×
×

Un Magazine 13.1

Cruelty and the Theatre of Jihad

Bahar Sayed

Top

11/20

Article

The true believers are the ones who have faith in God and his Messenger and leave all doubt behind. The ones who have struggled with their possessions and their persons in Gods way: they are the ones who are true.
Qur’an 49:15

The verse above belongs to a Qur’anic surah. It instructs believers on how to behave with proper respect to Allah. Simultaneously, this surah criticises those with presumptuous attitudes towards the universality of faith.

The definition of Islam literally translates to ‘submission’, in the sense of behaving duly before Allah and surrendering to Him. Islam, interpreted through the Qur’an and guided by the traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, aims to build a community in which all aspects and members are devoted to the belief of Islam; where faith is an all knowing and all-encompassing power, where both spiritual and political issues are inextricably linked under Islam. The intimations of divinity that are believed to be experienced when living in such a community, known as the ummah, are indications that society is living in accordance with Allah’s will.

As the above Qur’anic verse reveals, Allah looks favourably upon believers who maintain religiosity during times of strife. The maintenance of one’s Islamic values is known as jihad, which translates directly to ‘struggle’, in reference to the temptation of sin. As the ummah is reliant on the universal devotion of the Divinity, jihad is a concept understood as a requirement for all Muslims. The obligation of devotion to Islam is complicated, as the Qur’an does not explicitly set rules for its believers to adhere to. The Qur’an employs the devices of allegory, poetry and narrative, using metaphorical language as a tool to teach personal and moral values, governance and law. The artful expression of the Qur’an places the responsibility of conscious piety on its believers, and so the interpretations of Allah’s universal wisdoms are further complicated by the subjectivity and context of the believer. Interpretation has produced a faith complex in ideology and practice.

Today, the concept of jihad has a wide range of interpretations. A majority of Muslims focus on the ‘greater jihad’, an interpretation attributing jihad to internal struggle. Within a context of secular paranoia, however, these peaceful interpretations are overshadowed by the practice of the ‘lesser jihad’—an externally focused and militant interpretation of jihad premised on violence. It is this interpretation of jihad that contributes to the degenerating relationship between Islam and the West.

Hamad Butt, v (1994), vacuum- sealed glass, crystal iodine, liquid bromine, chlorine gas, water and steel. Image courtesy of the Tate Gallery.

Despite global discourse around Islam’s incompatibility with progression, the religion’s attempts to protect traditional values from the destruction of Western systems is not unique. Many different disciplines and societies viewed the expansion of modernity as fracturing to primordial, universalist beliefs. This form of critique is explicitly stated by the theories of the Theatre of Cruelty developed by French philosopher and director Antonin Artaud, and is evident in the concepts behind the small body of work created by Pakistani born artist Hamad Butt before his passing in 1994. Although Artaud and Butt’s critiques of modern society are executed from within the context of art, they are not limited to the parameters of performance and exhibition. The Theatre of Cruelty and Butt’s body of work engage with an ideal of unification similar to that of the lesser jihad. All three concepts call for a return to the primordial form of culture—a time of perceived unification in body, mind and soul.

The Theatre of Cruelty was developed in reaction to the political, social and spiritual divides of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Antonin Artaud viewed the expanding man-made Western systems as a corrupt(ing) force threatening to destroy ‘true-culture’. He criticised society’s current individualism and complacency for having tyrannised the natural forces of life and spirituality, seeping its poison into the discipline of theatre.

In the Theatre of Cruelty, this dislocation between life and spirituality was represented in the hierarchy created between the audience and the performer. With respect to the powering forces of nature, the Theatre of Cruelty agitates man-made systems of control through an orchestrated breakdown of boundaries and affect. Artaud used the methodologies and devices of theatre to instigate these breakdowns. Through violent and confronting images, gesture, movement, sound and symbolism, he disrupted the corrupted relationship between audience and performer. The Theatre of Cruelty conceives of all aspects of theatre as resistance, advocating immersing the audience in a kind of fear, pain and suffering. Artaud writes: ‘in the anguished, catastrophic times we live in, we feel an urgent need for theatre that is not overshadowed by events but arouses deep echoes wishing us...’1 Cruelty, in this form, was understood as a type of therapy for the soul.

Artaud saw cruelty as exposing the myths and plagues of contemporary society. In the Theatre of Cruelty’s first manifesto Artaud writes: ‘ideas on Creation, Growth & Chaos are all of a cosmic order ... they can create a kind of thrilling equation between Man, Society, Nature, and Objects.’2 Through the performance of cruelty, Artaud aimed to dislodge the audience from the man- made system. Cruelty was the liberator, uniting the conscious state with emotion, dream and reality. Artaud believed in this unification as a move towards the realities of true-culture, a time before the compartmentalisation of human life.

The ideologies of the Theatre of Cruelty and lesser jihad are both based in a rejection of the disenchantments of modern society, specifically a refusal of the values of commodification, individualism, rationalism and secularism. Artuad’s ideal of true-culture and lesser jihad’s ambition for the ummah both assert an idealisation of a primordial and universal state. Artaud presents the Theatre of Cruelty as a remedy to the fractures of modern society. In support of cruelty, Artaud positions his theories as ‘a protest against [the] idea of a separate culture, as if there were culture on the one hand and life on the other, as if true culture were not a rarefied way of understanding and exercising life.’3 Much like Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, lesser jihad relies on shock and violence to unite reality with the metaphysical. Aside from the body count due to the cruelty of the lesser jihad, the two seemingly separate ideologies can be recognised as twins.

The all-encompassing power of Allah is reflected in the permission to variously interpret the Qur’an. As mentioned above, the teachings of the Qur’an are relational to the subjectivities of the interpreter. Contemporary jihadism must be understood in the context of the extreme violence and disfigurement the Muslim world has suffered at the hands of Western expansion and supremacy. Decades of senseless war have influenced the interpretation of the concepts around the protection of Islamic values. The historical and ongoing aggressive relationship between Islam and the West has produced a lesser jihad embodied in today’s grotesque form.

The universality and fragility of Qur’anic interpretations is exemplified in the works of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian Islamic scholar whose writing positions him as one of the most influential thinkers in the modern Islamic era. Beginning with primarily artistic motivations, Qutb’s writing eventually evolved into Islamist interpretation. His gradual transformation into a militant and hardline ideologue can be understood by examining the experiences that influenced him.

The cultural and artistic community of Egypt contextualizes Qutb’s earlier work during the early half of the 1900s. Embedded in literary society, Qutb developed his own poetry as part of the Apollo School, a network of poets that were central in Egypt but spanned across the Arab World. During this time, Qutb understood Islam from a universalist perspective, focusing his attention on the Qur’an’s ‘independent element of pure beauty ... free from all other purposes and concerns.’4 Qutb brought prominence to the Qur’an’s artistic expression, appreciating the text for its aesthetic, poetic and dramatic literary dimensions.

By the 1950s, Qutb’s growing mistrust of the West began to overshadow his focus on Islamic poeticism. Disturbed by the racism, individualism and materialism he encountered during a visit to the United States, Qutb came to view the expansion of Western ideology as a threat to the Islamic way of life. Qutb sought refuge within the Society of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation. The Brotherhood developed his fundamentalist interpretations and supported a violent jihad against the expansion of secularism into Egyptian society. As Western ideologies continued to disable centuries-old Islamic structures, Qutb’s fundamentalist teachings assisted in validating an Islamic resistance through a violent defensive jihad.

In line with Artaud and Qutbs’ use of cruelty, Hamad Butt’s work deals with fear, danger and death. Butt’s employment of cruelty has gained him credit in the West as an artist, where he was forthright with his critiques of modernity’s separation of art and science. Butt believed the authority of scientific knowledge as having dislocated the body and the mind. In the collection of artists' writings Apprehensions, Butt quotes the philosopher, Paul Virilio, to criticise this dislocation: ‘Thus in this ‘mediated,’ (media) or ‘information’ society we are isolated in a state of ‘pure seeing’ ... we are ‘seeing without knowing.’5

Butt engages with the process of unification through the material reification of fear. He conveys the natural fragility of life through the proximity of its destruction in his sculptural practice, which uses bio- hazardous materials containing fragile, and oftentimes suspended, glass. The Cradle of Chlorine Gas (1992) is one of the three sculptures that constitute the Familiars series. Inspired by Newton’s Cradle, the work is displayed in a way that indicates chemical and psychological instability. Strung with precision from the ceiling, the delicate glass spheres are filled with crystal iodine, liquid bromine, chlorine gas and water. If mismanaged, this work would have fatal consequences. Contact with Butt’s work brings into attention the precarious conditions of the body. Employing the physiological reaction of ‘fight or flight’, Butt emphasises the subjectivity of the self, presenting the body and mind as inseparable. Describing the concept of fear behind the work, Butt states:

As soon as the pendulum swings the cleansing poison is set to release its purifying action ... The leap of faith which is entailed in respecting the fragile shell and dangerous contents of weights induces a reflection on how it is that the closer we come to danger, the more clearly we question.6

Butt’s work demonstrates a complicity with danger, threatening human life in the attempt to unify the divides caused by modernity. Much like the goals and practises of the Theatre of Cruelty and lesser jihad, Butt engages with an ideology based on cruelty, danger and fear to criticise the systems and ideals of contemporary society. Despite the similar reactions from modern institutions, Artaud’s theories continue to inform contemporary artistic practice while in Butt’s work—although handled with respect and prestige materially—the concepts of jihad and its influencing factors continue to be overlooked and mistreated. As cruelty is commonly used in reaction against the fractures of modern society, why then are some ideologies of cruelty privileged over another?

Butt’s informed critique on the institutional separation of art and science becomes manipulated by the very spaces the work critiques. Through the guise of exhibition, the danger and fatality in Butt’s work is controlled by the institution. The institution’s careful management of Butt’s hazardous work is contrasted with the West’s careless and violent relationship with Islam. The disregard shown, and the fragility of interpretation, validates the stereotype of Islam as irrational and irreconcilable. Manipulating the subjectivity of Islam allows for a one- sided conversation suited to global hegemony.

While the fictional barriers of the Theatre of Cruelty deem the realisation of true culture as an ‘impossible absolute’, faithful jihadist’s wholeheartedly believe in the realisation of the ummah. As Artuad’s conception of the ideal state was interpreted within the confines of the theatre, the Theatre of Cruelty’s ideological critique was rendered into an art practice. These fictional barriers have been crossed and brought into reality by the violence and cruelty of the lesser jihad.

Contemporary lesser jihad utilises grandiose cruelty as the means of liberating society’s unconscious. The violence of global scale jihadism resembles the cruelty curated by the West. In this regard, who then is afforded the right to critique through the form of cruelty? The West’s permissive use of violence is understood through its institutional control. Although Artaud, Butt, and Qutb all employ concepts of fear and cruelty to criticise the fractures of modern society, their presentation impacts the ways in which their work is understood. Artaud and Butt are presented within and through the confines of the institutions they looked to dismantle. Qutb and lesser jihad critique the secular system away from Western institutions according to an ethics of separatism, rendering it inaccessible to such control. Lesser jihad is dismissed by Western institutions because of its inability to be materially acquired. Jihad belongs to an explicit submission to Islam, therefore its containment would render jihad as senseless violence.

Bahar Sayed is a student of Islamic scholarship. Raised in Whadjuk, Perth, she currently lives and works in Naarm, Melbourne.


  1. Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, translated by Victor Corti, Oneworld Classics, London, 2010.[^2]: James Der Derian, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network, Westview, Boulder, 2001. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Soraya Mahdi Hajjaji-Jarrah, ‘The Qur’an in Egypt II: Sayyid Qutb on Inimitability’ in Coming To Terms With The Qur’an, Islamic Publications International, New Jersey. 

  5. Clement Page, ‘Hamad Butt: The Art of Metachemics’, Third Text: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture, volume 9, issue 32, 1995. 

  6. Ibid.