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Creative Responses Introductory Essay


Sound, visual and literary arts are the most powerful manifestations of experiential Islam. From its source in the Middle East, Islam has spread and become the dominant religion in parts of West Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. These communities differ in both language and cultural practices. Islam can be viewed from two lenses: doctrinal and artistic. The artistic perspective reflects the diversity of Muslim communities that might not be readily visible from a doctrinal perspective. Also, while the doctrinal view tends to be rigid, standardized and societal-minded, art forms tend to be more fluid, dynamic and focused on establishing personal connection between God and humanity.


Islam has mainly been studied through the history of the major Islamic empires. The course: ‘Multisensory Religion: Rethinking Islam’ (GenEd 1087), adopts a different method – the cultural studies approach- which emphasizes the evolution of religion based on historical, political, economic and artistic contexts. The course focuses on artistic expressions of Islam through both literature and arts such as Quran recitation, calligraphy, devotional music and dance, architectural designs and poetry. The course employs works of art to explore the similarities and differences among Islamic communities of interpretation and the role of arts as a vehicle for social and political reform.


The overarching theme of this course is captured by these questions: ‘What constitutes Islam? Which Islam? Whose Islam?’. Through artworks and literature from around the Muslim world, we see that Islam is not a monolithic religion with a standard interpretation. The unifying feature among Muslim communities is the shahada – an expression of faith that entails acknowledgment of God as the master of the universe and the acceptance of Muhammad as His prophet. Religious practices in Islam are influenced by the prevailing historical and cultural contexts, a concept known as situatedness. Situatedness leads to different interpretations of the Quran and the hadiths which causes the emergence of different communities of interpretation. For example, the religious schism between the Sunni and the Shi’i communities arises from the succession dispute following the death of the prophet while the Sufi tradition arises in opposition to the luxurious lifestyle devoid of religious piety led by the Umayyad dynasty. The revelation of Quran in Arabic and the subsequent influence of Arabic culture on Islam is another example of situatedness. The questions ‘What constitutes Islam? Which Islam? Whose Islam?’ also bring to the fore two distinct forms of Islam: loud Islam and silent Islam. Loud Islam is the dominant, legalistic form controlled by the religious elites such as the nation states and the Ulama. These religious authorities are concerned with political power. Silent Islam is a more experiential majoritarian form focused on personal relationship with God.


Another major theme is mysticism and poetry. Mysticism begins with the prophet Muhammad’s journey to heaven and encounter with God – the Miraj. Mysticism later develops into a formal tradition in the form of Sufism through the efforts of great mystics such as Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi (Mevlana) associated with the Mevlevi order and Ahmadu Bamba Mbacke of the Muridiyya order. Sufism stresses love between God and humanity as both a cosmological and a primordial relationship. Famous poetic works of Sufi masters such Attar’s mathnawi ‘The conference of the birds’ demonstrate the estrangement between God and mankind and the efforts to reawaken the forgotten love.


Finally, the course investigates the effects of culture on religion as well as Islamic reform movements. The main questions are: ‘Is religion inseparable from culture?’ and ‘What is the origin of Islamic reform movements?’. Important topics such as patriarchy in Muslim communities, European imperialism and Islam in Europe are discussed. The association of ‘pure’ Islam with Arabic expression of the religion raises questions on the position of non-Arab Muslims in the global community of believers. The use of religion as an identity marker reflects the conflation of culture and religion. On the matter of gender equality, most Muslims believe the Quran to be egalitarian thus blame anti-feminist interpretations of the holy scriptures on patriarchal structures of various cultures. On the decline of Muslim civilization and political power with the rise of European imperialism, the course explores the evolution in the understanding of political power as a measure of success and manifestation of God’s favor. European imperialism and nationalism have led to the view of Islam as a foreign religion in Europe, thus the development of Islamophobia, despite the tradition being indigenous to Europe.


The six creative projects I came up with attempt to explore the aforementioned concepts in greater detail. My first project focuses on the evolution of the Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The death of the prophet creates a power vacuum with regards to both spiritual and temporal leadership. Since the Prophet Muhammad did not explicitly spell out how his successor would be chosen, his close companions disagree on the method of picking a Khalifa (successor) which leads to a fall-out. Over the following centuries, the differences crystallize into the two main communities of interpretation: Sunni and Shiite. The prophet’s successors in the Sunni community gradually lose spiritual authority to the scholars, ‘Ulama’, as the Islamic empire expands.


The second project illustrates the concept of the spiritual light according to the verse of the light (Quran 24:35). Allah is the source of all light and this light is manifested through two cosmological and complementary lights: Nur Muhammad (light of Muhammad) and the Nur imamat (light of the Imams). Nur Muhammad is the primordial light of the prophets with Muhammad as the full manifestation of the light thus the most significant prophet. Nur Imamat is a significant feature in the Shiite community of interpretations as Imams (the biological male descendants of the prophet) are believed to be the spiritual and political leaders of the umma (community of believers). The Imamate institution is also primordial. Each prophet is believed to have a complementary Imam even though the Imam might remain unknown to the people. Additionally, there has to be an Imam in the umma at all times even in the absence of a prophet. Every Shiite Imam has the knowledge of the inner meaning of the Quran thus provides an esoteric interpretation of the Quran known as ‘tawil’. A Shiite Imam picks a successor through a process called ‘nass’.


My third project demonstrates the concept of the beautiful names of God (Asma al-Husna) through a poem. The 99 names of God are classified into Jalal (majesty) and Jamal (beauty). The Jalal attributes emphasize the transcendence and incomparability of Allah while the Jamal category stresses a close God – humanity relationship through human attributes such as mercy, forgiveness and compassion. Despite being almost contradictory, the Jalal and the Jamal attributes are complementary thus demonstrate the perfection of God. The two categories combine to provide the full description of the relationship between God and His creation thus serve different but equally significant purposes in an individual’s spiritual journey.


My fourth project is a Swahili poem recitation that captures the concept of the major poetic forms among Muslim communities. Poetry had a prominent place in the pre-Islamic Arab community, and this continues with the revelation of the Quran in poetic form. Poetry is viewed as the source and product of mystical experience. Poets are believed to be divine inspired, and poetry is said to flow from divine ecstasy. The two main poetic forms that emerge in the Muslim community are ghazal among the Arabs and mathnawi from Persia. Mathnawi poetry becomes central to the Shuu’biyya movement’s efforts to preserve the Persian culture in the response to the fear of Arabification. The spread of Islam to the East African coast and the subsequent cultural exchanges between the Arabs and the Bantu groups lead to the emergence of Swahili as a lingua franca. Poetic forms such as mathnawi also take root among the Swahili people but evolve slightly in response to the local culture.


The fifth project covers Sufi mysticism and the revelation of God in nature through a circular picture collage. Sufi mysticism entails bridging the separation between human beings and the transcendental God by reawakening the primordial union of the two parties. Sufi doctrines and rituals are geared towards remembering one’s real identity beyond the physical body. Muslims of Sufi orientation believe in a direct personal experience of the Divine. At the core of Sufi mysticism are zahir and batin which correspond to outward (material) and inward (spiritual) manifestations of the divine. The innermost layer of the divine layers is called ‘haqiqah’ (the truth). While shariah is associated with the exoteric aspect of the Islamic tradition, the Sufi tariqahs (spiritual paths) focus on its esoteric aspects. Sufis believe that the spiritual layer lies within the material reality and can be accessed through a tariqah. With regards to the presence of God in nature, Quran 2:115 says “To God belongs the East and the West, wherever you turn, you will perceive the face of God”. The art of discerning the spiritual reality from the material realm is referred to as reading. Language facilitates the movement from the outer layers to the inner layers of spirituality.


My final project focuses on the concept of music and dance in Islam through Sama as performed by the whirling dervishes of Turkey. Music and dance are a significant feature of the Sufi tradition as a tool of meditation. However, given the controversy surrounding listening to music and dancing, rules are formulated to prevent misuse of music and dance. Such rules regulate when, where and with whom Sama can be practiced. Some Sufi authorities propose that Sama be a preserve of the Sufis who have attained spiritual ascension and spiritual novices be prevented from partaking in it. Spiritual practice of Sama was among the biggest casualties of Turkey’s secularist policy. As a result, Sama performances have taken more of a cultural than a spiritual role.


In conclusion, this course shows the validity of different interpretations of  the Islamic tradition. It achieves this by bringing silent Islam to the limelight and challenging misleading dominant public discourse on Islam.


Portfolio of Creative Responses


# 1 Skit: The death of the prophet Muhammad and post-prophetic authority


It is June 8, 632, the prophet Muhammad has been ill for a long time and his situation does not seem to be improving. He is surrounded by his wives and close family members including his two fathers-in-law, Umar and Abu Bakr. A crowd has gathered outside the prophet’s house awaiting news. Cries and screams break out from the house when the soul of the prophet leaves his body. Darkness, sorrow and grief descend upon Medina. Umar and Abu Bakr emerge from the house where the prophet is lying in state.


Umar: (In denial of the prophet’s death) Do not fall into anguish nor fall short of hope! The messenger of God is not dead, he is alive. May harsh punishment befall those of little faith who claim that the prophet has died!


The crowd: (faces brightening, low murmurs) Praise be to Allah! The messenger lives!


Abu Bakr: (Pacifying Umar) Take heart Umar. Remember the battle of Uhud?


Umar, deep in reflection, steps aside and paves way for Abu Bakr to address the gathering.


Abu Bakr: The people of Medina, whoever worshipped Muhammad, he is dead. Whoever worships Allah, Allah is alive and will never die. Will you stop believing in Allah because Muhammad is dead?


The crowd is still shocked. Low murmurs can be heard.


Person 1: But Muhammad was everything to us. Our intercessor, religious and political leader. He was the walking Quran, the embodiment of the ways of Allah. How will we survive his demise? Who will guide the community of Allah?


Abu Bakr responds …


Abu Bakr: (Quoting Quran 3:144) “Muhammad is no more than a Messenger and, indeed, Messengers have passed away before him. If he dies or is killed will you turn your backs? The person who turns away shall not harm Allah but Allah will reward those who acknowledge him.”


The crowd: (Chanting) Praise be to Allah. May Allah bless his messenger and greet him.


Abu Bakr: (To the crowd) Now go in peace and seek guidance from Allah through the Quran and the messenger’s teachings.



Later that day, as the close kin of the prophet conduct his burial, an urgent consultative meeting is convened at the Saqifa – the meeting house of Banu Saida. Only the tribes of Medina are invited to this meeting. Companions of the prophet from Mecca such as Abu Bakr and Umar protest this citing their closeness to the prophet as sufficient reason to be allowed to attend the meeting. Meanwhile, Ali, Fatima and the prophet Muhammad’s immediate family are neither invited nor informed that a consultative meeting is being planned. Abu Bakr and Umar’s request to join the meeting is granted.


Convener of the meeting: (addressing the leaders of the Medinan and Meccan tribes) Fellow leaders. We assemble in these difficult times following the demise of the messenger of God and our leader, the prophet Muhammad, to chart the way forward for the community. It is in the best interest of the community that we choose a successor to the prophet. Who offer themselves for consideration?


Abu Bakr: I stake my claim to the leadership of the community having been a close companion of the prophet and his father-in-law.


Umar: I stake my claim to the leadership of the community on similar grounds as Abu Bakr.


Tribal leader 1: (While pointing at Abu Bakr) Abu Bakr has been the acting leader during the prophet’s illness. He demonstrated great courage and strength at the hour of the death of the prophet. His speech motivated those whose faith had begun to wane to continue believing in God. I support Abu Bakr to be Khalifa.


The leaders of the tribes talk amongst themselves for a few minutes. Sensing the lack of agreement in the room, Umar cries out:


Umar: (lifting Abu Bakr’s hand) I drop my bid in favor of Abu Bakr.


Tribal leaders: Abu Bakr has received the favor of Allah. May Allah guide and protect him.


Later that evening, Ali, the rest of the family of the prophet and his followers receive the news of Abu Bakr’s selection.


Ali: (Shaking his head angrily) How could they have been discussing succession politics while we were still mourning and burying the prophet? What a tragedy, even Abu Bakr and Umar!


Followers of Ali: (Unanimously) The prophet designated you, O Ali, as his rightful successor at Ghadeer Khumm.  We shall honor the prophet’s wish. Ali is our leader. Rightful leadership of the community falls on ahl al-bayt (the prophet Muhammad’s family).


In the following 3 centuries, the proponents of the consensus method of choosing a leader become known as the ahl al-sunna wa’l jama’ah (Sunni) while the supporters of hereditary leadership by the descendants of the prophet become the Shi’at ‘Ali (Shi’i).


Cited works:

  1. Ali Asani, “Heirs of the Prophet: Authorities in the Post-Prophetic Muslim Communities” (ch.4), Infidel of Love.
  2. Questions on Islam:


This skit attempts to capture the evolution of events during the death of the prophet Muhammad as well as the impact of the prophet’s death on the community. Prophet Muhammad’s death, alongside the Karbala tragedy, is one of the key events that shaped the history of Islam as we know it. This play captures the emotions of the ordinary people as well as those of the elites. While most are in despair, total shock and denial, Abu Bakr steps up to encourage the gathering with Quranic verses. As we see later in the play, this act gives Abu Bakr leverage over Umar in the succession contest. The play also tries to portray the influence of the leaders on the people. The prophet’s companions, Umar and Abu Bakr, shaped the understanding as well as the acceptance of the death of the prophet. I use the direct quote, from the Quran, that Abu Bakr employs when he addresses the crowd because his use of a quote from the Quran has two special effects on his audience: first, Umar convinces his audience of the inevitability of the prophet Muhammad’s death and second, he assures them of the continuation of Islamic faith in the absence of the prophet. The scene on the consultative meeting displays the political negotiations at play in the succession process. I try to bridge the Shi’i and the Sunni perspectives in this scene in a bid to create a more complete picture of the events that might have transpired. I think that Ali’s claim to the leadership was not very controversial at the time since most members of the community knew of the incident at Ghadeer Khumm and had witnessed the close ties between the prophet Muhammad and Ali. I show how Ali’s claim to the community’s leadership was almost obvious by having the audience declare and confirm the legitimacy of this claim.


Disclaimer: This skit is completely fictional with some guidance from the narratives in the cited works.


#2: Nur Muhammad and Nur Imamat

This family tree captures two significant concepts in Islam theology: the light of Muhammad (Nur Muhammad) and the light of Imams (Nur Imamat). Nur Muhammad is the light of prophethood from which all the prophets from Adam to Muhammad descend. The light of the Imam is a big feature in the Shi’i community of interpretation as it establishes the institution of the imamate. Each prophet is believed to have had a corresponding imam until the time of the prophet Muhammad. The Imam is not always known. In this family tree drawing, I examine both the genealogy of prophethood and that of the imamate with the aim of establishing pre-Islamic biblical characters who could have served as the imams of famous prophets. In the tree, the names of the prophets are the blue fruits while the names of the ‘imams’ are the red fruits. Each branch has two connected sub-branches to reinforce the idea of the interdependence of the roles of the prophets and the imams. All the sub-branches that bear the prophet and those that bear the imam are connected thereby reinforcing the idea of distinct prophetic and imamate genealogies. The trunk and the roots of the tree form the name Allah in Arabic script which signifies that Allah is the source of both lights. The letter ‘Alif’ in the name Allah is written in bold dark pen to signify the Jalal attributes of Allah while the rest of the letters are written in gold to represent the Jamal attributes of Allah. Despite being a prophet in the Christian tradition, Elisha is designated an imam in this work for having been prophet Elijah’s helper until his ascension. The choice of Seth as prophet Adam’s imam arises from the fact that Seth was the only surviving son of Adam according to the Christian tradition.


Cited works:

  1. Ali Asani, “Following God’s beloved: Prophet Muhammad as the Ideal Muslim” (ch.3), Infidel of Love.
  2. Ali Asani, “Devotional Practices,” in Shii World: Pathways in Tradition and Modernity, ed. Farhad Daftary, Amyn B. Sajoo and Shainool Jiwa (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015)


# 3 Attributes of God


God of the angels

God of the prophets

God of the apostles

God the king of kings

God the one without equals or companions

God the light of the angels and all holy beings

God the giver of laws

God the healer of the ailing

God the comforter of the grieving

God the asylum of the sinful

God the life of the living

God the wisdom of the wise

God the strength of the strong

God the fortune of the fortunate



Praise be to God for He is not born

Praise be to God for He is the one without a beginning nor an end

Praise be to God for He is sinless

Praise be to God for He does not change

Praise be to God for He is everlasting

Praise be to God for He is omnipotent

Praise be to God for He is the path to heaven

Praise be to God for He is merciful

Praise be to God for He is the provider

Praise be to God for He is the source of purity

Praise be to God for He is the source of help

Praise be to God for He has no likeness on earth

Praise be to God for He is the creator of everything on heaven and earth


Cited works:

  1. Nomiya prayer book
  2. Sami Yusuf, Asma Allah


This short poem attempts to capture the attributes of God. This poem is inspired by Sami Yusuf’s song ‘Asma Allah’, which mentions the 99 beautiful names of God, as well as the attributes of God in the Nomiya faith*. I attempt to show the similarity between the attributes of God in the Islamic and Nomiya traditions. The poem is divided into two main stanzas that are different in both structure and content.


The first stanza covers the transcendence of God as well as His relationship or interaction with humanity. The first stanza is further divided into two parts. The first part (lines 1-7) establishes God as the greatest of all beings in the whole universe. The angels, prophets and apostles are mentioned to show that God is at the pinnacle of the holiness structure. All the spiritual figures human beings are familiar with are nothing but servants of God. Kings are mentioned to show that God is simultaneously the highest political authority. The latter part (lines 7 – 14) focuses on the interaction between God and humanity. Lines 7 – 10 emphasize the role of God as the support system of the weak/underprivileged in the society. Lines 11 – 14 convey the concept of God as the source of all goodness that the privileged in the society enjoy. The purpose of having two parts following each other is to show that God caters for both the lowly and the mighty in the society. He is the source of the prosperity of the privileged and He simultaneously uplifts the weak.


The second stanza entails the praise of God for all His transcendental attributes. Even though God’s attributes are beyond human comprehension, we attach human attributes to God as a way of worship. Stanza two covers some of the attributes of God that human beings should strive to emulate. Spiritual enlightenment is achieved through the pursuit of these attributes.

*Nomiya faith is an indigenous faith founded in Kenya in 1907. The Abrahamic religions, including Islam, have a huge influence on the faith.


#4 Mathnawi in Swahili

Karibu Ramadhani (Farwat Shariff, 2019)


Nawasalimu wendani, watoto watu wazima
Khabari ninawapeni, khabari zilizo njema
Atawasili mgeni, mgeni mwenye neema
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Ni mwezi wenye baraka, katuletea qahari
Na tena wa kusifika, na wenye mengi mazuri
Dua zetu Kwa rabuka, tuufunge bila shari
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Sote tunatarajia, kwa qamari kuandama
Ili kumshuhudia, mgeni aliye mwema
Ya rabbi tupe afia, tuufunge kwa salama
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Unapoyafanya mema, kwenye mwezi hu sharifu
Atakulipa karima, malipo ya maradufu
Basi ndugu hima hima, tuyaacheni machafu
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Tuhimizane kuswali, za faradhi na za sunna
tuinukeni laili, kumuomba subuhana
Tukithirishe amali, kuipigania jannah
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Nazo pia adhkari, tusizisahau nyuma
Tufanye ziwe kathiri, na tuzisome Kwa hima
Nyoyo zitajaa nuri, pia kujazwa ruhuma
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Mwezi mwema ramadhani, ndugu zangu mufahamu
Ni mwezi wa qurani, basi tushikeni hamu
Kwa pamoja tusomeni, maneno yake rahimu
Karibu mwezi karibu mtukufu ramadhani

Tarawehe tuswalini, na tahajud kadhalika
Tujae misikitini, tuzitafute baraka
Ziwe nzito mizani, qiyama kitapofika
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Mayatima masikini, tusiwaacheni nyuma
Na wote walio duni, tuwaonee huruma
Na tuwafuturisheni, ndio mwendo ulo mwema
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Ni mwezi wa itifaki, huleta watu pamoja
Basi tuacheni chuki, nawausieni waja
Zitatuondoka dhiki, na kuipata faraja
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Sio mwezi wa michezo, au mwezi wa kulala
Tuyaache makatazo, ndugu zangu hala hala
Ibada ndo ziwe nguzo, zisitupiteni swala
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Tusipotezeni muda, tukivipika vyakula
Ramadhani kina dada, sio mwezi wa chakula
Tutazikosa faida, faida zilizo aula
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Tuziacheni tabia, zile zilizo haramu
Uongo kuteta pia, nako pia kudhulumu
Tusije tukajutia, zisipopaa saumu
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Kadi tama nimefika, japo sijesha kunena
Ila nyi kufaidika, ndiyo yangu madhumuna
Wa Halima Farshika, hilo ndilo langu jina
Karibu mwezi karibu, mtukufu ramadhani

Mathnawi is a didactic poetic form that originated in Persia. The term mathnawi means couplets and the couplets usually rhyme. Mathnawi poems are used to tell epic, historical and religious narratives (Renard, 1996). ‘Kings of Persia’ is a famous example of epic and historical narratives. Mathnawi poems of religious thought are expressed through romance, ethics and mysticism(Renard, 1996). Mathnawi poems such as ‘The Mathnawi’ by Rumi and ‘The Conference of the Birds’ by Attar are foremost works in the religious narratives category. Mathnawi poems can either be a continuous narrative or a piecewise narrative in which couplets fit together to express the main theme.


Islam began spreading in East African coast in the 8th century and with it came poetic forms from the Middle East. Mathnawi is one of the poetic forms that took root at the Kenyan coast among the Swahili people. The structure of Swahili mathnawi poems is slightly different due to the influence of the local Swahili culture. In Swahili, poems are primarily classified based on the number of parts of a verse line (bahari) and the number of verse lines in a stanza (aina). Mathnawi generally refers to poems in which each line is divided into two parts irrespective of the number of lines per stanza. Lines in a stanza have an inner and an end rhyme scheme and the two do not have to match. The rhyme schemes might vary between stanzas.


The poem recited in this work is a 14-stanza religious mathnawi titled ‘Karibu Ramadhani’ which translates to ‘Welcome Ramadhan’. The poem is of the form ‘tarbia’ since each stanza has four lines. The poem conveys the message of striving for spiritual enlightenment/ascension during Ramadhan. The poet expresses two main themes: the definition of Ramadhan and the required code of conduct during the holy month. The poet portrays Ramadhan as a highly esteemed guest and refers to it as the month of blessings (stanzas 1 and 2). Ramadhan should be a time of reduced reliance on physical sustenance (stanza 12). The poet encourages acts of charity (stanza 9) and peaceful co-existence between neighbors (stanza 10). He also condemns impious acts such as lying and oppression (stanza 13) that are an obstacle to obtaining rewards that are based on good acts (stanza 4). He emphasizes that Ramadhan is not a time of festivities but a month of prayer (stanzas 5 and 11), visiting the mosque regularly (stanza 8) and reciting the Quran (stanza 7).


#5 Allah in Nature Collage


The unity of God and His creation i.e tawhid, is the backbone of Sufi mysticism. Nature bears God’s hidden message that can be deciphered by people who have attained spiritual enlightenment such as Pirs. God’s creations witness the greatness of God in both explicit and implicit forms. Closely linked to the concept of revelation of God in nature is the concept of zahir and batin. The zahir is the outer dimension of Islam while the batin is inner dimension of Islam (Nasr, 1987).  Zahir can be considered an explicit manifestation of God in nature and is open to all believers regardless of spiritual standing. On the other hand, batin is the implicit version that is only open to the eyes of the soul thus a preserve of the spiritually superior. The unity of God and His creation is expressed in three main ways: the book of the souls (human beings), the book of the universe (nature) as well as the Quran (Viengkhou, 2021). Letters and numbers are central to the understanding of the manifestation of the unity of God in multiplicity. The 19 letters of the basmala (BSMALLHALRHMNALRHIM) embody all three books (Viengkhou, 2021).


This work is a circular collage of pictures that demonstrates the two concepts mentioned above: the manifestation of Allah in nature coupled with the concept of batin and zahir. The collage shrinks inwards as we move from the outermost dimension towards tawhid. At the outer layer, the name Allah in Arabic script is manifested through physical phenomenon such as the arrangement of clouds and the shape formed by lightning, shapes of plants and patterns in animals’ coats. The golden arrows represent the ‘tariqahs’ (paths) that connect zahir and batin. The batin is represented by the Arabic script and Arabic numerals. All the letters of the Arabic alphabet are derived from the first letter -Alif- and all numbers in Arabic numerals are obtained from number 1-wahid (Viengkhou, 2021). Moreover, Alif is assigned a numerical value of 1 thereby tying back both the Arabic alphabet and the numerals to the concept of unity. As opposed to the pictures on the outer layer, the pictures on the inner level merge with the background to further illustrate the idea of increasing unity with progression towards the center of the circle.


#6 Whirling dervishes

                     Whirling dervishes

Music and dance have been a great source of debate on Islamic spirituality between Muslim legalists and mystics. Sufi mystics view music and dance as a means of achieving spiritual ascension while legalists consider music and dance illegal (Lewisohn, 1997). Sama is a form of active meditation (a dance) that originated among Sufi groups in Persia from as early as the 9th century. Sama is practiced by all Sufi orders of Islam except Naqhshbandiyya. The whirling dervishes are Sufis of the Mevlevi order who perform the spinning Sama dance.


The dervishes (semazens) begin the performance by turning 3 times symbolizing the creation of sun, moon and stars, the creation of plants and the creation of animals (Selkani, 2018). The semazens raise their left hands towards the sky to receive blessings from heaven and point their right hands towards the earth to transmit the blessings to earth (Selkani, 2018). Physical stability is essential for the dervishes and they achieve this through correct shifting of the body and keeping eyes open without fixating them on anything in particular (Selkani, 2018). In Sufism, self-ego is believed to estrange human beings from God thus ripping oneself from ego evokes the remembrance of the connection between humans and God (dhikr) that was established on the day of Alastu. To represent the theme of ego, the whirling dervishes wear a brown hat that symbolizes the tombstone of the ego while the white skirt represents the shroud of ego (Selkani, 2018).


In this piece of art, I represent the whirling dervishes with butterflies given the religious significance of butterflies. Butterflies are a symbol of transformation (resurrection in particular) in the Christian tradition. This symbolism goes well with the purpose of Sama – overcoming the self-ego in order to connect with God. A butterfly can be in either rest mode or flight mode. The modes can be applied to spirituality in which flying can be viewed as spiritual ascension. The butterflies have shiny white body and wings which represent the white skirt of the whirling dervishes. The butterfly antennae are wrapped with brown tape to represent the brown hats of the dervishes. The spiral arrangement of the butterflies symbolizes the whirling movement of the dervishes.



Farwat Shariff. (2019, April 23). KARIBU RAMADHANI. ASHIKI WA KISWAHILI.

Lewisohn, L. (1997). The Sacred Music of Islam: Samā’ in the Persian Sufi Tradition. British Journal of Ethnomusicology, 6, 1–33.

Nasr, S. H. (1987). Islamic art and spirituality. State University of New York Press.

Renard, J. (1996). Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims.

Selkani, I. (2018). The Whirling Dervishes: An Old Heritage Recognized at Last. Annals of Social Sciences & Management Studies, 1(4).

Viengkhou, A. (2021, October 25). Aaron Viengkhou on Sayyid Ḥaydar Āmulī’s Scripturalization of Reality. IOSOTR.

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