American Qur'an: Cultural Understanding Through Art

Short version originally published in Ethos Magazine, a nationally recognized and award-winning student publication at the University of Oregon.

Since 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States have reached alarming numbers. In the past five to six years, Islamophobia soared to its highest levels since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001. From then on, multiple mosques across the country have been attacked, Muslim women wearing the hijab have suffered abuse, and the central text of Islam—the Qur’an—an Arabic word meaning “the recitation”—has been defaced and ridiculed by many.

A recent exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, however, presented a quite unusual approach to Allah’s words to humanity, revealing how the universal principles of Islam might be remarkably compelling for Americans who may not be aware of it. 

During his visit to the University of Oregon in October of last year, world-renowned religious scholar Reza Aslam spoke about religion, identity, and America’s future. A lot changed in the four months that followed his visit to Eugene: Trump was elected president of the United States, an entry ban was imposed and temporarily overturned on visitors from seven Muslim countries, and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art brought the American Qur’an to the campus community.

The American Qur’an, an exhibit created by Los Angeles-based visual artist Sandow Birk, originated a book that combines the translation of every verse of Islam’s holiest texts with gouache-based paintings illustrating contemporary American life. The exhibit opened on January 21st and ran through March 19th at the University of Oregon’s museum of art.

Being the first academic museum in the world to host the show, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art has organized several events during winter 2017, which included student panels and presentation from top-notch scholars in the field. According to Jill Hartz, executive director of the JSMA, the American Qur’an is part of a yearlong program on American culture that questions what it means to be “American” and what the rest of the world think about Americans.

“Those questions resonate with our audiences, many of whom are trying to make sense of our election results and what’s happened since.  Our programs for the show have been very well attended, and people often come up to me afterward to thank me for all that we do in promoting conversation, inclusion, and human rights,” says Hartz.

By juxtaposing images from American popular culture in relation to each sura—name given to each chapter of the chapter of the Qur'an—, Birk’s attempt is not to illustrate Islam’s most sacred book. Instead, in the process of describing the 114 chapters of the book Qur’an by hand using a type of contemporary calligraphy positioned with images, the artist’s intent is to demonstrate Islam’s universal message to humankind and how it relates to everyday life across the United States. From Alaska and Florida to places in the Middle East, the works display life in farms and war zones, ghettos in big cities, religious ceremonies, work as well as the dramatic relationship between American life and technology such as computers, airplanes, and, most profoundly, smartphones.

Over the past year, the museum has scheduled three action teams to bring students, faculty, and community members together to learn about the project and brainstorm relevant programs.  These groups included Muslim students, faculty in many areas spanning from art, religious studies, communications, and international studies who worked with the museum to create a series of public dialogues that would both present the diversity of Muslim experiences and perspectives and give non-Muslims opportunities to learn more, ask questions, and build respect and friendship. 

“When our Humanities Conversation program was canceled, we turned to our Muslim student organizations, and they welcomed the chance to organize a program which they would share their experiences and responses to today’s political environment with both fellow Muslims and non-Muslims.  We’ve been able to bring Muslim scholars to the university, who have thoughtful insights on Sandow’s work for both devout and secular visitors,” says Hartz.

Birk’s work is displayed on paper, alongside examples of hand-scribed, religious, and secular texts from other world religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism. When the JSMA’s action teams met, the Muslim students asked if the museum could have a traditional Qur’an in the exhibition.

“That led to a discussion about hand-scribed religious texts from varied religions, and a consensus that if we could show a selection of them, it would illuminate how Sandow’s project is part of a long and esteemed history of beautiful, hand-scribed documents,” says Hartz. 

Birk, who is not a Muslim himself,  said during a panel that the American Qur’an was born out of a deep desire to understand the aftermath of 9/11. Taking nearly a decade to complete the project, the artist has traveled to far-flung locations around the world to delve into the different forms through worship or other modes. In uniting several cultures with a transcended religious power, Birk’s vision is not only to introduce Islam’s holy book to non-Muslim audiences, but also to value the richness of Islamic culture and religion around the world.

Kearney Newman, a 20-year old international studies major from Alaska, decided to visit the American Qur’an exhibit in part because she had never seen or read the Qur’an and also because she was curious as to what exactly would make a religious text specifically “American.”

“I was really impressed by the artist’s attention to detail and his purposeful inclusion of a vast variety of regions in the U.S. as well as his representation of various day-to-day struggles and happenings that most Americans can relate to,” says Newman. “I think the exhibit really reaffirmed my belief in the beauty and value of religion in our world.” 

Art can be a powerful tool to bridge the gap between different communities but might also be misleading. For more conservative Muslims, the exhibit could be seen as problematic since the essence of the project may have an unorthodox approach in that the Qur’an is only considered holy when written in Arabic.

Some might even consider it to be a blasphemous act to include the depiction of human figures and “American way of life” in connection with the sacred texts. This may lead many people to perceive Birk’s artistic metaphors of cultural or religious appropriation since western values are portrayed in direct relation to Allah’s revelation from early 7th century. 

These so-called western values could even be interpreted by some as a subtle critique concerning mundane aspects of American life and a common sense of individualism based on capitalism, technology, and political power. Regardless, Birk’s intent is a powerful door for those who wish to understand more about the transcendent relationship between the mundane and the spiritual.

Awab Rawi, a student from Baghdad, Iraq who is part of the Arab Student Union at the University of Oregon, says that for people who do not have much background on Islam or the Qur’an, the exhibit does a good job linking two seemingly distant cultures together. 

“Most of the crowd in Eugene who was exposed to this work were impressed and in support of it. Had we presented this work to a more conservative audience with stronger animosity to Islam, we might have been able to achieve an extra point for creating dialogue and provoking new ideas,” Rawi says.

According to the artist, the project received negative reactions only when the project first started getting attention in Los Angeles and San Francisco. “Galleries got a handful of anonymous emails from people saying that Americans should not waste their time reading the Qur’an and we should not be teaching people about Islam,” Birk said during an interview with the Oregon Humanities Center.

Rawi said if he were to add something to the show, he would include anecdotal clarifications on the values of Islam and the Qur’an. 

“It is nice to show the Qur’an from a modern artistic angle. However, people who do not know much about Islam will not necessarily learn anything new just by looking at the show. So an extra artistic approach would be quoting specific verses from the Qur’an and quotes from Islam that reflect the values and nature of the religion and the adherent populations to it,” Rawi believes.

In the preface of the final book project originated from Birk’s paintings, Reza Aslam reminds the audience of the compelling artistic expression of the Qur’an throughout the Islamic History. Moreover, given the diversity of the religion, which has over a billion and a half followers, he writes how Islam managed to absorb cultures, nationalities, and ethnicities with which it has come into contact. This created a complex system that is both astonishingly metaphorical and strikingly adaptable. “Religion is water and culture is the vessel; Islam takes the shape for whatever culture it encounters,” Aslam wrote. 

Even for those who do not believe in the existence of such metaphorical a water or a vessel, the American Qur’an represents a chance to think about fundamental questions about life. Despite being an agnostic, Newman enjoyed her experience with the American Qur’an.

“I think the exhibit really reaffirmed my belief in the beauty and value of religion in our world. I really believe that most religions teach very similar values and when we can see that and get past the nitty gritty specifics, religion can become something that brings us closer together instead of pulling us apart,” says Newman.

In connecting the past with the present, the American Qur’an exhibit represents a unique chance to reflect upon Islam and its teaching, and what it means to be an American. The exhibit is an also an opportunity to embark on an intercultural journey across time to visually experience the relationship between the East and the West and what their powerful metaphorical connections reveal about our postmodern realities. Most importantly, the American Qur’an is a groundbreaking possibility to find common ground through culture and faith, regardless if you are from Iowa, Lebanon, or Syria, or even if you believe in the existence of a God at all.

“I find many parts of many religions very beautiful, and even though I don’t personally believe in God, I do feel that I live my life in a way that coincides with many religious teachings,” says Newman.