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Introductory Essay

While taking this course, I thought critically about the ways in which Islam and identity are interwoven into a complex tapestry of location and culture. Overall, my blog posts explore issues of identity and the complex struggle within Islam and all religions of finding identity and defining our identity. I worked with five different mediums: painting, poetry, photography, film, and letters. My examination of identity is strongly tied to the cultural studies approach and the fact that it is hard to assert what something is when we have a broad definition of the category. For example, it is hard to say what Muslims think because it is such a diverse group. What Muslims are we talking about? Whose Islam are we referring too? Instead it might be easier to tell you more about general beliefs held Twelver Shii for example.

Many people have an ignorant view of Islam, especially given the events of 9/11 and the War on Terror. Growing up in Oklahoma, I was exposed to the ignorance and misconceptions that people had about other religions. When I say “other” religions, I mean any religion outside of Christianity. It wasn’t that the people I was around were hateful; it was just that they had never been exposed to other cultures. When you live in a very homogenous society, it is easy to have a world-view centered on the way of life that you know and it is easy to believe that you are right when everyone else around you believes the same thing. I always thought that it was so important to push past the majority opinion and learn about what else was out there.

I celebrated Ramadan with one of my friends, and I traveled to the local mosque. In hindsight I see what a limited view I had of such a complex religion. This realization is what prompted me to write the blog posts that I did. This class helped me understand the many facets of Islam and the impossibility of stereotyping the religion down to a few statements. If you asked me what defines a Muslim before I took this class, I would have told you that every Muslim follows the 5 Pillars of Islam. Now I would tell you that I have no real answer. A Muslim can be someone who emphasizes the importance of the Prophet’s family or someone who desecrates legacies of the Prophet’s family. Both would likely assert that they are following the true form of Islam. I wanted to explore the complexity of Muslim identity and identity in general in my blog posts.

In my first blog post I did this by examining the idea of what it means to be an infidel. I wrote a poem about the dangers of declaring that someone is an infidel because they don’t believe the same thing as you. If we do that, then in the end we will all be worse off than we would be by cooperating. I was not only inspired by Professor Asani’s reading, but also by the statement by Martin Niemoller.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.


This statement epitomizes why it is dangerous to tell ourselves that we are different than other people and why we should strive to understand them. This is incredibly relevant to the class because if we saw that one version of Islam is the true Islam, then how can we understand the complexity of Islam? This creates a complicated discussion of how people can balance having faith and still being accepting of other beliefs. Of course every believer will think that his or her ideas are correct—that is the reason that religion and faith exist. People feel that their ideas are correct, which is why they believe in them. However, it is possible to believe and to still accept others’ beliefs as equally valid. This is where the cultural studies approach is so significant. Take for example the conflict between Iraq and Iran. Much of the conflict was rooted in differences between the beliefs of Sunni Muslims and Shii Muslims. If instead we all attempted to take a cultural studies approach of it, we would likely see less conflict and more tolerance.

This is probably an overly optimistic view of the world, but this class has helped me believe that it is necessary. As my poem, “The Garden,” notes, lack of tolerance will only lead to our destruction. Even if this destruction is not a war or invasion, it will manifest in less than optimal outcomes and wasted emotions and resources. I can sit here all day and think about how other people’s beliefs are those of infidels, or I can engage in discussions with those individuals. Believing that I am inherently better or that what they believe is wrong won’t benefit me in any way. Meeting and engaging with people who are different than me will hopefully shape my own identity and allow me to grow and become more knowledgeable.


In the second blog, I looked at the Al Ghazali reading on the rules of religion and asked people about their faith for a short documentary and the value that they see in rules. I asked people of multiple faiths because I wanted to explore the overlap between religions. For me, this was really an attempt to explore how our identities are shaped so greatly by religion or our beliefs on whether or not religion is a real thing. Rules are an interesting part about religion because if we say that there are specific rules everyone must follow, then we are fail to allow a dynamic view of religion that incorporates a cultural studies approach. In my film, Mohit said that they don’t mind if there are rules as long as no one imposes the rules on him. I thought this was interesting because if rules are not imposed, then are they really rules? This goes into a discussion on how choices versus freedom affect one’s identity, which I discuss more fully in my blog about the hijab.


My third blog post focused on the readings of Islamic art and architecture. I traveled to Israel and Palestine during Spring Break and had the chance to see numerous examples of what may or may not be considered Islamic architecture like the Dome of the Rock. Set amidst the complex geo-political environment of Israel and Palestine, the identity of the architecture is even more relevant. I chose to create a series of photographs that show the Dome of the Rock in different filters. This was an attempt to see how creating physical differences in the same building The readings on art and architecture talked about incorporating politics into our interpretations of art (Necipoglu) versus incorporating ideology into a discussion (Nasr). Depending on which view we choose changes how we view the identity of art and architecture—namely its identity as Islamic or not.


For my fourth blog post, I once again used the medium of photography and responded to Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis is about the Iranian Revolution, a subject about which I am fascinated. I have studied the Iranian Revolution in history classes, so looking at it from a religious-studies course was a fascinating new direction. In my response to Satrapi’s book, I chose to mirror the image that she has of herself with one side representing her religious side and the other representing her modern side. As I said in my blog post, Satrapi presents an interesting image of the hijab. She discusses the hijab as something that is very traditional and conservative, which I disagree with. However, this made me think critically about how the hijab can be a tool to assert political control over individuals. The discussion of the hijab is a critical component of the discussion on female identity in Islam. Many people argue that the hijab is repressive and forced on women. They then use the hijab as evidence that Islam is a religion against women. I think this is where events like the Iranian Revolution come into play. The Iranian Revolution forced the hijab on many women against their will. Satrapi was forced to wear the veil because society forced her. Because she didn’t make this choice on her own, she didn’t have the chance to think about what wearing the veil means. The factor of choice completed changed how Satrapi

My photograph attempted to recreate Satrapi’s image in the book but with a real image rather than a drawn image. If you look at my picture and I tell you that I was forced to wear a veil, how would it change the way that you see me? I am smiling in the photo slightly, so I wonder if it gives the impression that I chose to wear the veil. Let’s say that I instead had chosen to frown in the photo. How would that alter your impression of the hijab? How would it alter your perception of me? As I said in the blog, I am still the same person in both photos, but maybe this is because I wore the hijab for a photo and not because I was forced to.

I hope that this blog post conveys the complexities of the hijab and why we cannot make general assumptions about whether the hijab is repressive or liberating. It depends on so many factors like location, choice, and the geo-political climate. As we saw in class from the videos, women’s views on the hijab differ dramatically and completely depend on the context. Some women said it was liberating while others said that it was a configuration of men to repress women. The Mipsterz videos we watch also portray the hijab in a different light, which we have to consider in our interpretation.


In my fifth blog, I painted a canvas to show the struggle of identity that is presented in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. My canvas combines the flags of the United States and Pakistan over a silhouette of a contemplative man. This man is supposed to represent the narrator Changez who struggles with his identity as a Pakistani living in the US. I didn’t want to offend anyone by combining two flags, but flags are the best symbols of a country’s identity. Changez has a complete change in his identity because of 9/11. Both American and Pakistan shape Changez’s identity even if he is anti-American in a sense by the end of the story. The discrimination that Changez faced also stemmed from a lack of understanding about Islam or the Middle East. If people had a cultural studies approach, then Changez might not have felt like an outsider in America or subconsciously felt like he had to hide parts of his identity.


I continued the theme of how someone can struggle with identity in a post-9/11 world with my sixth blog. I decided to do the option where I chose a concept from the class and explained it in a creative way. I chose the cultural studies approach, despite that fact that it seemed like an obvious choice. As I have noted in all of my blogs, I think that a cultural studies approach allows us to be more tolerant and understanding of religions because we understand that there is not just one definition of religion. I wrote a letter to a former classmate of mine and implored him to consider the cultural studies approach because it would enlighten him on the dangers of calling someone a terrorist due to physical characteristics or labels. The experience of being called a terrorist at such a young age made me more aware of why it is so important to attempt to understand people’s beliefs before judging them or assuming anything about them.

My blogs attempted to creatively portray the fact that we cannot assume or judge others. Islam is a complex religion and is shaped my cultural and political factors that make it different anywhere you go. While a belief in Allah holds across all Muslims, most other beliefs vary. In order to build unity and relationships among not only Muslims but also all people, we have to understand how the religion, like any religion, varies from person to person because of their complex and unique identity. The importance of this ties into international relations, economic welfare, and overall happiness and well-being. This is what I really took away from the class and I hope that the same message comes out through my blogs.


Below you will find my way of expressing the concept of the cultural studies approach. I decided to write a letter to my classmate in third grade instead of a speech because I have always wanted to express how problematic I found his ignorance. I tried to mirror the writing style found in The Reluctant Fundamentalist because he was constantly polite to the man trying to kill him. I think that my letter explains why I think it is so important, but I will elaborate further here.


While I am sure that many students will choose to explain the cultural studies approach, I honestly believe this is the most important thing I have taken away from the class. It is a very different approach to understanding religion. While it seems obvious to me now, it wasn’t something I really thought about before. If we all approached religious with the dynamic view of the cultural studies approach, then I think there would be much more tolerance and understanding of other religions. I chose to write to my classmate because I think that he, like many people, suffers from a form of ignorance rooted in lack of exposure or understanding. If only he could take this class and learn all that I have learned!





To: the boy who sat next to me in Ms. Bradley’s third grade homeroom

From: a brown girl who used to try and be white




I would say you probably don’t remember me, but I think you do. We’re friends on Facebook still. But you probably don’t remember what you said to me in third grade. It’s funny how significant events in one person’s life can be trivial to someone else. Anyway, I remember that I had already missed a month of school. I was worried about catching up because we had just started learning cursive. I was also tired. I had just spent three months in India only to be on my way home. I remember the date very precisely and I think that you will remember the date too because it’s an important one in American history. Many would say it’s the day that defined America in the 21st century. The day was September 11, 2001.


We were mid-Atlantic, when we heard the news that two planes had just crashed into the Twin Towers. Suddenly our plane turned around and we headed back to London, where we spent the next few weeks until the US re-opened its air space.


I’m not trying to bore you with these details because I am sure you are busy, so I will get to the point. I came back to Oklahoma and found that we were seated in alphabetical order. Imagine my delight when I happened to be sitting next to you. I remember the first day that I got back and you turned to me and said, “You know you’re a terrorist right? You should go back to wherever you came from.” At the time I could only let the tears fall on my chubby third-grade cheeks. An initial thought?


I am from Oklahoma just like him, right? There is nowhere to”go back” to!


I remember approaching my teacher and asking her to please move me. I didn’t want to sit by you any longer. Much to my surprise she said she wouldn’t move me and I should just get over it. Luckily she happened to be my neighbor as well, so my mom went and talked to her after school. Unluckily, she still “didn’t see what the problem was” and didn’t want to move me. If she let me switch seats, then everyone would want to switch as well. “It just wouldn’t be fair.”


There it was—the discrimination that my mom had warned me against. Mind you, this wasn’t the first time that I had been judged for my appearance or my background. I was a brown, liberal Hindu living in a conservative state. I had a single mom. Not to make you pity me, but I had faced plenty of discrimination, so this wasn’t anything new. What was new about it was I was being discriminated against for being something that I wasn’t. Then I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter if I was from the Middle East or India, a Muslim or a Hindu. The point was not that your comment was wrongly placed because I wasn’t Muslim or Middle Eastern. It was just plain wrong to define somebody based on such factors because we are all more complicated than that. As a third-grader, it wasn’t easy to grapple with such complex ideas, but I knew there was some injustice at play. It was a realization at a very young age that sometimes there just isn’t justice.


I’m writing to enlighten you on something called the cultural studies approach. I think this is an important lesson for you as you meet more people throughout your life. We are all guilty of stereotyping and boiling things down to one line. I think it’s the comfort of “knowing” what something is. The cultural studies approach will be useful in ridding ourselves of such stereotypes because it is a concept about shifting ideologies and the inability to place anyone into a box. The cultural studies approach allows us to examine the regional, political, and cultural factors that shape religion in a given place.


I never knew what the cultural studies approach was until I took a class about it. It changed everything though! I will admit that I used to think Muslims were all pretty similar. Now I realize that I was so wrong. I hope that by learning more about the cultural studies approach you will come to realize that just because someone is a Muslim doesn’t mean that he or she is a terrorist. Just because someone likes a glass of fine scotch doesn’t mean he (or she) is a middle-aged man who uses Old Spice, right? The cultural studies approach helps us differentiate between Islam in Saudi Arabia versus Islam in Indonesia or Islam for a young girl growing up in a time of revolution versus an old woman in Eastern Europe during times of genocide.


When we talk about any group—religious, ethnic, or anything else—it’s best that we use an approach similar to the cultural studies. This gives us a dynamic approach in understanding. For example, next time you conflate Islam or brown skin with terrorism, ask yourself, what “Islam” are we talking about? What is the setting? Whose version of the story is it? This doesn’t mean that there are no similarities between Muslims in different countries. It just means that we cannot assume that people’s versions of Islam are identical simply because two people say they are Muslims.


In hindsight, I am not mad at you. I am mad at myself for feeling like there was nothing I could do. I am mad at myself for feeling victimized. If I felt upset, imagine how people who were of Middle-Eastern ethnicity or were Muslim felt. They likely faced this discrimination every single day. I should have fought harder, which is why I am writing to you now. In life we have to fight (peacefully, of course) for tolerance and understanding. Even if we don’t agree, at least we can understand each other. I don’t want to judge you based on the fact that you wore muscle t-shirts and had red hair. These things are not what really define you. This is why I am asking you not to judge me based on the color of my skin. I will be so bold as to ask you and everyone else not to judge people for things that you don’t understand as well.


Before I end this letter, I would just like to recommend a few books and movies for your enjoyment. Only if you have the time of course! Try watching New Muslim Cool and reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I think you would find them enlightening.


                                 Kind regards,


The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an open-ended story about changing identity post 9/11. The narrator, Changez, grapples with how society views him and how he views himself as he moves from Pakistan to America to attend Princeton. He spends much of his time trying to fit in and be a successful businessman. However, eventually Changez realizes that he has become the very thing that he hates. He conflates arrogance with being American, and the changing political climate post 9/11 fuels this.


What struck me most about this reading was the struggle that Changez has with his identity, particularly what it means to be a Pakistani in America. This brought up a lot of questions about immigrant life in America and how people identify with their past homelands and their current country of residence.


I painted this silhouette of a contemplative man and overlapped it with the two flags of his identity. My painting is supposed to also be stylistically similar to pop art or modern interpretations of art, because of the flipped colors and the silhouette style. I did this to mirror the simple writing style of the book. I made the man’s silhouette contemplative because of the contemplation Changez does throughout the book.


I do not mean to offend anyone by combining the American flag and the Pakistani flag into one image, but I thought that this best represented the identity struggle Changez faces in the story. He gives up trying to fit in and instead chooses to embrace his roots. He sees this as an act of solidarity with the people of his nation. I also wanted this image to evoke questions of what it means to be a Muslim in America in a time when the “War on Terror” has led to discrimination of Muslim citizens or Middle-Eastern appearing people all over the country. I know that Changez is anti-American by the end of the story, so I thought about what it would mean to put the American flag on his image. I can’t help but wonder if things would have been different for Changez had he not already felt like he had to try so hard to fit in, despite the fact that he was successful and educated. That is why I think that Changez is a person defined by both nations because both countries affect his search for identity.

Persepolis was a poignant narrative that truly showed us how the Iranian Revolution affected a child. By using a comic strip medium, Satrapi presented the reader with many channels to experience the emotions that went with the revolution. In many ways Satrapi’s views of gender are placed upon her by the revolution. As children, we don’t necessarily think about gender and we don’t necessarily think that boys and girls are different. Sadly, over time society ingrains stereotypes in our head about what gender represents and how we should act in order to fit into a certain mold. Satrapi starts off the story saying that she wants to be a Prophet. This example reveals how her views of potential are not shaped by gender norms. This changes as the revolution places certain ideas of gender and the possibilities of each gender on her.


Another interesting component of gender, identity, and religion is the way that Satrapi depicts the hijab. She seems to present only one view: the hijab is repressive and old-fashioned. In her images, all the women wearing the veil tend to look the same, as if putting a veil on covers up your identity and individuality.


“I really didn’t know what to think about the veil. Deep down I was very religious, but as a family we were very modern and avant-garde,” Satrapi said. This shows that she associated the veil with being conservative and religious and the lack of veil with being modern. But is our identity really determined by the extra 1/8 inch of hair showing from under our veil? From the stories we have heard in class, I know that such a binary view is not correct and is regressive to discussion. For some women, the veil can be incredibly liberating. For others, it can be a political object. This is a great reminder of the cultural-studies approach applied to ideas of gender and identity – it all depends on whom we are talking to and where we are.


Her identity as defined by the veil

Her identity as defined by the veil

In response to Persepolis, I choose to do a photograph showing a very binary view of identity. I took two pictures, one without a veil and one with a veil and then I combined the images into one, so that half of my face was veiled and the other wasn’t. I was inspired by an image in the book where Satrapi contemplates her identity and her views on the veil. I wanted this photo to make viewers question how they see someone who wears a veil. Whether or not my head is covered, I am still the same person. I still have the same dreams and relationships. But how does society view one side of me versus the other side? How does societal judgment shape how I feel about my identity? I then made the image black and white to equalize the two sides. I tried to maintain the same expression as well and slightly smile. I hope this gives the image a sense of mystery and contemplation. The veil and its questions of identity are complex, and I wanted to convey this complexity in the photo.


Two sides of identity?

Two sides of identity?

This is a reminder that everything depends on context, which is why we cannot make base assumptions from the surface level. We talk about whether the hijab is repressive to women or liberating, but I don’t think there is one answer. In situations like the Iranian Revolution in Persepolis, I see why Satrapi would view the veil as repressive because it was forced upon her rather than her own choice. That is why I appreciate Satrapi’s honest depiction of her views as a child and don’t necessarily think she presents the veil as harmful. I simply am interested in considering the other possibilities during the revolution and wonder how women who supported wearing the veil felt. Satrapi depicts these women as overly conservative and fundamentalist and only shows them as angry or rude. I just worry

I hope that this photograph makes you think critically about the complex issues of the hijab and how identity is related to it. With your hand, cover up one side and then the other side. Then look at it as a whole. As you look at it, ask yourself the following questions:

  • When you see someone, what assumptions do you make about him or her based on appearance?
  • What does wearing the hijab signify for women who choose to be veiled? What might it represent to women who are forced against their will to be veiled?
  • What are the different cultural contexts that play a role in the veil? How does it differ from region to region?
  • If we lived in a society where men were not driven so wild by women’s hair and sexuality, would there be any need for the veil? Is the veil based on this or are there other reasons for wearing it?

Ghazal Project

Watch my video here:



As usual, when we read many of the stories in class, I draw comparison to Hindu traditions that I am familiar with. The week that we read Sindhi-Urdu poems, I felt inspired by the combination of Islamic and Hindu themes to praise God. I felt that this embodied the cultural studies approach that we talk so much about in class. Moreover, I felt that it encapsulated that Hindus and Muslims can live in harmony and that their religions should not be the source of feud that many claim they are. When writing this ghazal, I wanted to once again combine Hinduism and Islam to create a series of rhymed couplets that demonstrated the passionate love and yearning one can have for something divine.


I thought about famous couples from Hindu mythology that could lend symbols of yearning and love to this story, because after all, some ghazals indicate that other types of love are precursors to love of God. I chose Rama and Sita’s story of separation to enhance my depiction of a believer’s love for God.


To me, Sita epitomizes the devout lover who yearns for Rama but always remains faithful to him despite the demon king Ravana’s attempts to attain her. Rama similarly is a devout lover and suffers for a year trying to find Sita and rescue her. Though the journey is difficult, they never give up and suffer many hardships because of their love.


In many ways, Rama and Sita are reflections of each other because both are unwavering and committed to the other, just as Sufi tradition allow for believer and God to be reflections of each other. That is why the couplets show Rama’s perspective at times, Sita’s perspective at times, and neither one’s perspective at times. I used imagery from the story of Rama and Sita’s separation like demons, the forest, and purity. I also incorporated classical Sufi imagery like drunkenness, wine, the unity of God, the pain of love, and the heart as a mirror. I then incorporated Indian elements of beauty like paleness as beauty.


There is ambiguity that these themes come from Rama and Sita and who Rama or Sita would be in the God-believer relationship.  As you listen to the poem, look for the radif “into eternity” and the qaafiya (go, woe, though…). The radif should remind us all that the bond between believer and God lasts a lifetime.

In Week 6, we discussed Islamic architecture and art and how it represents the divine. We read several different texts, but focused on the two competing schools of traditionalism versus modern represented by Nasr and Necipoglu respectively.  Nasr focuses more on the idea that all art if a manifestation of the divine and carries spiritual connotations, because at the core of all art is the truth of the Qur’an. Necipoglu disagrees with what some would call this “static argument” and says that art is a tool to convey political meaning as well as religious, and therefore art must be examined within the context that it was created.


While in Jerusalem, Israel last week, I decided to write my third blog post on the architecture of the Dome of the Rock, also known as Temple Mount, and its role in the debate between traditional and modern. Is the temple a reflection of the Qur’an or is it simply a reflection of the time period and environment of Jerusalem during the 7th century. Is the Dome Islamic in nature and at that point, what does it mean when art is “Islamic.” This is relevant to this building because the Dome of the Rock is not considered a mosque, and instead is considered a shrine.


The architecture style was stunning and the colors were so vivid. It was unlike anything else in the old city. This is important because the Old City of Jerusalemis the home of the three Abrahamic faiths and has numerous mosques, churches, and synagogues. It is a peculiar place because these three religions coexistent in location, but do not necessarily coexist in ideology. The bright blues and the glittering golden dome stood out amongst the other brown rock building of the city and the Arabic calligraphy along its walls was a testament to the history of the Arabs in that land.


My response is a photo collection. I took a photo of the mosque from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, which shows the distinctiveness of the Dome against the backdrop of the Old City. I then changed the colors of the photo to present several different feels of the picture. These differences are supposed to reflect the different opinions on the meaning of Islamic art and its purpose. Whether a photo is in black or white or color or blue, the subject matter is still the same, but the filter may change our interpretation of the subject matter. As you look at these different images, try to think about them individually and look at each of them without thinking about the others. Then think about their combination together and imagine the series as a whole and what it says about how we view something based on physical qualities rather than on the ideological ideas behind it. How is this similar to the different interpretations of art and architecture that we have? If I look at the picture where the city is pink, I am more likely to believe that this is not necessarily a holy site. If I look at the original photo, I am able to make out the calligraphy and distinct geometric style that might lead me to believe it is an Islamic site.


The Rules of Religion

During Week 3 in class we discussed the recitation of the Qur’an, and this blog is a response to Al-Ghazali’s “External Rules of Qur’an Recitation.” What most stood out was the contrast between public recitation and a private reading of the Qur’an. However, after comparing this reading with Sardar’s Reading the Qur’an and Rasmussen’s The Quran in Indonesian Daily Life, I realized that the differentiation is not so much private versus public. Instead, it is more of a question of strict or flexible interpretation.


From the 12th century, Al-Ghazali writes traditionally and expects different practices of recitation than we might expect now. Recitation, especially as Al-Ghazali proposes, seems to be much more focused on constructing a persona. For example in rule six, Al-Ghazali says that we should weep while reciting the Qur’an. If we can’t weep, we should force ourselves. While I understand that forcing ourselves often produces genuine feelings in the end by association, it is still strange to think such rules will give us a better understanding of our own faith. Al-Ghazali propagates a much stricter interpretation of recitation of the Qur’an than Rasmussen does, which ties into the blog I wrote about  Infidel. Does a strict interpretation and specific rules enhance our practice and ultimately make us a better believer?


This is the question that I sought to tackle through the artistic form of film. I asked members of the Harvard community questions surrounding rules and religion. Some of the questions include:

  • How do rules and structure enhance or detract from your religious practice?
  • Are you religious? If so, what rules do you follow in your practice?


While Al-Ghazali’s text focuses on Qur’an recitation, we have to ask ourselves how strict rules interact with religion in general. The students interviewed include a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Catholic, and Atheist. Farheen, a Muslim with roots from India, explained that Al-Ghazali’s views on Qur’an recitation are based upon a certain cultural context. While his rules can enhance a practice, they are not mandatory, which is also important to consider.


I made the film black and white to make each panel the same. The background music is a recitation of the Qur’an titled Surat Ash-Shu`arā’ (The Poets) from verses 69-104, recited by Muhammad Al Muqit.  While I considered including music from a breadth of religions, I ultimately decided to put a Qur’an recitation in the background because it emphasized that this blog was sparked by Al-Ghazali’s rules on Qur’an recitation. As you listen to the respondents, also listen to the recitation in the background and think about if the style follows tartíl or tajwid and what emotions it evokes.


While I interviewed people of different faiths, different levels of education, and different backgrounds, I acknowledge that members of the Harvard community are not representative of the general population, as they tend to be more liberal and less religious. Still, filming this gave me an understanding of how these people approach religious practices differently and what values they see in rules if at all.

Watch here:

Jahima came to the Prophet and he said, “O Messenger of Allah, I intend to join the expedition and I seek your advice.”

The Prophet said, “Do you have a mother?”

He said, “Yes.”

The Prophet said, “Stay with her, for verily, Paradise lies beneath her feet.”

-Source: Sunan An-Nasa’i, Book of Jihad, Number 3104


The passage above comes from the hadith and was my inspiration for this project. Due to its oral origins, the accuracy of the hadith is disputed, but I focus on the importance of this phrase for women in Islam rather than its definitive truth.


The idea of a mother as connected with the divine is significant not only because it elevates a woman’s position in society, but also because it emphasizes the importance of the mother as the first teacher of the Qur’an and an intermediary between the word of God and her child. As noted by Z. Sardar, learning the Qur’an on your mother’s lap creates a more flexible and familiar relationship than the structured, rule-oriented methods learned in a madrasa.


To express this relationship between the word of God and mothers, I interwove Islamic art, calligraphy, and female images to create the image that “paradise” is within a woman. I interpret “paradise” to mean God or Allah because of the Quranic interpretation that heaven (paradise) is being with God.


My project has three pieces painted on wood and gloss-finished. The first shows a woman kneeling and reading the Qur’an. The second panel is the same style, but portrays the side silhouette of a woman wearing a hijab. In both, I wrote Allah (الله) in their dresses and blended it into the background. This subtlety represents a mother’s connection with God and the background represents the style of mosaic and calligraphic writing often found on mosque walls. Blue and white were used to reflect the familiarity of a mother’s relationship with God’s word.


The third panel, which is the largest, uses the same color scheme and has Allah written in large calligraphy along with the Islamic moon and star. This was done to show that while He is inside of her, God is still above a mother and at the center of all.


I was moved to do my first creative assignment in response to Professor Asani’s reading Infidel. Professor Asani brings up the difficult question of how can we characterize a religion? More often than not, it is easier to say what is not right with the way someone practices religion, rather than what is right. Take his example of the Munir Commission’s failure to standardize one definition of a Muslim and their reliance on exclusionary theory.

People seem eager to determine who is a lesser believer because doing so assets their superiority. It is like we are trying to assert our faith by belittling others, which is against the point of religion. I have always been bothered that people feel the need to determine who is an infidel and who is a true believer. What does it even mean to be an infidel? If someone has good intentions, why should we degrade their faith and their happiness in believing? Growing up in Oklahoma, I heard my fair share of assertions that one form of Christianity was lesser than another because of x, y, or z. This intolerance multiplied infinitely for anything outside of Christianity. By virtue of this thinking, everyone was an infidel in one way or another.

To express my thoughts about the over eagerness to point a finger at “infidels,” I wrote a poem called The Garden. This poem is about the tragic demise of a garden because of its need to condemn and judge. I use the metaphor of a garden thriving with life to represent the world and its people. A single flower narrates the poem. It realizes that all flowers are from the same seeds, and therefore related, but still views the others as lesser beings. To our narrator, every other flower is simply a fake representation of a flower. This leads it to declare that they are infidels and weeds. The weed comparison is given to reflect the flower’s desire for them to be yanked out of the garden and destroyed. Sadly, our narrator is not only alone in its opinion—every other flower feels the same way. In the end, their ugly thoughts reflect outward, and they are all seen as weeds and pulled out, leaving the garden barren and desolate. Instead of celebrating their diversity and realizing that was what made the garden beautiful, the flowers were so caught up in their own superiority as the “perfect flower.”

I used the metaphor of flowers to bring this comparison to a natural level and show the destruction that judgment can cause. If the flowers had celebrated their differences and banded together, then they would not have been considered weeds and would have survived. This has very real implications for the world that we live in as smaller radical groups declare the infidelity of others on no grounds. This judgment and hatred ultimately has consequences far beyond repair.


 The Garden


I looked around in the garden of confusion

I saw a million flowers, each as different as could be

Each flower seemed insubstantial, merely an illusion

None of them were as beautiful as me

In my eyes, every other flower was a weed

A treacherous infidel that needed to be destroyed

Honestly, I knew we were all of the same seed

This fundamental truth, I could not avoid

Yet, my hatred clouded my judgment and multiplied

As did my need to condemn

The same held true for each flower, and it felt justified

Our differences we could not amend

And the garden once beautiful and splendid

Fell to ruin and despair

Our mistrust and judgment caused consequences, very unintended

These consequences were far beyond our ability to repair

Each flower was thought of as a weed and pulled out

Finally nothing remained; not a single sprout

Their beauty lost in their condemnation of the others

Their negligence to forget that we are all sisters and brothers

When we emphasize our difference and deny our similarity

We pay a heavy price

We forget to stand together in solidarity

We do not follow God’s advice

Instead remember, we are all made from the same fabric

Do not forget this wise one; the cost is tragic

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