Losing creativity… and towards reclaiming it

K.M. has posted again (yay!), this time about seeing a documentary about the Burning Man festival, and how it made her think about how conversion to Islam had affected her creativity. The quotes are from her post; my comments are in the square brackets.

… it was so very foreign to me.  You see people creating bizarre,fanciful art and cars and costumes. They smile, dance, kiss, twirl, laugh. They do this with friend and stranger alike. And this is what struck me the most: I would never fit in to a culture like Burning Man.

As a person who was once a Muslim, the tendency or ability to do any of this in public was taken from me.  Smothered, if you will.  Smiling and laughing in public is as loosey goosey as I get – and that’s after years of being in the so-called mainstream culture. Running and dancing in public is probably something I will not ever do.  I have not done them since I was a girl.

[I can’t imagine attending anything like that either, much less fitting in. Not because I wouldn’t want to, but because I couldn’t. Dancing in public? Twirling around? Wearing costumes? Nope. I remember going to a folk festival about a year before I converted, dancing to the music and really enjoying myself. But once I converted, that sort of thing became impossible. It was seen as shockingly immodest, as something that a “true Muslim woman” would never ever do, so even admitting to myself that I wished I could do it was not acceptable.]

But what bothered me more is that the reality of being creative and sharing that creation with others has been smothered out of me. In a lot of Muslim groups (or subcultures if you like), the very word “creative” itself is taboo.  Only allah creates. We do not create.  Even now, it feels “wrong” somehow to use these words – create, creative, creativity. It’s a remnant of the taboo.

[Yeah, I remember that taboo. It still seems arrogant and absurdly pretentious to speak of a human being as creating or being creative, somehow.]

When I was a child, I was very creative.  I made art, played instruments, wrote plays and stories and poems, put on performances, danced.  When I embraced my religion in college, I brought that with me and was told right out of the gate that it wouldn’t be tolerated. The first person to tell me was a non-Muslim teacher I had.  I have a shitty memory in general, but I remember her words to me all these years later, when she realized I was becoming a practicing Muslim. “A shame. You’ve got a lot of creativity, but you’re choosing Islam.”  We might scoff at the audacity of this non-Muslim woman telling a Muslim what Islam says and doesn’t say, but her words were reinforced – strongly at times – by shaykhs and teachers and imams and books and most strongly by the community around me.

[I wasn’t that talented. But I still enjoyed singing, playing instruments, listening to music, writing poetry… and after conversion, I soon learned that things like this were very suspect at best, especially for women. There were all kinds of rules about form and content, as well as the requirement that there mustn’t be any chance that any man who wasn’t your husband or a very close relative could overhear you singing, humming, or whistling (though whistling was probably forbidden anyway, because it makes a sound kinda like a flute which means it will summon demons…). The end result was that it became much easier, and religiously safer, to avoid doing any music-related things.]

Writing poetry about anything other than god or the struggles of being Muslim in this world was frowned on. Writing fiction was dubious. It might narrowly serve a purpose only if it inspired people to practice the religion.

[Yes, I remember all the suspicion about any kind of creative or fictional writing. And how it “encouraged” me to write stuff aimed either at “doing dawah”, or teaching our kids.

And at the same time that I remember it, I am horrified. Angry. What the hell?? There is after all a long history of poetry written by Muslims, for Muslims, which doesn’t fit that mold. How on earth were we led to believe that “Islam” didn’t have room for writing that isn’t didactic, that doesn’t stay within narrow, “safe” boundaries? Such a heavily edited version of “Islam” and “the tradition” we were fed.]

At that time, the community was much more conservative than it is today. Music was strongly discouraged. People who listened to it were shunned – to play it, especially on a string instrument, was unheard of. I remember a friend making it a point of pride to tape over her music cassettes with the lectures of popular shaykhs.  Drawing, painting, sculpture – all forbidden according to the shariah.  One might draw decorative things in the great traditions of the Mughals, Safavids and so on, but to draw images of people or animals was beyond the pale. Creativity in children was encouraged to a small extent, but it was to be directed towards deeni things.  If they wanted to sing, they should sing anashid.  If they wanted to paint and draw, they should learn calligraphy.

[Oh, yes. I remember all that negativity about music. Some converts were at the forefront of propagating that anti-music stuff. And the  highly ambivalent attitudes to even children doing art or singing. I remember anguished conversations about what to do if one’s child refused to be redirected to drawing inanimate things and insisted on drawing people or animals! We were nuts.]

Adults who made up the creative class were small in number and tended to have XY chromosomes. I am talking about a somewhat specific swath of Muslims here, not the global religious community at large. Creativity was celebrated when it was present in men who sang in soft voices about allah – Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) – being the foremost of these men.  It was praised in those who could manipulate brush and ink to create calligraphic works of art, some of whom are women but most of whom are not. Women’s creativity was praised mainly when it took place in the kitchen, or if it was directed at children’s education.  Even too much creativity with scarves and flowing skirts was frowned on. I wish I was kidding, but I’m not.

[Yep. The few Muslims I knew who were really “allowed” to exercise any creativity back then were men. They sang nashids or made calligraphy, mostly. Most of their nashids were pretty sub-par, but we were starved for any kind of “halaal” music, so we listened eagerly and bought the tapes and tried to tell ourselves that it was wonderful—so truly uplifting and definitely much better than dunyawi music. I remember a few women trying to do calligraphy. I bought some “calligraphy” from a sister once that was “Allah” written in Arabic with fabric paint (!?) on a colored glass plate. Looking back, I think that’s just sad. And  yeah, creativity with hijab was seriously frowned upon, as I quickly learned. It was a sure-fire way to get yourself an unsolicited lecture on “understanding the true spirit of hijab.”]

As a “good Muslim lady,” I thus channeled my creative energies into photography – a narrowly accepted means of expression, although I avoided photographs of living people or faces so that I might avoid further censure – and the writing of essays, guidebooks and technical manuscripts.  I did both of these activities daily for years.

[I channeled—or sublimated would probably be more like it—my creative energies into writing religious stuff aimed at other Muslim women, as well as kids. The stories I wrote for my kids were designed to support their Islamic identities, so the characters were mostly squeaky clean ideal Muslims, who did what they were supposed to do. Looking back, I realize that they were unbelievably boring.]

Of course, like all great religions and their communities, things have changed somewhat in the last few years. There will always be a limited appreciation for and acceptance of figurative art, but like skinny jeans with a scarf, music has been overwhelmingly accepted within the community now. The same friend who once taped over her cassettes now openly listens to music and has conveniently forgotten how she so strongly encouraged everyone around her to trash their CDs and listen to shaykhs babbling instead. The Yusuf Islam who used to devote himself solely to a capella songs about the prophet, who used to appear in kufis and thobes, now wears jeans and plays guitar.  How nice for him.

[I remember back in the day hearing Yusuf Islam explaining that he only sang a capella songs because he was afraid that “God might not like it” if he used instruments. His voice caught a bit when he said that. I remember the implied message—that if you really love Allah, you too will happily give up doing all that stuff that makes you happy that the frowning Muslims around you are saying is haraam or makruh or even doubtful, whether their claims make sense to you or not. That if you really love Allah, you too will learn to leave behind any songs or literature which raises difficult questions, which leaves the audience or reader with a paradox… and happily embrace songs with simple, uplifting messages about the Arabic alphabet or the so-called mujahideen in Afghanistan.

Though of course as a woman, you shouldn’t love even those songs too much. And unlike Yusuf Islam, you would never, ever be allowed to perform them, even if you were magnificently talented and had an amazing voice.]

When I removed myself from the entanglement of religion, I expected my creativity to begin again.  I would be free to do all those things again, and I would.

I haven’t. I didn’t. I don’t.

I have the abilities, but the inspiration is gone.  It was smothered out of me.

I don’t even write for this blog and when I do, I usually end up removing the post anyway.

It takes months for me to be inspired to write about anything, and when I am inspired, my brain immediately starts in with “what’s the point anyway?”  And forget about other kinds of art. In the last five or six years, I’ve only done one art project, and I still haven’t finished it.  There’s no one left to censure and deny me, only myself.

So as I watched this Burning Man documentary, I felt some jealousy of people who felt free to create and share that. Even as people will make fun of those who speak of art and creativity, there is still a lot of room for people to engage in these things, whether it’s the counter culture of Burning Man or the elderly woman who knits all sorts of things in her living room. I may have lived most of my life here, and I definitely benefited from that in my youth, but the person I am now stands outside of this.  I thought of what a privilege it is to be an adult and still be so fully engaged in this idea of creating things and putting them out there in the world.  How fortunate they are to have not had this impulse so thoroughly disapproved of from every corner of their lives and culture.

Sometimes I wish there would be a day of reckoning, so that all of those shaykhs and imams and brothers and sisters who smothered my creative spark would have to answer to me.  But that won’t ever happen. They move on, embracing Yusuf Islam with a guitar, listening to music instead of a qari on their iPhones.  Maybe moving on for me is accepting that I’m no longer a creative person, no matter how much I want to be.  Maybe moving on is accepting that I’ve gotten this far and that’s okay – because I know others have not.

I hate how in liberal circles now, everything is privilege this and privilege that. In many ways, it’s become an internet buzz word and is being disarmed of it’s impact and meaning. But I honestly believe now that to be creative as an adult is a privilege. It’s an honor. If you’re in possession of it, enjoy it, use it, share it. You are so lucky.

[Oh man. Yeah, it’s great that “the community” here in North America is moving on. That music isn’t such a hot button issue any more. That Yusuf Islam can now be accepted without him having to do the “super mu’min in drag” kinda thing with thobe and turban. That there seems to be significantly less anxiety around creativity in general, at least for men… though some sisters nowadays are doing spoken word and rap on public stages, in fashionable hijabs that would have been unthinkable back in the day. That’s definitely an improvement.

But while they’ve moved on, I and some of my convert friends and our kids are left dealing with the after-effects of the old negative attitudes to any kind of creativity. It would be something if those people who used to go about discouraging or squashing creativity would take some kind of responsibility for their actions. Like, admit they were wrong, that their teachings harmed people, and apologize. That would be the least they could do.

None of my kids really developed any creative or artistic interests, but then, they weren’t really given a chance to, either. Of course, they were never enrolled in dance or music lessons. No money for one thing, but also, we were afraid of what they might be exposed to, and how easily it might end up in something haraam… so better not to even open that door. We used to buy them dollar store crayons and paint and art supplies and plasticine, all right, but we also tried to steer them away from doing art that involved people or animals—which unsurprisingly were what they were often most interested in drawing or sculpting. Oddly enough, calligraphy or drawings of mosques didn’t really grab them. Neither did nashids, once they were no longer small. They wanted to listen to what the other kids in the neighborhood were listening to.

I haven’t been able to get back into doing anything creative, really. Partly because of a shortage of time and energy… but partly because I’ve mostly lost the creative urge. I still hear the frowny, disapproving voices of those Muslims I used to know back in the day in my head, asking why I would want to do that, and anyway wouldn’t a believer’s time be better spent reading the Qur’an or making salat??—and revisit the sensation of having failed again. I am still somewhat haunted by that hadith about the the makers of pictures who will be commanded to give life to what they drew, and when they can’t do it they will be tossed into hell. I ask myself what’s the point anyway. Who has the time, who has the money? Don’t I have enough clutter around the home already, without adding art supplies?

We used to be afraid of getting too caught up in anything, because it could be a rival to God. Creativity, we were given to understand, was very likely to end up being an idol. It was hemmed around with so many rules that it wasn’t creativity any more. We could produce didactic, propagandistic stuff, but not art. Not really.

Going online in search of Turkish ilahis. I encountered them as I was on my way out of my hyper-conservative Muslim community. Too little, too late… but I still like to listen to them sometimes. The old ones, that haven’t been Wahhabified, that use stringed instruments. They are beautiful. But then, they weren’t composed under those rigid rules and attitudes we used to live under, and believe is “what Islam says.”

Being trapped in a state of hyper-vigilance, having internalized a host of disapproving eyes of people who are measuring your iman and finding it wanting, feeling shame about who and what you are… make creativity very difficult if not impossible. Lying to myself about what I truly liked and didn’t like, because I was trying to force my inner self to align with what I thought God demands… was destructive.

There’s a self-forgetfulness in creativity, a letting go, an openness to following the wind where it takes you. A joy in existence. I need to find it again.

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  1. #1 by rosalindawijks on March 27, 2015 - 11:41 am

    Yes, music, dance and the arts are so important!

    Music can lead to a direct contact with the Divine (that’s why it’s used in so many religious rituals, including Sufism, shamanism, church music, Hindu temples with bhajans, etc.)

    Muslim countries have rich&varied musical and folkloric dance traditions, from sabar in Senegal to Oriental dance in Egypt to traditional Javanese dances.

    Dancing is not only enjoyable, but also a way to express one’s soul and emotions, also the negative ones. It can help one heal. In Chinese culture for instance, one believes that feelings/emotions reside in the abdomen.

    I remember coming from an Oriental dance lesson, years ago, and I came home crying. That’s when the emotion comes in, and the healing.

    Most dances are expressions of joy. And God is Beauty and loves beauty, so nothing wrong with that.

    Good luck with (re)discovering your creative self!

  2. #2 by rosalindawijks on March 27, 2015 - 11:47 am

    Think of these amazing Muslim singers like Umm Kulthum, Abida Parveen, Munajat Yultcheva, Ustad Mahwash (from Afghanistan), Fatimata Diawara (from Mali), Mariem Hassan, Sanaa Marahati, Cheikha Remitti……….there are too many to count, really. Youtube them and get inspired. 🙂

    There are also some great Egyptian Muslim Orientald dancers, too. (Tahia Carioca, Soheir Zaki, Fifi Abdo etc.)

    Here is some by Fifi – not that haram, because she’s wearing a thobe baladi/folkloric costume. 😉

    (Ofcourse, I know that many orthodox mainstream Muslims would damn Oriental dancers to hell. Many of them are VERY religious, though, and donate money to feed poor Muslims during Ramadan and so forth)

  3. #3 by nmr on March 27, 2015 - 1:30 pm

    I don’t think you or Ms. KM have lost your creative spark. You write blogs, for goodness sake! Ok, maybe the light is weak- but it’s still there and you have to nourish it. You have to nourish it because it is part of you and it is the gift that God has given you and God expects you to share gifts with others.
    It is never ever ever too late to kindle your creative interests. Find an environment ( = non-Muslim) which will encourage and support you. I suggest classes at a local community college, art league, library or museum. Yes, it does require an investment in time, yes it does require an investment in materials- but what else are you going to do with your time and money? Let these hyper conservative religious nuts of short term memory hold power over you? Phooey.
    I know a 92 year old woman who paints every day. Most of the people at my local art league started (STARTED) painting in their late 40s-50s as they were nearing retirement and the kids were gone from the house. It is never ever ever too late.
    And anyone who says the creative process is a form of idolatry knows absolutely nothing about the creative process. Period.

    • #4 by xcwn on March 27, 2015 - 2:47 pm

      A 92 year old woman who paints every day?? Wow, that’s amazing.

      “Find an environment (=non-Muslim) which will encourage and support you.” Lol… and sigh. I hope that some day, the two–unsupportive environment, and Muslim environment–will no longer be synonymous where I live.

  4. #5 by KM on March 28, 2015 - 2:44 am

    The nasheeds, the nasheeds. I remember buying everything Dawud Wharnsby did. I remember listening to those CDs over and over because what else was there to listen to? It was simplistic and childish. But there was literally nothing else in English except one Yusuf Islam album also for children. And then he went back to playing guitar too. Funny how that happens.

    Anyway thanks for linking to the post. It will probably encourage me not to have the blow owner pull it down. And then I usually go back a few mos later and have it put back up.

    • #6 by xcwn on March 28, 2015 - 11:26 pm

      Oh yeah, Dawud Wharnsby. “The blue sky is blue like blue bubblegum / and it prays to Allah / it prays to Allah….” Gag. And of course he had to write a rather sickly sweet song in praise of hijab. Double gag—though at the time, it seemed like validation.

      And who else was there? Yusuf Islam. And later, MYNA raps and Native Deen. There was one song on a MYNA raps tape that was actually about a man being tortured for his faith, who comforted himself with the thought that his torturers would be tormented for eternity in hell. And this was supposed to be for kids to listen to!?! Good grief.

      Yup, the pickings sure were slim.

      Thanks a lot for commenting. And please keep blogging!

  5. #7 by snpeterson on March 28, 2015 - 8:49 am

    This is a poignant post. I am a creative person and I know in my 20’s, it was almost impossible to maintain the practice as I was raising kids. But it was in the back of my mind that somehow I could take it back up. I have but it was surprisingly hard because you need your voice and my voice was drowned out for 20+ years in motherhood. I get that it is much harder when your voice is smothered and told it is wrong, sinful, it is harder to get back to the truth of what is you.
    Sorry for the waffle but this post stayed with me for days. It is bloody criminal what they do.

  6. #8 by rosalindawijks on March 28, 2015 - 9:28 am

    “Find an environment ( = non-Muslim) which will encourage and support you.”

    Not all Muslims are anti-art and “not supporting or encouraging”. Every single Muslim I know listens to music and there are many Muslim singers and dancers.

    I am a practing Muslim and I enjoy (almost) all the Arts. I dance & I write. I also love reading, listening to music, visiting musea, etc. so go figure & don’t stereotype Muslims, thank you.

    • #9 by xcwn on March 28, 2015 - 11:39 pm

      It depends on where you live, and what sort of community you are in. Not everyone has the same experience. Don’t know where nmr is from, or what it’s like there, but it might be very different from where you are.

      This post is mainly discussing the situation as I experienced it in the ’80’s and ’90’s… but even after certain types of music, art and other types of creative production became more “acceptable” where I am from, such “acceptability” mainly applied to boys and men. Women, not so much, especially if a “mixed” audience or remotely “controversial” content was involved. And yeah, those who laid down such restrictions on women usually invoked “Islam” as the justification.

  7. #10 by rosalindawijks on March 28, 2015 - 10:10 am

    “And at the same time that I remember it, I am horrified. Angry. What the hell?? There is after all a long history of poetry written by Muslims, for Muslims, which doesn’t fit that mold. How on earth were we led to believe that “Islam” didn’t have room for writing that isn’t didactic, that doesn’t stay within narrow, “safe” boundaries? Such a heavily edited version of “Islam” and “the tradition” we were fed.”

    Yes, full agreement xcwn. What about all the mystical poetry, love poetry (Majnun and Laila???!!!), nationalist poetry, poetry about nature, etc., etc. etc.?

    “One might draw decorative things in the great traditions of the Mughals, Safavids and so on, but to draw images of people or animals was beyond the pale. ”

    The Mughals did draw images of people and animals, and some of their art could be quite erotic actually.

    This is an interesting article, with many beautiful miniatures, about the subject: http://www.exoticindiaart.com/article/mughal

    • #11 by xcwn on March 28, 2015 - 11:44 pm

      Those self-styled guardians of “the tradition” had very selective memories. They extracted what they thought was worthwhile from past and present Muslim practices, ignored what did not serve their purposes, and served up these selections to us as God’s will, “true Islam,” and beyond question.

      They pretended that they were the authorities on everything—Muslim history, Muslim arts, fiqh, human psychology, you name it. It was madness, now that I look back on it.

  8. #12 by rosalindawijks on March 28, 2015 - 5:09 pm

    But I do agree with NMR on one thing: That it’s never too late to explore creativity, that creativity is a gift from God and that you shouldn’t let those internalized, fundamentalist voice inhibit you from expressing your soul – because that’s what creativity is all about, in the end.

  9. #13 by Damaged on March 29, 2015 - 11:46 am

    An issue related to the music issue that always interested/frustrated me was just how cultural it was. Whether the condemner was entirely opposed to music in all its forms or approved “appropriate” genres certain types of music were seen as worse, more evil than others. For example, anything falling within the broad rock category was inherently evil while rap was somehow up-lifting. This was an early clue to me that what were presented as “Islamic” attitudes weren’t necessarily Islamic.

    • #14 by xcwn on April 1, 2015 - 12:51 am

      Yes, true.
      Some kinds of music were dismissed far more easily than others.

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