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Diasporic Musings

May 1, 2018

Introduction: Making Meaning as a Diasporic Being

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — fatemaelbakoury @ 2:59 pm


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As a born and raised Muslim, much of my experience has been shaped by my alienation as a minority in the United States. I oscillated throughout my youth between the worldly need to be seen by my non-Muslim, American peers and the celestial desire to be loved by Allah. At times I reconciled the two spheres by convincing myself that validation from my peers and professors was Allah’s way of seeing me. I put my worth in other creations of God, instead of centering God’s love within myself. This dilemma defines my upbringing in the United States and is a crucial starting point as I reflect on this course: I arrived to Aesthetic Thinking 54 with the vestiges of that material desires lurking within me. I have not unlearned them entirely, but I am well on my way as a consequence of the intimate art I was afforded the opportunity to bear witness to—throughout history and from my peers. Additionally, the historical movements to which we brought our varied perspectives and the localized explorations of religiosity further challenged me to understand and accept that a collective Islam will always be beyond me, and will continue to take on varied interpretations with every community or individual I encounter.

Arguably the largest takeaways from this course came from the initial readings and lectures, when we asked difficult questions around the construction of Islam as the “Other” in Western society. Professor Asani’s centering of the cultural studies approach not only functioned as an anchor for me, but challenged my preconceived notions about the actions and ritualistic practices that are considered Islamic. I was most challenged by the reading on the Berti erasure, as the notion of drinking the Qur’an was one so far removed from my devout Sunni Arab upbringing. Asking “Whose Islam? Which Islam? In which context?” forced me to reconcile the internalized Sunni Arab hegemony that I am normally so critical of. I felt the privilege I have within the global Muslim community once again when we watched Koran My Heart and saw so many Muslims from around the world: West Africa, South Asia, and other parts of the Middle East, flocking to Egypt for a chance at recognition. Again, I had to reconcile that knee jerk reaction I have to be critical of Sunni Arabs, when I myself am a descendent of a very hegemonic and pervasive tradition.

As a woman, our exploration of the postcolonial power flux allowed me to center the Islam I was raised with in a historical movement with particular patriarchal and sectarian motives. Encountering figures like Rifa’a al Tahtawi and Sir Muhammad Iqbal added a different dimension to what I had envisaged as the linear Islamist movements that took place throughout the Muslim world after Europeans left. Rifa’a al Tahtawi’s saying “In Paris I saw Islam and no Muslims, but in Egypt I see Muslims but no Islam” is one I have heard from older Egyptians. It is not until I took this course, though, that I began exploring what this phrase means; prior to this class I had a much starker Western/Eastern approach and assumed that figures like Tahtawi were people who betrayed their Egyptian cohort by taking on European notions of liberation. As a consequence of our discussion of Islam/islam in the Qur’an, I now understand that Tahtawi was simply referencing a particular ethos of education, knowledge, and interpersonal relations that he would have liked to see more of in Egypt. While I still hold that critiquing the likes of Tahtawi (or Qasim Amin, who we did not discuss) is valuable, I now understand that the delineations I created because of my own limited understanding of the transmission of knowledge during colonial encounters has hindered me from understanding the intersectionality of colonial and diasporic epistemology.

Conversely, Iqbal’s message in his Call and Answer left me critical of the way in which the colonial encounter was justified. The answer Allah gives to the troubled Muslims is similar to Tahtawi’s claim: “Infidels who live like Muslims surely merit Faith’s reward.” I struggled with this claim because I do not think that Allah rewarded the colonizers if He took their souls in the process. How can a people for whom their technology and innovation is predicated upon the mass destruction and consumption of other lands be spiritually free? The weeks we spent exploring the politicization of Islam and the incorporation of Western thinkers (such as Neitzsche in the case of Iqbal) left me with an all-consuming question. It is, in essence, the same question I ask myself on a daily basis: Is spiritual recognition from Allah evident through “progress” or “success” on this world or dunya? In the same way that I turned to my American peers for validation, I feel that many colonized Muslim countries initially wanted to “advance themselves” by turning toward European powers as templates of that progression.

This revelation was coupled by my newfound awareness when we discussed certain aspects of Islam I had always taken for granted: the five pillars, hijab, the hadith, and the order in which the Qur’anic verses were revealed. I did not know that the Qur’an makes no mention of the now normative five pillars. When Asani told us that many Muslims today use those pillars as a metric for piety, I felt a pang: I, too, do so even though Allah knows I do not live up to my faith in so many ways. Conversely, learning that the pillars are not enforced in the Qur’an gave me permission to not hold myself to that standard, either. I gained a greater understanding of the depth and breadth of Allah’s love when I learned that so much of what is held as a model within the normative community has also been subject to the ebb and flow of history and memory. Learning about “Ilm al Rijal,” isnad, and the three tiers of hadith (sahih, hasan, and daif) also cemented in me the realization that these religious texts are subject to human fallibilities and regardless of the veracity that undergirds them, they are humanly compiled. Similarly, I was taught that all non-Muslims were infidels, but our discussion of islam/Islam, “Ahl al Bayt,” and the order of the verses revealed showed me that greater complexity shaped the revelation of the Qur’an: the faith was revealed through stages of delineation and only in the centuries following the death of the prophet did it take on a political flavor to demarcate what is and is not “Islam.”

All of these examples are only to emphasize the question I must return to in order to proceed: Whose Islam? The only thing I am certain of after this course is that my faith is in my hands, and that I cannot entirely turn toward history in order to find my answers. My journey must continue inward. In an attempt to center my relationship with Allah, I took very seriously some of the creative works we explored: Conference of the Birds, the painting of Sheik Ahmadou Bamba of Senegal, Persepolis, and the Turkish Mevladi. Each of these spoke to a different aspect of my identity and qualms as a first generation Muslim woman of color living in the United States—a country marred by its history of injustice and hatred toward those who are deemed Other.

With my first post, I attempted to explore light as it literally exists around me. I thought this would be an appropriate foundation upon which to set my subsequent posts: the deep-seated desire I have to feel God’s presence in my life. Working on this post showed me that God’s presence is evident; I must simply orient myself toward it. Although the readings where jihad was discussed did not define the concept as an attempt to move closer to Allah, but rather as the pursuit of justice, I found the process of seeking out light to be incredibly healing for my marginalized body. I felt protected by Allah’s light, and the quiet places in which I found it. Most of the readings we had that discussed jihad related it to external relations (with family, society, corruption); some mentioned the fight against the ego, but I simply wanted to return to the root of the word as Asani does in his book: “j-h-d, meaning ‘to struggle, to toil, and to exert great effort’” (82). While I did not feel that I exerted the greatest effort to see this light (it was everywhere I looked on some days), it was on days when the sun did not emerge from behind the clouds that I had to search hardest. The struggle manifested when the conditions for the search did not appear to be met. Jihad for me is now about the search when so little appears evident.

That spiritual search is one I have been continuing for a while now, but one that became much more personal with an encounter I had at nineteen, during my first visit to Paris. While there I met a man in all white garb, who gave me his prayer beads upon seeing that he had none to sell me. I remember being overwhelmingly moved by this gesture of kindness. To this day, I believe that I saw all of what Islam is in his generosity. While this was a beautiful moment in which I saw a shining example of Islamic practices, it is also the point in my portfolio at which gender begins to play a larger role. My interactions with the man were laced with a fear that he would reject me on account of my outfit and my body—a sentiment I struggle to believe would define the experience of a man entering any mosque. Learning about women such as Rabia al Basri reminded me that my feelings were in many ways scripturally ill founded because a generous Muslim (like this man) would not reject me on the basis of something as superficial as an outfit.

My third post took on a different medium: this time I attempted to tackle gender in a sonic sphere. We discussed in depth the ways in which the likes of Rabia sought a path toward Allah that was not shaped by the bifurcations of “halal” and “haram” that lead individuals to count their attributes in a manner that reifies the materialism they claim to denounce. While we had not read the works of Benezir Bhutto, Nawal el Sadaawi, or Amina Waduud, I still identify with their assertions about patriarchy that we discussed in lecture. When I first began searching for pieces on the Sama’ rituals, all the videos showed men as whirling dervishes. I appreciated the very apparent interiority they were clearly experiencing, but I wanted to see a woman embodying that same search for divinity. I found a Sufi meditation video of a woman repeating the words “La illaha illa allah” There is no God but Allah. While I am not entirely sure how much I succeeded in augmenting her voice in the track I produced, I wanted to center her nonetheless as a moment of retrieval. In the month or so since I made that track, I have regularly listened to it—also in an act of spiritual healing for myself—as a reminder that my religiosity also matters.

For some time after that post, I struggled to find a way into another artistic outlet. I had decided after my first post that I wanted each entry to be in a different medium. At this point I had produced a song, a photo series, and a brief memoir piece. I was not yet sure how to move forward, but our discussion of the varied forms of the ghazals left me inspired to attempt one myself. Since I majored in English as an undergraduate student, I had to extensively study English sonnets. I wondered if it would be a successful attempt to bring together the sonnet and the ghazal. While the sonnet allows for enjambment in ways the ghazal does not, the latter also allowed me to create a rhythm that would not have been possible with the sonnet due to the ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme pattern. In this poem, I explore for the first time in this portfolio my habit of turning toward my Western peers for a precedent of blessedness that is not actually appropriate to my individual journey.

Similarly, reading The Conference of the Birds also challenged me because each of the birds, though their stories obviously differed from my own due to different contexts, they had similar impasses to me: egotistical, faux fear, a love of tumult, worldliness, greed. The hoopoe’s response each time reminded me of my humanity, and of the mental gymnastics I can put myself through in order to believe that I am simply not prepared for Allah’s love. The hoopoe’s frustrations showed me that this itself was actually an excuse and not a noble performance of modesty. Working on this illustration showed me that I tend to see in gray on most days because I cannot accept how intensive the work of loving Allah is. It would mean trying to see the light and the color at all times, but how much can my eyes and heart actually take? The Conference of the Birds remains a vibrant reminder, a beautiful standard of the ever-further horizon I should always reach toward, but will always be just that: a horizon. Still, just like the light, it is worth the effort.

My final portfolio entry is a return to the worldly, which is—whether I accept it or not—where I am right now. Alas, I may reach to Allah all I want, but I am still on this planet. Marjane Satrapi’s comic memoir was a beautiful example of how personal narrative, diasporic identity construction, religion, humor, illustration, and evocation can all be rendered in a slim volume. I was deeply moved by the multiplicity encompassed in the worldview of a young girl simply attempting to navigate her worth and interests in a society that had reduced her to her body. As a woman, I have struggled with this on several fronts: whether as an Egyptian, a Muslim, or an exoticised person of color living in the West, I never go a day without feeling objectified. I also struggled, as I mentioned, to conceive of myself in a way that does not center Western images of liberation. I still do. I still have these questions, and my goal with this post was to open that door and let the pain flood through. I need to learn how to sit in the space where unanswerable questions are offered, where they permeate the atmosphere, and where I can breathe them in knowing that Allah will take care of me.

Persepolis was an appropriate way for me to finish this portfolio because in the end I am left with this politicized body, on this earth. I must accept that. Though this class is over, I now have the toolkit to ask myself questions about the obstacles placed before me and my relationship with Allah. With all the localized interpretations of Islam we have witnessed I have learned of the infinite ways in which one can be a Muslim. Though we can come together at times, to celebrate the Mi’raj, or Ramadan, or to pray Jummah, or to turn to the sky on Laylat al Qadr, we all go our separate ways, and we must turn inward. When we turn outward, I have now learned that we have to ask “Whose Islam?” In my case, I now have enough grace for myself to say that my Islam is just that: mine.




April 23, 2018

Up Close, from a Distance

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — fatemaelbakoury @ 3:41 pm


I was incredibly inspired by the simplicity, yet profundity, of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Nothing she writes is laced with academic vernacular, and yet I felt a deep connection to her story. Her poignant characterization of her family and her own upbringing in Iran showed me how growing up in a changing society is categorically political, even when one is simply attempting to cultivate a sense of identity. Still, young Marjane is a denim jacket loving, Nike-wearing, communist girl full of wit, mischief, and hustle. 

I identify with this young Marjane, but I am also in many ways, more similar to the Marjane who wrote this book: I, too, have to construct my identity from a distance. The older I become, the more I face my socialization in the States. As someone who has been marginalized in the US context for being a brown Muslim woman, it’s hard for me to believe that I am “American.” I tried to address this with the strip called “Egypt.” (Just as Satrapi does, I use particular objects and places–like the veil and alcohol–to propel my narratives). In the final panel, I am looking at a map, something I do often, and pining for a land that has also not opened its arms to me. 

My relationship with the veil is different though because I recall being very excited to wear something that drew attention to me. I felt deeply invisible all throughout grade school–a sentiment that germinated during my final years of elementary schooling. This was when my mother said I needed to begin covering. I liked the idea of standing out, of being different, but my father saw the political and social ramifications of such a difference as too risky. He made me take off the veil, but still punished me when I wore things that he saw as too Western. Again, I felt as if I was straddling a strange place: no veil, but no Western clothing. For the most part, I am a modest dresser, but my father’s policing of my outfits throughout middle and high school also showed me that what I wear is incredibly political, and cemented the idea in me that my body is inherently sexual–a notion that has also proved dangerous and difficult to unlearn.

Finally, the comic entitled “Boys and Booze” also speaks to my failed attempts to Westernize. Like Satrapi, I was in some ways enamored with Western culture. I too wanted the shoes and the jackets that would make me feel “cool” like my classmates. Ultimately, this hurt me, as I realized this desire was rooted in a worldliness that did not have faith in Allah’s love for me. Today, I am still confused, lost, and misguided in many ways, but my past experiences act as markers of growth and learning that mirrored many of Satrapi’s account. 


April 14, 2018

When You Can Only See in Gray

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — fatemaelbakoury @ 2:39 pm

To view the enlarged image, right-click, and choose the option that allows you to view in a new tab or window.


I was incredibly moved by The Conference of the Birds. I felt that the flaws (or excuses) that each of the birds possessed were in some ways my own; particularly the false modesty of the finch and the longing for the sea of the heron. Too often, I have longed for what was not meant to be mine. Upon receiving it, God has shown me through the trauma it caused why He did not want me to have it in the first place. The heron’s longing for “adventure” through the sea might actually be harmful to it, but instead of trusting God’s wisdom, the heron question’s God’s love for him. I, too, have made that same mistake. The false modesty of the finch also spoke to me: conflating a belief in modesty with deep-seated cowardice is a subconscious mistake I make constantly. Learning to parse the two out has shown me that I pretend that I am not worthy of God’s love as a way to obviate the necessary journey I need to go, despite that fear.

In this drawing, I depicted all the birds (except for the hoopoe, who is emerging from the Tree of Knowledge to relay the Simourgh’s messages) in gray to signify all of this lacking enlightenment. They are all tethered to the world through their fears. Behind them is the valley of deprivation and death, behind which is the sea. In order to reach the “divine ocean” they must first traverse the trials and tribulations of this world. I wrote the three stages of the Nafs as signifiers of the journey they will have to endure before experiencing the sublime of the ocean: nafs amara, nafs lawamma, and nafs mutma’ina.* The first stage is written in the sky to signify the arrogance of the worldy disposition, and the second stage is closer to the ground to represent the increasing humbleness, while nafs mutma’ina is written so close to the ground because one has finally understood their place in the world as a mere being. First, they will have to confront their vices before they can face themselves and lead a life of tranquility and peace, with faith in God’s vision for their lives.

Coloring the birds in shades of gray also represents the limited view they have of the world: the color is all around them, but their excuses render them incapable of perceiving the world’s beauty beyond the fulfillment others can provide them with. To see in gray is to only see color when everything goes according to one’s plan. To see in color is the be able to recognize hues and shades even when everything feels gray. This worldview is one that the birds are lacking, but I see it as the ultimate goal of the Sufi mystic. The hoopoe asks, “What matters more, the body or the soul?/ Be whole, desire and journey to the Whole.” One cannot be whole without journeying to the soul.


*nafs mutma’ina is spelled incorrectly in my illustration.

April 5, 2018

On Being Lost

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — fatemaelbakoury @ 3:18 am

Ghazal-Sonnet on Being Lost


They didn’t like me when I spoke in class;

Our relationships were always fraught.


Their gazes told me silence was best

To them, beautiful I was not.


I searched for beauty in the wrong places

I forgot that truth is not store bought


I asked Allah to grant me the wisdom

To believe in more than what I sought.


One day, you took all of it away

Reminding me of the person I forgot:


She was kind but lost. Beauty mattered,

But never more than it really ought.


You woke her up, asking her to forget

Those boys and girls who were also caught:


Obsessed with people they too couldn’t be.

You woke me up so I wouldn’t get caught.


Trapped in a web of material dreams.

When the real dream now risked being shot.


I now dream of being closer to you

Your love, so far: reach it, I could not.


But in class, stares or not, now I speak.

It doesn’t matter if our feelings are fraught.


You gave me strength instead of beauty.

It was never about what I wanted or bought.


I wanted to combine a Western and Eastern form to represent my own diasporic being. I used the meter of the sonnet (ten syllables on each line), but stuck to the rhyme scheme and structure of the ghazal (monorhyming couplets). The union is emblematic of my experience as an immigrant Muslim woman: the daily rhythms are induced with an American experience, but the general structure is still rooted in my Egyptian and Muslim identity. My days are always punctuated by prayer, reflecting on my heritage, my responsibilities unto my ancestors.

In this poem, I wanted to take on a modern twist to the general narrative of ghazals. I was inspired by Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem on Ferguson—a deeply modern issue, but for which the incredible consistency of the ghazal renders the form perfect for articulating the tumult of what happened and continues to happen in Ferguson—as well as across this country. I also relied on the ghazals provided in The Green Sea of Heaven, especially Ghazal 21 (“O invisible one I entrust you to God/ You burned my soul and with my heart I love you.”)

I wanted to document what I feel is a deeply diasporic tendency: a deep desire to conform with my American peers. I felt deeply inadequate my whole life: I didn’t raise my hand at all in high school because I felt that my perspective mattered so little. A lot of this sense of inadequacy was also tied to the feeling I had that I was not beautiful. I thought that if I was beautiful, more people would respect me. I remember how my wardrobe began to change; how I invested in makeup products and a hair straightener—all in an attempt to be seen by people who were also no more than God’s creations, and who surely had their own insecurities.

When I began committing myself to prayer, to seeing Allah’s wisdom in what He presented me with, instead of what He didn’t give me, I realized that my journey was about the strength I needed in order to speak up and not any physical features that would make my words more amenable to my peers. Today I ask for that strength.

While different from the ghazals we’ve read in class, I saw my journey as a modern example of the yearning for Allah. I also wanted to be closer to God, but I wanted to nuance my journey by adding that layer of being an immigrant and how trying to fit in created an extraneous distance that I first needed to overcome before I could begin the spiritual journey toward Allah.

March 18, 2018

Returning to Mysticism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — fatemaelbakoury @ 5:56 pm

I wanted to explore the ways in which I could participate in the practice of Sama’. As a woman, I always notice how these rituals are relegated to men, and women are at most allowed to participate in a peripheral manner. When I did research on the Sama’ practice and the whirling dervishes, this video came up. While I was moved by their cohesion, and the clarity of their commitment to a higher power, I was still wondering why I have never seen a woman do that. So I did some more research and came across this album of meditative Sufi music. While the woman is not seen spinning around, she repeats the phrase “La Illaha Illa Allah.” Her voice is beautiful and atmospheric. I wanted to highlight that, so I added an echo effect to her voice during the edits. I also lowered the men’s voices so that her’s took precedent. I did not want to demarcate or dismiss any particular practice, so instead, I decided to bring the two voices together. There are times where the instruments of one crash with the other, and the two voices create a jubilance of sound and communion. I debated whether I should attempt to splice the two tracks such that a harmony joined the two, but I liked the atmospheric chaos that the two voices brought together.

In Carl Ernst’s piece, he states, “The mass reproduction of Sufi music for new audiences in the twentieth century and the performance of Sufi music and dance on concert stages have to some extent redefined the spiritual practice as an aesthetic event for spectators in which music takes priority over the word” (198). I felt that the whirling dervishes defied this notion through their repetitive phrases, as does the woman who repeatedly states that there is no God but Allah. I wanted to try returning to an older time with my own, potentially modern sentiments for equity and representation. I wanted to harness a duality between man and woman; old and new; loud and quiet; the sharpness of drums and the soft vibrations of guitar strings. The piece I created has a steep ebb and flow, but it is one that I felt mirrors my own tumultuous yet tranquil relationship with Allah. My hope is that a different but also traditional meditative experience is cultivated so that I too can listen with my heart. 


March 12, 2018

A Brief Encounter

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — fatemaelbakoury @ 2:51 am

My prayer beads give me a quiet comfort. The green tassel and the tainted wood still feel foreign to me—nearly three years later—but I love them anyway. They go wherever I go, though I never use them for their intended purpose: to recite the name of God. Instead, I remember the circumstance under which I received these beads. I remember that morning I slipped on a pair of tight jeans (I could not shake off the scornful look my mother gave me every time I wore them). I remember convincing myself that whatever God she was praying to was a graceful one—one who did not shame me for something so petty as a pair of jeans that pinpointed where my legs end and my cellulite begins.

I moved through Paris that day with the self-consciousness of a tourist. I wanted my last day to be a quiet one: a visit to the mosque, and then a walk back to my rented room along the Seine.

As I approached the entry to the mosque, a hijabi woman asked me, “Vous-etez muselmanne?” I stuttered, as if saying, “Yes” was a lie. She stared at me, unconvinced, before letting me through.

I walk in. I take a few pictures. I move slowly, but not as slowly as I want. I decide to buy a souvenir—a set of prayer beads makes sense.

            I walk around, looking for someone to buy them from. Before entering a courtyard, I notice an open door to my right. I haphazardly walk in. Upon seeing a tall, looming man in all-white garb—signaling the depth of his observance—I suddenly become self-conscious of the jeans I chose that day. I ask if he has any prayer beads to sell me. He tells me he does. I watch as he searches his drawers, eventually looking up at me apologetically and saying something in Arabic along the lines of “I’m sorry, we’re all sold out.”

I assume my blank stare made him think I don’t understand.

            “Do you understand Arabic?” he asked—in English.

            “Yes—yes, I do.”

            “We are all sold out,” his tone is so remorseful that I am overcome with grief at the trouble I caused.

            He searches once more, and then looks up at me and says:


            In his hand are his own prayer beads.

            I stared. I am shocked. Still, I take the beads and place them gently in my tote bag. On my walk back through Paris, I feel for them regularly to make sure they are still there, because somewhere inside of me I cannot believe a man so devout can be that good to a girl as wrong as me.


That man will never know how much the immediacy of his generosity meant to me. Prayer beads are usually used to recite the name of God, but I only hold mine to remember that faith extends beyond lines I have not yet learned to draw—or erase.



I wanted to connect this brief memoir piece to our reading of the Mevlidi Sherif; specifically, “The Heavenly Journey of Allah’s Apostle.” Even though this was a Turkish poem, the supplication evidenced in the words and imagery tremendously mirrored my own desire to be closer to Allah. Phrases such as “Who bears love’s emblem in his body/ Shall know, some day, the joy of lovers’ meeting” and “Who presses on, in death’s despite, unshrinking,/Shall see his love, and stand, those features drinking” resonated with me because of their purely loving need to reach Allah. I feel that my own journey to reach Allah’s love began with this experience at the Grand Mosque of Paris. The love that man gave me taught me more about Islam than any traditionally religious experience I’ve ever had. In the poem, the prophet’s own journey is concluded with the conviction to continue his journey, as love has shown him that this is his main imperative. I similarly realized that love is my main imperative when that man showed me what it looks like to love as a Muslim, and with that in mind, I began a journey to find my own Islam. 

The prophets’ journey reminded me of this experience I had when I was nineteen and traveling through Europe. I am taking this class because I wanted to reconnect with my faith on my own terms; I’ve been struggling to parse what is “Islamic” and what is “not Islamic” based on how I was raised and socialized. That brief encounter in Paris had a profound effect on me because I was acutely aware that we both came from two different worlds–he, an immigrant to France, and me, an immigrant living in the United States and now a tourist in another country that is also not her own. I felt that difference, but it could not overpower the profundity of our religious connection. He was clearly more devout than me, a fact that I felt incredibly self-conscious about, but he held space for me in that moment by giving me his own prayer beads–an act that showed me the unity we have as Muslims regardless of our religious differences. It was the beginning of my realization that the ways in which Islam is practiced are infinite, and that despite this, we can still love each other’s ways of knowing Allah. 

The Mevlidi Sherif resonated with me on that transcultural level too: despite being from another culture, and being rooted in a religious practice that I am unfamiliar with, I adopted the sentiments in those words as my own, and that language is now part of my approach to my love for Allah, just as the immediate generosity of that man is, too. 

March 3, 2018

Seeing the Light

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — fatemaelbakoury @ 3:15 pm


For my first post, I used photography to study light as I see it in my daily life. I wanted to document my experience as I lived through this light. While the photos included here depict light as it shed itself on my quotidian experiences (on my way to class, while studying, while eating breakfast), I felt a certain effervescence that I hadn’t noticed prior to committing to this exercise of seeing the light. The light was so beautiful when I looked closer, and I felt a certain materialism in my attempt to capture it: this was meant to be temporary, a passing moment intended solely for that small space in time. The pictures, as always, could never capture the fullness of this light, but I processed them such that I increased the contrast and lowered the exposure so that the light stands out. I realized in doing this how symbolic that act is, to heighten the light. It is a choice one makes, to see the light. I made it twice: the first when I chose to see it, the second when I chose to capture it and then render it.

Of course, I am unendingly inspired by verse 35 of Surat al-Nur:

TRANSLATION: 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.

I wanted to capture light in the way it’s described here: an infinite and almost blinding presence. There are moments where I couldn’t look closely enough at the light as I took pictures of it–I could not handle the radiance. And yet, I took the picture. I think that being a Muslim is in many ways like the effort I undertook. We know we can never look the light in its face, but we try anyway–and when we must reckon with how far Allah is, we placate our fears by reminding ourselves that the effort alone is worthwhile. We usually call this jihad, but unfortunately, that word has been tainted with violent connotations. In Renard’s Seven Doors, he details jihad as the “…struggle against whatever stands between the self and its origin and goal, and strive to overcome injustice and oppression” but I felt a quieter jihad here (11). Mine was shaped by my desire to constantly see that light, to let it escape me by as rarely as possible so I do not lose sight of my love for God. To become better such that my attitude and philosophies always function as means by which I can see the light. 


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