- Theatre & Islam by Marvin Carlson
Marvin Carlson's Theatre & Islam sets out to debunk the commonly held belief that Islam and theatre are incompatible traditions. The book explores the complicated relationship between the two, nuancing the social, political, and historical developments that shaped theatrical practices across the Islamic world. This short and clear text, written by one of the leading Western scholars on the subject, gives readers a [End Page 587] comprehensive and critical perspective that disrupts existing academic discourse while also making the subject accessible to a general readership. Therefore, Theatre & Islam benefits students, scholars, and theatre enthusiasts who may be encountering the subject for the first time.
Carlson addresses the myth of incompatibility in the introduction to his book. He cites dominant scholarly discourses on world theatre, such as those promoted in Oscar Brockett's influential History of the Theatre, to demonstrate how the Islamic world has largely been excluded from the field. He also references Arab theatre scholars who echo Western misconceptions, specifically Mohammed Al-Khozai and Mohammed Aziza, to show how the myth has been internalized in parts of the Islamic world. Carlson argues against this misconception by juxtaposing the alleged theatrical prohibitions in Islam to those in other major monotheistic faiths and tracing their origin to the Islamic hadith rather than the Quran itself. He thus disproves the common belief that the holy book explicitly prohibits theatrical representation.
Next, Carlson claims that theatre of the Islamic world has been largely ignored by Western scholarship in part because it employs non-Western theatrical forms that scholars do not recognize as legitimate. This bias helps cement the myth of Islam's anti-theatricality despite a historical and cultural tradition which points to the contrary. Therefore, the author dedicates the first two chapters following the introduction to exploring indigenous forms of popular performance from the early period of Islam through the fifteenth century. They include oral traditions such as qissa, public storytelling that helped spread religious tales and tribal legends, and shadow puppetry, which flourished in medieval Egypt under the poet Ibn-Daniyal.
Significantly, Carlson notes that these performance traditions are syncretic and often incorporate pre-Islamic practices. He reminds readers of the interculturalism of Islamic performance and the Islamic world in general, which extends beyond the Middle East and North Africa as far as East and Southeast Asia. For example, Carlson illustrates how Indonesia's traditional wayang puppetry was adopted as a proselytizing tool by Sufi missionaries who infused its Hindu narratives with Islamic teachings. These syncretic performances became so closely tied to Islam that they were presented in mosques, and their puppet masters to this day consider themselves literal or spiritual descendants of the Wali Sange, the Sufi scholars who introduced Islam to Indonesia. In this way, Carlson highlights the historical intertwining of theatrical traditions and migrations with that of Islam's religious and political expansion, giving readers a holistic view of the intercultural exchanges that shaped theatre and performance across the Islamic world. [End Page 588]
Carlson continues to emphasize cultural blending as the book progresses into the theatrical practices of the modern era with particular attention to the 20th century. In a section on the Persian ta'zieh, the annual performance commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson Hussein, the author underscores the syncretism of pre-Islamic New Year rituals with the memorialization of the defining event of Shia Islam. He nuances the modern evolution of the performance tradition and outlines the various ways it has been used by leaders towards social and political ends, both in Iran and internationally.
In the rest of the book, Carlson foregrounds the international and particularly European influence on the theatre of the Islamic world. The next section discusses the introduction of European-style theatre to the colonial Middle East and North Africa beginning in the nineteenth century. Carlson describes early initiatives by indigenous playwrights from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Persia to model a modern theatre tradition after the secular one of Europe. While he critiques the use of the term "modern" by both Western and Eastern scholars...