Fourteen years ago, two dozen people changed, in the blink of an eye, how 300 million people view 1.37 billion other people. Of course, we are talking about the September 11th terrorist attacks which resulted in the deaths of 3,000 American civilians. After the attack, the media responded immediately with a barrage of coverage, constantly reminding Westerners that these terrorists were Muslims. I was shocked when told that many of the nice people I knew were actually filled with hatred towards me, my family, and every one of my friends; it was difficult for me to comprehend that an entire worldwide faith was dedicated towards my destruction; that its adherents saw me (and every person I had ever known) as Satan in the flesh. To describe the situation as frightening is something of an understatement.
Across the country, in the months following 9/11, other events took place; although they were of a different scale, they were equally evil. The murders of Muslims or people identified as Muslims, the willful destruction of Muslim-owned property, and the bullying and mistreatment of people with "Muslim-sounding" names occurred frequently in the guise of retaliation or justice. This atmosphere of intolerance did not sit well with me. I knew that my neighbors who were Muslim were not evil people, and I felt that a faith which had birthed so much beauty over its history could not be solely evil. My own faith was one of the many Christian traditions born in the spiritual renewal which swept through the United States in this nation's early days. Many of these early Christians had been persecuted by their neighbors due to intolerance and fear born of ignorance; this element within my family's history helped me to recognize the injustice of what was occurring.
I am a Christian minister, I am an artist, and I am an educator. My responsibility to my faith is to seek God and His goodness wherever they might be found; my drive as an artist is to recognize and share the beauties of God's creation wherever they may be; and my goal as an educator is to help open minds so they may be receptive to knowledge and the inspiration of God's love, however it manifests. After 9/11, I was determined to learn about Islam - not from the media-driven mindset of sensationalism and sound-bites, but with an eye open to truth and a mind open to the promptings of the Spirit, and to give the faith the same respect I felt my own beliefs deserve. I met with Muslims and asked them what they believed, and I read the source documents of the faith, the Holy Qur'an and the Hadith. Those who responded to my questions were scholars, imams, sheikhs, and laity from all over the world, from multiple schools of Islamic thought and practice. From these many, many points of view a picture of Islam as a faith and Muslims as a people emerged. This picture shook me profoundly - there was a great deal more we shared than I had thought possible.
Muslims love their children. Muslims believe in God - the same God in which I believe (in Mark 15:34, in the New Testament, Jesus called God "Eloi," the same word in Aramaic as "Allah"). Muslims love education, finding truth, and caring for their neighbors. The list could go on and on. There was nothing I could find in the Qur'an which said anything about the supposed glories of terrorism; in fact it was plain that such violence angers our Creator more profoundly than almost any other evil. How then could I share this knowledge with those around me? Shortly after asking this question, I happened upon the tradition of the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God, or Asma al-Husna, and I recognized this was not a coincidence. The answer was to begin building and showing glass sculptures to explore the wisdom and meaning of each of the 99 Names from the point of view of a Christian.
The 99 Names Project is meant primarily to provide an excuse for dialog; each work is the result of prayerful research bringing together Muslim views of each Name with the points of convergence I see in my own Christian faith. As such, the initial dialog begins with me. I read references to the Names in the Qur'an as well as in the writings of scholars like Rumi. I visit Muslim scholars, ecclesiastical leaders, and laity, and ask them about the Names. I then cross-reference what I learn with what I find in the Bible. Then, I prayerfully consider what motifs and designs in Islamic artistic tradition best correspond with what I have discovered; develop new images and patterns emulating traditional works; and build up shapes with the sculptures to communicate this whole process of learning. One of the first things I discovered is that unlike in my own Christian tradition, figurative work having to do with the Deity is entirely inappropriate in Islamic tradition, so the works are abstract and non-representational.
There are three elements which consistently return in the works. The most visible is geometry: all truth comes from the same Source regardless of the site of its discovery or the language of its transmission. It seemed the best way to symbolize this is through the purity of mathematics and its material manifestation. Another primary element is architectural structure. One truth shared between my Christian faith and that of my Muslim brothers is the honor and responsibility of building the kingdom of God on earth, and the earliest Muslim buildings were shared in peace by the believers of many faiths. The third element is a bookbinding sensibility. The widespread use of art in books is perhaps the most important element shared among my sculptures because it symbolizes the vital role of the Qur'an. In my Christian faith, I recognize Jesus as the Word of God made flesh and he is the bridge connecting me to God; in Islam, the Word of God is made legible, and the miraculous bridge uniting God and man can be read every day.
Building the Name Forgiving (Al-Ghaffar) is a good example of the overall process. The shape was built as a softened cube and doors were mounted on each surface, perpetually pointing inward. The design elements were drawn from Ottoman history, one of the most pluralist and inclusive societies of medieval times. The floor of the sculpture is etched and painted with the traditional 8-pointed star and cross pattern known as "Compassionate Breath," and a cup of white liquid is in the center. I had considered several colors for the liquid, including clear and gold, but felt prompted to use white.
At the first display of the finished sculpture, a Turkish man complimented me on the work and asked why I had placed milk in the center of the welcoming doors. I explained I had no idea, but felt compelled by something outside myself. He explained that the cup was filled with the color of the rivers of heaven, and felt the sculpture was just right. The ongoing experience of this project is a dance between what I am learning about Muslims and the nudges or promptings I receive; these are my heartfelt responses to the Divine Names of God, built from a place of reverence and respect for those I now know are my spiritual siblings, fellow children of father Abraham. I may have no idea why the nudge or prompt to action comes, but experiences like this one show me how important it is to listen to that small voice.
When this project started, I was given counsel by many of the Muslims I interviewed to take my time and open my heart to Divine guidance. It has taken 3 years to build the first 25 sculptures, and I have documented these in a book, 99 Names: 1 to 25 (A Christian's Exploration of the Names of God from the Qur'an in Glass). There has been some negative feedback, including a very small minority of Muslims who felt it was inappropriate for a non-Muslim to examine Muslim themes and a few Christians concerned I was losing my perspective as a Christian. However, something remarkable happened. Throughout this process, I have learned about many points of agreement and separation in our respective faiths. I have rejoiced in our similarities and I respect our differences - and rather than diluting my Christian beliefs, my faith has expanded, grown, and deepened. As Fethullah Gülen teaches, something holy happens through the process of education, and such an exercise can only result in the growth of those involved.
These sculptures are meant to show our many points of convergence and understanding, and to celebrate opportunities for learning, dialog, and friendship. Regardless of the faith we claim or how we pronounce the Name of our Creator, we are all, first and foremost, human and His creations. God is Beautiful and loves beauty, and I pray He finds this offering acceptable.
99 Names: 1 to 25
A Christian's Exploration of the Names of God from the Qur'an in Glass
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