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Introductory Essay


The Many Faces of Islam

Islam is often viewed in the west as a monolithic faith with one set of universal ideologies, beliefs, and values.  Within our class we studied the many different understandings of the Islamic faith and what it means to be a Muslim within diverse social and geographic environments and in different historical periods.  This was accomplished through the cultural studies method that approaches religion not as a specific doctrine, or monolithic set of sacred writings, but as a complex and changing human organism.  Professor Asani noted in his book, Infidel of Love:  Exploring Muslim Understanding of Islam, the unique advantage of using the cultural studies method to study religion, “It maintains that religions are shaped by a complex web of factors, including political ideologies, socioeconomic conditions, societal attitudes to gender, educational status, literary and artistic traditions, historical and geographical situation – all of which are inextricably linked in influencing the frameworks within which sacred texts, rituals, and practices are interpreted” (Asani, pg. 10).  By understanding the differences within Islam we can better overcome ignorance and promote a greater understanding of the faith in many different contexts.

In our class the arts become the central vehicle to understanding the multiple expressions of the Islamic faith.  Through our own artistic creations, inspired by class readings and experiencing Islamic art, film, music, dance, poetry, architecture, and literature, we were able to find a way to connect and engage with the world of Islam and begin to understand the unifying elements of Islamic art as well as the vast differences, often due to the absorption within Islam of ideas from the preexisting societies, cultures, and religions.  As the weeks went by my artwork and blogs started to fall into four different categories:  new responses to ancient Islamic art works; responses to current Islamic art works; interpretations of Islamic ideologies and thoughts; and reactions and artistic expressions to ongoing arguments and discussions within the Islamic faith.  Through using the contextual or cultural studies method to examine the Islamic faith, I was able to draw upon a vast array of Islamic sources and art works to create an understanding of Islam that was multidimensional and rich in it’s diversity of thoughts and understandings.  Professor Asani discussed the benefits of the cultural studies approach in his book, “A contextual approach to the study of Islam recognizes that the experiences and expression of any religion are far from homogeneous or monolithic.  In the course of historical evolution, such a dazzling variety of interpretations, rituals, and practices have come to be associated with the faith of Islam that many Muslims, most of whose understanding of their religion are restricted to their specific devotional and sectarian contexts (Sunni, Shi’i, etc.) are astonished when they become aware of this diversity” (Asani, 13).

One of the major themes discussed within class was the paramount  importance of the Qur’an for Muslims.  My first poem and blog during week two dealt with the frustration that I was having in trying to understand the Qur’an without understanding Arabic.  I felt that it was necessary to be able to understand the Qur’an as it is the heart and center of the faith for all Muslims.  The sacred nature of the Qur’an, that being the revealed word of God to Muhammad, was difficult for me to grasp.  I later realized that this was because I was looking at the Qur’an through a purely textural lens.  While I was not able to understand the Arabic, I was still able to feel the beauty of the Qur’an through the taped recitations and through reading, albeit somewhat imperfect, translations.  During the third week I created a collage that reflected the beauty of Qur’anic recitation that was viewed during the movie, Koran by heart, my reactions to listening to Qur’anic recitations on the website, and from examining the many examples of the refined art of calligraphy of the Qur’an.  At this point I felt that I was finally entering into a ‘lived’ understanding of Islam.  The great importance and centrality of the arts within the Islamic faith and the use of art as an expression of love of the Prophet were noted by Professor Asani, “…many Muslims have embraced the arts and literature as vehicles to express their idea about their religion.  Thus poems, short stories, novels, folk songs, hip hop, miniature painting, calligraphies, films, architecture, and gardens offer us glimpses into Muslim worldview” (Asani, pg 21).  The centrality of the arts in defining Islam is expressed in radically different ways throughout the Islamic world.

Another major class theme was the understanding of the different groups and interpretations within the Islamic faith.  Followers of the Islamic faith are often viewed as one homogenous group following the same understanding and traditions.  The vastness of the Islamic world often surprises people who tend to associate it mainly as a religion of the Middle East.  By learning about the different interpretations of Islam, and particularly the differences that are found within the Sunni and Shi’ite communities, a greater understanding of continued conflicts among Muslims was gained.  The succession of leadership after the death of Muhammad in 632 C.E. had ramifications that are as prominent and meaningful today as they were at that time.  Muslims have different teachings regarding the early leadership of the Muslim community upon the death of the Prophet.  Shi’ite’s believe that Ali, as the son-in-law and cousin and direct descendent of the Prophet, was designated to lead the Muslim community and that he and his descendants would become the future imams.  David Buchman, in his article Shi’ite Islam in Contemporary Iran, discussed the special place of the imams within the Twelver Shi’ite community and the political ramifications of Shi’ite rituals in Iran, “…these rituals are still carried out by Iranians today, and some of them have been manipulated by clerics for political ends” (Buchman, pg. 78).  The events at Karbala, whereupon Husayn, the son of Ali, and other members of his family were massacred in 680 C.E., created a permanent division between members of the Muslim community that was based upon the legitimacy of succession.  My third blog and art project created a public garden and theatre for the unique Taziyeh ritual, particularly as it is performed within Iran today.  From reading The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husein and reading about the Taziyeh ritual in Peter Chelkowski’s article, Taziyeh:  Ritual and Drama in Iran, and most importantly, from viewing film footage of the ritual the deep emotional attachment and lived religious experience of the audience and ritual performers was strongly experienced.  While all Muslims follow the teachings of the Qur’an and the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, the Shi’ites also follow the teachings of the Imams.  Within Iran the annual Taziyeh ritual, reenacts the martyrdom of Husayn, the son of Ali, and hence takes on a political as well as religious importance.  David Buchman discussed the modern implications and multiple meanings of the Taziyeh ritual in his article Shi’ite Islam in Contemporary Iran:  From Islamic Revolution to Moderating Reform, and suggested, “Acknowledging this event means recognizing that although an injustice was done to Husayn, it was a necessary evil to allow purification of humanity’s sins.  On a more spiritual level, to remember what happened on the plain of Karbala is to be reminded of the personal injustice all Muslims do to themselves and each other by not following the teachings of the Qur’an, the hadith, and the Imams” (Buchman, pg. 78).  The emotional reaction of Twelver Shi’ite Muslims as they watch or participate in the reenacting of the Taziyeh ritual continually stresses and reinforces the different beliefs between the followers of Twelver Shi’ism and other Muslims.

Sufism was another major theme discussed in the course.  Undoubtedly the reading that touched me the most was Farid Attar’s, Conference of the Birds.  Learning about the esoteric tradition of Sufism and the deep piety and seeing it’s reflection in Sufi poetry, reading Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz, creating my own Ghazal, and ultimately creating a musical interpretation of The Conference of the Birds, opened my eyes to the vast beauty and mystical spirituality of the poetry of Islam and the continued importance of it today.  Annemarie Schimmel noted in Mystical Dimensions of Islam that the Prophet stated in Hadith #535, “If ye had trust in God, as ye ought He would feed you even as He feeds the birds” (Schimmel, pg. 118).  The symbolism within and seen throughout Sufi poetry and literature would have been completely missed without some understanding of Sufi mysticism.  In the Introduction to Conference of the Birds, Dick Davis offers an understanding of Sufi beliefs, “The doctrine is elusive, but certain tenets emerge as common to most accounts.  These briefly, are:  only God truly exists – all other things are an emanation of Him, or are His ‘shadow’; religion is useful mainly as a way to reaching a truth beyond the teachings of particular religions, – however, some faiths are more useful than others, and Islam, is the most useful; man’s distinctions between good and evil have no meaning for God, who knows only Unity; the soul is trapped within the cage of the body but can, by looking inward, recognize its essential affinity with God; the awakened soul, guided by God’s grace, can progress along a Way which leads to annihilation in God” (Davis in Attar, pg. XII).  The moral teachings, wisdom, and guidance within Conference of the Birds are relevant for people of any religious background and at any time in history.  Reinforcing the reading was seeing a visual representation in a miniature painting from Iran created in 1600 C.E. by the artist Habiballah at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The painting was a page from the manuscript of The Language of the Birds, and was created by painting in ink, watercolor, gold, and silver on paper.  The beauty of that work perfectly captured the delicacy and questioning nature of the narrative.  Within my musical composition I attempted to create music that touched upon the questioning nature of Sufi spirituality, but reinterpreted this Islamic art form within the understanding of a person who was not a Muslim living within the 21st century and trained in jazz music.  This modern response to a Persian Islamic literary art form created in 1175 C.E. emphasizes the ongoing relevance of Islamic artistic works.

The debate over music and dance being forbidden or prohibited within some divisions of Islamic society continues to this day and some of the most interesting readings and discussions in our class took place around the different reactions to music throughout the Islamic world.  Anne K. Rasmussen discussed the different reactions to music and recitation in The Qur’an in Indonesian Daily Life; The Public Project of Musical Oratory, “In spite of various historic controversies surrounding the inappropriate use of music, something Nelson refers to as the “Sama Polemic,” there seems to be an understanding in some parts of the Arab world about the reciprocity between good singing and good recitation” (Rasmussen, pg. 36).  Rasmussen continued to talk about the difference in music performances in the Arab world as opposed to Indonesia and suggest that the performer-audience dynamics are not a part of Indonesian life, “In Jakarta, concerts of Arab music (haflat) where audience members, overpowered by the performance of a great singer, swoon, sway, dance, and call out exclamations of enthusiastic approval and self-indulgent participation, are rare.  Great Arab performers do not tour Indonesia, and the aesthetics of kayf, saltanah, and tarab, all Arab terms having to do with the enchanting power of music to drive one to ecstasy, do not seem to be part of Indonesian musical and aesthetic discourse.  Indonesian music, including the many kinds of Islamic popular and folk music, and the demeanor of Indonesian audiences are very different from those found in the Arab world, and it is perhaps for this reason that the comparison of recitation with music is simply not the issue of grandeur that it might be in an Arab context” (Rasmussen, pg. 36).  While dance is prohibited within many parts of the Islamic world the Turkish Mevlevi Whirling Dervishes use dance to reach a transcendent state of rapture.  The many different Islamic responses to music and dance led me to create my blog and graphic comic during week eight that dealt with this debate and questions that I found confusing regarding the prohibition of music and dance.

The place of women and gender within the Islamic world was another central theme discussed within class.  My final blog and artwork revolved around the complex issue of purdah.  Within the Islamic world the place of women in society is vast and varied.  With the resurgence of Islam and a return to Shari’ah law rather than secular law in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran the role of women is once again in great flux, reflecting both a modern industrialized society and traditional roles set forth in the Hadith.  Muslim women are also re-examining the Qur’an and the Hadith and searching for new interpretations of their place within Muslim society.  The use of the headscarf as a marker of Islamic pride by some women was particularly interesting as many people from the west view it as a symbol of oppression.

Through the use of the cultural studies method to examine Islam it became clear that the Islamic faith varies as much as each individual person varies from the next person.  There is not one Islamic faith but many different Muslims – each with their own lived experience of the faith.  Through examining the arts, as a reflection and glorification of the love Muslims have for God and the prophet Muhammad, it is possible to get a glimpse into the vast diversity of ideas and inspirations that are a part of the world of Islam.  One piece of art and one ideology does not define all Muslims.  Through understanding the diversity of ideologies and thought within the Muslim world throughout history, and by studying the magnificence of Islamic artistic achievements, a deep respect, admiration, and understanding is inevitable.

Week Twelve Blog Post – Purdah Examined


The heated debate and great range of responses from both Muslim men and women to Purdah, literally meaning ‘Curtain’, is astonishing.  The wearing of a veil can be seen as a marker of Islamic pride and identity, an imposed governmental regulation as in the case of Iran, a right denied as in the case of France, and a traditional dress mode seen in various other religions viewed as a cultural marker of class.

In Marjane Satrapi’s book Persepolis, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 ushered in a new era of Islamic fundamentalism.  When her mother’s car breaks down she is verbally assaulted by men who tell her that she should be raped and thrown in the garbage for not wearing a veil.  Through cartoons Satrapi’s comments on the absurdity of the response, “And so to protect women from all the potential rapists, they decreed that wearing the veil was obligatory.  Women’s hair emanates rays that excite men.  That’s why women should cover their hair?  If in fact it is really more civilized to go without the veil, then animals are more civilized than we are” (Satrapi, pg 74).  Within the Qur’an the veil is not specified and purity and chaste behavior is advised equally for men and women, “Tell the believing men to be chaste in their looking and to keep their sexual impulses under control – a restraint that will make to their greater purity.  For God is aware of all that they do.  And tell the believing women to be chaste in their looking and to keep their sexual impulses under control not parading their charms beyond what is chastely seen but drawing their veils over their bosoms….” (Surah 24:30-31).

Hanna Papanek tells about a very different feeling towards the veil in Afterword Caging the Lion:  A Fable for our Time.  Papanek tells the story of a Pakistani woman, Hamida Khala, who ultimately gave up on purdah upon the request of her husband and after his death felt that she could not have run her household if she had stayed in purdah.  Khala noted the real meaning of purdah, “The real purdah is modesty (haya).  If a woman has no modesty, then even in a burqa she is not in purdah.  If she has modesty, she is in purdah even without burqa” (Papanek, in Sultana’s Dream, pg. 75).

Canadian Rahat Kurd gives an interesting independent feminist look at the veil as a symbol of Islamic pride and identity in My Hijab is an act of worship, and none of your business.  Kurd notes that women should be able to choose to veil or not based upon her own desires, “Dismissing Muslim women’s ability (and God-given right) to speak and act for ourselves is a profound arrogance of which some fundamentalists and some feminists are equally guilty.  Thanks to them, the discourse on Islamic dress has become a tragically violent and stupid little war of escalating polarities – it is either an essential social control or a blanket endorsement of oppression:  both views are false.  Get that.  I don’t cover to please any man, and I’m not going to uncover to please any woman….Conversely if all women are forced to cover under threat of penalties imposed by men, my own hijab, an act of worship, becomes meaningless.  Female responsibility for the control of male desire in the sphere might be a popular concept but it’s not an Islamic one” (Kurd, pg. 1-2).

My watercolor was influenced by all of these ideas of purdah and that the hijab represents different ideas to different Muslim women. The woman’s headscarf covers her hair completely and modestly but floats freely to one side.  It is caught by her hand and returned to her heart where it blossoms as a rose, a symbol of the Prophet.  The other end of the scarf floats in the other direction and is tethered to the ground by a round stone that is also shaped like the earth.  This represents the opposite vision of purdah – how earthly ideas and the imposed ideas of others can create an unbearable weight and restriction upon women.       

Week Twelve Blog Post


purdah - blog twelve


Week Eight Blog – An Islamic Quandary


Many of the readings in Week Eight had to do with questions about Sufi music,singing, and dancing as a means of praise within the Islamic faith.  We read about the whirling dervishes of Turkey and about the Sufi power of the voice.  In viewing the videos of the dervishes and the hypnotic trance states rendered by their dancing, it seemed very clear that the dervishes were no longer in this earthly world.   I was particular intrigued by the Sufi idea of Wajd – ecstasy – and that within this state you no longer find yourself – you find God.

As Professor Asani had noted in class, there does not seem to be any direct statement in the Qur’an that forbids singing and dancing – and yet the prohibition of music and dance within some communities of Islam is prevalent.  Carl Ernst spoke about the exclusivity of music and noted in his article, Sufi Music and Dance, “It is commonly stated in Sufi texts that music is never permissible for all, and in this way it is acknowledged that music is to be approached in terms of Islamic law; it must be evaluated like anything else for its ethical content” (Ernst, pg. 181).

In the two readings for the discussion during week eight the questions of “purity of intent” were discussed and who can be the judge of this intent.  Carl Ernst spoke about “purity of intent” as it related to Sama  in Sufi Music and Dance, and stated, “Since the criterion for participation in the musical session is purity of intention, hypocrisy is the greatest danger” (Ernst, pg. 182).  Leonard Lewisohn discussed Sama in his article The sacred music of Islam:  Sama in the Persian Sufi tradition and gave great insight to it’s meaning in Sufi Islam, “Sama, which literally means “audition”, connotes in the Sufi tradition a hearing with the “ear of the heart”, an attitude of reverently listening to music and/or the singing of mystical poetry with the intent of increasing awareness and understanding of the divine object described; it is a type of meditation focusing on musical melody, by use of instruments, mystical songs or combining both” (Lewisohn, pg. 4).  This idea of the “ear of the heart” I found to be particularly beautiful.

In my cartoon, An Islamic Quandary, I wanted to explore several questions from the eyes of an innocent bird, goat, or child – Why is there a prohibition on music and dance and who can be the judge of “purity of intent”.  I chose to use the medium of a cartoon because I had just started reading Persepolis by Marjane Sartrapi and I was intrigued by the graphic novel as an art form and it’s ability to very simply portray human emotions and questions of religion and politics.  As in all questions regarding religion – and in this particular situation music, singing, and dance – I was left with only one answer – only God knows the answer but hopefully he hears with the “ear of the heart”. An Islamic Quandary 2

Week 10 Blog – The Bird’s Lament


Music Written by Mary Petersen-Unger

Piano – Mary Petersen-Unger


Keyboards and Bells – Molly Flannery

Bass – Melissa Crowe

Drums and Bells – Jan Bergstrom

My musical composition was inspired by two different sources from our class.  The first was from reading the twelfth century Persian mystic-poet, Farid Ud-Din Attar’s poem, The Conference of the Birds.  The Sufi poem tells the story of how the Hoopoe, a bird that represents the leader and spiritual guide of the birds, encourages the birds along the path to find Simorgh, who represents God.  The birds have various objections to making the journey to God.  The objections represent human shortcomings and fears.  The Hoopoe answers each bird with advice on how each bird can overcome their weaknesses and make the journey.  In the introduction to the book Dick Davis noted the deep spiritual meaning in the poem, “… the poem as a whole is about the soul’s relationship with God …” (Attar, XV).  With my musical composition I have attempted to reflect upon the soul’s search for God – with a particular emphasis on the journey.

The second inspiration for the musical composition was from the film, The Color of Paradise, directed by Majid Majidis, viewed in Week Eleven.  The movie is about a young blind boy Mohammad, who lives in Tehran at a school for the blind and is reluctantly brought home for the summer by his father.  Throughout the movie the imagery of birds, and the sound of their calls, brings forth the idea of God being everywhere and that you can feel and hear God within nature.

My musical composition begins with the haunting call of a bird.  Throughout the piece this theme is reiterated.  This is a direct reference to the call of the bird that was reiterated in the movie and the continued questions of the birds within the poem.  The music moves through various dynamics and different textural themes.  These musical moods represent the challenges that life can bring to you, the difficult journey to find God, how the soul is often concerned with things other than God, and ultimately – what you must overcome to find God.  Throughout the piece the call of the bird keeps returning.  At the end of piece – the music modulates to a different key, symbolizing that God is near.  The piece ends in an answered birdcall – resolved by a note that moves upward from the former bird calls – upward as if the soul is finally reaching God.    The Birds, edited for Mary

Shi’i Garden and Ta’ziyeh Theatre


Week Five Blog – Shi’i Garden and Ta’ziyeh Theatre


Ta’ziyah Theatre Park – Shi’i GardenWhen reading the fascinating articles edited by Peter J. Chelkowski, Ta’ziyeh Ritual and Drama In Iran and also reading The Miracle Play of Hasan and Husain I was deeply inspired by the unique and unusual religious passion play .  I wanted to create a beautiful environment for the Ta’ziyeh Ritual to be seen by a large audience in a big city.  Gardens in Muslim countries are viewed as a vision of paradise so I thought that I would create a large garden that would have a performance area.  I wanted to use Shi’i imagery and symbols for the garden to reflect the early background of the Ta’ziyeh plays and the Shi’i interpretation of Islam.

Professor Asani showed a diagram in class of five small circles surrounding a larger circle that I thought would be useful for the water features in the garden.  The circles represent the importance of the family of Muhammad.  Muhammad is at the top, with Ali and Fatima below, and Hasan and Husain below them.  The middle circle represents Allah.  These circles would become water fountains surrounded by flower beds.  All of the fountains would be fed from the same source of water , a well that sources the “The Allah Fountain”,  and this would symbolize the continuous connection with God.  The “Allah Fountain” is surrounded by a large pool and has a 100 foot spray going in five directions towards the other fountains.  It would be surrounded by green boxwoods with white roses surrounding the boxwoods.  Professor Asani mentioned that white roses were associated with Muhammad, so for the “Muhammad Fountain” I have a 50 foot water spray surrounded by white roses and edged with green boxwoods.  In our reading it was noted that the family of Muhammad were often clothed in green in the Ta’ziyeh plays.  The other four fountains for Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husain each have 15 foot water sprays and are surrounded by green boxwoods with a boarder of white roses – to emphasize their connection with Muhammad.

All of the water fountains and irrigation are fueled by solar powered palm trees with the solar panels shaped like large palm leaves.  These solar trees also provide light for the performance and in the evening provide park lighting.  The entire park would be grass, surrounded by date palm trees.  Orange trees, with their beautiful scent, would flank the park entrance and a Cypress alley lines the entrance to the park.  At the entrance their are restrooms, a water fountain, and the Ta’ziyeh dressing room.  The large open grassy stage area can also be used as a children’s play area and picnic area when not in use for performances.  Unique Buraq shaped seating benches surround the open stage area.

I hoped to create a garden that had unique symbols that would be understood by Shi’i Muslims and that could also be environmentally sound.  I also wanted to create a beautiful gathering place for children and adults that would also preserve the tradition of the Ta’ziyeh performances.Ta’ziyah Theatre Park – Shi’i Garden

Week Three Blog – The Qur’an


The importance of the Qur’an is at the heart of what it means to be a Muslim.  For Muslims, the Qur’an is the word of God, as revealed to his Prophet Muhammad.  This week we listened to, and read about, the recitation of the Qur’an in various parts of the world, examined the art of calligraphy and the Qur’an, and also read about some unique practices involving the Qur’an in different Muslim cultures.  Kristina Nelson discussed the divinity of the Qur’an in her article, The Sound of the Divine in Daily Life, and stated, “The Qur’an is considered the miracle of Muhammad’s prophethood.  The proof of its divine source is in its inimitable euphony, eloquence, and wisdom, for Muhammad was neither poet nor sage, but an unlettered merchant.  Most Westerners find the claim to the Qur’an’s inimitable beauty baffling, for they have had access only to the written text, whether in translation or in the original Arabic.  The ears hear more than the eyes see in the written text, and it is only in the sound that the full miracle is realized.  Thus, while the meaning of each word may be translated from the Arabic, the Qur’an itself is untranslatable” (Nelson, 258).  Abdullahi Asman El-Tom in his article Drinking the Koran:  The Meaning of Koranic Verses In Berti Erasure discussed the importance of memorizing the Qur’an and the unique practice of drinking the Qur’an among the Berti of the northern Darfur Province of the Republic of the Sudan, “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” (El-Tom, 416).

I was deeply moved and inspired by the film that we saw in class “Koran by Heart”.  During the film the recitation of the Qur’an took place, often with eyes shut, and seemed to transport the reciter into another world.  Often the children did not understand the Arabic words that they were saying but they were still deeply moved by the powerful words of the Qur’an.  Girls and boys from all over the world took part in the Qur’an recitation competition.  Kristina Nelson discussed the transcendent quality of Quranic recitation and observed, “Quranic recitation is more than an art” and that “The meaning of the Qur’an is not restricted to the words:  the meaning transcends the words” (Nelson, 259).  Sometimes the children were so engrossed in their recitation that they were moved to tears.  In my collage I wanted to show the beautiful and luminous faces of the young Qur’anic reciters as they were transported by the sound of the Qur’an recitation and the sense of achievement that they felt.  I was able to find a photo of the young girl from the movie, who was struggling with her father in the search of more education and opportunities, and was very happy to put her in the collage.

In the collage children who are reading and reciting from the Qur’an surround the opening pages of, what I felt to be, the most beautiful version of Qur’anic calligraphy.  Irvin C. Schick talked about the divine origin of the Qur’an and the importance of calligraphy in his article Writing the Body in Islam and noted, “This divine origin has burdened Muslims with the important mission of preserving the word of God in a worthy vessel, and that is precisely the impulse that lies at the root of the art of Islamic calligraphy.  The holy mission with which Arabic writing is thus charged has in turn endowed it with a special status in Islamic culture:  the script that preserves the word of God is perceived as a Godly script.  In this regard, the identification of Arabic script with the religion of Islam is profound and perhaps unequalled” (Schick, pg. 2).  The manuscript that I chose to use is the opening pages of a Qur’an from Turkey from the time of the Ottoman Dynasty.  The original manuscript was painted in ink, various colors, and gold on paper.  The art of calligraphy is seen at it’s best in this glorious manuscript.  I put the first verse of the Qur’an surrounding the Qur’an and then surrounded it by the faces of the children as they recited the verses.  I wanted to use the real faces of Islamic children from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds to show the diversity within Islam and that the Qur’an is a uniting element within the Islamic faith.  These children also show great beauty in their commitment and sincerity as they connect, internalize, and commune with God.  While the collage turned out rather awkward –  it is a great reminder of a lovely movie that gave me my first understanding of a “living Qur’an” and exemplified Kristina Nelson’s thought about Quranic recitation, “The ears hear more than the eyes see and that it is only in the sound that the full miracle is realized” (Nelson, pg. 258).

Week Two Blog – Mary Petersen-Unger


In week two many of the readings dealt with the difficulties of understanding the Qur’an and the different levels of understanding the Qur’an.  I was feeling a great deal of frustration.  I felt that I would never be able to gain any, but a slight cursory, access to what Muslim’s believe to be the divine word of God.  How could I possibly grasp an understanding if even many of the translations were fraught with errors and misunderstandings as was discussed in the article by Ziauddin Sardar, Reading the Qur’an – The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam?    As Sardar pointed out, a translation can only present an interpretation of the Qur’an (Sardar, pg. 41).  I wanted to understand the actual living words revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad!  What  is it in the Arabic language that would draw people to tears when they were reading the Qur’an?  Sardar, a Muslim from Pakistan, wrote about the warm feelings he felt when his mother read the Qur’an to him when he was young and how he was able to internalize the Qur’an through her reading, “…for mothers start reading the Qur’an and getting the child to repeat the words, again and again, till the Arabic sounds become familiar and can be recited from memory.  And so it is that our connection to the Qur’an is infused with associations of the warmest and most enduring of human bonds.  The Qur’an enters our lives as an integral part of home and domesticity, the environment in which we become aware of ourselves as a person” (Sardar, pg. 3).   As a westerner how was I ever going to have this kind of warm association and intimate knowledge of the Qur’an?  Sardar spoke about the difficulty of accessing the Qur’an, “The Qur’an does not yield its meaning without a struggle with its text.  To see the significance of an allegory or metaphor, to separate the truth from the simile, the eternal from the transient, the universal from the local, one has to struggle with words and concepts, contexts and interconnections, and the structure and style of the Qur’an.  This is not an easy or quick task.  It requires effort and patience” (Sardar, pg. 11).  My poem expressed the frustration that I was feeling during week two over trying to understand the Qur’an without understanding Arabic and with little understanding of the Muslim faith.

Sardar points out four reasons that scholars have used against translating the Qur’an from Arabic:  The supposed superiority of the Arabic language; the unifying of Muslim nations of one faith and one language; the problem with translations being an interpretation of the Qur’an; and finally that translations could subvert the meaning of the Qur’an (Sardar, pgs 41-42).   Sardar gives a final justification for the need for translations of the Qur’an, “Moreover, it would be an odd God who, having established diversity and citing different languages and people as one of His signs in the Qur’an, then proceeded to defy it by requiring that He can only be understood in a single language” (Sardar, pg. 41).  I finally came to the conclusion that I would just need to let myself absorb the Qur’an over time.  The only way that I would have any understanding of the Qur’an would be through absorbing the beauty of the Arabic language and the words, even though I would not be able to understand them, and by closely examining the artistic endeavors that have been created by followers of the Islamic faith.  With a completely open heart and mind I would hopefully come closer to understanding the religion.  Perhaps understanding Arabic will be in my future – but at this point I will need to rely upon translations, however imperfect, and to listening and looking at the various art forms to give me an understanding of the Qur’an and of Islam.

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