Egor is a PhD student at the Department of Middle East Studies of the U-M. He is interested in Islam in Film with a major focus on the Egyptian cinematic tradition. By studying Egyptian films and TV series, he investigates the representations of Islam in the local mass-mediated culture. Egor is also interested in Sufism and its modern history in the Middle East. As a part of the dissertation project, he wants to focus on cinematic depictions of Sufi doctrines and practices in Egyptian cinema and their influence on the Egyptian Sufi movement.
My name is Egor Korneev, and I received the GISC Graduate Student Fellowship in the summer of 2022. I used this excellent opportunity to participate in an international conference, which became my first experience presenting a paper in English.
Being a first-year Ph.D. student from Russia, I feel the need to integrate into the English-speaking community of scholars working in my field – an opportunity I did not have before becoming a part of the Middle East Studies Department of the U-M. I specialize in the history of Islam in Egypt and am particularly interested in its representations in Egyptian films and TV series. I believe that investigating Islam in cinema is a productive way of studying how this religious tradition transforms within modern cultures and societies. I decided to focus on the study of Egyptian cinema because this country has remained the most influential Middle Eastern center for film production for the last 70 years. Thus, local traditions of depicting religion on the screen affect Muslims living both in and beyond Egypt. I believe that investigating Islam in cinema is a significant stream within contemporary Islamic Studies, which shifts our focus from more classical aspects of the discipline to often neglected elements of the history of modern Muslim communities, such as popular culture and entertainment.
To share my findings with a broader community of scholars, I decided to take part in the International Conference on Religion and Film organized by the Journal of Religion and Film (the University of Nebraska, Omaha). Since 1997, it has regularly brought together a diverse cohort of researchers dealing with various religious traditions and their effect on film production and content. The studies of Islam in Film are also represented at the conferences, although this year it was dominated by papers on Christianity and Hinduism. In 2022, the meeting was financed by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and organized by its Faculty of Religion and Theology. Therefore, to attend this event held from 8 to 10 June, I needed additional funding to travel to Europe and stay in Amsterdam. Without the generous support of the Global Islamic Studies Center, my aims would not have been achieved.
How can cinema influence our idea about Islam and its history? How does the mass-mediated visual image of this religious tradition change our perception of it? These research questions guided me when preparing the paper for the conference in Amsterdam. To investigate them, I focused on a particular genre of Egyptian cinema called aflam diniya, or “religious films.” These are movies produced in the 1950s – 1970s and dedicated to the Prophet Muhammad, his closest companions, and other prominent figures of the Islamic past. They comprise a historical genre that tells us about their biographies and, more importantly, about the emergence of Islam. Many “religious films” became popular in Egypt and other Islamic countries and had a substantial and lasting effect on the broader tradition of Arab historical cinema. Therefore, a thorough analysis of this genre can tell us a lot about how Muslims perceive the early history of their religious community and creed. Despite the significance of this cinematic genre, it was never studied in detail by Egyptian and Western specialists. Thus, my research aimed to fill in this historiographical gap by providing a detailed analysis of images of Islam in aflam diniya.
I presented my paper on the last day of the conference, 10 June, and received positive feedback from other young and experienced scholars. I was able to show how Egyptian filmmakers combined dramatic and entertaining elements within the genre, thus creating an attractive and inspiring image of the glorious Islamic past. In addition, I analyzed the techniques film crews used to represent Muhammad and his closest companions within the plots, despite the severe restrictions on their visual depiction imposed by the Egyptian authorities. To reach this aim, I also reviewed the history of Egyptian state censorship related to Islamic content in cinema and its crucial role in forming “religious films” as a genre. Overall, I see my paper as an excellent foundation for a broader study of aflam diniya and their reception by Muslim audiences. I am convinced that sharing it with the community of film and religion scholars is the best way to foster the further investigation of the genre.
Along with presenting the paper, the International Conference on Religion and Film became a fantastic opportunity to communicate with other specialists and learn from their experiences and research. I was particularly inspired by the work of another young scholar of Islam, Rukayyah Reichling, who analyzed the first documentary about the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca produced by the Dutch cameraman George Krugers in 1928. As with the cinematic representations of Muhammad, depicting Kaaba was problematic in the first half of the 20th century. Rukayyah Reichling told an incredible story of how the hajj was represented to Western audiences and what image of Islam this portrayal contained. During the conference, I also had a chance to attend the talks led by the most prominent specialists in the field of Religion and Film, such as John Lyden and Sheila Nayar. As far as their research primarily focuses on religious traditions other than Islam, the perspectives and approaches they suggest are productive for further comparative analysis. For me, it was an opportunity to look beyond the limits of Islam in Film and find significant similarities and differences between how Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions exist within cinema and influence its production. Building such a comparative framework is crucial for Religion and Film as an emerging discipline.
Lastly, being at the international conference in Amsterdam was just a positive and inspiring pastime. As I already said before, I have never presented a paper in English back, but the very atmosphere of the event made my first try easy and enjoyable. I have not only met some talented specialists but made a couple of new friends with whom I hope to work in the future.
Wondering how this can be you? All students currently enrolled at the University of Michigan in an undergraduate or graduate/professional degree program (master's or doctoral level) are eligible to apply for the GISC’s Fellowship Funding.
The GISC Fellowship Funding may be used for the following:
- Language training - to offset costs of program fees for language learning.
- Research support - to offset costs for an original project supporting Senior, Master’s, or Doctoral thesis completion.
- Travel expenses (graduate students only) - associated with conducting original research or language training