written by Lucas Baisch, Literary and Public Programs Intern
“And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, ‘Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.’ But he called her from below her, “Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream.” – “Surat Maryam” from The Holy Qu’ran, 19:23-24
Tahera Ahmad (Associate Chaplain at Northwestern University) recites verses from the Qu’ran that feature Mary in the panel discussion Mary in Islam
Wednesday evening, Victory Gardens hosted a special Afterwords discussion titled “Mary in Islam,” gathering a panel of experts to reflect on the representation of Mary in Islamic tradition. These panelists included, Tahera Ahmad, Muslim scholar and Associate Chaplain at Northwestern University, K. Rizwan Kadir, senior financial consultant and speaker on behalf of geo-political and interfaith topics, and Rohina Malik, playwright and performer.
It is no secret that after events such as the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and 9/11 that a global war on terror has antagonized practitioners of Islam in America. As a non-practitioner of any specific faith, I am always intrigued by the history of and happenings within various spiritual cultures, but going into this panel discussion I felt wary about having very little knowledge of Islamic tradition. For instance, I did not know that Mary is mentioned more times in the Qu’ran than in the Bible, or that Muslims believe in the prophets, or that Muslims believe Mary was immaculate, a perfect woman, that there was a virginal pregnancy. What I did know was that the audience’s perceived themes of loneliness, anger, regret, and sorrow living within the text of Colm Toibin’s play call into question the revered image of Mary in both realms of Christianity and Islam.
The above excerpt from the Qu’ran was brought up twice during conversation. Once, when Tahera beautifully sung the 19th sura, or chapter, of the religious text, and a second time when Rohina reflected on the agency of Mary in Islamic culture. As the story goes, God told Mary to shake the trunk of a palm tree (a very difficult task, especially when in labor) and reap from it fallen dates. In all her physical pain she mustered the strength to release the sweet fruit from the fronds, a similar power that charges the Mary seen in Testament.
Rohina articulated to the audience that, “many Muslim women feel a connection to Mary. We see her in our iconography.” The playwright aptly continued, “Until it comes to a nun or Mary, the veil is made controversial.” Considering the anecdote of the dates and the empowerment that Muslim women feel by Mary, I found myself trying to appreciate this interpretation while simultaneously checking myself for any kind of othering of the icon or culture.
The thing is, I have a way of managing my public appearance that others may not in order to feel some semblance of security walking down the street. Although I am of Latino heritage, my skin is pale and I went to college – I can spew academic verbiage in order to reinforce that I am educated. Although I identify as queer, I can lower the register of my voice, I can curl my painted fingernails while on public transit in order to avoid instances of homophobia. Identity comes as a performance to some, a physical marker to others. This isn’t to say I actively strive to hide portions of my identity, nor should anyone aspire to that, but it is important to note what is out of one’s individual control.
I contemplate recent events of physical violence on Michael Brown, Eric Garner, on Mutahir Rauf, the 23 year-old Loyola student shot and killed last week, and I feel a sort of guilt for being able to activate and deactivate facets of my personal identity depending upon my environment. People do not choose the societal interpretations of the color of their skin, or the dress they may wear.
While Tahera recited the sura, I was astonished by two patrons in the back of the audience loudly whispering and actually calling out during the sacred chants, “Do we even know what she’s doing?” While these were only two of a largely invested group of listeners, I felt genuinely surprised that this was how some people listen. I try to go to the theatre for my beliefs to be challenged. It isn’t very often that this actually happens. Even though I may have felt ignorant Wednesday night, it is important that I have opportunities such as this panel to be educated.
“America is an on-going social experiment,” Kadir reminds me; a country built upon the intercultural exchange of beliefs. Though Islam and Christianity have many common threads between them, Kadir paints the picture of the United States as an amorphous blob still trying to figure out what it is. Today, I think about gathering dates from palm frond; I try to contemplate the ways in which art, religion, and politics give or take the ability to shake tree trunk. As I aid Victory Gardens in moving forward with public programming for upcoming shows Samsara and The Who and The What, I am grateful for last night’s panel challenging my ideas of what life outside my peripheral truly looks like.
The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the run of the show, please click here.