Shakespeare is at the centre of Muslim Awareness Week, a bid to highlight the contribution Britain’s 1.8 million Muslims have made to society.
As part of the campaign, colourful images of Islamic culture are being projected on to the outer walls of The Globe, the open air Shakespearean theatre on the banks of the River Thames.
The theatre, a replica of an Elizabethan playhouse, will host an Arabic suq and a reading of a rare version of Othello,
Shakespeare’s great tragedy about a Moorish nobleman who fights for Christian Venice.
“Shakespeare’s plays are not about good versus evil, not about a world in which you are either ‘with us or against us’,”
said Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, a Muslim scholar who is lecturing on Shakespeare and Islam at The Globe this week.
“Shakespeare refuses to indulge in those cartoon caricatures
of right and wrong. His plays are too complex for that.”
Yusuf says young British Muslims would do better to heed the
subtle words of Shakespeare than the more strident messages sometimes thrown at them by politicians and religious leaders.
“Poets have an immense amount to teach us,” he said. “We listen too much to our social engineers and social scientists and not enough to our poets.”
“Poets have an immense amount to teach us,” he said. “We listen too much to our social engineers and social scientists and not enough to our poets”
Shaikh Hamza Yusuf,
At first glance, Shakespeare would seem an unlikely figurehead for a campaign of religious tolerance.
His voracious money-lender Shylock in The Merchant of
Venice is often blamed for reinforcing stereotypes of Jews and fuelling anti-Semitism.
The Bard’s plays, written in an age of religious strife and long before the advent of political correctness, are packed with characters who display all the mistrust of foreigners one would expect from the average Elizabethan.
But Yusuf, an American convert to Islam who heads an Islamic foundation in California, says Shakespeare’s depiction of Muslims is not altogether hostile.
Othello is a noble, righteous soldier who leads the Venetian fight against the Muslim Turks before being fatally deceived by the nominally Christian villain Iago.
The Prince of Morocco is a dignified suitor to Portia in The Merchant of Venice and even Aaron, the wicked Moor in Titus Andronicus, is granted some redeeming features.
The aftermath of September 11
Yusuf, who converted to Islam as a teenager, says Protestant Elizabethan England took a relatively benign view of Muslims, seeing them as natural allies in their fight against Roman Catholic Spain.
“It’s interesting that the two villains in Othello – Iago and Roderigo – have Spanish, not Venetian names,” he says.
“I really think Shakespeare was arguing in that play for an alliance with Morocco against the Spanish.”
Whatever Shakespeare’s intentions, organisers of this week’s events feel his legacy can help improve relations between Muslims and non-Muslims – relations which have taken a battering due to fallout from the 9/11 attacks.
“Shakespeare is part of our heritage,” said Shafiq Sadiq, national coordinator of Islamic Awareness Week.
“His plays remind us of the global communities that we live
in and the need for respect and goodwill.”