Islamic Drama Analysis

Islamic Art

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In Islam, art is considered best used when it serves to crystallize the most important aspects of the religion, such as harmony, clarity, and serenity. In addition, Muslims make art in order to enhance the ambience necessary for an Islamic life, that is, to reflect the presence of Allah in the everyday. A well-known hadith (proverb) asserts that “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty” (Allahu jamilun yuhibbu’l-jamal). For this reason, among others, Islamic artists have tended to concentrate on decoration: the beautification of ordinary useful things. The greatest achievements of Muslim artists have been in the realms of architecture, calligraphy, and crafts such as pottery, clothes making, and carpet weaving.

Islamic art is also bounded by a proscription against iconic representations of men or animals. Representational art is considered to be a violation of the Second Commandment prohibiting idol worship. Theatrical performance, in which humans represent themselves as other creatures, other men, or gods, skates dangerously close to idolatry for some Muslims. Theater, along with the novel, is also considered by many Muslims to create a fanciful and fictitious world and to operate against an important Islamic principle to avoid forgetfulness of the reality of Allah. Therefore many Muslim scholars and artists do not, as a rule, pay much attention to dramatic expression.

Prejudice against theater as irreligious is, of...

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Ta՚ziyeh Plays

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

For centuries, communities of Shiite Muslims in Arab countries such as India, Pakistan, and elsewhere have annually re-enacted a passion play called Karbal՚ or Ta՚ziyeh (sympathy), commemorating the martyrdom of Ḥusayn, grandson of the Prophet Muḥammad. According to tradition, the archangel Gabriel told the Prophet to name his son-in-law, ՙAl ibn Ab Ṭlib, as his successor to the caliphate, and when ՙAl died in 661, the caliphate passed to the eldest of his sons, Hassan, who abdicated in favor of Muՙwiyah I, governor of Syria. Hassan was poisoned by one of his wives in 669. When Muḥwiyah I died in 680, ՙAl’s second son, Ḥusayn, stepped forward to become caliph, but Muḥwiyah I’s son Yazd opposed him. The result was an internecine war in which the forces of Ḥusayn were slaughtered by Yazd’s vastly superior army in the desert of Karbal՚. After two days, only Ḥusayn remained alive, and he was wounded, captured, and beheaded. Yazd further mutilated the head of his rival until he was reminded that the lips of the Prophet himself had often kissed that same head, because Ḥusayn was the Prophet’s grandson.

During the month of Muharram some Shiite communities perform this sacred story in a powerful ritual involving a complicated procession and self-flagellation: the participants in the play slash their own heads with swords or flay themselves with knives-on-chains, and even babies receive one or two scratches on their heads. The...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Ritual and religious performances in Turkey predate the advent of Islam by many thousands of years, even into prehistory. These took many forms, including Meddah (storytelling), as well as Greek-style traditional theater that survived in the Byzantine Empire until Constantinople fell to Islam in 1453. One of the varieties of ancient performance that merged well with Islamic ideals was the Karagoz , or shadow puppet theater .

Shadow puppetry gained prominence in Turkey after the fall of Byzantium. The puppets are elaborate and beautiful colored cutouts of translucent leather. The cutouts, whose arms, legs, and heads are jointed, are manipulated by the use of long sticks by an offstage puppeteer. The cutouts themselves are rarely seen: the shadows of the figures are projected by lamplight onto hanging sheets or screens to create a hauntingly beautiful, elegant, almost cinematic performance, complete with an illusion of depth and three-dimensional action. This projection, which has a surreal quality, does not seem to offend Islamic prohibitions against representation in art: The puppet figures are so stylized that they do not much resemble real humans.

The Karagoz feature the comic exploits of the farcical character, Karagoz, who according to legend was a real man, a laborer in Bursa whose hilarious antics on the work site delayed the completion of a mosque. The comedian was executed for this delay, but his comic routines were immortalized by a local puppeteer, Seyh Kusteri. The character Karagoz is working class, unemployed, uneducated, and always attempting some “get-rich-quick” scheme that never works. Like the European puppet character Punch, Karagoz often indulges in comic violence when his plans go awry, but he is also forthright and virtuous, a heroic Everyman figure. Other characters in this wacky world include a drunkard, an opium addict, a man-chasing woman, an Arab, a Jew, and a Persian. Although the Karagoz is mainly comic, it has been used by some performers to be satirically critical of Islamic society.

Wayang Kulit

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In Indonesia, Hinduism had been a dominant religious tradition for centuries before the introduction of Islam. Hinduism, an Indic religion rich with complex stories, is associated with many performance traditions that are thousands of years old, based on the stories of the Mahbhrata (c. 400 b.c.e.-400 c.e.; The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896; also known as The Mahabharata) and the Rmyana (c. 500 b.c.e.; English translation, 1870-1889), ancient epic tales of the many divine god-heroes of Hindu religion. Although Muslims are encouraged to avoid participating in non-Islamic rituals, in some areas, established performance traditions blended with Islamic ideals, with varying degrees of success.

One performance tradition that appears to have merged well with Islam is the wayang kulit or shadow puppet theater of Java, which avoids the proscriptions against iconic representation much as the Turkish version of the tradition does. In the wayang, as in the Karagoz, colored translucent leather cutout puppets are manipulated by rods to cast shadows on a nearby screen, although the audience may watch the performance from either side of the screen, switching if they choose. The puppeteer sings the tale along with musical accompaniment and may have hundreds of stories in his repertoire.

Unlike the Karagoz, the wayang is based on wholly non-Islamic religious stories from the polytheistic Hindu tradition. Muslim doctrine, like that of Jews and Christians, strictly prohibits the worship of multiple gods, but the wayang was gradually adapted to become more palatable to Muslim faith as Java became converted to Islam between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. By the sixteenth century, the two traditions had so commingled that the genealogies of Javanese kings connected the biblical Adam and the Prophet Muḥammad with the divine heroes of The Mahabharata, and the wayang was considered part of Java’s Islamic heritage. “The wayang show is indeed a [mirror]-image of the One, one can call it an image of the Law,” said one of the wali (saints) who brought Islam to Java. “The wayang stands then for all mankind, [and] the dhalang (puppeteer) is to be compared with Allah, the creator of the Universe.”

Modern Islamic Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In modern Islamic countries, Western-style drama has found a new role to play. Muslims sometimes use drama, as a Western artifact, to challenge Islamic traditions in their countries, sometimes to assert a national character. In nineteenth century Turkey, for example, the Turkish National Theatre was established and forged connections with Western theater artists. One key figure was Ahmet Vefik Pasa, who founded a theater in Bursa and translated and adapted the plays of Molière into Turkish. In the twentieth century, the Turkish government fostered the development of many native playwrights. In Egypt and Muslim Eastern Europe, drama has recently begun to reappear in many forms, from classical-style tragedies to experimental forms.

In countries that adhere to a more conservative version of Islamic law, such as Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, most public performances are strictly prohibited. In 1999, two Iranian students wrote a play satirizing a Messianic figure in Shiite Muslim belief, Imam Zaman. This play, Konkur: Vaqt-e zohur (University Entrance Exams: Time to Reappear, 1999), circulated the world through the Internet and so outraged religious leaders that they called for the execution of the playwrights.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Chelkowski, Peter, ed. Ta՚ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York: New York University Press, 1979. Proceedings of an international conference on Ta՚ziyeh dramas.

Dwight, H. G. Persian Miniatures. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1917. Dwight, an American “Orientalist,” was a prejudiced but keen observer, and his writings remain valuable records of pre-World War I Persia, Turkey, and Egypt.

Geertz, Clifford. Islam Observed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. A very comprehensive survey of cultural traditions in Islam from one of the world’s leading anthropologists.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World. Chicago: KAZI Publications, 1994. Written to provide a code for young Muslims living in the West, this book gives clear, thoughtful descriptions of the collision of Western art and Islamic values from an Islamic point of view.

Sears, Laurie J. Shadows of Empire: Colonial Discourse, and Javanese Tales. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. Demonstrates the complex relationship between the wayang kulit and Islamic thought, and how both changed as the Dutch colonized Java in the eighteenth century.