‘Noor’ — 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 DC.
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 or Kabul.
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 Qur’an.
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 List”.
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 stories.”

 

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