Moderator Samina Quraeshi, Visiting Artist at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, opened the first session on the role of the artist in Muslim world societies, historically and today. She noted that “Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas” opens the door to a new set of perceptions centered on the idea that the Muslim world is a rich space for cultural production — or perhaps a set of rich spaces. The Muslim world is diverse and complex, and its many different ethnicities, nationalities, and interpretations must be addressed carefully in order to avoid over–simplification. On a local and global level, art provides the common ground that enables people to build communities and bridge gaps between disparate peoples. Art is an international resource, she said, and it is more powerful than oil.
The first speaker, Huzir Sulaiman, a Singapore–based Malaysian dramatist, actor, writer, and newspaper columnist, addressed the question of how Muslim artists fit into complex, multi–layered environments. This question led him to reflect for the first time on the relationship between his faith and his work, and the contradictions and complications that relationship implies. Despite his family’s long history of engaging in Islamic scholarship — his maternal grandfather was an Islamic scholar and his parents are lawyers whose work focuses on Islam and human rights issues — he was not particularly conscious of his identity as a Muslim until he left Malaysia to attend Princeton University. The university chapel was a beautiful structure with stained glass windows; Muslim Friday prayers were held in its basement, behind the boiler. The experience made him aware of his identity as a Muslim for the first time, and it struck him as ironic that he had to travel to the West to feel a real connection to his religion.
Sulaiman noted that over time, artists identify with their religion in different ways and to differing degrees. For example, his identity as a Muslim had receded, while his identity as an artist had become more prominent. It is critical to recognize that for some, religion is a spiritual journey that engages every aspect of their lives, while others work secularly, with religion as a mere backdrop. He then posed a series of questions to the participants. First, can Muslim artists make work that addresses their spiritual journeys while offering an outside perspective on their societies? Sulaiman finds an inherent conflict in this, because he believes art should ask, “What is life and how should we live it?” But Islam tells Muslims in minute detail how to live life. What, then, is the purpose of art? Can art be made that does not ask questions about life?
Second, what is Muslim artists’ relationship to the wider political community? In Malaysia today, the artistic community is critical of the regime, which has been in power since 1973. Artists find themselves in coalition with opposition parties, but these parties are largely religious, such as the Pan–Malaysia Islamic Party (known as “PAS”), which has banned the practice of some traditional arts deemed “contrary to tenets of Islam.” Can politically conscious artists reconcile themselves with a Muslim political agenda?
Third, on what merits should Muslim artists be judged by outside observers? Sulaiman expressed annoyance with journalists and critics who analyze artistic work exclusively through a political lens. This is a form of racism: aesthetic considerations are forgotten and an artist’s work is reduced to the sum total of his or her political statements. Sulaiman stated that the current trend in American politics, as exemplified by President Obama’s speech in Cairo, gives hope that Muslim artists and their work can be seen independently from their religious identities or political agendas.
Anthony Shay, Assistant Professor of Dance and Cultural Studies at Pomona College, spoke next, addressing the social position of artists in the Muslim world, which have varied widely, both historically and today. He began by discussing his experiences as a flutist in the Tehran symphony orchestra in the 1970s. He recalled several instances in which complications arose around religious issues and the arts. For example, local clergy shut down a graduation ceremony at a girls’ school because it included a dance performance. Meanwhile, artists performing as part of the government’s Fine Arts Administration were not allowed to perform on the radio because of conflicting patronage systems.
Shay described Muslim art forms and artists as arrayed in several types of hierarchies, which often correlate with degrees of official, government patronage. One highly valued and highly respected form is poetry. In Iran, poetry is central to the culture — national, private, and artistic events all begin with poetry. Classical Persian music is similarly positioned near the top of the hierarchy. The respective position of Western arts, however, has varied over the past several decades. Before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Western art took priority in Iran. After the Revolution, dance was banned in public, with the exception of folk dance. Dancing had historically been associated with prostitution; today, conservative families might still not permit their children to take up dancing as a profession.
Shay closed by noting the impact that official recognition and an elevated position within the artistic hierarchy can have on artists as well as art forms. There is a vast difference between the reception of official artists and that of popular artists on the street, and the impact on the individual artist can be enormous. Those positioned at the bottom of the hierarchy are not considered artists at all, but entertainers, which limits their social acceptance, their earning power, and the degree of respect they receive. For example, in Iranian academia, no one other than classical, officially approved artists is studied or even mentioned as part of the Iranian artistic tradition.
Tunisian musicologist and composer Mourad Sakli spoke next, considering some of the issues raised by the first two speakers in terms of his own experiences as a musician. He began by describing his family — a practicing Muslim, middle–class family in Tunis. His father was French–educated as a child, studied Islamic theology at Zitouna University, and made the spiritual journey of the Haj.3 His mother, on the other hand, does not speak French or classical Arabic. The youngest of six children, Sakli upset his family by “making trouble” with his decision to pursue music. Music was never forbidden as a hobby, but it was not quite socially acceptable as a profession.
In Tunisia, a professional musician would only be respected after attaining a certain level of achievement. When Sakli was 16 years old, he was chosen to perform as a soloist at the municipal theatre. A student solo was a rare occurrence, but his father did not attend the recital; for him, the occasion was not socially respectable. Sakli studied chemistry for a year after high school, but his interest in music was much greater than his interest in scientific work. His family’s opposition to a career in music was not religious but social, he stressed. In order to pursue music, he promised his parents that he would become a professional and teach. He attained his master’s degree and then his doctorate at the Sorbonne in France, all the while continuing to perform. Finally, after receiving his doctorate, Sakli could give concerts in Tunis with his father’s approval.
Sakli described religion as an indirect influence on social attitudes toward musicians. Music had historically been performed in Sufi brotherhoods, which were low on the social hierarchy; as a result, performing music was not socially acceptable. Sakli suggested that his experience with his family pointed to a shift in Tunisian society, particularly for younger Tunisians. Parents now encourage children to make a career in music, and the social context in general now accepts and respects music. The shift is partly a response to economics: as in Western society, if a musician becomes popular, he or she can make a very good living.
As for the role of Islam as a religion (rather than a culture), Sakli finds this less critical: he does not see his art as either Muslim or non–Muslim. His work refers to a geographical context — Tunisia — a country with a 3,000– year history that began well before Islam. In his view, Tunisian music has lost some of its distinctive character as contemporary Tunisian musicians have been very influenced by Western and Middle Eastern styles. In his work, he feels an obligation to preserve the characteristics of Tunisian music and suggests that artists should be open to all cultures, but preserve their own identities.
Finally, Sakli pointed out, the economic disparity between the West and the developing world greatly affects the production and distribution of music from less wealthy countries. Musicians in developing countries have far fewer opportunities to showcase their art both domestically and internationally. The disparity is vast: in 2008, more than 70% of CDs sold in Europe were released by only four companies. Sakli concluded by restating that the relationship between a musician and Islam is not direct: it emerges through the culture that has developed around religious practices, rather than in direct reference to them.
In her remarks, discussant Joni Cherbo, Executive Director of the Resource Center for Cultural Engagement, noted that all art is socially constrained. Though it is often thought that art should be a transcendent phenomenon, art exists in a social context. The three speakers discussed several social issues that affected their work: political and religious constraints, as well as aesthetic considerations. These issues must be discussed in a specific context, because every nation and every art form that raises them addresses them differently. She opened the floor discussion by asking participants to focus on these constraints, and on how these constraints are shifting in particular contexts.
One participant pointed out that art is socially and politically constrained in the West as well. During the “culture wars” of the late 1980s, for example, conservatives in Congress took exception to art that crossed what they considered appropriate boundaries. As a result, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a major funder of the arts in the United States, stopped supporting many artists; many conservatives proposed disbanding it altogether. The participant asked the speakers and other participants whether contemporary popular art in the Muslim world is contentious for similar reasons: what religious, social, or political restrictions does it challenge?
In response, a participant noted that it is necessary to distinguish between Islam the religion and the way people interpret it, which often involves inserting their preferences and practices, and describing these as part of the religion. Islam never prohibited painting, song, or dance. It was people — men — who used religion to justify their fears of women and women’s sexuality.
Another participant added that the relationship between art, society, and spirituality is constantly evolving: the paradigm that enabled productive cooperation in the golden age of al–Andalus, for example, is very different from contemporary Islamists’ rejection of art and performance. Whereas women were celebrated in the pre–Islamic tradition of love and erotic poetry, these forms clash with the new Islamic fundamentalism.
Another participant asked whether labeling art as “Muslim” simplifies and homogenizes the cultural and contextual nuances that the speakers mentioned. Rather than assume the religion’s influence on artists from Muslim communities, perhaps we should consider Islam a variable in need of further investigation. Does Islam put more constraints on artists than other religions? Or is seeing Islam as a constraint merely an outside perception?
Discussion turned to the value and impact of the label “Muslim art”. One person reminded participants that the purpose of the session was not to make a monolith of Islam but to complicate existing notions. Even within the Muslim world, several state education systems reinforce the idea of a monolith by dividing history into pre–Islamic and Islamic periods, suggesting that religion is the primary, and singular, lens. In other countries, there is tension between religious identity and national or cultural identity — such as in Iran, where Muslim identity and Persian identity can conflict.
Another participant suggested that the term “Muslim art” cannot be sufficient since it categorizes artists by the religion of their community, rather than according to the artist’s own choices. A better distinction might be whether the artist, regardless of religious beliefs, wants to help catalyze the evolution of his or her particular society, or practice art for art’s sake. Another participant agreed that the categorization of “Muslim art” is problematic, and criticized the Western arts media for insistently judging Muslim–world artists on their degree of social, religious, or political activism rather than according to aesthetic criteria. Artists in the Muslim world who suffer from imprisonment, torture, or assassination receive more coverage and are treated as having a larger significance than artists who are less persecuted.
One participant mentioned the extension of the Louvre Museum currently being built in Abu Dhabi and asked whether this could be seen as an attempt to build a bridge between Western and Muslim art. According to another participant, the extension reflects the social and political aspirations of Abu Dhabi’s royal family; its purpose and its effect cannot be generalized to the Gulf states, let alone the entire Muslim world. The rulers of Abu Dhabi and Doha have different aspirations than those of Saudi Arabia or Iran.
Another participant agreed with the need for specificity, and suggested that the underlying theme is the importance of acquiring symbolic capital. For Abu Dhabi, the Louvre provides symbolic capital; for Dubai, holding Sotheby’s auctions does. The result, a third participant suggested, may be the creation of a world with multiple poles of strategic and cultural power; President Sarkozy recently visited the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi as part of a trip intended to inaugurate the new French military base there.
When discussing art production or cultural capital in the Muslim world, we must not forget the broader political context, one participant cautioned. Muslim artists, whether they want to be identified by nationality, religion, or aesthetic preferences, operate in the context of a global political conflict between the West and the Muslim world. Avoiding knowledge of this conflict is impossible. Artists who assimilate Western techniques or standards are in effect taking sides, politically. For example, Iranian artists today are often involved in oppositional politics even if as artists they simply want to be judged artistically. However, the West regards them as artists in jeopardy, and they become part of the political narrative, whether they like it or not. Another participant suggested that the politicization of artists can be productive, inspiring sensitive artistic responses.
The discussion turned briefly to the artistic hierarchy described by Shay. Historically, in Europe as well as the Muslim world, entertainers were not considered artists or worthy of social respect. This hierarchy was partly reinforced by practitioners of “high” arts, who competed with “entertainers” for social standing as well as for audiences. Are there parallels today when it comes to government–approved high art and the exclusions it sanctions? When a government approves and promotes a particular artist or art form, is the intention to control the artist or the audience? Were popular art forms historically more likely to encourage social or political disobedience?
Questions about art and the artist cannot be separated from questions of audience and impact, one participant stressed. As an artist who works outside a Muslim–majority country, making art that specifically addresses Muslim life, this participant found that while the government plays no role in approving or suppressing her work, the audience has been extremely vocal in censuring it. There are two groups who take offense to its depictions of Muslim life: right–wing political conservatives who see it as normalizing the dangerous presence of Muslims in their country, and right–wing Muslims who see it as normalizing forms of Muslim life that they consider unacceptable. These two groups are usually in opposition to one another, but have become ideologically aligned in their opposition to art that they feel does not represent what they consider Islam to be.
The discussion briefly returned to the meaning and utility of the term “Muslim art.” One participant suggested that the festival’s title, Muslim Voices, is overly unifying; the examples of Muslim art discussed in the session reflected many different zones of activity and influence. Do these artists share anything in common other than being from countries with Muslim–majority populations? How would a festival titled “Christian Voices” be perceived? Islam is not a unifying force, he said: it is a relationship with a point of influence and power that different artists approach differently. For artists, the relevant relationship is between the state, power, and Islam; art is often as much an artist’s reflection on state power as it is on Islam.
In response, a participant observed that one lesson of history is that cultural definitions are always moving; labels offer an imprecise but useful shorthand in an ever–changing world. Another participant suggested that artists may find labeling themselves Muslim valuable because it grants them membership in a larger collective — for example, defining oneself as Muslim rather than Turkish extends one’s community, audience, and influence. Another participant agreed, suggesting that artists may adopt particular labels contextually and pointed to the example of YouTube videos that show Iranian artists dressed as Qajar princes riding motorcycles.4 This fluidity allows artists to operate inside, outside, and between boundaries, but it also puts them in potential conflict with their governments, which may suppress art that challenges the official image of their people and country.
In conclusion, Cherbo suggested that participants further consider Diasporan artists, whose work can powerfully muddle cultural waters. Quraeshi closed by observing that as a model for social integration, the concept of unity in diversity is relevant for all artists. Fostering communication and reaching across boundaries will benefit all humans, individually and as families, communities, and nations.Back to the top.