Most of the time, when someone unfamiliar with belly dance encounters me and my research on the changing belly dance industry in Egypt, they are surprised, confused, and struggle to even formulate the question they want to ask. What they want to know is something like, “How does a culture as conservative and repressive of female sexuality as I imagine Egypt, the Middle East, and anywhere Islamic to be, produce and publicly permit something as sexy as I think belly dance is?” This query is based on some problematic assumptions about the Middle East and how it differs from “the West” in terms of culture and patriarchy. But before I begin to address that question, some background and a note on terminology.
Egypt has numerous folkloric and professional dance styles, the most famous of which is raqs sharqi (meaning “eastern/Oriental dance”), known in English as belly dance. It is a form characterized by sinuous, percussive, and isolated movements of the hips, chest, and abdomen. It may date to ancient Egypt (Lexova 1974), with a similar form found throughout the Mediterranean at least as far back as the Roman and Byzantine periods (Shay 2014, 88). Modern professional raqs sharqi developed at the turn of the 20th century (Ward 2018), with dancers common in the classic films of the mid-twentieth century. Similar forms are performed in Lebanon and Turkey, and belly dance can now be found as a tourist attraction around the Middle East and North Africa. Fusion forms have also developed, particularly in the US. There are some who object to the term belly dance, but many Egyptians now use the terms belly dance and belly dancer – including all the classes and performance venues I visit for research in Cairo – and so, without rehearsing the current arguments about terminology – I will stick with “belly dance” for now.
As to the question people want to ask, it is predicated on some problematic stereotypes about Islam and Middle Eastern Cultures. As many readers of this blog no doubt already know, there are many different versions of Islam, many ways of interpreting the Qur’an and hadith. There are many Muslim/Islamic feminists and feminisms saying that Islam is a religion of equality if interpreted correctly. Many Egyptian dancers of the past and present consider themselves devout Muslims. That doesn’t mean that being a professional dancer always sits easily alongside being a Muslim; Egyptian superstar Dina took the veil and retired from dancing to be allowed to undertake the hajj, but returned to dancing shortly afterwards, and a number of dancers have eventually decided to retire for religious reasons (Van Nieuwkerk 2013). Many of the belly dance coaches I work with – in ladies’ only gyms in Cairo – choose to coach because they love belly dance and don’t see anything wrong with it in itself, but feel it is haram to be seen dancing uncovered in front of men.
For my master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS, I wrote a thesis on why belly dancers in Egypt are stigmatized. I do not believe it is due to Islam, but since many people use Islam to support their negative opinion of belly dancers, I thought it worth exploring what Islam says about dancing. Below is an excerpt from my 2007 MA thesis:
Some condemn belly dancing by claiming that Islam prohibits music and dancing. Although some ‘ulama have expressly forbidden music and dancing. anyone who visits any country with a predominantly Muslim population will see that dance and music are enjoyed there just as much as in the rest of world. Indeed, in many ways they seem to be an integral part of the culture. Wood (1976) says that injunctions against music and dance have been taken more seriously by Westerners than by Muslims. And, as Anthony Shay has pointed out, “If the Prophet Muhammad had expressly prohibited these activities, poetry, music and dance would not exist”(2005, 88).
Most Islamic scholars rank different kinds of music in a hierarchy of acceptability, which depends mainly upon the other activities and ideas associated with it and not the music itself. According to Louis al-Faruqi (1985), the halal or indisputably acceptable forms of music are: qur’anic chanting, calls to prayer, hajj songs, women’s songs, celebratory songs for weddings, family and religious occasions, work songs, and military music, in that hierarchical order. Next come free-flowing vocal and instrumental improvisations, which are generally, but not universally approved, metered compositions come just below in the hierarchy, followed by music related to non-Islamic traditions (such as mid 20th century Egyptian orchestral music), which is disapproved of by some religious leaders because of its associations with other religions. Finally, there is ‘sensuous music,’ associated with prohibited activities such as drugs and prostitution, which is always disapproved, but not technically haram or forbidden. Al-Faruqi notes that it is the intention of any activity that determines its rightness or wrongness, and therefore the context of performance, and not the art product itself, is the main determiner of acceptability. He quotes Shaltut, the late sheikh of al-Azhar as ruling that, “music and sensuous pleasures are natural instincts endowed by god, needed by men for well-being, prohibited only in cases of improper use or context”(al-Faruqi 1985, 24-25)…
Shay (2005) describes some of the conflicting hadith concerning Muhammad’s views of female entertainers. One reports that upon meeting some women playing the daif (frame drum), the Prophet was quite pleased and congratulated them on their performance. Another says that he invited a female acrobat, dancer, and singer to perform for his wife ‘Aisha, but after her performance Muhammad said that Satan must have blown up her nostrils. Whatever his opinion of the entertainer herself and her performance, if Muhammad had disapproved of female entertainers or music and dance in general, he would not have invited her to perform for his favorite wife.
The lauded medieval religious scholar al-Ghazali ruled that if the pleasure which causes dancing is praiseworthy, and the dancing increases and strengthens it, then the dancing is praiseworthy (MacDonald and al-Ghazzali 1901-1902). But he also said that looking at female performers is always unlawful. Modern religious scholar al-Qaradawhi states that singing and music in itself is permissible and pleasurable, but places several restrictions on them (1960). The content of the song should not be against the morals and teachings of Islam, and music should never be accompanied by things forbidden in Islam, such as alcohol. Also, the way of singing should not be accompanied by suggestive movements.
There are of course many more scholars I could cite, but it would yield a similar range of opinions. Overall, there is no universally accepted proscription against dancing in Islam. Some Muslims may feel belly dance is acceptable, but less so when it is associated with alcohol, drugs, or sexuality outside of marriage, while others may feel only each individuals’ behavior and relationship with God matters. While belly dance is in part controversial because belly dancers have long been compared to prostitutes (Van Nieuwkerk 1995), so have dancers, actors, and performers all over the world (Barish 1981, Stallybrass 1986, Shay 2014). So, I always tell people that belly dance is an important and traditional part of Egyptian culture (for reasons too complex and numerous to describe in this blog post), that the dance, while sometimes sexy, is not meant to be a seduction, and that yes, some people within the culture disapprove. But most importantly, I remind them that the discomfort with female sexuality that drives stigmatizing dancers and female performers is present in nearly all cultures and is certainly an issue that “Western” cultures struggle with as well as Muslim cultures. Patriarchy is everywhere, it just manifests a little differently.
NOTE BY THE AUTHOR: The belly dance venues frequented by Egyptians and Arabs (discos and cabarets) close for Ramadan, but performances on Nile cruises for tourists (mostly by foreign dancers) are allowed to continue quietly. Most Egyptian dancers are Muslim and would refuse to perform during Ramadan regardless of what the government permits.
al-Faruqi, Louis Ibsen. 1985. “Music, Musicians and Muslim Law.” Asian Music 17 (1):3-36.
Al-Qaradhawi, Youssef. 1960. The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam (Al-Halal Wal-Haram Fil-Islam). Plainfield, IN: American Trust Publications.
Barish, Jonas A. 1981. The Antitheatrical Prejudice. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lexova, Irena. 1974. Ancient Egyptian Dances, Dance Horizons Series 48. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Dance Horizons.
MacDonald, Duncan Black, and al-Ghazzali. 1901-1902. “On Music & Singing: Emotional Religion in Islam as Affected by Music and Singing Being a Translation of the Ihya ‘Ulm Ad-Din of Al-Ghazzali with Analysis, Annotation, and Appendices.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland April; October:195 – 252; 705-748.
Shay, Anthony. 2005. “Dance and Jurisprudence in the Islamic Middle East.” In Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism, and Harem Fantasy, edited by A Shay and B Sellers-Young. Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers.
Shay, Anthony. 2014. The Dangerous Lives of Public Performers: Dancing, Sex, and Entertainment in the Islamic World. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White. 1986. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Van Nieuwkerk, Karin. 1995. A Trade Like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Van Nieuwkerk, Karin. 2013. Performing Piety: Singers and Actors in Egypt’s Islamic Revival. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Ward, Heather D. 2018. Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition: The Raqs Sharqi Revolution, 1890-1930. Jefferson, North Carolina: Mc Farland.
Wood, Leona and Anthony Shay. 1976. “Danse Du Ventre: A Fresh Appraisal.” Dance Research Journal 8 (2):18-30.
Margaret Morley is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Indiana University. With 20 years of personal experience in raqs sharqi and related Egyptian and Middle Eastern dance forms, her dissertation research concerns how the belly dance industry in Egypt is changing with globalization. This research is supported by a Fulbright US Student Award and an American Association of University Women American Dissertation Fellowship. Margaret also has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from SOAS and a BA in Theater (Production/Design) and German Studies from Oberlin College, and forthcoming publications in Anthropology of the Middle East and Performance Anthropology Handbook.