Theatre and Islamic Tradition

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Theatre and Islamic Tradition:

Prohibition of human representation in Arts and its complexity


Drama and theatre activities were unknown in Arab-speaking countries for centuries before they were imported from Western culture during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Islamic religious law is thought to be one of the main reasons why Arabs, especially Muslims, ignored the theatre for centuries. The belief that theatre is against Islamic dogma is partly motivated by the negative reaction of conservative Muslims to theatre activities in modern Arab culture. It is however debatable whether Islam has any prohibition of theatre and its basic concepts. Is there any reliable evidence that legitimates such a prohibition or is this prohibition a result of traditional interpretations of the holy book: Quran? It is therefore the aim of this paper to investigate the tension between Islamic dogma and the concept of theatre, and to highlight theatrical phenomena in Islamic traditions that are remarkably similar to the pre-theatrical phenomena in other cultures. It is also interesting to examine the extent to which this prohibition, if it existed, affected the early translations of the ancient Greek heritage during the 8th and 12th century in Bagdad.


My talk will be divided into five parts, in the first part I will be looking at The Problem of Arabic Theatre: Is theatre in the Arab world an imported art in all respects? What about Arab Theatrical Phenomena, do such phenomena provide useful interpretations of the Islamic point of view regarding theatre? For this, I will consider two cases: Al-Taaziya, and the Shadow play. I will also take a look at early Muslim translators’ attitude toward the subject of theatre in the so-called Golden Age of Islam. In the last part I shall argue against the theory that Islamic law directly or indirectly prohibited theatre activities. So let’s start with the Problem of Arabic Theatre.

The Problem of Arabic Theatre: Western Traditions and Arab Theatrical Phenomena:
The search for the origin of the Arab theatre has been a major subject in criticism of the twentieth century Arab world. In fact many of the researches in the field of Arabic humanities studies have engaged in the discussion of whether Arab culture knew a genuine form of drama before theatre activities were imported from the Western world1. As a result, they were divided into two camps; the first thinks that Arabs throughout their history knew many forms which they considered as theatrical phenomena or in some cases pre-theatrical phenomena2. For instance, Tamara Alexandrovna Botintshiva in her book ‘A Thousand and One Years for Arab Theatre’ devoted four chapters3 to searching for the origin of Arab theatre in a variety of public performances including:


  1. Al-Hakawati (الحكواتي ), we can define it as a narrator who tells folk stories in public places, like traditional coffeehouses known in many cities around the Arab world (e.g. Cairo, Bagdad, Damascus, Marrakesh … etc)). Similar to al-Hakawati we find also the story-teller known as al-Gasas (القصاص), al-Rawya (الراوية) or the narrator, and Shaar al-Rababa (شاعر الربابة): literarily the poet of the Lyre; a narrator who recites different stories and uses a Bedouin Lyre to accompany the narration.

  2. Al-Semaja (السمّاجة): a group of comic performers appears first in the court of caliph al-Mutawakkil in the ninth century4.

  3. Shadow plays, known as Khaial al-Del (خيال الظل) in which only a few texts survived from the works of Ibn Denial.

  4. Al-Taaziya (التعزية) literally means ‘expressions of sympathy, mourning, and consolation’5. It is an annual religious ceremony of Shi’ite Muslims commemorating the tragic death of al-Husain, the nephew of the prophet Mohammad (ص), in which many rituals are performed during the ceremony, including a performance showing the arrival of al-Husain in Iraq and the sequences leading to his brutal death.

Botintshiva then concludes that theatre is deeply rooted in the history of Arabic culture, though the concept of theatrical performance remained bounded to its ritual space or public form6. In spite of many theatrical characteristics found in these phenomena which attract Botintshiva and many other scholars, it is hard to follow any kind of significant development in these phenomena toward a mature form of performance, close to theatre performance. Some of these phenomena which I would prefer to call traditional performances still exist today in different places but never replaced theatre or were replaced by theatre. They independently remained where they originated at the coffeehouses or market squares like those street artists in Djamea Alfena in Marrakesh7 (slide-4), or even in the worship places of the Shia. It is therefore safe to consider these phenomena as traditional performances rather than seeds of Arabic theatre. What also encourages us to take this view is the fact that Arab theatre in the nineteenth century never interacted with these phenomena, nor did it follow its footsteps. One of the Arab theatre pioneers, that is Maron al-Naqash, would be technically and thematically closer to classical French theatre.

That leads us to look at the second camp’s point of view8. It suggests that the Arabs never had theatre before they borrowed it from the French in the first half of the nineteenth century, and all those phenomena called Arabic theatrical phenomena – according to the second camp’s measure – are merely public phenomena influenced either by religious or social groups and they generally lack the basic norms of theatre performance. It is not the purpose of this paper to explain these two points of view further, though it will touch upon some of them at a later stage, but it aims now to set a ground to start from; this is to say that both parties agree on one factual claim: the Arabs never knew theatre in its western form before the nineteenth century. And from this point I shall address the first question: if this type of theatre performance exists not later than the sixth century BCE in the Western world, why did it take such a long time to appear in the Arab world?

Before trying to answer this question, let’s take a closer look at two remarkable forms of performance arts known in the Islamic world: al-Taaziya and the Shadow play.


This annual religious ceremony is held by the Shia every year over the first ten days of Muharam; the first month of the Muslim calendar. In this ceremony the Shea commemorate the battle of Karbala that occurred on Iraqi soil on the 10th of Muharam in year 61AH (October/680CE) between the army of the new Caliph, Yazid ibn Muaawiya and Al-Husain, nephew of the prophet Mohammad (ص) and his companions who had refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid. This very unequal battle ended with a defeat of Al-Husain’s small army and with his tragic death. Then his family members were taken as prisoners to Damascus, the capital of the Umayyad caliphs.

The traditions of mourning the tragedy of Karbal were set soon after the event occurred, evidently by Zainab the daughter of Ali and the sister of AlHussain who as members of AlHusain’s family in Karbal witnessed all the tragic events. She established the early traditions of Al-Taaziya by founding Majles Al-Azaa: a gathering to commemorate the tragedy of Karbala. These traditions still exist today in Shi’ite Muslim societies, like for example in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Kuwait.


The memory of this historical event were then transformed to a ceremony with many rituals, including processions, lamentation, and oral narration.

(Slide- 6+7)

The memories of the Karbala battle were also a subject of Islamic arts, specially painting.


The major developments of al-Taaziya ceremonies occurred around the beginning of the sixteenth century in Persia. At this period the Safavid dynasty established a powerful Shi’at state in Persia and at this time Al-Taaziya ceremonies cultivated and started to carry out a variety of rituals including acting performances reflecting Shi’ite Identity. These performances which we can compere with passion plays in Christian traditions, is the most relevant element to our discussion. The performances feature selected events from the battle of Karbala.


These ceremonies were attended by religious figures and the public, and took place in a public space, in private places, or even in a place designated to such occasions (e.g. Hussainya).

In the ritual of al-Taaziya a group of volunteer actors take the role of historical characters, including: Al-Husain, Al-Abas his brother, Zainab his sister, Omar ibn Saad the leader of Yazid’s army, Shemr ibn Thealjawshan, who brutally dared to decapitate Al-Husain.

The French traveller J.M. Tancoigne describes one of these ceremonies held in Tehran around the beginning of the nineteenth century, he reports (Slide-12):

On a theatre erected opposite to the king’s kiosk, is to be seen the family of Hussein, represented by men in women’s dresses. They are in great agitation, seem to have foreboding of the dismal fate which that Imam must experience in the plain of Kerbela, and make the air resound with shrieks and dreadful groans. Horsemen soon arrive, load them with chains and carry them off. The two armies of Iman Hussein and the caliph Yazid then appear in the square: the battle commences; Hussein soon falls from his horse covered with wounds, and Yazid orders his head to be cut off. At that moment the sobbings and lamentations of all the assembly are redoubled; the spectators strike their breasts, and tears stream from every eye! On the following days, the representation of this tragedy is continued; Yazid successively destroys Hassan and the two children of Hussein, who had fallen into his power, and a general procession terminates the fifth day’9

In spite of all the theatrical features in Al-Taaziya it remained for most of Arab scholars in the discipline of Arabic theatre as a limited phenomenon, for many reasons:

  1. Al-Taaziya is well bounded with the Shi’a doctrine, most of the Al-Taaziya texts were originally written in Persian, and it is therefore mostly regarded as a Persian Shi’a cult rather than Islamic tradition. This judgment wastes the chance of Arab culture to rediscover the theatrical features of Al-Taaziya as an example of genuine Arabic tragedy.

  2. Scholars like Jacob Landau raise suspicions of ancient Persian elements in this ceremony10.

  3. Lack of evidence and documentation about the actual practice of Al-Taazia, especially that the popularity of these ceremonies around the Arab world is questionable, mainly because its provocative motifs are to some extent political, and generally against the majority Islamic Sunni doctrine.

It is however true that Al-Taaziya did not develop itself into a kind of non-ritual drama; and it remained restricted to its original space, faithful to its religious context, and never adapted its themes beyond the story of Karbala, but one should not underestimate its uniqueness in the Islamic culture. It is after all as Peter Chelkowski puts it ‘the only serious drama ever developed in the Islamic world’11.

The concept of Al-Taaziya performances remind us of its similarities with the basic concept of dramatic performance; a group of people gathered in front of a space to see a group of actors performing a story, which is certainly, like a myth, a story they already know.

We may also make a few observations:

1- That al-Taaziya is, like the Dionysus festival in ancient Greece, held every year with advance preparation.

2- The performance, among its aims, is meant to honour a religious figure and to show deep emotions for him.

3 - On the thematic level the story of Al-Husain ideally represents the model of a tragic hero. His awareness of his fate in Karbala is attested in Shia’s sources in which he declares that he completely resigns himself to the will of God who wanted his death to occur in that place at that time. This reminds us again of the unavoidable prophecy in Greek tragedy.

In the 2oth century the performances of Al-Taaziya have attracted some of the major theatre directors in the west, such as Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeuz Kantor, and Peter Brook who strongly underlined the theatricality of this phenomenon, saying: ‘I saw in a remote Iranian village one of the strongest things I have ever seen in theatre: a group of 400 villagers, the entire population of the place, sitting under the tree and passing from roars of laughter to outright sobbing -- although they knew perfectly well the end of the story -- as they saw Hussein in danger of being killed, and then fooling his enemies, and then being martyred. And when he was martyred, the theatre form became truth’12.

Khaial al-Dil or the Shadow play:

In addition to Al-Taaziya there existed another interesting theatrical phenomenon in the Arab Muslim world, and this is Khaial al-Dil or the Shadow play.

We can define the shadow plays as performances that use a stage fully covered with a wooden partition which has a window in its middle; this window is normally covered by white fabric and lighted from the inside by a bright light, the player, or the puppeteer, uses different puppets of humanlike, animal ...etc. made out of leather, fabrics, or cardboard and moves them between the lamp and the covered window; as a result the shadows of these shapes falling on the fabrics are reflected on the other side of the window (e.g. screen) where a group or audience are gathered to see the shadows and hear the voice of the player who imitates different voices, according to the characters that he is moving at a moment13.

Shadow play appeared in the Arab world in the eleventh century. The performance was called Khaial al-Dil, literarily the imitation of the shadow. In the Ayyubid period we find indications of shadow play performances, most remarkably that the famous Sultan Saladin attended one of these performance with his vizier Alkadi Fadel which the later described saying ‘I learned great lessons … I saw empires fall down, others arise … but when the curtain was removed … the mover (player) was one person’14.

The art of shadow play was remarkably improved by Mohammad Jamal ibn Daniel Almoseli (646 H / 1248 CE – 720-H / 1320 CE), a unique name which is associated with the shadow plays’ performances, and the only one of whose work we have a surviving example15. From these surviving texts and also from other indications we can say that the style of the Arab middle ages shadow plays were commonly satiric, aiming to criticise the social order and perhaps in some cases politics, thus it uses stereotype characters. With its excessive expressions and the colloquial language, Arabic shadow plays seem, in comparison with al-Taaziya, closer to the comic genres16.

Shadow play was not only popular in the Arab-Muslim countries; it also existed in many southern Asian countries which became Muslim between the fifteenth and the seventeenth century.


Our example here is the shadow theatre in Java in Indonesia. The shadow play was popular in Java before Islam became the major religion on this island. It was evidently associated with the Hindu traditions as it features its central character called Bima; the monkey Hindu God. The subjects of these plays were taken from the Hindu epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. It is interesting however that Bima remained popular in the Muslim Indonesian puppet theatre. This is because the Muslim puppeteers in Java had reshaped the puppet of Bima possibly under the influence of the Islamic prohibition of making images of living creatures; the puppet of Bima then became less realistic with an enormous long nose and long thin arms, unlike the Bima puppet used in Bali which reflected a more realistic representation. Accordingly this allowed the Muslim puppeteers to get around the traditional prohibition17.


The example of Java’s shadow play indicates that Islamic law, though it supposedly banned images and representation of living creatures, could not be totally responsible for the absence of dramatic art in Arab-Muslim culture.

Al-Taaziya and shadow play remain the most remarkable pre-theatrical performances in Arab history, both of them have basic principles of theatre performance and it would be interesting to think of their impacts in contemporary Arab theatre if they were allowed to develop toward profane human performance. The valid theory today suggests that the Arabic theatre which we know today is a purely imported form of art that came first to Egypt, Lebanon and Syria via Napoleon’s army and later by the individual effort of Maroon Al-Naqqash. What al-Taaziya and the shadow play prove to us is that the very basic concept of theatre performance did exist in the Arab world, without being banned by direct religious prohibition.

The Golden Age of Islam:

I will move now to the fourth part of my paper, to look at one of the significant periods of Islamic culture when early Muslims had the opportunity to invite theatre to the Arab world.

The Abbasid era is known in the history as the golden age of Islamic culture. In this era Muslim states established a huge cultural project aimed at translating many books from other languages, especially Greek. Early Arabic translators devoted their efforts to translating many books of science, mathematics, and medicine and also from other disciplines. While they were hesitant with philosophy, they almost neglected the major books dealing with arts and literature18. And so the masterpieces of ancient Greek drama were never translated into Arabic in this era. This raises a question whether this neglect was fed by a religious prohibition of dramatic poetry.

Mohammad al-Fil explains the translators’ neglect of dramatic texts by pointing to some cultural factors including:

1 – The domination of the collective consciousness in Islamic culture and the absence of the superman model in Islamic traditional thinking.

2- The concept of curse and its consequences are rejected by Islamic teaching as God is always impartial and never held a man responsible for the mistake of his ancestors.


If you disbelieve - indeed, Allah is Free from need of you. And He does not approve of His servants disbelief. And if you are grateful, He approves it for you; and no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. Then to your Lord is your return, and He will inform you about what you used to do. Indeed, He is Knowing of that within the breasts’ Surat Az-Zumar 39: 7.


And those who believed and whose descendants followed them in faith - We will join with them their descendants, and We will not deprive them of anything of their deeds. Every person, for what he earned, is retained’ Surat Aţ-Ţūr: 52: 21.

Thus al-Fil points out that the early translators must practice a self-censorship when selecting the material that they would translate.

For Twfiq al-Hakim the lack of settlement in the life of Arab Bedouins is one factor, and even in the Arabic cities, specially in the Umayyad and Abbasid eras, Arabs prefer to learn science, medicine and such subjects, but poetry was, as they thought, their best talent.

Ahmed Saqer underlines the concept of monotheism in the Arabic culture, looking back to the pre-Islamic periods where each tribe worshiped only one god, and from this he observed that the polytheism of Greek drama would be a major problem for Arab readers.

But there is yet other important explanation found in the translation of the terminology relevant to the drama. This is that early translators chose to translate tragedy as eulogy and comedy as satire, keeping in mind that these were the major genres in the Arabic traditional poetry19.

Jacob Landau suggests another reason why the Arabs neglected translating Greek drama in the Abbasid period; it is that the countries which the Muslims conquered at this period did not have theatre so that the Muslims could associate these dramatic texts with it.

Somehow the philosophy of Islamic law has affected the selection of subjects for the early translators, and it seems hard to deny that the mythological element in the ancient Greek poetry (e.g. Homeric epics), and particularly in drama, were difficult to accept for Muslims’ mentality. But this is not the only possible reason. There is a major difficulty with translating poetry in general. Early Arabs have noticed such difficulty. Al-Jahiz for example raises this concern in his book ‘Kitab al-Haywan’: ‘Only Arabs and the people who speak Arabic have a correct understanding of poetry. Poems do not lend themselves to translation and ought not to be translated. When they are translated, their poetic structure is rent; the metre is no longer correct; poetic beauty disappears and nothing worthy of admiration remains in the poems. It is different with prose. Accordingly, original prose is more beautiful and appropriate than prose renderings of metric poetry’20.

So at this point we, again, encounter the question why the Arabs did not know theatre. There are many theories that try to provide some explanations. One theory considers the language factor, that different Arabic dialects would not be so helpful, but this paper is interested more in looking at one particular theory which suggests that Islam and Quranic thought prevented the Arabs from knowing or developing any form of theatre performance. That is understandable if we consider the domination of the Islamic ruling state for nearly thirteen centuries before the Arabs got to know theatre, and it is perhaps the most influential faith in the modem Arab world. It is therefore justified for one to think of Islamic traditions when trying to explain why Arabs were so late to know theatre.

This theory is based on the idea that Islamic traditions banned the artistic representation of living creatures. And this takes us to the last part of this paper.

Islam and theatre:

In spite of the fact that this prohibition must have existed and affected the style of early Islamic arts, it is hard to find the evidence of it from the holy book; al-Quran. What is claimed to be the Quranic evidence is an indication that the ability of creating the soul is only for God, and Prophet Jesus who is taught to create a birdlike shape is still far from creating its soul unless God enable him to do so.


[The Day] when Allah will say, "O Jesus, Son of Mary, remember My favor upon you and upon your mother when I supported you with the Pure Spirit and you spoke to the people in the cradle and in maturity; and [remember] when I taught you writing and wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel; and when you designed from clay [what was] like the form of a bird with My permission, then you breathed into it, and it became a bird with My permission; and you healed the blind and the leper with My permission; and when you brought forth the dead with My permission; and when I restrained the Children of Israel from [killing] you when you came to them with clear proofs and those who disbelieved among them said, "This is not but obvious magic." Surat Al-Mā'idah (The Table Spread), 5: 110.

This text was interpreted in a way that Muslims should not allow themselves to make or keep images of living creatures. Such judgment was supposedly supported by the words of Prophet Muhammad, such as:


  1. Whoever makes a picture in this world will be asked to put life into it on the Day of Resurrection, but he will not be able to do so’21.


2 -‘Angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture’22.


3 - ‘Verity the most grievously tormented people on the Day of Resurrection would be the painters of pictures 23.


4 – ‘Abu'l-Hayyaj al-Asadi told that 'Ali (b. Abu Talib) said to him: Should I not send you on the same mission as Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) sent me? Do not leave an image without obliterating it, or a high grave without levelling It. This hadith has been reported by Habib with the same chain of transmitters and he said: (Do not leave) a picture without obliterating it’ 24.

It is important here to distinguish between the holy texts and the other sources of Islamic tradition. This is because of the legitimacy of the Quran which is axiomatic for Muslims, while Hadith, the second source for Muslims, is controversial and subjectto other considerations, such as the division between Muslims into several doctrines and the different opinions resulting from this division. And there is also the overlap between Islamic thought and the Arab traditional thoughts which often became confused and often influenced each other.

For al-Tabari the third hadith must have aimed to forbid a certain type of painting, which creates an image meant to be worshipped, other paintings are permissible though undesirable.

Aisha, the wife of Prophet Mohammad, reported that Um-Salama and Um-Habib mentioned to the prophet that they saw many paintings at a church in al-Habasha (e.g. Ethiopia), the prophet then said: those people used to build tombs upon the graves of their good men and decorated them with paintings but they would be the worst among the humankind in the Last Day25. Alhijr ibn Hafez found in this particular event evidence that paintings are forbidden in Islamic law26.

According to al-Nawawi ‘the representation of an animal is strictly haram (prohibited) and it is certainly one of the greatest sins, because of many hadiths which condemn the representation whether of sacred or non-sacred objects (e.g. toys, rags ...etc) its making is prohibited as it is competition against the creation of God, whether it is clothes, rag, Dirham, Dinar, Fils (coins), pottery, wall, and so on’27.

Inb Taymiyya referring to the fourth hadith (Slide-23) says ‘Ali ordered Al-Asadi to destroy both type of statues; the representation (e.g. portrait) of the dead and the standing statue above his grave, for shirk (idolatry) comes from both these and from those’28.

We can summarize these different interpretations under two categories:

  1. An absolute prohibition which is generally adopted by the Salafist School. In this category the prohibition is comprehensive regardless of the subject, style, context (e.g. religious/secular), and the purpose of the representation. The question at this point is how this prohibition spread all over the different forms of representation including the dramatic arts.

It was once explained by a single hadith which reports: a man known as Alhakam ibn al-Aas used to imitate the walk and the gestures of the prophet Mohammad who once turned back and saw him, the prophet then cursed and exiled him to al-Taif, and the prophet never cursed a man unless he committed a great sin. The circumstances of this particular event are obviously individual; it is a provocative mockery of the prophet of Islam certainly considered as a personal insult rather than an artistic imitation.

Many theologians made extreme approaches to the subject, they were convinced that acting in drama is an act typical of al-Kuffar (unbelievers), others take the view that the most of the hadith concerning the prohibition of paintings are meant to discourage Muslims from following the examples of non-Muslims who not only kept the paintings as sacred objects but worshipped them (e.g. icons) and so the angels are discouraged from entering places with pictures.

Pioneering theological research by Ahmed ibn al-sadiq (published in 1953 under the title Setting out the Evidence on Forbidding Acting) concluded that acting in performance (e.g. theatre, cinema …etc.) is strictly prohibited. In this study Ibn al-Sadiq collected many allegations against acting including:

  1. Acting is bid’a (innovation) of the unbelievers which was brought to Muslim countries by the colonizers.

  2. The concept of acting belongs to lahw (distraction) and laghw (idleness) which are condemned by Islam as frivolous play.

  3. Acting could possibly include a forbidden representation (prophets, religious figures) who would be misrepresented, such occasions may give the enemies of Islam the chance to degrade Islamic symbols.

  4. Women should not be participating in acting with/for men.

  5. Men should not allow themselves to be degraded by taking inappropriate roles (e.g. animals, dissolute figures, thieves ... etc.)

  6. Acting in its very concept includes pretending, which is a form of lying.

  7. If a male actor is assigned to a female character role he would be in danger of effeminacy.

  8. From a social approach acting would corrupt the young Muslims and tech them lying, to deceive, mockery, and so on.

All these allegations are not supported by direct evidence from Islamic sources. It reflects a great reluctance to western ideas in which social and political attitudes are dominant. It also lacks awareness of artistic norms; the writer made no distinction between conditional pretending and the morally condemned act of lying.

This prohibition was by no means rational. As mentioned before, it lacks strong ground from al-Quran, and it is striking how extremely fanatical this interpretation is if we compare it with other cases of more direct condemnation. In Surat Ash-Shu`arā’ (Poets) the words of god condemn the poet for hypocrisy:


And the poets - [only] the deviators follow them (224) Do you not see that in every valley they roam (225) And that they say what they do not do’ (226) Surat Ash-Shu`arā' 26: 224-6

Even though poetry was through the history of Islam a respected art, and Prophet Muhammad had his own poet called Hussan ibn Thabit.

2 -The second category might be described as a designated prohibition which takes account of the function of the representation, such as the purpose of the painting, statue... etc. it is from this category that we find exceptions made by later theologians, for example the permission of making/using incomplete statues (semi-body, headless … etc.) or even despised objects (toys, Tapestries? Rugs?… etc.). In the course of the eleventh century AD the famous Islamic theologist al-Ghazali attempted to theorize this confusing prohibition, he concluded that walls and hanging fabric materials (e.g. curtains, rugs) must not be decorated with shapes of living creatures. The same prohibition is applied for children’s toys, he decided; it should not be in the form of a living creature. Non-religious books, potteries, cups… and rugs are exempted. This division is likely to be influenced by the pre-Islamic tradition of worship.

Yet there is a case for argument against the whole concept of a prohibition on representations. Many contemporary theologians argue that such prohibition must be temporary, and entirely determined by the circumstances of the early periods of the Islamic era.

It is known that the pre-Islam Arabs worshipped idols in and around the holy house of al-Ka’aba. An ancient source states that when the prophet Mohammad conquered the city of Mecca he found 360 idols around the holy Ka’aba29. Another source describes different forms of idols which were kept inside al-Ka’aba including statues, paintings (walls, portable pieces), attributes (e.g. divine arrows). Al-Azraqi describes al-Ka’aba around the time of the Isam conquest, ‘… and they put on its columns pictures of the Prophets, pictures of trees, and pictures of the angels, and there was a picture of the Prophet Ibrahim Khalil al-Rahman with divining arrows, and a picture of Isa b. Maryam and his mother [i.e., Jesus and Mary], and a picture of the angels, upon them be peace, all of them. And when it was the day of the conquest of Mecca, the Prophet (peace be upon him) entered, and he sent off al-Fadl b. al-Abbas b. Abd al-Muttalib (his cousin) to come with water from [the well of] Zamzam. Then he called for a cloth, and he ordered [them] to rub off these pictures, and they were obliterated’30.

But al_Azraqi mentioned also another interesting passage that reported that ‘Sulayman [b. Musa al-Shami] said to [Ata b. Abi Rabah]: “The pictures of the representations of devils that were in the House [i.e., the Ka’aba], who obliterated them?” He said: “I do not know, other than that they were obliterated, with the exception of those two pictures [Isa b. Maryam and Maryam]. I saw them [i.e., the rest] and their obliteration”31. This suggests that the prophet when ordering the Muslims to destroy idols, actually made an exception for the painting of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. It is perhaps the practice (e.g. worship) associated with the objects which concerned the prophet rather than the paintings, statues ...etc. themselves. We are told in the Quran that the prophet Ibrahim went to destroy the idols of his father.


And [mention, O Muhammad], when Abraham said to his father Azar, "Do you take idols as deities? Indeed, I see you and your people to be in manifest error." Surat Al-'An`ām 6.74


And [I swear] by Allah, I will surely plan against your idols after you have turned and gone away * So he made them into fragments, except a large one among them, that they might return to it [and question] * They said, "Who has done this to our gods? Indeed, he is of the wrongdoers * They said, "We heard a young man mention them who is called Abraham * They said, "Then bring him before the eyes of the people that they may testify * They said, "Have you done this to our gods, O Abraham? * He said, "Rather, this - the largest of them - did it, so ask them, if they should [be able to] speak * So they returned to [blaming] themselves and said [to each other], "Indeed, you are the wrongdoers’ Surat Al-'Anbyā' (The Prophets) 21.57-64

He left one of them untouched and told his tribe that it is this one who destroyed the other idols and they can try to ask then if he can even reply or defend himself. Ibrahim thus wanted to prove that they are only stone without any divinity, they don’t harm nor do they bring benefit for anyone who worships them. This clearly suggests that the purpose of destroying idols is not the object itself nor it is the idea of representation, its purpose was to destroy the tradition of worshipping idols. This is to say that the early periods of Islam history have evidently prohibited the imitation of living creatures. The main reason behind such prohibition lies in the pre-Islamic tradition of worshipping idols. Thus Islam aimed to uproot the idea of worshipping idols from Islamic society and to make sure that Arab Muslims do not relapse into this tradition. Applying this prohibition for all kinds of representation today is hardly justifiable since Islam today is a firmly established faith which is beyond the threat of the external shape of idolatry.

Many Arab-Muslim countries have made significant contributions in theatre activities over the last century or so, it is hard to list all these contributions in this paper32 but it worth at least to point out some of the regular theatrical festivals held each year in various regions around the Arab-Muslim world which reflect the consciousness of Arab-Muslims in theatrical arts. Starting from the western Arab world, we find Carthage theatrical Days; an international theatrical festival organized by the Ministry of Culture in Tunisia. In Morocco the Marrakesh Theatrical Festival had been founded in the late sixties. In Cairo the Cairo international festival for experimental theatre is a significant cultural phenomenon which attracts not only Arab theatrical groups but also introduced many international theatrical groups to an Arab audience. And I should not forget to mention the Damascus International theatrical festival which also played a leading role in improving the theatrical traditions in the Arab world. As we move further to the east, into more conservative territories, we find many local festivals in most of the Arabian Gulf countries. There are also two remarkable regional festivals in this part of the Arab world; these are the Kuwait Theatrical Festival and the theatrical Festival of Mono-drama of Sharjah in UAE.

As theatre became a major element in the contemporary Muslim culture it is quite important to rethink the contemporary view of Islam concerning theatre and arts in general, taking into account the role, nature, and aims of the contemporary arts and theatre.


Islamic sources:

Al-Azraqi (2003) Akhbar Mecca. Abdul-Malik ibn Duhaish (ed.). Maktabat Al-Asadi.

Al-Nawawi (1996) Sahih Muslim (Illustration of Muslim). Cairo: Dar Alsalam

Al-Bukhari. Sahih Bukhari.

Ibn Hijer Alasqalani (1986) Fateh Albari Besharh Sahih Al-Bukhari. Muhib aldeen Al-Khatib. Beirut: Dar Almaarefa.

Ibn Taymeyya (1997) Majmo’a Alfatawa. Amar Al-Jazzar and Anwar Al-Baz (eds.). Cairo: Dar Alwafaa.

Muslim. Sahih Muslim.

The holy Quran <>.
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AGHAIE, K. S. (2004) The Martyrs of Karbala : Shi'i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran, Seattle ; London, University of Washington Press.

Allen, R. (2000) An introduction to Arabic literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BRANDON, J. R. (1993) The Cambridge guide to Asian theatre, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Carlson, M. (2006) The Arab Oedipus: four plays from Egypt and Syria. New York: Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications.

CHELKOWSKI, P. (2002) Time out of Memory:Ta'ziyeh, the Total Drama. Available: [Accessed 08/10/2010].

( 1977) Ta'ziyeh: Indigenous Avant-Garde Theatre of Iran. Performing Arts Journal, 2, 31-40.

Etman, A. (2004) The Greek Concept of Tragedy in the Arab Culture: How to Deal with an Islamic Oedipus. In Rereading Classics in 'East' and 'West': post-colonial perspectives on the Tragic. Eds. F. Decreus & M. Kolk Gent: Documentatiecentrum voor dramatische Kunst, 281-99.

(2008) Translation at the Intersection of Tradition: The Arab Reception of the Classics. In A companion to classical receptions. Eds. L. Hardwick & C. Stray Malden. Oxford: Blackwell, 141-52.

Janssen, C. (2004) Mind the gap?! Some Observations on the Study of Tragedy from an Intercultural Perspective In Rereading Classics in 'East' and 'West': post-colonial perspectives on the Tragic. Eds. F. Decreus & M. Kolk Gent: Documentatiecentrum voor dramatische Kunst, 316-32.

King, G. R. D. (2004) The Paintings of the Pre-Islamic Ka'ba. In Essays in honor of J.M. Rogers. Behrens-Abousief, D. and Contadinia, A. (eds.). Muqarnas: an annual on the visual culture of the Islamic world, 21, Leiden: Brill.

Landau, J. M. (1958) Studies in the Arab Theatre and Cinema. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Leezenberg, M. (2004) Katharsis, Greek and Arab Style. On Averroes’s Misunderstanding of Aristotle’s Misunderstanding of Tragedy. In Rereading Classics in 'East' and 'West': post-colonial perspectives on the Tragic. Eds. F. Decreus & M. Kolk Gent: Documentatiecentrum voor dramatische Kunst, 300-15.

MOMEN, M. (1985) An Introduction to Shiʻi Islam : the History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiʻism, Oxford: Ronald.

Pormann, P. E. (2006) The Arab "cultural awakening (Nahda)" 1870-1950, and the classical tradition. In International journal of the classical tradition, 13/1: 3-20.

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Al-Fil, M. (2005) Roayat wa Byan Halat Almasrah Alarabi. Cairo: AlHiaa Almasrya Alamma Lelkitab.

Al-Ra’ei, A. (1999) Al-Masrah fi al-Watan al-Arabi . Kuwait: The National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters.

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Botintshiva, T. A. (1981) Thousand and One Years for Arab Theatre. Trans. Tawfiq al-Mo’athen. Beirut: Dar al-Farabi.

Hamada, I. (1961) Khial Aldil wa Tamthiliat Ibn Danial. Cairo: Almoasasa Almesrya Alama Liltaalif wa Alnashir.

Landau, J. M. (1972) Derasat fi al-Masrah wa al-Cinema end al-Arab. Trans. Ahmed al-Mgazi. Cairo: al-Hi’aa al-Masreya al-‘ama Lelketab.

Qaja, J. (2001) Almasrah wa Alhawia Alarabia. Cyprus: Dar Almotalaqi.

Suqer, A. (1998) Twthif alturath Alshaabi fi Almosrah Alarabi. Alexandria: Markaz Alexandria Lilkitab.

Yaqi, A. (1999) Fi Aljohod Almasrahya Alarabia. Cairo: Dar Alfarabi.

1 - The first theatrical activities in the Arab world are associated with the French military expedition (1798) in Egypt in which at least one performance was held to entertain the French troops in Egypt (see: (Etman (2004) 291); (Pormann (2006) 13), however the first Arabic theatrical production is widely agreed to be البخيل Albachil (inspired by Molière’s L’Avare) which was written, directed, and produced in Beirut by Maurun Al-Naqqash in 1848. see: (Landau (1972) 116-122); (Landau (1958) chapter 2); (Allen (2000) 193-215); (Botintshiva (1981) 112-22); (Al-Ra’ei (1978) 69-73).

2 - See for example: Botintshiva (1981) 5-39; Al-Raai (1978) 33-49.

3 - See: Botintshiva (1981) 5-105.

4 - See also: Qaja (2001) 213; Suqer (1998)34-6.

5 - Chelkowski (1977) 32.

6 - Botintshiva (1981) 21-6.

7 - Al-Raai (1969).

8 - This is the point of view of (e.g. Taha Hussien; Tawfiq al-Hakim; Mohammed Mandor).

9 - Tancoigne (1820) 169-201.

10 - Landau (1972) 42.

11 - Chelkowski (2002).

12 - Parabola (1979).

13 - Hamada (1961) 43.

14 - Yaqi (1999) 10.

15 - Landau (1972) 60, N52;Qaja (2001) 247-58.

16 - Ateya (1982) 51; Suqer (1998) 55.

17 - See the broadcast of BBC Radio 4 “Shadow Puppet of Bima”: (05-10-2010). I am indebted to Alan Sommerstein for this reference.

18 - Etman (2008) 141-3; Etman (2004) 285; Leezenberg (2004) 300-2; Pormann (2007) 28; Janssen (2004) 326-7; Van Leeuwen (2004) 344-5; Carlson (2006) 1-5.

19 - Qaja (2001) 199.

20 - See: Rosenthal (1992) 18-9.

21 - Al-Bukhari: Volume 7, Book 72, Number 846; cf. Muslim: Book 24, 5268.

22 - Muslim: Book 24, 5249; cf. Al-Bukhari : Volume 7, Book 72, Number 843.

23 - Muslim: Book 24, 5270; cf. Al-Bukhari: Volume 9, Book 93, Number 648.

24 - Muslim: Book 4, 2115.

25 - Al-Bukhari 417; Muslim 528.

26 - Alhijr ibn Hafez, Fateh Albari 525.1.

27 - Al-Nawawi, Illustration of Muslim 81.14.

28 - Ibn Taymeyya, Majmo’a Alfatawa 462.17.

29 - Al-Baukhari 2346; Muslim 969.

30 - Al-Azraqi, Akhbar Mecca. Vol.1: 165; c.f.: King (2004) 220.

31 - Ibid 167.

32 - See for example: Al-Raai (1978); Botintshiva (1981) especially 289-307.

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