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Images courtesy of Hawkinson Photography, Wikimedia Commons, Fordson:  The Movie, and Zaytuna College

My friend Safi Safiullah is an event coordinator at the Salt Lake Public Library.  His specialty is putting together fascinating events on civility and pluralism.  This past August at the close of Ramadan, he organized what has become an annual event, the City Library Eid al-Fitr Festival.  There are events ranging from crafts and magicians for the kids to more cerebral presentations for the adults, and this year he brought two remarkable people, Dr. Mahan Mirza of Zaytuna College, the oldest accredited Muslim University in the country, and Principal Imad Fadlallah of Fordson High School.  Safi also asked if I would take a few minutes and introduce the 99 Names project to festival attendees.

Dr. Mirza is a professor at Zaytuna College, and is very used to discussing Muslim principles in interfaith settings.  He was also an assistant editor for Princeton’s Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, and is an enlightening, entertaining speaker.

Principal Fadlallah, now retired, spoke about the trials of being the principal of a public high school with a 90+ percent Muslim student population.  The movie he shared, Fordson:  Faith, Fasting, and Football, follows the ups and downs of the title-winning Fordson football team, and was absolutely fascinating to watch.

And there’s me.  The volunteers from the U of U MSA helped me set up a few sculptures, and I shared the following:

99 Most Beautiful Names:

A Sculptural Presentation of the Names of God from the Qur’an

            Following the terrible events of 9/11 one of the many faiths sheltered in the US suddenly became a frightening mystery.  In our grief, we accepted the reaction of the media–to vilify the beliefs of one and a half billion because of the horrific actions of nineteen.  In the tumult of coverage following this tragedy, it was largely forgotten that religious traditions exist to help the faithful become better people, and guide them to build a better world; when terrible people claim religion justifies their inhumanity, it is because they have distorted and abused the tenets of belief.  I am a Christian, not a Muslim, and I determined to learn about a faith so misrepresented as to no longer be recognizable to its faithful practitioners.

In the US, Islam is poorly understood through ill-informed assumptions and inadequate information.  I turned to the Qur’an and asked questions of Muslim clergy and laity from around the world.  Imam Karim Abu Zaid at this year’s Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake banquet said, “Our neighbors have a right to not be afraid of us,” and I found this sentiment is shared by the vast majority of Muslims around the world, as thoroughly horrified by terrorist actions as are the victims.  As people responded to my requests for information, I realized that faithful Muslims have much in common with faithful Christians (and the faithful of every religion):  we want to live peaceably with our neighbors and build a better world for our children.

It is always helpful to discover something in another’s faith which can be applied to one’s own beliefs–this allows us to take in something of our neighbor, and helps to dissipate the rift of misunderstanding.  As I began to learn more about Islam, I discovered the tradition of the 99 Most Beautiful Names from the Qur’an; the 99 Names are an index of God’s infinite characteristics, abridged for the benefit of mortal minds.  Divine attributes which help the faithful navigate their place in the universe relative to God, they provide focus for worship and emulation.  They form a practical point from which to start the exploration of another faith, because they represent ideals and aspirations common to many faiths.

My personal response to each of the 99 Names–a synthesis of research and discussion with members of many Muslim communities–is sculpted with cold-worked flat glass, a traditionally Occidental medium.  (One of the first organizations that sent me a letter of support and encouragement was Zaytuna College, the oldest accredited Muslim Institution of higher learning in this country.)  As an artist I learned in Islam, rather than in my own Christian tradition, it is inappropriate to represent God as having human form, so the works are symbolic abstractions rather than illustrations.  The sculptures are built with three primary considerations in their design:  architectural form, medieval bookbinding techniques, and spatial geometry.

The architectural references in the sculptures reflect the building of something truly worthwhile among the faithful; from the earliest days of Islam, the commitment to make the world a better place, to bring–as much as possible–the kingdom of heaven to earth, has been taken seriously.  Just as in the Christian view this is realized through living a constructive life, looking for ways to help instead of hinder, and in spending energy to build instead of tear down.

The  bookbinding techniques used to construct the sculptures refer to the importance of scripture in Islam.  The Holy Qur’an is the capstone of God’s communication with man, and was recited to Mohamed by the Angel Gabriel in the language closest to that spoken in God’s presence.  All books are sacred because they are symbolic of the most holy of books, the Qur’an.

The use of spatial geometry is a reference to the Muslim view of Truth.  Islam teaches that all Truth comes from the same Ultimate Source, and reverence is shown the Creator whenever truth is respected.  Throughout the Muslim world, scientific methodology was applied to everything from cartography to the understanding of scripture, and math was used as a way to help the seeker appreciate how God constructed the Universe.  Modern understanding of many fields is derived directly from work done by Muslim scholars intent on practically applying their faith.

In addition to recording my personal journey towards understanding, it is my hope that the project nurtures an environment of civility and sincere dialog where differences can be addressed with dignity.  Twenty sculptures are completed, and at an average of 100 hours each, it may take a while to finish the project.  As works are completed they are displayed in a variety of venues, to provide an environment to foster communication within communities. The sculptures are not for profit, but are sold for the costs of production or given to individuals and groups who share the underlying drive of the project—that we work together in building the open community we desire for our children and our future.

Earlier this year, Arun Gandhi spoke here at the Salt Lake Library and related that many times his grandfather Mohandas was asked his religion.  The answer (Arun said) was always the same.  “I may be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, or Buddhist, but I can be none of these without first and foremost being human.”  In the Qur’an God declares He made us into nations and tribes that we may know each other through learning about our differences (49:13).  We are different because God made us to be different, and we are together because God placed us together.  Regardless of the many gulfs which divide us, the simple reality is that all of us share our common bond of humanity–whether we call Him Eloi, Allah, or God, we are all of us children of the same Creator.

–Andrew Kosorok