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Poetry in Shiism (Weeks 4/5)


This blog post is a synthesis of weeks 4 and 5.  In week 5, during lecture, we discussed the differences between Sunnis and Shia Islam.  The split occurred when the question of post-prophetic authority arose.  Who was to inherit the Prophet’s authority and lead the people?  Who was to succeed him?  Eventually, two major branches arose: Sunni Islam, and Shia Islam.  The Sunnis believed in either the caliphate, or the alim (learned scholar), while the Shias believed in the Imams, direct descendants of the Prophet.  This split occurred after the assassination of Ali, who was not only the fourth caliph, but also the first Imam.  In other words, Ali was respected by both Sunnis, and Shias.  As the closest living relative of the Prophet, and his cousin, and his son-in-law, Ali was held in great esteem by Shias.  That he was a man of great piety and character only heightened the respect that Shias felt towards him.  In fact, among the Shias, he is almost as revered as the Prophet himself.  Stories about Ali, and what he said, similar to the hadith, are greatly valued.

In week 4, in the section readings we read about poems written in praise of the Prophet.  Given this background about Ali, that he was almost as respected as the Prophet, it would be natural that among Shias there would be poems about him.  Many poems have been written about Ali and his stories; in particular, you find many such poems in Rumi’s Masnavi, an epic narrative in a sense.  For this blog post, I decided to write my own poem in veneration of Ali, which is below:


Anonymous, and shrouded in moonlight

Humble, our first Imam acted in right

Visited and gave coins to those in need

His generosity teach us it might.


The poem that I wrote takes the form of a rubaiyat, a quatrain with a rhyme scheme, generally AABA, utilized by Omar Khayyam, an eminent 11th century Persian poet and mathematician.  My poem was about the generosity of Ali, a story that I had heard about.  It would serve not only as a tribute to Ali, but also as a reminder about the value of generosity.  He gave not in order to be recognized or acknowledged, but to simply give and be recognized in the eyes of God.  Generosity is a value that is quite important in Islam, and its significance is reflected in the well-known five pillars of Islam, where one of the pillars is to give to charity.  Islam teaches us to give to those who are less fortunate than us, and I hoped to convey that message through the poem.

Poetry (Week 9)


In this week, week 9, we discussed the representation of Islamic themes in poetry.  In the readings, we focused on ghazals, a poetic style popular in the Islamic context.  Ghazals consist of rhymed couplets with a refrain, known as the radif, each set to the same meter.  Also common is the qafiyah, where the last syllable before the radif also rhymes, and the takhallus, where the poet in the last couplet inserts his own name.  The content of these poems is always love, and in general the love for the lover, or the beloved, can be interpreted as the love for God.

The poem that I chose to recite is the first verse of Saadi’s Golestan.

The translation by M. Aryanpoor is below:

Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!

Notice that this poem is neither a ghazal, nor a love poem for God.  However, it is about love for humans.  We are humans, connected together by our humanity.  This sense of unity, and sameness, is reflected in another major theme of the course: Islam vs. islam.  The difference is that islam means “submission to God”, while Islam is the name of the religion practiced by Muslims.  Islam with a lowercase “i” is not limited to just Muslims; it is also applied to and extends to Jews, Christians, etc.  The point is that in the eye of God, as long as we believe in Him, then it is irrelevant what we call ourselves.  Similarly, although there might be distinct differences between us, such as ethnicity, gender, age, etc., the important fact is that we are really the same, and thus we should help each other.

Music (week 8)


In week 8, we discussed Sufi music and dance, but in this blog post, I will focus on the music aspect.  To begin with, Sufism is considered to be the mystical aspect of Islam, and Sufis can be found among both Sunni and Shia Muslims.  We learned that in the Sufi tradition, among most groups music is taken seriously, considered to be sacred.  Sufis do not listen to music for the sake of aesthetic pleasure, but instead use music as another avenue to reach and connect with God.  A term used by Sufis that is relevant to our discussion is sama’, which literally means listening.  In this context, it refers to the listening of chanted or recited poetry that could be accompanied by musical instruments.  Thus the emphasis was on the act of listening, not so much the act of performing itself. To me, it appears that Sufism is based entirely on experience, i.e., that it is an experiential religion. It involves developing and enhancing your connection to God through intimate experiences shared by and known to only you and God.  In my own way, I wanted to experience this myself, if not directly, than at least understand analogously.  In order to listen to music, however, I had to first produce it. For my music selection, I decided to play some classical Persian music on the santoor, a traditional, old, Persian stringed instrument.

My santoor teacher, M. Abtahi, accompanied on the tonbak a Persian hand drum. Images for both instruments  are below:

Scales in Persian music are called dastgah, and I played in the first dastgah, called shur.  The first segment was an example of chahr mizrab, a classic, rhythmic piece that is generally accompanied by the tonbak. The second segment, which directly followed and continued the music, was an example of avaz, which literally means “song”, improvisation music. However, I disagree with the idea that the act of performance is unimportant.  It is important.  When you listen to what you produce, you truly appreciate the music, since you know how much effort and time and dedication is required.  You understand the music, and thus feel it moving through your body, moving you, freeing your mind so that it can focus on the more important task of attaining the high level of spirituality that is possible in a trance-like state.  I feel that this experience is not dissimilar to that felt by Sufis when they listen to music.  When I play, I search for the visceral moment that my heart takes control of the instrument, guiding me on a transcendental journey into the unknown.

Geometry in Art (Week 6)


In week 6, we read about Islamic art, including the geometric designs on the mosques.  The geometric tiling on the walls fascinated me. I had seen examples when I visited Iran, but I have never studied them in great depth. This project gave me the chance to do that. I knew that it was possible to have a periodic tiling using certain shapes.  For example, we can use shapes such as rhombuses and triangles, but we cannot use pentagons or decagons. However, if you examine Islamic architecture, very often you see pentagons and decagons.  Even so, there are no gaps in the tiling, and the pattern appeared to repeat seamlessly forever.  It was not repeating, but rather aperiodic, meaning that it almost repeated, in the sense that some of the shapes used did not repeat.  That is why these patterns are called “quasi-crystalline” instead of “crystalline”.

In my project, I tried to construct such a pattern in the form of a collage. Initially, I used only decagons and bow-ties, and I attained this pattern:

So far so good. It seemed that at this point, I could actually make the pattern periodic. Pretty shortly afterwards, however, I realized that I had to insert hexagons. Then, we see that we end up with this picture, which is very clearly not periodic, but it does seem to be able to continue:

I learned that this process was quite difficult, and what they did centuries ago was not easy.  Here, I knew in advance what shapes would work.  The shapes I used are girih tiles, where in Farsi, girih means “knot”.  The 5 girih tiles are:

Unlike 4-fold or 6-fold symmetries, Islamic architects realized that periodic patterns with exact 5-fold or 10-fold symmetries cannot be realized. They managed, nevertheless, to design intricate patterns using the above tiles that almost has 5-fold or 10-fold rotational symmetries.

Unaware of these old discoveries of Islamic architects, scientists have rediscovered these quasi-crystalline patterns in the 1980s.  The fact that these patterns were known to Islamic architects was discovered in 2007 (by Harvard student Peter Lu and his mentor Paul Steinhardt). In fact, quasi-crystals have also been discovered in nature and the scientist predicting the existence of quasi-crystals has been recognized in the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In the readings, there was debate about what Islamic art is.  I think it is safe to say that geometric tilings on buildings built after the advent of Islam in areas that had Islamic influence can be classified as Islamic art.  Why would the artists and architects spend so much time and effort on geometric patterns? It has to be for a greater meaning. For instance, perhaps they were trying to represent the infiniteness of God through the repeated patterns, and the majesty and elegance of God through the fact that the patterns are aperiodic.  Perhaps they were honoring God, who is too majestic and wise to be understood.  There has also been speculation that since the numbers 5 and 10 are special in Islam (we have 5 pillars in usul-e-deen and 10 in furu-e-deen), it is natural that the Islamic artists tried to incorporate these numbers into their arts, which would naturally lead to quasi-crystalline 5-fold and 10-fold rotational symmetries, which is not possible to obtain using regular crystals.  Regarding these patterns, in Islamic Art and Spirituality Nasr argues that the fact that these patterns that they used are found in nature “illustrate an important aspect of the Islamic revelation, which is to bring out the reality of the cosmos itself as God’s primordial revelation” (p. 49).  He does not think that their mathematical prowess is unnatural but actually quite natural in this context.

Recitation (Week 2)


In week three, we read about and listened to Qur’an recitations.  For this blog entry, I decided to do something a little different: honor my grandfather through the arts, by filming him recite a couple of short surah from the Qur’an, and then using that video clip as a springboard to talk about him in this blog entry.  Inshallah. The video can be viewed  here.

The two surah that he recited, Surah al-Hamd and Surah Qul Huwallahu Ahad, are the first verses that he recites during namaz.  My grandfather is Iranian, and thus speaks Farsi.  However, although he is not fluent in Arabic, he knows enough Arabic to be able to not only read verses from the Qur’an and understand them, but also recite them, an ability that he earned simply from studying the Qur’an so much.  This is despite the fact that he is old and is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, and has forgotten the names of many of his old friends.   He still remembers and can still recite many Qur’an verses by heart.  His ability to recall the Word of God speaks for the power of the Qur’an.  The words are so natural.  It is meant to be understood and internalized.

The power of the word is discussed in Kristina Nelson’s “Sound of the Divine” article.  She iterates that “the Qur’an must be heard, not really end” (p. 258).  To that end, when preschool children memorize the Qur’an, “they memorize more than words: They are encouraged to master the sound of the Qur’an, even before they can comprehend its meaning” (p. 258).

Although my grandfather’s recitation is neither melodic nor elaborate, it is from the heart.  He meant what he was saying.  That is something he will not forget: his faith.  He was, and still is even now a very devout Muslim.  Up until a few years ago, he fasted every day of Ramadan, and prayed three times a day (in Iran, Muslims pray three times a day, not five).  He fasts when he can, and prays when he remembers, which is again permissible, given his old age and status.  Interpreted correctly, Islam is a forgiving and reasonable religion.  It does not have impossible expectations.

Haftseen (week 1)


In this week, we learned about the importance of the cultural-studies approach, an approach that we will take throughout the course.  Prof. Asani’s assertion that “religion is a phenomenon embedded in every dimension of human experience” is one that he himself adopted from Diane Moore’s Overcoming Religious Illiteracy (Asani, 10).  Following the words of Diane Moore, the study of religion therefore “requires multiple lenses through which to understand its multivalent social/cultural influences” and challenges “the assumption that human experience can be studied accurately through discrete disciplinary lenses (e.g., political, economic, cultural, social) and instead posits an approach that recognizes how these lenses are fundamentally entwined” (Moore, 79).

Luckily, since this blog post fell right around the time of Eid Nowruz, the Persian New Year, I decided to take advantage of this opportunity.  I took a photo of the haft seen, an important table that has seven items that serve as symbols.

Haft means seven, and seen is the letter “s”, so haftseen means the seven s’s, or the seven items that begin with s.  These items are: sabzeh, lentil sprouts growing in a dish which represents rebirth; samanu, a sweet pudding made from germinated wheat which represents affluence; senjed, the dried fruit of the oleaster tree which symbolizes love; sir, garlic, which represents medicine; sib, apples, which represents beauty and health; somaq, sumac berries, which represents the sunrise; and serkeh, vinegar, which represents age and patience.  Other items that are generally placed include sonbol, hyacinth; sekkeh, coins; candles, for enlightenment and happiness, a mirror, which represents cleanness and honesty; decorated eggs, which represents fertility; rosewater, which is believed to have cleansing powers; and a holy book, generally the Qur’an, but another option is the Avesta (Zoroastrian holy book).

Now the question becomes, why are these other items placed?  To answer this question, we have to first understand the history of Nowruz, and then we can also see the connection to Islam.  Eid Nowruz is an old Zoroastrian celebration, about 2500 years old.  Initially, the haft seen used to be the haft chin. Here, haft means seven again, but chin means “to place”. The seven items were: mirror, which symbolizes the sky; apple, which symbolizes the earth; candles, which symbolizes fire; rose water, which symbolizes water, sabzeh, which symbolizes plants; goldfish, which represents animals; and painted eggs, which represents humans and fertility.  Notice the similarities: haft chin became haft seen; out of the seven symbolic items on the haftseen, sabzeh is on both; and the six other symbolic items of the haftcheen are also generally placed on the haftseen.  (From Payvand News). These changes also occurred in the 9th century, about two hundred years after the advent of Islam, and the changes occurred to be compatible with Islam.  For example, there is no “ch” sound in Arabic, so we now have a “seen”.  The original seven items symbolized pagan themes, but now the items are more in line with Islamic beliefs.  The original items are also generally included.  We thus have here an example of how Islam was integrated with Zoroastrian traditions, and this is what I thought about when I saw the haftseen this year, and the message that I hoped to convey.

Calligraphy Project


For my design, I chose to represent Allah through the medium of traditional calligraphy.  I elongated the letters and shaped them so that in the abstract sense, they resemble a vase containing flowers, which remind us of life and beauty.  The flowers, growing upward from the ground and seemingly out of nothing, reference the “Clot” verse in the Qur’an, where it states that humans were created from a clot of dust.  The asymmetry of my design makes it unique, which is a reflection of God’s uniqueness.

I also decided to incorporate extra calligraphy.  On the alif, I wrote the first verse of Persian poet Saadi’s Golestan in Farsi.  Since golestan in Farsi means a garden, it again references the flower theme explained above.   I chose poetry as a medium because it is concise and simple yet very deep in meaning.  There is a lot of power contained in a few words of poetry.  That is what I think about when I think about Allah.  The word itself is very short, written very simply, yet it is very powerful.  In my portrayal of Allah, I hoped to convey this same duality of simplicity and complexity through the medium of poetry.

I chose the Golestan verse because it is dedicated to God.  In the verse, Saadi describes why we should be thankful to God.  For each breath, we should be thankful for two reasons.  The first reason is that by inhaling, we continue to live.  The second reason is that when we exhale, the air, having passed through our body, has invigorated and nourished us.  Again, this verse references the flower theme, and thus one of the many roles of Allah as the Creator and Nurturer.

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