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Introductory essay


This class was nothing like I thought it would be, for which I am really grateful! I thought it would be all about politics and the perceived identity of Islam. While this did come up in the discussion of the west, we learned so much more than that. We learned about the religion itself, in many regions and throughout many time periods, and how there is so much more to it than how it is seen today. Islam is a huge and multicultural and pluralistic which at times was confusing and a little frustrating. There was so much to cover, as every type of authority, rule, or other aspect of religion, needed to be explained for each denomination. It could be frustrating at times, when you had a question and it couldn’t always be answered, because every part of Islam would answer it differently, and it was different for each group. Overall, it was an amazing class, as it covered so many different topics, denominations, and regions.

We started this class with a discussion on clash of civilizations and clash of ignorances. There is an idea that people’s ideals and values have to clash with those around them and that you have to prove yours more correct than others, when in fact societies can connect and learn a lot from each other, if they are willing to learn from the others and don’t come in with assumed knowledge. Neither is more valuable, but learning from one another, they can together become most valuable. We also discussed how we create knowledge. A positive way to create knowledge is to learn from all kinds of people and to listen to everything. A negative way is to think you know enough, and can learn all you need to without hearing from the people you’re discussing. We also discussed religious literacy, which was really relevant and important. In learning about religions, you have to remember that religions themselves don’t say, condone, or condemn anything. The people who use them do that and use religion as their excuse or reasoning. There are a million different ways to interpret each religion, and most have political, economic, or social reasoning behind them, with or without the people practicing them knowing it. We’re not always aware of when and how these things influence how you practice you’re religion. Each person interacts with religion differently, and we need to focus on that to allow each person to have the most meaningful experience. Some people may find culture the most important part of a religion, some people might like the scripture better. If we say that there is one right way to be religious, this alienates others.

Similarly, we discussed media literacy. The media is also influenced by many factors and we have to stop and think about why a journalist may have said what they did. Media is only going to portray what they think is most interesting, or most likely to bring in viewers, so they may only choose to show controversial opinions on religion. They also tend to generalize when it comes to religion, and say things such as Islam says this, or Christianity says this, rather than recognize that it’s just people following religions saying that. This can have two effects; people accept what the media says and how it portrays things, and people begin to think in the same generalizing way.

We discussed the idea of nation states a lot too. We showed a lot of examples of destructive nation states, in that they tried to create a homogenous identity, and in doing so alienated many people in the country. Specifically in America, as seen in its past, nationalism is based on creating an “other”, to reaffirm who is included in the country. That has detrimental effects. Most recently this other has been Islam, starting from 9/11, showing its face in Obama’s elections (when people thought he was less qualified to run a country, simply because of his religion), and now with Paris attacks, ISIS, and the refugee crisis. This isn’t just dangerous to the people in the country being called the “other”, but also to democracy itself!

We discussed inclusivity in Islam. Islam itself is inclusive of other religions. Muslim is someone who practices Islam but muslim is simply someone who submits to and believes in god, no matter from what religion. There is a historical acceptance of other historical religious figures and religions. This idea is flushed out in “The Complaint and Answer”, as it describes god as disappointed in Muslims for believing they are better than non-Muslims, simply for what they believe in rather than their actions. Islam is about progress and trying to be better, so in this poem, Europeans who are trying to progress are better Muslims than Muslims themselves. This showed how Islam is about more than ritual, but about learning from others and from the past and trying to be better.

Authority is something that comes up in any subject, particularly in the many sects of Islam. It’s particularly interesting as you read about postcolonial countries, and how they deal with having and sustaining power, after some of it has been taken away, and trying to reconcile their ideals with those that have been forced upon them. These thoughts were a large part of the focus in “An Ambiguous Adventure”, “The Suns of Independence”, and many other readings. We learned about the different roles of authority in Sunni and Shiite traditions and how sometimes these roles were used in ways they weren’t intended, such as when the government was influenced in ways it’s not supposed to be by religious figures. There is also a lot of controversy over whether or not to keep the new ideas brought in through colonialism. They can be positive at times, but it’s hard to accept new concepts into tradition.

We had many conversations about feminism in Islam. I really loved these conversations, because they were really relevant to our own lives, and because of the many interesting insights my classmates had to offer. One of the main insights I got from these discussions is that we really have to listen to what people need in the fights for their own independence. If we come in with our own ideas of makes us free, we aren’t listening to the people we want to help, and they’re in the same position as when it was people who intended to put them down telling what to do. With colonialism, the west tried to enforce their ideas of equality on the colonized, and this caused pushback on feminism as well as colonialism, as they were so closely associated. Fights for freedom and civil rights should come from the oppressed, and we can help but must remember not to take over their own fight. Islam itself doesn’t oppress women, rather people may interpret the scripture to allow them to. We have to keep that in mind when listening to their voices, because we want to help them and definitely don’t want to insult their religion in the process.

I really enjoyed our discussion on sexuality and gender after reading “Madras on Rainy Days”, especially as it related to Judaism. Judaism can be understood to condemn or allow all kinds of people, similar to Islam, and it can be very frustrating from either of these religions to see someone using what you believe in to put down people for being themselves. This story also touched on arranged marriages, which is still prevalent in parts of Judaism. This is something that always frustrated me, because it is so entwined with family honor, and it’s so unfair to force all of that responsibility onto your kids into their personal lives. They shouldn’t have to marry who the parents decided, just to keep the honor, especially as this assumes heteronormativity. In this story, you see the effects of forcing a child to do your bidding when it isn’t right for them, and it was very hard to read when you know it’s happening in your own community.

Many of our topics related to Judaism and my own community. In our discussion of the west, I really understood Changez’s struggle in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” when he felt a connection to multiple countries. He wanted to fit in and be American until 9/11, when it seemed the country didn’t want him anymore. He then longed for Pakistan, but even when he goes back you see how much America changed him. I feel this way towards Israel, as I’m sure most Jews do, in that you can be living in a country and not feel entirely wanted. I fortunately haven’t faced too much anti-Semitism, but I definitely know people who have, and when you see how Muslims are being treated in this country right now you are reminded that it could just as easily be you, and it has been your ancestors treated that way. This country could be your home, but you are always aware that there is only one place that isn’t going to turn on you, and that is your real home, and that is Israel, which is how I interpreted Changez to be feeling, when I read the book, and how probably many people feel in this country.

This class taught me so much about Islam, but also gave me new lenses to see my own religion and culture. In changing my perspective on concrete religions, this class showed a lot about the notion of religion. Religion is so entwined in the human experience, but we have to recognize it as a constantly changing construction, that is different for each person in each time. This makes studying and practicing religion so much more complex, but also more interesting and rewarding.


Below are my artistic responses to our readings and topics, as well as explanations. I hope you enjoy seeing them as much as I did making them!

Fahmida Riaz Response (2)



I drew this picture in response to the theme of menstruation as impure in Fahmida Riaz’s poetry. I drew this out of makeup, partially to recognize the privilege that I have in choosing how I look everyday, and not facing serious backlash for it, and because we discussed in class how makeup can be a form of hijab, covering. In my picture, I have a woman, surrounded by blood and barbed wire, to represent how much menstruation can be isolating, as “a woman impure [is] imprisoned by her flowing blood”. In her poem, “Chadur and Diwari”, Riaz claims that the men calling women impure should have to cover themselves, and says that their white beards are covered in blood, keeping with the theme of impurity. In “Akleema”, she points out that the only differences between man and woman are physical, yet they have such vast ramifications and again lead to imprisonment in a woman’s body. It’s really easy to connect to Riaz’s poetry, as throughout the world women are shamed for things they have no control over or things that aren’t bad. Menstruation is an incredible and natural thing that allows for childbirth! Elsewhere, we are shamed for our clothing, sex lives, and many other “offenses”. Riaz’s poetry powerfully asks that we stop shaming women.

Unveiling Scheherazade Response


the veil

There are so many similarities in the fight to end sex discrimination in the east and the west, yet when the west tries to help the east, they do so in patronizing ways. They assume that the east cannot do their own civil rights work, that Islam is to blame for sexism in the west, and that the most important thing to get rid of in the east that is hindering all equality is the veil. This assumption ignores that many women want to wear the veil, and the many different reasons for wearing it. Placing this much attention on this one aspect, creates a lot of divide between the east and west, and reinforces the idea that the west isn’t listening to the east. I made a map of the world and divided Europe and America (the west) from Africa and Asia (the east), and you can’t really tell from the picture but there is black clothe in between the continents to represent how divisive this issue is, over something as unimportant as clothing (or in this case just one of my sweaters!). Feminists and activists need to listen to what different regions, classes, races, etc. need in the fight to end oppression and worked based on that, together, to create powerful change.

Transgender Rights within Islam


trans sybmbol


After we read Madras on Rainy Days, which touched on homosexuality, we discussed BGLTQ rights within Islam. We watched a video of a cross-dressing man from Pakistan, which Professor Asani thought was inspiring and representative of an open culture, but other students mentioned how he is seen as sort of a joke within Pakistan. As we heard more of an explanation from Pakistani students about transgender rights, we understood that they are not nearly as accepting as in America, and even in America there is a lot of misunderstanding them and violence towards them. As awful as the situation seemed, Professor Asani explained that there is definitely room for transgender people within Islam based on the scripture itself. I hope that the culture catches up with what could be, and soon, so that these people don’t have to deal with the oppression they face now from their communities.

I made this piece out of clay, and it has the symbol for Islam inside the symbol for transgender rights, to show that they can definitely fit together. I made it out of clay because sometimes it seems like things are supposed to be the way they are molded forever, but you have to remember that someone chose to make it like that, and someone else can change it.

The Beggar’s Strike Response


beggars strike

I painted this picture in response to The Beggar’s Strike. The story details the struggle of men in power trying to get rid of the disabled, ugly beggars but then realizing that they need them to fulfill their obligation to give charity. The beggars now have their own community and are receiving a lot of alms on their own and are doing really well, but Mour needs to convince them to come back. I drew an arch with many symbols of disability to symbol how the city is built up by the less capable, and that giving to them really fosters a sense of community, and allows people to complete their duties of helping the less fortunate. Mour is in the middle and I gave him a helpless look on his face, to reflect his feelings in the beginning and in the end of the story. In the beginning his arms are out to push away the beggars, but later he needs to reach out his hands and bring them back. I liked this story’s ironic way of teaching lessons, and the message portrayed that even when it may seem difficult, it’s beneficial to you and those around you to help the less fortunate, and that you should do so for real reasons and not just to gain power.

The Adventure of Ibn Fattouma Response



The story of Ibn Fattouma was an allegory for many things: society as a whole, each persons individual journey in life. He goes from Dar Al Islam, to Gebel with five steps in between: Mashriq, Haira, Halba, Aman, Ghuroub. Each of these represents a different part of life, or of civilization. I drew this as a sunrise, with the beginning and the end as the sun itself, and the five steps as a cycle. I wrote some of the many connections and associations we came up with in class for each of the steps. Dar Al Islam was the beginning and from there comes Mashriq, which means sunrise. Mashriq is the beginning of civilization, as pagan and primitive, or the beginning of life. Haira is next and means confusion. This was a time of monarchy, war, and wealth. We compared this to Saudi Arabia or England. This is a step above primitive Mashriq, but not quite a functioning society. Next is Halba, meaning arena, where there is freedom of and from religion, and of sexual relationships. All this freedom leads to anarchy. We compared this sort of capitalism to Western societies, such as America and France. Aman means safety or peace and was a communist community that valued security and justice over individualism, like Russia. Last is Ghuroub, meaning sunset, and ties back to the allegory of this adventure as a life. This is the meditative transition before you die, and before you go to Gebel. We don’t know much about Gebel, because as a society, we aren’t there yet, and as a life cycle, it is death, and no one comes back to tell us about it. It’s a time of perfection when you’re with god.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist Response




I found the relationship between the author and Erica really interesting. It continued the theme of the story of him wanting things and them being just outside of his reach. He could see what it would be like to be American, to fit in, to be with Erica, but he couldn’t actually have any of these things. Erica was still in love with her late boyfriend, and had a mental breakdown. She too couldn’t keep, what she had once experienced. In the end, she leaves her clothes by a cliff, and jumps into the Hudson River, which I depicted in my drawing. Right after, he goes back to Pakistan, and his relationship with Erica keeps him connected to his time in America. He keeps reading the alumni journal, to hear about her. He imagines full days with her. In my picture, I showed her jumping from the cliff to his life in Lahore. She couldn’t handle not having her life the way she imagined, and that she created this whole imaginary life for herself, and began living in her head. In jumping, and ending her life, and “jumping” into his life in Lahore, Erica became what her boyfriend was to her, to Changez. He began to live an alternate reality as well. He was in Lahore, living his life as a teacher, and eating in the regular spots in Lahore, but couldn’t continue his life, and spent full days telling his story to complete strangers. His time in America, and with Erica, distanced him from having a real life at home, and made the idea of this double identity, of who he is in Pakistan and who he is in America mixed and he can’t just switch between the two.


Response to nation states




A theme that has come up in our class a lot is the idea of nation states, which requires loyalty, and that needs a reason. After the Paris attacks, we discussed how European nation states want homogeneous identity and Paris chose secularism. This leads to people affiliated with religion feeling apart from society. This can cause people to choose their primary identity marker to be religion. In other regions, the country chooses the religion as the unifying identity marker, but that too can cause problems, because there is no one way to practice a religion, but for it to be unifying they have to choose one way. Because religions in their nature can’t be homogeneous, this leads to the same problem of leaving people out of their own country.

I drew a map of the middle east, (only as an example, plenty of regions and countries do this too) and it shows how Islam can be misinterpreted and used to create an identity in a state. Islam is only a religion, and it is practiced in so many ways, as seen by the adjectives above, and it simply makes no sense to choose one adjective and apply it to a whole country, especially as the many different ways that people practice it contradict! It’s reasonable to affiliate a country with a religion, but only in an inclusive way, and to not require it, so that everyone can feel at home in their country.

Feminist Pakistani Poets response



I loved the reading “We Sinful Women”, as it gave me a chance to see the women who were fighting for their rights in other parts of the world. Women throughout the world still face so much oppression, though in different places, the battles are over different disagreements. I am well versed in the issues that face women in America, but until this reading did not know at all what the women in Pakistan were up against. I also recognize that there are intersectional problems, in which people face many sorts of interconnected oppression.

I found the photos online of the poets we read and connected them to the kind of feminism we recognize in America. I put Sara Shagufta’s face on a picture of Kathleen Hanna, who is a large representative of the current third wave feminism. I put the Manifesta symbol, of the feminist magazine at Harvard, in the middle of these pictures. I mostly wanted to show that we women may face different obstacles, but can come together to fight them.

I recognize that in colonized parts of the world feminism is rejected as a western ideal. I did not want to overwrite their stories with ours. I want to show the shared interest of giving Fahmida Riaz a larger microphone, and a larger platform to voice her opinion and effect change. I hope this picture shows our combined interests and how we can work together to end oppression rather than the cultural domination and appropriation that western feminism can seem like in other parts of the world.

Complaint and Answer response


complaint and answer

The Complaint and Answer was a complicated poem, expressing human aggravation with God, and God’s disappointment in return.

The complaining humans were upset that they were receiving no political power as reward. They felt abandoned by God and saw God as disloyal. I represented this anger as fire in my picture. I used leaves to show the fire because being angry at God feels like a natural response that happens every once in a while, as we humans go through life’s cycles of good and bad, just like the leaves change colors through the natural cycles in weather. It’s okay to be upset and unhappy with your position in life, and this leaves (pun intended) you in a position to reevaluate your actions and choices.

God’s response in the Answer is that they shouldn’t be upset by their lot in life, because they weren’t being good enough Muslims. Had they been trying harder to progress and not gotten stuck on the rituals, things may have been better for them.

“I went to France and saw Islam without Muslims. I went to Egypt and saw Muslims without Islam.”

Iqbal is trying to say that the Europeans and muslims (people who submit) are continuing with progress, whereas the Muslims were falling behind. I represented God’s answer as water coming to take out the fire. He was showing them that this anger was coming from the wrong place, and tried to put out that fire, and direct them to the real problem: their behavior. Iqbal is hoping that the Muslims start acting as they are supposed to, as God’s representatives on Earth, meant to develop themselves to the highest force.

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