Fawzia Afzal-Khan in Counterpunch:
Ayad Akhtar’s The Who and the What: A Feminist Reclamation of Islam?
“Absolutely fantastic!” is what Ingrid, a young Puerto-Rican woman sitting next to me ….said of Akhtar’s latest work, his second play to be performed at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theatre in New York City, which I saw June 27th 2014 during a sold-out 4-week run. “What makes it so?” I probed further. “Well,” she obligingly smiled, “it’s so realistic in its portrayal of these characters, and the actors are so convincing.” A young Pakistani-American friend of her’s sitting on the next seat over chimed in, “Yes, but I think what makes it a really important play for me is that it raises issues we Muslims need to confront and discuss.”
The title of the play points to the limitations in our own questioning to “get at” texts by asking “who” and “what” types of questions of them. Asking, as Muslims generally do (or Christians, or Jews for that matter)—“what does the text[in this case, the Quran] actually say”—is to go down a literalist dead end. Orthodox Muslims attempt to delimit and “authenticate” the “what” (the meaning) of the Holy Book, by trying to establish its veracity through a chain of the “who”—i.e by establishing the “truth” or “authenticity” of the interpreter/translator of the Prophet’s words and thus, of the Quranic text itself. Such a “dead-end” is what even culturalist, liberal Muslims are guilty of when we choose some hadith as true and discard others based on some factitious chain of command and dissemination over centuries, as though there was a way of “getting at” the “truth” of what the Prophet said or didn’t say, and which verses of the Quran thus seem authentic revelations of God or not. Instead, Akhtar is suggesting a different approach to Islam beyond a reductive exegetical one, which is unfortunately the kind held on to in the play by the central character, a Pakistani immigrant to the USA named Afzal, who has made a success of his life here by going from being a cabbie to owning a cab company, bringing up his two daughters after his wife passes away, in material comfort and raising them as “good “Muslims.