Report from the Muslim Art Conference

Report from the Muslim Art Conference by doctoral researcher Nubla Mohamed

The Muslim Art Conference, held on 14 September 2017, was organised by the Muslims in Britain Research Network in collaboration with the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham. It was an excellent day that attracted a diverse range of artists, writers, poets and academics from around the country. The knowledge shared within the conference cannot be condensed to a report of this length, so I attempt only to provide a summary of speakers.

Conceptualisations and definitions

The conference began with a welcome talk from the chair, Professor Alison Scott-Baumann (SOAS), and then moved on to conceptualisations and definitions of Islamic art. Carl Morris discussed issues such as how much of your identity needs to be considered Muslim for your artwork to be deemed Muslim art. He drew heavily from examples within Christian music and black arts movements of the seventies.

For the panel discussion, Dr Fatima Zahra stated that the term ‘Islamic art’ was coined by art historians during the 1920s as being all forms of art produced in the ‘Islamic world’. Luqman Ali discussed the metaphysical aspects of Islamic art as being a way of reconciling objectivity with subjectivity and reflecting tawhid (unity of God). He discussed theatre, in particular, as being part of the Prophetic tradition of storytelling and a celebration of divine cosmology.

Plenary sessions

Art, Identity and Activism

Dr William Barylo examined how organisations such as Rumi’s Cave provided a powerful de-colonial space in which the uncritical adoption of neo-liberal values can be challenged. He criticised the repackaging of stories of assimilation with stories of liberation. Isa Noordeen suggested a need to move away from narratives of victimisation so that Muslims are not producing reactionary art, but simply because they have a story to tell. Shaheen Kasmani assessed how the decolonisation process cannot truly take place without reclaiming ideas of art from euro-centric notions of it. She critiqued the white-washing, forced secularisation and racialisation of Islamic art that decentres God and is a disservice to the unity of the ummah. Shahnaz Attar explored articulations of the Muslim consciousness and Faisal Hussain called on artists to have courage, drawing from the example of the Muslim renaissance where people were willing to say things that were up for criticism.

Performance and tour 

Following lunch conference participants were then given the option of exploring either Sufi Muslim and the BEAST (Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre), or a tour of the Mingana Collection at the Cadbury Research Library, both of which were exceptional. Thanks go to Dr Scott Wilson, Tas Bashir and Neelam Hussain for facilitating these.

Islam and Music: Rap, Choirs and Song

Mirina Paananen discussed the history of music and poetry within early Islamic times and the prophetic tradition making the case for its theological permissibility. Ismael Lea South took us through the history of black Muslims in British history and Dr Sadek Hamed described the diverse religious overtones of the grime music scene, suggesting that it is an often overlooked form of inter-faith communion.

Literature 

Shelina Janhommed shared the challenges she faced in publishing her first novel that didn’t neatly fit into an existing genre; as a successful author herself, she gave practical advice for aspiring writers such as to retain your own ‘voice’ and protect the time needed to produce quality works of fiction. Zain Dada talked about how the immigrant experience lends itself to artistry through the necessity of constant reinvention. He also called on Muslims to think beyond safe spaces so as to confront the world. Adrian Banting examined the politicisation of romantic arrangements within fiction and Hassan Mahamdallie discussed racism in a post-racist society.

Conclusion

The event was an overall success. There was an excellent representation of diverse Muslim perspectives on Muslim Art. It provided a space for Muslims in the arts to have open discussions on the various challenges they faced including, amongst others, the difficulties of working within the current political climate. It also addressed ways in which some of these challenges could be overcome such as the raising of Muslim consciousness, pride and confidence.

Nubla Mohamed
Doctoral researcher in the Department of Theology and Religion