The Power of Storytelling

In 7th-century Arabia, the storyteller was valued more than the swordsman. The audience sat on the floor surrounding the gifted orator as he captivated the eager listeners with beautiful poetry narrating their history. In the 21st century, the art form may have evolved to include motion pictures, TV shows, theater productions, novels, and standup comedy, but they all serve the same function: storytelling.

Ideas and principles are most effectively communicated and transmitted when they are couched in a narrative. Stories, whether they concern the etiquette and biography of prophets or the trials and tribulations of America’s founding fathers, inform and influence a cultural citizenry of its values and identity.

Stories of the Prophet Muhammad most effectively communicate the Quran’s eloquent exhortation to tolerate and embrace diversity: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise [each other])” (49:13). The Prophet’s cordial diplomacy and communication with the Christian, Abyssinian King yielded one of the first alliances of the young Muslim community. Furthermore, the Prophet displayed unconditional love for his diverse companions, who comprised the gamut of Arab society including former slaves, orphans, widows, wealthy dignitaries, and non-Arabs.

Similarly, the story of a biracial man with an Arabic name and a Kenyan father elected to the highest office in the land reminds the world that indeed America can live up to its cherished principles of freedom and racial equality, and her citizens are capable of reflecting a magnanimous and egalitarian spirit bereft of prejudice.

If a person were to read these stories comprising the core values of Islamic and American history, one would assume their respective cultural fabrics resemble a generous, messy, lively, colorful mosaic perpetually adding and experimenting with new colors, styles, and hues to beautify its narrative.

And yet nine years after the two towers fell, we hear and see daily stories of vile stereotyping, fear-mongering, and hysteria tearing the frays and revealing miserly and stingy threads unwilling to accept or bind with the “others.”

Despite a long and rich history of positive contribution and active participation in American society, many Muslim Americans feel forever trapped by the shadow of 9/11 and thus condemned to being viewed as perpetual suspects by neighbors in their own homeland. Due to the perverse, criminal actions of a deluded minority, Islam has been cast as the perennial “villain” whose limited acting range consists of radical extremist, terrorist bomber, or zealous anti-American bigot.

Unsurprisingly, nearly 48 percent of Americans hold a negative opinion of Islam and about half admit not knowing any Muslims.

Around the world, the clichéd story also paints America and all Americans as the “bad guys” who arrogantly stroll into town and violently bully anyone who opposes their might.

If these stories persist with such simplistic, one-dimensional caricatures and formulaic narratives, then the predictable third act can only end in tragedy.
Indeed, several Muslim Americans feel humiliated and under siege living in such a politically loaded, accusatory climate. They resort to angry victimization and reactionary rhetoric, becoming cultural consumers of TV news and media sound bites instead of participating as proactive cultural creators.

And, yet, history has repeatedly proven that pain and love, the most powerful of human feelings, are usually the most potent ingredients to inspire communities with an artistic renaissance. It is not surprising that African Americans and Jewish Americans, two groups who have suffered tremendously in past centuries, have arguably been some of America’s most influential cultural creators. Both groups created stories drawing upon their unique experiences, tragedies, languages, and histories, which eventually became infused with the larger American narrative. If Muslim Americans can learn from the struggles of minority groups before them, we will realize the best ways to escape “our shadow” is by finally telling our own stories in our own voices and using art and storytelling as a means of healing and education.

The future of Islam in America has to be written by Muslim Americans who boldly grab hold of the conch and become heroes of our own narratives. We can no longer exist in culturally isolated cocoons or bury our heads under the sand waiting for the tide to subside on its own. We must follow the traditions and values of Islam and America by being generous and inviting with our narratives. We must tell stories that are “by us, for everyone,” thus accurately reflecting the spectrum of shared common values that exist simultaneously within the Muslim and American spirit.

These stories will ultimately influence the greater American narrative reminding fellow citizens that no group is a cultural monolith worthy of being painted with only black and white colors, and that even Islam is capable of benefiting America with its unique spiritual and cultural gifts.

Thankfully, a few storytellers have already heard the call and picked up the conch. Among them is G. Willow Wilson, a white, American-born convert to Islam, who cites Islam and the West as critical foundations of her spiritual journey in her new memoir, The Butterfly Mosque. Her story is living proof that an individual can maintain fidelity both to one’s American and Muslim roots without mutual exclusivity or an “internal” clash of civilizations.

The Taqwacore movement, inspired by Muslim American convert Michael Muhammad’s fictional novel of the same name, shows us punk, suburban, American-born Muslim kids who are just as comfortable citing hadiths of the Prophet as they are reciting Sex Pistol lyrics — all while styling their mohawks.

Meanwhile, Eva Ensler’s influential Vagina Monologues inspired American-born Muslim Sahar Ullah to write and perform her own Hijabi Monologues, featuring complex female characters equipped with unique and powerful voices that deconstruct and defuse lazy stereotypes. As Ullah mentions on the group’s Facebook page, “Through the power of storytelling, generalizations and categories are challenged. Through stories, strangers touch and connect. Through stories, the story-teller and listener are humanized.”

Humor and personal stories are used by comedians Preacher Moss, an African American convert to Islam, and Azhar Usman, a thick-bearded, South Asian American Muslim, to defang racism and Islamaphobia in their “Allah Made Me Funny” tour. Meanwhile, and Illume Magazine are influential, American online magazines employing Muslim writers to finesse content for an international audience on a variety of topical issues intersecting both Islam and the West.

My own play, The Domestic Crusaders, draws on the “kitchen drama” traditions of American theater, as seen in A Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Raisin in the Sun, to tell a universal story through a culturally specific lens of a Muslim Pakistani American family living in a post-9/11 world. Strip away the family’s cultural idiosyncrasies, replace their Urdu with English, substitute their chicken biryani with meatloaf, change their multisyllabic last names, and their struggles and aspirations should resemble those of your neighbors and community members.

And, of course, we cannot forget to mention America’s best-selling poet, Rumi, a Muslim Sufi and scholar who lived 800 years ago in Konya, Turkey and whose intense love for the Divine fueled his ecstatic poetry that continues to inspire hearts, of all religions and colors, to this day.

The Muslim American storytellers of the 21st century need to simultaneously mine our rich Islamic and American identity and history to discover our own Rumis, whose stories will bestow endless rewards that can only benefit and add to the ever-growing multicultural mosaic that is America.

It seems that the only happy ending for the future of Islam is a story in which it coincides and coexists peacefully with the future of America.

WAJAHAT ALI is a playwright, journalist and attorney, whose play, The Domestic Crusaders, will be published by McSweeney’s in December, 2010. He is consulting Voice of Witness on their forthcoming book of post-9/11 oral histories. He blogs at Goatmilk.

Wajahat Ali is a poet, playwright and essayist living in the Bay Area. His widely acclaimed work, The Domestic Crusaders, the first major play about Muslim-Americans was produced by Ishmael Reed. He can be reached at: