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Clipboard Islam: Modern Religiosity and the Aesthetic Thirst

My dear friend Ismail Alatas, a recent graduate from the doctoral program in history/anthropology of Islam and professor of Islamic studies at New York University shared pictures from his current visit to the tomb of the famous composer Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig, Germany. With excitement, Ismail commented that Bach is “one of the lustrous signs of God!”

Compare this transaction with another that took place some two years ago at a prominent annual Islamic conference in America. I was standing in the meeting hall’s bazar with my friend to advertise a youth retreat we were holding at the time for teaching the western humanities (art, history and literature) to Muslim youth at the high school and college level.

Suddenly, a skeptical middle-aged Muslim man passed by, dressed in a business suit and carrying a clipboard. He certainly seemed in a hurry as he bluntly and anxiously asked: “What is this?” Upon giving him a pamphlet and explaining the event’s activities, he replied unabashedly: “This is a waste of time, none of these speakers are scientists or published authors in the New York Times best sellers!”

Now, a viable response to the important question: “Why did the characters in these two anecdotes behave so differently?” might be that prof. Alatas is an open minded academic and, therefore, less religiously conservative than a Muslim man at a religious conference. Unfortunately, such a conclusion is belied by the fact that prof. Alatas also happens to be a prominent speaker from the saintly Sufi family of Baʿalawy, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad from Yemen who migrated to Indonesia, where prof. Alatas was born.

Therefore, for all intents and purposes, our professor is much more knowledgeable when it comes to religious knowledge and Islamic history than this businessman. And yet, both my friend and his counterpart represent rising dichotomous trends in the Muslim community in America. On the one hand, people like Alatas who have an aesthetic sensitivity and are artistically literate have become increasingly distant from a communal involvement in the conferences, seminaries and gatherings of American Muslims.

On the other hand, that American Muslim community, in all its various colors and denominations, seems to linger – of course with exceptions – on questions that appear incredibly primitive to the other side, such as: “is music haram (forbidden) or halal (lawful)?” Even those communally involved Muslims who consider themselves ‘artists’, mostly sing only religious hymns in Arabic and English (sg. qasida) without musical instruments and most probably would not go out of their way to visit Bach’s mausoleum, much less consider him a lustrous sign of God.

This is a deep and crucial issue intimately related with the above mentioned fact that the more aesthetically and artistically inclined Muslims seem to feel more and more distant from any regular communal involvement with their coreligionists, especially in America. Intertwined with this phenomenon, and I would venture is its root cause, is the altogether different understanding of one’s relationship with God that these two groups exhibit. A divergence that manifests in the preoccupation with contrasting texts and social practices within the same faith.

It is not only Muslim professors like Alatas who, due to their academic lifestyle, are sophisticated connoisseurs of the humanities, but also saints of God who have chosen to open the hearts of their disciples to such an expansive understanding of Islam. Once during a conversation, the prominent Sufi master Shaykh Hisham Kabbani commented on the importance of art, that “it does not have to do with a human being’s animal instinct, but rather their spirit. It can elevate them closer to God!”

Naturally, one would think that a Muslim saint such as Shaykh Hisham is referring specifically to religious art. However, in another conversation with him about the celebrated Lebanese Christian author Gibran Khalil Gibran, Shaykh Hisham revealed the full extent of his vast witnessing act. He stated that: “Gibran was a divinely-inspired scholar”, while another lady saint in the same group further commented that “Khalil Gibran is khalil Allah <