Imagining Islam.

We do relate to you the most beautiful of stories…

Qur'an 12.3

This study explores an Islam envisioned by a specific reform movement that aims to refashion Islamic identity through aesthetic practice. Their hope is to encourage a sense of shared humanity that promotes integration and a British Muslim identity. Rather than looking at integration in terms of assimilating political ideology, these reform movements look at integration as something that comes from within, based on an understanding of the unity of self and shared humanity. I argue that fragmented communities can experience moments of unity through the creation of a shared sensory experience. Through this, pious arts in the UK are contributing to the creation of a moral space that does not oppose Islam and the West but reconciles divisions through the enchanted self.

Imaging Islam focuses on Khayaal Theatre Company, the only Muslim based company in the UK. Khayaal perform traditional Muslim stories to Muslim and non-Muslim audiences in order to draw them into a sensory community in the hope that this will create permanent transformations in society through transforming the hearts of individuals.

Stories are perceived to be an expression of Islam, the language of the Qur’an and the Prophets, used to communicate moral messages. As a key informant stated stories have a deep rooted and long lasting effect.

A story is a seed that I present as a gift to the audience that is planted in their hearts. The multi-layered nature of story will grow within an individual. At varying times of their life, different messages within the story will come to light, guiding that person through a shared experience.

I claim that storytelling is involved with the development of the enchanted self, a self formed through sensory experience that utilises techniques of the body enabling the participants to realise their spiritual essence that reconciles divisions within the self and thus within the community. I attempt to understand this using the concepts that Khayaal use themselves, most notably that of Tawhid (The Unity of God and the Unity of creation) and the imagination. The imagination, within Sufi philosophy, is the realm that connects the corporeal world to the spiritual world. This is regarded as Barzakhi, something that stands between and yet combines both. It is therefore, through sensory bodily experience that one can connect to the divine through the imagination.

Due to the emphasis on internal experience, I used a range of methodologies in order to demonstrate and understand the effect that reciting and listening to story has on the body. These included apprenticeship style methodology, film and sound recording. The sound piece embedded within this project aims to explore and demonstrate the effect of sound on the body and how this can unite people through a sensory performance.

  • Alanna Thorsson
  • 2012