Monsters, Hexes, Nightmares: An Exploration into the Dark Side of Islamic Art (PANEL)

Renaissance Society of America, 68th Annual Conference, 30 March – 2 April 2022, Dublin, Ireland

The black king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Aswad, from the late 14th-century Book of Wonders

RSA Discipline Sponsor: Islamic World

Wednesday, 30 March 2022, 16:30-18:00

Clayton Hotel Cardiff Lane – Grand Canal 1 – Lower Ground Level, Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Dublin Docklands, Dublin, D02 YT21, Ireland

Panel Organiser and Chair: Saygin Salgirli, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

This panel investigates the visualizations of horrors, terrors, and malevolence in early-modern Islamic art (c. 1400-1800). From individual depictions of various “monsters” (jinns, divs, Iblis, etc.) to narrative cycles, from treatises on the occult to astronomical texts, a darker realm lurked in the arts of the Islamic world. Although not necessarily produced to evoke fear, nor defined and understood as dark, images of this invisible and other dimension had a potent presence that operated at the juncture of religion, science & medicine, superstition, and fantasy. Rather than descriptive accounts, the panel seeks to employ theoretical lenses (monster theory, affect theory, philosophy of horror, posthuman / inhuman studies, etc.) and innovative methodologies, addressing questions beyond style, genre, taxonomy, and representation. If a jinn from pre-Islamic Arab mythology could find its way simultaneously into the Quran, and into a constellation drawn from Greek mythology, all normative categories and modes of analyses fail. Hence, the primary aim of the panel is to highlight how images from / of the “dark side” performed in their individual contexts, what affects they activated, what boundaries they crossed, and what worlds they connected.

Djinns of Post-millennial Turkish Cinema: Transnational Horror, Folklore and Cultural Politics, Cüneyt Çakırlar, Nottingham Trent University, UK

This paper focuses on the post-millennial emergence of the horror genre in Turkish cinema. Investing in the djinn, one of the key figures in Anatolian folklore, Turkic shamanism and Islamic mythology, Turkish horror films tell paranormal stories of witchcraft, black magic, demonic possession and exorcism. Adopting a transnational style that appropriates various aesthetic modes from Asian and American horror, the Turkish horror genre uses djinns to narrate stories that represent conflicted relations of gender, kinship and property in contemporary Turkey. Ranging, thematically and stylistically, from found-footage “techno-horror” to “horror dramas” of grief, revenge, jealousy and class conflict, Turkish horror movies cite folklore and religion to represent the contemporary crises of gender politics and kinship relations in post-secular Turkey. This paper explores this new genre’s investment in djinns and amulets, by locating it within a critical framework informed by both the national political context, and the international mobility of paranormal horror narratives in world cinema.

The Devil Looks Just Like You: On the Strange Artifices of Demons in al-Qazvīnī’s ‘Ajā’ib-al-makhlūqāt, Hannah Hyden, Harvard University, USA

With its extensive catalogue of jinn, strange creatures, and foreign inhabitants, Zakariyyā’ al-Qazvīnī’s (1203—1283) Arabic ‘Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt has loomed largely in recent studies of monsters, demons, and the Other in the Islamic world. Yet the representation of the demonic thought, which leads even the most righteous astray, has been wholly overlooked. In early modern manuscripts of the Persian ‘Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt, first produced in fourteenth century Iran, the section Strange Artifices of Demons contends with this matter. Stories like that of the monastic recluse Barsisa, tell agonizing tales of devout men who lose everything due to a single seed of temptation by a shayṭān. The texts are accompanied by an abundance of images, which do not depict the dangerous demon, but instead elicit fear by illustrating each horrific act the men carry out. The manuscripts’ unique, comic book-like image arrangement of these events reveal the demonic as not an individual, but a behavior. This investigation explores the affective capacity of formatting images in a dense succession to invoke a temporal and moral anxiety in the early modern viewer.

Monstrous Vanishings: Depicting the Death of Bahman, Sam Lasman, Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge, UK

The monster that devours King Bahman is a unique creature within the Persian cultural tradition–a draconic being (azhdahā) whose role is to destroy the noble hero rather than to be destroyed by him. This uniquely horrific moment forced premodern illustrators to depart from the standard visual vocabulary of triumphant champion and slaughtered creature. In doing so, they created a striking set of representations which differ starkly in their approaches to the scene. These images respond to both different narrative contexts (Bahman’s death occurs in the Bahmannāma of Irānshāh, certain Shāhnāma manuscripts that borrow verses from Irānshāh, and the prose Dārābnāma of Tarsusi) and to the different valences of the azhdahā itself, which subsumes concerns over time/fate, tyranny, and the natural world into its chimeric body. By reading images of Bahman’s death together with the texts that they accompany and the insights of monster theory, animal studies, and posthumanism, I aim to illuminate how artists staked interpretive claims on the meaning of the azhdahā and its role in the Iranian epic tradition.

Monsters, Gods, Companions: Revisiting Partha Mitter’s Much-Maligned Monsters through Cosmographies of Early Modern India, Vivek Gupta, Jesus College, University of Cambridge, UK

Through a range of images made for books, Partha Mitter’s Much Maligned Monsters published in 1977 demonstrated how Indian temple sculptures in early modern Europe came to be regarded as fantastical others, rather than divine icons. Focusing on travelogues and cosmographical texts, Mitter’s study changed how scholars understand Orientalist historiography of Indian art and architecture. Taking Mitter’s lasting interventions one step forward, this paper examines a similar and contemporaneous corpus of books produced in India itself, namely Indo-Islamicate cosmographies. Its central case study is the representation of king Solomon’s hybrid jinns in an anonymous Persian cosmography (‘aja’ib al-makhluqat), likely authored in the mid-sixteenth-century India and surviving in several early-modern manuscripts. Not fearsome, but friendly anthropomorphs, this reading of Solomon’s jinns is put in dialogue with Mitter’s initial analyses of representations of horned Indian gods in an early fifteenth-century copy of the Livre des merveilles et autres récits de voyages et de textes sur l’Orient. This comparative approach places the monsters, Gods, and companions in the ‘aja’ib al-makhluqat and Livre des merveilles in new light.