One need only walk into a church, a mosque, a temple, a synagogue or any place of worship to experience the complexity, beauty and aesthetic power of religion through the senses. For millions of believers the world over, their experience of religion is not only—or even primarily—dictated by ideological teachings; it is forged through personal and private experiences, very often sensory in nature and embedded in the arts broadly defined. These “silent” forms of religion—silent because we generally do not hear about them in the media or in political and social spaces—are centered on the individual believers’ faith and relationship to the divine or the transcendent. The arts are key to understanding religion as a multisensory experience rather than just an ideology of identity and to asking questions like: What does it mean to call some art “religious”? Who decides what counts? On what basis? How can interpreting an individual believer’s engagement with the arts as an exercise of religious authority help us see “religion” in a new light?
This course focuses on Islam as a case study through which we can explore the complex and multifaceted relationship between religion and the arts. We will learn to listen, see, and experience those “silent” forms of Islam by studying Muslims’ engagement with the literary arts (scriptures, panegyrics, love lyrics, epic romances, folk songs, and folk tales), as well as sound and visual arts (Quran and poetic recitations, music, dance, drama, architecture, calligraphy, and miniature painting). In the process, we will create a nuanced picture of the rich and multicolored tapestry of the ways in which the arts create religious tradition and innovation, weaving the voices of poets, novelists, short-story writers, folk musicians, and rock stars with those of clerics, theologians, mystics, scholars, and politicians.
Given the cultural diversity of Muslim societies, the course draws on material from regions beyond the Middle East, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. This course assumes no prior knowledge of Islam.