We only have ourselves to blame
BismiLlah Al Rahman Al Rahim,
A feminine figure all covered in black on a white background. Written next to it “Islam is the new black”.
A photograph of a naked woman in a male harem.
This is how some modern artists portray Islam.
Are we going to attack them? Curse them? Ignore their work and let it pass? Let’s actually listen to what these artists have to say about using Islam as a theme in their work.
The first painting was done by Sarah Maple, a British artist from Sussex born of a Muslim mother and Christian raised father. In an interview with “My Art Space”, it says:
People often think that Sarah Maple is trying to be offensive with her Islamic based art. This is a huge misconception as she is Muslim herself and would not want to offend her own faith. With her work she reveals the confusion that many young Muslims face within the context of contemporary western society.
In one of her pieces called “Salat”, she observes the phenomenon of prayer. It is like a chrono-photography of the prayer she’s performing until you look closer and notice that in one picture, on top of her veil, she’s wearing a mask, then suddenly, devil horns, then surprisingly, with no veil… what is she trying to suggest?
[W]hen I was younger and I’d see a Muslim person wearing a headscarf I always used to think ‘Wow they must be so good and religious’. But then I realized this isn’t the case. Just because you look the part doesn’t mean you act the part. It doesn’t make them a better Muslim than me. This is what my piece ‘salat’ is about. It’s about the perception of Muslims and what makes a ‘good’ Muslim – those layers or truths that are hidden underneath.
The photograph of the naked woman in the male harem is by Sukran Moral and she very simple states this:
My idea was to show the audience images of real city life, and it was the first time in contemporary art that people could see what really goes on inside a Turkish bath.
Behind closed doors, nothing is as it seems.
She also says about the rest of her work and especially one exhibition in particular:
I hate hypocrisy and I try to disrupt mediocrity through my art. Earlier this year, I organized a personal exhibition at the Yapi Kredi Gallery in Istanbul called Love and Violence. It was a very complex piece on violence against women and little girls. I staged a performance where I took the role of a torturing mother who abuses her own daughter doing her homework. She throws the books around, beats the little girl, cuts off her clitoris, makes her wear a horrible chador, weds her to a much older man, whips her and eventually stones her to death.
Ring any bells? Moral is making the same statement as Maple is but in different terms. And I must admit that they are both making strong points about the double standards within the Muslim community.
This may be the sole most important disease ailing our community. Cover your ears and your eyes… here comes hypocrisy. This begs the question: What defines a Muslim? Is it one’s name? The Quran devotes a big part of Surat al-Baqara to describe the hypocrites, because you can’t make them out. The disease’s in their heart and we can’t see it on the outside. This disease of hypocrisy goes hand in hand with the melting of pre-Islamic, jahili trends with Islam, such as, for example, wife beating or just having a macho attitude in general. This is something that is having a huge (negative) impact on our Ummah.
So let’s put aside all our hate mail, angry demonstrations, finger pointing and work on ourselves. Let’s concentrate on our microcosms. The root of the problem is in our heart. We are constantly preached at to perform the five prayers, fast, do this, do that, keep a note-book to write down all the good deeds one’s done throughout the day. How about actually making me love what I’m doing? How about explaining to me the purpose of our existence? How about describing the character of the Prophet (pbuh), his wives and Companions? How about instead of complaining about politics at the Friday sermons, teaching me how to actually purify my heart?
Imam Suhaib Webb once told a story of two young Muslims who came up to him after a conference and told him about how much they wanted Muslims to be more politically active, and to revive the Ummah, etc. He replied: “I’m going to ask you a question, before we go into all of that, when was the last time you performed Fajr prayer?” And of course they were dumb-struck. The point is not that Muslims should neglect engagement with their societies and focus completely on ritual worship. Rather, the issue is that if your intentions aren’t pure, if our own heart isn’t focused on the big picture – pleasing Allah – then any political engagement or activism will ultimately become about your ego, or about some ideology you are blindly trying to serve. This we see happening over and over again. That is why it is so important to understand that before I can go on acting like I’m going to save the world, I have to work on my own self first. It starts with me.
The Prophet says:
“I was sent to perfect noble character”
إنما بعثت لإتمم مكارم الاخلاق” قول رسول الله صلى الله علية و سلم .
How many of us actually live up to that? Sidi Yahya Rhodus once said in his course lectures “Piety to Parents”: “You cannot separate Islam from ethics and good character”. The point he is making here is a vital one, and it is in line with what traditional Islamic scholars continually state, such as Sheikh Ali Gomaa: that according to the Islamic paradigm, humans have been put on this earth for three reasons:
- Worshipping Allah
- Inhabiting the earth
- Purifying the soul.
In order to achieve the true purpose of our existence, we must truly believe with every ounce of our being that there is no one save Allah, and we must acknowledge the fact that His Mercy precedes His Anger. We must understand the importance of not letting our egos (nafs) take control over our actions. It is only once we do our part in improving ourselves that we can do our part in improving this world. And until we do that, we cannot expect people to respect us or give us a voice. And do not expect to rule the world. The Prophet ﷺ said:
“Islam began as something strange, and it shall return to being something strange as it began, so give glad tidings to the strangers.” [Sahih Muslim]
Although I agree with the points made earlier by Maple and Moral, I do not necessarily always agree with their methods, which seems to seek provocation and controversy as an end in and of itself. But there are many artists out there who are doing a good job representing Islam artistically, some we have mentioned before (see previous post: “Islam and Art”) and some we haven’t. They all revolve around the same theme: observing one’s heart (Tazkiyat ul-nafs), and strengthening the relation between the Divine and ourselves (Tasawuff). Such artists include: Yilmaz Alimoglu, Hamza El Din, Nacer Khemir, Al Kauthar, Qasim Basir, Mustafa Davis, Baraka Blue, Anas Canon, Liza Garza, and many, many more.
They don’t make the big news as the ones who provoke and stir up controversy, but the roles they are playing in using art as a tool to get closer to Allah, and also to represent Islam, is important and undeniable. So next time I am angered by what I see as a bothersome portrayal of Islam, before I let my anger take over, I will think of these artists and ask myself: They are doing their part. Now what about you?
On a final note, I was also thinking about something else, a Muslim’s responsibility towards his community: if I see my sister or brother doing something wrong, will I go to the 6pm news and tell the whole world about it? Maple, Moral had like a “behind the scenes” pass for being “Muslim”, “Middle Eastern”, thus giving them the opportunity of seeing all the problems, and holes in the system. Having no idea of their intentions, still I think, and God knows best, that if you see something wrong fix it instead of complaining.
On the authority of Abu Saeed Al-Khurdari, who said: I heard the messenger of Allah say:
“Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest of faith.”
related by Muslim.
Islamophobes, Anti-Muslims are just waiting for some scandal to make the Ummah look weak, fascist, blood-thirsty, etc. Why give them the chance with our own hands?
Sometimes it seems that artists that continually expose the flaws of the Ummah, under the banner of being honest, may be relying on problems within the Muslim community to further their own careers.
-F & Dee-