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For the Love of God and His Prophet

Weblog for Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 54

Week 5 Response: Yin, Yang, Yazid

Filed under: collage — cspendleton at 6:01 pm on Thursday, February 27, 2014


The 10th of Muharram is perhaps the most consequential date in Shia Islam. The Battle of Karbala marks the fight of not just the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet, Hossein, at the hands of the Ummayid Caliph Yazid and his troops, but also the fight of truth against falsehood, justice against oppression, and good against evil. I present this duality in a collage using yin and yang – yin, the dark, as Yazid, and yang, the light, as Hossein.

The Battle of Karbala is particularly useful for political ends, especially in Iran. First, the readings this week stressed that Hossein’s martyrdom is so vivid in the Shiite imagination that it persists today in the ta’ziyeh, a “passion play,” and is an immediately recognizable and powerful reference in every corner of Iran — rural villages included. Second, the duality of good versus evil can be, and sometimes is, easily manipulated to represent the persecution of Iran by its enemies. Iranians first used this imagery in the Iranian Revolution by equating the deposed Shah and America with Yazid; in the Iran-Iraq War, by comparing Iranian troops with Hossein’s troops at Karbala; and America once again with Yazid during heightened sanctions and nuclear negotiations. The Chelkowski reading this week mentioned these modern references to the West during the taziyeh, including the use of sunglasses or British clothing on Yazid or his troops.

In my collage, Yazid’s half of the image is red, and his advancing troops are in the background. To demonstrate the use of the Battle of Karbala in Iranian politics, the large image of Yazid himself was taken from a recent billboard in Tehran showing him side-by-side with Barack Obama. The smaller image near the corner is of Uncle Sam draped in Yazid’s traditional clothing; the original image, a poster also from Iran, said marg bar yazid, marg bar amrika – death to Yazid, death to America. In contrast, Hossein’s half of the image is green, and the background is a famous painting depicting women mourning over Imam Hossein’s horse after his martyrdom. Hossein himself stands facing Yazid with an arrow in his chest, prepared to die resisting tyranny.

Week 2 Response: The Iceberg Metaphor

Filed under: drawing — cspendleton at 12:36 am on Sunday, February 16, 2014

For this week, I wrote Qur’anic verses outlining the image of an iceberg to portray the notion that understanding the Qur’an requires looking beyond the obvious to understand its meaning and depth.

The verses I chose to write were not random. In his discussion of different theoretical approaches to understanding the Quran, Zia Sardar opposes two different abuses of the Qur’an. One is the restrictive way that some of the ulama interpret the Qur’an; the other is the way Islamophobic people read the Qur’an, deliberating seeking out verses that would portray Islam as an inherently violent faith. Sardar mentions a verse that is frequently taken out of context and touted by xenophobic Americans. This verse outlines the iceberg and is the only verse peaking out of the water: “We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. They serve gods for whom no sanction has been revealed. Hell shall be their home” (3:149). This is accompanied by another commonly touted verse, also in black, that completes the outline of the outer layer of the iceberg: “And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah is worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al- Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers” (2:191). As the reading this week emphasized, however, the Qur’an should not be taken out of its historical context; this verse in particular refers to the Battle of Uhud and only to a specific group of disbelievers who had betrayed the Prophet (Sardar 26).

Alongside those infamous verses, I also wrote a verse that was mentioned in lecture — 49:13 — in light blue to contrast with them: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” This verse contradicts the ones forming the outline and tip of the iceberg. Whereas they seemed to espouse violence, this verse praises diversity as a deliberate act of God.

Muslims believe the Quran to be a timeless revelation of God’s word, but Sardar correctly argues that understanding God’s revelation is subject to time and place (perhaps he is using the cultural studies approach as well!). This is a challenging endeavor, requiring Muslims and non-Muslims who wish to understand the Qur’an to look deeper than the text itself or to cherry-pick single verses to support their own beliefs. If one chooses only to see the tip of the iceberg – to see only what he or she wants to see, including those violent verses – then that person will ignore the vast amounts of knowledge, historical and cultural context, and other verses that ultimately comprise the Qur’an.

Week 1 Response: United Islamic States of America

Filed under: photoshop — cspendleton at 12:06 pm on Monday, February 10, 2014


The first week of the course emphasized the cultural studies approach in both lecture and in the chapters from Professor Asani’s book Infidel of Love: Exploring Muslim Understandings of Islam. The cultural studies approach requires those using it to analyze how Islam is actually interpreted and practiced in different contexts by different people rather than by limiting oneself to the holy text itself. Asani argues that it is the community of believers that give meaning to a sacred text — not the other way around (Asani, Infidel of Love, 9-10). To further comment on the diversity from one community of believers to another, I wanted to make a creative response about an American community of believers — not the minority of Americans that are Muslim today, but a Muslim American community that comprised the majority of the population. To this end, I used Photoshop to replace the fifty stars representing the states with the (Sunni) shahadah, the testimony of faith. 

This image reflects two themes central to this course that were introduced this week. The first is a question: Whose Islam? Islam is not a monolithic faith in which Muslims are indistinguishable from each other in their beliefs. Instead, Islamic practices vary across time and place; there are as many “Islams” as there are Muslims. Despite sharing a common faith, a predominantly Muslim America would still look drastically different than other Muslim-majority countries. Ultimately, an American flag such as the one above does not tell us much about the values of this hypothetical country. This is the point of the cultural studies approach: recognizing and appreciating the diversity among various communities of believers.

The second theme is how we should look beyond solely the text of a religion to best understand it. In other words, we should examine how Islam is incorporated into a variety of different contexts, including cultural and political ones. We learned in this week’s readings that political regimes have used Islam as a tool to legitimatize their rule (Asani, “Who Is Muslim?” 27) – so if Americans were majority Muslim, it would not be surprising to see Islam mixed with nationalism and reflected in the flag. After all, American politicians have used Christianity in a number of public places to express the Christian majority’s commitment to religion, including the line “one nation, under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” inscribed on coins. With other Muslim countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia reflecting Islam on their flags, it would make sense for a Muslim-majority America to do so as well.

Overall, using the cultural studies approach forces us to recognize that an “Islamic” American flag tells us very little about what a Muslim-majority America would look like in terms how its values, laws, or cultural practices would differ from the majority Christian America today. Just as Islam varies greatly from Sudan to Iran to Indonesia, an “American” Islam would be sure to reflect distinctly American practices.