Pakistani Truck Art

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One of the most curious and distinctive things about roads in India and Pakistan are the trucks – because they are all decorated, beautifully, with bright colours, finely detailed images, intricate tassles, and carefully written messages. It is a uniquely beautiful and fascinating expression of popular Islamic culture.

Image credits: Various examples of Pakistani trucks, the 2006 Melbourne Tram

In Pakistan, truck decoration is a veritable industry. In the port city of Karachi alone, 50,000 people are employed in truck decoration. “Practically every truck is decorated,” says Jamal J. Elias, probably the world’s foremost expert on Pakistani truck decoration. (Oh, academic specialisation is a wonderful, tragic thing.) “Truck culture is so pervasive in Pakistan.” It has become a dynamic, visible expression of Pakistani folk art.

And it’s really expensive. In a country with a GDP per capita of only US$2,800, spending over $30,000 on a new truck and then almost the same amount for decorations, which need to be re-done every five years, is a serious investment. It’s no wonder that the drivers are intensely proud of their trucks, lovingly caring for them and keen to show them off. But why bother?

An economist would say it is advertising. The more highly decorated a truck is, the more likely it is to be chosen to do a job. If every truck is decorated, yours must be too if you want to compete. This may well be the case, but it glosses over the deep significance the decorations can have for the driver. The paintings are a way for the drivers to comment on their families, their religion, and Pakistani society. They are seen as visual reflections of the driver’s lifestyle and identity.

The decorations are highly symbolic, with frequent recourse to religious imagery. But this immediately becomes interesting, considering that Islam is “generally considered an iconoclastic religion,” meaning that it prohibits the visual depiction of religious subjects. Such a prohibition in not mentioned in the Qur’an, but derives from certain hadith (a series of supplementary sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad). Theological justifications say that there is no Creator but God, and that visual depictions of the divine can lead to idolatry.

But the human propensity towards artistic expression is difficult to suppress. Whole streams of Islamic art avoid the prohibited Muhammad but instead depict secondary characters from the Qur’an and Islamic teachings. One subject that is particularly common among Pakistani trucks is Muhammad’s steed Buraq, upon which he made his night flight to Jerusalem (the reason why the Dome of the Rock is where it is). Buraq is usually depicted as a winged, donkey-shaped creature with a woman’s head and a peacock’s tail. Such depictions of trucks ostensibly act as protective charms.

Other favourite religious subjects for trucks include Muhammad’s horse, various famous Mosques, and Arabic calligraphy. Written messages of adoration are permitted in Islam – explaining the opulence and intricacy of Islamic calligraphy – and indeed, “Allah Akbar (or some variation, such as Mashallah or Subhanallah) appears on every Pakistani truck.” Folk symbols like fish (representing good fortune) and women’s eyes (representing beauty) are also common. And all this is squeezed on there next to secular images such as film stars, Pakistani flags, and poetry. Fascinatingly, there are unspoken rules and traditions about what kinds of designs go on what parts of the truck. This is a complex, fully-formed folk tradition, replete with symbols drawn syncretically from religion and popular culture, all combining into a unique communicative system.

The tradition has also been seen internationally. For the 2006 Commonwealth Games, the city of Melbourne had one of its trams decorated in full Pakistani style.

For more information on this fascinating folk-religious-artistic tradition, check out this New York Times article, or Jamal Elias’ book, On Wings of Diesel.

Segment 14 – Islamic Punk

Today we dove into the crazy world of Islamic punk, particularly its iteration as taqwacore. Have a listen:

Songs we played: ‘Tunn‘ by The Kominas; ‘Amnesia‘ by Al-Thawra

Although there have been a small number of Muslim punk bands in the USA since the early 80s, there’s been a bit of a resurgence in the last few years, due largely to the work of Michael Muhammad Knight – a white American who ran off to a fundamentalist Pakistani madrassa when he was 17. (He actually went to the Faisal Mosque.) Typical adolescent rebellion, right? Eventually, however, he became disillusioned with orthodox Islam, came back to America, and embarked on a personal journey into progressive Islam. He released The Taqwacores in 2003 – a fictional novel about an underground scene of Muslim punks, from drunk Sufis with mohawks to riot grrrls with burqas. (Taqwa means piety or respect for God in Arabic.) Little did he know that his fiction would touch a nerve among disgruntled Muslim youths the world over, who took the novel as a calling, and began a real-life taqwacore scene. The two bands we played today, The Kominas and Al-Thawra, are both American bands who have been associated with the label of taqwacore.

What’s going on here is one of the variations of progressive Islam that are appearing around the world, but perhaps especially in the USA. It is a uniquely Western Islam, seemingly driven by white American converts or second-generation immigrants born in America. This new generation of American Muslims have absorbed a lot of the cultural values of Western liberalism and are working them into their faith. Individualism is a big part of this. Instead of submitting to tradition and institution, these young Muslims see themselves as the ultimate source of authority – they can make their own interpretations of the Qur’an. As such they play music (which some orthodox Muslim scholars claim is haram), drink, smoke, and even allow women to lead prayer (which almost all Muslims agree is haram). Knight’s book was central for many feeling that this kind of Islam is OK, is still Islam. “Reading the book was totally liberating for me,” said one member of this subculture. Another claimed, “this book … saved my faith.”

Have a listen to the audio above for some great little examples of how Muslim punks are “giving the finger to both sides” – the prohibitions of orthodox scholars and the preconceptions of non-Muslims. Finally (in what is becoming a habit in these posts) I must provide a caveat: there is, of course, more to these bands than their being Muslim. Wendy Hsu has written, “Over-emphasising the band members as ‘Muslim,’ the press has overlooked the non-Islamic sides of the band’s music, image, and membership.” For example, The Kominas identify more with their Pakistani heritage than their Islam; and Al-Thawra songs challenge all sorts of Western constructs, making social comments on colonialism, Gaza and capitalism.

‘Pagan electronic folk’ next week. One week I’ll try to have a four-worder…

Occupy Religion

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Images: 1, Occupy Catholics by Mary Valle; 2, Jesus as OWS protestor; 3, the Fiddler on the Roof on the Wall Street bull; 4, Interfaith Tent at Occupy Oakland; 5, Occupy Judaism; 6, Protest Chaplains

Occupy may seem a little passé – having been evicted from most of their protest sites, Occupy now exists primarily in exile, or in the diaspora – but it remains a fascinating subject. Various religions crossed paths with Occupy, and in various ways:

Religion in Occupy

A number of religious groups and faith traditions were present at the protests themselves. A group of liberal Christians called the Protest Chaplains played a role in the Boston and New York camps. They stated firmly that they were not there to proselytise – only to express solidarity and provide support. Their presence was largely symbolic, tying the concerns of Occupy to something far greater. In Boston they had a multi-faith chapel, where people came for Bible study groups, services, reiki, yoga, or quiet meditation. Crosses mingled with Tibetan coloured flags on the cacophonous front wall of this small blue tent. Muslim groups also held ‘prayer rallies’ on Wall Street, as well as joining in the demonstrations. At this protest we hear call and response chants of “Tell me what democracy looks like – this is what democracy looks like” blending smoothly with “takbir – allahu akbar.” At Occupy Oakland, they had an Interfaith Tent that preached nonviolence, compassion and justice; in the words of the Director of the Seminary of the Street, it aimed to “provide a critical spiritual presence that honored and welcomed all religious traditions and people who were non-religious.” Furthermore, the Tent continues to exist metaphorically – they held an interfaith conference a couple of months ago. On a more abstract level, Occupy itself could be construed as religious – through ritualised protest practices, a collective vision for a better world, a passionate social ethic, and a sense of transcendence generated through collective, emotionally-intense experience.

Religion and Occupy

Nathan Schneider has argued that Occupy needs religion – “the more organised the better” – if it is to truly transform society. Religious institutions have indeed often interacted with the Occupy movement. We all remember the Vatican releasing its call for major global economic reform, which came out last October. It was not ostensibly a reaction to Occupy, but clearly dealt with the same issues, calling for a focus on the common good and ending economic inequalities. Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury (the highest post, after the Queen, in the Church of England), followed the Vatican’s lead with a similar call for a reinvigoration of common values and ethical behaviour in the context of global, selfish capitalism. The situation of the Occupy London protests in front of St Paul’s Cathedral is brimming with symbolism. Obviously a ‘religion’ does not exist as some kind of abstract entity with a unitary opinion. People of all faiths can be found arguing fervently on both sides. While some might argue that Jesus would be there with the protestors in Zuccotti Park fighting corporate greed, others argued that he would be there to save them from their folly.

Occupy Religion

Finally, there have been moves to take the Occupy ethos and practice to religion itself, calling for the reform of religious institutions and dogmas to refocus on the ‘99%’ – the average person of faith for whom the elite structures may seem to serve little purpose. Jewish rituals held at Zuccotti Park gave rise to Occupy Judaism. There are a bunch of Facebook groups out there too, such as Occupy Religion, which has as its byline, “Religion for the rest of us.” The Occupy Church is an ecumenical Christian movement that demonstrates how a shared purpose – in this case, against excessive corporate power – can bring together people from a variety of religious denominations, thus facilitating change within the religion as well.

In the end, religions simply provide symbolic resources that individuals may draw on. Re-telling religious stories (such as Jesus overturning the tables), seeing religious garb, crosses and other symbols (such as the Jewish Fiddler on the Roof on the Wall Street bull), or performing rituals in a new context (such as the Muslim prayer rallies), are all ways to sacralise the cause. In the process both entities are transformed: the religious symbolism is reconfigured, and the cause is deepened and given transcendent meaning and affirmation. Whether this is seen as appropriation or application is irrelevant. Humans require meaning to function in their daily lives, and the use of symbols is fundamental to this. Religions have been symbolic resources for centuries, and the process of reconfiguration and alteration will never cease.

Contemporary Mosque Architecture

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Photos: 1-2 Al-Irsyad Mosque, Indonesia; 3 Faisal Mosque, Pakistan; 4 Kinaliada Mosque, Turkey; 5-6 Assyafaah Mosque, Singapore; 7-8 Dubai Mosque, UAE; 9 Floating Mosque, Dubai, UAE; 10 Ibn Bunnieh Mosque, Baghdad (a more ‘traditional’ mosque for comparison)

When you think mosque, you think domes and minarets, right? (Minarets are the tall thin cylindrical towers usually on the corners of mosques.) But checking out the above slideshow of mosques designed within the last twenty years or so, you’ll find that contemporary mosque architecture is playing creatively with those traditional forms – or scrapping them altogether.

According to the very core, early message of Islam, mosques are not strictly necessary. The whole world is God’s creation, after all, so a Muslim may fulfil their obligations by praying anywhere – under a tree, in their office, on the side of the road, etc – as long as they face Mecca (and yes, there’s an app for that). But people like to do these things together, so the first mosques were built to be places for Muslims to pray together; remembering that priests/imams/leaders are not strictly necessary in Islam either, any person may approach God and achieve paradise on their own. These early Arab-style mosques were fairly plain, square-shaped affairs, and it wasn’t until the Muslim conquest of Persia in the mid-7th Century that designs began to change. Under the influence of the opulent Persian architectural heritage, mosques began to incorporate domes and large archways. Minarets were introduced at about the same time – the muezzin would sit at the top and call the Muslims of the town to prayer. These days speakers aid him in the task; although in some European countries it has been banned as a kind of noise pollution.

Squares, domes, archways and minarets are the building blocks, then, of traditional mosque architecture, and have dominated mosque design for centuries. In the past 50 years, however, there has been a renaissance of creativity in mosque architecture, producing various interesting designs like those in the above slideshow. I have only included designs from predominantly Muslim countries, however there is also a lot of creative and sympathetic mosque design going on in Europe.

Al-Irsyad Mosque was built in 2010 in Indonesia, and its principal architect was M. Ridwan Kamil. He rejected the dome-and-archway model as irrelevant in the Indonesian context, instead opting for a solid-looking, stacked stone square. The mosque is designed, apparently, to blend in with nature, with the stones allowing natural ventilation. Those patterns you can see on the sides of the building are (very) stylised Arabic calligraphy – a traditional element of mosque architecture, radically re-imagined. Check out the designs here.

The Faisal Mosque from Pakistan is one of the largest in the world. It’s design, from Vedat Dalokay, fuses the look of an Arab Bedouin’s tent with elegant Turkish minarets and an overall contemporary feel. At the same time it sharply abandons traditional forms while remaining ‘recognisably’ a mosque. It was constructed in the late 1980s. Kinaliada Mosque in Turkey was built in the 1960s and has a similar feel.

Assyafaah Mosque in Singapore, designed by Tan Kok Hiang and completed in 2004, proves that even places of worship can be made to look like office blocks. Apparently this was an attempt to create an “aesthetically neutral space,” allowing for both Chinese and Malay Muslims to feel at home. Once again the domes and archways have been jettisoned in favour of a very ‘modern’ look, reminiscent of those skyscrapers that try to get beyond bauhaus by chucking in some crazy angles and lots of glass. The interior continues the theme, with lots of concrete and sloped walls. It’s got a certain elegance, but it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling at home here.

As usual in the Muslim world, however, the craziest stuff is happening in Dubai. Fari Hatam was born in Iran and raised in Australia, and made the designs for the Dubai Mosque in an attempt to bring a completely contemporary aesthetic to mosque design. He still uses the traditional elements – curved domes and minarets – but pushes them to their limits. Even the calligraphy is uniquely stylised. Unfortunately it is yet to be built; instead of prior investment and a strict brief, Hatam says, “This mosque came from the heart.”

There have been mosques before that are metaphorically referred to as ‘floating.’ In Dubai, however, metaphors are made real. Instead of building new islands, there are plans now to construct actually floating buildings, set on foam and concrete platforms. Two Dutchmen are behind the idea, Paul van de Kamp and Koen Olthuis, and one of their suggestions is for floating mosques, the designs of which look like something out of a Star Trek set. Mosque architecture has been slowly evolving for centuries – surely tethered prayer rooms that go up and down with the tide is the next step in a natural progression? Surely?

If you’re interested in the interplay between these designs and cultural/religious concerns, check out this Time article focusing on mosques in Europe. This article by Hasan-Uddin Khan talks about the importance of traditional design for carrying forward collective meanings over time. The tension between traditional concerns and contemporary whims is felt by all artists, but perhaps especially so by architects, whose work is both more visible during their lifetimes and more likely to remain so into the future. Add a religious function and the pressure must be immense.

“What are we going to leave behind?” Fari Hatam asks about the majority of contemporary design, “Glass boxes? Let’s be realistic, they’ll be gone in 100 years.” It’s creative designs like these that will help our generation to leave a legacy worth keeping.

Segment 5 – Islamic Hip-Hop

There is so much Islamic hip-hop out there! I can’t hope to cover it all in this short post. But here goes.

Firstly, the audio from today’s segment, sans music for legal reasons: 

The distinction has to be made between Muslims singing hip-hop, and actual ‘Muslim hip-hop.’ There are some quite famous examples of the former (Akon, Mos Def, Lupe Fiasco and many others are either practising Muslims or grew up in Muslim families) while the latter is more of a niche genre. Like the Christians we’ve discussed in previous posts, these artists see hip-hop as a “tool for the sake of Allah,” a method to spread the word about their deen (faith) to other Muslims and to a broader community. [I would suggest that there is a distinction in the way that proselytising versus non-proselytising religions use music. Members of religions that seek to convert people, such as Christianity and Islam, appear to see music as a tool of the divine, a method to spread the word; musicians of other faiths may simply be exploring something that they personally find important.]

These Muslim artists produce ‘conscious hip-hop,’ that is, hip-hop with a message to push, with an aim to better people’s lives and society. A common thread appears to be a distaste for mainstream hip-hop, with its “celebration of gun play and misogyny.” The leader of Mecca2Medina was part of the successful group Cash Crew before his sheikh suggested he turn away from the mainstream scene and form a group dedicated to Islam.

The Brothahood, who I’ve quoted twice already, are a perfect example. They hail from Melbourne, Australia, and all met at a Muslim Youth Camp. They sing explicitly about “life in Australia post-September 11 and Cronulla,” referring to the two (unfortunately) most significant events which have impacted Australians’ perception of Muslims. They “use hip-hop as a tool to break down stereotypes and misconceptions,” presenting an image of a vibrant, young Muslim identity that is not only consonant with, but fully engaged with an Australian patriotism. We played their song ‘Takbir‘ on air.

Mecca2Medina, from London, focus on more traditional Islamic subject matter. We played their song ‘Truth Seekers‘ on air. They are inspired by, and also play, nasheed music – that is, traditional Arabic vocal music sung a cappella over percussion. Other Muslim artists have suggested that if you speed up this kind of Islamic poetry reading, and put it to a beat, it sounds a lot like rapping.

Now as you can imagine, not all Muslim scholars are happy with this. A debate has raged within Islam since its inception over the status of music: is it halal or haram? That is, is it permitted, or not permitted, for Muslims to play music? There is much disagreement, and obviously the Muslim hip-hop artists take a liberal interpretation. A case can be made, on the basis of some passages from the Hadith (the collection of Muhammad’s apparent sayings, referred to for guidance after the Qur’an), that musical instruments are unlawful, i.e. haram. The 14th Century Middle Eastern scholar Ibn Taymiyyah is reputed to have said, “Listening to music and sinful fun are among what strengthens the satanic ways the most.” Generally, however, a more liberal line is taken, which says that music is only sinful when the content discusses sinful things – as much mainstream hip-hop presumably does.

I’ll leave it at that for now, but we’ve only just scratched the surface of Islamic hip-hop. We’ll come back to it another time, inshallah!

P.S. If you read a bit more on this topic online, you’ll find a fair bit of confusion between mainstream Islam and the Nation of Islam. Numerous early African-American rappers in the 80s and 90s, for example, were inspired by figures within the Nation of Islam. It is important to note that although this group uses Islamic discourse and teachings, it is primarily a politico-religious movement interested in race relations. It is rejected by mainstream Islamic institutions; its most famous proponent, Malcolm X, in fact left the group after he travelled to Mecca himself and converted to Sunni Islam, an act that contributed to his assassination by members of the Nation of Islam.