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2016 has been a great year for engaging with Islamic Art. There are signs that there is a growing body of Muslim artists, and an increasing appreciation indicated by audience participation.
I have been up and down the country enjoying an array of creative expression. From story and cinema, to craft and song art, I have seen many wonderful ways to explore our shared history and culture. And each artist featured encourages us to remember what unites us.

Film
Why can’t I be a Sushi

“My main focus (of the film) was to breakdown the misconceptions so that some kind of bridge can be built between the two sects once they realise that they have so much in common.”
– Independent filmmaker Hoda Elsoudani & creative director of Spoken Iris Films.

On a wet Saturday afternoon in Kilburn, North West London, the film ‘Why Can’t I Be a Sushi?’ was premiered to a packed auditorium. The documentary, the brainchild of independent filmmaker Hoda Elsoudani, reflects the quest of two young girls Niamh and Sofia, aged 10 and 8 respectively. Both are trying to come to terms with sectarian conflict and ignorance. They are eager to understand the motivations behind sectarianism and why belief can lead to hatred and even killing. Through the film the machinations of belief are dissected. And by way of the light-hearted and innocent outlook of the girls we are offered a chance to see what is currently taking place around us, and to take a clearer look at ourselves.
The feature was preceded by the recitation of the Holy Qur’an, that which unites us before being taken on a light and philosophical exploration of what divides us.
We are guided through the film with humour and grace by a series of inquiries which include the initial question on which the title of the film is based; why it is necessary to choose a sect to which one must belong?

The narrative of the film is carried by the two protagonists’ need for answers, much in the same way ancient tales tell of the age-old practice of travelling hither to thither seeking deeper understanding, deeper meanings. Watching the girls pursuing answers infused me with notions of seekers of knowledge seated at the feet of sages who, through their years of painstaking study, can offer enlightenment.

The film tackles a series of hard hitting and pertinent points without causing offence or apportioning blame. It offers its audience a chance to consider how religious choices and practices may appear to the outside world, and through the eyes of two innocents.

The girls hold discussions with a wide range of scholars, academics and members of the public. All spoke vehemently against sectarianism, but held differing opinions about the need for unity. One scholar believed that sectarianism is caused by us regressing in to an identity of nations and tribes. This connects to our innate nature as human beings to be tribal. Co-dependency is entrenched in our need for identity, belonging and community. Another reminded us that what unifies us as practising Muslims is far greater and more powerful than our differences. Through both of these outlooks the film reminds us of the social shift that has taken place in recent years. We hear one respondent speak of how commonplace it was for families of differing sects and religious persuasions to live together in harmony. Just as it was for Sunni and Shia to intermarry, a trend which is increasingly returning to social consciousness.
From a filmic point of view, the handheld camera and intermittent loss of focus lend to the innocence with which the film as a whole is constructed. As does the soundtrack, which alludes to the slapstick style of Chaplin, who was well known for his use of humour to enable pathos to be conveyed more readily. As in this documentary, the tools of innocence, humour and light-heartedness make the modes of persuasion – pathos, ethos and logos – more accessible by using a playful refrain to lay the ground for delivery of a timely message.

“The point of the film is not to ask why there are differences of opinion, but rather why these differences have led to violence and animosity.” -Independent filmmaker Hoda Elsoudani

Textiles
Shams Un-Nisa

Using golden threads and semiprecious stones, textile artist Shams Un Nisa creates hand embroidered Islamic calligraphy on a range of fabrics. I first came across her work in Skipton, Yorkshire as part of the Faith in Art exhibition. Shams Un-Nisa interprets the work of calligraphers into stitch work, a refreshing approach which lends a new focus, reviving an art form often associated with domesticity to new revered heights.

Storytelling
Khayaal Theatre Company

Across Luton, Bedfordshire, Khayaal Theatre Company have been presenting their unique style of storytelling by Asya Ali in conjunction Christian storyteller Carl Taylor. The series includes stories from history as well as stories of wonder which remind us of what unites us by exploring our shared history and values. Each narrative alludes to sacred texts and fables with the intention of instilling heightened moral traits and revitalising the notion of shared story.
Listening to the stories, I felt, created a matrix of understanding in my mind. A place where meaning resided, because, although I could not recall each spoken word, what I had heard and subsequently digested, fused with what I already knew. I could resonate with the qualities and values relayed in the stories, making the transaction between storyteller and listener a wholesome one based on harmony. This gave me not just a deeper understanding of the power of story, but a sense of ownership of the shared journey between the listener and the orator as with any story shared. Orally handed over, it became my story, my memory. Something I can retell and explore in both the machinations of my mind and my imagination. A chance to reflect on, convey and even live the values jointly shared and explored in those sacred moments. A powerful communion.

Song
Al Firduas Ensemble

As the musicians tune their instruments, so they need to tune their hearts to receive the inspiration of the moment and transmit that to the audience

As Spring emerged, the Birmingham university music rooms were graced by the beautiful tones of mystical verse by way of Al Firduas Ensemble, bringing new life to the century old auditorium, established under the tutelage of classical composer Edward Elgar. Having recently been refurbished and designed by renowned acoustician Nicholas Edwards, the halls were the perfect environ for this spiritual meeting. Led by English violinist Ali Keeler, the quintet, also featuring artists from Spain and Morocco, recited salutations on the Prophet(s) to a mixed audience from all walks of life. The classical composition from traditional instruments such as drum, cello, violin and lute created a soothing and sedate atmosphere, a reverential backdrop to a harmony of voices which convey an ongoing yearning for the Divine. It’s a feast for the ears especially when performed acapella or simply accompanied by percussion.
The album Safa is currently on sale.

For more info: http://www.alfirdaus-ensemble.com/en/inicio-en/al-firdaus-ensemble

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