Today, within stereotyped characterizations of Islam, pleasure and debate, musical and performative creativity, find little place. Rather, mainstream discourse’s strongest signifiers of Islam are violence, fundamentalism, repression and joylessness. Such simplifications are misleading. Across the world, diverse communities of Muslims live their collective identities in dialogic interaction with various social forces: the legacies of colonialism, the imperatives of globalization, the pressures of diaspora, the demands of modernity, the pull of the sacred, pan-Islamic radicalism, and the perceived injustices of the ‘war on terror.’ The criss-crossing axes of the global, the local and the transnational impel them to consolidate collective identities, confirm their historical legacies and look forward to the future. Like all human beings in all societies, they also engage in enjoyable and pleasurable expressive acts while doing so - in particular, by making, listening to, and being emotionally sustained through performance.

This major project focuses on the performative aspect of contemporary Muslim life. It explores how, through the modes of performance, piety and protest, performance has become a vehicle of debate within societies where Islam exerts a significant cultural influence. Paying attention to these intra-communal debates, alongside the differences between ‘the Muslim world’ and its perceived antagonists, can offer fresh insight into the relationship between Islamic, secularist and nationalist orthodoxies and social re-positioning within Muslim communities. Moreover, this approach can shed crucial light on how radicalization, fundamentalism and violence might themselves be countered. The project hopes to optimize the sharing of similar research interests of individual scholars, institutions, organizations, communities and government agencies. It will open up space for interdisciplinary, inter-regional perspectives, and encourage comparative understanding of how, within the wider context of ‘Islam’, performative practice enables disagreement as well as cross-cutting solidarities.

The present research is set to follow five major strands:

  1. festival, ritual and revivalism as a performative source for counterradicalism;
  2. performing Islam and the city;
  3. performing piety through music; chant and the body against terror;
  4. performing Islam as a healing process for tolerance and resistance;
  5. performing gender in Islam: deconstructing representations of extremism in performing arts.

Important historical reasons make performance a fruitful means of hearing such dissenting voices. Orthodox Islam’s suspicion of music and bodily performance has long co-existed in dynamic tension with the chanting and rhythmic iteration characteristic of non-orthodox Islamic movements, often grouped together as ‘Sufism’. As Islam spread across Asia and North Africa, non-orthodox cults cross-pollinated with regional and local music, dance and bodily practices, to create diverse artistic traditions. Such cross-pollinations, further transformed in recent decades through technology, globalization and transnationalism, continue to convey alternative interpretations of piety and ethics to Islamic orthodoxy. At the same time, performance has always stimulated communitas. The sense of oneness with others it creates fosters community identity, and under the right circumstances, has the power to bring disparate groups together.

Emphasising that performance in Islam cannot be conceived monolithically or monoculturally, this project’s contemporary relevance will be a catalyst and location for dialogue between research, practice and policy.

Collaboration and participation in this major project are most welcome. 
Please contact Kamal Salhi, Project Leader