Muslim Artists Explore the Art of Identity

By:Nesima Aberra

When Katie Couric suggested in a segment last year about the world needing a Muslim version of the Cosby Show, she wasn’t saying so because she thought we need to see more minorities wearing outrageously patterned sweaters. What Couric meant-and what more and more people are realizing-is that the arts are a powerful and effective way to expose others to new ideas, break down stereotypes and combat otherization of groups, like African-Americans for the Cosby Show. Whether the medium is visual, written, performed, animated, artists use their talents to express themselves, send messages and speak to us in ways that politicians or textbooks can’t. So when it comes to figuring out how the new generation of Muslims introduce themselves to the world properly, four Muslim artists all agree that change will most certainly come from those unafraid to embrace their inner creative streak.

Definition of a Muslim Artist

Even though the arts have had a tricky relationship with Muslims when it comes to the questioning of permissibility of music, offensive cartoons or physical depiction of people, British graphic designer Ruh Al-Alam believes that it is not impossible to pursue art and maintain one’s religious values. Al-Alam is the creative director of Make Me Believe design agency and the Visual Dhikr project, elegantly bridging the gap between modern, digital art and Islamic calligraphy.

From a young age, he became interested in design and went on to study illustration and graphic design at Saint Martins College of Art and Design.  Al-Alam says his identity as a Muslim has influenced his identity as an artist so that this work his agency produces is halal by staying away from using sexual imagery, gambling or alcohol related projects, but also so that the agency can reach a diverse population of customers.

“We can comfortably work with Arabic speaking Middle Eastern audiences as comfortably as working with British and American English speaking communities,” says Al-Alam. “The ability to know our audience well allows us to target them better without compromising on modern design trends and styles.”

The tagline of Make Me Believe is ‘Think With Your Heart,” alluding to the connection between feelings and design and also the Islamic notion of hearts being able to reason and think, Al-Alam explains.  Al-Alam and his team have been recognized by a primarily non-Muslim audience due to the high profile campaigns Inspired By Muhammad and MissingPages campaigns for Exploring Islam Foundation in London.

The Inspired By Muhammad campaign, one of Al-Alam’s favorite projects, was a colorful, engaging advertising campaign that invited people to learn more about the noted Islamic prophet as well improve the British public’s understanding and perception of Muslims with catchphrases like “I believe in social justice. So did Muhammad” or “I believe in protecting the environment. So did Muhammad.”

Make Me Believe was awarded by Adobe Youth Voices and won a trip to San Francisco, among other prizes for its “Deaf not Dumb” campaign, a video project that the agency trained and developed with a range of deaf youth.

Appealing to various audiences effectively is important for Muslims who want to represent themselves and improve Islam’s so-called bad PR status.

Al-Alam says that Muslims firstly need to “really just be Muslim” by living as good examples for their neighbors, as well as actively use modern media, design and talent, instead of imported, poorly designed, Oriental-themed designs. If Muslim artists hold themselves up to high standards, Al-Alam says their race, background or religious affiliation will never be an issue, because good work stands out.

“Quality, love and attention to detail should be a Muslim’s hallmark at all times,” he says.

Importance of the Arts

London-born, Chicago-based playwright and actress Rohina Malik also sees the impact of art in the Muslim community as necessary because it gives voices to Muslims in a way that Fox News or CNN will not.

“It really helps demystify Muslim Americans and their experience. It helps erase that otherness through the images we see in the media. People who view Muslims as other, through the arts, see them as human beings,” Malik says.

Malik is a writer currently under commission with The Goodman Theatre’s Playwright’s Unit. Her one-woman play Unveiled, premiered at the 16th Street Theater and is now preparing for its fourth production at Brava Theater, San Francisco in September 2011. The play tells the story of five Muslim American women after 9/11, discussing themes of racism, hate, love, Islam, culture and life.

Malik says she was “inspired by the backlash from 9/11 and disturbed by the deaths of so many innocent people in retaliation,” like the Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi, from Arizona. She says those events made her think about how people can’t put Muslim women—or Muslims in general– in a box and judge them.

She says the traditional image of Muslim women is that of oppressed, submissive people, but Muslimah artists shows their true strength, intelligence and creativity. Malik belongs to Muslim Women in the Arts collective, a support group to educate others and promote Muslim women artists and encourage arts in the community.

“Building mosques and schools has its value, but it doesn’t help the ignorance we are living with, not the way the arts can make a difference,” she says.

Facing Obstacles

Ainee Fatima, a 20-year-old spoken-word poet also from Chicago, says her work is embraced more by non-Muslims than Muslims. Fatima says she grew up in a household and community where a Muslim woman was taught that even her voice could excite a man, which she would get sins for.

“I feel like the Muslim world has just recently started getting ready for female Muslim poets, especially the ones who perform. We have amazing role models such as Suheir Hammad, Tahani Salah and Liza Garza who have started to pave the way for younger Muslim women to open up the doors to this new way of communication and sharing our stories,” Fatima says.

She calls her poetry skills a true gift from God that she must develop to help spread knowledge of Islam and the struggle of being a Muslim. Fatima has risen up in the spoken word scene, becoming a duo slam champion in the Young Chicago Author’s Louder Than A Bomb competition with her teammate Noor Hasan. In 2011, she was recognized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and featured in the State Department Newsletter. Fatima and will have poems published in two books in the next few years.

Fatima says what’s unique about Muslim poets is that their writing often comes from a common inspiration. For her, poetry is how she finds her sense of belonging within the Western world and the Muslim world.

“It’s fueled by their love and faith in God, sometimes it may even be their confusion in their identity as a Muslim but nonetheless, it seems as though their personal journey in faith is their driven force,” she says. Fatima also notes the influence of famous Muslim poets like Rumi and Ghalib.

“Islam is the religion of creativity. It urges its followers to be active, creative and imaginative,” Fatima says.

For Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, his journey toward accepting Sufi Islam in 1970 actually took him away from his career as an established poet for some time after his teacher told him to devote himself to only reading the Quran.

“During this turning away from my impulses to write poetry, I found a deeper reliance on Allah alone, a serious reorientation of my soul in a devotional way, as well as a huge variety of experiences based on that reliance that increased the water in the poetry dam, as it were,” Moore says.

After a year, Moore finally returned to his passion, going on to publish “The Chronicles of Akhira” in the The Ecstatic Exchange series and other spiritually inspired work on his website and in print. He decided he couldn’t choose between being a Muslim or a poet, “for being a Muslim is a continuously expanding and augmenting thing, and knowing the techniques of poetry is a never-ending learning, and living a life of poetic works is or should be one of constant renovation, in expression and voice…”

Moore says he even tried to convey an indigenous American Islam through his writing the way the Beat writers of the ‘60s did for Buddhism. He attributes the problem of freedom of expression not being fully accepted or respected by all Muslims is due to the more conservative minds.

“I think part of our problems with better audience for our work lies in the generally Wahhabi effort to create doubt about creativity generally, from imagery in art to music and even poetry, as not worth noticing, if not outright prohibiting, in a too-stringent application of somewhat ambiguous fiqh on these subjects,” he says.

Solving the Identity Crisis

Though the Muslim artist community is still in its budding stages, these artists still have faith in its potential to speak out and successfully gain credibility and attention.

“I see this trend toward presenting more intelligent positivity with such things as Wajahat Ali’s play, The Domestic Crusaders, Kazim Ali’s books of poetry, The Far Mosque, The Fortieth Day, and Fasting for Ramadan,” says Moore.

Malik says she can see proof of theater’s ability to educate and enlighten by the lingering discussions in the audience after her plays, where people confront her with the stereotypes of Muslims they never thought they had.

“Storytelling itself is a very powerful. It’s healing and cathartic,” Malik says. “When they see the character’s humanity, they begin to see their humanity.”

Al-Alam believes that art that western Muslims can relate to enriches their life and gives confidence to their identity.

“We have a whole new generation of young western Muslims who have stripped themselves of cultural baggage of their parents and began to form their own identity,” he says. He advises aspiring Muslim artists to hold on to their core values, be honest in their design, to never stop learning and to work hard to become both cutting-edge and influential.

Fatima says as long as Muslims forgo becoming doctors and lawyers and allow their children to also become writers and artists, the rich, forgotten history of Islamic art will help solidify the future of Muslim identity.

“Islam calls upon Muslims to make use of every branch of knowledge to enhance their link to their ummah and their sense of belonging,” she says. “That’s what I do, that’s how I find my sense of belonging within the Western world and the Muslim world. It’s hard but…definitely worth it.”




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