SHAFAQNA – Europe’s first ever Shia amateur theatre company are going from success to success playing to packed audiences on their latest tour of the United Kingdom. This weekend they were at the Prissian Theatre in South London performing their latest play – The Harbinger. The group responsible for this creative revolution are Ridayatullah Theatre. This youth-led initiative has rapidly blossomed into the premier Western based creative expression of the legacy of Imam Husayn (as) continuing the classical tradition of taziyah and passion plays performed in Iran.
At a time, in the West, when the narrative and story of Islam is all too often being told by those who hate it; the creative focus on the role of the martyrs of Karbala, and their fight for a more virtuous world, is a monumentally positive step forward for a conservative Muslim community. It is one hopes a small step towards Muslims recapturing their own narratives in the public sphere.
The founder of the company is Ali Abbas Panju who says that having conceived of the concept in early 2012 his wife and a small dedicated team of volunteers has set out to “establish a youth theatre initiative dedicated to bring about social change and integration between communities of different backgrounds and faiths across Britain”.
Ridayatullah’s latest production tells the story of Sulayman ibn Razeen (ra) –the first martyr, the harbinger of the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), Husayn ibn Ali (a.s), who was deputed to go to Basra to inform the people of the injustice of the despotic imposed King of the Muslim empire in the prelude to the tragedy of Karbala. With a beautifully lit stage, a great set – with fantastic props and costumes the young thespians performed admirably delivering pathos, tragedy, drama and humour.
The rapid rise of the theatre company also hints at ‘green shoots of a change’ emerging in how young Muslims, growing up under the shadow of 9/11 and the West’s so called ongoing ‘war on terror’, are now beginning to fight back against the negative stereotyping of their identity through the soft power of spiritual culture.
The rising grassroots and institutional Islamophobia they have had to face for nearly two decades is especially evidenced within the narratives of western right wing media, who are complicit in distorting the message of Islam almost daily. This is done both overtly through the pedalling of terrorism as virtually an Islamic belief and often its done covertly too, through subtle innuendos, unfairly associating honour killing, domestic violence or female genital mutilation with Islam.
The Production Company has delivered forty performances, to an audience of over eight and a half thousand people over the last five years, including televised ones. They have researched written and performed twelve plays and trained over sixty amateur actors and have entered the first ever Islamic cultural performance to the all England Amateur Theatre Festival.
Director, Ali Abbas Panju says “ Muslim communities are not theatre goers and in their commemoration of the sacrifice of Imam Husayn (as) they have been set in their ways with a focus on traditional rituals and lectures by scholars only, but the theatre performance is no less important a means of teaching Muslims and non Muslims about the values and virtue ethics of the Household of the Prophet and Islam.”
In its early days the resistance to Ridayatullah Theatre’s performances was in fact considerably hostile in some quarters but Ali says people are now very excited and see the positive impact of the plays on their children in particular. He says his dream is that the Muslim community “ invest more in these productions to enable my team to improve every year, so that eventually we are able to afford larger scale marketing, training, and production budgets in order to facilitate our performances to become professional enough to be toured in mainstream theatres and to take Imam Husayn’s message of love compassion and justice to new and even wider audiences that are being taught to fear and hate both Muslims and Islam.”
Shaykh Ahmed Haneef from the Islamic Centre of England says “investment in Islamic theatre and creativity is absolutely essential if Muslims are to make their mark in the West”.
To find out more about Ridayatullah Theatre’s next performances it is possible to view their tour dates or contact them on www.rtheatre.co.uk.