Perhaps the last art form to find an expression under Islam was theater. Neither the ancient Greek theatrical tradition, which was closely bound to the rituals of the city–state, nor the narrative pageantry of the various Christian communities of the Middle East seems to have spurred Muslim imitations. Among Shi‘ite Muslims, however, a desire to commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, al–Husain ibn ‘Ali, in 680, eventually gave rise to what is sometimes referred to as a Muslim “Passion Play.” Actors took the roles of al–Husain and his various family members, and also the roles of the villains who killed them at the behest of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid ibn Mu‘awiya. Mourning processions held at the beginning of the year in the Muslim religious calendar date back to at least the tenth century, but full–scale theatrical renditions of the tragedy, known as ta‘ziyeh, did not take shape until the middle of the eighteenth century.22
Though Sunni Islam did not develop a counterpart tradition of religious performance, more secular forms of theater appeared in Turkish areas (including in Iran) and in Southeast Asia. In the latter region, shadow puppets acting out stories from pre–Islamic sources like the Ramayana became highly popular. Shadow plays also gained popularity under Turkish rulers in Egypt and Turkey. Colored, translucent figures and stage sets, all cut out of stiff leather, were pressed against a white cloth and illuminated from behind. The puppeteer manipulated the figures, which were on the ends of sticks and at the same time provided the voices of the various characters. Typically, a wise–cracking scalawag named Karagöz, or Blackeye, engaged in elaborate bantering confrontations with his more sober counterpart Hacivat. Other stock characters, such as an Arab, an Armenian, a Jew, or a Muslim bully, would also appear. The Karagöz performances, as they were collectively called, held up a mirror to the social foibles of Ottoman popular society.23 At the same time another type of popular theater, called orta oyunu (literally, “middle play”), developed with live performers instead of puppeteers. All of these forms were designed to appeal to a broad public and to children, and stand in sharp contrast to the Shi‘ite Passion Play.
Although the theatrical form was not as strong in Muslim tradition, theatrical performances based on European models appeared in a number of Middle Eastern cities in the nineteenth century. But whereas Muslim playwrights have still not achieved the degree of acceptance accorded many Muslim novelists and short story writers, the development of the cinema in the Muslim world has brought forth a number of internationally acclaimed directors including Atif Yilmaz and Yilmaz Güney (Turkey), Yousef Chahine and Salah Abu Seif (Egypt), and Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Iran).Back to the top.