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Reading the Qur'an

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Introduction: art as diversity, discussion, and reflection

I began this blog hoping to meditate on the centrality of the Qur’an to Islam as well as on my own experiences approaching this text by learning more about different religious practices, literature, and the arts in Muslim cultures. However, over the last thirteen weeks of reading, lecture, and discussion, I found myself fascinated most by the incredibly diverse and divisive visual expressions of Islam across geographic and historical contexts. As well as representing some of the many ways of expressing community and devotion, visual objects participate in an often heated debate over what it means to be a Muslim and a person. To what extent should Islamic beliefs and practices blend with other or earlier systems of belief and worship? How should the divine be depicted? How should the community be understood and organized, especially with respect to the role of women?

In addition to observing and discussing some of these visual debates, creating this blog provided me with the opportunity to think and respond by creating my own artwork: a map, a painting, a drawing, folded figures, a collage, and a sculpture. I chose to make only visual works and not to construct songs or videos because I feel that this mode of creation engages me most with my thoughts. Learning visually provided an interesting and unique lens to think about the Qur’an, God, and faith in lives around the world as well as in my own life.

Professor Asani began our class with an introduction to the diversity of Islam, showing the incredibly wide and varied distribution of Muslims around the world, as well as verses of the Qur’an emphasizing diverse experiences of islam, which literally means simply submission. Though initially I identified Islam strongly with its area of origin, the Middle East, the majority of Muslims today live in South Asia, and Muslims worship in countries around the world. My first response for the blog explores a little more of this fascinating diversity, showing the geographic extent of Islam and linking to images and articles focusing on each particular country. Though cartography can be considered a science as well as an art, I felt that this more straightforward creation echoed my own initial point of entry to learning about Islam.

In addition to the variation within Islam, I found the uniting threads between Islam and other monotheistic- as well as polytheistic- faiths both surprising and interesting. We discussed the Qur’an’s integration of and respect for Judaism- “Abraham was not a Jew or Christian but an upright man who had submitted (musliman)” (Qur’an 3:67)- as well as for Christianity- “When Jesus found unbelief on their part he said: ‘Who will be my helpers to (do the work of ) God.’ Said the disciples: ‘We are God’s helpers: We believe in God, and do you bear witness that we are muslims (submitters)’” (Qur’an 3:52). The term ahl al kitab– people of the book- includes Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. Another sura emphasizes the unity of faith as well as the diversity of ways to worship and connect with the divine: “Have you not seen how to God bow down all who are in the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon, the stars and the mountains, the trees and the beasts, and the many of mankind?” Qur’an 22:18. This verse emphasizes how all can worship in their own way, emphasizing bowing down to God instead of any particular theology or practice.

Though Muslims believe Muhammad represents God’s final messenger and the seal of the prophets, the number and diversity of prophets respected, as well as how these vary across geographic, cultural, and historical contexts, fascinated me. Accordingly, I focused my visual responses to what I was learning around these men and women. I loved the story of the mi’raj, the prophet Muhammad’s journey to the farthest mosque and ascent to the highest heaven. The Persian miniature paintings we looked at in class captured my imagination, especially in light of what I had previously assumed was a restriction on representing the human form in Islam. The reproduction of aspects of this journey in Dante’s Inferno also surprised me- the extent of movement and connection across regions and religious traditions even in the 14th century remains an aspect of historical and religious study I wish I had received more prior exposure too, particularly in light of our increasingly globalizing and connected world today, with all the affiliated benefits and issues.

How to represent a prophet, and most importantly, the prophet Muhammad? Although some Muslims resist representation of living beings on the grounds of hadith, the traditions of the prophet, explaining the creation of living forms as reserved for God alone, the Qur’an itself only condemns idolatry: “Anyone who sets up idols beside GOD, has forged a horrendous offense.” (Qur’an 4:48). Art, and figural art, is not prohibited. As with any aspect of theology, interpretations of how to depict humans and the divine vary widely across different contexts. One author we read for the course even suggests that prohibitions on figurative images developed from Jewish thinkers or Christians in opposition to the Byzantine empire (Grabar, 40). Regardless, I choose to depict the prophet Muhammad in my own depictions with a flame to mark his holiness and with his face in shadow. Because of the veneration and honor afforded to Muhammad, taking extra care to simultaneously mark him as important and to avoid making his image an idol felt important to me.  I also chose to depict another important prophet with a specifically local context, Shakh Amadou Bamba, the founder of an Islamic Sufi Movement in Senegal and the Gambia. As well as being a spiritual leader, Bamba helped crystallize resistance to the French colonial regime. In this respect, Bamba reminds me of Muhammad: in addition to fostering the worship of God, both men worked for social justice. Considering how to represent Bamba also made me consider different representations of Muhammad and how each fits into a particular culture and belief system. In Senegal, images of this man and other holy figures are considered to have real power, baraka associated with divine grace. Again, I focused closely in on the prophet and left his face in shadow to try to simultaneously engage in thoughtful respect or veneration while trying to avoid idolatry, though some might consider my reproduction such.

The diversity of prophets, prophecy, and representation we discussed covered much more than visual art. I especially enjoyed learning about Sufi devotional poetry because this seemed so outside my usual experiences of expressions of religious culture. I particularly enjoyed searching through the layers of meaning in Farid ud-Din Attar’s 12th century epic poem The Conference of the Birds. The experience of reading the poem reminded me of Sufism’s tarigat, the spiritual path towards God and the truth by which a believer looks for the inner dimension of things rather than the external and laws. In addition to different artwork and practices, Islam covers a wide variety of theologies and ideas on how to approach the divine and live a good life. Inspired by the ideas of Sufi mystics, I chose not to continue my exercises of imitation and reproduction, but to produce a visual response only out of my feelings about the work. I appreciated the different perspectives, vibrancy, and elegance: accordingly, I folded bright paper birds.

My birds also engage with Islamic traditions of figurative representation, but their forms are so abstracted as to serve perhaps more as arabesque, stylized motifs like those common in Umayyad design and architecture. We discussed interpretations of these abstract forms as theological or cultural, a dilemma that seems to cover much of the artwork of the class. Nebahat Avcioglu’s essay, “Identity-as-Form: the Mosque in the West” engages further with traditions and what is considered Islamic. By building my own lumpy and impermanent mosque out of modelling clay, I tried to think about what defines holy art and a holy place for worship.

In addition to the wide diversity of worship and to the long and complex traditions of figurative representations, this blog seeks to engage with Islamic arts and literature employed for criticism and resistance. Beyond merely expressing religious and cultural values or historical and geographic context, the artist can use her work as well as its religious aspects to highlight injustice and suggest change. Rokeya Hossain’s 1905 short story “Sultana’s Dream” presents a technologically advanced imagined world where men instead of women live in complete seclusion. As well as imagining and creating a vivid world, Hossain uses her creation to emphasize the injustice of purda and suggest alternatives- technology, efficiency of work, a religion that values love and truth above all. Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis also imagines a world, based on the Tehran before, during, and after the Iranian Revolution, and depicts that world vividly through Satrapi’s childhood eyes. Again, Satrapi’s art allows her to highlight the injustices and tragedies of the upheaval of the 1970s, in a more engaging and perhaps even more true way than facts or more straightforward narrative.

Hossain and Satrapi use art to open their readers’ eyes to another perspective. Filtered through each writer’s own historical, cultural, and personal context, the books nonetheless seem to open a window to experience and belief. The eyes I taped together also serve as a focus for the final artwork we considered this semester, Mohsin Hamid’s short novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The frame of the story, a conversation between the Pakistani Changez and an unnamed American visitor standing in for the reader, shows the reader alternatively the world through Changez’s eyes- and his switching eyes, as he embraces and abandons particular viewpoints and ideals- and the eyes of the unnamed American he speaks with.

What I appreciated most about this course and what I attempted to do through this blog is an attempt to look at a religious tradition very different from the one I was raised in through a range of other sets of eyes, using artwork as a lens to examine historical, cultural, and personal contexts. I hope you enjoy the rest of my blog!

Identity as form: the mosque in the West


This small and admittedly lumpy model of a dome and minaret reflects some of my thoughts on Nebahat Avcioglu’s essay, “Identity-as-Form: the Mosque in the West.” Avcioglu shows figures of mosques in Schwetzingen, Germany; London, UK; Potsdam, Germany; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Woking, UK, among other locations. All share a very similar dome, minaret, and stereotyped arabesque design. Avcioglu calls the minaret and dome “a structural metonym of Muslim identity that ca no longer be read in any context other than the one in which it predetermines” (92). Though some mosques lack these defining features, Avcioglu explains that their omnipresence and importance shift image into identity and identity into image. The boundary of mosque as dome and minaret echoes and reinforces the us-versus-them boundaries of Islam in the west, and highlights Islam as a cultural and national marker, almost more than a religion (93).

Avcioglu challenges my own image of what a mosque should look like. Despite reading about the diversity of beliefs, practices, and forms of expression covered by the term islam– submission to God- I definitely still imagine the prototypical mosque in the West Avcioglu describes when I think of a place of worship. However, after this essay and at the conclusion of Professor Asani’s class, I am increasingly intrigued by how “the sheer idea of a mosque lacking a minaret and/or a dome has now come to present a challenge of an existential kind” (103). What differentiates a place of worship from a poem about the search for God or a piece of artwork depicting his greatness? Why can these other forms express cultural and historical context, mixing elements of pre-Islamic belief or practice, while the mosque, especially in Europe and the United States, largely conforms to an imagined past?

My model is built from Plasticine clay, a modeling material designed not to harden. Though its form follows a common model, it cannot stay in that shape, and even as I took the picture for this blog, the arches began to sag. Even if some see a mosque design as out of history, it cannot help but change. I also flattened a design of the continents across the top. Even where it seems not to, a mosque in the West reflects a global heritage.

Through another’s eyes: Persepolis and “Sultana’s Dream”

After discussing the role literature and the arts can play as forms of discussion, critique, or resistance to particular theologies or ideologies, this week we read Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis and Rokeya Hossain’s short story “Sultana’s Dream.” “Sultana’s Dream” as much as Persepolis intrigued me for Hossain’s unconventional choice of medium for her story-as-resistance. Instead of her native Bengali or any other of the several languages she spoke, Hossain wrote her critique of purda, the seclusion of high-class Muslim women in her society, using English to tell a short, imaginative story. The narrator dozes off, then is woken by a women she takes as her friend, Sister Sara, who subsequently guides her through a beautiful, well-ordered world where men instead of women are isolated in the zenana. Hossain’s “Lady Land” lacks crime. Work is efficient and limited to two hours a day. The only religion is love. Hossain seems to hide or package her message within this beautiful imagined world, as well as by her choice to encapsulate it within a dream, and as well as by writing in English. Hossain’s unconventional choices let her speak more freely about what she observes of purda and how her society might reform. Similarly, Satrapi uses the less common format of a graphic novel for her irreverent and critical portrayal of growing up in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. Her images provide new points of entry into her narrative, and her choice of a child narrator lets her play with serious topics. Again, she writes in English.

Both stories prompted me to think about the importance of an author’s perspective and the veils she uses to write her message,  as well as about how these works might give a window into their authors’ lives. In response,  I created a small collage with two eyes. The narrator’s large, bright eyes and observant frown on the cover and in the first few panels of Persepolis captured my imagination more than any other text and images in the story. The eyes seem to let me imagine myself as her, but Satrapi’s eyes also look out through personality, culture, history, and religion different from my own. Accordingly, I cut panels of different colors, leaving only small pupils empty for the viewer to really look through. Though “Sultana’s Dream” and Persepolis give me a window into their writers’ worlds, I still feel that window is so small and so filtered. 

The Conference of the Birds

This week for section, we read Farid Ud-Din Attar’s twelfth century epic poem “The Conference of the Birds.” Attar, a Persian mystic and poet, was also a perfumer and herbalist; however, he is remembered mainly for this and his other allegorical verses. The poem describes a group of thirty different birds who, led by the wise hoopoe, search for the Simorgh, a mystical bird similar to the Western phoenix. Just as Sufis- followers of the inner or esoteric aspects of Islam- read seven levels of meaning buried in each Quranic verse, the reader of this poem can perceive many dimensions of interpretation, even if she fails to immediately comprehend them in their tangle of translations. The birds seek the Simorgh for their king, perhaps a symbol for Allah or for the divine. The hoopoe describes this potential leader, “And He is always near to us, though we/ Live far from his transcendent majesty” (43). Each bird seems to represent a human flaw or characteristic inhibiting the search for the divine.




At the end of their long and difficult journey, though, they find only a lake in which their reflections together appear. Si morgh also translates directly to “thirty birds” in Persian. I choose to depict the birds at the end of their search through a small flock folded out of paper. Just as Attar carefully constructs each bird from a human foible and collection of short parables and narratives, I wanted to construct beautiful and careful, if not biologically or realistically accurate, representatives on their journey towards the divine. Though I did not fold the full collection of thirty who reach the lake, I hope the diversity of form and color represents some of the wide range of characters Attar builds and carries through his story. I arranged the birds around a small lake in a white bowl, and although their reflections are not quite visible, I hope the birds’ shadows convey the same sense of reflection and revelation. Finally, I intended the collection of birds holds to hold a form and beauty lacked by any individual, just as the “si morgh” of the story are only present in their unity.

Sufism and the Mourides of Dakar

The Mouride brotherhood, an Islamic Sufi movement centered on Senegal and the Gambia, receives its name from مُرِيد‎  or murid, Arabic for “one who desires,” the disciple of a spiritual guide. That original guide and founder of the Mourides, Shaykh Amadou Bamba, was known as a saint but also helped inspire resistance to French colonial rule, though he never organized armed resistance. This week we read part of Allen F. Roberts’ and Mary N. Roberts’ A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Senegal on Mouride  visual culture, especially that centering around Bamba. His face and figure illuminate shop walls, junkyards, hinged portraits, and car-rapide taxi buses.

The omnipresence of these images surprised me, as I had previously thought that all Muslims saw figural imagery as forbidden. Though many do consider images, especially human, as sometimes idolatrous, the illuminated manuscripts and small paintings from Mughal, Persian, Ottoman, and Egyptian artists also testify to a long tradition of depiction of people and stories. Robert and Robert discuss the apparent paradox, explaining that though the Qur’an does not forbid imagery, the Hadith, tradition of the doings and sayings of the prophet, contains statements about how Muslims should illustrate their faith. Grabar claims that prohibitions on imagery also arose due to interactions with Christians and Jews, possibly coming from Jewish thinkers or opposed to the Byzantines (40).

However, I found one particular Mouride image especially interesting: the single existing photograph of Bamba, taken in front of a mosque in Djourbel, Senegal during his house arrest as an accused agitator against the French. I do not know of other religious figures with photographs, or many important historical figures with only a single mechanically made image. Also, in a world where images hold baraka benedictions associated with divine grace, where producing these images represents an act of worship, and where on seeing Bamba’s image, as the artist Mor Gueye says, “you feel hope being released inside you. You feel happiness being released inside you just by looking at the image” (45), how does a mechanical image made in a very different mode fit? The iconic photo reminds me of the Virgin of Guadalupe in its fusion of indigenous and world religion and Che Guevara in its high contrast and omnipresent reproductions. I reproduced Bamba’s photo myself to think more about how his depiction can be worship. I chose simple black ink on white paper in emulation of the simplicity and almost overexposed nature of the original and ignored the background to center on the saint, as many Senegalese painters do.


The Mi’raj and Prophet Muhammad’s many faces



This week we discussed the prophet Muhammad and his veneration in many Muslim communities. As a Catholic, I am tempted to think of Muhammad in the same terms as Christ in the Christian tradition, but our readings and professor Asani’s discussion place the Qur’an in that more exalted place, with Muhammad as the bringer of light rather than the light himself. This small switch in thinking places the prophet’s many roles in a different context for me as well. Because Muhammed translates the light of God for humanity, he can- and must- take on all the roles necessary for this mission: the honorable messenger rasul karim, the authority and master-guardian wali of believers, the teacher mu’allim of the Book and Wisdom, the witness shahid of humanity, the the light nur from God, the intercessor, and the mercy rahmah to the world.

I found Muhammad’s ascent into heaven, the mi’raj, to be an especially interesting illustration of his many roles as a blessed messenger. Surah 17 praises “he who travelled from the sacred mosque to the farthest sanctuary,” Muhammed guided by the angel Jibril and carried by Buraq through the seven levels of heaven. Like the many roles of Muhammed, the many versions and interpretations of the mi’raj emphasize different aspects of Muhammad’s blessings and messages from God. Some visual interpretations I personally found most compelling were the Persian miniature paintings of Muhammad’s journey- I love the attention to detail, vivid color, and reverence given to each figure, cloud, and star. I painted Muhammad with a veil over his face to leave his identity and diverse roles open to the viewer’s interpretation, and I left Buraq white. My seven clouds show the seven levels of heaven, and I used gold to emphasize Muhammad, Buraq, and the heavens. In section, I learned that my visual translation as a Christian also has a long history- Dante’s journey through Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell in the Divine Comedy draws some inspiration from Muhammad’s journey. The mixing of these religious traditions, artistic expression, and ideas as early as the 14th century surprises me, but also intrigues me to look for other histories of travel and exchange.


Islam around the world

I really enjoy how Professor Asani emphasizes religious traditions, artistic expression, architecture, and music from around the world. The global nature of Islam was one of the biggest surprises to me so far in this class.

Before beginning Professor Asani’s class, I had assumed Islam to be a primarily Middle Eastern faith. However, as I listened and read further, I learned that the highest proportion, more than 13%, live in Indonesia (as of 2010, Pew Research Center on Religion & Public Life). The wide geographic distribution and broad range of expressing faith surprised me, though perhaps they should not. Islam, like the other Abrahamic faiths Judaism and Christianity expanded from a prophet in what is now considered the Middle East to a small circle of followers to worshippers around the globe. As the youngest Abrahamic faith, Islam encompasses many other traditions- one of Muhammad’s titles is خاتم النبيين‎, Khatam an-Nabiyyin, the Seal of the Prophets. Though Muhammad is the last and most important of God’s messengers, he ends a long chain reaching back to Adam. Some earlier prophets, anbiya’, are even considered messengers, or rusul: Moses, David, and Jesus among them (Renard, Seven Doors to Islam). Furthermore, because the Qur’an states, “And We sent some Messengers whom We have already mentioned to thee and some Messengers whom We have not mentioned to thee…” (4:165), holy figures from traditions around the world might be representatives of the God speaking through Muhammad. Professor Asani discussed how some South Asian Muslims considered the Vedas potentially prophetic and translated the Sanskrit or how Lord Krishna might be a prophet of Allah.

I designed a map of the countries with the largest Muslim populations to try to introduce the broad geographic, cultural, and theological range of Islam I hope to learn a little more about this semester. Check it out here: and click through the countries for a small illustration of Muslim art, architecture, or worship as well as a link to the website where I found the picture, most of which have a story or links to further reading.



Children at Moktob

I wasn’t sure at first how to construct a blog for my last requirement at Harvard, AI54: For the Love of God and His Prophet. After a few weeks of Professor Asani’s lectures though, I’m thinking more about the centrality of the Qur’an to Islam and the centrality of trying to read the Qur’an in my own work as a student.

This image, from Hasib Wahab on National Geographic’s “Your Shot” site, captures some of how I’m feeling as I try to approach this text, so different from others I have read and from my own religious tradition. These children at Moktob are studying the Qur’an, among other subjects. Read more and see Wahab’s other pictures here:

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