The history of figurative painting in Islamic lands, although limited to certain regions and periods, includes a meaningful variety of saintly iconographies, mostly as book illustrations. Produced from the turn of the 14th to the early 17th century in Iranian capital cities or in the Ottoman Empire, paintings of prophets illuminate manuscripts of universal histories, encyclopedias, didactic poetry, and anthologies of prophetic biographies (Stories of the Prophets). They depict personages, not necessarily prophets, from the Old and the New Testaments, two Arab prophets mentioned in the Qurʼan, and finally Muhammad (and ʿAli, although he was not a prophet). The acts of these figures served as moral and spiritual models for the individual believers and, no less so, for the desired behavior of Muslim rulers. In Iran, the message of the illustrated texts and their paintings shifts from historical to moral, and often to mystical. In the Ottoman Empire, in addition, the prophets were conceived as forefathers of the Ottoman dynasty. In Moghul India, only Solomon and Jesus were depicted, not very often, while Joseph’s story was quite popular in late Kashmir. The impact of Western iconography and style, which characterize the recurrence of Jesus’ image, is seen also in later Iran, where portrayals of Solomon, Joseph, and Jesus were painted mainly on decorative objects, such as pen boxes and book bindings.
Lynn Schofield Clark and Seth M. Walker
“Popular culture” is a term that usually refers to those commercially produced items specifically associated with leisure, media, and lifestyle choices. To study religion in popular culture, then, is to explore religion’s appearance in the commercially produced artifacts and texts of a culture.
The study of popular culture has been a catalyst of sorts in the context of studying religion. Some have speculated that with the increasing presence of religion in commercially produced products and specifically in the entertainment media, religion may be reduced to entertainment. Others, however, have argued that religion has always been expressed and experienced through contemporary forms of culture, and thus its manifestation in popular culture can be interpreted as a sign of the vitality rather than the demise or superficiality of contemporary religions.
Popular culture is worthy of study given its role in cultural reproduction. The study of popular culture and religion encourages scholars to consider the extent to which popular cultural representations limit broader critical considerations of religion by depicting and reinforcing taken-for-granted assumptions of what religion is, who practices it and where, and how it endures as a powerful societal institution. Alternately, popular culture has been explored as a site for public imaginings of how religious practices and identities might be different and more inclusive than they have been in the past, pointing toward the artistic and playful ways in which popular religious expression can comment upon dominant religion, dominant culture, and the power relations between them.
With the rise of an ubiquitous media culture in which people are increasingly creators and distributors as well as consumers and modifiers of popular culture, the term has come to encompass a wide variety of products and artifacts, including those both commercially produced and generated outside of traditional commercial and religious contexts. Studies might include explorations of religion in such popular television programs as Orange Is the New Black or in novels such as The Secret Life of Bees, but might also include considerations of how religion and popular culture intersect in practices of Buddhism in the virtual gaming site Second Life, in the critical expressions of Chicana art, in the commercial experiments of Islamic punk rock groups, and in hashtag justice movements.
The study of religion and popular culture can be divided into two major strands, both of which are rooted in what is known as the “culture and civilization tradition.” The first strand focuses on popular culture, myth, and cultural cohesion or continuity, while the second explores popular culture in relation to religion, power, and cultural tensions.