Earlier this month, in a post about the “East Meets West Series” on To The Best of Our Knowledge, you may have heard an interview with rapper Lupe Fiasco in the segment “Encountering Islam.” The interview begins by introducing his album title “Food and Liquor” and pointing out that it relates to the concept of halal, or what is permissible in Islam. He makes it clear, however, that his intention is not to be “the poster boy” of Islam, but to express through music how being Muslim added depth and meaning to his life. For him, the music was first influenced by his own memories of growing up in a Muslim family. Later, as an adult, the music was further influenced by hip-hop culture.
Lupe Fiasco’s video for “Muhammad Walks” was a response to Kanye West’s hit single “Jesus Walks,” a song that became more controversial when West appeared on a cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns. In comparison, check out Fiasco’s video, included below.
The video represents Islam in obvious ways, as in the title and some of the lyrics. However, there are also less apparent ways the video references Islam. For example, the words of the Quran themselves have often received great attention from artists in Islamic culture around the world and throughout the centuries. Whether or not it was his intention, rapper Lupe Fiasco’s decision to feature the art of his words predominately on the screen, rather than trying to personify the prophet himself, follows this tradition. In Islamic art, spoken and written words are considered works of art in themselves. Divinely inspired verses are written over and over by professional calligraphers until perfect and sometimes woven into the image of a bird or other animal. Also, Muslim singers spend their lives earning widely known reputations for their recitations of Quranic verses. Fiasco begins “Muhammad Walks” with such recitations and weaves them throughout if you listen carefully.
Lupe Fiasco emerges as an artist influenced by both the Islamic tradition and hip-hop culture, and he chose to reply to Kanye West’s video in a way that makes sense in terms of both. It is worth noting that Fiasco released the video for free online, a way of almost calling out West for profiting off god. Moreover, Fiasco used the written word to represent his prophet’s message instead of the images chosen by West.
The traditional importance of the written word in Islamic art is increasingly present in the west, including online. Another example is the US Postal Service Eid-ul-Adha commemorative stamp, released in 2001. It featured not a photo celebrating the holiday, but rather the Arabic word for it. The tradition continues to this day and the Eid stamp is released every year. Also, typography and font art have become very popular along with the spread of the internet across global networks. Some Muslim designers have created beautiful and unique Arabic topographies even in the Netherlands. Others have shared their digital art online as well.
Are there other instances of Islamic art in the West that you’d like to highlight? Do you think these instances authentically and appropriately represent Islam in the modern world, especially in the West? Please share your thoughts below in the comments.
Update: 4/14/2009: A new documentary Deen Tight is about hip-hop in Islam. The extended trailer is available for viewing – click here.