restricted access Between Piety and Sacrilege: Muslim Theatre and Performance
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Between Piety and Sacrilege:
Muslim Theatre and Performance

Iconoclastic impulses among Muslims are supposed to have prevented the development of Muslim theatre and performance prior to the introduction of European theatrical styles and architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact, the second of the commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai is much more explicit in its prohibition of representation than anything in the Koran. The Koran prohibits idolatry but not "graven images." Implicitly, though, if idolatry is prohibited, then the making of idols for the idolaters to worship is also prohibited. Moreover, there are hadith that can be interpreted to mean that representation is forbidden.1 Nevertheless, in spite of any reservations about representation leading to idolatry, there is a rich performance and theatre tradition in Muslim lands that predates the introduction of Western styles and influences. Some performances are even staged where both actors and audience believe that they are demonstrating Muslim religious fervor and piety by their participation. All performances, even those performances most firmly rooted in Muslim rites and ceremonies, seem to originate in pre-Islamic rituals and observances.2

The Iranian ta'ziyeh play is one of the most elaborate instances of Muslim performance. Though it is performed in the service of Iranian, Muslim, Shi'ite worship, theological arguments to defend it against charges of idolatry have been advanced.

Shi'ites believe that Ali, the son-i n-l aw and cousin of Muhammad, should have been chosen as the leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad's death. He was passed over three times, and when he finally became the fourth caliph, he was assassinated. Shi'ites who hoped to restore the caliphate to the descendants of Muhammad invited Hussein, the son of Ali and the grandson of Muhammad, to join them at Kufa, [End Page 104] about one hundred miles south of Baghdad. On his way to Kufa, Hussein and his followers and family were attacked and massacred at Karbala on the tenth of the Muslim month of Ashura (formerly known as Muharram). In Iran, Ashura is commemorated by the staging of ta'ziyeh plays reenacting the battle of Karbala and events leading up to and following it. The actors in these plays represent not just human beings, but members of the Prophet's family.

Given the traditional Muslim animus against representation, ta'ziyeh in Iran has inspired arguments to legitimate its performance. These are usually based on the principle of "imitation," which comes from a hadith that states: "Whoever makes himself resemble a group is in the category of that group." That is, if one imitates the good, then one is in the category of the good.3 The actors who imitate Hussein and his party are making themselves resemble "the good" (in this case, members of the Prophet's family). Even given the reassurance of the hadith on imitation, however, ta'ziyeh actors are sometimes said to be "carrying" a role rather than representing a human being. In the past, actors who knew their parts nonetheless held scripts, and the director sometimes joined the actors onstage to visibly instruct and assist them. The influence of Western acting styles has all but ended script carrying, but at the Lincoln Center performance in 2002, actors who were ready to sing or to speak ostentatiously cued the musicians to play or stop playing even though the musicians had no part in the historical event the actors were staging (see figure 1).4

Actors playing the villains who massacre Hussein and his family are in a particularly difficult position. According to the hadith about imitation, they are making themselves resemble the oppressors of the Shi'ites and putting themselves in the category of the bad. To escape this dilemma, they "act with tears in their eyes, or use asides commenting on the cruelty of the character they portray."5 Iraj Anvar says that the "performer who played the part of a villain would curse and discredit the character he played, announcing that he was just playing a part."6

The audience may benefit from resembling the good as much as the actors. When spectators feel the sorrow...