Several years ago 3,000 American civilians of all faiths and backgrounds were killed in the blink of an eye. As a result of the ensuing media panic, Islam suddenly became a frightening mystery. I am a Christian, not a Muslim; although initially swept up in this tide of media sensationalism, I determined to learn about a faith so misrepresented as to no longer be recognizable to its faithful practitioners.
Soon I discovered the tradition of the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God from the Qur’an: an index of God’s infinite characteristics abridged for the benefit of our mortal minds. Divine attributes, these help the faithful navigate their place in the universe relative to God and provide direction for worship and emulation, and are principles shared among the major faiths of the world.
My personal response to each of the 99 Names – a synthesis of personal research and discussion with members of many Muslim communities – is sculpted in glass. These sculptures are built with three considerations in their design: architectural form, a bookbinding sensibility, and geometry. Unlike my own Christian tradition, I found in Islam it is generally inappropriate to represent God as having human form, so the sculptures are symbolic abstractions rather than illustrations. Recording my personal journey towards understanding the project also supports a positive environment in which to learn about our neighbors – a vital and integral element of the world stage.
As the works are completed they are displayed in a wide variety of venues including churches of various denominations, community art centers, and libraries as well as traditional galleries. At the exhibits I sometimes speak about the genesis of the project and my intent; ideally the presentation is shared with an invited member of the local Muslim community who speaks about the 99 Most Beautiful Names and what it personally means to be Muslim. After such presentations patrons are invited to ask questions.
These exhibitions provide an environment of civility opening to sincere dialog where differences are addressed with dignity. Participants have expressed a dawning realization: the more we talk the more we realize there is no us versus them. As we open our hearts to each other we recognize a fundamental human truth – all of us are just us.