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winter 2014 vol 4 no 1



WINTER 2014 VOL 4 NO 1

EDITORS-IN-CHIEF Hana Al-Henaid ’14 Ayesha Rasheed ’14 ASSOCIATE EDITORS Samra Adeni ’14 Osama El-Gabalawy ’15 Afia Khan ’16 Zainab Taymuree ’16 FINANCIAL OFFICER Zahra Taji ’14

Avicenna—The Stanford Journal on Muslim Affairs would like to thank the ASSU Publications Board for their support. All images in this journal are in the public domain with Creative Commons copyright licenses unless otherwise noted. More information about these licences can be found at Front and back cover images by Ayesha Rasheed ’14





Music of the Arab Spring: Interview with Dr. Ramzi Salti SAMRA ADENI


The Battle for a Country’s Identity: Bangladesh’s Secularist Struggle HALEY KETTERER


The Muslim Health Collaborative NADIR IJAZ


La Alhambra Photos by AYESHA RASHEED


Islam and the Founding Fathers ABBAS MILANI


Self-Exoticization for the Film Festival ZAINAB TAYMUREE


The Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque Nora fathalipour




Editorial Note As a preeminently Californian institution, Stanford has always prided itself on being a center of optimism and innovation. From convocation to commencement, we are pushed to embrace the role of the pioneer, unhampered by anything but our own stamina and commitment. The University motto was chosen to encompass this. Coming from a statement uttered by 16th century humanist Ulrich von Hutten in response to the persecution of Martin Luther, the words inscribed on our official seal actually underscore a more important message that we at Avicenna strive to pursue. Though most students may be unaware, our German motto, “Die Luft der Freiheit weht,” is actually a translation of von Hutten’s original words in Latin. German theological critic David Friedrich Strauss condensed and translated the phrase from Latin to German, and one of his biographers subsequently went from the German to the English: “The wind of freedom blows.” It is only this last iteration that Stanford’s first President, David Starr Jordan, encountered and was so enamoured by. In a gesture of respect for the legacy of German university scholarship, the decision was made to adopt the German words. What can we take from the story of this relay chain? The emphasis on liberty and originality is readily apparent – after all, Stanford sits at the tech forefront, in the heart of Silicon Valley. But the motto’s origins, its passing through several hands and absorption along the way of different men’s and different cultures’ nuances, is absolutely key. Avicenna: The Stanford Journal on Muslim Affairs is now in its fourth year of publication. We have moved past the whirlwind of inception, and are now eyeing the horizons of our current Stanford home. Perhaps it is a natural byproduct of age, this speculative desire to expand and grow, but we at Avicenna believe it goes beyond that. This issue marks the first time we have opened the journal to submissions from non-Stanford affiliates. This decision was not made lightly – questions were raised as to the quality of submissions from authors we cannot meet, doubts were voiced about preserving the journal’s identity as a dedicated portrait of Islamic learning at Stanford, and we worried that our adolescent publication might stretch itself too far. Any doubts we had, however valid, have been proved blessedly wrong. In this issue and next, we are pleased to find that the intimacy of our journal has not been compromised in any way. Our new in-laws, so to speak, are as vibrant and enlightening an addition to the Avicenna community of scholars as was the succession of translators that eventually led to our University motto. A particularly poetic highlight in this issue comes from Nora Fathalipour at the University of New Brunswick. Her awed and passionate tour of Iran’s Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is a splendid blending of architectural analysis, history, and visual splendor that we are delighted to share with our readers. 4


However, as momentous as the widening of our pool of authors was for this issue, we decided that it should not dominate it. Contributions from our Stanford authors reflect, as usual, a mind-boggling array of diverse subjects that we at Avicenna are so proud to sample from. Echoing the enormous scope of the Muslim world, the articles in this issue range accordingly across time and topic. Within, we’ll see how the repercussions of recent events, such as the political growth of Bangladeshi Islamist group Hifazat-eIslam are still continuing, while new insight into American history has yielded surprising connections between our nation’s Founding Fathers and Islam. The dynamism of Islam-related issues is certainly not limited to far-away places or bygone eras. This issue also illustrates some remarkably tangible movements taking place right now within the Muslim world in sectors we can more immediately access. Whether here at Stanford as embodied in the Muslim Health Collaborative or a mouseclick away in the form of revolutionary music from the Arab Spring, novel initiatives addressing the hopes and needs of a new generation of Muslims remind us that the world this journal seeks to explore is by no means a static thing. At our inauguration, former editor Sahar Khan hoped this journal would “bridge the gap of understanding between the East and the West, much in the same way that Avicenna, the man himself, worked hard to create understanding between Muslim, Christian-Latin, and Jewish societies of his time.” Though an admittedly lofty goal, it is our fervent hope that by presenting our readers with such a continued diversity of subject material, we may continue to show those intersecting with the Muslim world how complex and truly human it actually is. Now featuring an even more global range of perspectives and readership, we happily invite you to our newest issue of Avicenna and hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we have. Yours sincerely, Ayesha Rasheed ’14 Editor-in-Chief

Photo by Ayesha Rasheed ’14



Music of the Arab Spring: Interview with Dr. Ramzi Salti Interview with Dr. Ramzi Salti, Lecturer at Stanford University Conducted by Samra Adeni, B.A. International Relations with Honors ’14

At the end of 2010, protests and demonstrations erupted in a wave across the Middle East and North Africa. As revolutionaries were met with violent repression, they responded with unparalled forms of creativity. Although the political changes have not all been realized yet, the decrease in censorship has left a positive influence on the Middle Eastern music industry. Avicenna Associate Editor, Samra Adena ’14 sat down with Stanford Lecturer Dr. Ramzi Salti to discuss emerging music of the Arab Spring. Salti broadcasts Arabic music, as well as interviews with prominent Arab musicians from 3 to 5 p.m. every Thursday on the KZSU radio program Arabology. AVICENNA: So what does ‘music of the

Arab Spring’ refer to?

SALTI: I firmly believe that the Arab

Spring was fueled by music. Very few people really understand the crucial role that music played in the Tunisian revolution, which then spilled over into Egypt and then many other places. In fact, I can trace it back to one specific song and rap artist El General. That was not his real name, of course, but this kid, El General, recorded a hip hop song in which he critiqued the Tunisian Government at the time. It was



called Rayees Lebled, which translates to “President of the Country.” It was sung in a Tunisian dialect, and in it, the singer is pleading with the president to take a look at what’s around him - a generation of Tunisian youth, who were educated, and highly intelligent, but could not find jobs. It was this economic and emotional depression which drove El General to record Rayees Lebled, which was released on the internet and gained a lot of popularity. Naturally, he was subsequently arrested and tortured for this song, but the song was still out there. The nation adopted it and eventually it became almost an anthem for the Tunisian people. Ultimately when the governing system collapsed and the revolutionaries won, the song continued to play on the airwaves and El General went from being a persecuted musician to a key figure of the movement. He was later featured on the cover of Time and unleashed a string of songs to encourage people to express themselves musically in order to discuss issues that were previously censored and forbidden. Meanwhile, Rayees Lebled was growing popular among Egyptians, who were also disillusioned with their rayees at the time, President Mubarak.The song took on an Egyptian flavor and truly jumped borders. Of course, that led to a multitude of singers in Egypt who took to Tahrir Square with their guitars and a

fervent desire to change. By borrowing from western genres like rap and hip hop, and adding Arabic lyrics, they were able to convey their message. Those songs were heard all over Tahrir Square. Iconic young singers participated in the uprising - many of them were arrested initially just like El General in Tunisia, and subsequently detained, humiliated, and injured - but most of them survived and went on to become heroes. Since then we’ve seen a whole new generation of young singers, both male and female, mushroom around the Arab world. Every revolution has had its own soundtrack and it all began, in my opinion, with that song by El General. AVICENNA: How do you think these songs of the Arab Spring differ from prior revolutionary songs? SALTI: I don’t think there has ever been a

revolution where music was such a driving factor in mobilizing people, in conveying the feelings of a new generation that had had enough of censorship. Because of the topics it dealt with, this music was one of a kind. Finally people were singing against the government, women were singing for their independence, many voices were singing against Western imperialism, and there were many songs for and against religion. There was a vehicle for expressing positions of opposition to previously onesided issues. I don’t know what role these songs will play in future revolutions, but I think you’ll agree that the Arab Spring is far from over. This is only a part of the journey. Music will continue to accompany the new changes that are happening.

AVICENNA: What were some of the conditions that made people turn to music as a vehicle of creative expression in such a novel way? 7


SALTI: I think the Tunisian Revolution

and what we ended up calling the Arab Spring was an Internet revolution - we know that without Twitter and Facebook, it would have been very difficult for people to mobilize. The Internet links people together and gives them an anonymous space to express themselves. This is very conducive for an environment of sharing music. You can put something on YouTube and the next day it will have been downloaded a million times and taken to the streets.There’s nothing like the power of music and lyrics, especially once it takes on a local color.

AVICENNA: How would the government crack down on these musicians? Given that music is itself a contentious or controversial subject in some parts of the Islamic world? SALTI: Absolutely, music not only accom-

panied the revolution; it was a revolution in and of itself. Prior to the Arab Spring, if an artist were to borrow from a genre like hip hop and sing about it, he or she would be dismissed for trying to “emulate” the West. It wasn’t considered threatening; it was just considered an attempt to be Western. But when the genre was appropriated in a way that expressed local concerns and issues, then it became dangerous for the government. They realized how quickly it could disseminate and mobilize people. After all, hip hop is driven by its ability to inspire emotion. That was part of the reason for the crackdown on El General - the government wanted to make an example of him, but by then, it was too late, the spirit was out there. When they imprisoned him, there was a huge movement of solidarity - people began singing not only his songs, but also creating songs about him! It was difficult for the government to extinguish.

Walls of Asilah (photo by Amal El-Ghazaly, Ph.D. Candidate in Electrical Engineering)

AVICENNA: Other than El General, who were some of the other key players in other countries where this musical revolution occurred? SALTI: In Egypt, the undisputed name

must be Ramy Essam. He’s a young singer in his 20s who went down to Tahrir Square to create music during the early days of unrest. Even when people were being persecuted, he continued to go and sing until he was arrested himself. This was actually illustrated in The Square, a documentary made about the Egyptian Revolution and a contender for this year’s Academy Awards. I would say Ramy Essam was almost the Egyptian version of El General. But certainly he wasn’t the only one - by the time the revolution of music reached Egypt, there were many artists singing in the same vein, including women. Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian woman, recorded an amazing



CD called Kelmti Horra, which means “My Word is Free and Unencumbered” and was a very powerful voice for women. In Egypt and North Africa especially, you also had Maryam Saleh, a female singer with an amazing voice who would borrow from the folkloric tunes and remix them in a way that was relevant to a new generation. In Syria, there was Omar Offendum, who released SyrianamericanA and many other songs, becoming a voice for a new generation of Syrians and Syrian Americans. There are also many Pan-Arab singers singing about the revolutions as a whole as well as many collaborations between artists old and young singing for a better tomorrow - for an Arab Spring that will truly bear fruit. When we see so much torment and pain because of the conflict in these parts of the Middle East and North Africa, we forget that there is an amaz-

ing amount of talent that is emerging in response to, and fueled by, these circumstances. The great thing about these artists is that in an attempt to deal with life and the helplessness, they’re able to have their emotions reach people in a more powerful way than just a news report. AVICENNA: Can you highlight a few of your favourite songs or ones you thought were the most powerful? What makes them so? SALTI: Absolutely… I would have to say

Rayees Lebled was an amazing song if you look at the lyrics. It’s just a powerful, heartwrenching, and raw plea to the president of Tunis at the time, and I think it’s a classic. I also like a song by Ramy Essam, called Taty Taty, about living in a facetious democracy. I was also very impressed by the many Muslim women singing about feminism and inequality; people are beginning to really embrace the idea of their identities. My favourite group is a Lebanese group called Mashrou’ Leila - they sang about the sad state of affairs in Lebanon where the ordinary citizen still lives in ‘third-world’ conditions. After the Arab Spring, however, they also started focusing on topics that were previously forbidden and looked down upon, such as the plight of marginalized sexualities. I truly wonder if they could have been so successful in doing that if it hadn’t been for the Arab Spring encouraging young people to express themselves and tackle issues that had been considered taboo.

AVICENNA: All this sounds like the domain of younger generations - is this true?



Or do you think this musical movement is universal? SALTI: Well, I’m turning 48 years old next

week, so thank you for calling me young! I love this music and have certainly appropriated it. Though this was the younger generation’s movement, it has definitely crossed over to an older crowd. People took songs from the 40s and 50s, classics by Asmahan and Mohammed Abdel Wahab - names my father and grandfather grew up with back when vinyl was still new! - and released them with a completely different flavor. Initially this shocked the older generation. “How dare you mess with the classic Umm Kulthum?” But slowly they learned to appreciate it and realized that this allowed old singers like Umm Kulthum to reach a new generation. Even the so-called purists who used to say hip-hop and jazz aren’t part of the canon of Arabic music are finally realizing that maybe these genres can be part of our culture.

AVICENNA: Those are beautiful sentiments, and thank you so much for sharing these uplifting stories. SALTI: Thank you! I’m glad you find this

uplifting - often when we think about the Arab Spring, we feel depressed and helpless, thinking about the many young people with curiosity and a love for life who are denied education and opportunities because of mere circumstance…I think music is all the more powerful in these instances - if you give music a chance, it will uplift you, wherever you are.


The Battle for a Country’s Identity: Bangladesh’s Secularist Struggle Haley Ketterer, B.A. Science, Technology, and Society ’16

“Who is greater? The Prime Minister or Prophet Muhammad?” -Shah Ahmad Shafi, March 9, 2013 Rocketing to international attention with the siege of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka this May, the Islamist group Hifazat-e-Islam has managed to gain a global platform for its views. With the sect’s rise to prominence comes a few questions: what is Hifazat-eIslam? Who is its leader? And, finally, what about this movement captured the world’s attention? Hifazat-e-Islam raises these and additional questions about the increasing globalization of Islamist movements. But under the scrutiny of research, it is unclear if Hifazat is truly a religious movement. Some evidence suggests that the group’s agenda incorporates with another religious sect, Jamaat-e-Islami. Perhaps Hifazat-e-Islam has a more temporal and secular goal– one with a purely political motive. A Changing Political Current Instituted a year after Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 Liberation War, Bangladesh’s constitution outlines and then provides for fundamental freedoms of its people. The document included conditions for free speech, religious freedom, and gender equality. Nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism are proclaimed in the document as four central ideas to the Bangladeshi state. However, during the Awami League government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, secularism– as described in the 10 avicenna

constitution - was never permitted. From 1975 to 1977, the government placed Bangladesh under martial law, allowing President and “Chief Martial Law Administrator” Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman to issue a presidential decree that removed any mention of secularism from the preamble and replaced it with the phrase, “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah.”1 The second parliament later ratified these changes. Finally, January of 2010, the Bangladesh Supreme Court ruled parliamentary decisions under martial law regimes lack legitimacy. This ruling allowed for the restoration of the original four fundamental principles declared in the preamble of the constitution, including secularism. In July of 2010, the Supreme Court disallowed modern political parties from running with a religious platform.2 That ruling provides massive expectations for a return to complete secularism in Bangladeshi law. With the adoption of secularism in Bangladeshi legislature and politics came the advent of government-sponsored war crimes tribunals to try alleged criminals from the 1971 liberation war. The majority of these tribunals targeted leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Bangladesh’s Islamic political parties that had sided with Pakistan dur1“ Bangladesh: restoring secular Constitution | The Hindu.” The Hindu. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 June 2013. < bangladesh-restoring-secular-constitution/article2132333.ece>. 2 Ibid.

ing the revolution. The war tribunals have since sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah, Jamaat’s assistant secretary, to life in prison, and have threatened to sentence other leaders to death. The Bangladeshi government claims that 3 million lost their lives during the war, and that Jamaat played a role in the mass killings, rapes and arson during this time. While Jamaat acknowledges their former opposition to independence in 1971, the group vehemently denies involvement in any of the atrocities committed. In fact, Jamaat members, like Salman al-Azami, the son of one of the Jamaat leaders on trial, accused Prime Minister Hasina of using the tribunals as a front to take down political opponents. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, al-Azami claims, “If you look at the people be-

ing tried they are all opposition leaders.”3 Pointing to members of the Awami government, in particular the Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir, al-Azami maintains that these individuals had the same relationship with Pakistan as did his own father, but are immune to prosecution “because they are not from the opposition party.”4 Hifazat enters this dispute between Jamaat and the Awami parties because the group’s May 6th protests were specifically targeted at the decisions of the war crimes tribunals and attempted to silence the 3 “Bangladesh: Righting historical wrongs - Inside Story - Al Jazeera English.” Al Jazeera English Web. 2 June 2013. < programmes/ 4 Ibid. “Democratic Paradox: The Rise of Hifazat-e-Islam in Bangladesh « Future Foreign Policy.” Future Foreign Policy. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2013. <http:// democratic-paradox-the-rise-of-hifazat-e-islam-inbangladesh/>.

Mosque as Maghrib prayer approaches (photo by Waqas Mustafeez, Ph.D. Electrical Engineering)

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thousands of secular bloggers who wanted harsher punishments for those on trial. “Savers” of Islam? As a group, Hifazat-e-Islam aligned its name with its purpose— claiming that they have coalesced as a group to hifazat “save” Islam from so-called “infidels” who were threatening religious sanctity in Bangladesh. Formed in 2010 and headquartered in the port city of Chittagong, Hifazat draws the majority of its supporters, leaders and activists from the hundreds of madrassas from within the city. Tens of thousands of young Muslims enroll for schooling, and receive a rather onedimensional education, as many of these madrassas teach only Islam. At first, Hifazat focused its attentions on prohibiting the 2009 Women Development Policy draft, which proposed giving women equal inheritance rights. Since then, the group created a 13 point manifesto, broadening their demands to include a ban on public mixing of the sexes and a law that calls for the death penalty for any “defamation of Islam.” The Awami government has met some of Hifazat’s demands, arresting several bloggers from the list of alleged anti-Islamists provided by the group itself. Not only shutting down blogs and objectionable pages, the government also formed a cyber-crime unit with telecommunications regulator. Despite concessions from the government, the intensity of Hifazat’s agitation has not lessened.5 Their unrelenting campaign against the government suggests that Hifazat’s true goals are not as religiously 5 Farhad, Shah Ali. “What The World Needs To Know About Hefazate Islam | Analysis of Law, Politics and Governance in Bangladesh.” Analysis of Law, Politics and Governance in Bangladesh | Blog of Barrister Shah Ali Farhad. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2013. <http://bdlawpolgov.wordpress. com/2013/04/07/what-the-world-needs-to-knowabout-hefazate-islam/>.

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motivated as they publicly acknowledged. Perhaps protecting Islam and religious expression is not their sole concern? Rather, Hifazat is in clear alliance with Jamaat, and in clear opposition to the war crime tribunals. At the very least, the group aids Jamaat obstruct the trials, through intimidation of the government and the discrediting Shahbag protesters as ‘God-Less’ anarchists. What is Hifazat’s true agenda? Jamaat to Hifazat Respected news source Al-Jazeera, one of those to cover Hifazat-e-Islam’s rise to notoriety, claimed the group arouse out of anger surrounding the Women Development Policy draft in 2009, which, as mentioned above, gave women equal inheritance rights. Others suspect that the weakening of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest religious-political faction created the space necessary for Hifazat to take the stage. A statement taken from the Bangladesh Jamaat website (, places the group as supporters of Hifazat and their thirteen points; Jamaat Secretary General Maulana Rafiqul Islam Khan specifically urged his followers to make Hifazat’s Long March in April successful to “force the government to heed to the demands.” While denying involvement in Hifazat, Khan claimed, “the country’s Islam-loving people have become united against the anti-Islamic government and its patronized atheist people.” 6 However, Khan may not be taken completely at his word. His group, Jamaat, lost favor with both citizens and state after many of its leaders were sent to trial for war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. Allegedly, Jamaat leadership had sided with the Pakistanis, and 6 “Jamaat extends support to Hifazat-e-Islama’s long march set for Saturday.” Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 June 2013. < php?artid=MTkxOA%3D%3D>.

consequently the group controls only two seats in the 300 seat national parliament. Facing threats of a ban, Jamaat might have looked towards the creation of Hizafat as merely the generation of a new name with considerably better public opinion, under which they could continue to pursue their agenda. Agreeing with this supposition is Bangladeshi’s information minister, Hasanul Haq Inu, who pronounced Hifazat as a “shadow” of Jamaat-e-Islami.7

teen-year discrepancy, it is clear Shafi has had quite a bit of experience. He was born in the Chittagong district from which Hifazat is based out of today, and educated in two madrassas before he went to India for higher Islamic studies. Returning to teach at the Hat-hazari madrassa as an alumnus, he later became its rector. Currently, Shafi is the chairman of the Qaumi Madrassah Education Board, which oversees all such schools across Bangladesh.

Old Leader, New Direction

According to Shafi, Hifazat-e-Islam is a purely religious group. Shafi stated that the group’s “aim is to make Muslims aware of safeguarding their faith and beliefs, civilization, culture and Islamic symbols and also to campaign peacefully and systematically for Islamic issues.”9 Given Hifazat’s 13 points manifesto, Shafi’s statement of purpose does not align with the listed demands to focus on heightening punishments for peoples, groups and practices Hifazat does not like. And yet while Shafi’s stated purpose and the 13 demands arguably do not match, the leader is committed to them.

He is Shaykh Ahmad bin Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Hussaina al-Dawghan al-Ahsai al-Khalidi. His father was from the students of knowledge; his grandfather was a scholar as was his ancestor Shaykh Hussain. He was born in the year 1332 Hijri (1911) in the area of alKoot in the city of al-Ahsa and was raised there.8 -Dar Al-Hadith, 2013 Taken from the website, Dar al-Hadith, this description of the Hifazat-e-Islam leader Shaykh Ahmad Shafi illustrates the veneration he enjoys from his followers. Shafi’s reputation musters crowds of over 200,000 people, even while he nearly never makes an appearance. Shafi has many years under his belt; the biographical entry included on the website cited his birthdate as the impossible 1911. However, consultation of other (less biased) sources lists a more likely 1930. Regardless of the nine7 “Behind the rise of Bangladesh’s Hifazat Features - Al Jazeera English.” Al Jazeera English. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 June 2013. <http://www. 8 “Shaykh Ahmad al-Dawghan- Mujaddid of the Shafi’i School in Saudi Arabia / Dar al-Hadith.” Dar al-Hadith. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 June 2013. <>.

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In one of his latest public speeches, in the northern city of Bogra on April 29, Shafi delivered an uncompromising message: “Anyone wishing to retain or regain power must meet the 13 demands.” And to Prime Minister Hasina, he was even more specific: “You must leave the company of the atheists.”10 Although Shafi has maintained on several occasions that his group is not political, both the group’s spoken and written work indicate a desire to interfere with the governmental structure, legislative content and laws far beyond merely “safeguarding Islam.” Again, these discrepancies indicate that Hifazat has plans beyond 9 Shafi, Shaykh Shah Ahmad. “Fatwa of Shaykh Shah Ahmad Shafi | Feb28.” Justice for Bangladesh. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2013. <>. 10 Ibid.

that which they have initially said. Conclusions To Draw Could Hifazatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s dedication to the protection of Islam be a sham, a façade masking another, more temporal agenda? Without completely discrediting what Hifazat leaders say in public forums, it may be that connections to the struggling Jamaat preclude a main plan that uses violence and agitation to pressure a weak government from continuing to attack Jamaat

leadership. Ample evidence linking the two groups together suggests that there is something more than religion that has created the struggle apparent in Bangladesh today. The nation is torn between a government who wants to remain secular and fundamentalist groups bent on returning the nation to religious ideals. The fight for Bangladeshâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s identity shall continue in the coming weeks, months and years. The information provided in this paper may prove vital to understanding the nuances of the groups involved.

Arches of Al-Azhar (photo by Amal El-Ghazaly, Ph.D. Candidate in Electrical Engineering)

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The Muslim Health Collaborative Tackling Healthcare Delivery Challenges through Interdisciplinary Community Partnerships Nadir Ijaz B.S. Biology and Chemistry ’12, Duke University M.D. ’16, Stanford University

“I can’t take my medication while fasting,” Tariq said in fluent Urdu. “And I need to fast, it’s an Islamic requirement.” An elderly Pakistani gentleman with diabetes, Tariq had come to the free clinic for a regular check-up. As I interpreted for him, he explained to his physician that Ramadan was coming up, and that he was going to begin fasting soon. The physician, despite having many Muslim patients at this clinic in northern Virginia, was not very knowledgeable about Ramadan, fasting, or Islam in general. She turned to me, a Muslim premedical student, to better understand the ins and outs of fasting so she could advise Tariq on how best to restructure his medication schedule for Ramadan. I was the only Muslim volunteer at this clinic during summer 2011. And while I was there to assist the medical staff then, I quickly realized that, after I left, there would be nobody to advise the staff on issues of cultural competence or answer questions about Islam. This might not be a problem at other healthcare facilities, but Muslims constituted approximately half the patient population at this particular clinic. At the same time, I knew a lack of cultural competence was not the only barrier preventing Muslims from receiving appropriate medical care. Healthcare professionals and their difficulty in dealing 15 avicenna

with issues related to Islam and Muslim cultures was only part of the story. In summer 2013, I worked as a student researcher at a public pediatric emergency department in Karachi, Pakistan. The emergency department had been recently renovated, with an impressive, new isolation room. This may be why I was shocked when I discovered that a child identified to have active tuberculosis was sharing a bed with two other children in the general emergency nursing unit. When I later asked one of the staff about the isolation room, she explained to me that the physicians used it as a prayer room, because it was nice, new, and quiet. By that time, I knew that particular ideologies and “secular” social service delivery were not always compatible. Local religious leaders’ fear-mongering tactics had kept Nigerian, Afghani, and Pakistani children from receiving vital polio vaccinations for years. With regards to health, the list of issues kept growing in my mind: Muslim mental health and spirituality, women’s access to healthcare services, gender relations in the healthcare professions, sexual health and family planning, the “Muslim diet” and other lifestyle choices, biomedical ethics, etc. All this made me realize that, despite the ever-growing number of healthcare providers in Muslim communities

internationally, there remained a gap in healthcare provision. Most healthcare providers, Muslim or not, simply do not have the fluency in religious parlance required to effectively deal with many of these issues. On the flip side, healthcare providers had historically done a poor job of relating to imams, sheikhs, and other religious leaders a basic understanding of healthcare delivery necessary, and therefore often lacked sincere support from these crucial stakeholders in the community. Any path for addressing these issues would have to be interdisciplinary by definition: it would require healthcare providers, religious leaders, and others to come together in dialogue about these issues at the intersection of public health and Islam. Based on this framework, in October 2013, several Stanford students, local community members, and I established the Muslim Health Collaborative (MHC). We seek “to create an interdisciplinary community of leaders in healthcare and religion dedicated to improving public health in Muslim communities internationally.” The MHC hopes to develop local chapters in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C. before gradually expanding to other locations. Our approach is two-pronged: (1) to conduct community-based needs assessments that will inform our work with local Muslims and (2) to create local partnerships between healthcare providers and religious or cultural communities. We have based our model both on the evidencebased practice that defines medical care as well as the local, culturally-aware, community-based approach embraced by previously successful organizations, such as TeachAIDS. While we hope the conversations our initiative sparks will themselves work to improve local Muslim 16 avicenna

health, we aim to intentionally connect local providers, imams, and others in a network to facilitate patient care. We hope that, in future, if a local community member with psychiatric symptoms approaches an imam, worried about being possessed by a jinn, the imam should feel comfortable identifying concerning signs and symptoms and should know where to refer this patient for mental healthcare. At the same time, a healthcare provider who does not know the Islamic view on organ transplantation and needs to counsel a Muslim patient should feel confident reaching out to a reliable local imam who can talk to the patient if necessary. These networks are still in their infancy, but we are already seeing widespread interest in these issues across geography, disciplines, and specializations. In the short time since the MHC was established, the organization has grown to include over 20 individuals in the Bay Area. We developed a preliminary needs assessment survey and presented our work at the American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) forum at Koç University in Turkey this January. After developing a viable model that works locally, MHC will be able to support the development of chapters elsewhere within the United States and abroad. For now, however, we are focused on raising awareness of these issues through our social media campaign and connecting with local experts to join the network. The more we have worked in the field, the more issues we have come to discover, but we are optimistic that we will be able to develop a functional model to address them. If you are interested in learning more about the Muslim Health Collaborative or joining our team, please get in touch us at


Women of Asilah - Young and Old (photo by Amal El-Ghazaly, Ph.D. Candidate in Electrical Engineering)

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La Alhambra

P hotos by Ayesha rasheed â&#x20AC;&#x2122; 1 4

Side gallery of the Court of Lions.

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View of the Alcazaba, the fortress adjacent to the palace complex, overlooking the present-day city of Granada.

Patio de la Acequia - found in the Generalife, which was the summer palace of the Nasrid Emirs ruling Granada.

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Doorway details in the Alhambra, near the Court of Lions.

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Detailed carvings in Arabic in the Inner Palace Complex.

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Islam and the Founding Fathers Dr. Abbas Milani Director, Iranian Studies Research Fellow, Hoover Institution

In a smear campaign before the election for President of the United States, one candidate was accused by his opponents of secretly being a Muslim. America at this time faced a hostage crisis, as well as a nagging problem of piracy off the coasts of North Africa. A “social Christian,” hoping to preserve “a purely Protestant Christian America,” (P. 159)1 was worried that aliens might take over the reins of power in the country and opined that “the few…Jews, Mahomedans [Muslims], Atheists or Deists among us” must, in the name of prudence and justice be excluded “from our public offices.” (P. 160) It wasn’t Captain Phillips who had been taken hostage by Somali pirates, and the presidential candidate in question was actually Thomas Jefferson, “the first in the history of American politics to suffer the false charge of being a Muslim, an accusation considered the ultimate Protestant slur in the eighteenth century.” (P. 9) A new book on America’s first encounters with Islam, by the University of Texas scholar Denise Spellberg, titled Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, is an account of those troubled times, and the remarkable efforts by people like Jefferson to draft a constitution that would, at least in theory, allow anyone who swore allegiance to it to 1 All page numbers in the article refer to pages from Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an. Parts of this article are from my much longer review of Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founding Fathers (New York, 2013). The review will be published in The New Republic.

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become not just an American citizen, but even the nation’s president. Admittedly, for Jefferson, the idea of a Muslim (or as he called it, a “Mahamdean”) for president, or even just a MuslimAmerican citizen was a mere abstraction. He apparently did not know that there were at the time many Muslims already living in America. All of them had been “seized and transported from West Africa “as slaves],” thus suggesting, “The first American Muslims may have numbered in the tens of thousands.” (7) Despite limited contact with Islam, early America certainly wasn’t alien to it – a surprising fact is that “the first play about Islam performed in America was written by Fancois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire.”(27) Long before “cultivating his garden,” Voltaire had written a blistering attack on Islam and the Prophet called “Le Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophete.” Initially staged in Paris in 1742, by 1776 “a revival of the play in London” had become a hit and by 1780, the play would be performed in America. While the Founding Fathers might not have known how many Muslims lived in their new nation, they were certainly aware of the polemics such as these against Islam, most of them originating in Europe at the time. For centuries, most Christian theologians refused to even accept Islam as an Abrahamic religion – they stubbornly refused to call Muslims by their chosen

name, instead insisting on labeling them as “Mahometans” or some other iteration of the Prophet Muhammad’s name. Saracens, another pejorative used to refer to Muslims, was also commonly used and essentially equated all Muslims with Arabs. The thought behind Jefferson’s call for inclusion of Muslims is particularly remarkable “given the dominance and popularity” at the time of many ideas, books and even plays that were not just critical of Islam but refused to accept it anything more than an exotic cult. In fact, the dominant Catholic and Protestant paradigms of Islam were particularly critical of the Ottoman Turks. The Turks, then still posing a serious challenge to European power, were invariably regarded as the only Muslims in the world – other major Islamic powers in Iran and India at the time had only a marginal presence in such critical depictions of Islam. For example, German Protestant woodcuts from the sixteenth century showed “Luther’s vision of the Anti-Christ as a beast with two heads—one a mitered pope and the other a turbaned Ottoman Sultan.” (P. 15) In Luther’s vision, “Muslim souls were already forfeit, condemned to hell for all eternity,” though long before Luther, many Catholic theologians had dismissed Islam “as the summit of all heresy.” (P. 47) In their views, the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, was nothing but a mere repetition of the Bible, and its claim of new divine origin from God was a form of “ blasphemy.” (P. 16). An Anglican clergyman named Humphrey Prideuax (1648-1724), used a boorishly long titled narrative called The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of the Mahomet: With A Discourse Annexed For the Vindicating of Christianity from the Charge Offered to the Consideration of the Deists of the Present Age(18) to attack 23 avicenna

Muslims for their belief “in a unitary God” (19) and their denial of the Christian tenet of the Holy Trinity. In these religious polemics, incidentally, Islamic theologians were generally handicapped by the fact that Jesus (and Moses) are repeatedly and reverentially mentioned in the Qur’an, and Mary has a whole chapter of Islam’s holy book named after her. Thus Moses, Jesus, and Mary could not be subjected to nasty attacks similar to those hurled at Islam and the prophet Mohammad. Nevertheless, in words borrowed from John Locke, Jefferson insisted on the need for a constitution wherein “neither pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion” (3, my emphasis). After the Crusades, however, the tenor of these polemics began to change. The West had to come to terms with Islam as a rapidly rising religion and Western academia began to offer programs in Islamic and Oriental studies. The rise of the Renaissance and the advent of humanism prompted efforts to earnestly understand Islam, beginning with an accurate translation of the Qur’an.2 Some enlightened Westerners, like Englishman Henry Stubbe (1671) actually wrote pro-Islamic arguments and both denied the “charge that Islam was spread by the sword” and “portrayed the Prophet [Muhammad] in a uniquely positive light.” (22). Though Stubbe’s book could not initially find a publisher, it “circulated widely in manuscript form.” (22) When the book was eventually reprinted in 1911 in London, it was in fact based upon a copy of the 1705 manuscript.3 2 For a fascinating account of these translations as a “most political act,” see Ziad Elmarsafy, The Enlightenment Qur’an: The Politics of Translation and the Construction of Islam (Oxford, 2009). The quote is from the first line of the preface. 3 Henry Stubbe, An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism (London, 1911).

But aside from Stubbe, new scholarly translations of the Qur’an as well as other important works by Islamic Aristotelian philosophers had begun to appear in Europe. The third edition of the best of these new translations of the Qur’an by George Sales was the one bought and at least partially read by Jefferson. Indeed, some of the critical components of Locke’s and Jefferson’s views of toleration were developed precisely in their attempts to defend the rights of Muslims—not because they necessarily believed in the righteousness of Islam, but more importantly because they believed in the right of liberty for, and the indispensible necessity of, toleration for others. As is often the case, only a few degrees separate the works of famous Muslim scholars like Avicenna from these early efforts to use critical rational faculties to understand the divine, transcend dogma, and solve problems in nature and society using human—and humane—reason. Several years ago, Stephen Greenblatt, an eminent scholar of the Renaissance, argued in his Pulitzer-prize winning book Swerve that a poem by Roman author Lucretius, long-lost since Antiquity, played a critical role in the rise of the modern age.4 The rational skepticism in the poem, its insistence on a kind of atomistic structure to the universe, and its aversion to dogma, 4 Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerved: How the World Became Modern (New York, 2011)

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were in Greenblatt’s view the harbingers of modernity and its new epistemology. Likewise, one could also make the argument that many early Western pioneers of modernity were equally influenced Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yagzan (translated into Latin as Philosophous Autodidactus).5 It is a rich metaphoric tale of seven stages in the “progressive development” of a lonely man, on an equatorial island, using reason to make sense of the world and of the divine. Not only the iconic “Cogito” of Descartes’s “Cogito Ergo Sum” might owe some debt to Tufayl’s philosophical novel, but a number of important works of Western fiction—including Robinson Crusoe and Emile—have fascinating affinities with Hayy Ibn Yagzan. As scholars of Ibn Tufayl have shown, and scholars of Avicenna already know, the original story of Hayy Ibn Yazgan in fact belonged to Avicenna— it was a brief allegorical sketch about the travails and triumphs of human reason. In other words, six degrees separate Avicenna from Jefferson’s curiosities about the Qur’an, proving that early America and Islam may be more closely connected than previously thought.


5 For a new English translation of this remarkable work, see, Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Tale, translated by Lenn Evan Goodman (Chicago, 2009). The first English translation was published by Edward Pocock, in 1671. For an attempt to underscore the influence of Ibn Tufayl’s novel, see, Samar Attar, The Vital Roots of European Enlightenment: Ibn Tufayl’s Influence on Modern Western Thought (New York, 2007)

Engraved tablet, Grand Mosque, Cordoba, Spain (photo by Ayesha Rasheed â&#x20AC;&#x2122;14)

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Self-Exoticization for the Film Festival How can a film challenge Orientalist characterizations and still receive accolades on the global stage? Zainab Taymuree, B.A. History, African and African American Studies ’16

The following paper compares the portrayal of women in two critically acclaimed Iranian films. Shirin Neshat’s 2010 film Women Without Men, which won the Silver Lion Award for Best Director in the Venice International Film Festival, tells the stories of four women crossing paths in Iran in the summer of the 1953 coup. Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film, A Separation, won an Oscar Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and tells the story of a middle-class Iranian couple struggling with divorce in present day Tehran. By participating in international showcases of cinema, these films must contend with the histories of the representation of women from the “Muslim World.” How might the film festival reinforce the narrative of self-exotization? How can a film challenge the orientalist characterizations and still receive accolades on the global stage? Close-ups of yearning eyes and fluttering veils, panning shots of rising mist and silent trees characterize Shirin Neshat’s highly stylized film, Women without Men. In using the cinematic grammar of visuality and language to place the four women in iconic, as opposed to diegetic, roles, Neshat’s film plays into orientalism and the fetishization of the “Middle-Eastern” woman. In contrast, Asghar Farhadi’s film, A Separation, challenges the orientalist construct of the “other” and resists the festivalesque tradition of self-exoticism. Focusing on Faezeh’s portrayal throughout Women without Men, the shots reveal the 26 avicenna

progression of an oriental and voyeuristic cinematic gaze. Faezeh first appears on screen, brow furrowed and almost entirely enveloped by a black chador. She is shown walking down an alley to Munis’ house, her draped silhouette standing out in stark contrast to the pale gray background. She still has not spoken. Once inside the house, the shots focus on her face, the shadows accentuating her almond eyes and delicate lips. This pattern continues, and she repeatedly appears in surreal and usually abandoned surroundings – in the garden, on a long road, in the field, usually silent. Neshat gives her an iconic presence as she wanders the various frames, hair or veil flowing. Passive and mysterious, Faezeh’s heightened visuality, minimal action and sparse communication make her more of an artistic “doll”1 than a complex character. In a later scene where Faezeh approaches Zarin in the flowerbed, she walks toward the camera and continues to play out the oriental fantasy – her hair unbraided, unveiled, her neck bare. The voyeurism and orientalist treatment of Faezeh’s character culminates in the following scene, when Faezeh brushes her long hair and gazes hesitantly into the mirror. She ends up unbuttoning and removing her blouse in front of the mirror. As if secretly hovering over shoulder, the shot angle compounds 1 Negar Mottahedeh, Displaced Allegories: PostRevolutionary Iranian Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 141.

the voyeuristic nature of the scene. Neshat creates a sensualized object out of Faezeh, who goes from entirely covered in her first scene to topless (and does little else). This underscores the orientalist theme of undressing the veiled women of lavish and imagined harems. Orientalism “operates visually as well as narratologically” to not only manipulate power dynamics between genders and cultures, but to create a world and mindset “made and unmade by the technologies of communication,”2 in this case, the film. In her work, Displacing Allegories, Negar Mottahedeh references how film production already treats the visuality of women and men differently on screen. The lighting, angles, and editing radically differentiate men and women. Especifically for women, they “essentially produce a specularity in relation to the character in a way which places her role in the film as iconic rather than diegetic; i.e. the classical sexual objectification of women in film.”3 This framing sells for the audience as they are “enraptured” by the objectification colored by orientalist tropes. The visuality combined with an absence of constructive dialogue confines the women and makes it hard to escape the “power dynamics”4 of an orientalist and objectified interpretation.

world of political intrigue. Later, Faezeh’s denial of a marriage proposal offers hope of development, but to little effect - at this point, Faezeh has already become hyperOrientalized. One of the more illuminating moments occurs briefly, showing how little Fakhri has changed since her move and has not really internalized her independent role as de facto guardian. When Fakhri’s gardener rushes in with Zarin lifeless in his arms the second time, Fakhri is busy arranging flowers for the upcoming party. The gardener is about to set the emaciated Zarin on the couch when Fakhri says something to the effect of, “Don’t put her there! I don’t know what to do with her, take her to another room.” The unconscious young woman is neatly delegated to another room so as not to fuss the important and carefully set dinner party arrangements. The excited but anxious Fakhri wants to show society that she is doing better after leaving her husband, and thus is highly focused on perfectly decorating the house; she puts pleasing and impressing society above her role as guardian for the helpless and vulnerable Zarin. The Fakhri’s independence and “agency” is thus shown to be superficial.

Since the women are in the film more as icons than developing characters, there are only glimpses of what could have been more expounded to understand gender relations. While Zarin’s escape from the brothel is arguably one of the more transformative moments in the film in showing realist agency, the film glosses over Munis’ motivations argument with Faezeh about the protestors, leaving the audience with minimal understanding of Munis’ vague desire to experience the

Enunciation throughout the film resorts to roundabout ways of attempting to give the women voice while maintaining their aura of mystique. For example, the radio “speaks” more than Munis inside the film, and many of the scenes have dreamy voiceovers of poetry and abstract musings in Farsi. The use of Farsi as an artistic and poetic embellishment contributes to the “foreignness” appeal to the tourist-like and exotic experience of the film festival,5 further influencing how gender relations are thought of in a “foreign” and alien frame. Critics of Neshat’s work contend that this self-exoticization or superficial

2 Ibid., 149. 3 Ibid., 150. 4 Ibid., 149.

5 Ibid., 146.

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injection6 of culturally coded motifs and stereotypes serve “the needs of the worldculture exhibition industry or as a means to win the sympathy of outsiders.”7 Critic Jessica Winegar contends that Neshat “traffics in Orientalism” by pitching her work as the “perceived heightened sexuality of Muslim women.”8 Among these critics, Hamid Keshmirshekan also questions the authenticity of artistic need when the market dictates the style of artistic output and questions the validity of the artists’ success if they are reinforcing this objectification and exoticism. How does one move away from such pervasive Orientalism? Feminist “negative aesthetics” insisted on developing a cinematic language that could “speak the female body differently.”9 Farhadi’s A Separation, effectively uses a different cinematic language and not only “speaks” the female body differently, but treats the female as a “being” more than a “body.” For example, though the women in A Separation are also veiled, it is not a binary or spotlight issue as with the cliché evocations in Women without Men. The veils melt naturally into the weaving of the rest story. Each scene adds dimension to the characters and makes for a strong script – the interactions are substantive and the focus of the story, rather than iconic figurehead characters. Breaking the orientalist tradition and technique allows us to actually focus on the gender relations and reveals some surprising twists. For example, we learn that Razieh’s deceives her husband to work in fact to help him pay his creditors. We learn that seemingly 6 Hamid Keshmirshekan, “The Question of Identity vis-à-vis Exoticism in Contemporary Iranian Art,” Iranian Studies 43 (September 2010): 498. 7 Ibid., 501. 8 Jessica Winegar, “The Humanity Game: Art, Islam, and the War on Terror,” Anthropological Quarterly 81 (Summer 2008): 670. 9 Negar Mottahedeh, Displaced Allegories: PostRevolutionary Iranian Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 150.

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spiteful and headstrong Simin actually bails her husband, Nadir, out of jail. Both actively make these choices and wrestle with their situation rather than passively wait. The characters do not have a black and white set of values nor a magical realist escape from their problems, making it more difficult to compartmentalize them in iconic roles. In her book, Mottahedeh argues that the film regulations and censorship in postrevolutionary Iranian cinema that form the background for movies like A Separation, are not simply limitation but a resistance to the dominant classical cinematic language of an orientalist and imperialist West. The resistance forms a “new cinematic grammar.” This one doesn’t focus on a fetishization of the women. Among the specific techniques he uses, Farhadi opts for a visuality that emphasizes framed shots in reflections, mirrors and windows. Asghar does not use the omnipresent, all-knowing cinematic gaze. The shots remind us of the partial knowledge we have of the characters, and the importance of realizing this is revealed at the end through key pieces of information such as Nadir’s knowledge of Razieh’s pregnancy, Razieh’s miscarriage, or Simin’s use of the drawer cash to pay the workmen. These objective shots contrast the opening of the movie, which begins by breaking the fourth wall and making the viewer the judge at the divorce court. Farhadi actually places us in position of a judge about to objectively hear the presumed “facts” and testimonies of a case. This sets the tone for the movie – there are no close up “beauty” shots objectifying the women, no abandoned landscapes, no randomly discarded veils. Rather, we witness real humans dealing with divides that don’t fit within the “traditional” binaries of gender, class and religion. Along with this shift in visuality, language is channeled through

Wazir Khan mosque (photo by Ravi Patel, B.S. Biology ‘13)

dialogue; the dialogue entirely affects the representation of the characters as there is no narrator and nearly everything we understand about the characters comes from these exchanges. This is another way of refocusing relations on new foundation, including gender relations, instead of on the basis of silent women and stoic men.10 “Foreign” film directors truly face a challenge in trying to divert from the classical cinematic language of Hollywood and its orientalist framings. Regardless of Neshat’s intentions, Women without Men does not challenge the romanticized

notions that reduce characters to iconic figures. A Separation, however, lives up to the challenge of countering the dominant narrative of Hollywood’s standardized codes, which over time and repeated exposure, have “mimetically solidified habits of perception and syntactical standards of film literacy for audiences everywhere.”11 Ironically, perhaps it is this “separation” from the running cinematic language that actually dismantles the barriers and separations between the constructed “others” and brings them closer together in understanding each other.

10 Ibid., 147.

11 Ibid., 156.

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The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque Consolidating Shi’ism, forming spirituality, and creating the infinite dome Nora Fathalipour M.A. candidate University of New Brunswick B.A. Law and History of Art and Archaeology, SOAS

The truly unique Sheikh Lotfollah mosque in the Naqsh-e Jahaan Square1 (henceforth “the Square”) in Esfahan, Iran is situated in the heart and centre of the city. One enters the mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah through heavy wooden doors laden with geometric carvings with intense anticipation. Not a single façade or inch has been left without some sort of tile work. The colourful portal skilfully hides, for the person outside, the ‘maze’ before the main room that leads one to immediately face the qibla, the direction that Muslims face to pray. With a foundation in the same rare marble employed throughout the square; the entire colour scheme of the mosque is refreshingly joyful and inviting. Sheikh Baha’i was a cleric and polymath instrumental in formulating the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I’s new religious policy of consolidating Shi’ism in Iran,2 partly through the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, which along with the rest of the Square “gave form to Shah ‘Abbas’s goal of disseminating normative Twelver Shi’ism as broadly as possible.”3 Designed by 1 The Square goes by many names. Naqsh-e Jahan means “Image of the World”. Before the revolution in 1979, it was often called the “Royal Square” (Meidan-e Shah); after the Revolution it has been called the “Imam Square” (Meidan-e Imam). 2 Sheila Canby (ed.), Shah Abbas and the Remaking of Iran. (London: British Museum, 2009). 3 Canby, 28.

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Sheykh Baha’i, the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque was the first monument of the Square to be finished; an inscription by the chief calligrapher of the Shah on the tile mosaic of the entry gateway to the mosque sets the starting date to 1012 AH/1603-04 CE.4 It was completed in 1028 AH/1618-19 CE, at the same time the Square itself was completed. Used by the Shah himself for prayer, the mosque has had various names, though it currently bears the name of a learned Safavid scholar.5 Exquisite, yet small, the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque is located on the east side of the Square. Of the Safavid mosques, this is a unique building; its single dome is surrounded by resting rooms and service areas, yet lacks the typical features such as a court, and even minarets. As such, it is closer in shape and form to Iranian mausoleums than to other typical Safavid mosques. The method of decorating buildings in Iran often involved using faience mosaics (which are glazed using tin oxide), but although they are used several places on 4 Sheila Blair, Islamic Calligraphy. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 422. 5 Ali Asghar Bakhtiar, “Reminiscences of the Maidan-i Shah” in Mitchell (ed.), New Perspectives on Safavid Iran: Empire and Society. (Oxon: Routledge, 2011).

and inside buildings of the Square, the primary method of decoration for the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque was the haft rangi, otherwise known as cuerda seca. This tile method has been called haft rangi (seven-coloured) because it allows for the painting of tiles in up to seven colours, with subsequent burning. The term cuerda seca is Spanish for “dry cord” and is a reference to the oily string that would be placed between the different colours so they would not run into one another during burning. As the string would be dipped in a substance mixed with manganese, this leaves the characteristic black outlines between each of the colours, which is all that is left of the string after burning. Some6 argue that such tiles do not have as intense colours as faience mosaics do. Sometimes scholars classify this as an easier ‘shortcut,’ a quicker method that they explain was employed due to Shah Abbas being in a hurry to complete the mosque. It is not, however, necessarily self-evident that such a method is a less refined way of decorating, with mosaic tiles being superior. The surface area that would have to be covered on the buildings of the Square were very large; it makes sense that a technique that allowed for bigger, more stable panels to be made was employed. It may not be as exquisite as mosaics, but how often does one see the entire surface of a mosque - and indeed two mosques, as is the case in Esfahan’s Square - decorated in any form of elaborately designed, multicoloured tiles? It is indeed a rarity, which is one of the reasons why these mosques are regarded as so extraordinary. Although not visible from the outside, the magnificent dome, covered in arabesquepatterned tiles on a cream coloured base, is supported by buttresses, allowing it to span the antechamber. The dome’s mosaic 6 Bakhtiar, 158.

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tiles skilfully go from glazed to unglazed, “which gives a fitful glitter to the surface as the sunlight strikes it.”7 The white, deep blue and azure arabesques outlined in black “sweeping in majestical curves across the buff ground”8 are very reminiscent of Persian carpets, especially the carpet style called Abbasi. Compassing the drum of the dome are Quranic inscriptions in mosaic tiles, white thuluth writing on a deep blue background. Done by the calligrapher Ali Reza Abbasi, “his majestic thuluth is notable for its strong sense of order and proportion” and makes “long texts clear and legible by dividing the inscription into two tiers, typically separated by the long tail of final ya which extends backwards and to the left.”9 With this long and horizontal style of writing, the tall, extended, and horizontal letters on the bottom tier become further elongated in an exaggerated way so that they sometimes replace the same or similar (in form or shape) letter in the upper tier, creating a balance and consistency that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. This technique has also been employed in Ali Reza Abbasi’s vertical signature that stands out from the rest of the text, running around the semidome of the mosque’s portal. The dado of the drum of the dome also has, beneath the thuluth bands, square kufic inscriptions in white, outlined in black on turquoise praising Allah using His various names, for example “the Generous” (al-Kareem) or “the Merciful” (al-Raheem). The portal of the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque extends beyond the ivan itself, and the intensely blue decorations cover the contiguous walls. The extraordinary ocean blue forms the background to 7 Wilfrid Blunt, Isfahan, Pearl of Persia (London: Pallas Athene Ltd, 2009), 85. 8 Ibid. 9 Blair, 421-422.

the many panels, most of which are in the aforementioned cuerda seca tiles. The panels form cartouches that almost look like windows, though they offer no openings into the mosque or its corridor. The patterns range from vases with arabesque and flowers springing out from them, to medallions with more abstract patterns of flowers, individual petals, and suns. The colour range is, besides gearing towards the very blue, loaded with white and green, and yellow dandelion flowers adorn some of the larger panels. There are a lot more greens and white here than anywhere else in the mosque; it makes the portal look like a field of flowers, surrounded by the sky or the ocean, giving the impression of abundance and fertility. The ivan’s semi-vault is adorned with muqarnas in a very dark blue, with many white flowers (chrysanthemums or perhaps chamomile) littered on top - perhaps conveying prosperity and joy, and spring, the most important season in Persian culture. The ivan itself is framed by thick, blue spirals that we also find inside the mosque. These ones end in vases that have been carved out of marble. The corridor is entirely decorated in cuerda seca tiles in prominent ocean blue, along with the greens and yellow. The patterns are similar to those found on the portal; typical arabesques, medallions and vases. The skirtings are mosaic tiles in the banna’i style, in deep blue, turquoise and, completely absent elsewhere in the decoration of the Square, a murky red.

tiles or cuerda seca, the fact that the entire interior and exterior of the mosque - from the corridors leading to the main room to the antechamber itself – are decorated in tiles, is nothing short of unprecedented. The experience of entering the main room and taking in the beauty of the work cannot be adequately described in words. It is similar to the euphoria one might experience when looking up at the sky on a clear day; breathtaking and reminding us of how vast the world is. The drum of the dome has carved window grilles that provide the only source of light, apart from three other similar windows, one on each of three of the walls. In addition to this, there is a vaulted opening above the entrance to the room where light can flood in at certain times of the day.

The walls of the domed main chamber are 43 metres high, and are decorated with cuerda seca tiles that create “an intricate sunburst pattern against a blue ground.”10 The mosque decorations are nothing short of incredible. Whatever one prefers when it comes to tiles, whether it be faience

Different verses from the Quran are inscribed on the corners of the walls, with Surat al-Shams (Q91, The Sun) being among the most prominent. Some other verses that appear in the mosque are Surat al-Insan (Q76; Man), Surat al-Kawthar (Q108; Abundance), Surat al-Bayyina (Q98; The Clear Proof) and Surat alIntifar (Q82; The Cleaving) - these verses serve to reinforce messages of who the righteous and pious are the Shi’i Safavids. Canby11 suggests that references to those who incite hatred are actually aimed at the Ottomans, who were bitter enemies of the Safavids. Tradition has it that as the sun rises and sets, the rays hit different verses that coincide with the time of the day, thus reinforcing the symbolism of the entire architecture and design of the mosque, and bringing it all together. The calligraphy bands on the walls facing East and West are poetry written by Sheikh Baha’i. Each corner is semi-vaulted, framed by thick spiral ceramic framework painted in turquoise blue; the vaults are covered by mosaic tiles forming lively yellow and

10 Bakhtiar, 159.

11 30.

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Photo by Phillip Maiwald

Photo by Nicolas Hadjisavvas

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Photo by Nick Taylor â&#x20AC;&#x153;Published under the license: deed.enâ&#x20AC;?

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deep blue pendant shapes, which again form yellow crosses and saltires, covered in floral arabesques in black, white and light turquoise. Framing these tiles are bands of deep blue and white calligraphic poetry and Quranic inscriptions; underneath; the dados in cuerda seca in the style of blue carpets with green and yellow floral motifs, occasionally with white medallions with yellow arabesques. Each side wall has a similar but slightly different pattern of mosaic tiles on a yellow background with big, looping arabesques and framed by thick, spiral, azure blue ceramic spirals. Oddly enough, apart from the mihrab wall and the entrance, the other two sides also have a rectangular decoration separate from the rest of the pattern on the wall, interrupting the dados. The wall facing east resembles a carpet without a medallion as centrepiece or focus point, or perhaps it is more reminiscent of a playing card, with its repeated diamond-and-floral pattern in mostly two different hues of blue, with moss green and a lighter shade of yellow. The beautiful semi-vaulted mihrab directly opposite of the entrance is intensely blue, with muqarnas from its little ceiling. The background of the mihrab itself is decorated with arabesques and medallions, in both cuerda seca and mosaic tiles, the variation probably due to matters of geometry and what was physically most feasible and convenient. We see a lot more green and black used on this part of the mosque, with yellow only on the arabesques and on some thin, striped bands. The walls of the main chamber elegantly flow into the dome; as they are mediated from wall to drum of dome by the ingenious use of decorative tiles, it is almost like there is no knowing where one part ends and the other begins - the transition is so 35 avicenna

skilfully done, enhancing and increasing the experience of a tall, never ending sunny sky enclosing the person. The apex of the dome, from the inside, features a symmetrical turquoise flower. From it, elaborate loops of arabesques unfold, spreading out to approximately two metres in radius and ending in cartouche-like medallions that are interlocked with the ensuing rest of the decoration of the dome. They form an almost domino-pattern around lemon shaped medallions. These medallions are the same deep blue as employed elsewhere, with prominent white and yellow arabesques; their size and impression appears augmented by additional flowers in between the loops. The medallions grow in size with the smallest towards the apex, growing as one looks towards the drum of the dome. It is an ingenious way of artificially magnifying the size of the dome and make it look even more endlessly tall, almost giving the impression of disappearing at the apex. With each level of medallions the arabesque-floral pattern changes; no band of “lemons” has the same pattern. The symmetry of the arrangement becomes increasingly obvious as a result of this. The mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah is possibly one of the most remarkable mosques in the world, which is probably why it, along with the rest of the Square, is on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. The building demonstrates a skillful and sophisticated use of space despite practical challenges. “From Zoroastrian times, the beautiful was integrally associated with light; [i] t was an essential component of divine personality,”12 and so the tremendously beautiful tile work invites the visitor to an ambient, spiritual journey as one looks to the divine, ‘infinite’ dome.


12 Arthur U. Pope, Persian Architecture (London: Thames and Hudson, 1965), 3.


Avicenna Journal 4.1  

Stanford Journal on Muslim Affairs Volume 4, Number 1

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