Theatre: Finding mizan with a good story

Theatre: Finding mizan with a good story August 13, 2010
Beyond dogma

A recent study carried out by DJS Research in the UK for IERA (Islamic Education and Research Academy), involving a poll of 500 randomly selected non-Muslims, found that 60% preferred not to receive any information about religion, while 77% did not agree in any way that Muslims should do more to teach people about their faith.

While these findings might suggest to some that most British non-Muslims are not at all interested in learning more about Islam, my experience of producing theatre inspired by Muslim world literature for British audiences has shown me otherwise. The aversion indicated by these responses is not so much one derived from an intrinsic antipathy to Islam as one stemming from an increasingly secular mindset that views the dissemination of all religious dogma as suspect and undesirable.

Most people in Britain and indeed Europe may not be interested in what people of faith have to say about their faith, not least Muslims, but they are interested in how they live their faith. We can see this in the increasing proliferation of Muslim characters and storylines in films and popular television series, especially in the UK. It should therefore be evident to Muslims that whereas religious dogma may have once been an effective language for the sharing of convictions and ideals, in today’s world this is less often the case.

Adherents of other faith communities have come to realise the dominant currency and discourse of story in popular culture and its considerable efficacy in neutralising entrenched secular defensive mechanisms. As a result of this realisation, we are seeing, for example, an increase in the output of entertainment products with a distinct and unmistakable Christian ethos and message as in the films The Book of Eli, I am Legend and The Blind Side.

What the language of story, as employed in the above films, allows for is an inclusive and universal appreciation of the human being’s inevitably flawed but determined pursuit of virtue despite the gore, special effects and populist plots. What’s more, the language of story – as opposed to the language of dogma – comes with context which makes it all the more compelling, since the consumer to a certain extent has to live the story in so far as s/he identifies and empathises with the protagonists.

Appreciation of the contemporary value and currency of story is not altogether absent within the Muslim community, as the popular Canadian TV series, Little Mosque on the Prairie, the American theatrical production, Domestic Crusaders, our own work at Khayaal and that of Progress Theatre in the US and MUJU and Arakan Creative in the UK demonstrate. However, turn on any of the many Muslim satellite television stations and you are invariably confronted with talking heads seeking to proselytise using the exclusive, de-contextualised language of dogma.

The inability to identify the appropriate medium for present context and as a result adopt the language of story as the primary channel for communications has always been a glaring inconsistency in my mind on the part of many Muslims. This is especially true given the story of Islam itself and the foundational role of the Prophet Muhammad (s) as storyteller by Qur’anic injunction before serving as statesman, judge, warrior, etc. The Qur’an itself and the life of the Prophet (s) are powerful testaments to the timeless and universal power and efficacy of story.

But in the devaluation of the language and power of story within the Muslim community lie the answers to many questions, and the solutions to many problems not least that of how we positively relate to and communicate with the world. For the currency and power of story to remain vital in any society requires that the society be as committed to the humanities, to myth, to imagination and to the feminine as it is to the sciences, to law, to logic and to the masculine. Hmmm! Reminds me of that beautiful word mizan (balance) in the Qur’an?!

It was during my teenage years as a student of Arabic, Farsi and Urdu literature that I spent much time contemplating these issues and resolved to address them in my life as my chosen mode of service to my community and the world. Many years later, due to the impact of drama upon my life as a result of a high school production, myself and several friends set up the Khayaal Theatre Company to dramatically explore Muslim literature from around the world. We were convinced that the unmediated medium and arena of theatre, together with the beauty of Islamic art and the eloquence of Muslim authors could positively shape views and perceptions of Islam and Muslims.

Since the inception of the company 13 years ago, we have been successful in reaching tens of thousands of people in and outside the Muslim community with a range of different theatre productions. A common response to our work from non-Muslims is their surprise, ranging from pleasant to rapturous, that we Muslims can also speak the language of story.

(Photo courtesy Khayaal Theatre Company)

Luqman Ali is a seasoned stage director and critic as well as the CEO of the Khayaal Theatre Company. His company works at a community and grassroots level in an effort to promote the use of art and theatre in education by performing original stage productions in schools around the country.

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