mtakla — May 11, 2014, 3:01 am

Introductory Essay

I took Professor  Asani’s freshman seminar four years ago which sparked my interest in how Islam is perceived across the globe. After taking his class, I took a course on North African colonialism and other courses on the perceived East, West divide, but these classes did not attempt to address the connections between this divide like Professor Asani.  That said, the classes that the freshman seminar inspired me to attend lended themselves well to better understanding the seminar’s material. For example, I took a literature course called The Arab-American Experience in Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture as well as a class on 16th and 17th century Spanish literature in which I chose to write my final paper on the depictions of Muslims in Spanish “novelas moriscas” such as El Abencerraje. Taking A&I 54 For the Love of God and his Prophet allowed me to reexamine works from the seminar such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Persepolis with the new tools that I have learned from works in previous classes such as Orientalism, by Edward Said. Outside of the Harvard classroom, I have learned about Islam in a specific context through study abroad in Morocco. The Moroccans that I spoke with proudly told me that Moroccan Islam is moderate and that they believe it to be  compatible with the west. This may be so, but I think many Americans including myself before my stay in Morocco do not know enough about “Moroccan Islam” to consider it  different from other kinds of Islam. When I returned to campus, I wanted to learn more about the nuances in varying practices of  Islam and I have found this A&I course to be very helpful in considering the multiple ways that Islam is practiced.

In reviewing my submissions for portfolio, the theme of identity formation stands out the most.  My interest in this topic stemmed from materials covered in class such as the movies New Muslim Cool and Koran by Heart, and  Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist which sought to question “fixed” identities and the passing of knowledge and identity from parent to child.  These works demonstrate how labels unfortunately do matter in this world; they make me contemplate how one negotiates his or her  muslim identity. (I have left muslim in lower case here as I am referring to the ways one submits to god, even if they do not follow Islam).  From the week focusing on the Taziyeh, I learned about how shi’i communities preserve their identity in part through the Taziyeh tradition and its connection to historical events. I think the most apparent renegotiation of identity is found in mosque architecture, whether in a building or a wearable mosque. Mosque architecture demonstrates not only a variety of Islamic interpretations, but a reshaping of traditions from multiple religions. The mosque design project created the perfect channel for us students to take part in and better understand this reshaping and formation of traditions under different contexts.

To better understand my blog posts, I would like to describe what the cultural studies approach has come to mean to me. At first, when I heard about the cultural studies approach I was concerned about viewing events in isolation, but through this class I learned that the focus on context in this approach does not have to separate events and regions from one another. On the contrary, it encourages us to realize how they interact and impact one another while at the same time being better informed. This concept became very clear during our trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The signs in the exhibit that we visited denoted whether the the art was from Spain or South East Asia, categorizing the pieces geographically.  However, Professor Asani related the artwork to each other from across the divided rooms and somewhat arbitrary barriers, national and otherwise.  As a political science concentrator with a focus on migration, I enjoyed hearing about how the exhibit pieces were influenced by the migrations of Muslims over time, creating culturally multi-layered evidence of the relationships between societies. The cultural studies approach really hit home for me at the art exhibit “Islam Through the Arts”. Analyzing the art pieces next to one another as opposed to online in an individual 2d version helped put the cultural studies approach in a relatable format. It was eye opening to realize that although all of us students were reading the same texts and attending the same lectures, we still produced such different interpretations of the material. Through attending this exhibit I was better able to understand how misinterpretation or rather the variety of interpretations of Islam form around the world.

The projects in my blog have been works of introspection at the end of my college career. This self reflection, especially through this essay, has been difficult as I am finding that I am sad to leave college. Subsequently the writing has been slow and I have pushed my teaching fellow’s patience (sorry, Axel!).  For instance, my calligraphy project was a collage of photos that  I have taken of cherished college memories with ‘allah’ superimposed on it. One of the aspects that I have greatly enjoyed in this course is the opportunity to reflect on personal values, perspective on Islam, and identity. The pieces in my blog utilize a few mediums with which I am familiar such as dance and photography as well as mediums such as watercolors that nudged me out of my comfort zone. Dance has long been my preferred form of expression, as it can convey sentiments that cannot be described in words and as  Farida Mahwash stated at one of her ‘concerts’, “music humanizes people”. I was surprised to learn that some consider dance haram because they consider it a form of entertainment. Personally, I tend to think of dance not as entertainment but rather as a medium through which dancers have the ability to transcend the moment and communicate a message to the audience to be interpreted as the audience members wish. It was for this reason that I was drawn  to the samaa of the whirling dervishes and chose to dedicate one of my art pieces to the way in which the whirling dervishes achieve baqaa through movement. I chose to explore in my art responses a few themes from the class material that were new to me such as sufism as a mystical orientation and not a sect, and finding god in ayaat.  I also chose art pieces that relate directly to the conversations and decisions that I have made this year. For example, the inspiration for my “thumbprint of Changez” (titled, [hyphen]New Yorker)  was drawn from the post-graduate job that I have just accepted as a paralegal in New York. One of my future responsibilities in that position will be fingerprinting undocumented youth. Through my blog, the reader receives a snapshot of where I am in my life right now.

Similarly to how Rabia Al-Basri redefined the human relationship with god by carrying water to put out flames of hell, and fire to destroy heaven, this class has had a huge impact on my relationship with Islam and religions in general. I am very glad that I took this course as I have learned so much and look forward to applying the cultural studies approach to my career and future studies. I would like to thank Professor Asani and the TFs, Axel and John, for making the time to get meals with students and  meeting with them during office hours to get to know all of their students. I really appreciate their putting extra time into the class through the very fun (and educational) field trip to New York.  Lastly, I want to express my appreciation for the experiential learning component of the course which is not often undertaken at Harvard,  at least not in the government courses that I have taken. The experiential learning in this class has given faces, cultures, and personalities to the various class readings, reports, and statistics that I have read over my college career. I now feel better equipped to approach my future with a greater sense of humanity.

mtakla — May 10, 2014, 6:37 pm

God in the Midst of the City


I have chosen to create a calligraphic interpretation of allah out of photos that I have taken during my (almost) four years at Harvard. I employed a computer program to create this collage of landscapes and portraits. 

Every day as I walk back to my house, I come across the following Biblical verse carved into a post:  “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved” (Psalm 46:5). I used to wonder, is this verse a reference to the physical church behind it or else what significance does this verse have? Despite reading this verse every day, it was through Professor Asani’s that I began to have a new appreciation and understanding of what it meant. This collage version of the word allah, illustrates the message in Islam that allah can be found in all that he has created; we just need to see the signs, or the ayat. As we have learned, allah is said to guide humans and to communicate with all of creation in a variety of ways. This collage is also a spatial representation of the creative orderliness of the world Allah created. Although life does not fit into neat photo frames, we are reminded that there is reason behind this hectic world and that the word of god is everywhere. 

In my opinion, this Psalm’s verse is reflected in the Surat An-And-Naĥl, particularly in this verse:  “[He has subjected] whatever he multiplied for you on the earth of varying colors. Indeed in that is a sign for a people who remember” (16:13). Humankind is at times ungrateful and forgetful according to the Qur’an and so this calligraphic project is my attempt at remembering to look for the signs of allah through the lens of my own experience. In addition, this interpretation of the word allah is my response to Professor Asani’s statement that the beauty of calligraphic words and Quranic verses is seen proof of the writing’s divine origin. In this case, the beauty of allah surrounds and holds within my friends, family, and the beautiful college experience that I have been fortunate to have.

 1) New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America

  2) Surat An-Naĥl, 16:3. Sahih International.

mtakla — , 6:09 pm


The impression where you had lain has long ceased to remain

but your enticing scent that I cannot place will remain

Like the smooth wind it cannot be grasped in my frantic hand

though its potent effect on my mind and thoughts will remain

Intoxicated by your fragrance, suddenly hastened

relentless memories of your close embrace will remain

I often asked you about this enticement but you laughed,

the arrows of your apathy left marks that will remain

I ask others in vain: what is this fragrance- citron, sage?

How long is the span of this world in which I will remain?

Let it breathe, does olive oil smell like nostalgia, David?

By fig and olive, memory in the bouquet will remain

I am not remembering, I relive the experience anew

which evokes the pain and yearning that for six days will remain

I am convinced, the nightingale finds the rose not by sight

but follows the heady fragrance to where it will remain

Years later, a slight breeze knocked me to my knees

on it a scent, I remember therefore you will remain

mtakla — , 4:02 pm

A Ghazal Through Movement

I have chosen to create a sort of physical ghazal through dance. I have utilized and reinterpreted the choreography of Maya R. and have set the choreography to James Vincent McMorrow’s cover or Higher Love. I chose this song because its lyrics relate very well to that of the Persian ghazal that we have studied. The lyrics speak of a lover who feels blind as he searches for a  higher love that he believes must exist. In my retelling of these lyrics, the higher love is god. In the lyrics, the lover’s desire is so strong that he can “light up the night with his soul on fire”.  The lyrics also refer to the idea found in Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, that one will not find god in an external place but rather by searching internally and “look[ing] inside your heart” as McMorrow suggests, one can reach kemal. 

The quality of movement in the dance piece seeks to reflect how the lovers in many ghazals such as those in The Green Sea of Heaven, try to reach their beloved but are spurned. The movement in the dance emphasizes how sometimes the lover grasps at the intangible in search of his or her beloved. The choreography also includes many moments of reaching up and out as an attempt to draw closer to god and to articulate the yearning of the lover in the ghazal art form. The constant fluctuation between the multiple levels in the dance makes reference to the supposed inconsistency of the beloved as well as the hardships that one encounters while trying to rid oneself of ego.


Lyrics, By Will Jennings and Steve Winwood:

Think about it, there must be higher love
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, I’ll look inside mine

Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk blind and we try to see
Falling behind in what could be

Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love
Where’s that higher love, I keep thinking of?

Worlds are turning and we’re just hanging on
Facing our fear and standing out there alone
A yearning, and it’s real to me
There must be someone who’s feeling for me

Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk blind and we try to see
Falling behind in what could be

Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love
Where’s that higher love, I keep thinking of?

Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love
I could rise above on a higher love

I will wait for it, I’m not too late for it
Until then, I’ll sing my song
To cheer the night along

I could light the night up with my soul on fire
I could make the sun shine from pure desire
Let me feel that love come over me
Let me feel how strong it could be

Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love
Where’s that higher love, I keep thinking of?

Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love

Read more: Steve Winwood – Higher Love Lyrics | MetroLyrics

mtakla — , 3:02 pm

-New Yorker



For this project, I have created a thumbprint document,  meant to represent the biometric authentication documents required for immigrants upon entering the United States, for Changez from Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist. The thumbprint is comprised of Changez’s characteristics and identity markers. While making the thumbprint, I thought about identity formation and broke down the identification words into three categories 1) what we are born with 2) what is influenced by others 3) what we create ourselves. For example, Changez was born a son to his parents with a dark complexion. His “fundamentals”, found at the very center of the thumbprint, were influenced by a multitude of factors and people such as his ancestry, Underwood Samson, Erica,  Jim, 9/11, etc. 

Last semester I took a course  called the Arab-American Experience, in which we discussed the multiple perceptions of what it means to be Arab-American.  This class  has allowed me to further explore the hyphenated American identity, or in the case of Changez,  what it means to be a “[hyphen] New Yorker”. I chose to create a fingerprint because it is one of the first things taken from those entering the United States for an extended period of time and because it is in a way a form of legal synecdoche, in which a person with his or her complex identity is reduced to a  fingerprint. By incorporating multiple identity markers in this thumbprint, I tried to echo Changez’s trajectory int he novel in terms of opposing a system that focuses on one part of his identity, his being muslim. 

mtakla — , 1:55 pm

The Light of the Prophets



For this project, I created a miniature star paper lamp meant to represent the light of god. In this lamp is a cutout of a “lamp” representative of the prophet Muhammad. The lamp and its cutout demonstrate how the light of the prophet and god are not meant to be viewed as equivalent, but like the cutout’s resemblance to a lamp, the prophet is viewed as one who aimed for a certain likeness to god’s qualities such as mercy, wise-ness, and patience. The other multiple openings in the lamp symbolize all of the other prophets and the idea that they all share the same light with Muhammad, a light which is often described as resting in the palm of god’s hand. What I find to be the most intriguing part of the idea of a shared nur between the prophets is the idea that Muhammad existed before Adam. This project helped me to conceptualize visually what this means in that each opening on the lamp may have been made at a different moment of “time” as we think of it, but the light that shines through the openings has always existed. The prophet’s representation is a cutout because he is not the light itself but the lens through which people on earth can understand god and have access to god. I took photos from multiple angles and had difficulty finding an angle from which the light shined through all of the openings in the lamp.

mtakla — , 1:53 pm

Attempt to Illustrate Samaa



For this project I have utilized watercolors to paint a a shoreline and at the very fringe of the waves, where the sand meets the water, I have drawn whirling dervishes in the middle of samaa. I have placed them between the sand, which represents the billions of people on earth and between the water which represents the the other world.  The dervishes are located at the meeting of the two, symbolizing how they are thought to be able to transcend the  barriers of this world through motion to reach god. As the dervishes spin, they decrease in awareness of self. The dervishes are trying to reach bridge the farq between humans (the grains of sand) and  a state where the self is no longer present, represented here as the foam. The surface tension of the foam bubbles represents the perceived tension between the idea that all senses are actually god’s senses and the idea that this means that humans do not have free will. This tension is resolved through the realization that humans are actually freer when god works through them in a state of baqaa. The repeated image of the dervishes depicts the repetitive nature of their spinning, or physically active meditation. Much like how each wave does not resemble the last,  each experience, or order of dervishes, has its own interpretation of samaa with the same goal of reaching god. 

mtakla — March 31, 2014, 8:21 am


Zaynab and Sakayna

For this project I created an oil pastel rendering of Zaynab bint Ali after the battle of Karbala. In this romanticized illustration of Zaynab, she is set against a red background representative of the blood of the lives lost in the battlefield. I chose to draw Zaynab because I was struck by the story of the battle of Karbala and its impact on the separation between Sunni and Shia. I began to imagine what it would be like in Zaynab’s place- her brother and loved ones killed, then taken along with the other women and children as captives of Yazid’s army, and having to assume the role of a leader in a very short time. Scene 23 in Pelly’s The Miracle Play, sparked my interest in Zaynab and when I researched her story a bit more, I was impressed by the multiple accounts and depictions of her willingness to participate in the battle: “O my brother, if women were permitted to fight I would have courted death to save you” (The Victory of Truth: The Life of Zaynab bint Ali.

This drawing is an attempt to give Zaynab a moment of reflection probably not found in an actual battle. It depicts the moment before her Husayn’s surviving followers were captured, surrounded by remains of battle before she is made to unveil. It captures a moment of contemplation and reflection before she assumes the role of leader. The young girl looking up to Zaynab and clutching at her scarf is Sakayna, who in this drawing represents the women and small children who looked to the family of Muhammad for guidance. The Taziyeh, as a central experience for Shia around the world celebrating Husayn’s last stand also provides an opportunity to celebrate the resilience of muslims, those who like Zaynab and Husayn submit to god. I look forward to further exploring the identities and representations of muslim women through a cultural studies approach in week 10 of the class.

mtakla — , 7:52 am

Where the Spiritual Meets the Functional

For this project I took an every day item, the mug, and wrote on it with pen the following Quranic verse: “It is He who sends down rain from the sky; from it is drink and from it is foliage in which you pasture [animals]” (Surat An-Naĥl, 16:10). This project was inspired by the idea of art connecting the spiritual to the functional and utilizing calligraphy, the highest of art forms in Islamic tradition. As emphasized in the verse, Allah is responsible for the rain, or in the Arabic, the water, that sustains life. This project represents the omnipotence of god and how he is a source of both the pen, interpreted at times as intellect, shown by the calligraphy and the source of life bearing water, demonstrated by the mug, a vessel to capture the water.

I chose to keep verse in Arabic to preserve the beauty of it’s phrasing and to avoid translation which is considered interpretation and a furthering of the phrase from its original meaning and intent. The calligraphic style that I utilized, if it can be called that, is not based on not in any traditional style, but is my own personalized style of writing Arabic letters in an attempt to reflect the relative nature of Islam described by Professor Asani in class.  Included the foliage in verse, in different times of bloom.

I chose a mug as the surface on which to write because of its importance in everyday life and though a mug may not necessarily make one instinctively think of god, the act of writing on the mug demonstrates how the message of god through the Quran can change in form but is still part of revelation. The act of copying Quranic verses can be an act of devotion critical to spiritual health, and the water held in a mug is critical to physical health. The inscribed mug is a tangible encounter of the spiritual and the physical.