Parting the curtains of “In the Courtyard of the Beloved,” the viewer enters a sacred alcove of bright colors, intricate geometric decorations, and minarets.
The installation—part of the new exhibition at the Peabody Museum, “Sacred Spaces: Reflections on a Sufi Path”—sweeps the viewer away from the gallery, flies him across oceans, pulls him through the crowded streets of Delhi, and finally ushers him into a Sufi shrine.
There, the digital still images and audio recordings bring into view a personal practice of a mystical dimension of Islam.
“In the Courtyard of the Beloved,” makes clear the exhibition’s pedagogical purpose. A collection of photographs, calligraphic works, and mixed media montages, “Sacred Spaces,” presents a pluralistic view of Islam as it is expressed and practiced today. In a time when the religion is oft associated with terrorism, extremism, and oppression, the exhibition offers a nuanced view of Islam and is careful to depict its multifaceted nature.
“Sacred Spaces: Reflections on a Sufi Path,” and its companion display “Sacred Spaces: The World of Dervishes, Fakirs, and Sufis” at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, are part of a greater initiative, for which faculty and students are also advocating, to use art to educate the Harvard community about the religion of Islam, and by extension, Middle Eastern cultures. And for artists within an Islamic tradition who wish to educate a Western audience, these social motivations must be balanced against their aesthetic goals.
Islamic art, as in many other religious traditions, has historically been conscious of its inseparability from the divine, a sentiment that continues to operate within the on-campus Islamic community.
“God bestowed artistry and other gifts to mankind,” says Nafees A. Syed ’10, a practicing Muslim and Crimson staff editorial writer. “Even when Solomon built this beautiful temple there was a recognition of where the gifts came from.” Na’eel A. Cajee ’10, president of the Islamic student society, sees this relationship as reciprocal. “When you produce something that is beautiful it is usually an attempt at perfected expression or proportion,” he says. “Art, for me, is striving for perfection but ultimately falling short of the Perfect, which is God. This is the idea that is behind art and is an inspiration for artists.”
For the general Harvard community, however, Islamic art’s relevance is not necessarily its religious import but its undeniable cultural significance. “First of all, you have to think about religious traditions as cultural phenomenon embedded in context—social and political and literary and artistic,” says Professor Ali S. Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures and Associate Director of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program.
“Great works of Christian secular music are tied closely to piety. We are used to thinking about religion in theological forms. Religion is such a complex phenomenon that religious discourse can be found in many other forms. Muslims in the Islamic world are no exception.”
Next semester, Asani will be teaching a General Education class that will serve as an introduction to Islam and Muslim culture through the arts. The class will explore a wide range of Muslim art forms, including the architecture of mosques, poetry, Koran recitation, devotional song, and calligraphy. “We will study them and try to understand them for their own aesthetic value based on the culture they’re coming from and use those art forms as lenses to understand Muslim culture,” Asani says.
Students will then have the opportunity to design a mosque for an urban American landscape, create a poem in English using the structure and symbolism of a genre of Islamic poetry study, and produce their own works of calligraphy so that they can participate in and understand the practice of Islam. Using art in such a way helps students engage with the religion in a more meaningful way.
“The representations of Muslims have been so negative,” Asani says. “How de we counteract Islamaphobia? I am a firm believer that one way in which people can understand each other is through the arts.”
Samina Quraeshi, the first Robert Gardner Visiting Artist Fellow at the Peabody Museum, is currently using her time at Harvard to put this notion into practice. Quraeshi’s work, which is currently displayed in “Sacred Spaces” as part of her fellowship, attempts to translate her conception of homeland—a complicated interweaving of her birth in India, Pakistani Muslim upbringing, and Catholic education—into a cultural experience.
Fundamentally believing that the personal cannot be separated from artistic production, Quraeshi’s visual pieces are permeated by her lived encounter with her own strain of the religion, Sufism. “I don’t think one can avoid the influences of one’s place of birth,” says Samina Quraeshi.“You are raised [in a certain] way and the colors and the textures and all of the sensory experience you are surrounded by are etched in your brain.”
Despite the highly personal nature of her art, the work has broader social implications, namely to add nuance to what she sees as a typically monolithic portrayal of Islam. In conjunction with her new book published by the Peabody Press—“Sacred Spaces: A Journey with the Sufis of the Indus,”—the pieces on view portray the multiplicity found in Sufi traditions. “This book and exhibition is a personal and artistic act of resistance against those forces both within Islam and outside of it that seek to deny such nuances, to silence the voices of mystics, and to distill the diversity of Islamic piety into something essential, unitary, and uniform,” Quraeshi said in her speech at the opening of “Sacred Spaces.”
The Peabody exhibition was originally intended to be a display of her photographic documentation of the Muslim sect. However, Quraeshi felt that the photographs would have alone failed to portray a holistic view of Sufism, one that would be able to educate a Western viewer. “I was struggling to express Sufism, and I felt that the photographs were not enough,” the artist says. “I wanted to express the emotional experience, and that’s where the art came in.”
ESCHEWING THE LABEL
While Quraeshi believes it unorthodox to use contemporary art to a humanizing anthropological end, such is a necessary gesture to accurately depict the many facets of Islam to a Western audience. “I want these images to speak across the barriers of cultural mores, linguistic obstacles, and obscure practices,” Quraeshi said at the exhibition opening.
But despite her efforts to inform the Harvard community about Sufism, Quraeshi does not want to be considered an Islamic artist. “It’s a sensitive subject because of all of the horrible things being done in the name of Islam,” she says. “It’s sort of like calling a woman a female artist. You are either an artist or you are not.”
This emphasis demonstrates Quraeshi’s nuanced approach to Islamic culture; her rejection of broad categorizations and the accentuation of the personal in her art sensitize her viewers to the complexities of an important world religion. Ultimately, this even-handed approach—balancing accessibility with personal aesthetic value—is important for a responsible ethnological presentation of Islam.
“I think the goal of the Peabody is to represent the traditions of man,” Quraeshi says. “My work is the living tradition of an area of the world that is very underrepresented. The exhibition is very much in the idea of inclusion and exposing the students to not only the history of mankind but also the living tradition as it is practiced today.”
[Meet Samina Quraeshi; Visit the Peabody Museum]
[Picture: The Garden Of Paradise]