Today I am going to be giving a khutbah on something I never thought I would give a khutbah on, and I can only attribute this to the Power of Art. My khutbah is called, “Frivolous Portraits”. These are some reflections on the Syrian refugee crisis which were inspired by Mounira Al Solh’s exhibit ‘I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous’ currently showing in the Contemporary Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. This past Sunday, Abid had to do some volunteer hours in the city and while he was helping the homeless, I went to the Art Institute.
In the modern wing, they were having a show by the Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh. Mounira Al Solh works in Beirut and Zutphen (Netherlands). Her father is Lebanese and her mother is Syrian. Beirut is about two hour car drive from Damascus. She lived in Beirut through the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, but she could not speak out about the war through her artwork at that time. In an interview with Henrik Folkerts, Al Solh said, “Growing up in the war is not about analyzing; it’s more about surviving. It’s beyond words. Even when you get older, there are traces that you will never be able to analyze or speak about.” However, this changed for her when the Syrian civil war broke out. Al Sohl said, “I was living in Beirut at the time, and it was like being in the direct image of the war- not the actual war, but its mirror. A direct reflection of its impact, an immediate witness to how people flee and are focused on survival.” This ‘mirror effect’ gave her enough distance to be able to express the experiences of Syrian refugees through art.
The exhibit at the Art Institute is called “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous” and this title is taken from an interview with the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. When Darwish was asked how he felt about being identified as a poet of the “Palestinian cause”, the poet responded that he would prefer to speak about love, life, and great literature. Rather than reducing people to victims or advocates of a political cause, he insisted on their humanity. He strongly believed in the right to be frivolous.
So while this exhibit is about refugees and the political crisis in Syria, it is a lot more than that. For me, this exhibit demonstrated the humanity of the refugees, and the humanity does sometimes get lost when people are reduced to the one dimension of victimhood. Yes, there were stories about trauma, but there was a lot of every day life, hopes, dreams, and humor. The exhibit consists of over two hundred drawings; portraits of refugees the artist drew as she interviewed them. Some people she interviewed more than once, and about their experiences at different points in time. At the beginning of the popular uprising, people were optimistic about the opportunity to live in a freer and more open society. As the civil war progressed, people became more pessimistic, and when people escaped, in addition to trying to adapt to a refugee camp or settling into a new country with a different culture, nearly all of the refugees were grappling with the guilt of leaving friends and family behind.
Another part of the exhibit is embroideries. Some are portraits on, what looked like to me, ready to be assembled throw pillows. There is also an embroidered sperveri, a Greek tradition of decorating canopied bridal beds. This sperveri is decorated on the outside with Ottoman and Greek motifs and when you look at the bed portion there are ten or so stories in Arabic and English which memorialize those lost and deceased. The embroideries were collaborative efforts with women in refugee camps and minority communities.
Al Solh has interviewed refugees in Lebanon, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Greece, and even Chicago. She has collected so many different stories and different perspectives. Young Syrian refugees in Lebanon are unaware that Syrian soldiers fought in these Beirut neighborhoods in the Lebanese civil war, and many of the Christian residents still remember the trauma. Refugees coming into Chicago are heavily vetted and come to this county via airplane, a very different experience for refugees coming to Greece via boat or those who have to cross a land border to Turkey or Jordan.
Why I bring up the refugees during a khutbah is not just the fact that they are Arab Muslims, which is one good reason, but I am also reminded that the religion of Islam is full of refugees and immigrants. Our Muslim calendar is dated from the hijrah, the migration of Our Prophet from Mecca to Medina. Even earlier than, a group of Muslims had immigrated to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia – this group included Uthman ibn Affan and Ruqayyah, the daughter of the prophet who was Uthman’s wife at the time. Our Qur’an has many examples of the migration of the Bani Israel from Egypt to Palestine, and there are a number of ayat concerning migration. Some examples are
2:218 “Lo! those who believe, and those who emigrate (to escape the persecution) and strive in the way of Allah, these have hope of Allah's mercy. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”
3:195 “And their Lord hath heard them (and He saith): Lo! I suffer not the work of any worker, male or female, to be lost. Ye proceed one from another. So those who fled and were driven forth from their homes and suffered damage for My cause, and fought and were slain, verily I shall remit their evil deeds from them and verily I shall bring them into Gardens underneath which rivers flow - A reward from Allah. And with Allah is the fairest of rewards.”
16:110 “Then lo! thy Lord - for those who became fugitives after they had been persecuted, and then fought and were steadfast - lo! thy Lord afterward is (for them) indeed Forgiving, Merciful.”
59:8-9 “And (it is) for the poor fugitives who have been driven out from their homes and their belongings, who seek bounty from Allah and help Allah and His messenger. They are the loyal. Those who entered the city and the faith before them love those who flee unto them for refuge, and find in their breasts no need for that which hath been given them, but prefer (the fugitives) above themselves though poverty become their lot. And whoso is saved from his own avarice - such are they who are successful.”
One aspect of human nature that does not seemed to have changed very much for the last two thousand years is the pattern of immigration and displaced persons- whether people leave their homes to escape persecution or find new opportunities, the refugee phenomenon has continued for centuries, and does not show any signs of letting up. Whenever the refugee finds themselves in a new environment, inevitably, there is a response to that person from the native population; acceptance and help, or suspicion and hostility. Religion urges people to be generous to those in need, while the base human survival instinct has a far less open-handed agenda.
Whenever I come across a Muslim artist, I am interested in how they come to terms with the hadith prohibitions on figurative art. These are in Al-Bukhari and Muslim collections and state
1) The most greviously tormented people amongst the denizens of Hell on the Day of Resurrections will be the makers of images (al-musawwirun)
2) He who makes an image (sawwara suratan) will be punished by God on the Day of Resurrection until he breathes life into it- which he will not be able to do.
The second warning is most likely a reference to Quran 5:110
When Allah saith: O Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour unto thee and unto thy mother; how I strengthened thee with the holy Spirit, so that thou spakest unto mankind in the cradle as in maturity; and how I taught thee the Scripture and Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel; and how thou didst shape of clay as it were the likeness of a bird by My permission, and didst blow upon it and it was a bird by My permission, and thou didst heal him who was born blind and the leper by My permission; and how thou didst raise the dead by My permission; and how I restrained the Children of Israel from (harming) thee when thou camest unto them with clear proofs, and those of them who disbelieved exclaimed: This is naught else than mere magic.” –Marmaduke Pickthall translation
For the legal jurists, Jesus is the only artist who is allowed to create. The Hadith scholar and Shafi’I jurist, Sharaf al-Din al-Nawawi (1234-1278) wrote in his collection of Hadith,
“The authorities of our school and others hold that the making of a picture of any living thing is strictly forbidden and that is one of the great sins because it is specifically threatened with the grievous punishment mentioned in the Hadith….the crafting of it is forbidden under every circumstance, because it imitates the creative activity of God…This is the summary position of our school on the question, and the absolute majority of the Companions of the Prophet and their immediate followers and the succeeding generations of scholars accepted it; it is the view of al-Thawri, Malik, Abu Hanifah, and others besides them.”
By invoking the names of these other scholars, al-Nawawi is implying that ALL the legal schools have the same opinion about figurative art. However, I would argue that with this reasoning, that art “imitates the creative activity of God”, one could also put forward the same argument in discouraging modern medicine, forensic science, anthropology, robotics, and computer sciences. In the Qur’anic reference, the art of bringing birds to life as well as the curing of lepers and the blind and the bringing forth of the dead is all possible only with God’s permission. Do our artists, physicians, scientists, and programmers have God’s permission in practicing their craft? We can talk about this after the khutbah.
While it is true that in many Muslim societies there has been a general discomfort or even outright destruction of figurative art (think of the Bamiyan Buddha statues and the Afghan Taliban), it is also true that there has been a lot of figurative art which was supported by Muslim rulers and other court elites and these artists were regarded with high esteem and status in their societies. Clearly, these patrons of the arts found value and meaning in figurative art which did not constitute worship (idolization) but rather the image led them to discover higher truths.
What are the higher truths that Mounira Al Sohl’s images of refugees tells us? For me, despite a language and cultural barrier, I felt a connection to the humanity the portrait was trying to convey. (Show example here). The portraits, for the most part, were done on yellow legal paper, and what they said during the interview is written as marginalia around the face/faces. I couldn’t read or understand the Arabic, but I could read the expression on the faces: hope, despair, kindness, perseverance, grief, dignity, contentment, trauma, guilt. The legal paper is also a reminder of the status of refugee (stuck in a bureaucracy) and as well as the fragility in the face of change and time. The portrait is a snapshot of a particular person at a particular time in their life. One day you have a normal life, and then a month later, a week, even a day and your life can be thrown into total chaos.
(Recite Surah Al-Asr).
The portrait is a snapshot of a particular person at a particular time in their life. The portrait is not the complete person, it can never be. We are far too complicated beings to be crammed into and summed up in a single snapshot. Even a thousand portraits could not capture the complete person, and all artists and photographers realize this. But an image can help the viewer find their way to a higher truth about the conditions of human existence.
At the end of her interview, Al Sohl said,
“It is a great joy to see those who really fight to make their way into this new life. They have to climb up again with everything they have: their feet, their teeth, their toes, their mouths, to reach a certain level, a bit closer to how they used to live back at home. Many others are slow and won’t be able to go that far. And some are just happy that their children at least will have a life and they forget about themselves…Guilt is a common emotion among the many people I have met. Although their reasons for feeling guilty varied, one should not forget that living in a safe place doesn’t mean that a person’s mind is fully shielded from trauma and violence. As I experienced myself when I came to the Netherlands…once you are in a safe place, emotions rooted in your past come out stronger than ever before.”
Let us thank God for our ability to have empathy for our fellow human beings, thank God for the gift of art which can often facilitate this process. Let us make du’a for the refugees and immigrants, to make their way easier as they make a new life for themselves in a different country, to help them heal and give hope. Let us ask God to help us make refugees and immigrants welcome and help them to the best of our abilities in a way that is pleasing to God. Amen
Mounira Al Sohl interview based on a conversation on June 1, 2017 in Kassel, Germany conducted by Hendrik Folkerts, Dittmer Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, printed in her artist statement pamphlet for the February 8-April 29 2018 I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago
Interview with Mahmoud Darwish in BOMB Magazine No. 81, Fall 2002
Quran translation by Marmaduke Pickthall
Sharif al-Din al-Nawawi Riyad al-salihin (Garden of the Righteous)