Seeing the Unseen: Encounters with the (In)Visible in Arabic Literature, Film and Culture

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‘Seeing the Unseen: Encounters with the (In)Visible in Arabic Literature, Film and Culture’ is a study on invisible things being made visible. More specifically, I consider visual encounters with invisible things – from ‘spirits’, to ‘time’, to ‘meanings’ – by drawing on Ibn Arabi’s theories on the Imagination: as place, process and faculty of perception. A medieval Sufi philosopher, poet, theologian and mystic born in the twelfth century, Ibn Arabi’s theories on the Imagination are supplemented and read alongside a chorus of perspectives, ranging from classical Arabic and Greek philosophies of the imagination, art and dream-theory, to modern-day visual studies, and ethnographies of folklore and popular, lived religion. Meanwhile, my primary case studies, which serve as the focus of each chapter, are drawn from contemporary Egyptian literature and film. In an attempt to explore the relevance of the trope of Ibn Arabi’s Imagination to modern Egyptian literature, film and culture, I focus, in my case studies, on moments of encounter with the image. In this instance, as an interpretation of Ibn Arabi’s theories, the term ‘image’ is used to encompass things which are suspended in moments of in-between-ness: between body and spirit, materiality and immateriality and, of course, visibility and invisibility. While the study considers political, aesthetic and moral stakes in each of the individual chapters, the project more broadly seeks to engage the fields of literature, film, religion, and visual studies. More specifically, Seeing the Unseen is an interdisciplinary enterprise, aiming to use literature and film as vehicles through which to engage with conversations started by ethnographers, art scholars and cultural historians of Islam and lived religion, specifically in Egypt. In particular, Seeing the Unseen aims to make a case for the complex role of the ‘image’ and visual experience in Islamic history and culture. I use literature and film to continue to challenge the orthodox notion within Islamic and non-Islamic circles that, after the destruction of the idols of the Ka'ba in 630 C.E., there is no longer a place for the mediating ‘image’ in Islam’s relationship to the divine.

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325 pages


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Arabic Literature; Art Theory; Egypt; Ibn Arabi; Popular Religion; Sufism


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Union Local


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Committee Chair

Starr, Deborah A.

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Committee Member

Hutchinson, George B.
Dadi, Iftikhar

Degree Discipline

Comparative Literature

Degree Name

Ph. D., Comparative Literature

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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