An Ode to Religious Tolerance
Lahore: Dr Akbar Ahmed’s first theatrical
drama, “Noor”, premiered in a staged reading
on Wednesday as part of Theater J’s “Voices
From a Changing Middle East” series in Washington
Speaking about the play, Ahmed predicted that Noor would
help “shatter the idea of Islam as a monolith”.
“Noor”, directed by Shirley Serotsky, is a tale
of three brothers who try desperately to rescue their sister
Noor, who has been kidnapped by unidentified soldiers. The
play’s setting is unnamed, though in an introductory
note, the playwright says it could be Baghdad, Cairo, Karachi
Each brother represents a different ideological position
in the contemporary Islamic world. The eldest, Abdullah,
is a Sufi mystic whose sheikh counsels him to rely on prayer.
The second brother, Ali, is a lawyer who appeals for help
from a government minister who turns out to be corrupt.
The third, Daoud, sees no recourse except violence.
The catastrophe deepens when the mother of Noor’s
fiancé breaks off the engagement, refusing to allow
her son to marry a girl who almost certainly has been raped.
The play concludes with the return of Noor, played by Ahmed’s
daughter Nefees Ahmed, a senior at Walt Whitman High School
in Bethesda. Noor reads a poem from Rumi, the 13th-century
Sufi poet, about two lovers meeting in a field “out
beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing”.
The play’s message is one of religious tolerance,
placing it squarely in the tradition of Gotthold Ephraim
Lessing’s 18th-century drama “Nathan the Wise”,
in which three major religions - Judaism, Christianity and
Islam - are shown to have deeper commonalities than differences.
But in “Noor,” the brothers exemplify the three
principal methods adopted by Muslims to cope with the crisis
of modern Islam.
Ahmed says his goal is to enlighten Americans about the
diversity of positions within the Muslim world - which is
also the overriding theme of his recently published book
“Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization”.
He says that what the West views as violence motivated by
religious extremism is actually often motivated by mainstream
Muslims’ attempts to defend their honor and dignity.
He also is highly critical of the American media for propagating
images of Muslims as mindless and bloodthirsty. Ahmed says
that these inflammatory media images, along with the American
military presence in the Middle East, “create the
perception that Islam is under attack. This makes ordinary
Muslims look to those who can stand up and fight back.”
So it is religion that is often used to fan the flames of
hatred. Updating Karl Marx’s phrase, Ahmed says, “Religion
is no longer the opiate of the masses. It is the speed of
the masses.” What deepens the divide, Ahmed says,
is the brain drain of Muslim scholars from the Arab world,
many of whom have been killed or have fled to the West.
“The scholarly vacuum,” he said, “leaves
behind thugs and tyrants.”
According to the newspaper, his play reflects how learning
is revered in Muslim cultures. “The ink of the scholar
is more sacred than the blood of the martyr,” exclaims
one of the characters in “Noor”, quoting the
Ari Roth, the maverick artistic director of Theater J, has
premiered new works by many established and budding playwrights,
including last season’s debut of “Either Or”,
a Holocaust-themed drama by first-time playwright Thomas
Keneally, the Australian author best known for “Schindler’s
Staging “Noor” in a Jewish theater is itself
highly symbolic - a step toward opening up a crucial dialogue.
“You can’t dramatize the Arab-Israeli conflict
without dramatizing the Arab experience,” Roth says.
“We need to listen to each other and hear each other’s