May 4, 2012
Each piece in this portfolio was an outgrowth of a singular reaction I had to the readings, lectures or discussions in this class, making each one its own encapsulated idea, able to stand alone. However, since they were inspired by an all-encompassing tradition, Islam, the themes that emerge in the portfolio tend to speak to each other and enrich each other in ways that could not have been achieved if they were appreciated individually. I have identified three major themes and they are journey, love and identity.
The first theme of journey is found in the pieces Muhammad’s Buraq, Si Murgh, Geometric Mosaic and Wearing the Hijab. It is a common trope in Islam, appearing in the hadith of the Prophet’s miraj, but also in the meaning of tariqa and shari’ah. The Prophet’s miraj is referenced in both Muhammad’s Buraq and Si Murgh. In Muhammad’s Buraq, the buraq is the vehicle of travel and for that reason I chose to portray the mystical animal in collage. On reflection, there are a myriad of things that represent the buraq, the agent of change, in our lives. Often, experiences and things that appear negative or simply feel terrible are actually blessings in disguise because they open doors that we would otherwise have ignored or fertilize the ground for growth which we did not know we needed. Their role is to transport the individual to greater heights, heights we could not have reached any other way.
While Muhammad’s Buraq represents the agent of change, Si Murgh represents the process of change. In Conference of the Birds, none of the birds begin with the courage and convictions that eventually bring them to their destination; all wisdom gained was the result of a hard lesson learnt. It is like raw material that requires the careful hands of a craftsman in order to realize its beauty. The potential is inherent from the very start but does not appear or become realized until it is shaped, heated, or worked upon. On such a journey, the key element is stamina and endurance. It would be easy to simply give up or become satisfied with a significant amount of improvement but not be able to make it to the end. The way to reach the final goal is to simply keep going or keeping placing one foot in front of the other. Sometimes that it is the hardest part of all. Being kicked into gear by the agent of change is essential, but if the goal is high enough, simply keeping the momentum is sometimes the most exhausting.
Geometric Mosaic represents the intertwining of the zahir and the batin, both of which are always present in our reality even if we may not perceive them as unique entities. This is the landscape through which the journey takes place and clear seeing, like that afforded by Jamshid’s world seeing cup, is crucial in avoiding missteps or going around in circles. The checkered pattern of Geometric Mosaic is also reminiscent of a chess board or a checkers board. And a game is essentially a journey in itself. Both require careful maneuvering and conscientious calculation for the smoothest and swiftest path.
To help guide one on the journey is the path, which is the literal translation of both tariqa and sharia. Ultimate reality is called haqiqah, and it is often described as the center of the circle. To complete the circle metaphor, the circumference of the circle is the shari’ah “whose totality comprises the whole of the Muslim community. Every Muslim by virtue of accepting the Divine Law is as a point standing on this circle. The radii symbolize the Turuq (plural of Tariqah). Each radius is a path from the circumference to the Centre.”
The Shari’ah is popularly known today as Islamic law but it also means “path to God”. It regulates the Zahir or the outer, physical, transitory world in which we live. The Ulama (religious scholars) rely on ilm (reason and knowledge) to parse out the Zahir and interpret Shari’ah. Tariqa takes you beyond the shari’a and leads you to the Haqiqah. Tariqa means a path but has also come to mean a method, a process and the term used for Sufi orders. Sufi orders are called tariqas because they are following the spiritual path– the path through the Batin or the inner, spiritual world. The shari’a and tariqa or the zahir and the batin are connected in the way that body and soul are connected.
A contentious issue regarding shari’ah that has emerged in our present time is that of the veil. Some countries require women to wear the veil by law, and others have tried hard to remove it from the public. In my project, Wearing the Hijab, I donned the headscarf in order to put myself in those shoes of a Muslim woman in the West choosing to wear hijab. Of course, there were many limitations to this project and wearing the headscarf by my own choice and for the short span of a week only presented a small set of data relative to the general experience of a Muslim woman in the West. However, I came out of the experience feeling like I had a much richer understanding of the dynamics concerning the hijab. In terms of external experiences with the hijab, as in dealing with other people’s reactions to it or the functionality of wearing it, I had a wide array of reactions and a few surprising discoveries. The general public, the Harvard student body and acquaintances seemed to treat me with a greater deal of respect. I felt as if I was wearing my Sunday’s best all the time and enjoyed the experience of better service in stores and more doors being opened for me. Amongst my close friends, the reactions were split. Some practically forgot that I was wearing the headscarf at all, because my physical appearance is no longer an influential factor in our intimate friendships. Others told me that they thought it looked attractive and were very supportive. For a few people, it proved to be a very uncomfortable and disconcerting experience. My suspicion is that although they are ordinarily quite used to interacting with people who are obviously different from themselves at arms length, they do not see them as people that they can expect to relate to or understand. When I wore the headscarf as somebody that they did relate closely to and expected to understand, traversing the distance between foreign stranger and well-known friend was a difficult barrier to cross.
But it was also very interesting to notice the internal changes that occurred within me as a result of wearing the hijab. More than one person pointed out to me that my mannerisms had become more subdued and more noticeable demure and feminine. I spoke in a softer tone, always sat with my legs crossed and kept my hands clasped in front of me when I spoke for instance. Particularly on the first day of wearing the hijab, I felt as if I was wearing a protective blanket. On one hand it gave me a sense of security and on the other hand I felt like it shielded me so that I was in fact exposing a more vulnerable part of myself.
All in all the experience was definitely a journey of discovery. I could not have anticipated what happened over the course of the week beforehand. Although I don’t feel like my opinions on the veil specifically have changed in any marked way, I do feel like I learnt a great deal through the experience and most of those lessons have to do with the idea of how we perceive things.
This idea of perception is carried over in Jamshid, in which I represented Jamshid’s world-seeing cup through painting, ink drawing and movement. Many of Hafiz’s ghazals reveal that the world-seeing cup that the lover so desires is already his, he simply had not yet found it within himself. In effect, the difference between having a world-seeing cup and not having it is the difference in perception. This was illustrated in the art piece which is actually an optical illusion itself. When the two images are seen in quick succession as a result of spinning the holder (in this case a pen to represent God’s hand in the book of Heaven) the eye appears in the wineglass when it was not there before. On a metaphysical plane, it seems the difference between the zahir and the batin can also be identified as a difference in perception.
Another aspect of Jamshid, is that the wineglass represents the heart, as it is in much of Sufi love poetry. In Islam, human love is seen as a metaphor for divine love, love between God and ourselves. And so experiencing God, is truthfully experiencing love with a pure heart. Islamic philosophy also believes that rationality and knowledge can only bring one so far on the journey to God, at some point we must move past the mind and study with the heart. To see clearly, is not to see with your sense of sight through the organ of the eye, but to have a pure, receptive, and discerning heart.
The ideas of love, God, and suffering as an experience of love and a requirement for growth all present themselves in the vignette Tahajjud. Tahajjud is the night prayer, when some especially devout Muslims stay up through the night in order to pray and remember God. Although the character in the story is not praying in a formal sense, he or she is communicating with the divine during the sleeping hours. I gave this piece the title Tahajjud because I wanted to emphasize the communion between lover and beloved. The piece also mentions the voice of the beloved a great deal. This is in reference to the angel Gabriel telling Muhammad to “recite!” during his first revelation.
And with that point we return to the beginning of the journey. Of Muhammad’s journey, of the journey of Islam, and of each of our own personal journeys through this world. This class itself was a journey that I have so deeply appreciated for its ability to step off the page and right into my own life, and at the end of this journey, it is fitting that we have returned to a new beginning.
 Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Ideals and Realities of Islam, p. 122