Seventeenth Century India and Twenty-first Century Relevance
By Christa Blackmon
Those of us who traverse across this mortal world have often pondered the properties of time and history. It is as though we are drifting upon the still surface of a lake, and as the rain falls, creating ripples in the water, it carries us to edge, sometimes spilling over into land. No event may be isolated from the other, and even what seems like the tiniest wave on the other side of the lake may become something greater. The trial of a Mughal prince cannot be separated from the future of an Islamic civilization on the Indian sub-continent, and neither may it be separated from the greater global history.
The story of Dara Shikoh is one that has occurred across many different nations in many different eras, it is the story of an idea that seeks the destruction of all opposing ideas, played out in the familial struggle between two brothers. In seventeenth century India we find Prince Dara Shikoh, a humble mystic, promoting peace amongst the various faith traditions in the empire and his brother Aurangzeb who is troubled both by the apparent deviation from Islam and the political consequences of empowering these other faith traditions. Dara is swept into the world of political intrigue and religious extremism and put on trial for apostasy. With him goes the soul of his efforts for peace.
Akbar Ahmed’s latest play, The Trial of Dara Shikoh, allows the viewer to watch this moment in history unfold and feel the anticipation and anxiety of the outcome as though it were happening for the first time. We follow Dara’s plight, his struggle to make others understand. We try to understand Aurangzeb, who is both villain and hero, initiating and allowing violence, but yet dedicated to a people who he believes are the only ones entitled to charity, finding himself all alone in the final scenes. Whose legacy will survive? Who has the better claim to define an empire? A civilization? A religion?
Here is where we see just how much one wave upon the lake is like another, for we are again in an era that challenges us to choose who will define Islam for the modern world. This is not a challenge that non-Muslims can ignore, for we have all grown to be so connected to each other by social, political, and economic ties that grow stronger everyday. The legacy of the struggle between Prince Dara and Aurangzeb is one with universal implications. When violence becomes the means by which rules are made, can the peaceful survive?
The Trial of Dara Shikoh, a play by Akbar Ahmed and directed by Manjula Kumar, is described by Stanley Wolpert of the University of California at Los Angeles as “not only a fascinating drama, but a most important, highly instructive study of the major forces within Islam that continue to reflect the fatal struggle between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb that grip our modern world and may help to decide our global future”.
The play will be performed on March 21 at 7pm and March 22 at 4pm in the Abramson Recital Hall in the Katzen Arts Center at American University. Ticket information is available on the Katzen Arts Center website.