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Portfolio Introduction

Lauren Gooden

Professor Asani


The Islamic Aesthetic: Portfolio Introduction


Throughout this class I was challenged by a few questions first my question was what is the Islamic aesthetic and who has authority over it? But, the better question came to light as the class continued: Is there an Islamic aesthetic and can anyone have the power to define it? I came into this class understanding that not only was islamaphobia rampant in the United States, but western ideals of art and spirituality alongside religion really color my own interpretation of the art I would study, and I wanted to do something about it, if I could.

I was set on undoing some of the norms and stereotypes that I inevitably carry as a non-Muslim American.  I wanted to look at the texts we engaged with from the most open perspective possible, as well as acknowledge the notions and islamaphobic tendencies I might have personally.  I came in thinking of Islam and its associated practices in a sort of rigid manner.  I think western idealists tend to see Islam in terms of what is allowed and what is not, a set of rules—more akin to the way the Catholic religion functions in the United States, from a cultural perspective.

I initially approached the texts and themes with this same perspective of strict rules and regulations, so to speak, of practice and worship.  But, I later tried to come at the texts and art from a different angle.  When I started to see the multiple ways of interpreting stories that are part of the Islamic tradition, even transposition of the Qu’ran is not exactly reliable.  Week two revealed some more details about calligraphy and the Arabic language.

For the first blog piece, I was inspired by the first reading in the text, Seven Doors to Islam.  John Renard refers to the “mystical imagination”[1] where one mystical interpretation of the Verse of Light struck a chord for me.  It starts with “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth”, and ends with “light upon light; God guides to His light who He will.  And God coins similitudes for human beings, and of everything God has knowledge”(Q 24:35).  Here we see at least some sort of suggest of a connection or inspiration between God and humans, as if this light can be passed on or experienced by human beings.  While prophets clearly have a special relationship with God, sometimes viewed as messengers or righteous leaders often prosecuted for their actions or belief.  Yet, it is not so clear how close and the nature of the interaction between God and human beings.

In the second blog piece I went for an idea for a campaign around islamaphobia and the oppression of Muslim people.  In the third week, I enjoyed Asani’s reading the most.  I thought it was salient and straight to the point and it inspired me to think of my own little piece of this country and how I might combat oppression or social awareness at the least.  Asani talks of the political maneuvering to paint president as Obama as a Muslim person in order to discredit him by painting him as the other.  Asani writes “Post 9-11 America has witnessed a range of public figures, from evangelical preachers and media personalities to political analysts and talk show hosts, proclaiming that America is at war with Islam because, in their view, its values are anti-American”[2].  This quote brought me back to my larger question, is their a Islamic aesthetic in the sense that we can define music art and action as Islamic based on their significance or value.  I think an effective way to fight for social justice is to display the truth.  I wanted to make something that could be seen by many and have an impact in even the slightest of ways on their vision of what Islam is.

Following in the same vain, I posted a story of “seeing “Light” in life and how I interpreted it to work.  We’ve talked about Light as God but also, seeing that light in nature.  I contemplated what that meant, what it looked like.  I added two photos to the story as well, I attempted to take a picture of light during the day and light in the dark to symbolize Light in the dark and light of life, or when its going well, and when life is not easy—God is there, but you have to see the signs, this light.

In the first week we read Professor Asani’s 1st chapter in Infidels of Love, where he wrote of the religious tensions in Pakistan within Islam and Muslim.  He notes, “[e]ver since the seventh century when the Prophet Muhammad first began preaching his message, the question “who is a Muslim?” has been the source of intense debate. ” This highlights exactly the point that this reflection as well as my experience in the class was moving toward, what defines the aesthetic comes from the individual.

My attempt to represent an aesthetic of Islam failed in one way because there is no aesthetic as the one who worships defines it. I think bringing my cultural context and personal experience into the posts and interpretations make the connections between not only stronger, but truer. Through this course I have realized that the Western view not only demonizes Muslims and Islam, but it depicts it in a rigid, rule-oriented way that is misrepresentative. The first idea in this class that I really held on to was the connectedness of all religious scripture, and specifically the recognition of the Torah and the bible as previous iterations of God, but they are all the word of God, and in the most inclusive sense, the Qu’ran claims all believers of God, even following a different book, are Muslim, “believers”.

My blog posts attempt to accomplish or imagine what political or social action could be done, as well as delve into the intricacies of Islamic art. Yet, the last two posts, really focus on the emotional side of the experience of Islam and God.  I wanted to do something truly inspired and come full circle from the first post, which talks about that spiritual experience and inspiration.

Learning about Sama really inspired me for two reasons. First, startin when I could walk and up to this day, I spin with my head cocked to the side which gives me a sort of moment of ecstasy, so it was interesting to see the video of the Whirling Dervishes in class. While that is something I have always done, I actually felt like I had some new insight into myself. As these Whirling Dervishes are looking for a spiritual moment with Sama, I think about my habit of spinning when I feel happy maybe I’m just trying to celebrate with God in a moment of ecstasy.

The second reason I was drawn to the concept of Sama was because of the tie to music. Ever since I can remember music really spoke to me. Right away the idea of Sama made sense to me. My experience with music is extremely spiritual. When African-Americans were enslaved they used spirituals to get them through. Hiphop is a direct modern day extension of that survival tool. Most black male I met has a hiphop go to song when they need to be lifted, and I do the same. A gospel or rap song that speaks to truth and logic and soul-servicing is a necessity. For that reason, the idea of sama having this power was completely believable. I didn’t think it was only about sex like some students but rather divine ecstasy that potentially sex may accomplish, but that is not Sama.

The last piece on the blog is the most complex one. I had a lot of pride in it and I took my time too paint the design. I was very committed to it being a visual representation of my mental conception of Islam, but also, to be true and inspired. My take away from this class was that true and inspired energy put into art and practice are key. Rather than an aesthetic there is a practice of worship and art production that is true in spirit, and that is the heart of Islam.

What seems to be key in America as well as internationally is the need for activism and justice for many Muslims. The question that I and  others must ask theirself, how I am making assumptions or stereotypes in order to take them apart. There is a strong presence f Muslims in America, yet their presence is unbelievably segregated. The majority of non-Muslims in America may not even encounter a Muslim person. As the statistics around socioeconomic status, educational achievemt, health risk and status,etc., start to display a downward, negative trend it becomes clear that America has officially thrown Muslims into the category of “minority” or “other”. Their statistics are very comparable to those of African-Americans and Latino people, and they are moving closer. Before 9/11 this was not the case. That says something is very wrong, we need to eradicate stereotypes and representations of Muslim in the media in order to combat the structural racism that Muslims experience in this country. What my blog project attempts to do, is to change some of that picture, to represent alternative forms of engaging with the religion and understanding it.


[1] John Renard, Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).


[2] Asani, Ali.  Infidels of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam, 2013, Harvard University Press

An Islamic Aesthetic

What I think I learned is that there are many forms and interpretations of Islam, but there is one thing that seems to be frequent throughout, and that is of this real inspiration or spiritual experience — that is what makes it islamic. I wanted to make something almost as a tribute to the expansive proliferation of music and dance and art and sorts of styles. I incorporated some different types of motifs present in Islamic art. I started by writing Allah in the middle, as much of the art and stained glass we saw did. I took a geometric take to this “calligraphy” and used white as a background to highlight what is communicated in the shadah that there is only one true god, and the importance of believing in Him or being grateful to Him as a Muslim, Allah is central here, as is his relationship with people ant the world, etc.  Next I new I was going t ouse a pattern that wrap around the center.  I was aware of styles that are often used in Islamic art, but followed my own inspiration.


00004IMG_0703 00004Untitled 000004Untitled

“The Light” in another form

The song “The Light” by Common came to mind when sama. Its a song about love and spiritually and really hits the spot, so to speak. I made it into a mashup, with an instrumental I tweaked to get a sound that was hopeful, honest, real–the way I want to be in terms my engagement with my faith and with God.  “Wake Up Everybody”  is a song by John Legend, that refers to waking up to fight war and poverty, and it strikes just the right chord. I worked these two songs into a mashup to create my own sort of Sama.

Who is a Muslim?



00005UntitledIn the first week, we looked at Asani’s work  in Infidels of Love, where in one part,  he describes the arguments and common debates about what it takes to be a muslim, according to certain people and groups.  We see on one side of the coin those Muslims who strictly adhere to the shahada. Whereas the Qu’ran puts it in more inclusive terms, where essentially, the requirement is to believe in God. One step further and the requirements were to be grateful of God, rather than jut believe in his existence. There is evidence of this int the Qu’ran when analyzing the antonyms and roots of those o infidelity and infidel, and gratitude comes into the picture.  So, it seems that many muslims have different interpretations of what it means to be a muslim and this has led to conflict. In the U.S., it also means to be apart of an oppressed group. The health statistics for Muslims are abysmal in this country, but only after  9/11. I wanted to take that idea a step further and ask what does it mean to be Muslim in America, especially after 9-11. I wanted to make or draw something that depicted a “regular guy” so unique, interesting–a person with character,  and place new york city behind them. I think that must be a huge piece of the experience, like they are carrying it, even if its in the distance , just  always there, a constant experience.  I wanted to depict this experience of people who worship and practice Islam and the gross association the U.S. makes with terrorism, when the people are peaceful and regular and American.

What Light Looks Like For Me

In yoga, there are these mini moments of triumph. Each pose poses a challenge, its own obstacle to be countered. With the soul of my foot pressed against the inner thigh of my opposite leg, I wobbled but stood balanced on one leg. It hurt a little but felt exhilarating simultaneously, empowering when I silenced my doubt and just observed my strength, my oneness with my body in this pose. From the soles of my feet through the crown of my head I stood strong. I was a rock. See, I didn’t know how long I needed to hold each pose. Every once in a while, I’d drop from the pose early, escaped the tough pull on my muscle, and on my mind. Knowing, every time that I could of held it longer. I held and held, asking myself if the instructor would ever say stop. It felt like an eternity until she did. Why couldn’t she just let us know that there was only ten seconds left to hold the pose. Then I would know I could hold it through the end. If I could just know how long the struggle would last, I could persevere through the struggle. That was just it though, you don’t get to know. It’s yoga, but its life too. I had too just believe that I had the strength to persevere through the pose – and not believe in the sense that I just myself “you can do it” or act as my own personal cheerleader. I had to truly and honestly believe I could do it, only then could I do it. That is the hardest part—believing that something that hasn’t happened yet will truly happen because in fact that is the only way it will. You don’t even need to know what will happen, just that it is going to. That is what faith is.


For a while I thought knowing was about confidence in what will come, but I was wrong. It was all about my confidence, not in what was coming, but that something was coming at all. You don’t get to know, and in realizing that, my faith was renewed.



In this piece, I wanted to highlight Light as Allah, but even more so I wanted to interrogate what “seeing Allah in nature could really look like. The story isn’t true, but it could be. As we’ve talked more about seeing Allah in nature, it really made me think about the moments in life where something clicks, you have an experience or you realize something you never could, even certain scripture in any religious texts may be read as a mystery or seem to have a simple, superficial meaning. And then there are moments of light, and you realize the truth  and the depth of that scripture or whatever else.

Islam 1-0-onefund

Are we really “Boston Strong”? I was thinking about the reading from week three, specifically Professor Asani’s chapter in Infidels of Love. And I wanted to think of something somewhat focused on activism, erradicting oppression and especially, mainstream notions of what it means to be Muslim. Asani talks of People with a Muslim identity in America. They are othered to the point that being Muslim on a national stage can be used to discredit people like Barack Obama. Below is an Idea I had for a bumper sticker to be plastered on the T. The above picture is of an advertisement that actually exists on the T. I thought not only would such a project be a peaceful protest, but I also thought it would be a refreshing contrast to the using depictions of Muslims in the country. The above advertisement makes Islam seem like a foreign thing. So much that there are signs on public transportation to give people an education of what it even is. I wanted to put all into the context of the Boston marathon bombing. I remember being on the train the next morning and seeing the fear people had, but even more I saw the fear every, even remotely middle eastern looking person. There was no trust in them because of their assumed religious affiliation. People reacted with certainty that this was motivated by Islamic values. The islamaphobia was rampant.  At the same time the Mosque in Roxbury supports a plethora of youth and individuals in arguably, the most resource poor neighborhood in the Boston metro area.




“[she] who knows herself, knows God”



Ever since I can remember, music and words spoke to me, spoke through me. Before I could read I begged my parents for piano lessons. Where did I even hear of the piano? Where did I hear it played and why did I want it so bad? That was another thing, I wanted, badly, always. I was a wanter and a dreamer– no just a want-er. Dreaming implies that you’re imagining something unreal, something that you would like to happen. I walked tall at age four knowing what would happen, what I would be, I never thought in possibilities and plausibilities, I thought in matter-of-fact-ness, in truth.

Piano lessons were a bust though — I was a do-er, I didn’t want to play what I had to play — I just wanted to play. I wanted to hear and do and let music come out of me. Sometimes when I’d listen to music — I rememebr my parents wedding album, Labi Safire, with especial clarity –I would watch a hoard of people in my head, move in line with the music, big peope and small people moving together and apart, a like and in contradiction like the snare and the base, the way the notes would go up and down, and run away from eachother and then back again, thats what I saw in my head, it was fun, it was beauty, it was a beacon inside that i couldn’t consciously conjure, but I couldn’t confine either.

In this way, I was always a summoner. I got lost in my thought and in  myself, and something else would come in. I couldn’t stop it. I had to figure out how to get it out. The keys on the piano weren’t a language I spoke too fluently yet. But, words on paper — that was easy. I’d perch in a tree in my backyard with a notebook and I’d write. Pages on pages on pages — and I couldn’t tell you what I wrote either, it was something that came through me, used me as a delivery service and I just worked my shift.

Music and words. Since I was young it was always music and words. I wanted to speak in my own language, tie together sentences that broke all of the conventional rules in writing. I wanted to make the reader shiver, the way I did when they came through me.



So, that was the beggining finished for me. I had to rest inside of myself, so the words and the music, so that the message could come through me again. That was the only way my blood pumped — otherwise my mind was like a clogged drain — nothing flowing through, what seemed like emptiness but was ablockage, flow stopped. I could turn on the faucet, but the water couldn’t go anywhere. It didn’t matter what was flowing through I couldn’t get my hands on it, the drain was just spitting back up at me, this conglomeration of what was once many things, different things — and all I got back was brown gucky gross sameness. I needed the water to flow, to come undone and done again until the spirits could flow through me again, I needed to clear a pathway of rightousness.





In the first week of class we spoke of the Qur’an, and I learned of it as a recitation of the words Mohammed heard from Allah. Previously I had conceptualized the Quran as a written text, even as a set of rules. Nasr argued for the effect art in and its relevance to Islam.

We continued to discuss the plausibility of art as religious or spiritual, and the religious power and relevance it had. I have always envisioned my art and the creation of it as a power in knowing self, but even more in listening to self, and as a result, listening to God. This made me think of my own art as a moment or feeling, in the way the Koran is an aesthetic so astounding it is meant to evoke a genuine feeling or sentiment. When engaged in the first reading in Seven Doors of Islam,  during week one, I was inspired by this idea of a “mystical imagination”, and that lead me in this direction.


Good writing isn’t about how it sounds; It’s about depicting truth so honestly that the reader feels genuinely empathetic. As if they’ve seen an old friend and the memories of their friendship play, and they feel what once was true. The reader feels what they’ve wished were true or what will one day be true, sometimes more intense and surreal than their memories and experiences themselves. That’s what good writing does. The right words are so on point; you have no choice but to feel.