SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Morocco and the Horizons of Visibility

Module Code:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 2

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  • understand themes, issues, and debates related to the study of visuality  in general and Islamic and Maghrebi visuality in specific;
  • Identify and compare different approaches to the study of Maghrebi visuality; 
    assess critically the materials and themes explored in the course.
  • Additionally, having worked through some of the pertinent issues involved in trying to define one particular spatio-temporal expression of a non-Western visuality, namely, Maghrebi visuality, s/he will be able to act similarly elsewhere, either with regard to another expression of Islamic visuality or in other fields of the arts.


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Scope and syllabus

This course concerns the socialization of vision in the premodern urban Maghreb, most particularly Morocco (al-maghrib al-aqṣāʾ). Attention will be paid to the sociological factors that influence vision and help determine what is visible and invisible for any given culture in the region, as well as to the spatial technologies that reinforce and index aspects of this socialized vision. In brief, this course concerns the social construction of visual experience in North African medinas.
Referring to work undertaken in the sub-discipline of art history, visual culture, the course builds upon Hal Foster’s seminal and still pertinent definition of visuality. Because the course does not assume a student’s prior familiarity with visual culture, this definition is cited here in full: “Although vision suggests sight as a physical operation, and visuality sight as a social fact, the two are not opposed as nature to culture: vision is social and historical too, and visuality involves the body and the psyche. Yet neither are they identical: here, the difference between the terms signals a difference within the visual — between the of sight and its historical techniques, between the datum of vision and its discursive determinations — a difference, many differences, among how we see, how we are able, allowed, or made to see, and how we see this seeing or the unseen therein. With its own rhetoric and representations, each scopic regime seeks to close out these differences: to make of its many social visualities one essential vision, or to order them in a natural hierarchy of sight. It is important, then, to slip these superimpositions out of focus, to disturb the given array of visual facts […].” (Hal Foster [ed.], Vision and Visuality [1988], ix.)
For the present course, the scopic regime in question is premodern urban Maghrebi; but because that regime is a geographically specific variant of a much broader, premodern Arab-Muslim regime, which in turn involves a modality of an Islamic, especially Qur’anic, scopic regime, the latter two must also be treated. (It will not always be possible to keep the three distinct from each other during the course, so tightly do they overlap.) In view of this, a fuller, longer title for the course might be, “Tidings of the Unseen (Qur’an 12:102): Readings in Pursuit of ‘Maghrebi Visuality.’”
Islamic visuality, in all of its spatio-temporal manifestations, is a subject that has received little scholarly attention. In the pursuit of premodern Maghrebi visuality, this course therefore promises to be both exploratory and innovative.
The course’s aims are as follows: Primarily, to raise the question of visuality in Islamic art history, and then to work towards defining premodern urban Maghrebi visuality, with particular attention to its spatial characteristics. Secondarily, as a consequence of the foregoing, to highlight the modernist scopic regime undergirding certain key aspects of art historical practice, and thus to emphasise: a) the difficulties inherent fundamentally in cross-cultural art history; and b) the critical importance of attending to the logic (visual, spatial, religious, etc.) of the culture under review.

Lecture themes
Week One: Introduction
Week Two: Modernist technologies for visualising others and the past
Week Three: Notable art historical studies on the manipulation of vision and architectural space in (mostly) premodern Arab-Muslim societies
Week Four: Islamic Visuality (I) – Qur’an
Week Five: Islamic Visuality (II) - fiqh (law)
Week Six: Reading Week
Week Seven: Islamic Visuality (III) - modesty, shame
Week Eight: Maghrebi Visuality (I) - the jinn
Week Nine: Maghrebi Visuality (II) - the evil eye
Week Ten: Maghrebi Visuality (III) - “manqūb,” or perforated space
Week Eleven: Conclusion

Method of assessment

  • One 1 000 words essay (worth 30%)
  • One 2 000 words essay (worth 70%)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules