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THE VISUAL CULTURE OF SUFISM IN FRANCE AND GERMANY

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SufiVisual (THE VISUAL CULTURE OF SUFISM IN FRANCE AND GERMANY)

Reporting period: 2018-07-01 to 2020-06-30

SufiVisual aims to explore the religious visual culture of ‘mystical’ Islam, or Sufism, in France and in Germany by identifying the ways in which visual culture actively constructs and shapes religious concepts and impacts our understanding of Islam. This interdisciplinary endeavour is premised on the assumption that Sufi visualisations of belief and piety involve a common conceptual vocabulary, a shared ‘text’ around which ‘interpretative communities’ of differing social, religious and political outlooks have evolved, thereby forming a kind of visual lingua franca in the widest sense. What role then do vision and the image play in the pious behaviour and imagination of contemporary Sufi orders?
A central focus of the study is to follow a gender-sensitive reading of Sufi visual culture, paying particular attention to the role of gender imagery and symbolism, especially the feminine element, and its interrelation with gender differentiation and construction from a comparative perspective. SufiVisual produced pioneering work on gender-specific Sufi visual culture and contribute important scientific data, allowing a more open-ended and gender-balanced understanding of the visualisations of belief and piety in Sufi orders.
The topic of Sufi visual culture is timely and important because (1) questions relating to vision and visualisation inform, and often complicate, intercultural encounters as well as inner-Muslim debates over the alleged prohibition of figural imagery in Islam; (2) the project addresses the wider problématique of Islam’s alleged denigration of vision undermining its ability to modernize; and (3) the ways in which visual culture negotiates meaning with regard to aspects of religious and mystic imagery marked by new patterns of engagement with both tradition (‘routinisation’) and modernity.
The analysis of Sufi visual expression in the context of mystical Islam in Western Europe can serve more generally as a bridge between ‘East and West’, exploring the roles of visual culture and religious practice as counter movements to religious fundamentalism and driving forces for religious pluralism. Mystical Islam and Sufism, a tradition that is in constant dialogue with society and its political, cultural, and economic dynamics, has the capacity to disrupt gender norms and established hierarchies—theological and political—also by giving women a public voice which extends across geographic regions. By tapping into this potential, SufiVisual will contribute to the recovery of some of Sufi women’s spiritual inheritance and an emerging vision.
The study will apply an innovative interdisciplinary approach to generate unprecedented insights into the religious visual culture of key Sufi-based organizations. In combination these create a balanced case study in two research fields, France and Germany, which can be seen as paradigmatic for the European situation and beyond, narrowing the scope of the project so that it is feasible within the timeframe proposed while establishing a foundation for future projects to expand and build upon.
The research findings will identify the ways in which visual culture actively constructs and shapes religious concepts and impacts our understanding of Islam, secularism, and European identity. A central working hypothesis of this project is that visual culture and religious practice is a counter movement to religious fundamentalism and a driving force for religious pluralism.
SufiVisual