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Posted by: agulamali | 2nd May, 2018


What is Islam? When defining complex social structures, humans often mistake grey for black: we make singular what in reality is complex. A straightforward response to this question would define Islam as a uniform set of religious practices that constitute the world’s second most popular religion. A more thoughtful answer would mention the different sects of Islam and how each has distinct variations on prayers, rituals, and theology. Although these answers are not wrong, both could not be farther from the truth. As examined in the course, a more honest approach to understanding Islam, along with other social structures, would use the Cultural Studies method.

Most people who are American would consider themselves such even though they cannot recall a single line from the American constitution; similarly, most Muslims would consider themselves Muslim even though they cannot recall or articulate passages from or interpretations of the Quran. To explain this odd truth, the Cultural Studies Approach emphasizes the importance of worldly realities in creating individual religious experiences. Faith, under this approach, is influenced by ethnic, cultural, political, economic, and gendered factors to name a few as it is by theology. Professor Asani in his text Infidels of Love says the cultural studies:

maintains that religions are shaped by a complex web of factors, including political ideologies, socioeconomic conditions, societal attitudes to gender, educational status, literary and artistic traditions, historical and geographical situation—all of which are inextricably linked in influencing the frameworks within which sacred texts, rituals, and practices are interpreted. (Asani 10)


With this unique approach one’s understanding of religion transforms from static to dynamic. However, this approach also makes more complex one’s understanding of religion. Within the cultural studies approach, each individual has a unique relationship with religion; no two experiences are the same.

The arts play a major role in making sense of the complex individual experiences. No matter how many theological texts or field studies one has at their disposal, no purely analytical piece can make sense of the powerful emotional connection a worshipper has when listening to devotional music or visiting a sacred shrine. The arts shows us that there is profound meaning in that which words and numbers cannot capture; this meaning is essential to understanding religion and reveals the essence of our humanity. Artistic pieces in Islam should therefore not be seen as supplemental to the faith but at the core of it. Much of Islam’s meaning can only be understood through the arts.

Art in Islam reflects the faiths diversity. During a guest lecture, András J. Riedlmayer

recounting the Bosnian Conflict, Riedlmayer recounts meeting a saddened man who in order to receive funds to rebuild the local mosque destroyed the tombstones of his ancestors and agreed to rebuild without local art that could be considered shirk or idolatry. What remained after such rebuilding was not just a more barren mosque, but the loss of tradition and identity that generations built and cherished. Instances like this also raise the question: Who’s Islam gets represented? Every individual has a unique experience with Islam, however, only those who are in positions of agency due to the availability of power or wealth are able to express their relationship with Islam. Those who are powerless often cannot express their ideas or are restricted in the ways to express them.

Our exploration of Islam and the Arts examined many different approaches and facets of multisensory personal representations. In the arts, we examined oral art forms such as the Qawali and Ginans, literary art forms such as the Ghazal and Mathnawi, which can also be recited, and visual art forms like calligraphy, painting, tapestries, and Mosques. Looking at these pieces brought new light to Islam’s past and its interaction with ethnicity, politics, race, and gender. Every ethnic group has unique art forms; political movements often use Islam as an ideology to consolidate power; people of color have unique experience with Islam; finally, women can either view Islam as a potentially restricting ideology or a mechanism for empowerment that only restricts when misinterpreted by misogynists.

These ideas from the course influenced my approach to the creative art projects. My overall philosophy in creating the art projects was to reflect the individual relationship a muslim has with their faith. Within each individual’s experience is a unique bond that forges their relationship with Allah. I created three pieces, Photographing Paths, Sufi Self, and Hoopoe that explored different aspects of the personal journey of one’s faith. The Lamp and Victory in Defeat were attempts to visualize two aspects of Islam explored in the course that I personally found moving. Finally, the sketch And when I closed my eyes, I finally saw the world, was an attempt to explore the esoteric question: What does it mean to see?

Every muslim has a unique relationship with faith that changes throughout their life. The course explored the unique journeys of Muslims through the artistic representation of their faith. Like all faiths, Islam is not a monolith and constantly evolves with every additional individual experience. An example of this is the role of Islam in modern nationalist movements in post-colonial nation states. For countries like Pakistan, Islam played a major role in determining national identity and the nation state played a strong role in raising the debate of what is considered Islamic. We saw this role of Islam in the works of Muhammad Iqbal who wrote the Shikwa and Jawab-i Shikwa as a way to create a dialogue between a follower and Allah with many nationalist undertones. These nationalist movements were not limited to Pakistan and also came to Iran and other nearby nations where a new right wing governments changed the experience of thousands of women with Islam. For some women, the government finally valued conservative values of modesty and for others an emboldened religious police used their bodies as the battleground of ideology while making it harder to have a positive personal relationship with Islam.

Though current issues that color the relationship individuals have with their faith change as time moves forward what remains the same is the powerful use of the arts to represent these evolving relationships. People come and go, ideologies fall into and out of favor, but what remains after personal journeys have ended are the footprints left behind. These footprints exist all around us in the artistic legacy of the past. In the same manner, in this course I embarked on a personal journey to better understand individual relationships with Islam and now leave behind footprints of art.

Posted by: agulamali | 28th Apr, 2018

My Sufi Self

“My soul is from elsewhere,
I’m sure of that, and I

intend to end up there.”

– Mowlana Rumi


Sometimes I feel like an alien, unnaturally existing in the world around me. Unable to authentically be one with the world. Physically needing clothing, heating, cooling, straight floors, and other comforts to separate me from beautiful and destructive nature. Emotionally unable to empathize with the seemingly increasing amount of struggles and information in the hectic world around me. What does it mean to be one with the world? This question is part of central ideas within Sufi Islam, which emphasizes the esoteric and personal spiritual experience of a person. Rather than rejecting emotion, music, or dance, Sufi’s use this and the arts at large in order to become one with the world. For a Sufi, religion is not a sterile set of practices that everyone universally adopted, because this view would reduce the role of an individual into nothing of significance. As shown in the Conference of the Birds, each individual has a unique set of challenges and strengths they must interact with on the journey to spiritual enlightenment. This is what allows for people in the past to simultaneously be a Sufi as well as being statesmen, jurists, poets, or scholars.

“The Universe is not

outside of you.

Look inside yourself;

everything you want,

you already are.”

– Mowlana Rumi

With this understanding, the two quotes from Mowlana Rumi, a great poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic, can exist together. One’s spirit, the true essence of one’s humanity, is part of the universe and longs to become one with it, but also does not need to escape in order to become one with the world, rather is already able to become one with the world within oneself. This idea is also reflected in another powerful quote by Mowland Rumi, “What you seek is seeking you.”

In order to artistically represent these profound ideas, I created a paper cut out of a whirling dervish, part of a Sufi order that utilizing circular dances to meditate and visually express their oneness with the world around them. I decided to make this figure as open ended as possible in order to allow the viewer to place themselves in the place of the figure; in a way we are all like the whirling dervish, moving around rapidly, trying to better become one with the world around us. I decided to cut out the figure and paste in onto a seperate page in order to create a distinction between the whirling dervish and the world represented by the background, but also evoke through the similar colors shared by the two that the two figures are part of the same spirit: the world and oneself are one. The red color of the figures hat might not be a common color for the practice, but is meant to symbolize love. Love for God, the world, and oneself is what allows a Sufi to truly become one with the world and better understand God. Love is what melts away one’s ego which prevents oneness with the world.

These ideas were discussed in the  Lewisohn reading that examined Sama Sufi dance as well as the Tuesday lecture during Week 8 that examined the Sufi artistic tradition.

Posted by: agulamali | 28th Apr, 2018

Victory in Defeat

Five years ago, I was luck to travel to Mombasa, Kenya as a part of a summer program. On day on a car ride through Mombasa, I was instantly struck by powerful a quote from the leader Mahatma Gandhi on a billboard.

My whole worldview was shaped by a singular notion of victory and glory. Victory was using one’s power, skill, and talents to reduce one’s enemies into the backs of history books. Victory meant not compromising. One must try again and again and never take no for an answer. But our world is not perfect, often the morally righteous lack the resources to face those with the power.

But victory is never absolute and defeat never permanent, an idea prominently shown through Jesus when tempted by Satan who offered him all worldly power and possessions in exchange for Jesus to worship him, which Jesus refuses. Although Jesus is later crucified by the Romans who view him as a threat to their rule, in the ultimate triumph the Roman Catholic Church is centered in Rome, the capital of the empire that once thought it had defeated Jesus. Within this story, Satan is a figure whose evil allows Jesus and all individuals to have a good conscious. It is not God’s power that makes Jesus or individuals good, but the rejection of evil for the worship of God.

In a strikingly similar story, Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, faces a powerful army lead by Yazid who wants recognition as the true Caliph. In tragic events, Hussein is martyred by Yazid’s army after being deprived of water, and his head is brought back to Yazid’s court. Yazid might have wielded more power than Hussein, but ultimately power is fleeting and the example of Hussein’s death brought profound understanding of what victory truly means even when facing defeat, and Hussein is remembered and celebrated today among both Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

In order to artistically represent this I drew two with chalk areas. The larger one on top represents Yazid’s powerful army, and the smaller one below represents Hussein and his weaker army. The two areas converge an a point where a powerful collision occurs. Although Yazid is more powerful, Hussein is able to ultimately become victorious in defeat, and his victory brings color and light into the world; a powerful example for anyone facing injustice by a powerful force.

Posted by: agulamali | 28th Apr, 2018

Light upon Light

“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp,
The lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star,
Lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree,
Neither of the east nor of the west,
Whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire.
Light upon light.
Allah guides to His light whom He wills.
And Allah presents examples for the people,
and Allah is Knowing of all things.”

– Surah 24 Verse 35

Light is one of the great mysteries of physics. It is not a definite object or packet of photons, but instead is best described as electromagnetic radiation, represented mathematically as wave functions. It is able to instantly reach the farthest parts of our world and bring with it sight and warmth. Light has a constant fast speed that can reach even the farthest of places in an amount of time the human mind is unable to grapple. In this powerful, esoteric verse from the Quran, Allah is not a person or even an object that one can conceive but the Light of the Universe. Allah is transcendent; He transcends the boundaries of space and time, He is infinite, He is even knowing and ever guiding to those whom He wills.

Visually representing this profound concept is difficult. Any physical representation presents natural limitations as a concept that is infinite cannot fully be represented physically. In order to capture the main ideas of this Quranic verse, I created a circular ring meant to represent a universal (circle) lamp. The lamp is held together by a green ring, which can represent the Prophet and his family for Shiite Muslims, or the color or paradise and the bounty of Allah’s creation for all Muslims. The red bottom represents the strong essense of Allah’s light and the yellow top the Light’s beauty and warmth. Finally, inside the “lamp” is the Arabic for Allah on a white painted interior, symbolizing the purity of Allah and his Guidance. White is also the color of light that contains all colors which also represents the universality of Allah. Allah is all knowing.

These ideas were discussed during Week 2 when we looked at the influence of calligraphy and text in the arts in Islam, particularly in the Khatibi and Sijelmassi piece that explored calligraphy’s fluidity, flexibility, and ability to trigger within one’s mind specific ideas or verses from the Quran.

Posted by: agulamali | 28th Apr, 2018

Photographing Paths


I have always loved photography. The ability to capture different moments in my life appeals to my nostalgia and also gives me the space to reflect upon where I have been and where I am going. As each day passes the meaning in each picture becomes stronger; within it is emotion that words often fail to capture.

Humans tend to view life as a journey from point A to point B. We begin at birth and end at death, two points everyone shares and no one can escape. The journey in between is life, where we learn who we are, what we desire for ourselves and others, and what we want to leave behind for other individuals lucky enough to go through this brief journey.

Like everything in life religion is viewed in this singular manner. An individual begins as immoral and unaware and ends up more ethical and wise. This traditional view of religion can be scene in the framing of all these photographs, the photographer takes the photo towards a vanishing point what they could have ventured towards, if they were feeling so adventurous. Around the singular path are distractions: stone, mud, trees, bushes, shopping malls, buildings, etc., but nonetheless, the path is clear to the viewer.

However, viewing both life and religion in this singular perspective is quite ignorant. All of these photos like different lives and sects of Islam begin and end at different places and exist within different contexts. No one is better than the other, each is unique in their perspectives and the surroundings in which they took root.

This idea is an essential part of the course’s cultural studies approach, which uses ethnic, social, economic, and other considerations to understand religion. Everyone can define Islam for themselves, but no one person can define Islam for anyone but themselves. A Muslim might ascribe to one sect over others, but even within that sect, their relationship to the world and God is not solely limited to the ideology of their religion. We saw these ideas in action with the modern Islamic revival movements through which rose different interpretations of what Islam is. For some, Islam should be interpreted as it was in the past, but for others past interpretations are either too “liberal” or too “conservative” and dated. In the arts we saw the different interpretations of Islam through the Sufi Rockstar in Pakistan. For orthodox mullahs, the Sufi Rockstar’s music was un-Islamic and therefore should be totally rejected, while for thousands of young individuals, it was a way to connect with the Qawali music and faith of their ancestors.

These ideas were explored in the course during Week 8 when we examined various music traditions in Islam and why some considered music “halal” or too secular.

Posted by: agulamali | 27th Apr, 2018

And When I Closed My Eyes, I Finally Saw the World

What does it mean to perceive the world around us? Are those who are blind really unable to perceive their surroundings? These are some of the powerful esoteric questions evoked by the last scene of The Color of Paradise, an Iranian movie directed by Majid Majidi. The film follows the life of a young blind boy Mohammed who is on summer vacation. Throughout the film, prominent male figures who should love and care of Mohammed constantly reject him. His teachers want his father to take him home, his father views Mohammed as a burden that is preventing him from creating a new life after the death of Mohammed’s mother, and the blind carpenter that briefly takes in Mohammed is unable to embrace him when he is struck with strong sadness because no one loves him.

Although Mohammed is the only disable person in the family, when speaking to his father Hashem, Mohammed’s grandmother says the only person she is concerned about is her son. This striking comment reveals a central idea in the film which is that Mohammed is able to truly understand and perceive the world around him, while his father, Hashem, is blind to it. Hashem seeks the love of a family that views him unfavorably when his own mother, son, and daughters have unconditional love for him. Hashem is afraid of the nature around him (as shown by his jerk reactions to shrieks in the distance), while Mohammed is curious and playful towards a world he is blind to.

In a dramatic final scene, Mohammed and the horse he rides upon break through a weak bridge and are caught in a strong stream in a river. Instead of immediately jumping to save him, his father hesitates and when he finally embraces him washed up on a beach, it is too late for Mohammed. Hashem cries and embraces Mohammed, whose hand remarkably moves as the film ends.

The final scene although ambiguous on Mohammed’s fate, provides clarity on the some of the films central questions. Though his father can physically see and Mohammed can only perceive through his hands, Mohammed truly understood the world around him while his father struggles to hardly understand it even after losing so much. The brightness of Mohammed’s hand symbolizes the divine ability to understand the true nature of the world around oneself without physically seeing or seeing with the “inner eye,” and the birds flying overhead symbolizes nature’s sympathy and oneness with Mohammed. The use of birds throughout the film including the woodpecker who is trying to build a home for itself is part of a tradition in Persian poetry that is especially found in the Conference of the Birds. In a way we can all be compared to the birds in the Conference of the Birds, some of us like Mohammed are like woodpeckers, toiling away to create a home, while others like Hashem are like Owls, collecting worldly possessions and blessed with the ability to see better than others, but unable to truly see what has value and what does not.

These ideas come from the movie: The Color of Paradise, The Conference of the Birds, and the S. H. N asr piece titled Islamic art and Spirituality that provided a background to my reading of the Conference of the Birds and Persian poetry which contains common symbols like birds, wine, and drunkenness.

Posted by: agulamali | 26th Apr, 2018

Hoopoe Portrait

Religion is more than a set of ideological ideas used to separate individuals into groups in order to consolidate ideological power; it is also a personal journey one undertakes to better understand oneself and the universe around all of us. Viewing religion as a personal journey or set of practices used to embark on a journey for better self-understanding is prevalent in many religions including Islam. In our course, we saw religion as a personal journey represented in the story (and dance show) Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar. 

This story examines the journey of the Si Morgh (Thirty Birds) who travel to find the Simorgh, a wise and legendary bird. Motivating them to undertake this journey is Hoopoe a determined bird. At the beginning of the story, the birds all voice their hesitation on embarking on such a difficult path. Individual birds voice grievances that journey will be too mentally, physically, or emotionally hard, or that it is unnecessary for them to go upon such a journey. However, the Hoopoe strongly rejects their complaints with reason and wisdom. Eventually, the birds embark upon the journey and face different valleys of challenges that include Love, where one falls madly in love disregarding logic, and Detachment, where worldly possessions are abandoned. Eventually the birds realize that they, the Si Morgh are the Simorgh evoking the idea that the power of transformation and the final destination of this spiritual journey is within ourselves.

Hoopoe is a portrait painting of the brave bird from the Conference of the Birds, an epic poem by Farid ud-Din Attar. In a powerful speech the Hoopoe says to his fellow birds:

‘Your heart’s congealed like ice;

When will you free yourself from cowardice?

Since you have such a short time to live here,

What difference does it make? What should you fear?

The world is filth and sin, and homeless men

Must enter it and homeless leave again.

They die, as worms, in squalid pain; if we

Must perish in this quest, that, certainly,

Is better than a life of filth and grief.

If this great search is vain, if my belief

Is groundless, it is right that I should die.

So many errors throng the world – then why

Should we not risk this quest? To suffer blame

For love is better than a life of shame.

No one has reached this goal, so why appeal

To those whose blindness claims it is unreal?

I’d rather die deceived by dreams than give

My heart to home and trade and never live. (Attar lines 1732-69)

This quote along with Hoopoe’s refusal to grant any bird comfort in their excuse not to embark on their spiritual journey shows Hoopoe’s strength of faith. Hoopoe’s example reflects the importance of steadfast belief and passion in obtaining spiritual understanding. To portray this concept I painted Hoopoe as upfront with a watchful eye to portray Hoopoe’s strength and refusal to let the viewer visually escape into the darkness of the painting’s background. Hoopoe’s example reminds us of the importance of discipline in a spiritual walk which requires a strong will and also the ability to recognize the finite nature of life which helps one check their ego, an essential aspect of becoming one with Allah.

I was inspired to create this piece after speaking with Steve Coit, a portrait painter for the Harvard Foundation Portrait project. In this painting I tried to represent Hoopoe as a powerful and wise bird reflecting Hoopoe’s ability to lead the birds on their journey. To do this I painted the background dark blue which contrasts a hoopoe bird’s beige-orange color. The background is also not solid, but fades into Hoopoe, which provides depth to the painting making it more three dimensional. In the dark blue background representing the difficulty of their journey is the noise of other colors (red, orange, purple). This is meant to either represent the different valleys that make up the journey the birds undertake or could be the other birds. Like my other pieces, I wanted to add elements that allowed for subjective interpretation to make the painting more interesting. This is also meant to evoke the idea that we all have unique perspectives through which we view the world. Finally, I used a technique, Steve Coit taught me, which is to center Hoopoe’s eye in the portrait making Hoopoe the central subject who is looking off into the distance.

These ideas were examined during the Week 10 readings on The Conference of the Birds as well as the S. H. Nasr piece on Islamic art and spirituality.

Posted by: agulamali | 26th Apr, 2018

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