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Meditations on the Divine

It should come as no surprise that this course has caused me to re-evaluate my conceptions of Islam, as well as my conceptions of institutionalized religions more broadly; “Rethinking Islam” is in the title of the class, after all. And yet, I was still surprised by the simultaneous depth and breadth with which Multisensory Religion: Rethinking Islam challenged me to come back to my pre-conceived conceptions of Islam and broader religion, and re-examine them through a lens of religious and cultural literacy.

From the first week, our studies of Islam were framed in a cultural studies approach. As Professor Asani notes in his forthcoming book Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam

[a cultural studies approach] 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 situations—all of which are inextricably linked in influencing the frameworks within which sacred texts, rituals, and practices are interpreted (Asani p. 6-7).

This cultural studies approach to religion has helped me to more deeply understand different practices of Islam, but has also helped me understand what it means to study religion in an academic context, disentangling that academic approach to religion from a personal/theological approach to religion — a distinction between a more universal/theoretical framework of no ‘correct’ religion and a personal conviction that your own religious practice is the ‘right’ one. This cultural studies approach and academic approach to religion has been a fascinating takeaway from this class — an experience that has certainly deepened my understanding of the nuances of Islam, and also my religious literacy in general.

This theme was further explored in the beginnings of the course with discussion of Wilfred Cantwell Smith and his work The Meaning and End of Religion, which argues that our modern notions of religions as systematic and monolithic structures comes from the enlightenment, and that as such, we are not used to such cultural studies approaches that include more nuance, respect regional and cultural variance, and are otherwise more comprehensive in their understanding of what drives religious practice (as cited in Asani). As Professor Asani noted in class, this Western construction of religion is evident even in the names of major world religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, etc; all of the -ism suffixes indicate that the name for the religious tradition was created and categorized by the West. Even the term “Islam,” which is in the Quran, was not used to denote the specific religious practice until conflict after Prophet Muhammad’s death, when his followers felt the need to create a more organized structure — an organizing process more political than theological (Asani). All in all, a large takeaway from this course is the extent to which the way we even think about religion is a flawed vehicle for nuance, belying rich and diverse histories in faiths all around the globe for the sake of a simplified (and more often than not, incorrect) understanding of the world.

Coming into this class, I held, as Cantwell Smith would likely have predicted, views of institutionalized religions primarily as a loud practice, one that is publicly promoted and organized from the top down — from the elites to the lay people. This class has helped me to see that while loud religious practices may promote (or even propagandize) a monolithic worldview, a silent religious practice yet thrives in the experiential, the personal, and the diverse private realms of religious experience. And in this way, in the silent Islam, I found that many of the common themes of practices of Islam — of submission to God, caring about justice and the poor, and a strong orientation towards community — resonated with me much more than I had anticipated. I even started to ask myself: Am I, despite being born and raised a Protestant, a Muslim? Who is the arbiter of who is a Muslim, and who is not? What makes a Muslim a Muslim? It is questions like these that the course guided me to pose, and while I may not have an answer (and do not find it appropriate to identify myself as a Muslim), these questions are important to demonstrate that the labels we feel are so intractably concrete — like “Muslim” or “Protestant” — are all relative, up for interpretation, and constantly in flux: that is the magic of the cultural studies approach

My personal wonderings and reflections extend beyond simply pondering questions posed in the lectures and the readings; they extend into this blog. In creating these works, I was, again, really pleased with how much I ended up resonating with the course materials, and how incorporating them into artistic projects came so naturally — both into artistic expressions I was already familiar with, and ones that were new to me.

In my calligram assignment (included in the blog), I found that emphasis on aural beauty of the Quran, which is frequently emphasized in the history of Islam, coincided with my appreciation for Western music on the trombone. Thus, I recorded a video of me playing an original composition with the music notes in the shape of the Arabic word for Allah — a visual and sonic representation of the divine that I found to be a really powerful experience, honoring my personal (Western) musical education, and a historied appreciation of sound and beauty in Islam. 

conference of one was inspired by Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, a sprawling allegorical poem about birds’ journeys to meet the divine. I found that I really resonated with some of the concerns that the birds had about their journeys, and so I sketched my interpretation of the Heron (and a person, who I imagined to be myself) along a shoreline. Despite it being over 800 years old, from a different culture, language, geography, and religious tradition, I felt profoundly moved by the text, and thus felt inspired to bring into my own life and creative process by creating a sketch about it.

here a few, there a few is a recitation of a Rumi poem in the original Persian. Although I probably (read: definitely) butchered the pronunciation, I found that reciting a poem in a language I didn’t speak, or even understand, was a really meaningful experience. It forces you to focus on the experience of producing the sound, without the knowledge of the language to guide you, and you really get a sensation that you are engaging in something sacred, time-worn, and long-lasting, a reminder of the beauty, and as many would argue, divine origin, of human speech. I do apologize for my certain mis-pronunciation of the language: I tried my best to honor the language, but certainly fell short.

oil burns is a rudimentary ghazal about the pain caused by hegemony of some Islamic groups over others — driven by money derived, at least in part, from oil reserves in Arabia. Learning about pan-Islamic intolerance was truly heartbreaking, because as Professor Asani put it in lecture, such a control over the image of Islam results in a loss of local Islamic cultures and identities, resulting in a convergence of interest between those who are trying to create Islam in their own image, and those who are trying to destroy it outright: in the result of both parties, Islam is lost. As an American born post-9/11, I have grown up seeing the impact of such hatred and struggles for control over Islam around the world manifest into rampant Islamophobia and fear-mongering: and this poem attempts to bear witness to that pain.

tear at the edges is another original poem, this one loosely structured around the mi’raj, or the Prophet’s night ascension to heaven. I became really interested in mystic experiences over the course of this class — wondering what it would be like to encounter the divine in person. I tried to convey the raw power and majesty of witnessing all of eternity in an instant, and am really pleased with the words I came to describe it — especially because on a philosophical level, I would contend that it is impossible to truly describe the divine with the boundaries of human speech. 

who’s, which, what is a TikTok I made about the cultural studies approach to understanding Islam. This was a very intentional choice, because a lot of content on TikTok belies nuance and simply inflames and perpetuates intolerance, so creating a TikTok that tried to convey the dangers of such behavior felt like an appropriate thing to do. The TikTok is part of a trend where people would list ‘red flags’ in their relationships and other circumstances in their life — in other words, they would list warning signs that demonstrate a circumstance is on the brink of going very poorly. Consider my TikTok, then, to be ‘red flags’ in a discussion about Islam (which can be applied to really any religious tradition). 

rise and fall is a compilation of two photos I took while on Spring Break in Hawaii. There are a lot of natural resonances with the beauty of nature in Islam: 

To God belongs the East and the West; wherever you turn, you will perceive the face of God. (Qur’an 2:115, as qtd. in Slides from Lecture 3)

Here, the East and West has a nice symmetry with my photos of sunrise (east) and sunset (west). Or as the poet Sa’adi noted: 

Every leaf of the tree becomes a page of the sacred scripture once the soul has learnt to read (as qtd. in Slides from Lecture 3).

Certainly, Sa’adi could have said the same thing of any aspect of nature. There is also a lot of resonance with the light verse in the Quran, or the Nur Muhammad. But what I focus on the most in the photos is the concept of alast, and the idea of birth and death as a separation from and return to the divine, respectively. The beautiful sunrise and sunset made me ruminate on the beauty of these liminal moments, and I actually took the pictures without any intent to use them for this class, but later realized that the course concepts had been traveling with me and influencing my perception of the world around me the whole time, causing me to take the pictures of the moments that impacted me on a deeper level: a beautiful moment of serendipity that I loved sharing here on the blog. 

All in all, the seven works on my blog are a good representation of how this class has demonstrated to me that, despite my upbringing in a very Protestant area, Islam is a religious tradition that is completely in harmony with the way I lead my life today, and provides a lot of teaching points on what it means to live well, live in a community, and live mindfully, as well. The lessons I have learned in this class, both about Islam and religion more broadly, will continue to shape the way I interact with un-familiar spiritual communities in the future, and has additionally helped to inspire me to further pursue the study of religion in the rest of my time here at Harvard. I am so grateful to have taken this class, and hope that both this essay, and the rest of my portfolio convey the profound respect and appreciation I have for Islam, the mysteries of the divine, and this past semester at large. Thank you for visiting my blog, and I hope you enjoy my work! 

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