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Islam, Migration, and Storytelling

When Islam was first professed on the Arabian continent nearly 1,500 years ago, it drew ire. The staunchly monotheistic belief system threatened enormous social, political, and religious upheaval among the Arab communities that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) preached to: female infanticide, alcoholism, and retributive justice were just some of the social ills that it curbed. Islam’s message of belief in one God, promotion of anti-racist equity, and uplifting of gender equality all upended the racist, classist, and sexist tendencies of Arab society, especially among the Quraysh, the powerful mercantile tribe that Muhammad (pbuh) himself came from. It comes as no surprise, then, that those who adopted Muhammad’s (pbuh) message first were slaves, youth, and women, since these groups lay at the bottom of the social pecking order.

These same followers were also the first to leave Makkah when Muhammad (pbuh), who was illiterate, received the divine command to migrate north to Yathrib (modern-day Medina). By the time this command came, some members of the fledgling Muslim community had already left for Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia/Eritrea), receiving protection from As-hamah, the ruler of the Kingdom of Aksum. When As-hamah, a Christian, heard the asylum-seeking Muslims recite portions of Surah Maryam, the nineteenth chapter of the Qur’an that describes stories of Jesus (pbuh) and Mary (pbuh), he wept at the commonalities between the divine source of the Qur’anic and Biblical narrations. As-hamah became Muslim and protected the migrating Muslims from harm, even when the Quraysh tried to force their return to Makkah.

These early Muslims were refugees. They sought asylum from oppressive social and political circumstances, taking with them divinely communicated narrations and stories that were legible to a society steeped in oral storytelling.

The situation in Medina was a little different, but still based on an escape from persecution. Muslims migrated north by night and in secret, a handful at a time, to avoid Qurayshi suspicion. They settled in Medina with the assistance of supportive locals known in Islamic history as the Ansar, or helpers. The Ansar provided housing, food, and clothing to the Muslims in those early years, socially and economically stabilizing the migrating Muslims until the early Muslims repelled haughty attacks by the Quraysh and achieved a firm social and financial footing. The migration from Makkah to Medina—also known as the hijrah—holds such significance in Islamic history that today’s Islamic calendar bears the initials AH, a timestamp acronym meaning “After Hijrah.” Without migration, Islam would not exist.

All this is to say that whether they went to Abyssinia, Medina, or elsewhere to survive, these early Muslims were refugees. They sought asylum from oppressive social and political circumstances, taking with them divinely communicated narrations and stories that were legible to a society steeped in oral storytelling. Muhammad’s (pbuh) recitation of the Qur’an was a divine performance. By this, I mean that he received revelations directly from God (through Archangel Gabriel) and then served as the human intermediary bringing the message of monotheism to his community and beyond. Muhammad (pbuh) did not author the Qur’an. Rather, the Qur’an is a collection of the revelations that Muhammad (pbuh) received. As Muhammad (pbuh) recited them, contemporaries memorized the revelations and scribes wrote them down. Within twenty years of Muhammad’s (pbuh) death, the revelations were compiled into a codex in the order that Muhammad (pbuh) had prescribed before he died. Muhammad (pbuh) is thus the Qur’an’s first audience; it often speaks to him directly, in the second person. His community, and indeed the wider world as his message continued to expand, thus became a secondary audience for the Qur’an. The oral performance of the Qur’an was also, at times, interactive and immersive: skeptics and believers alike would ask for guidance or revelation around specific events, ideas, or challenges. One famous example is the revelation of Surat al-Kahf, the Qur’an’s eighteenth chapter, which translates to “The Cave.” This chapter was revealed in response to sociohistorical and spiritual questions from rabbis in Medina trying to disprove Muhammad’s (pbuh) prophethood. Instead, their questions ended up revealing information about Moses (pbuh) that even the Torah and Talmudic/rabbinical tradition do not speak of.

Pages from the oldest known Qur'an, written in Arabic.

Images of the oldest Qur’an known to be in existence, dating from 76 AH. Photo from Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

It's important to note that one of the main charges leveled against Muhammad (pbuh) by skeptical contemporaries was that—despite him not knowing how to read or write—he was a mere poet. In the Arabia of his day, oral storytelling was a well-established performance genre, so much so that the lyricism, poetic flourishes, and rhyme schemes of Qur’anic revelation were often understood in that light. However, the Qur’an sets itself apart from those performance practices, commenting in Surah Ya-Seen, the thirty-sixth chapter of the Qur’an, that “We have not taught him [that is, Muhammad] poetry, nor is it fitting for him. This Book is only a Reminder and a clear Quran.” Narration after narration from Muhammad’s (pbuh) life describe moments in which poets of the time described his recitation of the Qur’an as unparalleled and beyond anything previously produced in Arab society. It was only because they knew of human poetic standards that these artists could admit the divine inspiration through which Muhammad (pbuh) spoke, which came from the Original Creator Himself.

Islam and Muslimness are thus based on two intertwined dimensions: (a) narrative, oral performance and (b) migration from oppression. For better or for worse, these facets of Islamic history remain alive and well in contemporary Muslim experiences, whether through the violence of European colonialization visited upon numerous African and Asian countries; Euro-American military adventurism in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya; the socially dubious imperative that every Muslim must denounce extremist violence to not be labeled extremist themselves; or the silencing of pro-Palestinian Muslim protestors in such a way that, at the very campus where I teach courses on theatre and human rights, in April 2024, police officers forcibly removed Muslim women student protestors from enclosed tents at an on-campus pro-Palestine encampment and arrested them without allowing them to put their headscarves on.

A group of students protest on a schools campus, with a Palestinian flag

University of Connecticut students protesting in support of Palestine. Photo by NBC Connecticut.

This timely and crucial HowlRound series, “Transatlantic Muslim Voices,” recognizes that the American theatre landscape’s stubborn US-centrism is at extreme odds with the intimate intersection of Islam, migration, and performance. How does the intersection of Islam, migration, and performance illuminate the US theatre scene’s blind spots? In what ways does the white supremacist complicity of that same theatre community reinforce colonial and neoimperial impulses that subjugate Muslims, limit the roles they are allowed to play, and narrow the stories told about them? What does an Islamic anti-racist morality and social justice framework look like in contemporary performance? And what do we need to do to—as an artistic community—take it seriously?

The contributors assembled here echo the social justice-oriented nature of Muslim migration, bearing witness to the roles that orality and performance historically played and continue to play in what it means to be Muslim, both then and now. United States-based theatremaker Ifrah Mansour describes her journey through and with different Black Muslim communities when developing theatre in the Midwest, enlivening her Somali heritage and the diasporic experience of the communities she works with. United Kingdom-based poet and theatre artist Elmi Ali describes his observations about how the city of Manchester where he lives is a microcosm of migration magic, drawing out themes of race, class, and religion. United Kingdom-based poet and writer Nasima Bee describes the intimacies of an applied theatre workshop with British Muslim women negotiating Brexit Britain’s racist political climate. And United States-based artist Abdul-Rehman Malik wonders—and enacts—what it might mean to make Othello well and truly Muslim, a clapback to Shakespeare’s foreign, debilitating, and racist depiction of the Black Muslim man.

Despite changing contexts and times, the challenges facing Muslim storytellers and theatremakers remain relatively constant.

Across all these essays, there is a strong undercurrent of what it means to be a Muslim theatremaker in sociopolitical contexts where the stories and experiences of Muslims are vilified. Elmi and Nasima emphasize the interstitial nature of Muslimness in Britain, so much so that only private spaces in contemporary Britain—mosques and applied theatre workshops alike, within which Muslimness is a given rather than an anomaly—enliven the possibility of authentic, artistic representations of Muslim experiences. Ifrah and Abdul-Rehman toy with the concept of public Muslimness in theatre, thinking critically about the racialized intersection of Blackness and Islam in specific contexts—whether that's Shakespeare’s racism or East African diasporic communities—that sanction particular types of Muslimness. Together, these surface the intersection of theatre, race, movement, and Islam in cogent and comprehensive ways, demonstrating how, despite changing contexts and times, the challenges facing Muslim storytellers and theatremakers remain relatively constant.

As we enter a new Islamic year (1446 AH) this week, these essays offer a moment of reflection that draw out what migration and Muslimness mean in today’s theatre landscape. All over the world, Muslims today are oppressed, their stories, perspectives, and practices vilified. In Gaza, Muslims are victims of Israel’s mass murder campaign, a genocide that communities around the world continue to mourn. In India, Muslims suffer from anti-Muslim citizenship laws and rightwing extremist Hindu violence. In Myanmar, Muslims face torture and unlawful arrest. In China, Muslims are imprisoned in “re-education camps.” In the United States, Muslims are wrongfully detained and labeled as “terrorists.” And in the United Kingdom, Muslims are racialized as violent by the British government’s counterterrorism oriented Prevent agenda. All this violence is dependent on a particular imagining of Muslims, a particular dramaturgy about their experiences and beliefs, and a particular packaging of their narratives and stories. In line with many other admirable initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic, it is the work of this series to speak against this imagining, dramaturgy, and packaging, surfacing instead hopeful Muslim joy. Understanding these entanglements now—and how theatre might be able to do something about them—could not be more urgent.

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Thoughts from the curator

Neoliberal and colonial empires have devastated Muslim communities across the globe. Whether it is British imperialism in South Asia or the military adventurism of the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, geopolitical violence has moved Muslims from homelands to colonizers’ lands. Throughout these migrations, theatre and the telling of stories have been sources of strength and solidarity, a legacy drawing on the origins of Muslim history. Indeed, the dates of today’s Islamic calendar bear the acronym “AH” or “After Hijrah,” a term that references the migration of early Muslims from the religious oppression they faced in Makkah to a more tolerant context in Medina. Drawing on this legacy of migration to escape subjugation, Transatlantic Muslim Voices examines the ways that contemporary British and US theatre artists have continued or drawn inspiration from this practice through their own work. The contributors to this series are diverse in their racial, ethnic, gender, linguistic, and sexual identities, but all of them meditate on what it means to be a Muslim on the move.

Transatlantic Muslim Voices


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