Zarmeena, one of the poets who presented at the 2011 MSA Coffeehouse at Virginia Commonwealth University
(Photo: Nathan Elmore)
On the last night of Osama bin Laden’s earthly sojourn, unbeknownst to him, in the Student Commons at Virginia Commonwealth University, the Muslim Student Association at VCU presented its annual performance-art showcase called Coffeehouse. As it turns out, the two dissimilar occurrences are quite connected to Islam’s modern messaging.
First, it must be said: as a Wahhabi under the Salafi influence, bin Laden would not be caught dead at a Muslim art event whose ad promoted the golden era of the Turkish coffeehouse. Quicker than you can say "deviation" or "innovation" he would certainly shake the hand of a Shia before turning up to hear the student group BPROC (Best Pakistani Rappers on Campus) drop it like it’s hot. He might even tolerate saying prayers in an evangelical mega-church that "worships three gods" before listening to a female Muslim poet read her original verse while not wearing a headscarf.
Bin Laden died after spending years in hiding, which is fitting given the circumstances. In contrast, art usually evidences a strong tendency to reveal. His death, then, when juxtaposed against young creative Muslims at VCU, gives rise to that famous quotation attributed to Hippocrates: "Art is long; life is short."
The New York City artist Makoto Fujimura says, "An artist’s task is to see through the eye into the invisible." Creative expression begins in the artist’s eye, which then opens up or enlarges a world for our eyes to see. Meanwhile, bin Laden’s world – despite his global ambitions and forceful pursuits – was actually closing or shrinking even as the Arab Spring, in many cases, had decided to move on without him.
Interestingly, as the capstone to "Islam Awareness Week" at VCU, the 2011 MSA Coffeehouse didn’t beg the typical question we hear repeated in the news cycle: "Which Islam are they talking about?" Instead it offered us the more nuanced: "What type of Islamic awareness is this?"
For instance, due to Egypt’s political revolution, we are more than a little aware of the Muslim Brotherhood. But did you know there are Muslim musicians who rather enjoy covering songs by Linkin Park? Earlier this year, much appropriate hubbub was made concerning the clandestine surveillance of Muslims, including Muslim students, in New York City and across the Northeast by the New York Police Department. But did you know that Muslim students are making sensitive short films addressing nagging American social issues like entrenched urban homelessness?
It seems that often our Islamic awareness is as complicated as the old and new relationship itself between Islam and art.
On the one hand, listen to the recitations of the Qur’an, whose verses, some say, are musically better than pre-Islamic Arabian poetry, itself a much fabled thing. Or take a breather from the horrible daily scenes in Syria to look at the Great Mosque of Damascus. Completed in 715, it is regarded as an Islamic architectural template. Or consider Islam’s Persian confluence – the elevated form of painting known as miniature, and, of course, those world-renowned carpets.
On the other hand, the contemporary situation is fraught with challenge. At the 2007 gathering of the Islamic Society of North America, several punk bands channeling a self-described "taqwacore" sensibility were kicked off the stage. Subsequent debate centered on whether it was the musical genre or the appearance of female performers (or some combination of both) which prompted the censors. Last year, a Tunisian filmmaker was attacked in the head with a sharp object. Linking the incident to Salafi ideology – bin Laden’s former muse – the filmmaker sized it up as symbolic of a growing battle in Tunisia over uninhibited artistic expression.
But at the MSA Coffeehouse at VCU, in addition to the rappers, poets and filmmakers, the art simply kept happening. Two young Muslim men – putting the P in Punjabi while in polo shirts and jeans – introduced the crowd to the qawwali, a 700-year-old form of Sufi devotional music. The lead student organizer for the event, a woman whose family hails from the Swat Valley in Pakistan, joined an Afghan-born woman in acting out a dramatic scene from the play In Darfur. An Indian medical student played a charming piano piece in an Italian style. And a non-Muslim singer-guitarist, a female in uncovered arms, passionately covered a Jason Mraz song.
The late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who experienced a strict Islamic upbringing, said in an interview in 2002: "You would never have thought that an artist would emerge from [my] family." No stranger to an Islamic fundamentalist death-list, Mahfouz would have been right at home in the middle of what emerged at the MSA Coffeehouse at VCU. Bin Laden, well, I imagine all the explosive art-making must have surely killed him sometime during that last night before the day he was actually killed.
In a 2001 photo of bin Laden published in the May 16, 2011, edition of The New Yorker, we see the terrorist’s gun resting against a tall shelf of books. These books would at least include copies of the Qur’an and the sayings of Muhammad. It’s an unsettling image – and for many reasons. However, in the aftermath of one Muslim student group's creative explorations at the intersection of faith and art, another image continues to materialize and confront our Islamic awareness: resting beside the Muslim’s books are his musical instruments, her film cameras and, of course, the poet’s pen.