• The West appreciates Islamic art – so why don’t Muslims?

    My op-ed published in The National newspaper last week.

    Last week, an unprecedented exhibition about the Haj finally closed at the British Museum in London, having gathered praise around the world. The coverage focused on how this was the first known exhibition of its kind about the Haj anywhere in the world, let alone in the West; and how it moved audiences away from the political discourse about Islam and into the human experience of being Muslim.

    Showcasing Islamic art has become a widespread trend in the West, a movement that can be traced to the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001. There is a palpable desire in the West to understand Muslims better through arts and culture. After all, art is traditionally a vehicle through which the West makes sense of its place in the world, and which acts as a safe space to discuss thorny cultural and political issues. One of the curators of the exhibition captured this by expressing her aspiration that the show would allow people to stand in Muslim shoes. It seems to be working.

    In Paris, the Louvre will open its Arts of Islam gallery later this summer with a specially designed roof inspired by an Islamic veil. At a time of heightened racial and religious tensions in France, and record support for the anti-immigrant Front National, this is both an irony and a sign of hope. Perhaps through art France can suck the politics and hatred out of its relationship with its Muslim citizens.

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reopened its Islamic art galleries at the end of last year after an eight-year closure. Its curator describes how Islamic arts can illuminate the meaning that Islam brings to a vast global population. “Islam is not a single lens through which we view and interpret the art,” said Navina Najat Haidar, curator and coordinator in the Met’s department of Islamic art. “Rather, it’s an inverted lens that reveals great diversity.”

    The surprise, however, is not that the West is producing and devouring art and heritage from the Muslim world, but that Muslims themselves are proving much slower at the same activities. However, they are gradually beginning to grasp that the arts are a means of dialogue and mutual understanding.

    In Canberra, Australia, a Muslim group is seeking to build an Islamic art and history museum to “educate people on their magnificent contribution” and their long history with the nation, with Muslims trading from what is now Indonesia long before the arrival of the first white settlers.

    It would also strengthen ties with two of Australia’s biggest trading partners, Indonesia and Malaysia. They are right that art has a way of revealing humanity and reality that can be obscured by political extremism, rhetoric and downright hatred. There is also a certain symmetry to using historic trade and cultural relationships in order to foster future trade and culture.

    In a global climate where walls are being built between Islam and the West faster than they are being torn down, the arts create a much needed chink of light.

    But these developments also leave me wondering about whether there is an appreciation among Muslims, for other Muslims to experience the joy of creativity and the preservation of heritage? Do Muslims see art as a means of intra-ummah dialogue and an understanding of our own selves and our contexts?

    Sometimes I despair that it is too much for show, trying too hard to prove our artistic and cultural heritage rather than to enjoy and learn from it for ourselves. I want Muslims to enjoy, preserve and use arts for themselves, as well as for dialogue. We need to establish definitively that the arts are important. We need to invest in them. And we need to offer up creative space to them to develop new forms.

    In fact there is a peculiar dichotomy of wanting to show off our arts and culture to others, while diminishing their value to the ummah. When others destroy Islamic heritage (in Israel, for example), Muslims are quick to point it out – and rightly so. However, when respected archaeologists raise similar concerns for heritage sites in countries such as Saudi Arabia, there is thundering silence.

    Heritage must be preserved so that we can understand the context of who we are. In my opinion, for Muslims this is a divine command, as the Quran talks clearly about travelling the world to see what has passed before.

    The Gulf slowly but surely is realising the value of recognising the importance of its cultural roots. There has been a mushrooming of museums and galleries being commissioned and opened over recent years, attempting to tell the story of the region’s heritage. The British Museum and the Louvre are in the forefront of the creation of Saadiyat island’s cultural district.

    The question is, who is this all for, and what is the purpose? The museums, artistic endeavours and exhibitions should be there to help us work through the issues of the present, by offering new lenses on current predicaments. They must allow us to delve into our past – both the good and the gory – to make sense of the current challenges in the Muslim world, to allow us to converse across countries, ethnicities, languages and cultures and make sense of why we are where we are.

    In short, we need the arts to understand how we got here today and why we are facing the challenges we face. We need the arts to offer us up creative vistas on how we move forward from today’s challenges.

    We are still at the early stages – still only able to put forward a rose-tinted view of Muslim heritage that serves the much-needed purpose of building our confidence, and introducing us to our own past. But in getting to know the past we must get to know not just the positives but the ups and downs, the contentions, the challenges and all those stories we might want to forget, that don’t fit with the glorious narrative we wish to display.

    Part of the problem is that we don’t know how to understand, how to embrace and promote arts. We must open ourselves up to new influences in theatre, poetry, music, language, rhythm, architecture even as we remain true to our Islamic artistic heritage. We must incorporate them willingly instead of rejecting new forms as “un-Islamic”, or only reluctantly accept them as part of Islamic expression. Where do we think the art forms we now promote so passionately come from in the first place?

    New music development, for example, is in its early stages but is usually frowned upon. Yet people love Qawwali, which itself must have been a struggling new medium once before blossoming into the art form it is today. Theatre is the same: a new shape to the storytelling heritage of the Muslim world. We need to give time and investment for art forms to develop.

    The arts have their place in civilisational dialogue, for sure. But to limit that dialogue to politics is to short-change the arts and ourselves. Worse is to use the arts as a public relations tool while disregarding their ability to help us understand ourselves, our faith and our history. Used wisely, the arts also have the creative power to help us shape our future.

    Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at

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  • Looking for Muslim playwrights – is this you?

    The prestigious Royal Court Theatre is looking for aspiring Muslim playwrights, as part of their ‘Unheard Voices’ work. They say:

    “The Royal Court is running an 11-week playwriting group starting in May 2010 to develop and nurture the next generation of young Muslim writers.  Each weekly session will involve sharing ideas, reading and talking about plays and writing exercises.  You will work towards writing a new play, which we will read in consideration for production here at the Royal Court. “

    It sounds like a fantastic opportunity, and anyone who has thought about writing for theatre should definitely apply. All you need to do is pull together at least 10 pages for the submission and get it to the organisers by April 16th.

    You can see more details, and how to apply here:

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  • Taking part in today’s Big Read world record attempt

    This morning I’m off to take part in The Big Read, which is a world record attempt to get as many children reading with an adult as possible. It sounds like a lot of fun, and a great way to get children to realise that reading is enjoyable, and can be both a private and a shared experience.

    Here is the blurb from the press release about trying to get 3000 children involved:

     Over 35 schools across London and from as far as Reading and Croydon will participate in this unique event, which seeks to highlight the importance of literacy, locally, nationally and internationally.
    The world record attempt will involve authors, teachers and some special guests reading from Roald Dahl’s classic ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ to the assembled children. Celebrities taking part include journalist, Victoria Brittain, BBC London presenter Asad Ahmed and Hedy Epstein, an 85 year old holocaust survivor.
    A special guest appearance will take place by John Stephens who worked as part of the special effects team on what turned out to be the cult film, ‘Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.’
    Reverend Jesse Jackson, is lending his support to the BIG Read. At a forum at the House of Commons on Friday, 26 February 2010, the Reverend Jackson stated: “I support the BIG Read because if you can read, you can reason. Reading is like a light to your brain. It takes you out of darkness… Literacy liberates. Reading and reasoning are forces for change, for the good”.

    I certainly echo what the Reverend says – reading is absolutely fundamental. But also, once a child matures, making sense of what you are reading, and thinking critically about it – and realising that you too have something to say – is pretty important too.

    Thus spake the blogger who discovered much later than she ought to have that everyone has a voice, and everyone should express it.

    Having said all of that I’m looking forward to reading the part of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory chews the chewing gum and turns into a big purple blueberry.

    Update: The results of the event are in – and it’s a world record! There were 3234 participants (including me) who broke the world record for ‘the most children reading with an adult’.

    If you wanna be the best and stand out from the rest you gotta be a record breaker. No matter what the test if you become the best you gotta be a record breaker. Record breakers are headline makers and they are the top of heap!


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  • Faith buildings and urban environments: mosques, minarets and multi-faith

    Towards the end of last year, the Arts and Islam programme held an intriguing seminar about the relationship between faith buildings and the urban environments that many of them inhabit.

    My review:

    The mosques that I went to as a child, were of two types. The first were ephemeral fleeting locations: hired halls, school rooms, community centres. They functioned as mosques only during the time that they were populated by Muslims, melting back into their ordinary functions as soon as the last worshipper had left.

    The second kind were permanent structures, with the dedicated function of being a mosque; but somehow they were still lacking in confidence, constrained by lack of time, resources and vision. Purchased from owners who found the large buildings too costly to maintain as a result of disuse or disrepair, they were often old town halls, churches and even schools. They offered benefits such as being well located with large halls to accommodate worshippers. But the bathrooms were too small for the ritual ablutions, the floors too hard for prayers, the qibla that points the congregation to Mecca at a crooked angle to the building, and most likely in need of restoration.

    What baffled me most – even as a child – was the crowning of these new buildings with a little green dome. I understand why it was done – a symbolic marking of the building’s new life as a Muslim centre. Was it necessary though, I wondered? And what was the impact of these and similar architectural changes on the aesthetics of existing – often historic – buildings? And did it enhance the worshippers’ faith?

    These questions have been bubbling away in my mind for many years, so imagine my delight in finding a seminar hosted at a Muslim centre, and inspired by Muslims, focusing on the spatial relationships of faith buildings with their community and environment. Why had I never come across such a discussion before?

    The seminar was prescient – coming only weeks before the Swiss referendum on whether to ban the building of minarets. 53.4% of the population turned out to a vote which carried the motion to ban minarets by 57.5%. The ban has provoked controversy, and has been called a violation of religious freedom and expression, but it highlights the significant meaning which people attach to faith buildings. Church spires are remarkably similar in size and shape to minarets, and Switzerland has plenty of them. Yet the population invests different interpretations to the two, even though the stone and mortar are very similar. It might be naive to wonder why this might be, but when
    approaching this question from an architectural rather than a political perspective, it gets to the very heart of this seminar’s question about how faith buildings influence and interact with their surroundings.

    The seminar was part of the This Is Not A Gateway (TINAG) Festival, a weekend of presentations, debates and forums on the city and urban citizenship. It was co-sponsored by Arts Council England’s Arts and Islam initiative, and in his introduction the director of diversity Tony Panayiotou made a bold statement: “Arts can help young people from turning to extremism.” I wondered whether, by extension, was the same true for faith architecture? I have always maintained that those who have been seduced by violence have not found it in mosques, but rather have been alienated from them. Was it therefore possible that a well-designed, well-built, well-implemented faith building could inspire souls and minds in positive ways?

    You can read the full review here:

    or here:

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  • Muslims 2.0?

    I’ll be speaking this evening at an event hosted by the Radical Middle Way entitled “Divan 2.0: Wired Warriors for the Soul of Islam”. It will be a panel discussion and Q&A between some of the UK’s most active cyber citizens.

    So here are some of my inital thoughts: the web has certainly opened doors for Muslims – especially young Muslims – to have their voices heard and hold discussions that had very little space elsewhere. I’m one of those and my blog is testament to how the web helped me discover and shape my voice. But I do worry that there is a lot of yelling that goes on, and that we have lost the ability to discern wisdom and learning from polemic. And how does the invisible, intangible blogosphere fit into the social structure of a faith that is built around physical congregations such as the Friday prayers and the hajj? Are we destined to turn into two parallel ummahs, those who go to the mosque and those who go online?

    Come along to the event to hear the panel talking about Wired Warriors for the soul of Islam

    Date: Friday 22 May 2009
    Location: Old Theatre, London School of Economics
    Address: Houghton Street (off the Aldwych) London WC2A 2AE
    Time: Doors open 6:45 pm; Starts 7:15 pm; Ends 8:45 pm

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  • Whose body is it anyway?

    Christian and secular art have at least one thing in common – they like to have people in them. Christian religious art is brought to life with representations of the personalities that populate Christian history. From high art produced by the great masters, to local churches, the artistic interpretation of Christ and other figures opens the door to discussion about the spirituality conveyed. Body, whether through direct representation or iconography, is the gateway to the spiritual meaning of these works, and it feeds from the Christian idea that the incarnation of Christ connects human beings to the Divine through the body of Christ.

    Islamic aesthetic principles find the body an alien impostor to spiritual aspiration. God has no incarnation, cannot be defined in bodily terms, nor has location, size, shape or gender. The Divine is found in the abstract and undepictable territories of the inner heart, and is manifested in the geometric perfections and multiplicities of both art and nature.

    From a Christian European perspective, the body is uncomfortably absent from public Muslim life. Calligraphy and geometric art are used to transcend into the domain of the spiritual – human beings are not usually depicted. Even people seem to lack bodies in the public arena, with women tucked neatly under headscarves and men in looser shirts and full length trousers. Muslim heritage rejects the body being a public billboard. Instead, it is to be celebrated and shared only in private, retained for personal and family interactions and for the pleasures of intimacy. This is one of the fundamental reasons Muslim women wear the hijab: to be valued for who you are, not what you look like. Muslims, in this sense, are simply exercising their very modern right to privacy.

    Today’s secular gods of consumerism and self indulgent gluttony, of beauty, youth and immortality, have their roots in the same Greco-Roman heritage that Christian art draws upon. Secular art, which is offered up to its own gods show us sculpted bodies that meet our contemporary ideals of bodily perfection. It idolises the oxymoron of super-slim yet ultra-curvy women, the sparkling white of pristine teeth that have gorged on chocolate – a modern day food for the gods – or the tough muscular six-pack man in the age of longer working hours and high alcohol consumption. Image is the ultimate altar to worship at. One men’s clothing chain ran an advertising campaign last year using simply the words: “Looks aren’t important. They are everything.” Body is the ultimate god, and fashion designers are its disciples.

    The body is thus the fulcrum for public debate, expression and attitudes. What happens when the body is not available as the yardstick? Is the response to see women who wear the hijab as ‘withholding’ themselves from the public space, and to consider that inflammatory? The privacy of the body for Muslims means it is entirely natural for Muslim women not to shake hands with a man, but the role of body in social interaction through a European lens means it is highly unnatural not to. There is no quick fix to resolving these different perspectives, because they stem from deeply ingrained attitudes and perspectives. Intensive communication and understanding hold the only keys.

    We are told that the body is public, but faith should be private. But if faith is about aligning your entire being towards a better way of being, then the body is de facto part of that. In the religious domain we focus on the body of Christ, in the secular it is the flesh of supermodels. In both cases, the body is a public canvas, a forum for discussion. The personal is public, and the public is political except, ironically, when it comes to using our own bodies to express faith. Faith, as an exception to everything else, is a private matter, we are told, separated from public life and to be left at home. It seems we are at cross purposes. Modernity protects our right to privacy, but this privacy does not seem to extend to the body.

    This article was published in The Muslim News

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  • The Arts and Islam – exploration or provocation?

    Chris Wilkinson on the Guardian Arts blog asks “Are artists afraid to approach radical Islam?” prompted by a piece by Peter Whittle who claims that “The arts are increasingly censoring themselves when it comes to Islam”. Whittle argues that radical Islam is threatening and violent when it comes to criticism, and thus the arts are being frightened into silence and are unable to express their real opinions. Wilkinson rebuts him and points to a raft of artists that are indeed engaged in exploring Islam and Muslims but have not created the headline sensations that Whittle points to as proof of Islam’s supposed barbarism.

    What is the purpose of the arts? That is the question that underlies this debate. Whittle seems to think that the label of ‘art’ permits anyone to say anything at all, and elevates ‘provocation’ onto a pedestal when it is under the guise of art.

    It seems perfectly reasonable that the arts should address Islam and Muslims, in fact the arts are often the channel by which new ideas and phenomenons are addressed in Europe and America. The issue is how and why. Exploration and critique? Bring it on. Gratuitous displays and offensiveness? I don’t see the point. The authors need to at least have a basic understanding of what they are talking about, and a goal for their production. It also needs to be clear – is the aim of the ‘attack’ ‘critique’ ‘exploration’, whatever you call it, to criticise Islam, or to cause fear, misunderstanding and even hatred of Muslims. If it is a criticism of Islamic tenets, be my guest. It’s not unique or groundbreaking, it’s happened before. The faith can take it, after all it’s been around for a while. If it is blindsighted hate, or ignorant provocation under the guise of free speech, then it devalues both its subject and the hallowed paradigm of freedom of expression.

    When the Danish cartoon story broke there was much discussion in the media about the right to be offensive. Is that what we aspire to as a society? The right to be offensive? I find that demeaning to human beings that that is the best we can do. Surely we should yearn for politeness, etiquette and good behaviour on all sides? Criticism and difference of opinion have their etiquettes too, something we seem to have forgotten.

    Muslims do tend to be over sensitive to the arts as a form of exploration and dialogue, partly because western arts appear to go out of their way to be offensive, and partly because there is no identical tradition in the Muslim world. Muslims have their own artistic traditions but they follow different formats.The Muslim world tends to engage in more spoken or written forms of discourse where books, poetry and didactic interchange are more traditional formats. Get a bunch of top scholars together and the levels of criticism and argument are likely to be high, but its not something we see often in the public domain.

    However, death threats and violence from Muslims must stop. It’s really no way to deal with those who have nothing valuable to say and are being provocative for provocation’s sake. What Muslims need to learn is to channel the arts and use it as a means for expression.

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