Please note that the CPA Box Office at Memorial Hall is closed until further notice. Patrons can contact box office staff by leaving a voicemail at 919‑843‑3333 or emailing For event/venue updates related to COVID-19, please visit

Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey

This project evolved from a desire to refute monolithic thinking about the practice of Islam and about Muslim communities and individuals – in other words, to contest the notion that there is any single narrative of Muslim identity or experience, a notion which is reinforced by oversimplified presentations of Muslims in our national discourse.

We propose that the performances and community events we have curated will reveal the plurality of Muslim identity.  Specifically, we explore Sufism as a spiritual and cultural lens into Islam through the work of performers from four Muslim-majority nations outside of the Arab world: Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Senegal.  This project is not exhaustive, but rather illustrative.  These performances are but a glimpse into the vast richness of Muslim cultures and artistic expressions, yet we do believe that experiencing even just two examples of that diversity can invalidate monolithic thinking.

We encourage you to start your Sufi Journey with two essays written by Carl Ernst, William R. Kenan, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies, one of the world’s foremost experts on Islamic scholarship and a key collaborator on Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey.

What is Sufism? Religion and Culture

Community Events

Engage with artists, UNC faculty and students and fellow audience members during activities presented by Carolina Performing Arts and other organizations, surrounding the Sufi Journey this season.  Experience thoughtful discussions and broaden your understanding of Muslim experiences by participating in the opportunities presented below.

Location: Gerrard Hall
Time: 7PM
Join musicians Hossein Alizadeh & Hossein Behroozinia for a public conversation about navigating the many influences on their work. This event is free and open to the public.

Location: Gerrard Hall
Time: 7PM
North Carolina musician Shahram Mazhari introduces the fundamentals of Persian music in anticipation of the performance by Hossein Alizadeh, Hossein Behroozinia, Behnam Samani and Saba Alizadeh. This event is free and open to the public.

Location: Gerrard Hall
Time: 6:30PM
Join members of the company before the performance to hear about the creation of this work and the ideas that drive Ping Chong + Company. This event is free and open to the public.

Location: Hyde Hall
Time: 6PM
The Parr Center for Ethics discusses the causes and effects of anti-Muslim fear and hostility in the United States.

Location: Toy Lounge in Dey Hall
Time: 2-5PM
Join this workshop that draws on the personal experiences of Muslims and people of color, and will use images, videos, and interactive exercises to examine Islamophobia. Hosted by the Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia

Location: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
Time: 7PM

Presented in collaboration with Interactive Theater Carolina and the Muslim Student Association

RSVP for event details

Location: Mandela Auditorium, FedEx Global Education Center
Time: 7PM
Join us for a screening of I Bring What I Love, a portrait of pop star Youssou N’Dour and his efforts to record Egypt, an album in response to negative perceptions of Islam. This event is free and open to the public.

Location: Gerrard Hall
Time: 6:30PM
Fiona McLaughlin, professor of African Linguistics at the University of Florida, will introduce us to Youssou N’Dour’s music and the contemporary cultural traditions that shape his work. This event is free and open to the public.

Location: Gerrard Hall
Time: 7PM
Composer, activist, and performance artist Sussan Deyhim joins the community for an open dialogue on the intersections of faith, performance, and feminism in Iranian and American culture. This event is free and open to the public.

Location: Gerrard Hall
Time: 7PM
Join Claudia Yaghoobi, Assistant Professor of Persian Studies, and learn more about Forough Farrokhzad, Iranian poet and the inspiration behind Sussan Deyhim’s The House is Black.

Location: Gerrard Hall
Time: 7PM
Join students and faculty to learn about masks and Indonesia’s blend of Islamic and other traditions in preparation for Nani Topeng Losari. This event is free and open to the public. Presented as part of the Honors Carolina “Concerts in Context” series.

Location: Swain Hall
Time: 7PM
As part of a festival of spoken word/social justice performances, Moussa gives voice to the tragic death of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill.

Location: Across Campus
Poets from Creative Writing classes at UNC share readings of Rumi’s poetry as well as their own work in pop-up readings across campus.

Map Your Journey

We propose four paths that you might take through this season-long exploration, a way to curate your personal experience. Each of the proposed paths includes a selection of events which surround a central theme. These themes highlight some of the connections between performances, artists, and community experiences, and point back to the motivations for this project.

Path 1: Defying the Monolithic

There is no single practice of Islam. There is no single narrative of Muslim experience. Monolithic thinking about Islam can quickly be refuted when confronted by the staggering diversity of local cultures and artistic expressions from Muslim-majority nations and the world.

Local culture defines and shapes all of our experiences and identities, as much as religious belief and religious practice. People all over the world negotiate this, and the result is unique to each location.  The fluidity between religion and local culture also enriches the many artistic expressions on this path. For example, Nani Topeng Losari performs “mask dances” indigenous to the Northern coast of Java, which were later appropriated by Sufi saints as a tool for disseminating religious narratives.

For the artists on this path, performance is often as much an expression of their national, ethnic, or local identities as a religious encounter, and this constant exchange between sacred and secular traditions makes a single definition of Islam impossible.

Related Performances:
Beyond Sacred, A Staged Reading of The Hour of FeelingYoussou N’DourEko Nugroho

Path 2: The Plurality of Identity

How do you introduce yourself? Is it always the same way? Which part of you comes first and how do you choose? Are you female, American, an economist, a foodie, a feminist, a Catholic, a Tar Heel? Must you be either/or, one thing or another, or are those binaries false?

Faith is just one of these multiple identities, and its interplay with the other parts of the whole impacts the work of the artists on this path. The exploration of a female, poet, filmmaker, and modernist from Iran in The House is Black shows us just how intricate and complex identities always are. The play Dara looks at the devastating struggle between two princes, and how conflict between Sufi culture and fundamentalism shapes attitudes to Islam.

The experience of belief is wholly unique to the individual – when filtered through the plurality of identity, religious practice for one person will inevitably be different from how others understand their encounters with that same religion. These performances allow us to glimpse the personal experiences that define Islam and to understand that that definition can never be static.

Related Performances:
Beyond SacredThe House is Black Media Project, Nani Topeng LosariA Staged Reading of The Who and the What, Dara

Path 3: Evolving Traditions

Traditions can seem permanent. In fact, much of what makes them so dear to us is their constancy and familiarity – the nostalgia encircling each of them. They are ways to connect with our history, and they are handed to us by past generations.

Traditions, though, are never static. As they guide us to worship, celebrate and mourn, we in turn continually shape and change them. They are as much reactions to the conditions of our present moment as they are a record of what was deemed valuable – and even sacred – by those who came before us.

The artists on this path show us how evolving traditions from Muslim culture – such as Indonesian shadow puppetry, Persian classical music and Senegalese devotional singing – continually respond to and influence Muslim identity and experience.

It is this constant change and adaptation which enables any given tradition to remain relevant and to therefore continue to be passed forward through generations. It may be counterintuitive, but change is the lifeblood of tradition.

Related Performances:
Youssou N’DourEko NugrhohoSounds of KolachiSanam Marvi

Path 4: Li Ta’arafu

The words li ta’arafu appear in chapter 49 verse 13 of the Qur’an and can be translated as “so that you may know each other.” This passage essentially tells us that humanity was created with inherent differences so that we might be inspired to seek to know each other better. In other words, our diversity does not divide us, but unites us through the discovery of one another.

The artists on this path demonstrate the divergent and powerful results of this cultural back-and-forth, including Beyond Sacred, a piece of documentary theater about young Muslim New Yorkers, and the songs of American composer Philip Glass, which integrate his iconic minimalist musical voice with the words of 13th-century Sufi mystic and poet Rumi in Monsters of Grace.

Many artists from non-Muslim cultures and nations have been inspired by traditions, practices and source texts rooted in Islam. Sufism’s rich history of dance, poetry and other art forms make it a particularly fertile ground for these cultural dialogues.

Related Performances:
Beyond SacredThe House is Black Media ProjectWords & Music in Two PartsMartha Graham Dance Company


From the Blog

A Reflection on The House is Black by Holly Bullis

“One can be like a wind-up doll and look at the world with eyes of glass, one can lie for years in lace and tinsel a body stuffed with straw inside a felt-lined box, at every lustful touch for no reason at all one can give out a cry “Ah,…Read More >

Workshop: How to Defeat Islamophobia

Performance can help us to examine substantive issues of the day and can be a catalyst for dialogue and learning. Our Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey project for example, offers a variety of performances and events that reveal the plurality of Muslim identity and refute monolithic thinking.
In a…Read More >

The Institute for Arts and Humanities seeks faculty proposals

IAH/CPA Evaluation Innovation Grants
The Institute for Arts & Humanities seeks proposals for faculty projects that assess or evaluate the current Carolina Performing Arts project Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey. A year-long program of performances and engagement experiences, Sacred/Secular seeks…Read More >

Profile: Aisha Anwar

On February 10, 2015, Razan Abu-Salha, Yusor Abu-Salha and Deah Barakat lost their lives in a hate crime that shook the Chapel Hill community. The night of the vigil I watched, through my tears, the candles flickering and wondered, how long will the candle wax stain these bricks? My perceptions…Read More >

Student Ambassadors Program

We invite undergraduates from any major to participate in the newly-launched Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) Student Ambassadors program. The program aims to foster compassionate dialogue among students and peers via this season’s year-long exploration of Muslim cultures through music, dance…Read More >

Campus Connections

The impact beyond performance as a result of Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey includes the following:


The questions raised by our Sufi Journey season will be explored by a gathering of scholars in Chapel Hill. “Islam & Religious Identity: The Limits of Definition” will take place October 14-16, bringing together new scholarly connections and generating fresh research agendas.  Learn more >>>

Global Islam & the Arts Teacher Fellows

Fifteen teachers from across North Carolina have been selected as Fellows. They will attend workshops and Sufi Journey performances to gain a deeper understanding of global Islam through a cultural arts perspective, and learn approaches to culturally responsible teaching in the K-12 classroom. At the end of the program, the Fellows will develop instructional resources on Muslim cultures to be utilized in classrooms across North Carolina.  Learn more >>>

Student Ambassadors Program

The Carolina Performing Arts Student Ambassadors Program aims to foster compassionate dialogue among undergraduates during the 16/17 year-long exploration of Muslim cultures.  Students will have the opportunity to attend performances, engage with artists and participate in thoughtful discussion.  Applications currently being accepted.  Learn more >>>


Thank you to our partners in Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey for their generosity.
Presenting Sponsor: Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute
Campus Partners: Carolina Asia CenterCenter for Global InitiativesUNC College of Arts & SciencesUNC Global