of our country.

Like us, Islam has a beginning point. Becoming a Muslim begins with the first pillar of Islam, which is the Shahada, the proclamation of faith:

 لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله

There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God

Religious maps comes in subtler forms, and one can find direction in the Qur’an and doctrines such as the five pillars of Islam. Institutions like the Ulama, scholars who interpret Islamic law in the ever-changing world, together with religious leaders and sheiks, can be guides to turn to if believers get lost along the way. In many ways spirituality is this voyage of discovery that is going to be different for each individual. Nobody can teach the wisdom of Islam in one day, followers have to go on a journey to discover it for themselves. However, like the beauty of the landscapes we experienced, it is easy to see God in the world around us. The Qu’ran says:

To God belongs the East and the West,
Where so ever you look is the face of God. [Quran 2:115]

My road trip was very much a meditation on the world surrounding me, and I was able to connect through being open to new experiences. As the quotation at the end of my piece states:

There is no deity but God, there are many roads to reach him

Just like the sun that guided my sister and I along our continuing road towards home, religion provides a way to spirituality connect with the world around us. However there are many different paths, and many different experiences. Our discussions of Sufi Muslims and between the Sunni and Shia doctrines, as well as the many different cultural interpretations and integrations, highlight these numerous paths.

I set my video clip to an unusual Adhan, which is the call to prayer answered five times a day for millions of Muslims all round the world,. I wanted this standardized prayer to be seen in a new light, to mirror the diversity of Islam. It includes the Shahada a fundamental pillar of Islam and the declaration of faith, a statement that has begun the journey to Allah for Muslims throughout history.

 

 

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My Clay Karbala Stone

Sunnis believe that when the Prophet died, he did not name anyone to succeed him – instead leaving the community to rule themselves through consensus. However Shi’ah Muslims, disagree with this belief, saying that Muhammad appointed Ali and his descendants as his successors and using the Quranic passage: “He whose master I am, Ali is his master” as verification for this. Ali’s descendants are revered as Imams and are the spiritual and political leaders of Shi’ah society.

Because of the importance of the Prophet, the battle of Karbala has significant meaning for Shi’ah Muslims around the world. At Karbala Hussein Ali, a direct descendant of Muhammad, fought against Yazid, who had wrongfully taken the Caliphate. Hussein died as a martyred and his family was killed too. For Shi’ah Muslims around the world, the battle has come to be a symbol of good against evil, of doing what is right even when facing enormous odds.

For my creative project I decided to make a Karbala Prayer Stone. Many Shi’ah Muslims have these stones, made from the clay found near the city of Karbala. It is a small, decorated clay stone that they touch their heads to them when they perform their daily prayers. The idea of thousands of Muslims across the world connecting through the clay of Karbala is very touching, and shows the power of sacrifice. I took photographs of my Karbala stone in different environments, to show how Muslims from all cultures, countries and walks of life connect through the powerful symbol of the Battle of Karbala despite the vast geographic distances between them.

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