Prohibition of Images?

A major stumbling block for Brockett, Hildy and other Western analysts of Islamic performance culture has been the supposed prohibition against “images of living things” (Brockett and Hildy 69).

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The claim is that, despite the existence of such forms as Ta’ziyeh in Iran and the commedia-like ortaoyunu in Turkey, actor-based drama in a dialogic mode rarely developed in Middle Eastern and Arabic countries until the introduction of Western theatre in the nineteenth century.

Islamic Performance and the Problem of Drama – Part 4

Historian Albert Hourani points out that “although the depiction of living forms was not explicitly forbidden by the Qur’an, most jurists, basing themselves on the Hadith [the traditions of what the Prophet said and did], held that this was an infringement of the sole power of God to create life” (56).

Islamic Performance and the Problem of Drama – Part 4

However, the situation of theatrical performance in Islamic societies is much more complicated than that.  For example, according to Muhammad al-Bukhārī, there is evidence that the Prophet Mohammad himself once witnessed a la’’āb’ (hobby-horse dancer) perform a traditional kurraj, or hobby-horse show (cited in Moreh 28).

“That the Prophet did not raise any objections against the use of the kurraj,” historian Shmuel Moreh writes, “might indicate that he did not find the la’’āb’s play a pagan or magical rite” (28).

There is a delicious ambiguity in this historical factoid, which might or might not indicate the Prophet’s acceptance of representational performance traditions.  The ambiguity characterizes the history of Islamic cultures across the world, which have their own strong mimetic forms of visual art and performance, despite the challenge of Hadith traditions.

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