When the Pakistani scholar Akbar Ahmed arrived at American University in August 2001 as the new Ibn Khaldun chairman of Islamic Studies, he thought he knew what work lay ahead: Teach classes, write books and share his deep knowledge of Islamic religion and culture.
A month later, as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were in ashes and flames, Ahmed quickly realized he had an urgent and timely mission: Bridge the yawning chasm between the West and the Muslim world.
Ahmed, 64, whom the BBC has dubbed "probably the world's best-known scholar on contemporary Islam," tirelessly promotes interfaith relations through his scholarship (he has 30 books to his credit); his television appearances on CNN, "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Nightline" and elsewhere; and his public dialogues with Judea Pearl, father of slain Jewish reporter Daniel Pearl.
Now Ahmed has found a new forum in which to communicate his message. His first theatrical drama, "Noor," will receive its world premiere in a staged reading tonight at 6 as part of Theater J's "Voices From a Changing Middle East" series, part of this summer's Capital Fringe Festival.
Speaking by phone, Ahmed predicted that his play would help "shatter the idea of Islam as a monolith."
"Noor," directed by Shirley Serotsky, is the tale of three brothers who try desperately to rescue their sister Noor, who has been kidnapped by unidentified soldiers during Ramadan. (Noor means light in Arabic and is one of Islam's 99 names for God.) The play's setting is unnamed; in an introductory note, the playwright says it could be Baghdad, Cairo, Karachi or Kabul.
Each brother represents a different ideological position in the contemporary Islamic world. The eldest, Abdullah, is a Sufi mystic whose sheik counsels him to rely on prayer. The second brother, Ali, is a lawyer who appeals for help from a government minister who turns out to be corrupt. The third, Daoud, sees no recourse except violence.
The catastrophe deepens when the mother of Noor's fiance breaks off the engagement, refusing to allow her son to marry a girl who almost certainly has been raped. The play concludes with the return of Noor (played by Ahmed's daughter, Nefees Ahmed, a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda). Noor reads a poem from Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet, about two lovers meeting in a field "out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing."
The play's message is one of religious tolerance, placing it squarely in the tradition of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's 18th-century drama "Nathan the Wise," in which three major religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- are shown to have deeper commonalities than differences. But in "Noor," the brothers exemplify the three principal methods adopted by Muslims to cope with the crisis of modern Islam -- a crisis that scholars date to the rise of industrialization in the 19th century and the concomitant spread of Western ideas about equality, democracy and women's rights.
Ahmed says his goal is to enlighten Americans about the diversity of positions within the Muslim world -- which is the overriding theme of his recently published book "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization."
He says that what the West views as violence motivated by religious extremism is actually often motivated by mainstream Muslims' attempts to defend their honor and dignity. He also is highly critical of the American media for propagating images of Muslims as mindless and bloodthirsty. Ahmed avers that these inflammatory media images, along with the American military presence in the Middle East, "create the perception that Islam is under attack. This makes ordinary Muslims look to those who can stand up and fight back."
So it is religion, he says, that is often used to fan the flames of hatred. Updating Karl Marx's phrase, Ahmed is fond of saying: "Religion is no longer the opiate of the masses. It is the speed of the masses."
What deepens the divide, Ahmed says, is the brain drain of Muslim scholars from the Arab world, many of whom have been killed or have fled to the West. "The scholarly vacuum," he lamented, "leaves thugs and tyrants."
Yet his play reflects how learning is revered in Muslim cultures. "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr," exclaims one of the characters in "Noor," quoting the Koran.
Ari Roth, the maverick artistic director of Theater J, has premiered new works by many established and budding playwrights, including last season's debut of "Either Or," a Holocaust-themed drama by first-time playwright Thomas Keneally, the Australian author best known for "Schindler's List."
Roth says "Noor" parallels another play Theater J produced this summer, Motti Lerner's "Pangs of the Messiah," which dramatizes political divisions within an Israeli family dealing with the intifada. And "Noor" thrusts into sharp relief Roth's premiere this week of David Zellnik's "Ariel Sharon Hovers Between Life and Death and Dreams of Theodor Herzl," in which the Zionist leader is shown taking a hard-line stance against the Palestinians. [See review on this page.]
But "Noor" might be closest in spirit to Leila Buck's "In the Crossing," performed at Theater J on Monday night, in which a Lebanese Christian woman living in America takes her Jewish husband to Lebanon to visit her family, and the two find themselves in the middle of last summer's war between Hezbollah and Israel.
Staging "Noor" in a Jewish theater is itself highly symbolic -- a step toward opening up a crucial dialogue.
"You can't dramatize the Arab-Israeli conflict without dramatizing the Arab experience," Roth says. "We need to listen to each other and hear each other's stories."