Sunday, November 19, 2006

Shakespeare and Islam: Good Neighbors?

By Rianne C. ten Veen*

Ever heard of Shakespeare and Islam being mentioned in one sentence? If not, then you probably haven’t been to the UK this autumn, particularly during the week of November 22-28. Let me explain.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) organized a Shakespeare and Islam season for the autumn of 2004. The theme for this year’s Islam Awareness Week was “Your Muslim Neighbor.”

As part of this cooperation, a souk, or traditional Arabian market, was arranged during the last weekend of November in the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre. According to the leaflet advertising the event, this souk would include “fantastic winter shopping opportunities.” This was very true, so I was glad that I left most of my money at home, or I would be bankrupt by now. Anyway, just window shopping was very satisfying for the eyes and ears. The souk also included art and craft demonstrations by the Prince’s School of Traditional Art, an exhibition of photography by Peter Sanders, a series of “souk talks,” and “wisdom-oriented entertainment” by the Khayaal Theatre Company.

Considering the time they had been allocated, speakers at the “souk talks” were encouraged to be very “souk-cinct”—how else, for example, could one explain basics of the faith and the history of Islam in just 30 minutes? It was a very diverse series of talks ranging from the practical “Islamic Calligraphy” to the multiple identities of human beings in “A Muslim Female Trajectory,” and from a preachy presentation on “The concept of the Hereafter in Islam” to the bubbly young journalist who at the last minute took over from the original speaker on “Halal meat, Headscarves, and Terrorism.”

According to the first speaker of the day, Hassan Abedin from the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (OXCIS) who lectured on “Islam in the Modern World,” Ramadan is like a month-long New Year’s resolution. He reminded us that although Islam is often popularly thought of as being an Arab religion, the top five countries with the highest Muslim populations are lands which are far away from Arabia, such as Indonesia. Even though Syria and Jordan, for example, are known as Muslim countries, France has more Muslims (5 million) than either Syria or Jordan (3.2 million each).

Dr Dawud Noibi, a former Islamic consultant of the London-based Iqra Trust, suggested that Muslims should be good neighbors as their belief in life after death influences their actions and behavior in life on earth. Unfortunately, his implication that non-Muslims are “wicked infidels” did not go down very well with those keen to learn about Islam and their Muslim neighbors, and undid quite a bit of the good of the first speaker. Some excellent advice he had for Muslims though was that we should always remember that all our actions are recorded far more meticulously than CCTV cameras and DVD can ever record.

Mr. Nasser Mansour, an Islamic calligrapher and teacher at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, mentioned that the modern version of the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” would be “the computer is more powerful than the atom bomb.” During his talk, he focused on the four stages of making a traditional pen from material similar to bamboo—opening, sharpening, slitting, and clipping. For non-Arab speakers it was funny to hear that a pen gets tested by writing the Arabic letter waw, which looks similar to the English letter g or the number 9.

The overriding advice of Zarah Hussein, a young female journalist, speaking instead of scheduled Fareena Alam, who had to travel to Syria at the last minute, was that if we want our non-Muslim neighbors to understand us better, more Muslims should work in the media. She mentioned that ignorance about Islam is the greatest fuel for Islamophobia. As most of us get our information from the media, it is not enough for her alone, the only hijabi at the BBC (besides the cleaner) during 9/11, to carry the torch. It is important for us to explain that the vast majority of Muslims are just as interested in housing, education, and crime prevention as anybody else, though we do have to differentiate between Islam and our cultural peculiarities.

By 3 p.m. it was time for a talk on “Art and Alchemy” by Mr. David Cranswick, who is a traditional painter with a doctorate from the Prince of Wales Institute in London. The word alchemy comes from the Arabic word al-kimiya or al-khimiya, meaning cast together, or pour together, or weld, or alloy, and so on. The main element from this talk was the organization of colors with the help of the seven visible planets: That is, Mars, for example, carries colors from ochre to brown and Venus carries colors such as blue and green. Could that be where John Gray got his inspiration from when he argued that “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”?

Dr. Matthew Birchwood is a visiting scholar at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, Queen Mary University in London and is specialized in the role of Islam in literary-political discourses of the seventeenth century in England. He, along with Dr. Matthew Dimmock, who is an English Lecturer at the University of Sussex, was allotted a talk on “Icons and Infidels.” They focused on two visits by Moroccan ambassadors to seventeenth century England (it is amazing how much paintings can say about politics and religion!). They started off with the sad statement that 500 years on, the Moors are, once again, about to be evicted from Spain.

Sarah Joseph, the chief editor of EMEL magazine, an Islamic lifestyle magazine, mentioned that she was recently asked to squeeze herself into a description of just three words. Having so many identities and character aspects, the main thing she could mention was being human. Although she is obviously not unique in that respect, it did clarify that we have the capacity to relate to other human beings instead of always identifying ourselves as a minority: We can perceive ourselves as part and parcel of society, as human as our non-Muslim neighbors.

After mentioning having a very thick skin and being willing to handle any question, she was asked about the famous wife-beating clause in the Qur’an. She answered that, although this clause was not the one that had tipped her over the edge to decide to become Muslim some 17 years ago, she stated that with proper questioning of the historical context and interpretation of the verse, it was clear that far from introducing domestic violence, it actually sought to extinguish it. What it meant to convey is that partners who “have words” don’t automatically get a one way ticket to Hell. The life of the Prophet Mohammed (peace and blessings be upon him) is, again, our great example in this respect.

To end the day, Dr Matthew Birchwood spoke again, this time about the “Alchoran,” the first translation of the Qur’an into English, dating back to 1649. This shows that Islam has been a good neighbor in the UK for much longer than the Asian invasion of the 1950s.

With all these interesting talks to attend, there was little time left to listen to the three short plays and the collection of short stories specially produced for the occasion by the British Khayaal (Arabic for imagination) Theatre Company. Just looking at them for a bit, though, on the brilliantly decorated stage and wearing beautiful, historical outfits, it was easy to drift off and believe I was actually in Arabia as it was a few centuries ago.

Finally, judging by the accents, there were quite a few of our neighbors present from across the pond. According to one of the people who had come from the US, many had come over to London as students, and they had been joined this weekend by vacationers using Thanksgiving as an excuse to visit their neighbors on the other side of the ocean.


* Rianne C. ten Veen is correspondent in Birmingham, UK. Currently, she is an employee in Islamic Relief.

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