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When approaching my portfolio of work, it may be useful to begin with my background as a student coming into this class. I, like most students at Harvard, was never well-versed in Islam, but perhaps unlike most students, I was also never well-versed in any religion. I was raised secular and most of my studies have been secular as well. As a result I’ve found it difficult to connect with the concept of religion on a spiritual level, and to me the weight that people placed on faith was always difficult to grasp. My course load so far has largely been heavy on the hard sciences, and I have never had much experience with religious or cultural studies. Though I have always disliked the mutually exclusive science/religion dichotomy that people try to foist on life, as a student studying evolutionary biology, I have sometimes found it difficult to reconcile scientific objectivity with religious thought. Come freshman year, though, I was placed with two roommates who were not only Muslim, but science concentrators as well. While not as orthodox as some, they followed many of the tenets of Islam that we ended up studying in this course. Our room was very open in terms of communication, but the subject of religion was rarely broached – not out of awkwardness or unwillingness, but simply out of incident.

Still, my freshman year roommates were definitely a factor in my deciding to take this course. Throughout the semester, the boundary between science and religion was a focus of mine, and I tried to touch upon this with my blog entries (and it may be useful to note that, as the course progressed, the existence of this boundary became less and less distinct). For example, in my calligraphy piece, I tried to reconcile man’s origin story as told from the perspectives of Islam and of scientific fact. In several of my other pieces natural motifs carried through, especially those of animals, plants. etc.; these were unifying ideas not only from a biologist’s perspective, but from the perspective of Muslim art as well. From the nature symbolism in the arabesques in mosque murals to nature imagery in ghazals, it became readily apparent throughout the course that the natural world exerted great influence on Islamic art and architecture. I also tried to maintain a bold, graphic aesthetic throughout my blog posts, which is a carryover from my background as an illustrator. I have found that this form of illustration is often a clear way to synthesize and represent a literary piece.

It was probably my biologist’s leanings that made the readings that involved animals and nature the most memorable to me, and consequently these were the stories I chose to illustrate in most of my entries. The parable with the deer in week four, for example, reminded me a great deal of a story in Buddhism. In the story of the moon rabbit, an old man begs several animals for food. The bear offers meat, the monkey nuts, and the otter fish, but the rabbit knows how to gather only grass, which the old man cannot eat. Instead he offers his own body to the man, sacrificing himself in the fire. But the old man reveals himself to be an incarnation of the Buddha and spares the rabbit’s life, inscribing his likeness in the moon in recognition of his selfless good deed. In the same way, in the parable of the deer, Muhammad honors the deer’s sacrifice by sparing her life. In some respects this story is even more striking in that it is not by a direct divine hand that the deer is spared; it is the hunter who, moved by the deer’s sacrifice and also by Muhammad’s trust and goodwill, ends up sparing the innocent deer. These stories that extend beyond the human realm end up resonating with me, perhaps because they show that God’s will extends beyond man and into animals, plants, and all things.

This same idea is reflected in my week one project. In class Prof. Asani told us a short story that really resonated with me, and which culminated in the idea that to a true Muslim, every leaf in a forest is a page of the Qur’an. This was also the week in which I learned that the Qur’an is interpreted as the literal word of God, not only as a transliteration like the Bible. It was a natural extension of this idea, then, that every object in the natural world would be adjacent to the Qur’an, as both were directly created by God. The notion that one could live one’s life reading every flower as an ayat, every bird’s call as a call to prayer, was incredibly moving to me.

In the same vein, I really enjoyed the week in which we read The Conference of the Birds. While a compelling story on its own, I think the fact that it was told from the perspective of some very colorful bird characters made it instantly charismatic and approachable. The graphical representation of thirty birds composing the silhouette of a great bird (Simorgh) leapt immediately to mind while reading the story, but I decided to represent the piece on an acetate projection to bring Islamic light symbolism into the piece as well. The use of light also serves as a metaphor of enlightenment and realization, such as the realization come upon by the birds in the story. This semester I also took a VES course in which we discussed methods by which one might fill a space. One option was to use light and shadow, with which one might turn a very small object into one capable of dominating a room. While reading The Conference of the Birds I thought this application might be relevant, as the story conveyed the idea that, with God, man is greater than himself; that is, larger than himself.

With this notion in mind, I began to reassess my “science vs. religion” approach to things. Science to me has always represented the route by which man would seek to extend himself beyond the literal. Concretely, we are just apes on a rock in space, but with science and the pursuit of knowledge we have carved out an existence that is so much more. It can be construed, perhaps, as a heuristic in which we find meaning through accomplishment. Islam, and perhaps religion in general, seeks to generate the same sort of meaning-beyond-reality. Again, seeing God in leaves or blades of grass and hearing God’s word in birdsong adds a whole new dimension to and beyond existence. From this notion on, science and religion seemed to suit each other more and more as complements rather than opposites. It became apparent that they would never become equivalent, but they became increasingly less at odds with one another. Science, for example, seemed largely concerned with the present and near future, focusing largely on improvements in technology and infrastructure and medicine. Religion, while also concerning the day-to-day, also places heavy emphasis on what comes after life. It may be somewhat contrived to say that one follows the strictures of religion in pursuit of a divine reward in heaven, but it is certainly not entirely untrue; for example, many of the ghazals and short stories we read spoke of the great divine reward that awaited the meek after death. Those who are poor, and downtrodden, and oppressed but who remain true, will be met with their just deserts.

On this note of marginalized groups, as a female, I was interested in exploring the attitudes towards women in Islam. Colloquially in the West, Islam is regarded as a religion that is not entirely empowering towards women. Accordingly, I found it surprising that so often in the course we spoke about how Islam was used as a vehicle to encourage women towards education and even towards science. I was especially engaged by the discussion of the veil and how the West was inclined to incorrectly read it as an entirely oppressive practice. Hyperbolically, these ideas were encapsulated in our reading of “Sultana’s Dream”. I found the reversal striking and somewhat ridiculous with the descriptions of pseudoscientific solar and water power, but the piece seemed to achieve its intended effect; if a world in which women are in complete power and men are shut away is ridiculous, why is the converse acceptable? I chose to illustrate the piece using the nature themes echoed in some of my other blog entries, pulling from a particular part of the story in which men are compared to wild animals. While this may be a largely hyperbolic comparison, I found it a useful and impactful visual device to illustrate.

While it facilitated a great deal of discussion, this course did not fully resolve all the tensions I felt existed between science and religion. One of these instances came to light in week two, in which we discussed the symbolic drinking of Qur’an in order to cure illness. Given the reaction of several Muslim members of the class, I gathered that this was not a widely known or acknowledged practice. Still, I found it rather disconcerting that there were people in the world that believed that drinking ink and paper would have any sort of curative power, and even that different pages of the Qur’an had different effects on the body. This idea fell too close to the notions of homeopathy and sham medicine that continue to be an issue today. Even taking into account the effect of a placebo if the drinker is devout, I have always been a firm believer that medicine should be just that: medicine. There are too many stories about Jehovah’s witnesses refusing life-saving blood transfusions, of patients with curable cancers dying because they prefer colloquial remedies, of children dying while their parents pray instead of seeking medical attention. Later in the course I was relieved to learn that in Islam, it is divinely imperative that one take care of one’s body, and of course Islamic countries have historically been far more advanced than their Western counterparts in terms of medicine. In this respect I made the practice of drinking the Qur’an a little ridiculous by tying in Alice in Wonderland, a fundamentally absurdist novel. I did not mean for it to be entirely farcical though, and the symbolism of ingesting the Qur’an outside of a medical perspective was not without merit. Without the medical context, I saw it as a sort of initiation into the world of Islamic study from the inside out.

My exploration of Islam from the perspective of a scientist came to a head with our reading of Persepolis. Marjane seems to experience a similar internal struggle between a fundamental desire to be religious and close to God and the need for modernity. She goes through the same ideological turmoil concerning the veil and treatment of women and those who are lower-born. Her struggles are dramatic and literal: she harbors dreams of becoming a famous scientist until the universities are closed during the revolution. Her struggle between the religious and scientific sides of her is ultimately left out of balance, as she veers towards Western scientific thought towards the end of the novel. However, I figured that this need not always be the case, and for this reason I decided to alter the illustration of her internal struggle. After this course, it has become apparent to me that it is possible for all of these seemingly disparate elements – being female, wearing a veil, and studying science and technology – to exist in harmony. Her struggle closely paralleled my own as this course progressed.

In all, I found this course and especially the blog post aspect of this course to be very engaging. If nothing else I did learn a great deal about the realities of Islam, which were largely a black box to me and many others prior to enrolling. I have learned that for all its outward difference, Islam is a massively unifying and accepting faith and that it is largely due to media and misinterpretation that our gut feeling is, perhaps, Islamophobic. I have also immensely enjoyed my personal journey exploring Islam through the lens of a biologist and as an artist as well. I was surprised as to how personal the whole journey was, and how much what I learned in the course depended on what I brought to it. In this sense the blog assignment has largely been a reflection of what a blog is fundamentally intended to be; a document of one’s personal experiences and reflections thereof. As my first foray into a formal study of religion, A&I 54 has been a largely positive one, and I especially enjoyed approaching it from so many angles: both conceptually (through art, music, architecture, culture, literature, and faith) and from the perspective of so many students from so many backgrounds.

week 13, cont.

This same week we also read Persepolis, an engaging and charismatic graphic novel featuring a young girl embroiled in religion and politics and the clashing ideologies of her native Iran. One conflict in particular of hers that resonated with me was this panel, in which she contemplates the two sides of her that she feels are at odds:


This panel struck a chord with me because I came into the course a student of the sciences. I was never quite sure how one might navigate the intricacies of both science and religion in order to maintain a strong, simultaneous belief in both. At the end of Persepolis, Marjane seems to end up disillusioned with many aspects of religion, especially after seeing it twisted by the realities of war and revolution. After a relative of hers is murdered, she has a dramatic falling out with God. In the remainder of the novel, she finds herself lying about how often she prays and wearing a veil to ward off suspicion. She ends up leaving for a French school, which seems like a symbolic shift towards Western thought and away from her religious roots. Of course she still harbors a deep religiosity, but the world has made it difficult for her to stay true to this idea.


In this manipulation, I opted for a more happy ending: at the end of this course, it seems certainly possible to balance religion and modernity. We have watched many clips of documentaries in class featuring women studying in university, strong individuals even while wearing veils. It is this notion of “individuality in spite of the veil” that Satrapi expounds upon in Persepolis, but after our discussion, it seems that some even interpret the veil as an empowering aspect of their lives. The veil need not be a symbol of old-fashioned oppression, and the desire to pursue knowledge need not come into conflict with one’s relationship with God. I thought the graphic novel medium was very apt to communicate the author’s message, and I thought appropriating it in a manipulation would pose a striking contrast to the original image. I integrated the two sides of Marjane’s struggle, merging the gear motif with the arabesques of the original image. The hammer and ruler, representing logic and modern progress, are also integrated in the flowing design. I decided to represent her in full veil to convey the idea that the veil can coexist with modernity; Marjane’s smile says just as much.

Medium: digital manipulation

week 13

sultana's dream


This week we discussed “Sultana’s Dream,” a short story describing a women’s utopia. On my first reading of the story, I was unsure as to what I was intended to take away from it. On the one hand, it described a seemingly perfect world, in which all energy is renewable, and there are no wars, and everything is kind and full of flowers. But of course there is always the underlying sense that something is amiss. It reminded me of a short story by Ursula K. LeGuin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” in which a perfect utopia is maintained at the expense of a single pitiful, neglected child. “Sultana’s Dream” is probably even more skewed in the sense that an entire gender is sacrificed for a perfect world. I found it more satisfying to read the story as hyperbole, in which one is meant to feel uneasy. This world is lovely, but what about the men? Is it ever just to sacrifice the freedom of half the population for the good of the other? – if not, why is it the case that in the real world, women are marginalized?

I attempted to capture this sense of unease and imbalance in my illustration this week. On the left is a silhouetted lion (in the story, a lion is used metaphorically to justify why and how a man might be subdued), and on the right, a veiled woman, also in silhouette. The woman is sitting, meek, with her head bowed. Silhouetted prison bars frame and encapsulate the scene. The nature of the depiction – the fact that all the characters and elements are in silhouette – make it impossible to discern which party is imprisoned. Perhaps it is the lion who is behind bars and the woman is sitting beside the cage, or perhaps the lion is free and the woman is locked up. Or perhaps neither is free, and the two are locked in the cage together.

Taking into consideration these distinct interpretations of the scene, with this piece I hoped to make the viewer consider the implications of each one. It is of course a shame to lock up a majestic lion, who is depicted as powerful yet peaceable, not vicious. There is something similarly unsettling about locking up a woman while a lion roams free, and locking up both together is certainly no happy medium. The takeaway here is that the solution is not easy; the utopia described in “Sultana’s Dream” is not ideal, but nor is reality as it stands today. This piece is not meant to offer a simple answer; oversimplification is an easy pit to fall into, but feeding into it is unlikely to produce any useful resolution.

Medium: pen & ink

week 10


This week we read the epic The Conference of the Birds. My immediate impulse was towards a strongly visual, if somewhat obvious, visual representation of the story. The culmination of the story is when the thirty birds reach the valley of the legendary Simorgh and are met with only their collective reflection. Beyond the pun of si morgh – thirty birds – and Simorgh, this moment reveals the transcendent nature of God. As they gaze into their reflection, the thirty birds realize that, at the end of their long and arduous journey, that God exists within their collective selves and in the totality of all things. To reflect this idea of finding God in the totality of the universe, I decided to draw thirty bird silhouettes which, when taken together, make up the silhouette of the great, phoenix-like Simorgh.


However I felt that this representation was not sufficient to communicate the magnitude of the enlightenment realized by the birds. I accordingly decided to print my design on acetate and project it using light. Since we have talked so much about light symbolism and Noor Muhammad in the course, I have always wanted to incorporate light into one of my projects. I thought it was especially appropriate in this case as in a projection, light is being used to augment something beyond its physical reality. In the course we discussed light as a metaphor for God, as well as a symbol of Muhammad’s charisma as it is passed down through his familial line. It is only appropriate that in this project light is used to expand something that is physically insignificant. Using light, a small design can expand to occupy a space in its entirety, just as God’s presence within man can extend his being beyond his physical being. Ultimately, in this case, the sum of thirty birds is greater than its individual parts.

Medium: screenprinting on acetate; light

week 4

This week we read some Sindhi and Urdu poems in praise of the prophet Muhammad. One of these was “the Miracle Story of the Prophet (Peace be upon Him) and the Doe,” in which a hunter traps a doe. The doe is distressed as she has left her two fawns hungry in the desert. Hearing her plight, Muhammad appears and agrees to act as her guarantor while she goes to feed her fawns. The hunter, a greedy and faithless man, returns and is wroth with the prophet for letting his prey go. He has no faith that the deer will return. When the doe appears with her fawns again, the hunter is humbled by the miracle that has occurred and attains faith in Islam. He releases the doe and her fawns out of compassion.

To represent this story, I decided to illustrate the deer and her two fawns. The deer in the story is a doe, but I chose to represent a buck (or more appropriately an antlered doe, which occurs in nature but is not as common). This was so I could incorporate the alif-lam-lam-ha of Allah’s name in the deer’s antlers. This reflects the doe’s godly nature and her faith in the takeaway of this particular story: “Whoever seeks refuge in the master [Muhammad] escapes harm. / Those who recite the kalmah, they are the people of paradise. / There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” (Mu’jaza, pp. 130-32). In the story, the deer’s faith in Muhammad is what allows her to escape from harm. Because of her faith, the hunter is converted and the doe is pardoned. She is free to raise her fawns to themselves venerate the prophet.

This story seems to be a metaphor about the Prophet Muhammad as an intercessor on the behalf of man in man’s relationship with God. The deer represents man in times of turmoil, and as Muhammad represents a fatherly figure to which man may turn for aid, in the story the Prophet intercedes on behalf of the deer by acting as a guarantor. The notion of sacrifice resonates strongly in this act, as Muhammad is putting his faith in the deer by trusting that she will return. It is perhaps this feeling of sacrifice and responsibility that makes man’s relationship with Muhammad and with God so deep.

Medium: pen & ink

week 2

“The Koran is regarded as containing divine power; thus, to possess the Koranic texts renders an individual powerful and protects him against misfortunes and malevolent forces. The highest form of the possession of the Koran is its commitment to memory, which amounts to its internalization in the head, the superior part of the body, whence it can be instantly reproduced by recitation. But the Koran can also be internalized in the body by being drunk. Although drinking the Koran is seen as being far less effective than memorizing it, it is superior to carrying it on the body through the use of amulets” (Osman El-Tom, 416).

This week the practice of drinking the Qur’an was particularly interesting to me. Though in reading and lecture it was described as a fairly commonplace practice, the reactions of people during class as well as discussions that took place outside of class were somewhat bemused. I think this is an interesting manifestation of the idea of different “communities of interpretation”; clearly, in the population of Muslim students at Harvard, drinking the Qur’an is not viewed as a traditional practice. It is more likely that it is particular to certain other communities, including the South Saharan Berti population discussed in this week’s reading.

For this project I decided to dramatize the practice of drinking the Qur’an by referencing Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In Alice, Alice comes upon a bottle labeled “DRINK ME” which causes her to shrink down to a size small enough to fit through the door to the Wonderland garden. This symbolizes her entrance to a new world.

Though in the reading and in lecture drinking the Qur’an is described as a curative practice, it is also a way, as Osman El-Tom describes, of “possessing” the text – perhaps literally “internalizing” it. Upon absorbing the Qur’an in this way, one could be considered metaphorically elevated to a higher realm of comprehension and spirituality. In this context, I thought it might be appropriate to reference Alice, because like Alice entering Wonderland, we as students are in the process of entering a realm of study unfamiliar to us. Even among the Muslim students of the class, practices like drinking the Qur’an are novel and perhaps shocking. The reference functions on two levels: superficially, both the “DRINK ME” bottle in Alice and drinking the Qur’an involve ingesting a substance, but both also represent the metaphorical internalization of something foreign and new.

In this project I tried to make the bottle appear ornate and ceremonial. The “DRINK ME” label is embellished with ligatures based on Islamic arabesque, and the scroll inside is a page from the Qur’an.

Medium: sculpture (mason jar, paper, ribbon, string)

calligraphy project

In the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created man out of a mere blood clot.


Have not those who disbelieve seen that the heavens and the Earth were of one connected entity, then We separated them, and We made every living thing out of water? Will they then believe?


Allah has created every animal out of water. Of them one walks upon its belly, another walks upon two legs, and a third which walks upon four.


In lecture Prof. Asani has talked about how out of all of the world’s diversity there can be found a certain unity. Since I study evolutionary biology, this reminded me of the unity that can be found if one goes far enough back on the evolutionary timeline. The idea that all of the world’s organismal diversity is derived from a unified point of origin has always been beautiful to me, so I decided to make Allah’s name into a phylogenetic tree. Phylogenetics is the study of how organisms are linked through evolutionary descent. This particular tree shows the relationships between select eukaryotic organisms found on Earth. The alif, lam, lam, and ha are branches of the tree. The alif is also the root of the phylogenetic tree, which represents a common ancestor to all life, just as Allah represents the unity that ties the world together. The Qur’an mentions that God created all animals out of water, and the root could represent this origin. The branch between fungi and plants is slightly delineated so as to make each of the letters more legible. This depiction also shows that evolution and other lines of scientific thought are not in direct conflict with Islamic thought. The Qur’an talks about how how Allah created man out of a blood clot, or in other translations a living cell; this could be interpreted as “Allah created life.” If Allah created life, then evolution could certainly explain how organisms have become as complex and varied as they are today.

Medium: pen & ink

week 1

This week I decided to focus on the “emergent” nature of God’s revelations to man. Many of the readings discussed the role of signs in man’s relationship with the divine. While some of his revelations are clear manifestations of his glory (such as crumbling a mountain before Moses), most of the instances discussed are more subtle and require a receptive mind. The Qur’an addresses aspects of the everyday – “the patterns of day and night, male and female, odd and even, singular and plural” (Sells, 16) – in which God’s will is apparent to one who has submitted himself to God: “(Here) indeed are the signs (āyāt) for a people that are wise.” (2:164) In this sense, God’s signs are emergent in the sense that they are always there; the trees are always covered in leaves, the birds always sing. But it takes more than their mere presence to constitute a sign; one must truly submit himself to God and open his mind to be able to read signs that have always been there. To the unenlightened, birdsong is simply pleasant sound; to one who is close to God, it becomes apparent – emergent – that their calls are proclamations to the heavens praising God. For this week’s blog entry I decided to portray another everyday sight, a handful of yellowing, tattered leaves. To one who is not “wise,” that is, one who has not learned to see God in nature, or to hear the birds praising God when they sing, they might appear haphazard:

But for one who has submitted, the same leaves may appear like an ayat:

I chose to represent the Bismillah (bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm / بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم) that opens every sura save one, as it seems like an iconic and recognizable way for God to reveal himself. The use of common leaves as a medium shows that God may reveal himself through any medium, even the seemingly insignificant. “To one who has submitted himself to God, every leaf becomes a page of the Qur’an.”

Medium: sculpture (leaves)