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Prologue: An Adventure of Understanding

“The story of Islam is not one story but many stories involving peoples of many different races, ethnicities, and cultures, professing conflicting interpretations. To acquire a correctly nuanced understanding of Islam and its role in Muslim societies, crucial questions one should ask include: Which Islam? Whose Islam?”—Ali Asani, Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understanding of Islam


In one section discussion on the ways of interpreting Islamic Art and the differences in architecture, my teaching fellow, Axel Takacs, mentioned a saying, “Islam doesn’t say or do anything. It is context.” This has been a major theme of this course that has truly examined Islam from a cultural studies approach. At first I was very nervous about trying to put the ideas we discussed into an artistic form, as an ‘outsider’ of the religion, but I came to the understanding that practicing Islam is very unique for each individual. It is the lens of which one sees the world and lives through it.

Through Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 54: For the Love of God and His Prophet: Religion, Literature, and the Arts in Muslim Cultures, we responded creatively to the readings, lectures, and discussions. Reflecting back on this, it has been an incredible experience to really navigate through the different aspects of Muslim culture and then expressing myself and my personal understanding of these aspects. From coming into this class with very limited knowledge about Islam other than a couple weeks in middle and high school, I felt as if I really worked hard to connect with something that was very new and foreign to me. I took the cultural studies approach to heart and really tried to analyze as well as represent the ideas and themes of the course through this approach. Facilitating this process was my knowledgeable professor Ali Asani and Teaching Fellows Axel Takacs and John Zaleski who I cannot thank enough for this unforgettable experience. Though a challenging task for a horrible artist such as myself, I was encouraged and pushed to really absorb this material and present a personal understanding. Just like our discussions of “Islam” with a capital I or lowercase i, I felt as if I was gaining a personal understanding of the religion through culture and practice and not just a devotional or theological perspective on Islam.

While creating these creative responses I in no way tried to link them all to each other. Each one should be viewed as a stand-alone piece, illustrating what is described in the analysis. However, one should also understand that there are several major themes in Islam as well as in our discussion of Muslim culture that are featured in my responses. Unintentionally, these creative responses can be linked to one another in a variety of different ways. I will be discussing these major themes of the context, devotion to the Divine and prophet, remembrance and gratitude, and light as well as some of the interesting connections this has on Muslim culture.

An important component of this class, our discussions, and my eventual responses was the idea of context, one factor of the cultural studies approach. In Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understanding of Islam, Asani argues, “…the political and social contexts in which a Muslim practices his or her faith are just as important or, some would argue, even more important than doctrines and rituals in determing how contemporary Muslims experience and interpret their faith” (15). Analyzing the religion and practices in the context of different communities. We learned about Islamic architecture in areas that were thousands of miles apart as well as conflicts in how accurately to listen to music and poetry. Though there really isn’t anything wrong about the differences in practices and that makes sense since religion is such a personal entity. For example, because of living in the age of electronic music production, I was able to fiddle and put together a recitation which sounded to me like transcendence. To a fundamental Muslim, this may not be accurate to how they feel listening to recitation but this personal experience was one that I wanted to explore. This also links into the idea of modernity and how religious practice has changed. Though the Qur’an is a single, indisputable text, the religion goes much farther than just the test. Islam is truly a product of its time and space. When reading about the Taziyeh, we observed how it has changed to be different things in different societies as well as even become a lesser-practiced thing in some others. For example, I aimed to modernize this and connect with the younger generation by introducing puppets in this style of theatre that is very different from puppetry. Watching the film about the Puerto Rican-American-Rapping Muslim convert really just taught me that being Muslim is just one shaper of the identity and all these other parts of your identity shape your practice of religion. I was utterly fascinated when we would talk about the differences in Muslim culture all around the world but also how unifying the religion is. Even though this idea of context is really important, the foundations of the religion will always be at the core. Applying my context as a non-Muslim to these projects about Muslim ideas, themes, and practices really gives me a different understanding of this religion which is the basis of the cultural studies approach. It is a look at how people practice and view the religion and not how it is just by the text.

Secondly, though seemingly obvious, my projects mainly revolved around the idea of devotion to the Divine and his prophet. The prophet, Muhammad, acts as a messenger for God and is recognized as the ideal person. Muslims aim to follow his sunnah and this shows through their practices of confirming their loved. This is a theme that comes up in Muslim art is the depiction of this undying as well as unattainable love that is so vivid and palpitating. Though poetry, visual art, song, etc. people express their individual praise. That idea is reflected in my amulet, recitation, wine ghazal, and sama projects. The projects connect with this idea in varying ways. Some of them identify more with the idea of attaining transcendence and a closer relationship between the self and God. Others discuss more the method of connecting with the Divine through sound. Another just explains the insatiable desire and love. However, these all center this theme of eternal devotion. Though not only has this affected religious practice, it also has a political aspect. In our discussions of the schism of Islam into Shia and Sunni, we see Muhammad and the family of the prophet being debated as political and spiritual leaders. These stories of the prophet such as the Miraj and Isra are ones that really struck me and are also very central to the religion. Through art, Muslims capture the mystical qualities of the Divine and the prophet as well as attempt to explain their undying devotion.

In one of the first few lectures, Asani mentioned the terms “shukr” (gratitude, faith, remembrance), “dhikr” (remembrance of God) and “kuf” (ingratitude). This idea of practice being a mechanism to remember God and to serve as a reminder of the ideas, lessons, etc. of the religion was another idea that was very important to me. I took practice that were of this function, such as the use of amulets, and put them in my own context and the context of what is important of their lives. This brought that idea of the Muhammad amulets which is in a previous post. This is also a theme of taziyeh, or the passion play of the battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of Hussein. This play is used as an opportunity to remind people of the events of this day and show love for the prophets’ family.   Though it seems like a very basic idea, this act of remembrance and gratitude is incredibly prevalent in the Muslim community. It also is very settling to have the thought that God is all-encompassing and always around you. Coming from a personal standpoint, that support all around you of a divine figure is one that is very moving.

Communication in different forms, whether it is dance, singing, reciting, poetry, architecture, painting, or another medium, is also a common theme of my responses of varying disciplines. Throughout the course, the question of “How do you communicate ideas such as the love and beauty of the divine or the way modern Muslim women feel by the obligation to wear a hijab?” I had a very tough time trying to put some of these ideas into an explainable form, but the form of art is one that enables people to express themselves in an easier way. It seems as if different forms of art can be universal. When listening to some recitation I felt deeply moved even though I could not understand the words based on the language barrier. I found the expression of controversy in the Islamic community through art, such as with a graphic novel in the case of Persepolis or as poetry with the anthology of Muslim feminist poets, a very interesting concept. I attempted to reflect this with my response to a reading about sama as well as a response to a famous poem about female freedom. As well as controversy, this communication is also done to try and connect more deeply with the divine such as the case of Sufi music and dance and the idea of sama leading to ecstasy. This reflects more deeply this analysis of Islam through the cultural studies approach as many communities have different methods of practice. Also with the modernization of society and the religion, the religion and its communication have also changed. The Quran has been translated into hundreds of languages. The hip-hop Islamic movement is a rising trend as well. Art can facilitate this communication and that is what is really important about Muslim Art. I knew very little about the different art forms in Muslim culture which I now know to be incredibly thoughtful and beautiful.

Before I had done any creative responses I looked up and called my blog “نور” which is the Arabic of “the light”. Little did I know that this idea of light would be a recurrent theme in all our discussions. I mean light as a metaphor to learning, understanding, realization, freedom, and transcendence. I feel like many of my responses encapsulates one of those different metaphors of light. Nur Muhammad or “the Light of Muhammad” was one of the ways the prophet is described. It is a very interesting physical form that can be translated into a clear intangible idea. For some reason I am very attached to these ideas. This may be because I connect with them on a non-religious level as well because, as humans, we work towards understanding. So these efforts in art to work towards clarity and a deeper connection to their religion and to their God is beautiful. These different practices surrounding art and expression are means of understanding. For example, my blog post about sama addresses the idea of listening and the ecstatic effect of music/poetry to lead to a greater connection to the divine as well as a meditating realization about the self. Ghazals are a way to both produce and hear the seemingly indescribable love for the divine as well as transcend yourself for a moment which is compared to intoxication (another theme in one of my responses). I just saw this image a lot directly and indirectly when discussing different topics in class and think it is a very applicable imagery to Muslim art and culture.

These responses in no way are supposed to be representative of all the religion or applicable to every practice of that type. I simply aimed to find my own identity within the Muslim context. In a time where it is incredibly stigmatized to be a Muslim-American, it is important to really understand the people that we are around. I still have to take a step back and ask myself the same question Asani asks his friend in the Introduction of Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understanding of Islam: How do you know what you know about Islam? I don’t think of myself as a master of Islam or even want to claim I know a great deal about Muslim culture. I wanted to take this class to learn and understand the people that are all around me who just happen to have a part of their identity that is different from mine. We life in a time where the person next to you may have a totally different ethnic, racial, cultural, religious, socio-economic, or other background and I think that is one of the most beautiful things in the world. That is why I try to understand other people through the misconceptions I see on the television and media. I believe art is very underrepresented as a means of understanding and connecting with people. Though I am not an expert in Muslim culture, I hope you can appreciate my effort in delving into something completely new and finding the amazingness of Muslim culture through art. In viewing my blogs, I hope you take these ideas into account and reflect how they are relevant in your situation, whenever, wherever, and whoever you are.

Week 12: The Laughter of a Woman

The Laughter of a Woman


In the singing springs of stony mountains

Echoes the gentle laughter of a woman

Wealth, power and fame mean nothing

In her body, hidden, lies her freedom

Let the new gods of the earth try as they can

They cannot hear the sob of her ecstasy

Everything sells in this market-place

save her satisfaction

the ecstasy she alone knows

which she herself cannot sell


Come you wild winds of the valley

Come and kiss her face


There she goes, her hair billowing in the wind

The daughter of the wind

There she goes, singing with the wind


by Fahmida Riaz


I was inspired by this translation of a poem by Fahmida Riaz.  This is a poem in a collection of poetry from contemporary Urdu feminists called We Sinful Women.  Urdu poetry has been mainly consisting of men with critics also being men.  As we discussed in class, feminism is a rising but also long-standing movement in the Muslim community as women are often shut off from things such as recitation and poetry.  In the book it states, “The source of the prejudice in both cases is exactly the same: the conservatism of literary establishments and their stranglehold on aesthetic values, their tendency to dismiss work to which they cannot themselves relate and their inability to empathize with work that derives directly from women’s experiences” (1).   I was moved by the discussion in class, especially the video we watch of the actress arguing on that news network.  There is such a spectrum of opinion in the Muslim community as shown in Persepolis and in all our discussions in class.

I aimed to take this moving poem about freedom of the self and try to capture it in an image.  Disclaimer: I am not a painter, drawer, etc at all so I apologize to Riaz.  I started with a pencil drawing of a woman and decided to add her hair flowing in the wind which is such a striking image in this poem.  It is a contrast to the restriction of the veil that is also talked about in the poems of this anthology.  I wanted to capture that exhilaration of freedom and the woman letting her hair blow in the wind.  I did this through having her hair start just black ink and pencil and then transform gradually into a colorful array and expand to take up a lot more of the space.  The colors are to represent that freedom and letting go of the oppression that woman often feel.  I think this poem is beautiful and captures a lot of her anger as a woman that is often felt of as less because of the dominance of the men in this society.



Week 8: Sama and Ecstatic Consciousness

For this project I wanted to portray this Sufi tradition/idea of sama.  Sama literally means audition but in the context of Islam it is the process of hearing with the ear of the heart.  One reading mentioned listening to music or the singing of mystical poetry with the intent of increasing awareness and understanding of the divine object described.  One aspect of sama that is debated back and forth on legitimacy is sama leading to ecstasy, or wajd.  Wajd means both ecstasy/ardor/passion but, even deeper than that, it also means finding and being.  It is sort of a realization ecstasy.  Other ways it was described is as a trance or possession as well as complete selflessness and a connection to the divine.

I aimed to portray this combination of listening through the heart, ecstasy, and realization in a physical form (though this is an auditory form).  I stumbled across some illusions and images that seemed to be moving and I really connected with them.  So I did more research into this.  From previous knowledge I learned about the condition synesthesia and that also brought some inspiration as I am trying to put something that is auditory and indescribable experience into a visual form.  I ended up layering a few images which is what is below.  I took a very neutral picture of a ear and hand and edited out all the background.  I then compiled images that jumped out to me to reflect that trance and realization that they were talking about but also were different from each other.  The fire one comes from the quote from Sufi Music and Dance which says, “The sufi’s described God as having placed a secret into the human heart that day, which is concealed like a spark in stone but which blazes forth when struck with the steel of sama” (185). I wanted to use a lot of color to contrast with the muted skin of the woman with her ear and how this ecstasy is so powerful and takes over your whole body.  The hand is showing that opening of the person to this music.  The rays of the different colors and patterns are this transcending realization and understanding that this ecstasy and process of sama bring.  The rays extend beyond the border to show this transcending and something that is beyond the tangible world. Though this is no where near accurate to how people may describe this feeling, I wanted to attempt to represent that in a visual way in order to understand more myself about this. ggg0001

Week 9: Wine as Divine Intoxication in Ghazal Poetry

From the Large Jug, Drink by Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Shīrāzī


From the large jug, drink the wine of Unity,

So that from your heart you can wash away the futility of life’s grief.


But like this large jug, still keep the heart expansive.

Why would you want to keep the heart captive, like an unopened bottle

of wine?


With your mouth full of wine, you are selfless

And will never boast of your own abilities again.


Be like the humble stone at your feet rather than striving to be like a

Sublime cloud: the more you mix colors of deceit, the more colorless

your ragged wet coat will get.


Connect the heart to the wine, so that it has body,

Then cut off the neck of hypocrisy and piety of this new man.


Be like Hafiz: Get up and make an effort. Don’t lie around like a bum.

He who throws himself at the Beloved’s feet is like a workhorse and will

be rewarded with boundless pastures and eternal rest.


From: Drunk on the Wine of the Beloved 

Translated by Thomas Rain Crowe


A ghazal is a poem consisting of couplets that are autonomous though relate in a greater idea.  They also have a repeating refrain as well as rhyming in the second lines of all stanzas and also in the first stanza.  These poems are often about love or unattainable love and, in a Muslim context, refer to the divine.  One popular ghazal poet is Hafiz who uses beautiful imagery to portray the beauty of the prophet and his insatiable love in such esoteric ways.  One of these common symbols used is the idea of intoxication and wine.

In the chapter I”ntroduction to the Conventions of the Urdu Ghazal” of Assembly of Rivals, Pietievich states, “wine imagery serves two purposes: first, on the majadzi or metaphorical level it signifies that an ashiq is so enamored of the beloved that he will commit grievous sins to prove his love…Wine imagery also lends itself to haqiqi or mystical themes in the ghazal…[and] represents mystical wisdom and guidance along the path leading to ultimate intoxication, i.e. union with the Divine” (7).  The wine imagery is used to show the Divine as an ultimate intoxicant that makes you physically feel as if you have injested alcohol.  Ecstasy is also discussed in association with many different art forms such as recitation and this connects to that idea of being overwhelmed and taken over by the aspects of God.

I tried to make a representation of this idea of wine being used to show this illumination and awakening of the soul as well as the love that fills people in connection to the Divine.  I took a poem by Hafiz that I was very moved by and focused specifically on this idea.  Though it is a translation and does not contain the rhyming, it still is very beautiful and follows the themes of ghazals.  I started at the bottom of an empty wine bottle and wrote out the whole poem.  I used gold ink to show this illumination as when you look at this bottle in the light, the text shines off of it.  I started at the to show this ascension to a divine love. This poem seems to have an arch where at the end he states, “He who throws himself at the Beloved’s feet is like a workhorse and will be rewarded with boundless pastures and eternal rest.”  He seems to tell people to open themselves up to this wine/love and spiritual transformation that God brings if you are humble and selfless.  At the lip of the bottle, after the poem, I made a spiral up to the cap which I colored with the gold to represent this divine level and a full spiritual transformation.  The poem spirals all the way up the bottle just like an awakening that one feels when reading these beautiful poems.  

Week 5: Puppet Taziyeh


Taziyeh Puppets

An important story in Islam is the heroic martyrdom of Hussein.  Hussein was the grandson of the prophet.  After the death of the prophet, there was a problem of leadership.  Two divisions were created, the Sunnis and Shi’ites.  In a constant battle for power, Hussein ended up being slain by the opposing forces.  In the end, the righteous suffer, but this suffering is seen as redemptive and leads to salvation after judgement.     A form of Shiism performance/dramatic narration of the events emerged as a commemoration for Hussein’s martyrdom, called Ta’ziyeh.  These are communal events in which a community gets together to watch and perform this tale. When reading about this art form, I was inspired to put a twist onto it.  Peter Chelokwski, describes the different variations and its developments over time and in different cultures.  One quote stood out to me:

Although many critics have written that this retreat to the provinces had a swift and deleterious effect upon Taziyeh as an art form, a strong case can be made to show that, to the contrary, it purified and preserved it. The Persian village tradition with its sources in popular religion is more simple, organic, and theatrical than the urban tradition.  Its imagination is more closely attached to the essentials of life; it is less abstract and intellectual, less wedded to the spectacular effect…and a far greater potential for coherence and empathy between actor and audience (9).

He goes on to describe rural Ta’ziyeh as the “unconscious avant-garde of the ‘poor theatre’”.  It engages participation and is very dynamic, though stripped down for the use of imagination.  When watching a performance in lecture, I was drawn to how involved the adults were, but how reclusive the children were. I was interested in making a kid-friendly version of Taziyeh.  I was able to make two puppets: Hussein and Shimar.  I think it would be interesting to see this performance as a puppet show, especially with the development of society and decline of this form of art.  I used the symbolic colors of green for the protagonist and red for the antagonist.  I painted Hussein’s face gold and added glitter to show his divine relations as being one of the Ahl al-Bayt.  Though I am not able to make all the characters, a set, more costumes, props, etc. I believe a puppet version of the Ta’ziyeh has the potential to increase the interaction between audience and participant as well as target a younger audience with this profound and important story.

Week 4:Muhammad as an Amulet


“You are God’s pure light, the master of the universe, the prince, /[Yours] is the rule of the two worlds, the luminous heart of the morning sun; / You are the refuge of sinners; the minister of the One and Only;/ Be mindful of me, efface this sorrow; listen to my supplication, O Ahmad!/ O master, I remember you! Gaurdian, I long for you!/ In trouble and distress I think of no one else by you;/ O perfect one!  My eyes look toward you, with clasped hands I lament;/ O master, listen to my urgent cry; pay heed, O prophet, the guide.”

-Faqir Gulam Haidar


This is an excerpt of a poem written in praise of Muhammad from In Praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu Poems by Ali Asani.  This an many other poems capture the many qualities of Muhammad and his importance in Islam.  Muhammad is described as a prophet and messenger, role model and exemplar, beloved intercessor, and mystic and God’s beloved.  Muhammad is often described as “the light” or “the guide” for Muslims.  The practices of Muhammad and the way of life that Muslims are taught to follow is known as the sunnah.  Muhammad is seen as not just an important figure in Islam, but one of the most significant.  These powerful poems, demonstrating the devoutness and love for the poems inspired me to try and translate this into a reminder to Muslims.

I thought back to the first week when we learned about shukr, which translates to gratitude.  The faith and remembrance of God is an important concept in Islam and showing that gratitude, whether that be in praying, recitation, visual art, or performing, is key in expressing that remembrance.  We also learned about the history and various amulets.  I referred back to the “Amulet of Anzarunni” story from Miracles of Muhammad and was inspired to make a Muhammad amulet.  I used one piece of wire to make each Muhammad to reflect the one God and his Muhammad as an intercessor.  I did not want to venture into the depiction of the prophet’s face so I basically made a skeletal version of him.  Even though and outsider would not be able to tell who it is, it is about the wearer’s relationship to Muhammad. I painted it gold to represent Muhammad as “the light”.  This amulet serves as a reminder to follow the sunnah, the customs of Muhammad.

Muhammad lived out the teachings of the Qur’an.  By the wearing of Muhammad amulets on your chest/heart or wrist there is a reminder of his role in Muslim devotional life.

Week 3: Recitation as Transcendence


Week 3

During the third week of lecture we discussed the recitation of the Qur’an.  Even as a non-Arabic speaker, I still felt connected and moved by both the sounds and also the artistry of the reciter.  However, the more I listened, the more I felt like I wasn’t connecting deep enough.  This might be due to my inability to understand the language and having to detach myself in order to read a translation.  I started listening to different renditions of Al-Fatiha, which is the opening of the Qur’an and a commonly known passage.  Reading about recitation, themes arise such as Ijaz (the inimitability of the Qur’an as proof of its divine origin), the transcendence of the reciter and listener, as well as its beauty and affect on the human soul.

Though slightly drastic, I slowed down a recitation of the Qur’an by Saad Al-Ghamdi, a famous Saudi Arabian reciter.  I slowed it down in order to get this transcendence quality.  As referenced in Al-Ghazali’s External Rules of Qur’an Recitation, the slow and distinct manner of reciting both assists non-Arabs in pondering as well as a more respectful and stronger than a speedy “babbling.”  I felt that this dramatic slowing of the reciting aids in understanding this miraculous interaction of human and the divine when the Qur’an was transmitted to Muhammad that was referenced by Nelson in The Sound of the Divine. The reason for the addition of the heartbeat was in reference to a particular phrase said in lecture that resonated with me: “[The Quran is] listened to with the ear and experienced in the heart.”  Recitation enables us access to the spiritual realm while we leave behind the material and physical world.