Communities of Interpretation

Week 5

The Birth of the Communities of Interpretation


After the death of Prophet Muhammad, people were unsure of whom to accept as the next leader of the Muslims. Some wanted to follow Abu Bakr, a friend of the prophet, the leader who was picked by a group of people while the Prophet’s burial preparations were still being carried out. Others wanted to follow Ali, son-in-law and cousin of Prophet Muhammad, as some maintained that the Prophet had selected Ali as his successor while he was still living.

Here, I have depicted the scene after the Prophet’s death. As he is being carried by his people, you can already see a divide happening: the people are all carrying the body of the Prophet, yet you can see that one sect is turning to the right while the other is trying to turn left. Now, the interesting part is that you may think that the group of people to your right, meaning the right of the painting, are on the correct path, but if you think of it from the perspective of the body of the Prophet (I imagined that the crowd is carrying the body feet first), the people on the left side of the painting are actually turning right. In doing this, I have tried to capture the essence of the term “communities of interpretation“. As Daftary states in the Diversity in Islam: Communities of Interpretation, we will never know who is practicing the “correct” Islam simply because the earliest documents we can find were all written some hundred years after the Prophet’s death and show sectarian bias.

The setting of the sun symbolizes the end of one era in Islam and the rise of the crescent moon and the star (the typical symbol for Islam) heralds in the new era. I have chosen to use the night for the new era because the new day starts upon the eve in the Islamic calendar and also because the night brings darkness which symbolizes the idea of trying to find one’s way in the dark–an idea akin to the Muslims trying to find Islam after the Prophet’s passing.

There is diversity and disagreement in the new era, but there are also new ideas and different ways of answering each challenge that the nascent religion will face. The path which the crowd has been following so far is colored in dark because it was the one, sure way everyone followed under the Prophet’s guidance until now when the crowd forks. The middle path leads to Jannat-al-Baqi, the place where Prophet Muhammad is buried. The path to the left has more people, but you can see that there is a fork in that path, too. This is the path the Sunnis are following since the majority of Muslims today are Sunni and that the path to the right is the one Shiites are following as depicted by the small crowd there. I elected not to portray one single leader in order to capture the idea that there are several “leaders”–it just depends on which path you follow.


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