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The Artful Muslimah: The Unschooled Artist

Maria Zain talks to painter, illustrator and jewellery maker Azra Momin.

There is a certain intrigue about the arts. Even the most non-artistic person would take a second look (subjectively) at a stunning piece of art. And why not? In one of the most personal and emotional surahs in the Qur’an – Ar-Rahman – dedicated specially to mankind as a whole, Allah (SWT) demonstrates all the beauties of the world through His artistic imagery of nature, depicting the magnificence of His existence through the breathtaking views around us.









So it’s no wonder that little children have the tendency to demonstrate an artistic flair – from admiring or reproducing mountains, trees, the meeting of the two seas – they can be seen in the most elementary artistic endeavours because of how Allah (SWT) has made us naturally inclined to notice the art in nature. Azra Momin remembers being four years old: “it was an early morning, quiet, me sitting by myself on the floor, drawing. Happy.” Plenty of us can derive those happy moments of just being four years old and immersed in a project. Many mothers would also find a sense of serenity having a toddler busy with some craft. But then we all grow up, as did Azra.








After a long and winding journey into the world of non-arts, Azra is back to that place where she was at four – simply making things. Her Etsy store is home to fascinating upcycled fabric jewellery, an array of digital collages, fineprint photography of natural intrigue and acrylic and watercolour paintings. Talk about colours, hues and media, it’s like a world of its own, browsing through her interesting products – including the ones that have been sold! “Colour makes me happy. And texture. I marvel at fruits and leaves and pebbles. When I make something, some of this wonderment surrounds me, even if it’s only lurking in the background, watching me work.” She insists that there is an artist in everyone. And the best part of her career as an artist is receiving free advice from her little girl, a sign that art never really grows old, it just evolves and flourishes, and there is no end to developing new interests and niches.





Anatomy of bliss reworked black




“It’s something within us, to lend expression to the beauty around us. My daughter” – she speaks of her 7 year old – “doesn’t want to paint much, but she loves to draw. I’m constantly being inspired by how she draws, because it’s so different from what I do. Many times, we sit down and I’ll say something like ‘can you show me how you drew this rabbit? I want to learn.’”

The long and winding journey
“Back when I was VERY little I would doodle all the time. Then I started making crafts in high school, with whatever I could lay my hands on. But I wasn’t by any means prolific – it was just something I turned to automatically and it was very multi-disciplinarian.” Possibly many parents can relate as well, especially those with little children who use art to express themselves through paints (on the wall), embroidery thread (all over the floor), doodles (on pieces of paper) and collages (that never really come together). She continues: “I even tried to do woodworking, without any real tools.” But in a twist of fate, she found interest in the most unlikely places – the left hemisphere of the brain. “I was very intrigued by physics.”







After cultivating her interest in the mathematical science and imbuing herself in physics experiments after school, she ended up studying electronics for two years, almost leading herself down the path of computer science. But the affair with the mechanical side of her interests morphed into interior design when a sudden opportunity to study this new field opened up.








“I loved doing the technical drawings,” she exclaimed, with the experience bringing her closer back to the Arts. “Meanwhile, I also got a degree in economics (no idea why) and later I studied journalism. In between I did a few courses about this and that. I guess my ‘problem’ was that I was interested in everything and I really enjoyed all of this varied education.” She even nearly went on to specialise in jousting. But she didn’t (though it would have certainly been interesting). In short, Azra never had a formal education to study arts.




“It makes the journey much more fascinating than the destination. I work by instinct. I find myself making choices that surprise me. I learn continuously.”



Discover-Issue-12 comic strip story




The unschooled artist meets the shaykh
Being an unschooler at heart certainly has its perks when it comes to learning new tricks of the trade. Azra’s journey into the Arts had her answering an advertisement in the local paper during her stay in the UAE. She drove over to the office in hopes of an interview and came face-to-shaykh with Dr. Bilal Philips, internationally-recognised Islamic speaker and teacher and founder of some iconic projects in Islamic education, such as the International Online University.








“It’s quite a funny story,” reminisces Azra, who was born and raised in India, “I mean, I knew of him and everything, and here he was, in person! I was so shy. Then I started showing him my ‘portfolio’, which was basically a bunch of watercolour paintings.” Her background in architecture was the main highlight of the interview, seeing that her exhibition and sales as an artist weighed heavily upon it. “(Dr Bilal Philips) patiently looked everything over. At this point I still did not know what kind of illustrations he needed.” And then he finally asked: “Don’t you have any figures?” It turns out Dr Philips was working on Eemaan series, a levelled reading series for Muslim children from kindergarten to the end of primary school. For some reason, the shaykh figured that Azra would be able to draw people and, just like that, she was hired.




“I illustrated a whole bunch of stories for the Eemaan series of books he was making. I think my initial work was awful, but he kept giving me more and more,” she said, hitting a goldmine of barakah within the industry of Islamic education. “It was pretty unbelievable. In 2001, I migrated to Canada and I did not illustrate anything until 2008, right after my daughter was born, and then I started all over again.”


azramomin 8




“Apart from several stories in the Eemaan series, I have done quite a few books for Children’s Education and Publishing, which is based in Virginia, and some books with Green Bird Books, out of the UK. In between, I have worked on a couple of books by self-published authors as well.”

What is there not to love about art?
“Muslims have such an incredibly rich artistic heritage – we wouldn’t be known for the things we are known for if it wasn’t for the artists and artisans in our history.” Despite the “modern Muslim culture” that is heavily inclined to the sciences, and in which children are coaxed into the fields of medicine and engineering, the artistic Muslim community seems to be alive and thriving.







“Maybe it’s not mainstream,” comments Azra, “but it’s definitely growing. We need all kinds of artists, from calligraphers to logo designers to apparel designers. And we need writers and storytellers and filmmakers and spoken word artists, so anyone considering this avenue should go for it.”








The unschooler at heart advises: “If you are passionate about it you will find the right platform for you. There is a huge potential for Muslims in Humanities. If parents nurtured and supported their children’s interest in art and let them flourish in it – wow, we could do great things, insha Allah.”




Azra’s illustrious portfolio can be found at www.AzraMomin.com.







Maria Zain was a prolific contributor to SISTERS magazine, writing extensively about issues including parenting, inter-cultural relationships, homeschooling and homebirthing, and even Muslim fashion. In December 2014 Maria Zain died, insha Allah a shaheedah, related to birthing her sixth child, who survived. SISTERS magazine will always be indebted to Maria for the immense work she did for the magazine as well as for the SISTERS family as a whole. We ask that readers consider donating to a fund for her six children in hopes to help their father continue to raise them in the loving and deen-centered style the parents worked so hard to foster.

Donations can be made at www.gofundme.com/mariazain