Prepared for “Tehran International Conference on Theatre Drama & Religion” Jan 6-7, 2007



Theatre Origin and its Religious Expression in Islam:  

Wisdom Sayings, Poetry and Music


Copyright 2006 Nadine Sultana d’Osman Han

Sultana's Signature

The Theatre is a living art form in which actors/actresses perform in front of an audience the exaggerated and often magical representation of daily life.

However, the theatre has existed from the beginning of time and preceded religions and more importantly the written word.  Primitive people needed a communicating tool to explain the mysteries of life in an environment that was often hostile.  Thus, they pantomimed mysterious natural phenomena for which they did not have a language.  It was also a way to teach the skills of survival to the young and the passing of ancestral life stories.  Myth history was passed on by the art form of theatre.  Later on, it graduated to a form of rituals or ceremonies to celebrate certain events, such as the changing of the seasons, the hunt, warfare, weddings, births, deaths and a whole range of human emotions and happenings.  As they took on a ceremonial expression, disguise became more prevalent and resemble more contemporary theatre.  Nonetheless, early theatre was different on a major point in that performers and audience were not separated as in modern times, but all were participants in the act at some level.  In effect, primitive man used the stage to explain his world. 

It is the transformation of the early expression of pantomime to explain happenings beyond the language capability into ritualistic ceremonies that led to religious rituals, some of which are still performed today such as the theatrical Christian Holy processions or the Whirling Dervish dance in Islam.  What had been originally an unconscious living art form became a conscious dramatization of life illusion to celebrate a wide range of ceremonies from the rebirth of nature (springtime) after a desolate and bleary winter, to special achievements or any other symbolic intercessions of a Divine nature to grant us prosperity, health, peace and so forth. 

As the theatre became more realistic due to our better understanding of the world around us and human nature, it became a stage to express openly criticism of government by the use of satirical performances or ridiculing a variety of human foibles.  It also dramatized romance and dramas as humans fell prey to fate.

All along its history religion in one form or another has used theatrical technique to communicate its message.  Around 2000 B. C. the Egyptian Pharaoh encouraged the worship of the God Osiris by play-acting Osiris in a play called “Passion”.  The Persians used the same kind of medium to reenact annually the martyrdom of Imam Hussein that produced the unique Islamic epic drama called “Taziyeh Khvani”.

Around the same time, the Chinese used, in their religious temples, both music and dance in a theatrical manner in that their music and dances expressed the everyday activities of work, harvest, sadness and joy.  Later on, a distinction between religion and entertainment was introduced and this enabled the Chinese to fully indulge in their very elaborate decor and costume with dramatic pantomime, as the theatre became solely an entertainment.

 In the West, the theatre had also a religious implication:  The Greek tragedies originated with the God Dionysus (~ Ve) the God of wine and ecstatic frenzy resulting in chaos and brutal death.  From very early on, Drama Theatre had often used the worship of death as an inspiration for its tragedies.

In Europe, the Medieval Theatre drama originated by religion.  It was performed for Easter ritual as early as the 10th Century in England.  The French drama in the 12th Century also was religious such as “The Wise Virgins” that represented the Christ and the Virgins, both wise and unwise; or “Adam” that depicted the lost Paradise or the first crime committed by Cain against Abel.  These plays (and other similar ones) are dramatization, albeit not fiction, of the Gospel or other Holy Scriptures.  

Well into the 15thCentury, Miracles and Mysteries of a religious nature had a large place in the European theatre, although the Church was not always in agreement with the plays and some were from time to time forbidden. 

Theatre, both religious and secular, found its expression in story-telling, and particularly in poetry, both of which were often accompanied by music.  Poets were always respected as scholarly men, and this trend continued under Islam where this art form flourished tremendously.

The approval or disapproval of music and dance has been a subject of controversy in Islam since its birth.  This controversy stems from the one-sided view that the art’s sole purpose is one of entertainment for pleasure, leading to possible temptations.  Yet, this is a misunderstanding of the human psyche.

Music, in particular, as a communication tool to the inner spirituality of humans is a universal language of divine inspiration that connects the human to his true self.  The link of music and spirituality is not new.  The high Priests in Ancient Egypt (some 2500 years ago) understood that the language of music went straight to the heart of man on his journey to the Divine.  

Naturally, all forms of music, like all words in a language, are not appropriate.  We are all conscious that words of insults or aggressiveness are not acceptable to an educated civilization and such words are frowned upon as unacceptable, for they incite toward negative responses.  Thus, certain types of music, particularly concert music, are not to be confused with spiritual music, such as Sufi music, whose origins stem from the ancient Egyptians and which was used by the ascetic moralist, Phythagoras (VIe B.C.) in a system called the “makan” reflecting the mystical wisdom of music.  This Makan system became the Ottoman Classical music and is still found in Islamic Sufism.

In this presentation I shall explore three distinct Art forms found in religious theatre that applies specifically to Islam: Wisdom Sayings, Poetry and Sufi Music.  I have chosen for an analysis of these Art forms, two unparalleled 13th Century geniuses of Wisdom and Spiritual Insight: Nasreddin Hodja and Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi.  Their influences are undeniable still today in both the East and the West.

First, I shall start with the Wisdom Sayings from the world famous sage and humorist Nasreddin Hodja.  Nasreddin Hodja is often represented as a comic entertainer with a witty and simple mind, albeit with some wisdom but as a form of humorous folklore.  The true depth of the Spiritual Wisdom of Nasreddin Hodja is overlooked. Nasreddin means “Victory of Faith” and Hodja “Teacher of Islam”.  Nasreddin Hodja was thus a teacher of Islamic studies.  He had been born to a religious family whose father was an Imam (Islamic Teacher).  Nasreddin Hodja’s date of birth is controversial as he is said to be born in 1208 in the small Turkish village Horfu, while some place him at the time of Timur Lang (1360-1405), who lived some 150 years later.  Probably, Nasreddin was born in the 13th Century in the same era as Mevlana Rumi, for both these exceptional Islamic teachers were influenced by the same mystical and witty philosophy that seems to have been prevalent in the region of Konya where both of them lived and found the path to their inner enlightenment. 

It is true that it is noteworthy that they did not seem to have met each other.  Nonetheless, the similarity between Nasreddin Hodja and Mevlana Rumi is striking.  Both of them bring dramatization of human emotions and weaknesses to the fore, using witty sayings or poetry, as teaching tools for morality, compassionate justice, and spiritualism through the unconditional love of the Divine in all things.  Both of them loved life deeply and simply; it is this quality that makes them immortal.  Nasreddin Hodja was a Master of human observation, and he used the world as a stage.  A peaceful man with a sense of humor, he chose to get his message across in an eccentric childlike manner that would strike a chord of amusement to his listeners, yet the lesson would be learned unknowingly.

That is the true genius of Nasreddin Hodja, to be able to teach truths without offending, but with laughter — A technique found in Comic Theatre.  His insightful remarks and stories of human nature where told in an exaggerated manner as to entertain and thus would mesmerize its audience in such a way that his spirit is transcendent to this day.  It might explain perhaps why in the dark era of Timur Lang his presence was so much felt by the repetition of his Sayings in dismal situations, that some believed Nasreddin to have been born at that time.  Again I must point out that the date of birth of the Hodja is still very controversial.

I shall quote a few of his stories that used an entertaining dramatization form to teach optimism, humbleness and faith without pressures.  These sayings are the very essence of his personality, and the teaching of faith and trust in the Divine regardless of appearances to the contrary.

In the first story it is reported that :

——“The Hodja owned a donkey and fed him well.  Nevertheless, one unlucky day, the donkey ran away.  The Hodja could not afford to buy another one, but he seemed almost happy to the villagers that saw him.  “Allah be praised” he kept repeating.  “Why do you thank Allah when your donkey has run away?” asked the villagers.  “I was not on him when he ran away.  So I am safe for if I was on him we would both be lost” answered Nasreddin Hodja.——This story told in an amusing way is typical for Nasreddin Hodja to teach the valuable lesson of life’s priorities by always looking on the bright side of things.  This is the true teaching of Islam in everyday life.

In an another story:
——“Nasreddin Hodja would sometimes boast that he had supernatural powers.  The people wanted him to prove it.  So they asked him to call the mountain over to him. ‘Mountain! cried Hodja.  Come to me’.
Nothing happened, and he called again and again.  Finally, he began to walk towards the mountain, so one of the men asked him: Where are you going?
The Hodja replied:  ‘I am not such a stubborn and willful man.  If the mountain won’t come to me then I will go to the mountain’.”——
In this story Nasreddin Hodja is teaching the lesson of humbleness to recognize one’s own limitations and with it the need to compromise when things do not go our way.  Again it is teaching Islam in everyday trials and the best way to overcome obstacles.

The last story shows the power of obvious simplicity to bring togetherness in what would be called today the perfect Interfaith dialogue, or moralistic theatre bringing to mind such French poet-comedian as MoliŤre (1622-1673) who also showed human faults in a humorous/ridicule way.
—“Once, three learned Christian monks were traveling through Turkey with hopes to disputing with the wisest man in Turkey.
Thus, Nasreddin Hodja was summoned to the Sultan’s palace to meet the Monks.

When told of the purpose of the visit of the Monks, the Hodja said confidently, let them ask their questions.

–The first Monk stepped up and asked:  Sir, where is the center of the earth? 
–The Hodja replied:  “At this very moment that point is exactly under the right foot of my donkey.”

–How can you prove that?  asked the Monk.

–If you do not believe me, measure the earth and you will see, the Hodja answered.

The first Monk left speechless and the second Monk stepped up and asked:  How many stars are there in the sky?

–As many as there are hairs on my donkey, the Hodja replied.

–How can you prove that? asked the Monk.

–If you do not believe me, just count them.

–How can one count all the hairs on a donkey? protested the Monk.

–As easily as one can count all the stars in the sky, answered the Hodja.

The second Monk stepped back in bewildered amazement and the third Monk asked:  –How many hairs have I got in my beard?

–As many as my donkey has in its tail, replied the Hodja.

–How can you prove that? the Monk asked.

 –That is easy said the Hodja, we can simply pluck the hairs out of your beard and my  donkey’s tail one by one and in this way we can easily count them.

The third Monk withdrew in a state of shock, not prepared to go along with the Hodja’s idea.

All the three Monks agreed that they were defeated and they were all converted to Islam.”—— 

Nasreddin Hodja may have delivered his sayings with a twist of hilarity , but he was not a traditional entertainer in the sense that he did not perform as an entertainer for a public.  Yet, his whole philosophy in life and his wise sayings qualify him as a moralist entertainer.

He opened up a new dimension to the teaching of Islam by understanding the power of vivid theatrical speech and its profound impact to bring moral values.  This kind of artful wisdom can be a powerful teaching tool in religions.  This is the mystical teaching found in most Sufism orders.

Today, many artists are using Nasreddin Hodja’s stories in music, movies and theatre.  It is an healthy form of entertainment with a morality message that uses the ability to laugh at oneself as a first step toward self-improvement.  Thus, it is very compatible with the religious ethics of conduct.

Sufism cannot be taught by words alone.  The wisdom of Sufism can be found in stories such as those related above of Nasreddin Hodja, or poetry , music, dance movements and rhythmic prayers.

Traditional Moslems expect to see God after death.  But a true Sufi sees God on earth in the purity of his own heart.  Sufism is drama in emotions :  an emotion often expressed in the ecstasy of the Soul through intense emotional love of all that surrounds him, for God is Love itself and thus in all things.

Mysticism is a dramatic form of the Spiritual for it elevates the Soul from its earthly bounds into an ecstatic God-Love intoxication and then re-integrates daily life.

Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi was a Master of mystical poetry that had such an intensity of love that it defy any description but is felt into the very core of the soul.  His poems are linked intimately to Sufi music for ultimate ecstasy of the Soul in communion with God.

Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi is considered the greatest mystic of the world.  Born in the 13th century around 1207 (date is controversial) in Balkh (today Afghanistan) he lived and died in Konya , (today Turkey).  Like Nasreddin Hodja he was born into an Islamic theologian family.  But unlike the Hodja , Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi had a profound education into the Islamic sciences and jurisprudence.  He was a Muslim Scholar of high standing and highly respected.

Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi (Rumi being a name that placed him at the time of the Selcuk of Rum in Anatolia) lived his life in an intense emotional state that contributed to his prolific verses/prose writings.  His legacy to us is six volumes, called the “Masnawi” that represents a collection of the enormous work of Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi.  His mysticism experiences are expressed in story form linked to one another in couplets or prose.  Two books contain some 75,000 verses.It is mystical lyricism in its purest form.

Mevlana Jelaleddin was not a poet in the meaning that we attribute usually to poets.  He put his ideas into a verse form only because he believed that verse is better remembered and more pleasant to read.  At the same time, he did not restrict his ideas by an inflexible mode of rhyme and meter.  His rhyme is dictated by the intensity of the turmoil of an all consuming love, the love within himself, that is the love of God.Drama is ever present in Mevlana Jelaleddin, a drama engulfed in an all encompassing love  that is the purest expression of tolerance, compassion, justice, and beauty.  The opposite of rational reason.  This is reflected in his sayings as quoted from ÷ner ÷nder in a booklet entitled “ Mevlana, Mevlani Order and Mevlana Museum”:Quote:  ——“Reason is powerless in the expression of Love.  Love alone is capable of revealing the truth of Love and of being a Lover.”—Unquote

He further wrote:  ——“I am thinking of rythmes, while Love says to me Think nothing but of my face….Oh my rhyme-searching one.  You are my rhyme….What is in a letter that should concern you so much?  What is a letter, anyway?  It is the fancy round the vineyard.  Abolish the letter, the sound and the word….Let me talk to you without these three.”——

Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi was a Mystical philosopher that does not fit the usual mold of such thinkers, where reason has a large part.  Rumi is totally consumed by the emotions generated by a feeling of unlimited love and tolerance, an unblemished goodness of the heart.  While he had an exceptionally positive reasoning, he distrusted Intellect without emotions, as reflected in his words in the Masnavi poem, book 4:

——“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment;  Cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment intuition.”——
——“  Would he had been less full of borrowed knowledge!  Then he would have accepted inspired knowledge from his father.  When, with inspiration at hand, you seek book-learning, your heart, as if inspired, loads you with reproach.  Traditional knowledge, when inspiration is available, Is like making ablutions in sand when water is near.  Make yourself ignorant, be submissive, and then You will obtain release from your ignorance.”——

Mevlana Jelaleddin was a learned scholar, yet when he met in Konya the Sufi, Shams-I Tabrezi, in 1244, Mevlana Jelaleddin became the humble student of the Master Shams. Shams was a purist Sufi in that he chose no Sheikh, no nationality and no country.  He was known as “Shams al-Din-I-Perinde” meaning the “ Flying sun of religion”.  Shams awakened Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi’s mystical depth within himself that could not have existed without Shams.  This is recorded in one of his poems:
—“Nothing can itself be anything,

      No iron can be a sword on its own,
      Neither could Rumi’s spiritual Masnevi be born 
     Without his being a slave of Shams-I Tabrezi.”——

For a few years of bliss Mevlana Jelaleddin was learning from his Master Shams who was not welcomed by the students-followers of the Mevlana.  One day, Shams disappeared completely from the life of Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi.  The loss of Shams was so tragically painful to Rumi that he went into all the scale of Love emotions known to man, and that produced the inimitable mystical poetry of Rumi.  As he reached the bottom of despair in the search of Shams or his spirit , the essence of Divine truth was at last revealed to him as he found Shams within himself and thus exclaimed:——“Since I am him then why I am looking for him.  I am just like him and I shall speak on my own.  When you know your Sheikh well, you know God without curtains”.——(Veled p.61-62).

This revelation brought him closer to the understanding of the relation between humans and the Divine.  For men are divided into many bodies, but are united into one Soul.  From then on he lived the Love of the Divine in all its forms and it expressed itself in art forms, the language of the ultimate emotions of the heart and Soul.  Thus, poetry, music and dance movements (such as performed by the Whirling Dervishes) became a mobile of beauty of Divine love and the discovery of the infinite.  These were to become the foundation of the “Mevlevi Sufi Order” still in existence some 700 years later. 

It is still a powerful influence on the spirituality of Sufi Mystics and even contributes to the understanding of modern advances in sciences.

——“According to Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi’s teachings, the human being is a triangle, composed of Spirit (essence, energy, activity, sema…); Reason (wisdom, intelligence…) and Love (feelings, poetry, music…).  It is not possible to find these three components so tightly joined, thus supplementing each other in thought and meaning, in theory and practice in any other system of thought! ”——Quoted from :(Message of Friendship by Dr. Celaleddin Bakir Celebi). 

This conception has created the school of thought of the Mevlevi order and its mystical whirling dance movements called Sema, practiced by the followers of the order that we call “Whirling Dervishes”.

The true Sufi music is not a music for the pleasure of the senses.  It is a music for intense inner focus, concentration and self-discipline for self-improvement in spirituality, a purifier of the heart.It is not a music of outside knowledge but of divine inspiration.  Thus the instruments are sparse and simple.Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi said that music was the language of those who experienced spiritual love and that it is contained in the notes of the flute (ney) because the flute is the source of love in the same context that the rain nourishes a rose garden, the flute nourishes the heart.  The Reed is essential for it is the breath that whispers the mysteries of God.Three other instruments allowed in the Mevlevi music are the lute (ud), cymbals and drums.  The human voice is also permitted when used in the same context as delivering the rhyme of the Ku’ran, hence not as a song but a chant.  The Sema (whirling dance) is made alive by living music that awaken the inner self or truth for those who perform the Sema.  The reed flute is particularly important for its wail expressed the longing for the attainment of the ultimate spiritual enlightenment. 

In the Masnavi, book 3, Mevlana explains the importance of the Sema as a vehicle to reach spiritual unity with God.  For Mevlana it is not so much a dance than a spiritual trance.With the Sema, Mevlana Jelaleddin understood several centuries before modern scientists that everything in existence does revolve in a perpetual movement.  This understanding was finally discovered with the revolution of the electrons, protons and neutrons in the atoms.

The Sema is a very controlled movement in which the dervish turns on his own axis to signify the absolute center of the universe as he let himself in ultimate abandonment to the ecstasy of the perceived God absolute power and greatness.As dervishes pivot on their own axis they slowly open their arms with the right hand outstretched and turn upwards, palm open and the left hand turned downwards,  This symbolizes that :  “We take from God and give to man.  We ourselves possess nothing, we are nothing but an apparition, a vessel, an image”.  The dervishes pivot on their own axis three times around the hall, circling as if spinning around the sun like the earth, stars and planets.  The first round of the Sema symbolizes the dervishes mystical recognition of God through the revealed knowledge of the Absolute.  The second round is the recognition of the empirical knowledge and the third one is the attainment or comprehension of the Absolutes.

Today in Turkey, the Whirling Dervishes Sema is considered, mostly by tourists, as a folklore spectacle, but for the Mevlevi and the Sufis in general, the power of its original significance remains unchanged in its absolute mysticism toward Divine Truths.  The art forms such as poetry or music and dance movements are not forbidden by the Ku’ran in spite of today’s Islamic conservative teachers that frown upon all artistic expressions.  This is because they do not understand all the underlying mysteries of the human emotions. 

Religion without mysticism is only a glimpse of God’s Divine truths, for religion by itself cannot escape to be compromised by man’s imperfect comprehension of the Divine.  In the same way science without wisdom is faulty in its assessment of consequences as we are discovering today when confronted by the current planet’s ills. 

Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi has proven that proper art forms are an integral part of spiritual religions.  In 1996, UNESCO paid homage to this great man and the words of Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi are the ultimate wisdom in today interfaith goodwill in its search for world peace. 

——“Get united…I came here not to divide but to unify.”

        “Come! Come again! Whoever, whatever you may be, come!

          Heathen, idolatrous or fire worshipper come!

          Even if you deny your oaths a hundred times come!

          Our door is the door of hope come! Come like you are!”——  

In conclusion, both Religion and the Theatre use a similar technique to express emotions and events that are larger than ordinary daily life:  Man struggles between good and evil, intense joy and sadness, life and death, and the mysteries of heavenly rebirth or absolute annihilation.