by Mustafa Rony Zeno
One Friday my Christian girlfriend joined me for prayers at the mosque and asked me why she found a watering can in her bathroom stall. The Prophet Muhammed instructed us to clean our anuses with water, I told her. To me, growing up around Muslim families in Southern California, a watering can evokes a bidet, not plants. The conversation led me to consider all those objects that I, and other Muslims in California, have repurposed for shari’a—which literally means ‘‘the path to water’’ (although is usually translated as ‘‘Islamic Law’’).
Gym towels can become prayer rugs in a pinch. Clippers keep my pubic hair trimmed as the Prophet Muhammad commanded me. Usually worn on trips to the beach, flip-flops take on a new meaning in my mosque bathroom where they are used for ritual cleanliness. While stuck in traffic I’ve seen drivers pull over, unfurl spare yoga mats kept in the trunk, and lay prostrate on the shoulder of the highway right before the distant sun sets into the Pacific. Each of these objects takes on different meanings through a Muslim lens.
Capturing shari’a in California was both challenging and illuminating. First came the realization of habit. Do I even know why I perform the rituals I do? Second was the difficulty of locating masader, religious sources, for those everyday practices. Finally, I worried how ancient religious texts or practices might look or sound—archaic, cryptic, crude?—to Western sensibilities, both Muslim and non-Muslim. This discomfort, however, underscored the need I felt to locate Quranic verses or hadith (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) for each photograph, each practice in my life.
The objects depicted here, and by extension my faith, give me comfort. To represent their rawness and sanctity, the photographs are not adjusted for white balance or effect. These things symbolize the practices of my faith. The materials may be mundane, but they have come to inhabit sacred spaces. This photographic essay was produced for Shari’a Revoiced, a project of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, led by Mark Fathi Massoud and Kathleen M. Moore, with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.
Mustafa Rony Zeno is a filmmaker, photographer, cultural anthropologist, and educator reared in Syria and living in his birthplace, Los Angeles. His work focuses on fringes and the spaces between culture and in religion.