Photography by Hawkinson Photography

In the Windows of Dzyan exhibit, I had made a few sculptures reflecting on what I was learning about Islam, but felt a more systematic approach was needed (for an introduction to the 99 Names Project please go here).  After weeks of studying different avenues which could provide a “spine” for the project, I realized I kept coming back to the 99 Most Beautiful Names of Allah.  That would make for a huge number of sculptures, but the intimate scale of each work made it seem more manageable.  I went online and looked at various sources for reference on the 99Names, being careful to find sites written by practicing Muslims and verifying what I was learning through conversations with Muslim friends and clergy.  Director Virginia Gray-Henry of Fons Vitae Publishing recommended one of her titles, The Name and the Named, as well as giving me advice on how to explore other faiths with respect and civility.

In each of a set of four sketchbooks, I wrote 25 Names referencing the list from Sufism.org.  One of the first things I learned is that there are a number of different traditions of 99 Names which overlap greatly, with subtle differences.  I also learned very quickly that the Names are not names like we would think to use in calling to each other, but are eternal, timeless Attributes.  There is also the appreciation that God is and infinite Being, and the 99 Names are only an “index” of the Divine Attributes.  For each “Name”, there is an understanding that God is the Beginning, End, Ideal, and Perfect Example of each Attribute, along with an awareness that in each Name we are only glimpsing a tiny portion of its fullness.

I drew sketches for each Name, read in the Qur’an and other books regarding what Muslims thought about the Names, and found corresponding ideas in Christian scripture and from Christian luminaries.  The point was not to “prove” to Muslims that I “got it”, but rather to find what resonated within me and give that particular frequency a form.  The first sculpture that really started to coalesce was Compeller (Al-Jabbar).

Each of us, I believe, have a specific purpose or point to our creation.  Our “job” is to discover what that purpose is.  This idea echoed around inside my head, alongside other English translations of Al-Jabbar – Restorer, Repairer, Irresistible.  If each of us have a point to our being here the Creator will find a way to lead us to it, unless we are completely unwilling.  And the journey for some of us, it seems, is much longer than for others.

It dawned on me that a perfect example of the mixture of these concepts was the life of the Prophet Jonah.  He was given a mission, to preach to the people of Nineveh:

Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.

Jonah 1:1,2

This was his purpose; but he ran away.  He got into the first boat he could find and took off, trying to go as far as he could.  After realizing his selfishness was jeopardizing the safety of the vessel’s crew, he had them toss him into the sea and he took a trip back to land in a whale’s stomach.  Finally he got to Nineveh, did his duty as he saw it, and waited for the city to be destroyed; through a series of teaching moments, Jonah finally learned his path, accepted it, and the city was saved.  All sorts of things happened to Jonah to help him discover his purpose, and in the end the things that drove him restored his commitment to his faith and made him a complete person.

The sculpture is a reflection on the story of Jonah.  The shape is an Icosahedron, the Platonic solid that symbolizes the element of water – because Jonah’s first thought was to flee across the sea, water in my mind became symbolic of his journey to and that God’s awareness of us is entirely undiminished over time or distance of any sort.  In the center of the shape is an orange and yellow gourd, which reminds me that in the midst of our journeys or attempts to “escape” Divine Will remains the comfort of Divine Love.  Surrounding the gourd are seven antique fish, representing the traditional Seven Seas.

The glass used is GNA or German New Antique, a beautifully pure glass with a slight variation in surface texture reminiscent of the brush strokes which come from a glass worker brushing a freshly blown cylinder of glass flat.  A friend who is a rare book conservator shared with me traditional knots and materials common to medieval bookbinding, so the 20 panels of glass are sewn together using hemp and traditional knots – a reference to the importance of the Qur’an to Muslims.  Each of the holes in the glass panels are drilled with a rotary tool and lined with a scrapbooking eyelet, and the sculpture is built to the height of 11 1/4″.  This height is for three reasons, which remain consistent through the whole project.  First, the process of contextualizing and learning another’s path of faith must by its nature be personal and intimate, and I wanted viewers to participate in my personal journey.  Second, the sculpture height is five eighths of my cubit – the cubit or distance between tip of the longest finger and elbow was the traditional measurement of sacred building in many scriptures, and the five and eight refer to the Five Pillars of Islam and the eight points of the Compassionate Breath star, or the eight angels which will carry God’s throne at the final Judgment (Qur’an 69:17).   And finally, the height is symbolic of the first Qur’an I received and began to read with an understanding heart.

I did a number of color tests to come up with several shades of blue, and I drew several different patterns based on Islamic organic floral patterns from around the world and several time periods; Islam is a universal religion applying to all, and I started generating designs to reflect this cross-cultural and timeless nature of the faith using cosmology of design and mixing cultural indicators rather than copying any specific patterns.  I beveled the triangles on a flat-bed grinding wheel, holding the pieces and praying the angles were right so the structure would hold together and support itself when tied.  Drilling the holes really sucked.  When I started, I was able to get the glass to avoid breaking seven out of eight times; with 24 holes in each of the 20 panels, I ended up making over 35 panels in order to get twenty to survive!  The paint is a mixture of mason stain and finely powdered glass, an entirely unconventional mix for glass workers (because mason stain won’t fuse directly to the glass) which reticulates beautifully and gives a certain water color affect reminiscent of manuscript illuminations.

Something I learned – when working with gourds, make certain they are completely dry before including them in any sort of long-term project.  If not, be warned that the smell is astounding.

The prophets, those amazing men and women of scripture, exemplify to me much of what this Name eludes to.  They were people just like anyone else, but were compelled by the natures of their callings to push beyond their comfort zones and frailties to become astounding figures, earth-bound angels called to perform as agents of the Divine Will for others.  If someone like Jonah can do the job he had, then others can, too, like Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Fethullah Gulen – and the rest of us.

Interesting note.  While doing research working on the 99 Names Project I learned something else about Divine Names.  When Jesus gave his last mortal prayer, he called God “Eloi” (Mark 15:34).  Speaking with several ancient scripture language experts, I discovered that “Allah” is the Arabic spelling of the Aramaic “Eloi”, the same word for God which Jesus used.  Learning the different Names of Allah have helped me discover different facets of Divinity which echo across all faith paths, and rather than diluting my belief enriches it.

And as a Christian, I figure if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.

Jonah at Nineveh, Rembrandt Image from Wikimedia Commons

Jonah at Nineveh, Rembrandt (Detail)
Image from Wikimedia Commons

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