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Introduction: The Debates that Dictate Your Reading of this Blog

Filed under: Uncategorized — fatimashahbaz at 8:51 pm on Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Introductory Essay 

Throughout my life, I have heard many endings to the phrase “Islam is…”. Islam is a religion of peace. Islam is a way of life. Islam is a political instituion. Islam is a plague on the world. Islam is just like every other Abrahamic faith, as good and bad as that may be. Islam is charity. Islam is legalistic. Islam is praying five times a day. But this semester was the first time I ever heard the phrase: “Islam is an aesthetic experience”.

As someone who identifies as neither a good artist, or a good Muslim, this class redefined what I consider to be Islam and to be art, and what I consider to be both. In my blog, “Mystical Musings: Understanding Islam Through the Arts”, I attempt to better redefine my own conception of Islam and my own conception of art. Growing up, I was exposed to a very rigid, albeit loving form of Islam. I was raised a Sunni Muslim, and my parents, like many other recent immigrant parents, clung to their faith as a distinguishing feature among the masses of people in the United States. Islam was a checklist. You pray five times a day, don’t drink, don’t pursue premarital relations, give charity, and be a good neighbor. However, as a Pakistani-American, I also got an exposure to the cultural elements of Islam that I didn’t realize were inherently “Islamic” in nature. I grew up sitting in the backseat of my mother’s car and she sweetly sung along to nasheed, but I still felt slightly guilty playing American music throughout the house. Our walls were adorned with calligraphy, but I was once admonished for doodling eyes in the corner of my paper during Sunday school. I narrowed my eyes at the idea of relatives back home celebrating milad-un-nabi, and rolled my eyes as I watched fights break out in our extended family group chat over some Youtube scholar or another.

As I grew older, I grew more defensive of my Islamic identity. I wasn’t the best Muslim. But I was proud to be Muslim, especially politically. I worked closely with my congregation to help fight for greater political representation, increase their voter registration, and  fight for more acceptance. I became more critical of hardline Islam and embraced a more liberal interpretation, but my go to phrase would be “that’s not Islamic, that’s cultural”.

This class, however, broke down my one line of defense. It taught me that everything was cultural, and that everything was Islamic. It taught me that aspects of my Pakistani culture were intrinsically Islamic, even. For instance: the ghazal. I had a rudimentary understanding of the ghazal, but I didn’t realize its religious significance. I had always viewed it in an entirely secular sense, with the eternal “you” meaning a lover. But after spending a week in class on the concept,  I realized that like many other themes of this class, it had the ability to be entirely religious in its “secularity” and that its artform blended the two beautifully. Similarly, I had fallen prey to the popular “secularization” of Rumi and forgot about his power and influence as a mystic. So much of what I had grown up hearing, both through my parents and through my iPhone, had suddenly become integral to my relationship with Islam. 

That’s why I chose to focus so much on the literary and poetic aspects of devotional Islam for my blog posts, because of it’s significance to me personally, and the ability for it to be interpreted in so many ways. This course taught me to consider the Quran a work of literature, as opposed to simply a book of doctrine. Similarly, it taught me to view poetry as a tool of devotion, as opposed to inherently secular “art”. 

I also wanted the idea of the debate of “authenticity” to be a big part of my portfolio, as it’s something I have always struggled with, and as it’s a concept this class particularly challenged. What parts of Islam are authentic? What is man-made? Similarly, what is “authentic” art? Growing up, I always had a very hardline view of  what “art” was. I was never a fan of art museums, and was that edgy eighth grader that claimed rap wasn’t a form of poetry. Similarly, I had a very hardline view of what was “Islamic” and what was “cultural”. Anything I disagreed with wasn’t art, just as anything I disagreed with wasn’t Islamic. However, a small part of me always knew I was wrong, and that my disagreement over concepts stemmed from ignorance. I didn’t always understand art, and I wasn’t good at it–so it scared me. Similarly, I didn’t consider myself to be a good Muslim and I knew I was wilfully ignorant of a lot of scripture, so it also scared me. 

“Mystical Musings: Understanding Islam Through the Arts” was my way of reckoning with the idea of authenticty and culture, and a way for me to better understand both art and Islam. We begin with my first piece, and perhaps my favorite, the reverse poem. In writing the reverse poem, I wanted to pay homage to the literary tradition of Islam, as well introduce my viewer to the tenous idea of “authenticity”. 

Some feminist scholars claim that patriarchy was read into the Quran by those that initially interpreted it. Personally, I’m torn at this claim. On one hand, I completely agree. There are numerous verses and claims that twitter-mullahs have made about a “woman’s place” in Islam that I fundamentally disagree with, and I know people have taken their sexist liberties with interpreting them. However, in honoring different “truths” through my poem–was I also somehow honoring the patriarchal version? By challenging the authenticity of those interpretations, am I somehow reaffirming that individuals are allowed to interpret the Quran in a sexist manner if they wish to do so, and believe so is correct? I tried to visually represent these internal conflicts in the reverse poem, by not telling the reader to read the poem in any specific way or making a moral claim that it being read one way was more superior than the other. 

This brings me to my second piece, my visual depiction of debate over what can be considered “Islamic art”. Again, I hoped to grapple with the idea of authenticity. Is arabesque art inherently Islamic, or was it too, simply conscribed with Islamic-ness? This was intended also to be an example of the conflict between “culture and religion”. In a way, I was hoping for the reader to extrapolate the chicken and the egg debate beyond Arabesque art and Islamic art into the Arab world at large and Islamic practice. How much of what we consider to be Islamic practice today is actually just historically Arab practices that we’ve codified into religion? When drawing this piece, that question definitely came to be–but as did my confusion over it. I know that’s a bad thing, but now that my cultural defense has been weakened, I don’t necessarily know how to articulate why it’s a bad thing. Nonetheless, I hope for this piece to build upon the theme throughout my portfolio that much of what we consider to be “authentic” is up for debate. 

No piece better depicts that idea than my third piece, the hadith tree. I initially intended to draw some branches of the tree to be visually weaker than others–but I decided that I wanted to deviate from the direct idea of authenticity and being critical of contemporary Islam into a piece that paid direct testament to my idea of authencity and my upbringing. All of the hadith “leaves” were hadiths that my parents taught me growing up. To me, they are authentic, not just because they have been theologically verified through the isnads and chains of transmission, but because my father, someone I consider to be the most genuine and authentic Muslim, practices them as such. Most are loving, and those that aren’t, are instructional for your health. Thus to me, they are in essence Islamic, and thus, authentic. 

Next, we  have my pen and paper drawing depicting how Islamic reform is played out on the bodies of women, which again touches on ideas of authenticity and culture. In class, I noticed that it was traditionally female practices of Islam, like attending Durgahs or listening to nasheed, that Salafi reactionaries found to be bidah. Similarly, through daily life, it’s hard not to notice that it is those that are most visibly Muslim (aka women) that are subject to the most critism. Essentially, the authenticity of women’s Islam is what is most commonly put in question, and I wanted to depict this most aptly in a piece. To be completely honest, a large part of why I didn’t consider myself to be a good Muslim wasn’t just my failure to complete the basic tenant of Islam, but also because I didn’t “look” like a “good” Muslim, or what I was taught a good Muslim should look like. So I wanted to depict that as well. I intentionally chose that the more “Western” side would be covered in Urdu and that the more “Islamic” side would be covered in English to challenge the idea that Pakistan and America’s Islam are somehow monolithic, and that women all across the world, no matter your place or residence or piety, will always be challenged for their intepretations and “authenticty” of Islam the most. 

My next piece also deals with ideas of “authenticity” and is based on what became my second-favorite reading of the semester, My Son the Fanatic. Although, to be completely honest, I didn’t entirely understand the story on first glance, I felt it encapsulated my struggle between culture and Islam almost perfectly, as I hoped this painting would as well. The warring “fanatics” in different colors were intended to represent the internal conflict many Muslims in the West, me included, face in their expression of their faith and balancing feelings of belonging with feelings of authenticity. Who is authentically a Muslim? Is it the man who practices Islam to an extreme, but is extremely judgemental in the proccess? Is it the man who shirks all traditional practice, but is kind to those that society is not kind to? I hope my piece properly depicts the struggle between these two questions. 

Finally, my portfolio culminates with my depiction of Kishwar Naheed’s We Sinful Women in the form of digital protest art. Honestly, this one kinda came out of left field in terms of the continued “authenticity” theme,  but I wanted my last piece to be something that allowed me to pay testament to the revolutionary themes of poetry, as well as to the ideas of feminism in Islam, all in the unqiuely cultural context of Pakistan. So I decided to take one of the poems that was included in the feminist anthology and make it into a poster, inspired by the Aurat March of Pakistan. I found the Aurat’s March to be incredible inclusive, and incredibly Islamic, in its execution. You had women from all backgrounds coming together and fighting for a better Pakistan. Many did so on explicitly religious grounds, while others did so on more secular grounds–but they all fought for a more equal, and thus in my opinion, Islamic society. I wanted this final piece to be a reaction to the reactionary movements that led to the Aurat March in a sense. 

I wish I could tell you that this portfolio helped me answer the question of what an “authentic” Islam is, or what is disticntly “cultural” over “religious”, but I can’t, and I’m sorry if it didn’t for you either. However, I hope that reading this portfolio helped blur the lines between these distinctions, and reaffirmed the revolutionary nature of asking questions and fighting back against norms that I find integral to a productive and fulfilling practice of Islam, which it did  for me in the creation proccess. 

Thanks for reading!


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