Middle Ground

Aiming to educate a Western viewer, Islamic art on campus balances social and aesthetic value

Katharine E. Lauderdale

Parting the curtains of “In the Courtyard of the Beloved,” the viewer enters a sacred alcove of bright colors, intricate geometric decorations, and minarets. The installation—part of the new exhibition at the Peabody Museum, “Sacred Spaces: Reflections on a Sufi Path”—sweeps the viewer away from the gallery, flies him across oceans, pulls him through the crowded streets of Delhi, and finally ushers him into a Sufi shrine. There, the digital still images and audio recordings bring into view a personal practice of a mystical dimension of Islam.

“In the Courtyard of the Beloved,” makes clear the exhibition’s pedagogical purpose. A collection of photographs, calligraphic works, and mixed media montages, “Sacred Spaces,” presents a pluralistic view of Islam as it is expressed and practiced today. In a time when the religion is oft associated with terrorism, extremism, and oppression, the exhibition offers a nuanced view of Islam and is careful to depict its multifaceted nature.

“Sacred Spaces: Reflections on a Sufi Path,” and its companion display “Sacred Spaces: The World of Dervishes, Fakirs, and Sufis” at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, are part of a greater initiative, for which faculty and students are also advocating, to use art to educate the Harvard community about the religion of Islam, and by extension, Middle Eastern cultures. And for artists within an Islamic tradition who wish to educate a Western audience, these social motivations must be balanced against their aesthetic goals.


Islamic art, as in many other religious traditions, has historically been conscious of its inseparability from the divine, a sentiment that continues to operate within the on-campus Islamic community.


“God bestowed artistry and other gifts to mankind,” says Nafees A. Syed ’10, a practicing Muslim and Crimson staff editorial writer. “Even when Solomon built this beautiful temple there was a recognition of where the gifts came from.”

Na’eel A. Cajee ’10, president of the Islamic student society, sees this relationship as reciprocal.

“When you produce something that is beautiful it is usually an attempt at perfected expression or proportion,” he says. “Art, for me, is striving for perfection but ultimately falling short of the Perfect, which is God. This is the idea that is behind art and is an inspiration for artists.”

For the general Harvard community, however, Islamic art’s relevance is not necessarily its religious import but its undeniable cultural significance.

“First of all, you have to think about religious traditions as cultural phenomenon embedded in context—social and political and literary and artistic,” says Professor Ali S. Asani, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures and Associate Director of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program. “Great works of Christian secular music are tied closely to piety. We are used to thinking about religion in theological forms. Religion is such a complex phenomenon that religious discourse can be found in many other forms. Muslims in the Islamic world are no exception.”

Next semester, Asani will be teaching a General Education class that will serve as an introduction to Islam and Muslim culture through the arts. The class will explore a wide range of Muslim art forms, including the architecture of mosques, poetry, Koran recitation, devotional song, and calligraphy. “We will study them and try to understand them for their own aesthetic value based on the culture they’re coming from and use those art forms as lenses to understand Muslim culture,” Asani says. Students will then have the opportunity to design a mosque for an urban American landscape, create a poem in English using the structure and symbolism of a genre of Islamic poetry study, and produce their own works of calligraphy so that they can participate in and understand the practice of Islam. Using art in such a way helps students engage with the religion in a more meaningful way.

“The representations of Muslims have been so negative,” Asani says. “How de we counteract Islamaphobia? I am a firm believer that one way in which people can understand each other is through the arts.”


Samina Quraeshi, the first Robert Gardner Visiting Artist Fellow at the Peabody Museum, is currently using her time at Harvard to put this notion into practice. Quraeshi’s work, which is currently displayed in “Sacred Spaces” as part of her fellowship, attempts to translate her conception of homeland—a complicated interweaving of her birth in India, Pakistani Muslim upbringing, and Catholic education—into a cultural experience.

Fundamentally believing that the personal cannot be separated from artistic production, Quraeshi’s visual pieces are permeated by her lived encounter with her own strain of the religion, Sufism.