By Andrew Kosorok
(Special to Simerg)
Looking at our neighbors and those around us, it is obvious each of us see the world and view our relationship with the universe and our Creator in different ways. When the tragedy of 9/11 happened and 3000 lives were ended because of the heartless actions of two dozen men, many Westerners were forced to admit we had little understanding of world religions. Populist US media portrayed the faith these two dozen claimed as a twisted religion pushing for the extermination of Americans and the destruction of the West. It was hard to believe that one and a half billion people wanted my family and me to suffer, but that is what we were told.
As a Christian – as an American Christian – I realized I was terrified of Muslims. And when I recognized this it shocked me. Rather than being ruled by my media-induced fear I decided to confront it, and I quickly learned how very misleading fear can be. Mohandas Gandhi said, “I may be many faiths, but before I am any of these I am first and foremost human;” and I recognized that with whatever other gulfs may separate us, being the children of Adam and Eve is one thing all of us share.
I read the Qur’an, I read the Hadith, I visited via email with Imams, Sheikhs, Mawlanas and laity from around the world. I learned that Islam is not a great monolithic organization bent on world domination, but rather is an intricate web of men and women observing their faith in a rainbow of expression. These strangers who were supposed to want me dead love their families, treasure their friendships, and want the best for their children. This was in stark contrast to common media portrayal.
Some fourteen hundred years ago a man dedicated his life to healing the spiritual rift between Christians and Jews, and prayed intently for guidance from his Creator. Then one night a profound miracle happened and the angel Gabriel – the same who announced the coming of Jesus to Mary – appeared to Mohamed and begun the recitation of the Qur’an. The angel’s visits to Mohamed continued for years, and the recitations restored knowledge lost to the world for generations. Mohamed’s spirituality was recognized by those around him, and in 622 he was invited to Medina to broker peace between rival religious groups. Guided by the Spirit, and never having learned how to even read or write, Mohamed created one of the earliest constitutions in the world guaranteeing rights of women and minorities in a representational government.
As an artist, it seemed appropriate to share what I was learning through art and I wanted to do so with something which also built on common ground. Several of the men and women I emailed mentioned the 99 Names, which sounded very interesting. I learned that when Mohamed was asked how a person could get into Heaven he told them they needed to learn the Names of God; when pressed on how many there were Mohamed responded that there were 99. This really resonated with me; I began to study the Names and respond to them through glass sculpture, and the 99 Names Project was born.
These Names are not like Roger, Jill, or John – when speaking of the Most Beautiful Names of God these are eternal aspects of Divinity, and the aspects of God are truly infinite. So the Names are really an index of the characteristics of the Divine to be respected, revered, and emulated by the faithful. They give focus to prayer and personal growth, give guidance in difficult situations, and provide subject for meditation. Each person responds to different Names in varying degrees, opening themselves to spiritual guidance according to each unique circumstance and situation. And the Names are open to all.
Just as Jesus shared the Beatitudes and Buddha the Eight-Fold Path, the Islamic tradition of the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God (or Asmah al-Husna) gives a framework for self-improvement and hope. These are Divine principles, shared by every belief system, and can be used by anyone within the framework of their own faith. Almost every chapter of the Qur’an begins with an invocation to God as the Compassionate and the Merciful – reminding us that not only does God define and perfectly emulate these qualities, but that each of us must also show these traits if we ourselves want to receive their benefits.
“This is a wonderful aspiration,” I was told by my Muslim contacts, “but if you’re going to do it you should do it right. Study each Name, ponder it, pray about it, compare what you learn about our faith with your own, and ask God how He wants you to express His Name. Take it seriously, take your time, and do it right.” Sometimes I don’t do that – I’ve spent a hundred hours building something I thought would be really cool, but in the end the “coolness” has little to do with the Name and it has to be scrapped. However, when I listen the designs and pieces of glass flow together to create something which is balanced and feels right. When a Muslim friend can look at a new sculpture and tell me the Name it represents, this is truly wonderful.
Twenty five sculptures have now been completed, and the images of them have been collected in the first book documenting the project (please click 99 Names 1 to 25: A Christian’s Exploration of the Names of God from the Qur’an). In addition to photographs of the sculptures, this book shares my observations about each Name and the overall process. The sculptures share three considerations which represent traits of Islam I have grown to admire and respect — architecture, bookbinding, and geometry.
In Merciful, Holy, and Wellspring of Peace (Ar-Rahim, Al-Quddus, and As-Salam, respectively), architecture is a primary component. The architectural features in the sculptures recognize the fact that Muslim faithful believe they have the responsibility to begin building heaven here and now through strong families and nurturing environments. Merciful is based on the ancient form of the basilica, used for early Christian chapels as well as the historical inspiration behind many mosques. Holy uses layers of glass and traditional Islamic arches to draw the viewer in to an environment both sheltering and calming. And Wellspring of Peace is a structure built to both protect the precious something symbolized by water, as well as radiating its life-giving effects outward.
Many of the sculptures like Guardian (Al-Muhaymin), Maker of Order (Al-Bari), and most notably Knower (Al-‘Alim) are tied with hemp in traditional bookbinding knots from the medieval era. The materials used and the sculptures’ construction are in recognition of both the vitality of the Qur’an and the wondrous blessing of knowledge. All books are sacred to Muslims – one Imam told me – both because they symbolize the most holy of books, the Qur’an, and because they are testaments to the God-given ability to transmit knowledge.
Each of the sculptures are built from patterns painstakingly drawn with straight-edge and compass, using time-honored hermetic construction techniques. Wonderful shapes emerge as the patterns unfold, and works like Shaper of Beauty (Al-Musawwir), Giver of All (Al-Wahhab), and Opener (Al-Fattah) grow like three-dimensional snowflakes. This abstract yet beautiful geometry in the sculptures speak to the power order and math have to symbolize universal Truth – a reality far beyond the restrictions of normal language.
This process has profoundly deepened my understanding and appreciation for my Muslim neighbors, but something else has also occurred. Learning about another faith through exploring fair parallels and listening to those who honestly, earnestly strive to live its ideals has neither diluted my faith or converted me to Islam – but rather it has deepened my own cherished beliefs and has made me a better Christian. One of my favorite passages of the Qur’an comes to mind:
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other)). — Qur’an 49:13
This journey with the first 25 works in the 99 Names Project has helped me come to a valuable realization. God in His infinite wisdom has made us all, and we are different because He has made us to be different. We grow closer together through the process of learning to respect and treasure our differences. When we live our faith and support our neighbors in living theirs, all of us rise together. This also shows what happens when we honor our uniqueness and differences, and respect each other’s experience. Whether we call our Creator Allah, Eloi, or God, we are all His creatures and fellow children of Adam and Eve.
There is no US versus Them, I have learned – all of us are just US.
And we are better for it.
Date posted: Friday, February 7, 2014.
Copyright: Andrew Kosorok. 2014.
About the writer: Andrew Kosorok has been a professional stained glass designer, consultant, and restoration specialist for twenty years, and teaches sculpture, stained glass, and drawing at a university level. He has received BFA and MFA degrees in sculpture from Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, specializing in sculptural stained glass, is an ordained interfaith minister, and studies philosophy and comparative religions. His stained glass work is in numerous homes and churches, and his sculptural work has been in state, national, and international art competitions. He believes that by exploring the act of creation through art, one’s relationship with the Divine may be strengthened. His style is the fusion of his various interests as he builds objects recording the ongoing journey of learning.
To support Andrew Kosorok’s project, please visit the following pages:
1. For paperback or kindle version of his book, please click 99 Names 1 to 25: A Christian’s Exploration of the Names of God from the Qur’an
2. 99 Most Beautiful Names on Launchgood
3. The 99 Names Project on Facebook
Articles by Andrew Kosorok on this website:
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