Negotiating Islamic Selfhood: Romance and Censorship in Middle Eastern and South Asian Cinema

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Event time: 
Friday, April 29, 2022 - 2:00pm to 4:30pm
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Free, but register in advance
Open to: 
General Public
Event description: 

As a modern form of popular culture and artistic experience, cinema has always engaged in the production of meanings that shape what Islam means today. This mini-conference focuses on Middle Eastern and South Asian film industries to examine how cinema functioned as supplemental public spheres where filmmakers explore Islam as a human and historical phenomenon characterized and constituted, not merely by immense variety and diversity, but by the prodigious presence of outright contradiction shaped by Muslims and Non-Muslims. Close attention is paid to how filmmakers negotiate metaphors representing Islam in relation to questions of modernity, Islamic selfhood, Islamic history, religious reform, censorship practices, romance, as well as political polarization.

Free webinar, hosted by Heba Arafa Abdelfattah, ISM fellow.

C L I C K   T O   R E G I S T E R

You can register even after the event has begun!

Presented in collaboration with the Department of Religious Studies, and the MacMillan Center: Council on Middle East Studies and South Asian Studies Council 


Conference Schedule

2:00-2:10 Eben Graves, Introductory Remarks 

2:15- 2:35   Heba Arafa Abdelfattah: Reinterpreting Kufr (Infidelity) in Egyptian Film Classics

2:35-2:55   Najwa Abdullah: Rediscovery of Religious Selfhood and Its Cinematic Articulation in Indonesia

2: 55- 3:15  Mohannad Ghawanmeh: School of Satan’s: Al-Azhar’s Censure of Egyptian Cinema Coincides with the Vogue of Islamic History Films

3:15-3:25          Break 

3:30-3:50 Anjali Gera Roy: Qissa-i-Laila Majnun and Romance in Hindi Cinema

3:50- 4:10 Cigdem Slankard: Third Person Plural: Turkish Class Divide Dramatized in Ethos

4:10-4:30  Q& A Closing Remarks


Presentations & Bios


Heba Arafa Abdelfattah: Reinterpreting Kufr (Infidelity) in Egyptian Film Classics

Egyptian cinema has always functioned as a supplemental public sphere where ordinary Egyptians gather to witness the continuity of the public use of reason. This paper examines how in the process of imagining modern social experiences, popular Egyptian film classics like Yusuf Wahbi’s Bayumi Afandi/Mr. Bayumi(1949) reinterprets the Quranic concept of kufr as “ingratitude” and “social injustice,” instead of the more popular interpretation of the concept as “infidelity.” In doing so, Wahbi called attention to the importance of decoding the ethical intuitions of religious traditions, which could be incorporated into a post-secular stance that finds an ally in religious sources of meaning in challenging the forces of global capitalism as a colonialist project. More importantly, he underscores that such a task falls not only to experts (here being the ‘ulama’) and religious citizens but also to all citizens — both religious and secular—who wish to engage in the public use of reason.

Heba Arafa Abdelfattah is a postdoctoral fellow at Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Her research interest falls in the interdisciplinary area of humanities with a special focus on modernity, religion, and popular culture. She works with literary texts, archival documents, and films to understand artistic production at the intersection of religious and modernity discourses. She is currently completing a book manuscript on film, Islam, and modernity in colonial Egypt. At Yale, her project will center on the study of the Arabic genre of Islamic Hymns” (ibtihalat) as an exemplar of a popular culture approach to study Islam as a lived experience based on the inclusion—not the elimination—of difference.

Najwa Abdullah: Rediscovery of Religious Selfhood and Its Cinematic Articulation in Indonesia

In today’s Indonesia, there has been a renewed interest in religiosity among the youth, whereby, through the idea of Hijrah (religious shift), transitioning into a visibly pious lifestyle is increasingly perceived as a moral urgency in a modernizing, secularizing world. Focusing on the genre of Muslim melodramas, this presentation seeks to show how such a trend of religious self-reform is creatively engaged through the visceral power of cinema, particularly through the lenses of gender and social class.

Najwa Abdullah is currently a Ph.D. candidate in cultural studies in Asia at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore. She holds an M.A. in critical media and cultural studies from SOAS, University of London, and a B.A. in English literature from Universitas Indonesia. Her research interests include history of communications, popular culture, critical theory, and postcolonial thought. Her Ph.D. research focuses on the technological and meaning-making processes transpiring in contemporary Islamic cinema in Indonesia. Previously, she has published in the Journal of Political and Religious Practices and Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies

Mohannad Ghawanmeh: School of Satan’s: Al-Azhar’s Censure of Egyptian Cinema Coincides with the Vogue of Islamic History Films

The golden era of the “religious film” in Egypt began in 1950 and abruptly concluded in 1972. These were narrative films that dealt with Islam from a historical perspective, many of which were about the dawn of Islam. In this essay, I examine their content in relation to censorship practices applied to all domestic films, as well as to the special role designated to al-Azhar in vetting religious film scripts, revealing a unique cultural history.

Mohannad Ghawanmeh is a scholar and filmmaker who is currently serving as the Executive Director of the Philadelphia-based organization Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture. Dr. Ghawanmeh earned his Ph.D. from UCLA in 2020 in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies. His research interest and expertise fall in the intersecting fields of cinema, governmentality, migration, nativity, religion, theatre, music, literature, industrialization, and modernity, typically in the mold of cultural history.  His dissertation research is titled: “Flux: Egypt’s Silent Cinema and Its Transition to Synchronized Sound, 1896-1934.”

Anjali Gera Roy: Qissa-i-Laila Majnun and Romance in Hindi Cinema

While the Hindu religious concept of dharma forms the overarching principle of Hindi cinema, the provision for extended romance and courtship in narrative and song and dance sequences in the typical Hindi masala film facilitates the insertion of the Perso-Arabic trope of ishq in the feudal family melodrama. However, unlike Udhri poetry, which elevates pak ishq that is pure, unburdened and unsullied by the union of lovers or domesticity, Hindi cinema integrates ishq within the social economy of the Hindu family through juxtaposing the competing pressures of ishq and dharma in the narrative conflict; this conflict is resolved usually by the valorization of ishq as a higher form of dharma in tragic romances, or by its expansion through the inclusion of the lovers’ filial obligations in others.

Anjali Gera Roy is a professor in the Department of Humanities of Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. She is the author of Memories and Postmemories of the Partition of India (Routledge 2019), Imperialism and Sikh Migration: The Komagata Maru Incident (Routledge 2017), Cinema of Enchantment: Perso-Arabic Genealogies of the Hindi Masala Film (Hyderabad: Orient (Blackswan, 2015) and Bhangra Moves: From Ludhiana to London and Beyond (Aldershot: Ashgate 2010). She has edited Magic of Bollywood: At Home and Abroad (Sage 2012), and co-edited (with Chua Beng Huat) Travels of Bollywood Cinema: From Bombay to LA (OUP 2012). In addition, she has published a number of journal essays and book chapters on cinema and music.

Cigdem Slankard: Third Person Plural: Turkish Class Divide Dramatized in Ethos

This paper focuses on the depiction of the intense social polarization and class divide in contemporary Turkey as presented in the popular eight-part Netflix miniseries,  Bir Başkadır/ Ethos, directed by Berkun Oya. The paper sheds light on contemporary Turkish television and its shifting status for Western audiences as it examines divisions across religion, politics, wealth, and social status expressed through intersecting narratives of a diverse cast of characters. Ethos follows the complex relationship between Meryem and Peri, the two female leads in the story. Suffering from a series of fainting spells, Meryem is advised to seek psychotherapy, which is why she finds herself under Peri’s care. The two women could not be more different than one another with regard to their family background, level of education, socioeconomic status, and outward appearance. Meryem is a devout Muslim and single woman who lives with her family on the outskirts of Istanbul and works as a house cleaner. Peri, who struggles to relate to Meryem, questions her own biases and limitations as a therapist. The series delves deeper into both women’s stories and those around them, laying bare the complex and sometimes contradictory narratives of modern Turkey, where Islamic traditions are constantly at odds with progressive ideas embraced by a globalized society.   

Cigdem Slankard is an assistant professor of film, television, and interactive media at Cleveland State University. In 2002, she received a Master of Fine Arts in filmmaking from Ohio University. She has written and directed several short film and video projects, which have been included in exhibitions and film festivals, including the Istanbul International Short Film Festival in Turkey; the Ohio Short Film and Video Showcase of the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH; INVIDEO, an annual international video art festival in Milan, Italy; and Exhibition 280, a national juried exhibition hosted in the Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia. She has written and directed several film and video projects including Breaking Bread (2020), Pretty Vacant (2020), DreamHood (2020), Fresh Start (2017) and Cultivation (2016). Her work has been included in several exhibitions and film festivals around the world. Slankard’s documentary work specifically focusses on migration stories, such as the portrait of a refugee farming community in New Hampshire (Fresh Start), a neighborhood revitalization story through refugee resettlement in Cleveland, OH (DreamHood) and a virtual reality documentary exploring the multifaceted stories of refugee communities who have recently arrived in the United States (Breaking Bread).