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Aniqa Hassan's Blog

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Posted in Uncategorized on May 13th, 2014

Please read this prologue for an introduction to my blog!


The six pieces of art I created through the course of the semester are incredibly different. A burning piece of parchment, the arch of a building in the setting sun, the hands of a beggar, a whirling dervish and a pop art piece on a woman wearing a hijab. One may ask, and appropriately so, how are any of these pieces connected to one another? What is their unifying theme? They all seem to portray completely different ideas or aspects of Islam. The unity between the pieces comes from the fact that there is almost no explicit connection between them, though each piece individually connects to Islam. The question that arises, and the question my final piece of art, a series of portraits of Muslims at Harvard, asks is “Whose Islam?” These pieces of art act as a reminder of the complex and multifaceted nature of Islam. The ultimate message my portfolio should convey is that there is no one unified Islam with one definite truth, however connections can exist between different Islams on a much broader level.

My portfolio should be viewed with two important understandings. The first is that the topics and themes discussed in my artwork were introduced through the cultural studies approach. The second is that I am a Muslim in the process of questioning my own faith, and my pieces were definitely influenced by my own religious journey. Viewing Islam through the cultural studies approach takes into account the surrounding contexts that allow for different interpretations of Islam and the ensuing practices stemming from those understandings to evolve. Culture, history, politics, conflict, the effects colonization, economic crises, and a plethora of other factors were taken into account when looking at the different parts of Islam. Using this style of study enabled me to see many faces of Islam I had never seen before or beliefs I once thought to be absolute heterodoxy. At times this lens allowed for me to study Islam as though I was not a Muslim. Certain concepts were viewed from a purely anthropological standpoint as it was the first time I was exposed to these practices; however when creating my artwork I reevaluated the information from my own understanding of Islam. The development of many of my pieces came from a conflicted attempt at reconciling the idea of multiple or collective truths. I came into the class with an understanding that many different interpretations of Islam existed; however I also believed an ultimate truth existed, though I may not have known the truth myself. I had no issue admitting that my interpretation of Islam could be wrong, for I was and continue to question my own faith. What was more troublesome was the idea that there might not be a definite right of wrong after all and that there are in fact multiple truths coexisting at once – the batin might not be a singular entity.

My first blog post was a response to a Swahili piece on Prophet Muhammad’s journey and ascent to heaven. A significant portion of the writing was designated towards creating the fiery image of hell, something that bothered me deeply. My artistic response was creating a painting of the word haram burning. My artwork seems in some ways to be an objective response to the Swahili writing, providing no explicit commentary on the nature of their hell or what were considered to be sacrilegious practices, but no artwork is truly objective. My piece showed the word haram burning but my burning question was “what is truly haram?” I found the writings to be incredibly one sided, focusing heavily upon the sins of women that landed them in hell and only briefly discussing a few men and their punishments. Though I had some reservations about this portion of the writing, the larger conflict arose from my belief that God is truly omnibenevolent and to be loved my his creations, and what I perceived to be fear mongering in this piece. With this being said I once again had to return to the realization that this is someone’s Islam and this individual has every right to believe in its truth.

Another piece that echoed my internal conflict was the drawing of the hands of a beggar receiving money from a wealthy individual. I believe zakat to be a very private affair dedicated to the greater cause of alleviating poverty in the world. However, in Aminata Fall’s piece, the Senegalese characters treat zakat like a business transaction. It was a circular process in which the poor were needed to pray for the rich and the rich would have to donate money to the poor so that they would pray for the rich. My response was a satirical piece fueled by a degree of frustration with this understanding of zakat that Fall also seems to criticize. I drew a wealthy individual, whose hands were adorned with rings, giving a very small amount of money to a poor individual with nothing. In my mind, the amount of money the affluent individual donates is close to nothing when compared to their true wealth and I reduce their actions to nothing more than a narcissistic display of self righteousness. Once again my frustration can be contextualized through my interpretation of Islam, which maintains that we should not practice the rituals of Islam to show others but rather to commit ourselves to the principles these rituals represent.

Both of these pieces reflect two incredibly different aspects of Islam and furthermore show very different interpretations from those of my own. Though I may not agree with these particular views, they both illustrate the fundamental point my blog posts are attempting to present – whose Islam are you looking at? It was an incredibly taxing experience to recognize the legitimacy of views that were so fundamentally different from my own, especially when my views were shaped by a completely different culture and time period.

Unlike my response to zakat and the Swahili text, my paintings of the arch in the setting sun and the whirling dervish are not critical of the practices. In my view both the dervish and arch attempt to capture the intangible greatness or presence of God. The painting of the arch is based on the idea that the architecture and designs used within a mosque are very purposeful. They have not only practical and aesthetic purposes but are dedicated towards creating a feeling of greatness. This particular piece was shaped largely by my own experiences at certain mosques and the sounds of the athan reverberating across the walls, high ceilings, and columns. The literal echo emphasized the enormity of the mosque and how it surrounds those worshipping within the structure. In a more symbolic sense it captures the omnipresence of God.

The dance of the dervish is a completely different entity, and yet I found parallels between this form of art and the religious expression of Islamic architecture. The dance, like many spiritual practices of Sufism, is a way of becoming completely consumed in the act of worshipping of God. It acts almost as an out of body experience where the worshipper has committed themself to something outside and greater than their own worldly being. Some Sufis would consider these moments to be euphoric incidents of experiencing or even meeting God.

At the surface these two practices and forms of art are incredibly different. In fact they are quite fundamentally different from one another. Dance is a dynamic physical movement of the body whereas a building and its design are static and permanent works of art. Both, however, address the idea of feeling God’s presence. This is a prime example of how one practice or concept can be interpreted in incredibly different manners.

My final two pieces touch more explicitly on the existence of multiple Islams. One of my artistic responses was to the lecture on women and Islam. My particular response focused on the veil or hijab. The topic of the hijab can be rather sensitive and one’s opinion of the hijab varies greatly based upon whom you speak to. Certain women will speak against wearing the hijab. Others might feel that they can still practice Islam without wearing the hijab, though they do not feel strongly against the hijab. Some women feel liberated by wearing the hijab. Some women feel oppressed by forces not permitting them to wear the hijab and feely express themselves. Numerous other complex relationships exist between a woman, modesty, and her religion. This one aspect of Islam really demonstrates the plurality of perspectives and also highlights consequent conflicts. The existence of multiple perspectives, when it comes to modesty, has led to a lot of debate. Certain individuals attack others for not living a modest lifestyle; these individuals judge others based upon their own understanding of modesty in Islam. The debate has expanded to included government in countries such as Turkey. The hijab was considered by some individuals to be anti-western and a source of delay in the modernization of the country.

My final piece was a series of portraits of different Muslims throughout the Harvard community. The goal of the photo series was to capture different interpretations of Islam. The portraits were not necessarily serious and formal. In fact I encouraged people to have fun with their poses and what they wanted to say. The people I chose to photograph had different experiences with Islam and this was reflected in their responses of the conversations I had while photographing them. Both the photo project and the response to the women and Islam really hammer in the idea that one unified Islam does not exist. But the question I hope these blog posts will inspire is how do you live with these multiple pluralities?

The greatest challenge is learning to live and adapt to these pluralities – coexistence. The fact that someone may have interpreted the Qu’ran in a manner completely different from your own interpretation can be a very destabilizing experience. In the real world this realization is an absolute reality one must face. How can one stay true to their own faith while accepting the existence of other beliefs? Does accepting the existence of other beliefs delegitimize one’s own beliefs? The cultural studies approach treats all interpretations equally and breaks down the evolution of certain practices. Personally, studying different practices and finding clear cultural roots and social constructs leading to the development of rituals and beliefs was incredibly scary as it in some ways took the holiness out of the practice. The fear came from applying the same lens to my own beliefs and seeing if they too could be broken down. More importantly I had to decide whether this should even change my beliefs. If one were to magnify my experience by the number of Muslims and the numerous different interpretations, they could see how striking these interactions between Islams can be.

In my opinion co-existence is a very important goal in life. I hope that readers enjoy my blog posts and that these posts were truly able to convey the diversity of Islam and I also challenge readers to think of ways to encourage co-existence.

What I wish others to know…

Posted in Uncategorized on May 13th, 2014

If there is one thing I learned in this class, it is that there is no defined singular Islam. Islam is very much a product of the culture and context surrounding the individual and consequently is a very individual experience. The important questions to ask when one says according to Islam is — whose Islam? Depending on who you talk to Islam can be very different. The same practice or tradition can be performed incredibly differently between two people based upon their beliefs.

For my artistic response to this question I chose to do a series of portraits of Muslims throughout the campus and ask them one question “What is your Islam?” This took a surprisingly long time as many individuals are busy with work but at the same time this was a very fun project. Its always fun to do a photo shoot and capture the moments that people weren’t exactly expecting to be on camera. I picked the picture that captured the moment, the feeling, or the personality of the individual. Here are some of the pictures taken (out of approximately 500).

I really do like how these photos turned out because a lot of them were candid. Unfortunately I could not include all of them in this particular post but they will be available if people would like to see them. What I found most interesting about the prompt was that its a genuinely hard question to answer. Though a lot of the responses were comic some of them do reveal something greater. For certain individuals Islam is truly a lifestyle and a religion whereas for others its something they grew up with and it’s more of a culture than a religion. For others this photo captured a moment in their spiritual journey where they still cant’ quite answer what their Islam is. A friend took the portrait of me.




It’s always changing. Some days its a source of peace and comfort, on other days its completely implausible, and sometimes its just irrelevant.


A: But all the good things have already been said. J: Maybe we should google it? A: Yeah, let’s google it! Me: This is your quote by the way.


It’s a way to stay chill cause haters gonna hate.




It’s a culture– a way of life I’ve been taught to live.


It’s a path to peace — oneness with my world, myself, and what’s greater than me. It’s a way to be my best me, God willing.


It’s not just a religion, it’s a way of life.


I have to make this good or they’ll make fun of me!


I’m still figuring it out.

Week 10: Women and Islam

Posted in Uncategorized on May 13th, 2014

I thought this week’s discussion on women and Islam was probably one of the most interesting in this class. This is partially due to the fact that I am a Muslim woman and I find the viewpoints having to do with women particularly  relevant to my own life. The discussion of the veil was the highlight of the week. One of the themes that kept reoccurring was modernity and modesty and whether these were mutually exclusive. I found that in many cases not allowing a woman to wear the headscarf was against “western” values and most certainly not modern. It is incredibly limiting and patronizing.

Very recently there have been movements to show that modernity and Islam, more specifically the hijab are not mutually exclusive. One of the notable responses was a video titled “mipterz” a combination of the words Muslim and hipster (which some would describe as a certain sense of fashion and others would expand to say is a certain style of life). The video is a colorful music video to a Jay-Z song that features many different hijabis showcasing their style. They are posing, having fun, being quirky.

Mipsterz Video

The video, however, received a lot of criticism. The most common complaint was that it was reducing women to nothing more than their fashion sense which essentially objectified them. I personally did not agree with this. My artistic response for this week was creating a pop-art esque piece that was inspired by the video and its portrayal of hijabi women as cool and hip. My response is the silhouette of a hijabi woman wearing sun glasses. My hope was to capture the young spirit of the “mipsterz” and also a degree of mystery. We don’t know the face of the woman or what she’s thinking under her iconic Ray Ban glasses. She is free to be who she wants to be. This was done using colored paper.


photo 2

Week 8: Sufi Music and Dance

Posted in Uncategorized on May 13th, 2014

Through out the course of the semester we have mentioned Sufism. This week we delved deeper into Sufism and its emphasis on the spiritual component of worship. What I found most interesting about Sufism was how it was used or portrayed by the media, particularly in the United States. It was seen as this liberal, more open minded Islam, that was good for the west. In some ways it appeared as though they were making Sufism out to be the sole force fighting against extremism.

For my artistic response, I decided to paint an oil painting of a whirling dervish. Growing up I have seen many images of whirling dervishes and heard of the term before, but I never truly understood the significance of a whirling dervish and the purpose of the dance. From my understanding the dance of the dervish alongside many other forms of art, such as singing, are means of being fully consumed by the worship of God. It is a way of experiencing God and momentarily leaving the body to feel something beyond it. Just seeing the facial expressions of the dervishes and the way that they commit themselves to the dance captured this devotion. In many of the images I saw the dervishes seemed completely unaware of the presence of the audience.

This painting took an incredibly long amount of time. I began with an underpainting and chose to create a blue toned painting. But upon completely the blue toned painting I came to the realization that warmer colors would have captured the feeling I wanted better, I did not want the painting to appear cold. The major issue is deciding to change the tone of the painting was reapplying paint everywhere and trying not to get the blues of the original paintings to mix with the yellows creating a messy gray. Another difficulty with this particular painting was the usage a limited number of oil paints. As I was not home I did not have a lot of my collection with me and used very few colors. Trying to create depth with few colors was challenging.


photo 1

Week 7: Response to Beggar’s Strike

Posted in Uncategorized on March 23rd, 2014

I thought the idea of poverty and zakat was incredibly interesting. We discussed this in depth through the discussion reading “Beggar’s Strike” by Aminata Snow Fall. Though in some ways the writing itself was predictable I felt like it entered and interesting discussion of poverty and how one should handle it. I think a lot of how zakat is dealt with and the attitude surrounding poverty is determined by culture. In the context of this story set in Senegal, begging was almost like a business. According to the beggars they were needed to pray for those who give money to them. In fear of hurting the tourism industry people wanted the beggars separated from what was presented to the outsiders, becoming a point of conflict.

I just thought the whole idea behind zakat in this situation was incredibly interesting. The zakat is not really a means of helping others as it is to help oneself and to alleviate oneself of some sin almost. Growing up I looked at zakat more as a systematic way of helping the poor. I felt like all people possessed a degree of selflessness and desire to help the poor and this gave people the necessary structure to act on this intrinsic quality.

The idea of the poor praying for you when you give them money is not limited to just Senegal. Whenever I go home to Bangladesh beggars line the streets of Dhaka. They poke at your door and upon receiving money will recite a quick prayer or make a motion showing that they have prayed for you or intend on doing so. This in some ways parallels the situation in Fall’s writing. Interestingly enough many beggars are actually part of a larger operation run by gangs and do not get to keep all the money themselves. Slumdog Millionaire did a good job showing that element of begging on screen. When I visited the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, a group of young kids kept following my family around begging for money. They were definitely using religion to convince us to give them money. They followed us from the mosque to the parking lot and we gave them money because of their perseverance. As soon as we gave them the money though the older kids just began counting the money.


The kids we saw at the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta. You can see the girl on the right counting the money, while the younger ones enjoy being photographed.

For my artistic response to this week’s reading I decided to show the hands of someone giving money to a beggar. The idea is that someone incredibly wealthy, who has every ability to donate money, chooses to only donate a little because they do not feel true moral obligation to help. Rather it is a way of checking off the boxes and being able to say I gave zakat. I thought this in some way reflected what we read about in the short story. I drew the hands in ink and used acrylic paints to create the metallic rings and coin.


Artistic response

Week 6: Response to Islamic Art and Architecture in Mosques

Posted in Uncategorized on March 23rd, 2014

This week’s response is not specific to one reading but rather all of the readings and discussions we had in class. We viewed many different types of Islamic architecture when it came to designing mosques. During section we debated about the nature of Islamic Art. The conclusion I personally reached is that the architecture is very much a product of the culture, location, time period, and interactions with other cultures. Though regional differences may exist in how a mosque is built or differences in Islamic architecture as a whole, i found that there are some commonalities between different buildings. One that I found in many different forms of Islamic architecture is the arch and spaces that have high ceilings. From my experiences in visiting places of worship I found a lot of them had very high ceilings and architecture that makes the space appear for large even if not in the amount of square footage. When I saw mosques in Egypt I noticed this pattern, alongside the Notre Dame, and a Confucius place of worship. I partly believe this is done for the echoing noises that create a sense of greatness.

For my artwork I decided to create an arch with a lamp. This is in part inspired by the designs and patterns I’ve seen in a lot of prayer rugs in which there is an arch and some type of lamp hanging from the arch. It is also inspired by some Mughal architecture found in Agra. The light might tie into the idea of the “nur” that Muhammad was endowed with. It might also be the guiding light. I decided it would be something I wanted to include in the artwork. I used acrylic paints and a flat canvas panel for this piece. The hope was to depict what looking out of an arch in the setting sun would look like. We would only be able to see a silhouette of that portion of the building and the light. In retrospect I wish I had used both acrylic and oil paints to create this piece because I am not as familiar with acrylic paint and how to create colors with it. I wish I had done the background in both acrylic and oil paints because this would have enabled me to create a gradient of colors that would be associated with the setting sun aside from just a orange-pink color.



Week 4: Response to “Myths and Legends of the Swahili”

Posted in Uncategorized on March 23rd, 2014

In the reading titled “Myths and Legends of the Swahili,” the Prophet describes  his ascent to heaven, the Isra and Mi’raj. In between descriptions of the layers of heaven, the reading also painted images of hell. Descriptions of hell included “Fire was flaming in their intestines, their hearts were smouldering, and sparks flew out of their mouths” (Knappert 77). I found it incredibly interesting that the idea of punishment was so crucial to express to readers that Muhammad (PBUH) was shown the fires during his trip to God and the heavens. It made me wonder whether God was to be fear, or if punishment is depicted independent of God himself, or if it was a combination of both.

During our discussion section, this portion of the text was heavily discussed. For many, including myself, it was incredibly disturbing. Growing up whenever I heard of  hell, the first image that appeared in my mind was fire. The concept of hell fire was something emphasized by my Sunday school teacher and my mother. My mother described to me how the hell fire would stick to your flesh as you attempted to make up missed prayers in hell, how the fire would create a pain much worse than a burn on Earth. Though this description was terrifying, it pales in comparison to Swahili depiction of hell. In the hell described in this writing, the women who were unchaste or cheated on their husbands were actively hurting themselves. Opening themselves up, ripping out their intestines, in addition to feeling the burn of the fire itself. 

For my artistic response to this piece I decided to portray the common denominator in many different depictions of hell — punishment for sins with fire. I have a sheet of paper with haram written on it that is burning in fire. The idea is that any action that is haram or a sin is to be punished in the fires of hell. I decided against using actual phrases in the Qu’ran that are forbidding actions because I did not want the piece to appear to be burning the Qu’ran and be offensive. I used oil paint paper which was strong and would not warp. I ripped the edges to make it look like aged paper and then stained it with teabags to add to the aged effect. I painted the fire and the portions of paper that are almost in an “ash” like state with oil paint and used linseed oil for the medium. I had a lot of difficulty transporting the piece as linseed oil does not dry very quickly and this caused for some of the paint to smudge. If I were to do this over again I would consider using Liquin as a medium as it supposedly dries quickly.