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This blog is not only an evolution in understanding of the main themes of this course, AI54: For the Love of God and His Prophet, but also a dive into the the issues that have become important to me over the course of four years at Harvard. This blog gave me the opportunity to draw deeply for inspiration from my surroundings and to reflect on relationships I have built and will leave behind, on the learning that has changed how I view the world.

This is academic, yes, but also deeply personal.

The largest theme addressed throughout my posts is the role of cultural studies in understanding particular perspectives. Nothing, whether creation or interpretation, is ever made in isolation, and this approach ensures that the lofty academic theory that we interacted with throughout the semester didn’t lose touch with or appreciation for the mundane.

My initial attempts at posting on this blog tried to address this head on, taking the surface of culturally distinct mosques to make my point (“The Cultural Lens”). I cannot say that I succeeded in capturing the full breadth the cultural studies approach; despite the inclusion of buildings from major Islamic communities around the world, it lacked context. Were the colors used on the buildings common to the area, or were they purposely made to look distinct from their surroundings? Those are crucial questions, and in my haste to make a judgement about the culture I overlooked them.

I tried to resolve this misstep in my very last post on the blog, “Utopia”. This work is tackling the issue of context straight on, thinking about how the time and place we are in profoundly influences what we think is the most ideal. This broader understanding of why people think the way they do is especially important in issues like women’s rights, which ultimately have no objectively right answer and stem from deeply personal beliefs. In retrospect, this is an exercise in empathy, one that that can and should be replicated frequently and for many problems. We all are profoundly complex, and learning comes from sharing even just a few of those layers with each other.

I also tried to note how vastly different cultures and traditions can intersect in surprising ways. While I don’t study religion per say, there was knowledge that I’d acquired from various other classes and my upbringing that sometimes unexpectedly tied with the lesson on hand. The post “In Praise of Allah”, a short comic, tries to tie the Daoist notion of nothingness, wholeness, and the fluidity between the two with Islamic conceptions with God. While I’m sure theologians may have very specific objections to such a comparison (if my time in CB23: Hebrew Bible has taught me, it’s that religious scholars tend to nitpick), I think that trying to build these bridges is a worthy goal. Cultural transmission is a key component of building a tolerant, open society, and even unconventional ties can help support the idea that we all seek very similar things like fulfillment, love, and understanding.

The most interesting quirk of this blog was how there was no limit to the mediums. I made the choice to employ many is an homage to the wide variety of Islamic religious tradition, not to mention the quirks that will arise between thousands of different Muslim communities. Each has its beauty, from the dramatic, audience-driven performance of the taziyeh in Iraq to the rad rock music of the Coca-Cola Studios. The choice to be creative also forced me to consider my surroundings in new ways, which was, funnily enough, also a theme in this class. What things have symbolic value that we are simply not aware about? As my small collage in “A Creature of Mystery” shows, the creation of meaning can not only be prescribed by an authority like the Koran, or it can also be organically created via art and expression, something that we witness across the vast number of Islamic cultures.

I become most fascinated, I think, with the ideas behind mysticism and Sufism. There is something tantalizing not necessarily about the idea of “letting go” to find God, but doing so via ecstasy. This stands in stark contrast to what I generally think religion is, a pregnant reminder of what my assumptions are when it comes to topics like these. Here, though, the theme of politicization also took root. From the marabout in Senegal to the British committee on leveraging Sufism, there is a clear line drawn between power over the people and communal beliefs. This blog does not address these head on, but these undercurrents are present even when discussing seemingly phenomenon like street art in Senegal, as seen in “Marabout on the Street”.

Most importantly, though, this blog is the product of discovering the role art can have in my everyday life. People at Harvard hesitate to express ourselves outside what is commonly accepted, like talking about our extracurriculars, our jobs, our homework. What’s pushed to the side are the musings we have while embedded in such a dense, diverse space, the outcroppings of personality that we aren’t always entirely comfortable with displaying. In short, what’s missing is trust. We don’t believe that we are capable of creating, and we don’t trust other people to interpret what we make correctly. This blog is an important reminder of what art is. It is the chance to speak out, to question things. It is the chance to hear people out, to make a community. It is the freedom to take in brand new information with confidence that you will ultimately see things through your own eyes.


I’d like to thank Professor Asani and Ceyhun in the creation of the materials of this blog – while they were not directly involved in writing these posts, they were the main source of inspiration and information throughout the past semester. I’d also like to thank, oddly enough, Harvard; while I’ve doubted the Gen Ed program before, this class showed me that there is still room for creative growth in our curriculum.


Project Name:我们 (Phonetic: wǒmen, meaning: us)

Medium: Ink drawings

Summary: One theme that has been persistent throughout the course is that context is crucial, especially within the cultural studies approach. Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Hossain depicts a feminist utopia, but it is specifically the utopia of a Muslim women living in the early twentieth century. There are clear influences of this time period, like the fascination with and optimism towards scientific innovation.

In order to extend Hossain’s exploration of a feminist utopia, I sought out two women important to me that live in very different contexts – my mother and my best friend from home. I asked them to give me a short answer to the following question: “What would you imagine a utopia for women to be like?” and added my own interpretation as well. I then drew my best interpretation of all our words alongside Hossain’s imagined world, using abstract symbols to reflect the idea that utopia is dreamt of.

There are some obvious differences – we live in a progressive society, one in which women are afforded the same rights as men and where feminist rhetoric is not suppressed. That being said, there are some interesting contrasts between all the explanations – Rokeya is the only one to make a distinction between men and women, while I mentioned the blurring of this exact distinction. My mother immediately referenced personal qualities, while by best friend did so but in the context of not defining them. Overall, though is agreement that there is still work to do.

*Note: drawings are linked to due to technical difficulties with WordPress

Rokeya, born 1880, Bengali

You need not be afraid of coming across a man here. This is Ladyland, free from sin and harm. (p. 8)

Drawing here

Crystal, born 1968, Chinese

Self-confident: happy, independent with strong mind. She knows who she is, what she wants and what she can give up.

Drawing here

Shaleena, born 1995, Bengali-American

A world where we don’t face the pressure to fit a certain mold… it sounds cliché but a world without an expectation or preference about how perfect we are (physically, having to be well-rounded, people shouting for us to lean in).

Drawing here

Kat, born 1994, Asian-American

Somewhere where how people act towards you is predicated on you being human, not on you being a certain gender.

Drawing here

Through My Eyes

Project Name: I-raq

Medium: Poem

Summary: This work was inspired by the novel Persepolis, which beautifully portrays the consequences of war (namely the loss of innocence, security, and community) and the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the fictional firsthand experience of September 11, 2001, in New York City. Both of these works inspired me to reflect on the impact of the Iraq War on my life.

I have admittedly vastly different circumstances than either of the readings – the Iraq War wasn’t fought on US soil, and during the attacks on 9/11 I was living in Phoenix, AZ, far from New York City. I do think there were similarities, though – I was a first grader and remember that day more so than any other time in elementary school. It’d be big statement to say that I “kissed my childhood goodbye” that day as Marji did one day in Persepolis (117), but it definitely came with an awareness that some things were happening that were bigger than I was and too much for me to really understand. I wanted to convey this younger perspective, similar to the one employed throughout Persepolis to explain complex political happenings.

Growing up in post-9/11 USA also was an odd atmosphere – it was a heady mix of patriotism, optimism, and sheer recklessness at home and abroad (as witnessed in both the invasion of Iraq and the housing bubble). Although my experience does not map precisely onto that of Changez’s in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, this poem tries to capture the disquieting feeling of seeing “newspaper headlines featuring words such as duty and honor” (115) that pervaded America for some time afterwards.




Christian Heritage Academy,
two-storied, red, a baseline on Baseline
overrun with me and my friends.

Plaid skirts, small white polos,
adding, subtracting, counting
one Holy Spirit, one Messiah, one God.

That Tuesday morning, in not-quite fall,
was a normal first-grade morning of cereal,
a mystery book, a quiet car ride.

I enter the small room of small people
ready to learn the new times tables
but Mrs. Thompson is crying.

Her face turned upwards to the TV
as her tears fell down to the rough carpet.
Smoke billowed across the pixels.

From far away, in a concrete jungle,
stun-shock-falling-breaking-fear came
rippling across the airwaves across the nation.

My tears fall too, for what I don’t know.
Was this a movie trailer? Did adults cry?
Why was the world falling down?

She told us that hateful people had done
a hateful thing but I hate tomatoes,
and sometimes I throw them too.

All our parents will come early,
taking us away to the safety of home,
far from bad news and hurt.

They don’t know that the pain will stay,
will rend this nation’s pride to shreds,
will be used to chase and chase

until WMD is something fourth-graders know,
until yellow ribbons drape every intersection,
until we can’t breathe for our lies and hate.

Small white polos and plaid skirts will learn
to dislike others before they can even spell,

The heady days of war will bear little fruit
until the days after war, when inertia
fails to break and violence goes on and on.

Marabout on the Street

Project Name: Stencil of Amadou Bamba

Medium: Poster board

Summary: The essay by Roberts and Roberts carefully dissects the origin of one of the most widely circulated images of Amadou Bamba. The image in question is a terribly exposed photograph, but nonetheless espouses the key role the saint plays in “transcolonial” Senegal:

The saint stands for hard work, perseverance, and both resistance and accommodation in today’s circumstances of difficulty and want, bringing his promise of miraculous transformation to bear upon the most intractable problems of everyday life. (p. 37)

Scrolling through the images accompanying this essay, though, I was struck by how true the phrase “everyday life” resonated. The images of Amadou Bamba – whether painted, printed, or silkscreened – were rarely done in places exclusively reserved for art. In fact, most of the locations of the images would more commonly be described as “street” art – on the sides of stalls, on public walls, on t-shirts at a soccer game.

In general, that category is commonly defined as art in a public location and not sanctioned by any authority, but its application to the images of Amadou Bamba seem out of place. What Roberts and Roberts present to us is indeed graffiti in the literal sense of the word, but it is also spiritual iconography, images meant to bring protection and mysticism into the everyday, not for mundane purposes like claiming territory. This is at odds with the prevailing tradition in the West, in which street art is seen as not “real” art, but rather as having a practical purpose in the poorer neighborhoods where it arose (though this is being supplanted by newer street artists like Banksy).

For this project, I wanted to tie together these two different traditions of street art while maintaining the deep respect for Amadou Bamba that still prevails in Senegal today. I took the original photograph of Amadou Bamba, enlarged it to the height of a normal man, and transferred the image to posterboard. The result is a stencil, a common technique in modern street art, but in Senegalese form. The white and negative space also harkens back to the original photo but also allows for the artist to choose their own color, or way of portraying the saint. Finally, the reusability of the stencil speaks to the motif the saint has become in his own city.

A Creature of Mystery

Project Name: Burdah of My Bits and Bobs (view it here, again due to technical difficulties)

Medium: 3D collage

Summary: The burdah is a mythical creature that appears in the mir’aj – it is a being with the body of a horse and the head of a man, and it plays a central role in the story of The Prophet’s pilgrimage by carrying him up into the heavens, where he then meets the prophets of old and eventually Allah himself. It is no doubt a mythical creature, however, and so some readings have interpreted it as a metaphor for love- it is telling us how true submission to Allah requires unconditional, unbridled love for the divine.

While the burdah’s role is well-established in this lore, the creature itself has been a channel for artistic creativity for centuries. As demonstrated in our readings for this class, some see it as a creature of the heavens and thus treat it as a mythical, foreign object; they emphasize the material being, embellishing the burdah almost more than the remainder of the story. Others focus on its relationship with the Prophet – it can be stubborn or a mute being, closer to either a fellow human or a horse. Despite these differences, the end result is definitively a product of each author’s imagination, and I wanted this project to capture the openness of interpretation that these sorts of stories in Islam allow for.

And so I created my own version of the burdah. In an attempt to highlight how important love is to this story, I composed the piece with things that mean love in my life, whether it be items or experiences. The body of the being is made up of mini vinyls found in my friend’s room, symbolic of both my appreciation of items of the past and also of the times we’ve spent congregated around a record player, Spotify playlist, or the sounds of a city. The front leg is my passport, my basic tool for wandering and discovering what this world has to offer. The pouch with faces is a souvenir from those travels, and the Ecuadorian artist of the faces, Oswaldo Guayasamín, reminds me of the time when I learned how much someone could love their country, something much bigger than themselves. The back leg is my phone case with the phrase “bien fait”, or French for “done well” – I have deep respect for craftsmanship and art, and also strive to bring that depth of thought to my everyday. Finally, the halo is a necklace from my collection, a symbol of my love for curating fashion. \

By thinking through what these items mean to me, I found that my burdah became less about me and the materials and more about what they stand for, whether it be other people, other places, other ways I can contribute to the world. It was a small experiment in the pursuit of egolessness, I’d say, and I’m curious to know what my burdah will be down the road.

In Praise of Allah

Project Name: 99 Names – The Comic (view the comic here)

Medium: Pen and ink

Summary: What’s in a name? To use a stale Shakespeare quote: “A rose by any other name would  be just as sweet”. But what happens when the subject at hand is God, and what happens when He has 99 names?

In this project, I wanted to explores what these names could mean in Islamic spiritual relationships. At first glance, the list is thoroughly overwhelming. There are the obvious names (“The One” – he is, after all, the deity in a monotheistic religion) and the more obscure (“The Appraiser”). It’s apparent that the sheer number of names points to the many roles Allah plays in an individual’s life, but what exactly are these roles? How does one relate to God?

Looking at the names, I eventually concluded that Allah is kind and forgiving, that He creates then demands gratefulness and submission. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that the answer was right there: that Allah is, ultimately, the impossibility of understanding. This is not saying that humans stupid – humans are very independent in their relationship with Allah – but rather an admission that we have limited capacities.

The piece itself was inspired by the Singaporean cassette for children Little Muslims that we listened to in class. Teaching to children has always held a special place in my heart (I tutored throughout high school), and there is something about the presentation of this lesson that struck me as very gentle – it is not attempting to indoctrinate, nor is it relying on very complex, esoteric arguments and words. It is simply trying to tell a story and reminded me of the blogs XKCD and Wait But Why?; these authors have become very popular in the past several years by making teaching their goal, gaining followers by ditching arrogance for straightforwardness. I attempted to capture this environment of inclusiveness and learning with my own analysis, hoping that even a picture of a stick figure can be worth a thousand words.


The Cultural Lens

Project Name: ______ Is Where The Heart Is

Medium: Digital collage

Summary: One of the biggest takeaways thus far in the class is the notion that there is no one homogenous, monolithic Islam. Instead, culture acts as lens. Various groups around the world have adopted Islamic beliefs and practices, but in a way that are still cohesive with their own ways of seeing and inhabiting the world. I wanted to capture this spirit of differentiation via a very basic aesthetic component – color.

These collages lift surface and interior colors from mosques across many Islamic cultures. The mosque is central to Islamic worship, and the colors are central to creating an environment in which to be grateful and in awe of God. Additionally, analyzing color palettes is shorthand for not only the overall aesthetic of the design, but also points to the regional specificity in the designs and materials used. For instance, the Chinese mosque relies on wood (and therefore wood tones) along with the traditional deep, bright red that generally symbolizes prosperity in Chinese culture. The palette of the Iranian mosque, on the other hand, is dominated by the soft gray of the stone as well as the almost neon-like colors of the ceramic mosaics.

The most interesting takeaway about these color palettes, however, is that no single one has a more cohesive scheme than the others. They are vastly different from each other, but each one balances at least one extremely eye-catching tone in addition to darker tones. In the context of the larger themes in the class, it is clear that cultural lenses are crucial to understanding how different people experience Islam. There is no one way to do so, and that is the key for us to generating a more accurate picture of the whole of Islam.

Note: collages are linked below due to technical difficulties with WordPress – I’m working on embedding them for easier viewing! 

Great Mosque of Xi’an, Xi’an, China

This mosque is a unique mixture of both distinctly Chinese architectural elements (captured in the bright red) and Islamic touches (the blues are from the mosaic on the ground). Like other Chinese traditions, the inclusion of the color red evokes the good fortune to be found in submitting to Allah.

Nakhoda Masid, Calcutta, India

These colors are oddly reminiscent of the Indian flag and puts the mosque in harmony with the streets of Calcutta. The exterior is warm and inviting while the indoors is cloaked in cooler colors and tiles, separating the busyness outside from the contemplation inside, but also keeping worshipers cool in the stifling Indian heat.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

The subtle colors of the Hagia Sophia’s exterior – sun washed shades of beige, lavender, and pink – belie the grandeur of its soaring interior, which is covered in imposing gold and dark stone. There is no question about whose authority reigns within the mosque, with the large calligraphic inscriptions and the placement of the luminous gold in the upper half of the building.

Sultan Suriansyah Mosque, Indonesia

The colors and structure of this mosque are very befitting their tropical environment, offset by the dark wood (perhaps teak) and the practical ceiling fan. The sloped roofs call to the shape of minarets but are limited by building with wood and also the need to let rain flow away.

Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Iran

In the bright sunlight, which in this climate would be most of the time, this mosque looks washed out in tones of whites and grays. Upon closer inspection, however, the brilliant colors of the mosaics begin to emerge – hot pinks, canary yellows, and a surprisingly pure royal blue. This structure could easily be very overwhelming, but the abundant use of white space spares some delicacy, keeping the viewer in a state of awe extremely befitting a place of worship.


Image sources: