You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.


May 3rd, 2016


Thank you for visiting my blog, Crafty Contemplation! My name is Julie and I am a Master of Theological Studies candidate at Harvard Divinity School. I’m am grateful to Professor Asani for this opportunity to consider some of the themes from the course, For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures, through such a creative format. The course embraced the cultural studies approach and applied it to the study of Islam, so I will begin my introductory remarks with an outline of this method.

Next, I will briefly consider some of the themes from the course that I hope to have embraced for this series of creative reflections. These considerations will be focused on the following topics: 1) grounds for dichotomies and the diverse communities of interpretation in Muslim cultures; 2) art and religious symbolism; 3) the role of women; 4) pluralistic roots in Islam; and finally, 5) the grounds for comparative theology.

The Cultural Studies Approach

From the beginning of this course, Professor Asani has impressed upon us the essential role that the cultural studies approach plays in breaking down misconceptions and monolithic notions of religion. This methodology, originally described in Diane Moore’s book Overcoming Religious Illiteracy, stresses the vitality of understanding the contexts in which religions are situated to be able to genuinely interpret their roles, functions, and essence. Furthermore, it emphasizes the deeply interconnected nature of religions with other forces such as politics, social structures, socioeconomic conditions, etc. Without paying proper attention to these factors, one cannot adequately claim to understand a specific religious tradition. All of these elements emphasize the role of the individual as a practitioner of a certain tradition; here, with the individual, lies the essence of the tradition. It cannot be summarized with a concise and quantities formula of beliefs and doctrines. Moore describes the benefits of this method in overcoming religious illiteracy with these points:

1) it is the most accurate in depicting the complexity of religion and its influences in historical and contemporary contexts;

2) it emphasizes the diversity within traditions as well as between them; and

3) it represents a method of inquiry rather than the content of knowledge alone.[1]

Professor Asani’s course embodied these pedagogical techniques, both through the presentation of material and through the creative assessments in which students participated, which always compelled one to consider both the contexts and content of the material at hand.

The final lecture for this course touched upon the essential nature of this work as Professor Asani restated that religious literacy is absolutely crucial and fundamental for democracy. A lack of understanding leads to a process of dehumanization that targets race, religion, etc., in such a way that has very real and dangerous consequences. Thus, in this way, Asani believes that “the class of civilizations is not between Christianity and Islam, but between people who want to live with respect and trust and those who want to impose a hegemonic view.”[2] As such, the arts are an integral component to promoting literacy, as they are a means for “humanizing the face of Islam.” While this is an extensive and intensive pursuit, it is within this orientation toward the discipline that I intend to engage in submiting this final blog project.

Grounds for Dichotomies 

To expand upon the role of the cultural studies approach and its inherent ability to break down one’s monolithic conceptions of religions as cohesive entities, I would like to begin with a very brief consideration the various communities and methods of interpretation present within the Islamic traditions. In the broadest sense, two orientations toward the writing of the Qur’an can be summarized as categorical vs. allegorical; or put another way, external, historical vs. hidden, internal meaning. John Renard encapsulates a potential rationale for each perspective in this way:

Some argued that it is best simply not to ask questions at all about the scripture’s reference to God’s face or hands, or any other attribute to which ordinary human experience provides the only analogy. They argued that God chose to describe the divine reality in these terms, and it is not up to human beings to second guess or speculate. Others insisted that since such anthropomorphic features clearly compromise God’s transcendence, on has no choice but to understand them in a purely metaphorical way.[3]

Michael Sells, on the other hand, provides a useful explanation for the allegorical interpretive method, noting that, in reference to the Qur’an, these “signs of a reality that cannot be directly expressed but understood only through a sustained process of reading and interpreting.”[4] Thus, in his reading of the mystical perspective, there is an inherent call for interpretation. While this theme of variants of interpretation is most explicit in my post, Between Mullahs and Mystics, I think it is only fair to be explicit in my general tendency to embrace an allegorical reading of the poetry and Quranic passages I have selected for the basis of my creative reflections. In highlighting the potential for dichotomies here, I hope it is clear that my inclination toward an allegorical methodology is a stylistic and personal choice, and in no way indicative of a particular community of interpretation within Islam.

Art & Religious Symbolism

 To return to the initial topic of religious literacy and the role of the arts, I think this course’s continual focus on specific examples of art in its various contexts has been extremely useful in demonstrating that both the human and cultural are important in parsing out the modes and mediums by which people embrace as the practice of Islam. These artistic works have greatly complimented my understanding of religious themes within Islam. For example, having an awareness of the sacred nature of writing calligraphy helped me unpack the divine nature of the Qur’an and the possibility for one who writes, calligraphy or poetry, to participate in the act of creating. I’ve included one example of calligraphy in my blog, as a means of experimenting with this process essential to the tradition, and it has given me a deeper respect for the profound undertaking that developing one of these crafts is. The opportunity to create a series of artistic reflections for this project provides a new lens for considering how the “relationship between form and meaning, between the hidden and the manifest,” in the Islamic traditions.[5]

Early on in the course, I was also struck by the vast examples of depicting religious symbols of the prophet, the lamp as a symbol for the manifestation of God’s light, etc. as I had been under the false impression that depictions of this sort were considered idolatrous. The topic of light captivated me, and this is evident in my post, On Prophetic Light, but this notion is also fundamental in my reflection, Free to Love?

The Role of Women

While this is not explicitly a focus of this blog’s reflections, I did choose this as the site of reflection for my first post about the ways in which children learn about religion. I think the following is a helpful quote from this course on the topic of women in religion:

Women have been the greatest friends of religion, but religion has been the greatest enemy of women.

This statement powerfully encapsulates the notion that women’s bodies have become the battlefield where religious ideologies for competing visions of Islam are played out. While my reflection embraces a very positive and gentle depiction of the process in which a religious tradition is passed down from mother to child, I think it would be unfair not to acknowledge that the role of women in Islamic societies is controversial.

Pluralistic Roots in Islam

One of my favorite topics to learn about this semester has been the roots of pluralism in the Islamic tradition, and in particularly, the ways in which the faith originally maintained a very open and inclusive definition of a Muslim as “one who submits to God,” which then evolved to become more exclusive as qualifiers were added to the shahada.

Just yesterday, in listening to a Muslim classmate reflect upon her participation in the Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative, I was struck by her motive for engaging with other traditions. She shared the passage the following passage from the Qur’an and I was moved by her interpretation of it.

The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them.[6]

She explained how her allegorical reading of this passage extended the permission of interfaith exchange in a variety of arenas, not just that of food, and how it is a means of inspiration and foundation for peace work she engages in the educational sphere.

In my own musings in this blog, I explore this theme through the indiscriminate nature of the divine light of God and I think that this has been a central and critical theme throughout the course.

Grounds for Comparative Theology

As a final note, one may notice the reflective approach this blog takes from a theistic perspective. This is in part because of my focus area at HDS is Comparative Theology. This methodology allows “us to make deeper sense of ourselves intellectually and spiritually, in light of what we find in the world around us.”[7] I used this as an opportunity to exercise this method, and also, because I found it conducive to the personal nature of this assignment. In the process of producing the artistic reflections, I found the themes that inspired the art resonated deeply with me. In this way, I embraced this exercise as an opportunity for some concluding reflections on my learning and faith journey as I prepare for graduation.

[1] Moore, Diane L. Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education, (p. 54). New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

[2] Asani, A. (2016, April). Islam in America. Lecture conducted from Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

[3] Renard, J. (1996). Seven doors to Islam: Spirituality and the religious life of Muslims, (p. 113). Berkeley: University of California Press.

[4] Sells, M. A. (1999). Approaching the Qurʼan: The early revelations, (p. 211). Ashland, Or: White Cloud Press.

[5] Renard, 107

[6] Qur’an, 5:5

[7] Clooney, F. (2010). Comparative theology: Deep learning across religious borders, (p. 5). Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Free to Love?

May 2nd, 2016

Reflection on The Literature of India, ed. E. Dimock (Week 9)

The following verse of poetry provides an entry point for reflection on the role of free will in Islam.

“It is love that draws the moth to the flame, the nightingale to the rose, the river to the ocean, the breeze to the garden, and the creation to its creator” (Dimock, 186).

candle cropped 2

Each of these beautiful examples emphasizes the inevitability of love, thus making it unclear what role free will plays in a devotee’s choice to submit her will and being to the divine beloved. In the Christian tradition, which is colored by its notion of original sin and the obstacle of overcoming concupiscence in the modern era, free will is an essential component of love. If one does not choose to put the needs of one’s love over one’s own by her own volition, then this act cannot be described as love. However, I wonder how often we are ever truly free to choose to love someone, at least in the romantic sense. Sure, you can choose to spend more time with someone, which may increase the likelihood of love, but there is no particular formula that will guarantee that one falls in love or not.

This inherent uncertainty finds an interesting contrast in the image of the mystic’s love of God as represented in the image of a moth being drawn to the flame. Is it that the mystic has practiced in such a way that she has acquired a heightened probability of inducing an overwhelming love of God, to the point that it is inevitable? Or, is there an element of predestination involved in the process? I had a similar question in considering the inheritance of prophetic light in the Shi’a tradition, and the orientation toward prophecy in the many Islamic traditions. If prophethood is believed to be established by God as an act of divine providence, to what extent is one free to choose to love God in the arena of mysticism? What is the role of free will if the force that draws the believer toward God is as defined as that which draws a moth toward a flame?

Between the Mullahs and Mystics

May 2nd, 2016

Reflection on Farida Mahwash and the Kabul Ensemble’s performance in The Sound of the Soul (Week 12)

The tension present in Islam between the mullahs and mystics over the root of knowledge, the rightful owner of this knowledge, and the notion of correct worship of God are particularly interesting because it illuminates a potential tension that could be present within one’s own person. The notion that poetry, especially poetry set to music, has the ability to transcend the material and the seven different layers of meaning believed to be inherent in every Quranic verse adds an interesting dimension to this debate. At the heart of this understanding is the notion that the spiritual, that which is genuinely real, and that the metaphors of the poems, can lead you to that root of truth.

In The Sound of the Soul, Farida Mahwash sheds light on this debate, stating that, “Through the mystical poems of Jalaluddin Rumi, Bidel, and others, I experience a direct connection with God, and the music helps me stay in this state of prayer.” The scholar is no longer necessary as an intermediary and one has direct access to the divine. According to Mahwash, the ignorance of the mullahs concerning the role of music and their insistence upon a particular mode of prayer over others is the root cause of suffering for many.

Mahwash’s reflections and songs allude to a primordial knowledge about what life was life for creation to be united with the Source of life prior to its scattering. The longing for unity is great and is not limited to the relationship between the human and the divine. She believes that when she sings, she and the audience become “one soul, because [they] have the same feeling.” The power of the music and the words is such that it enables them to, at least momentarily, transcend those rigid boundaries of self and other, and to dwell in perfect harmony.

The imagery that accompanies this dialogue is also very interesting. In the same film, one Sufi practitioner explained this helpful visual aid:

God cannot be known through the mind only. The mind is a horse that brings you to the Sultan’s palace, the door, but does not enter with you in it. So the mind can lead you to that level of knowing the existence of God, but to communicate with God and know the essence of God, that’s a different dimension.

I find this passage resonates withorseh me and I’m reminded of the
conceptal battle I’ve sometimes had when trying to get the rational and spiritual dimensions of my own orientation toward the Transcendental to align, and the lack of success I’ve had in this area. I’m intrigued, in particular, by the last thought, in that communication with God is not accomplished through the rational, though the rational can get you to the point of potential contact, but through “a different dimension.” I’m curious about the different dimension of the person and the ways that people seek to, whether successfully or unsuccessfully, harmonize the elements of the mullahs and the mystics within one’s own experiences. I wonder how many fewer people would settle on a strictly rational perspective if one was able to diverge from this impulses to harmonize our experiences into a coherent narrative.



Clear Vision and Indecision

May 2nd, 2016

Reflection on Attar’s Conference of the Birds (Week 10)

Conf. of birds imageIn reading Attar’s Conference of the Birds, I felt distraught by the ease with which I identified with the character flaws of the profiles that the particular birds represented. The overindulgence of the parrot, the pride of the peacock, and the overly zealous embrace of external constructs of ritual purity, for better or for worse, are all hats I have worn in my pursuit of God, knowledge, and truth, as well as less noble intentions.

However, the uncertainty expressed in the phrase quoted in this piece of calligraphy is the Achilles’ heel of my pursuits. For purposes of composition, the painting has the lines that resonate most soundly with me, but the fuller context of the passage is useful in discerning Attar’s sentiment:

An indecisive bird complains

Another bird declared: ‘As you can see,

I lack the organs of virility;

Each moment I prefer a different tree-

I’m drunk, devout, the world’s, then (briefly) His;

Caught between “No, it isn’t”, Yes, it is”.

The flesh will send me drinking, then I’ll find

The praise of God awakening in my mind;

What should I do between these two extremes,

Imprisoned by conflicting needs and dreams.”


And the hoopoe answers him

The hoopoe said: ‘This troubles everyone;

What man is truly single-minded? None!

If all of us could boast a spotless mind,

Why should the prophets mingle with mankind?

If it is love that prompts your fervent prayers,

A hundred kindnesses will calm your cares…

Through the study of religion, I am frequently presented with an array of beautiful and compelling views about the nature of reality, the purpose of life, and the best way to live. In the interest of open-mindedness, I try to allow myself to sit with these ideas and learn all that I have from them. But often, they appear so alluring that I find myself shifting my orientation toward myself and the other – whether other people or God. This kind fluttering about what I believe is indicative of a deeper and more troubling uncertainty, one that at times has plagued my waking hours and at others is unnoticed, but one that is always hovering not too far below the surface.

If I was to be honest with myself, the main personal reason I came to divinity school was to allow myself some time devoted to study and inquiry such that I might come to some sort of conclusion. I’ve taken classes mainly because of how they deal with the concept of uncertainty in their descriptions and I’ve attended meetings for the HDS Religious Nones as well as the HDS Catholics. This passage from Attar is comforting in that he describes this dilemma as intrinsic to the human experience. When he asks, what man is of a “single mind,” and answers, “none!” it reminds me of the fact that we often construct these cohesive narratives of our lives, but in reality, they are disjointed and inconsistent. The words of the existential phenomenologist Michael de Montaigne on this topic are quite insightful:

Those who strive to account for a man’s deeds are never more bewildered than when they try to knit them into one whole and to show them under one light, since they commonly contradict each other in so odd a fashion it seems impossible that they should all come out of the same shop.

In this way, I have decidedly returned to the faith of my upbringing, but with new eyes, while attempting to embrace the uncertainty as an inevitable and valuable element of living. In response to the notion of being “imprisoned by my conflicting needs and dreams” the idea that without this confusion there would be no need for God to employ the prophets to lead people toward right insight and action to be a comforting notion of providence in this context. Finally, given this notion of continual striving, I’m fascinated by the notion that the birds are able to complete their journey. I’m intrigued by the implications of this from the mystical perspective; In what ways one is able to come to a point of certainty and contact with the Divine within the Sufi tradition that such that is not possible through a more doctrinal lens, and vice-versa?

Muhammad and the Rose

March 22nd, 2016

Reflection on Suleyman Celebi’s Turkish poem, Mevlid- Serfi (Week 4)

Upon reading this poem I was IMG_4141
confused by the exalted theology of Muhammad. I was unable to account for the dissonance that verses such as, “since Muhammad is cause of this existence, with simple hearts petition his assistance,” and what I conceived of as a strict ideology of Monotheism, which existed in sharp contrast with fear of shirk (Chelebi, 18). My confusion wasn’t eased when I came across equally extravagant exaltations of Muhammad, such as “whose light did make the whole world shine in brilliance, whose rose-like beauty filled the world with roses” (Chelebi, 25). This confusion demonstrated my lack of understanding about the role of mentorship and potential for emulating the perfection that Muhammad represents in many Muslim contexts.

I’m intrigued by this verse employing the imagery of the rose because there is something contagious about Muhammad’s beauty, which enables him to fill the world with roses. Yet, his beauty is not that exactly aligned with that of the rose, but rather, something “rose-like.” This distinction is indicative of Muhammad’s distinction, as the last embodiment of the Divine Light, and there is almost something otherworldly about him, despite his fully human existence.

The comparativist in me cannot resist recalling the fact that Mary in the Christian tradition is also associated with the rose. I am intrigued by the association of the rose, which many consider to be the most beautiful or perfect flower, and these two religious figures. I think an analogy will concisely sum up my musings.

Muhammad: The Qur’an :: Mary: Jesus

Both Muhammad and Mary are the means by which the divine is manifest in the world. Both are the vehicles through which God exercises Her will. It is at this point that I recognize my lack of knowledge about the doctrinal presence of free will in the Qur’an and in Islamic traditions. I am tempted to say that both Mary and Muhammad are deemed as exceptional, perfect, rose-like beings within their respective traditions because of their willingness to submit their wills to the will of Gods. While I do not know the explicit teaching on this subject from as rooted in Islamic tradition or the Qur’an, I do recall one of the main messages from Muhammad’s Mi’raj, and that was his shift from ego-centric to God-centric. This, in conjunction with the fact that Muslim literally translates as “one who submits,” makes me inclined to think that this hypothesis is plausible.

On Prophetic Light

March 22nd, 2016

Reflection on Vernon James Schubel’s Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam: Shi’i Devotional Rituals in South Asia (Week 5)

Light has a special place in the human imagination of the divine. This is clearly demonstrated in the following verse of the Qur’an: 

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.

The parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lamp—Prophetic Light

the lamp is in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star—lit from a blessed olive tree,

neither eastern nor westernwhose oil almost lights up,

though fire should not touch it.

Light upon light.

Allah guides to His Light whomever He wishes.

Allah draws parables for mankind,

and Allah has knowledge of all things.

Quran 24:35

I’d like to take a few moments to reflect upon this verse.

I appreciate the indiscriminate nature of the light as it is depicted here, giving the passage pluralistic appeal. I imagine light pouring out into the darkness and covering all that it comes across, regardless of race, gender, or creed.

I’m captivated by the notion of the lamp as a clear glass, as the verse states, “as it were a glittering star.” It saddens me that this strikes me as optimistic. I wish that God’s light or the light of truth and clarity was as clearly visible today as if it were to shine through a clear, glittering glass. However, I feel the morally murky waters of political agendas, spiritual and physical materialism, and fear, often prevent us from perceiving truth directly. For that reason, I’ve surrounded the lantern in translucent blue hues. The light of the divine is still visible, but it is not clear.

However, the light shines most directly through the word Muhammad. I designed this in light of (ha!) the Shi’i traditions notion of Divine Light, which is transmitted through the lineage of the prophet. Schuebl describes a unique Shi’i cosmology in which prophets were created before creation from a primordial light and that as a result, through their especially close relationship with God, they are endowed as “spiritual descendants” with “special abilities and powers” (32). I’m intrigued by several notions of this cosmology, predominantly the predestined nature of the close relationship that Muhammad’s spiritual descendants are able to achieve with regard to the divine, but also because of the emphasis on ancestry and the process of passing down sacred wisdom. While I have a hard time relating to the former, I think the latter is something I could pay closer attention to in my daily life and in familial relationships as a means for seeing the Divine Light more clearly, despite the clouded lantern.

Muslim Mother, Christian Mother

March 21st, 2016

Reflection on Ziauddin Sardar’s Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam (Week 2)


Reading the opening remarks of Ziauddin Sardar’s opening chapter entitled The Qur’an and Me struck a deeply personal. He begins, “I grew up reading the Qur’an on my mother’s lap”(3). I felt an immediate connection to his words as I had begun a paper for an existential phenomenology course several weeks early a similar way. The introductory remarks of my own paper read:

I first came to know God sitting on the front porch of during summer storms after the electricity had gone out. By flashlight, my mother would read to me from my children’s picture book Bible, and her soothing voice gave life to the promises of peace we read. Here, I came to associate God with both the might of the storm and the gentleness of my mother’s touch.

Thus, when Sardar remarked that for many Muslim children, their connection to the Qur’an is not distant or academic, but rather, “infused with associations of the warmest and most enduring of human bonds,” I felt as though I knew exactly what he meant (3). He describes the natural association of love for the text given the extremely personal medium through which he learned it (5).

I found another interesting parallel in our initial understandings of the sacred texts in our respective traditions: each was centered on love. For me, the love in the text was that of Christ’s absolute submission and sacrifice for those who he loved. For Sardar, he described a great love for God and His Words, unconditional – like that love between a mother and a child (5).

The timely pairing of our reflections led me to begin contemplating the role of motherhood in perpetuating the faith and why this duty so often falls upon the mother when there are often many other able adults in a child’s life. Perhaps the answer is one of pragmatics, but the rationale may also be that it is intuitive. In addition to nurturing a child’s physical needs, the mother seeks also to tend to her child’s spiritual needs. I’m curious about how one’s introduction to religion and the sacred text in one’s tradition impacts their hermeneutical orientation throughout the course of his or her life. I also wonder at what point in one’s journey of faith other influences begin to outweigh and overpower the pervasively peaceful context in which some learn about the divine in.

I am grateful for Sardar’s memoir as it provided an outlet to consider the role of motherhood in religion. For my artistic reflection (in case it is not clear), I have drawn two symmetrical silhouettes of a mother reading to her child. Within each silhouette I have written musings on motherhood and parenting from the sacred texts considered herein. The passages in the mother-child figure to the left are from the Qur’an and the figure on the right is comprised of Biblical phrases.

Hello world!

March 21st, 2016

Welcome to Weblogs at Harvard. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!