My first book Modern Muslim identities has a book cover made up of two layered photographs. For a while now I have been thinking that it may be confusing, or at least I should explain my thinking behind it to better illustrate its meaning.
The first picture is of the wayang kulit (shadow play) figures, featuring characters from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as well as a Western tourist (in the middle in case you were wondering). This picture comes from a dalang’s (puppet master) workshop near Kota Bharu in the Northeast of peninsula Malaysia and he used a range of alternative figures to update his stories. This, then, was a juxtaposition of a pre-Islamic past and post-colonial present, especially as Kelantan is often considered ‘very Islamic’ as it is administered by the Islamist party PAS. The picture also relates to a chapter in the book in which I discuss the arts policies and the contestations between state and federal as well as within Malaysian society about what is or should be ‘Islamic’. This dalang made fun of and amused his audience by drawing attention to his resistance to the state ordered Islamisation of the Hindu epics, for instance. Inherent in this debate is also the tension for Malaysia and Malaysians between being modern (and Western, although these are obviously two different things) and culturally different based on historical heritage (whatever that may be – and the current fights with Indonesia over cultural identity are instructive here). This is especially contentious for Malays, as their cultural heritage is under most scrutiny in terms of its non-Islamic attributes as society at large continues to be further Islamised. This is visually represented by the superimposed lattice, a picture taken at the Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque in Shah Alam. The use of geometric shapes became fashionable in Islamic art to avoid the depiction of the Prophet, later people and/or animals in general. Thus it is a symbol for the changing aesthetics as influenced by a world religion upon other cultures and the arts.
There you go, and if you want to order a copy (international), just click here.