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Prologue: The Humans behind the Religion


My blog is about the integration of life and religious belief, the lived experience of religion and context shaping each other, and diversity among Muslims—all expressed through art. To start my prologue, I would like to tell a little story.


I went looking for Islam the other day.

First I went to the Quran. Are you Islam, I asked. No, replied the Quran. I am not Islam. I am God in word. I am the holy book that contains the revelation of the final prophet. I come from the divine Mother of the Book. I contain the message of remembrance for God, the transformational love between man and God. I contain the laws and politics that would lead the world, should they be properly implemented in the spirit of God. I am supported by the hadiths so that men may better interpret me. I am the bride of many veils. But I am not Islam.

So next I went to the mosques. Are you Islam, I asked. No, replied the mosques. We are not Islam. We are the places where Muslims come to pray. Our walls reflect their ideas of what beauty is pleasing to God. Our minarets ring the call to prayer to all who will listen. We are a space for teaching and for learning. Our imams interpret the will of God from the hadiths and the Quran. But we are not Islam.

I went to the five pillars of Islam. Are you Islam, I asked. No, replied the five pillars. We are not Islam. We are cornerstones of religious practice. We are prescribed by the Prophet in the Quran and selected from among the sets of pillars. We help Muslims humble themselves before God and remember him daily. But we are not Islam.

I went to the Prophet. Are you Islam, I asked? No, replied the Prophet. I am not Islam. I was the last and greatest prophet. I received the final revelation and passed it on to men. I carry the original light of prophethood. I am the ultimate example for men. But I am not Islam.

At last I humbly looked toward heaven. Is Allah Islam, I asked. No, replied the Muslims. Allah is not Islam. He is the supreme creator of the world and above all others. He is the Merciful King, the Almightily, the Repeatedly Forgiving, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise, the All-Seeing, the All-Hearing, the Just Judge, the Gentle Nourisher, the Truth, and the Friend. He is the Giver of Live and the Bringer of Death. But he is not Islam.

Finally, I turned to the Muslims. Who is Islam, I asked. I have asked the Quran if it was Islam, and it said no. I have asked the mosques if they were Islam, and they said no. I have asked the five pillars if they were Islam, and they said no. I have asked the prophet if he was Islam, and he said no. I have asked if Allah was Islam, and they said no. So who is Islam, I asked.

We are Islam, replied the Muslims. When we read the Quran and try to understand its revelation, that is Islam. When we go to the mosques and pray, that is Islam. When we strive to apply God’s law to our lives and world, that is Islam. When we revere and listen to the prophet, that is Islam. And when we submit ourselves to Allah, that is Islam most of all. Islam is each of us who has ever submitted, who is now submitting, and who will ever submit to Allah. Islam is the actions and beliefs that we live out in service of Allah.  Islam is each of us and all of us together.


Life and Belief

Earlier in this course, Professor Asani described two Islams. Islam with a capital I is a codified religion involving the Quran, belief in Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, and a set of rituals. Islam with a lowercase i is submission to God, or the private belief of Muslims. Both of these are somewhat abstract principles of religion. I am intrigued by a third Islam. This third Islam is the reality of how humans who subscribe to some version of Islam and/or islam shape religion and live out their lives. This third Islam is, at its heart, the actions and beliefs of all those who identify as Muslim.

My storytelling of hunting Islam above came from this idea of religious beliefs being characterized by a group to be a faith that held them together and permeated their lives. But this faith, its practices, and its tenets all stem from people over time. Islam is defined by its adherents, as are all religions. Islam is a codified set of beliefs and rituals, but only because some set of those practicing Islam have decided that Islam should be this codified set of beliefs and rituals. Regardless of the truth of any one way or aspect of religion, the reality of Islam yesterday, today, and tomorrow is the reality of those practicing Islam.

Islam is partially a set of general beliefs that people identify with, but it is the intermingling of belief with the lives of believers that creates the reality of a religion. Art, literature, politics, culture, daily life, food, tradition, relationships—these are the arenas in which a set of religious beliefs play themselves out. Each shape religion and religion shapes each of them. In the end, I believe it is the Muslims who create Islam, and I strive to understand their experience and context.


I was fascinated by the inextricability of the religion of Islam and the practitioners of Islam; Islam cannot be separated from those who practice Islam. This idea of Islam as fused into the people who identify as Muslim captures the heart of what I see in this course. There are Sunni and Shia, but both are part of this Islam. There are Sufi and Wahhabi, but both are part of this Islam. There are Muslims in the Middle East, in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, in the Americas, and in Australia—all are part of Islam. When I look below the surface of a religion, I see a thriving community of individuals spanning every continent. Each of these adherents of Islam contributes to what the religion means in practice.

Since my third Islam is the experience of each and every Muslim, it inherently encompasses their diversity. One of the main themes of this course has been that the practice of Islam differs across geographic areas, political groups, religious subgroups, genders and individuals. The experience of a Muslim male child in Indonesia is going to be very different than the experience of a Muslim female adult in the United States. The experience will be different if the individual lives under a predominantly Muslim government or a laicite government. The experience will be different if the individual is Sunni or Shia. The experience will be different if the individual believes in Wahhabi ideology or a Sufi mystic.

Given this diversity, most perspectives will focus on what some segment of the global Muslim community experiences. I’m intrigued by how these differences across space and people shape individual narratives. In my pieces, I implicitly acknowledge differences in opinion, belief, and experience between groups. From different interpretations for Muhammad’s birth story to the experience of an Arabic Quran by non-Arabic Muslims—I try to hint at the diversity within adherents of Islam.


Among the diverse interpretations of Islam, varied traditions of art represent different eras, geographical locations, and beliefs. In this class, we studied personal religious devotion manifested in art and daily practices. The reality of belief is embedded in a tradition of practice, in a diversity of artworks, and in the community that defines by their lives and creations what it means to share this faith. If religion is an extension of its believers, then Islamic art is a manifestation of those believers and their cultures.

Art can be divinely inspired, a very human way of connecting with religion. Art can be one way to experience this link between practice and belief. Mosque design, with its history the hypostyle design descending from the Prophet’s home and arabesque design invoking gardens of paradise. The Ta’zieh mixing Shia beliefs about Ali’s descendants and the practice of this drama form to create a fixture in Persian cultural tradition.

Art can also inspire religion and fuel the shaping of religious practice. The beauty of the Quran cited as proof of divine inspiration in a culture celebrating poetic tradition. The musicality of the call to prayer imprints itself into the landscape of daily life and inspires regular devotion.

These artworks see beauty and religion meshed, the practices and the religious beliefs indivisibly intertwined. Islam, as I understand it, is the people who identify as Islamic. That means wildly different lived experiences, but it means that art and beauty created by those individuals can share their personal views and hint at the diversity of views truly present. It means that looking at the art of adherents to a religion can share some of that religion, because the religion is their reality. They shape their art and they shape their religion, and religion and art can share each other with the world.


I was intrigued by this interplay of individual people both shaping and enacting their faith in their daily life. In my art pieces, I wanted to touch on various aspects of the beliefs and practices of Muslims to highlight this connection between the human beings believing Islam and the abstract concept of the religion of Islam. Furthermore, this emphasis on the human beings behind the religion inherently implies the diversity of beliefs and practices associated with Islam. I believe a religion is experienced as the interplay between beliefs about truths and one’s life. Belief shapes daily life. Daily life shapes belief. This interplay between belief and practice creates the diversity of Islam we see today, and I wanted to capture some hint of that in my blogs posts.

Mutual Misunderstanding


Mutual Misunderstanding


I came from a nice little church

Tucked under a nice little steeple

And filled with nice little people


At least,

They were nice most of the time

Unless someone didn’t follow their little book

Then my nice little church wasn’t so keen

To let them off the hook


I was sad that the little book

Didn’t let women love women

And I was mad that the little book

Though women couldn’t lead any but women


So I went knocking

Looking for God

To see why he didn’t understand

That women could be strong too

But when I went knocking

All I found was sand


My church is filled with nice little people

That don’t look beyond their little book

When they saw the towers crumble on TV

All they saw was a need to hole up in their nook

With their own little book


I don’t think many in my nice little church

Really understand what happens

Beyond their nice little steeple

They don’t understand why

I want to research

If God is hiding somewhere else


I wonder

Would they understand me?

If I went to

A nice little mosque.

I wonder, only

Maybe nice little mosques

Don’t understand nice little churches

Any better than nice little churches

Understand nice little mosques


This poem was inspired by Mohja Kahf’s Little Mosque Poems. My poem follows her rhyming scheme and gentle critique of religious institutions. In my poem, I elaborate on this idea of religions in their little world. For my church, I think there is a real problem that so many people take their faith on the word of their pastor or parent, follow what they know of their Bible, and never look beyond that to question whether their idea of God is correct. One of the consequences of that is that antiqued traditions such as female submission to husbands and bans on homosexuality persevere. As Kahf deplores, many similar restrictions are places on people within Islamic religious institutions.

I think another consequence is that Christianity doesn’t understand other religions well. A major theme in this course has been the illiteracy towards Islam from Americans. I think one cause is that too few people study another religious seriously, and too many pour over their own without ever questioning it. I saw this at my church before I deconverted, and I was guilty of it myself. This cycle of looking at one’s own religion endlessly and following without question the rules therein may be good if that religion is true. But whether the religion is true or not, this cycle has the unwanted consequence of stifling true understanding of one’s fellow man.

I suspect that this cycle goes two ways. As I mention in the last stanza, I think that Christians don’t understand Muslims because they never think to go and try to understand. Rather they look inwards, see the highly public acts of a minority of Muslims, and don’t ever have a chance to understand the larger group. I suspect that a lot of Muslims in Muslim countries have a similar problem towards Christians. They see the highly pubic minority, such as Hollywood, and never understand the broader representatives of another religion.

A Decision to Make


Veil copy

This digitally created image combined watercolor and photography images to create a surreal impression of an unnamed girl and her headscarf. The girl’s limbs merge into the background, leaving only her face, hands, and headscarf plainly visible. Only these things—representing her ability to act, her ability to decide, and the decision she must make—are important.  She stands in a verdant garden with smoothly flowing water, intended to evoke the imagery of the heavenly garden of paradise and sincere faith.

This piece was inspired by The Sultana’s Dream and its imagery of a paradise garden city where women went unveiled. However, my image also considers the idea of women donning the headscarf out of sincere piety and belief rather than fear of men. Caught in the tension between these two ideas of sincere faith and patriarchal oppression, my creation leaves the audience unsure of whether the girl is removing or donning the headscarf. She could be removing the scarf, freeing herself in this garden paradise from the former oppression that stifled her. Her embrace of the truest faith includes liberation to feminist ideals of the love and equality God originally intended. Alternatively, she could be donning the scarf in humble reverence. Here in the garden, she earnestly seeks God and submits herself to the constant remembrance evoked by the scarf. There is no one answer to what it means to wear the headscarf or hijab. The questions of faith, freedom, and gender equality are implied but not answered. Ultimately, the audience must decide for itself what it means to act on sincere faith.

Original images courtesy of Google Photos




Nowruz intrigues me. The blending of Islam with local cultures has been a theme of this course, and Nowruz beautifully demonstrates such a fusion. A local Persian/Iranian Zoroastrian holiday is stamped with Islamic significance and spread beyond its original borders.

Ancient beliefs celebrating the day man was created were overwritten by Islamic beliefs. Perhaps the Prophet blessed the day for celebrating the rejuvenation of life, the day God brought Noah’s ark ashore, the day when the dead will be resurrected, the day when God sent Gabriel to the Prophet—many possible events of religious significance are now tied (with varying degrees of looseness) to this traditional celebration.

Yet the cultural traditions of Haji Firouz, spring cleaning, the Haft-seen table, and spending time with family and friends remain. A vibrant cultural holiday, now fused with the religious practice, still retains its traditions. It reminds me of Christmas. Christmas has roots in a pagan festival, yet now is intimately connected with the Birthday of Jesus and Christian traditions. Nowruz in Persia and Christmas in the US both blended a cultural heritage with religious observance. (Plus gifts, so even those not religiously included have reason to celebrate.)

In my piece, I was intrigued by this fusion, but I wanted to focus on the ritual and cultural practice. While a few photos are attached, this was a live performance piece. I started by scouring my dorm from dusty walls to mopping under the futon.  Next I set up the Haft-seen table. My 7 S’s included a plant for rebirth, sweet pudding for affluence, dates for love, garlic for medicine, an apple for health and beauty, cranberries for the color of sunrise, and vinegar for age and patience. I added a few touches touch as a book of poetry (Byron since I didn’t own Hafiz), a mirror for reflection on the past year, goldfish for new beginnings, coins for prosperity, and a candle for light and happiness.


Nowruz 006 Nowruz 007

With my table set up, I spent the rest of the 12 days spending time with family and friends. I skyped family who didn’t live in the area. Finally, I hosted a picnic on the 13th day (albeit an indoor picnic watching the rain pour).


Articles aiding in completing Nowruz:

The Birth of the Prophet



This color pencil piece was inspired by the tradition of poetry and stories praising the prophet, particularly The Mevlidi Sherif. I took one scene and tried to draw the beauty and religious significance. I included the pregnant Amina with the prophetic light shining from the prophet babe in her belly, the blaze of light from her home, the three heavenly women attending her, three angels represented by wings, the white bird and the cup of white nectar.

One part of my decision to take this course was my hope to be better able to step outside of my own culture and experience another major religion’s understanding of the world. The birth narrative of Muhammad, with its parallels and differences from the Christian nativity, fascinated me. From a secular viewpoint, I’m also intrigued by the importance of marking the prophet from birth. It seems plausible as a method to reinforce retrospectively the divine role Muhammad filled. Religiously, it ties Muhammad into the tradition of prophets that people would have known from other Abrahamic religions. It also explicitly ties him into God’s favor from birth, establishing the importance of Muhammad and his divinely given role as guide for life. I can also imagine the succession of prophets and the inheritance from birth playing into the Shiah view of succession.

I debated how to depict the women, and settled on drawing them with facial features vaguely present but unclear. This piece straddles the uncertainty within Islam over figural representations. On the one hand, there is a long religious tradition of forgoing figural representation to honor a monotheistic god. On the other hand, Islamic art has a long history of beautiful figural art. However, I doubt my attempts at portraying these beautiful women count as accurate figural representations, and hence probably are okay.

Creation and Destruction: A Mosaic of Diverse Beliefs



The idea for this mosaic was born out of the lecture by András Riedlmayer and Michael Sells’ article “Erasing Culture”. The article and lecture were vivid, tragic reminders of how Muslims of different communities and different times interpret art and religion differently. The variety of beliefs and art forms among different Muslim communities has been a recurring theme of this course. Ornate mosques that implicitly say “God is beauty” or unadorned white washed walls? Oral Quran elaborate art or simple recitation? Do graveyards, shrines, and intercessory figures offend a monotheistic god? Figural representation or none?

The destruction of monuments, graveyards, and mosques was a tragic example of that diversity. Within the Wahhabi sect, libraries, tombs, and mosques are viewed as potential idols (Sells). As such, these precious sites are being destroyed by a minority of the very religion that built the sites, despite the fact that most Muslims accept Sufi mystical practices and do not see these sites as idols. I found the devastation even more tragic because it contrasts so sharply with the beauty created, such as that shown in “Mirror of an Invisible World”.  In other times and places, different subgroups within Islam have viewed creating beautiful sites as alluding to God and his beauty in the created world.

This stunning juxtaposition of beliefs within one religion fascinates me. I wanted to combine these two extremes of creating and destroying great, historic art. I highlight the diversity of beliefs by putting side by side the beauty and devastation rising out of those beliefs.  I chose to do so in the Islamic art form of a mosaic, mingling images of created and destroyed art in a geometric pattern. The gold and blue images portray creations within Islamic communities, mostly mosques. The black and white images show destroyed monuments and mosques or their former sites.

All images courtesy of Google Image search

An Arabic Quran


Take 1: Original version

Take 2: Edited after feedback

Recitation of Quran

This piece was inspired by “Koran by Heart”. In particular, several of the children reciting the Quran in the documentary did not speak Arabic. These children memorized a complex document with precise pronunciation and voice quality—all in a language they do not speak. Kristina Nelson explains the religious and poetic importance of the oral Quran in Arabic: rote memorization from childhood, tajwid preserving sound, the inimitable proof of the Quran’s divinity, simultaneously great art and God in word, and the constant murmur behind everyday life. Yet I’m intrigued by how non-Arabic-speaking Muslims interact with the oral aspect of the Quran.

So I attempted to recite the first verses of the Surah Al-Fatihah. I listened to the words repeatedly, read the English translation, and practiced until I could produce something resembling the sounds I heard.

Personally, I found the exercise melodious, but possessing relatively little meaning. In the TV show White Collar, a forger says that the secret to mimicking handwriting is to do copy the signature upside down. Rather than copying words, the forger copies the strokes and his own handwriting doesn’t influence the forgery. My experience was similar. Without the understanding of the language, I merely mimicked sounds. My mouth formed the syllables, but I wasn’t reciting words that connected with emotions, ideas, or beliefs in my head. I suspect that Muslim children who do not speak Arabic might have a similar experience when first learning the Quran. However, their study of the Quran likely infuses those sounds with the Quran’s meaning, particularly for those who memorize the Quran.

I will mention that I still find lines running through my mind weeks later, like the chorus of a catchy song.

I used these two sites to learn the words:


Surah Al-Fatihah (The Opener):

Arabic: بِسْمِ اللّهِ الرَّحْمـَنِ الرَّحِيم الْحَمْدُ للّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِين الرَّحمـنِ الرَّحِيم مَـالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّين إِيَّاك نَعْبُدُ وإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِين اهدِنَــــا الصِّرَاطَ المُستَقِيم

صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنعَمتَ عَلَيهِمْ غَيرِ المَغضُوبِ عَلَيهِمْ وَلاَ الضَّالِّين


English Translation:

“In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful.

Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds.

The Compassionate, the Merciful. Ruler on the Day of Reckoning.

You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help.

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