Crusading for Modern Islamic Art

Beyond calligraphy, geometric designs and classic Islamic poetry, there's Wajahat Ali, who with his new play "The Domestic Crusaders" is rewriting the book on what is modern Islamic art.

BY: Shahed Amanullah

 

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The three American-born children follow archetypes that resemble many Muslim youth growing up in America: Eldest child Salahuddin, pushed by his parents to excel at everything, represses a growing resentment; daughter Fatima continually defends her unique Islamic identity in the face of family traditions and American culture; and youngest son Ghafur is determined to strike out on his own path regardless of what his family thinks of him.

Salman, the father, feels the pressure of being the family patriarch and breadwinner but stoically carries out his duty despite his own personal needs. And his wife Khulsoom plays a fish out of water trying to maintain a cultural bubble around herself and (less successfully) around her family. Salman’s father Hakim, a retired Pakistani army officer, plays a quiet background role until a terrible revelation fills in some of the pieces of the missing puzzle and provides a bridge for understanding between family members.

While Ali has strived to make the play as professional as possible–and he succeeds in meeting all the standards of any similar production in a large metropolitan area–he was determined to cast the play with actors from the local Pakistani community, whether they had formal training or not. He coaxes incredibly convincing performances out of an amateur cast, who were blessed with an interesting and at times rip-roaringly funny script that is so true to the reality of living a Muslim life in America that it is easy to imagine this discourse actually happening in an American-Muslim home.

But this play is more than a Muslim "All in the Family." There’s serious ground to be covered, and you might find yourself checking your laughter as the play moves forward. The grandfather of the family has a hidden past that shapes everything the family is, as revealed through a confession that has each family member questioning where it is they have been and where they are going; exploring what is at stake in the relationship between Muslims and their neighbors; exploring what it means to have regrets about the past and the value of not letting go of memories, even if the scar tissue continues to irritate.

Ali’s gift for humor and cultural awareness–he has a command of many cultures that exist in America, not just Pakistani–help make the central themes in "Crusaders" understandable by all who watch it, This is one of the best things about Ali’s play–it explores themes from recent Muslim history and what we might think of as Muslim values and offers gifts from that experience to anyone who comes from a varied background, who is struggling to balance East and West. It’s also for those whose understanding of Islam and Muslims comes with a Fox News soundtrack.

To my knowledge, Ali’s "The Domestic Crusaders" is the first theater work by a Muslim (although the off-Broadway one-man play "Sakina’s Restaurant" by Aasif Mandvi of "The Daily Show" comes close) to humanize an American Muslim family rather than caricaturizing them. It’s a play that allows us to laugh with the characters rather than laughing at them. As a vehicle for dawah (spreading knowledge and understanding about Islam), it is an extremely important vehicle for turning today’s black and white world a little greyer and more human.

But dawah is not why "Crusaders" was made, and it would be a mistake to refer to it or use it in this manner. "Crusaders" was meant to tell a universal story--and showcasing the values– through the eyes of a Muslim family at home in America. Best of all, it passes the main test of a play–it is truly entertaining, makes us laugh and think at the same time, and acts as a clarion call to other Muslims whose art, beautiful as it may be, remains limited to reflections of an Islamic past that have little relevance for our non-Muslim neighbors.

Inshallah (God willing), other young Muslim artists in the West will follow the example of “Domestic Crusaders” and turn a stand-alone play into a rich genre that can be one of Islam’s great gifts to America.

An early version of “The Domestic Crusaders” premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2005 and in San Jose University Theater in the fall of 2005. The play will have its world premiere off-Broadway at the Nuyorican Theater in New York on 9-11-09 for a five weekend run until early October. For more information visit http://www.domesticcrusaders.com/

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