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Creative Project Portfolio Introduction


Michael Galli

Creative Project Portfolio Introduction



Two major questions that I took from the course were: 1) What is Islam? and 2) How do Islamic people express their devotion? By exploring how people express themselves, I was able to gleam a little bit of what exactly Islam is. In general, there are countless different ways people express themselves. Whether through prose, dance, song, artwork, sculpting, calligraphy, or any other medium, one common theme behind all these pieces was a very individual and intimate relation of the artist with God and the Prophet. From studying these different means of expression, I’ve learned that Islam, to me, is the following of one’s personal interpretation of the Qur’an and example set forth by the Prophet in order to worship God.

Different themes within this definition that I present appear throughout different pieces. My portfolio is embedded with the themes of the Prophet, suffering, and confusion. These were three major themes that I felt present during all of our topics of conversation throughout the entire semester. These themes, though not necessarily the only focus, have manifested themselves throughout several different means of communication. These different concepts all play major roles in determining the answer to the first question, “What is Islam?” By exploring these different avenues of expression, we can hope to see some common threads between groups and mediums of expression.

The Prophet

               Muhammad is one of the key, if not the most important, aspects of Islamic culture. Everything revolves around him and what people believe he would say was right and wrong. He is a paradigm, a perfect example of how to live the way God intended. The Prophet was a major theme because it was the underlying current in many different artworks and different mediums of expression throughout the semester. He came up in calligraphy through hilye, or calligraphy in the shape of a man, or part of man, describing all the attributes Muhammad exemplified. He came up in music, as there were entire songs dedicated to him. He came up in poetry both as an example of the pinnacle of poetry expressed through the Qur’an and as the basis for countless poems of various forms, including the “Burda.” Other mediums also included the Prophet, included faceless images in paintings and paintings around Qur’anic texts.

Two of my projects are centered on the Prophet. The first is the incense burner I designed. I decided to make the incense burner because of our trip to the museum in New York. While we were there, a few difference incense burners fascinated me. There was one in particular, a dog statue, which I wanted to try and reproduce on some level. I molded the pot by starting with a mound of clay and by scooping out the insides using a metal spoon. After molding the base of the burner, that is the main section, I added on the ears and nose afterward once these were each separately sculpted.  After the design was sculpted, I poked holes in it to let out the incense. Unfortunately I poked the holes too early, and they closed while the clay was drying. After the clay dried I refined the previous holes and tried to add more to let the incense fully escape from the capsule.  These holes, though, were added too late, causing damage to the original structure. The last step in creating the incense burner is to fire the clay. Unfortunately I did not have access to the proper facilities to do this yet, though. Although not intended to be an exact replica of Muezza, it is supposed to symbolize incorporating cats into our lives. Muezza was, according to many sources, the Prophet’s favorite cat. [1]This cat was very important to him, and cats in general have remained important to Islamic culture in today’s world. They are clean and pure animals, two qualities that are very important is Islam, signified by the necessary ablutions before prayer. Animals in general are very prevalent in art due to the concerns of portraying human figures. These reasons provided inspiration and direction pointing towards this animal shaped incense burner.

The second piece that is centered around the Prophet is the ghazal. This piece was inspired by Sultana’s Dream. The piece does not refer to him specifically, but rather to a rose. The rose is one symbol very prevalent in prose to refer to the Prophet. The Prophet is near to many people’s hearts, as shown by the quote given during lecture, “You can criticize God, but you can’t criticize the Prophet.” The Prophet is a crucial component of Islamic tradition, and exists as a delicate flower, guiding and informing those who follow the Qur’an. This flower has remained unchanged, but because of the different environments it has developed in, its perception has evolved and adapted to different cultures. While a “conservative” Muslim may say the Prophet would oppose using music in conjunction with worship, others say that music brings out aspects of worshipping that otherwise could not be accessed. These differences create divides between different communities of interpretation. Everything, though, derives from the Prophet and his teachings. The two “sides” of each divide will quote hadiths to support their argument. Because there is no all-encapsulating snapshot of the Prophet and his beliefs, though, the only thing available now to people to derive acceptable practices are these hadiths and the Qur’an that are open to interpretation. This piece was meant to capture the fragility of these primary sources, and that they should be to heart and kept close to every individual that loves the Prophet and his teachings.


               Different communities of interpretation of the Islamic community stress different focuses. One interesting focus is that of suffering, primarily stressed by Shi’ite tradition. One of the main outlets and reminders of the suffering that initiated their formation is the ta’ziyeh. This is a practice that occurred once each year at the time of its original form. Members of the community would all contribute towards the building of a theatre of sorts, each contributing of what he or she was capable.[2] Then, people would replay the massacre of Karbala in a play of extreme passion. Audiences experience the pain of watching their beloved leader and his troops slaughtered each year.

The piece of artwork titled “The Art of Tragedy” attempts to capture this pain and suffering through calligraphy. The words pouring out from the center of the stage are meant to communicate this sense of pain. The words I did not include, however, are those of empowerment to the audience. Reflecting on the project, one of the things I could have done differently was written these words in the pillars, instead of the five pillars of Islam, to show that through this pain and suffering the crowd feels empowered and emboldened.

One of the interesting things about the ta’ziyeh is the stance government officials take on the performance. Because it is expressing the empowerment and strength of those who do not hold any “power,” even Shi’ite leaders frown upon this practice.[3] During the 1930s, the ta’ziyeh was banned by the Pahlavi regime. The practice survived, though, as performers moved to more rural areas and continued to practice the performance outside the reach of the government.[4] Within the script of one version of the ta’ziyeh, Husain even claims,

Know, O young man, that we are never in need of the water of this life. Thou art quite mistake if thou hast supposed us to be of this world. If I will, I can make the moon, or any celestial orb, fall down on the earth; how much more can I get water for my children. Look at the hollow made in the ground with my spear; water would gush out of it if I were to like. I voluntarily die of thirst to obtain a crown of glory from God. I die parched, and offer myself a sacrifice for the sins of my people, that they should be saved from the wrath to come.[5]

Here we see that even though Husain is seemingly powerless, he really isn’t, or at least claims to not be powerless. This idea of power within the powerless is quite clear here. Within my piece of artwork, the crowd, though faceless and individually powerless, holds the fate of the stage in their hands. They determine what happens, which is sometimes the case with actual performances.


The three other pieces all exist within the umbrella of confusion, though other themes may exist. This confusion has played an integral part in defining what exactly Islam is, which is a question that has been answered many ways. There is confusion amongst new generations on how to incorporate advances in technology to faithfully worshipping God and following the Prophet’s example. Some musicians believe they can spread the word of God through sound and music, praising the God and his Prophet and reaching new audiences while also experiencing ecstasy. Others believe, though, that music is intoxication like any other drug or alcohol and should be banned. Another example is the usage of calligraphic writing. Some people believe this is a beautiful expression of worship and love of God and believe this writing should be present on mosques, while others believe that a mosque should not have these ornate decorations.

The first piece that incorporates this theme of confusion is “Only for You.” This piece also incorporates the idea of pain and suffering as a way to gain favor with God, which was discussed in the previous section. Here, there is not confusion about defining what Islam is, but rather confusion in why we must suffer here on earth.  The narrator of the poem realizes that this suffering is a test. We are not to succumb to the earthly pleasures that we may see others indulge in, but rather we are supposed to rise above those around us and do God’s calling, no matter the pains or hardships we may face.

The second piece is a water color painting titled, “The Straight Path.” Here, we see a juncture of many different paths a person may be able to take, each path leading to a different place. This painting shows, though, that although it may not initially be clear which path is the right path, if we are careful enough about our actions and the situations we allow ourselves to fall into, the right path, or the “straight” path, will show us the way to God’s favor. The second part of this painting is not only that there is a right path, but that this right path, once we find it, is much more serene, peaceful, and transcendent than other paths. The rolling green hills and forests are meant to express paradise in nature and tranquility. Once we are able to separate ourselves from the confusing decisions that present themselves to us each day are set ourselves on the right path, things will only get better. That life, in the end, is the only road that leads us directly to an existence with God.

The third piece is the 3-D geometry I created. This geometry exemplifies confusion through illusion. A part of the Sufi tradition is the existence of two parallel existences, that of eternity and that which we experience here on earth. The first reality, that of eternity, is the “real” reality. Our reality, which which we experience here on earth, is the “fake” reality that exists only as a reflection or a diluted part of the true reality. I used a 3 dimensional geometric pattern to try and show the existence of two realities simultaneously: the truth and what we perceive. Initially, one might perceive the pattern as extruding from the base. We can tell by using a different perspective, however, that this reality is “fake,” and that the true reality is that the pattern is indented into the base.

Another method that 3-dimensional patterns can exemplify confusion is through visual complexity. Although my pattern isn’t necessarily complex, a more complex pattern could prevent observers from understanding every aspect the design. This would in turn force audiences to view specific components of the design to try to understand each particular shape. Unfortunately, the computer I was using to run the software could not handle overly complex geometries. If I had not been constrained by this limitation, one of the things I could have done was used the structure that made the indent, the plus signs with points at each end, and made the arms of the object not only exist in the horizontal and vertical direction, but additionally the depth direction, or into and out of the plane of the computer screen. I could have used this to create a repeating pattern of intersecting geometries. If this had been successful, I could have then offset this structure in each the x, y, and z directions to create an additional pattern that would replicate the original, but just fill the empty spaces with the original pattern. This is a bit over-technical, but the point is that by starting with one geometric shape, one can add multiple new layers on top to confuse the viewer and force the viewer to focus on singular aspects of the geometry. This is very similar to what occurs with people trying to interpret how to live. Dealing with different daily interactions, many unforeseen by our ancestors, presents many different layers of complications that cannot all be addressed at the same time. By focusing on one of these issues, though, we lose our place within the whole. This is the difficulty people interpreting texts must confront. There may have been many layers of understanding of an original work. In the Qur’an, that number is said to be seven, with only God understanding all seven layers of meaning.  By focusing too strongly on any one layer, we lose the other six.

By taking themes and mediums present in the course and present throughout works in Islamic culture, I attempted to gleam a first person perspective of what it means to be a Muslim and practice Islam. Through the various exercises and experiences throughout the year, I’ve developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for the strong emotional connection and devotion Muslims feel for their Prophet and God. Understanding how people express themselves through various mediums and understanding the underlying purposes for different practices through first hand experiences can help bridge cultures. Bridging this divide may be the key for dissimilar peoples to accept and embrace their diversity rather than perpetuate the “clash of ignorances.”

[1] Stall, Sam. 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization: History’s Most Influential Felines. China: Quirk Books, 2007, Hardcover

[3] Nevenka Korica Sullivan

[4] Malekpour, Jamshid. The Islamic Drama. Great Britain: Frank Cass Publishers, 2004.



A thief in the night, I will steal the rose,

Just for one chance to softly feel the rose.


It gently sits, waiting to be taken,

The Lawless One, though, seeks to seal the rose.


Be not afraid of your fragility,

We still stop those who want to peel the rose.


Will you take my hand if the seasons change?

And perhaps maybe let me heal the rose?


This wine tastes sour, did it lose the vintner?

It is before you. It is real, the rose.


Rest within me, for I am within you

As long as you do not conceal the rose.


Do not tarry, do what you know is right.

ReGalli, I will now reveal the rose.



After hearing some of the other poetry from other students, I decided to try another ghazal. The inspiration for this poem was drawn from “Sultana’s Dream.” This poem can be played out as a dream-like sequence, showing the value of this precious “rose”, just as “Sultana’s Dream” expressed the value of women. A thief sneaks in the middle of the night to get a chance to admire the rose. After admiring it for just a minute, he thinks of the forces containing this sacred rose, separating it from the people it belongs to. He holds the rose, reassuring it that it’s condition will be preserved. Even if the weather worsens and it seems that the rose may wilt, he will try to keep the rose pristine. He shows the rose to his friend who abandoned an attempts at enjoying the rose, but rather settled for more earthly pursuits. He then keeps the rose for safe keeping, and assures his friend that he may too experience the rose, as long as he does not keep it from others. He knows that he must show the rose, but tries to give it the regal presentation it deserves.

Here, the rose can be meant to mean a few different things, though. The first, and obvious, is Muhammad. Using this interpretation, we see that the speaker is trying to bring the reader or listener back to a pious lifestyle. We can also see that the reader has this belief that what others think is this pious lifestyle is wrong in his opinion. This was done to reflect the turbulence that is currently affecting the Islamic community and the sense of confusion over what the Prophet, and therefore God, would see as acceptable. A second interpretation could be the listener as a timid or wanted lover. There could be some force keeping them apart, The Lawless One, and the speaker is attempting to circumvent this block for his unfulfilled love.


Incense Burner


For this creative response, I decided to design an incense burner. I was fascinated with the dog-like incense burner at the MET in New York, as well as the many other incense burners. After seeing the prevalence of animals throughout the exhibit and reading the Conference of the Birds, I was inspired to do some further researching into the roles animals play in Islamic culture. I also decided to ask some people who have actually been to Middle Eastern countries what animals they saw most often and which animals seemed to be most respected.

The overwhelming response I received from my friends, and confirmation through some online exploration, was that cats are favored and especially taken care of. Cats are clean and pure animals to be “cherished and loved” ( The Prophet is said to have a special adoration for cats as well. These findings all pointed me towards designing a cat incense burner.

In actually designing the incense burner, I wanted it to be functional. This, unfortunately, hasn’t happened completely. The piece still needs to be fired in the oven, I just haven’t had access to the oven yet. Once this happens, though, it will be functional. I also messed up the timing to poke the holes needed for the incense to properly dispersed. Initially, I poke a few holes which closed up because it was still too soft, then when I went to poke more holes in later and redo the ones I already did, the material was already too hard. Fortunately, though, I’ve learned for the next time I make an incense burner!

3-D Geometry


For my first project, I worked on designing a 3 dimensional geometry. In many cases in art, you see what is there in front of you, but i was trying to build something that the appreciation comes from what is missing. The inspiration for this project came after we visited the museum in New York. There were countless items that had beautiful geometric patterns on them. Each of these geometric patterns was perfectly sketch, or at least good enough that I thought they were perfect. The fact that artists were able to paint with such precision and accuracy astounded me, and I wanted to try and catch at least a small glimpse of how difficult it is to originally come up with an idea, then actually draw the plan out. I didn’t explore the art of actually making the design, which I can only imagine would be painstaking and excruciatingly slow in cases like the columns at the New York museum.

The design itself derived from inspiration in two places. First, we used a similar  2-dimensional design on the floor of our mosque. Secondly, in the museum itself, a portion of one of the screens I saw had this shape to it. Instead of using it as a shape to extrude, though, I decided to use the shape as a mold for an indent.

One of the things I loved about this design was the initial confusion when you look at just the first and last images. With just these two images, it seems like the design is coming out at you, rather than going into the material. Only with the second angle can you see the correction to this illusion. On the first pattern, though, with closer inspection, we see that it is impossible for the pattern to be extruding from the base. The bottom part of the pattern is showing, but we know that we are looking from the top down because of the top of the base. This means that what we think we are seeing cannot be the case.

It was fun designing this patterned geometry. I played with a whole bunch of different ideas using SolidWorks, a program designed for making 3D parts for engineering. It was frustrating, though, because I didn’t know how to remove a body from a larger body using an existing geometry. Though I’m sure people from centuries past didn’t have this exact problem, I can imagine that they faced awfully difficult situations hindering their progress. Knowing just how hard it was for me to design this with all the tools at hand gives me a much greater appreciation for their artwork, especially in pieces such as stone where no mistake can possibly be made.

I also had some other cool designs that I made during trial and error making this design. These images will be shown below once I get access to the computer I used to develop the patterns.

The Art of Tragedy


In this piece, I sought to capture the pain and suffering stressed in the ta’ziyah that I felt. Though I know these aren’t the only aspects of this grand spectacle, this aspect most grabbed my attention. The ta’ziyah is discussed in week 5’s readings.

Here, I tried to incorporate a little bit of everything. The five pillars of Islam surround the stage, laying the grounds for what happens within. Onlookers watch, though, as their hero experiences the pain, suffering, and betrayal year after year. This remembering of the tragedy which clearly defined the separation between the Shi’ah and the Sunni emanates from the stage. Onlookers not only see the events taking place, but resonate with the emotional tidal waves crashing upon them. The words spewing forth from the stage represent these emotional tides, differing in type, but none less powerful than the previous.

The crowd’s identity is lost, as they become the very people condemn. This is represented by the faceless shadows of the crowd. The perspective of the viewer is also the same as this crowd, which is done by the people in the foreground of the focus of the drawing. The viewer places himself into this ambiguous group of onlookers, and can see the emotions about to overtake him.  Also, though, there is an empowering trait of being part of the masses. Because of this perspective, the viewer is not just an onlooker, but a participant. These participants are even given opportunities sometimes to decide the fate of those on stage in certain performances.

The words I chose are: pain, suffering, injustice, inheritance, mourning, grief, betrayal, dishonesty, martyrdom, and sacrifice. The reason I chose these is because they encapsulate many of the negative powerful emotions that the ta’ziyah is supposed to invoke. They flow from the center of the stage because that is the main purpose (or so I have understood) of this stage. It was designed so that the people would not soon forget the wrongs they believed were done, and also meant for the people who viewed this to feel like they were powerful, just as the seemingly powerless Husein was powerful.

The Straight Path


“And he holds firmly to Allah is guided to the straight path”

One of the readings that struck me was the “External Rules of Qur’an Recitation” from week 3.  In this reading it laid down very strict regulations on dealing with reciting the Qur’an. As I was doing research on the Qur’an to hopefully better understand it as a whole, I came across the quote in this painting.  Later, as we discuss the Sunnah, or practice of the Prophet, I was reminded of this quote and decided to do a piece of artwork surrounding the quote.  The piece itself received inspiration done in a similar manner to the manuscripts shown in lecture of the Qur’anic verses on the same page as a depiction.

The winding paths represent the discord experienced by those without a guide. Islam provides that guide to those who are lost to the many different choices that face them everyday. It provides a means of determining which choice is the guided choice. This guidance is the one of the key components, if not the main component, of Islam from what I understand so far. That is, in order to follow God’s teachings accurately and look favorably in his judgement, one must follow the example of the prophets, and most specifically, of Muhammad. Though divergent on how to best follow the Prophet and which of his practices this quote discusses, I believe that no Muslim wants to diverge from Muhammad’s guidance.

One obvious flaw of this as existing as a true Islamic piece of art is the golden gates. This was done in an effort to show that the “straight path” leads those who are just and righteous in God’s eye’s follow the path to heaven. The golden gates are very apparent in popular Western culture and appear in a wide variety of forms from movies to cartoons to books. This symbol shows my background and experiences. Also, the rolling hills represent a return to what I see as nature’s most beautiful and divine characteristics.

Only for you


Only for you


Oh the horrors you have shown me,

On my journey through this place.

Pain and suffering rampant,

Ever so commonplace.


Everywhere I turn, just one more,

Injustice to be seen.

An ongoing nightmare,

Of moral casualty.


No light to seek out,

No hand to reach for.

Those that can help,

Refuse aid to the poor.


Hunger and disease,

Spread like wildfire.

Unconditional love converts,

Into lust and desire.


We were once driven by the prospect,

Of making life better.

But selfish goals and ideas

Do nothing but fetter.


Why must you insist,

On showing me all this?

Why can’t my existence,

Be nothing but bliss?


Do you seek to drive me mad,

Do you want to break me down?

And hope I can carry on,

Lift myself off the ground?


If that is your goal,

Accept it I will.

Weary though I am,

Tired, lonely, and ill.


I will fight through the day,

And never cease in the night.

I will bear your name Lord,

For all that is right.



Inspiration for this poem came from two places. The style of this entry was inspired by the readings from week 4, in particular Suleyman Celebi’s Turkish poem Mevlid-i Sharif and the poems in praise of the Prophet in “In praise of Muhammad: Sindhi and Urdu poems.”  I was very keen on keeping the tempo of poem, and so I spaced accordingly. The poem is in the rhyme scheme ABCB DEFE. The reason the lines are not in rhyming couplets AA BB is because I wanted to slow down the reader. Each line is not a statement to be read, but rather to be felt. The inspiration for the material within the poem comes from the one of the Ismailis seven pillars of Islam, Jihad. This concept is present in Islam in general, not just within the Shi’ah, but within this community of interpretation the presence of Jihad is much stronger.

A once close friend of mine had a sibling that passed away, and I felt frustrated the entire week with the world and how little people seemed to grasp that the world is bigger than them. This event happened to coincide with our class reading the poems, and so I decided that rather than a love poem, I would write a devotional poem. Here, the devotion is expressed through the fact that no matter what happens, the narrator of this poem will continue through the suffering because he believes that is what his God expects of him.

This poem is not similar in content to an Islamic poem, even though that was my main idea initially. After I began writing, however, I realized that I should not be trying to mimic that which I do not practice. Because of my backgrounds and beliefs, I could never hope to write a beautiful poem similar in any way to a true Islamic devotional poem. Once I took ownership of the poem, though, and let my background and thoughts be expressed fully, it really struck a resonating chord within me that I hope the reader can experience as well.

Calligraphy Project






One of the rules given by Al-Ghazali regarded weeping during prayer. He maintained that it not only is praiseworthy to weep, but necessary. “If you do not weep naturally, then force yourself to weep.” This part of the text struck me as incredibly odd, because something as uncontrollable as weeping seems strange to force upon a worshipper. Powerful emotions can overtake a person and cause more than just weeping, such as an ecstatic joy at the prospect of being closer to God, yet here are pseudo directions on how to force one’s self to weep. On closer inspection, though, I began to see that no matter how close to God one is (or thinks he is), there is always room for improvement. These imperfections and deviations from God’s expectations are why one should weep during prayer, so that one can acknowledge these imperfections to God and show a desire to improve. During prostration, the time in which one is closest to God and deepest in prayer (from my understanding), this flurry of emotions should be reaching a tempest and cause uncontrollable weeping.

After a bit of searching online, I realized that the inability to weep during prayer is an actual concern of some Muslims, and that it isn’t just an archaic idea. I chose to depict the tears as “Allah” to show that weeping is correlated with (in some people’s eyes) closeness to God, and it is through these tears that a person can “reach the rank of ihsan.” (

I chose to keep the person in prayer in black and white to keep the focus on the tears, which are the only thing with color. Also, I found it interesting that there happened to be Allah written within the person (if you can’t find it, it is darkened from the rest of the drawing).  The yellow construction paper was to lighten up the drawing in general, because it wasn’t meant to be a saddening drawing, and that was the feel I was getting from the picture.  When I had envisioned this drawing, it wasn’t so plain, but when I was done outlining the person, I realized that his identity was irrelevant, and so he shouldn’t have details such as color or designed clothing.

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