November 18th marked International Day of Islamic art, and while not a commonly celebrated day, it does offer an opportunity to reflect on the rich tradition of Islamic art in the West. Canada proudly hosts an abundance of Islamic art and tradition, being home to the Aga Khan Museum, the largest Islamic art museum in North America and boasting a rich collection across many museums and galleries. However, Islamic art is not just confined to these spaces alone. Its influences can be felt in contemporary art and architecture - sometimes where we least expect them. Toronto Pearson Airport is certainly not the first place that comes to mind when it comes to Islamic art. Yet within its labyrinthine terminals exists an evocative art piece, side by side the bustling crowds: “The Holding Pattern” is a set of ornately designed airport chairs at Terminal 1 constructed by Tazeen Qayyum. An accomplished miniature painter, Tazeen Qayyum’s artwork reflects her own experiences moving between Pakistan and Canada. The title refers to the circumambulation of planes when they are unable to land,which she connected to the political climate regarding the struggles of immigration that persist to this day. The pattern itself is an intricately woven biomorphic pattern atop a vibrant red backdrop. The backdrop bears a repeating motif. What seems to be an assortment of florals at a cursory glance however, are actually figures of cockroaches. A surprising choice to be sure, but certainly an inspired one. Taking the traditional techniques of Islamic art, Qayyum weaves them with unique imagery to bring them into a modern context. A creature typically evoking fear is meant to reflect the fear of other cultures within the western world. As she described in an interview: “The main idea for the cockroach has always been the idea of fear…. The cockroach itself is not the most dangerous insect around us - yet it is universally considered gross.” And here they are, given an artistic flourish that renders these creatures so beautiful that they could be mistaken for blooming flora. A common piece of furniture thus reflects the struggles of those who inhabit it. A testament to the strife that comes with immigration limbo and fears of religious intolerance in the land they hope to come to. This idea then makes the placement of this piece in the airport go from an odd choice to highly apropos in its setting which sees the continuous flow of people from across the world and how they are perceived by those who do not know their culture.
Why do both evil and good people have to suffer? We can understand immoral people being faced with challenges, but why virtuous people? One answer could be that blessings provide opportunities for the evil to reconsider themselves. If a wrongdoer was only met with chastisement, perhaps that would further harden their heart. Whereas if they were occasionally shone on by the sun, they might start to appreciate its light and get out of the cave they were putting themselves in. Okay, but why do the good have to undergo trials on this Earth? Well, consider this: If evil actions were always met with some suffering in this life and good actions were always met with rewards, then would we truly have good people on this Earth? If everything was as binary as this, everyone would choose to be good, wouldn’t they? If evil actions were so obviously unsuccessful, everyone would pick the good actions. But, as a result, we would cease to have people who chose good for good’s sake. Maybe we would have a few, but the majority would likely be choosing the good acts for their own sake. If one day, the evil actions proved more profitable, they’d switch. Because their allegiance was never with what was virtuous or right, but with their success. This is why both good and evil have to undergo trials on this Earth - to test the good people. Real goodness is difficult, which is why it’s so valuable. This leads to another point. Do good people sometimes take the easy path? Do good people always stand up for what’s right and admonish any evil they see? Or do they sometimes just let it slide by? Why might good people have this fear to speak against wrongdoings? It’s not that they aren’t good people - it could be the case that they’re giving undue importance to their own sake and fear getting reprimanded or hurt. Remember what we said about truly good people. They do it for good’s sake, not for their own sake. So when a good person asks why good people have to suffer, we could respond, “Are good people truly fighting the evil around them, or are they only keeping goodness in their hearts?” If not, then how could we say that good people are blameless? Consider the following hadith in Sahih Muslim from Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him): “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.” Trials are a given when living on this Earth. But not everything that undergoes a trial has the same outcome. Someone can be going to university and go through all its trials, and come out the other end in an awesome fashion, or a “not-so-awesome” fashion. Someone can come out of a trial more disheartened and start to lose hope and faith in Allah(swt). Their hearts could be made more blackened as a result of the grit and roughness of the test. They might even feel antagonized toward Allah(swt). Or someone can come out of a difficult trial invigorated, with their faith made even stronger. Their hearts could be cleansed, by them using that same grit and roughness to scrape off any of the dirt from their hearts, instead of allowing it to latch on. The same trial. Two different responses and outcomes.