Transgressing Art: A Comparison of Akbar Ahmed’s The Trial of Dara Shikoh & Shahid Nadeem&#82

Transgressing Art: A Comparison of Akbar Ahmed’s The Trial of Dara Shikoh (2007) & Shahid Nadeem’s Dara (2010)

by Akbar Ahmed and Manjula Kumar


Art is the work of the imagination and an expression of the writer’s vision. It is the creation of the mind and as such highly individualistic. Violating this creativity not only involves moral but also   copyright and   intellectual property issues. The play The Trial of Dara Shikoh by Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, copyrighted   in 2007 and published twice   in 2008 and again in 2009, is based on a fictionalized account of a court trial in which the Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh is accused and tried for apostasy. Ahmed used his expressions of thought and ideas to imagine certain episodes from the life of Dara. He had been writing of the relationship between Dara and his younger brother Aurangzeb since the 1980s. His books Discovering Islam, 1988,  and Journey Into Islam, 2007,  had a detailed account of the same story.

When Ahmed contacted Manjula Kumar the well-known director of the Smithsonian to stage the play in 2007 she readily agreed as she was such an admirer of Dara. She brought her passion and commitment to producing the play that got many excellent reviews. Both were in the media talking about the play. The different panels after the performances included the Pakistani ambassador and other senior figures like Mr Arif Mansuri, the publisher who also wrote the Foreword to the play (PL Publications,CA 2008). These panels served the purpose of promoting interfaith understanding. So did the mixed nature of the cast which had Pakistanis, Afghans, Indians and Americans all participating   enthusiastically.

When Ahmed heard of a Dara play produced by the Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem in 2010 and later adapted for performance in London by Tanya Ronder in 2015 he was pleased because as a fellow playwright and author   he had admired the efforts of the Pakistani artists who work in difficult conditions. The wider the circle of Dara admirers the better he thought. On finally obtaining a copy of the play Ahmed was dismayed to note the similarities between his own play and Shahid Nadeem’s play with no acknowledgment of this fact.

In Ahmed’s Dara, Ahmed used his imagination to write fictional scenes and dialogues involving his historical protagonists. Many of these were also apparent in Nadeem’s play. Such examples include the entire trial scene; a scene with Dara and his son in the prison cell together after the trial; the private statements of Aurangzeb in conversation with his sister; and the final scene of the play showing Aurangzeb decades after Dara’s execution yearning to be forgiven by Dara..


The following list is a break down of the similarities between Akbar Ahmed’s play (Akbar Ahmed, The Trial of Dara Shikoh: A Play in 3 Acts, Pakistan Link Publications, CA,2008) and Shahid Nadeem’s play (Shahid Nadeem, Dara, Adapted by Tanya Ronder, Nick Hern Books, 2015).


1. In Ahmed’s play, the first act is the court scene, which is not a historical event but the product of the author’s imagination based on his experience as a magistrate in Pakistan. This begins with Dara Shikoh announcing to the Qazi that he will defend himself. Then the prosecuting attorney calls three witnesses: a Hindu religious scholar, a Sikh religious scholar, and Dara Shikoh himself. He questions them in that order. Ahmed called his presiding judge Qazi Haq.

In Nadeem’s play, the court scene opens in Act 3, Scene 3, with Dara Shikoh announcing he will defend himself. The prosecuting attorney then calls his one and only witness: Dara Shikoh himself. He questions him about the Hindu faith, Sikh faith, and then his own relationship to Islam, in that order. Nadeem called his judge Qazi Sayed.

2. In Ahmed’s play, the prosecuting attorney first asks the Hindu scholar about the Upanishad which Dara Shikoh referred to as “God’s most perfect revelation.” He then questions the Sikh scholar about Sikhism and why Dara Shikoh is so close to Sikhs.

In Nadeem’s play, the prosecutor begins his examination of Dara Shikoh first with questions about his use of the Hindu text, Upanishad, which he referred to as “God’s most perfect revelation.” He then moves to questions about whether or not he is a secret Sikh.

3. In Ahmed’s play, the prosecuting attorney then calls Dara Shikoh forward and asks him about his works “The Mingling of Two Oceans” and “The Great Secret.” In defense of his verses, writings, and views on other religions, Dara Shikoh uses the figure that God “sent 124,000 prophets to remind us of the right path.” Dara mentions Guru Nanak as one of these figures. The prosecutor quotes Dara’s line “Paradise is there where there is no mullah” to connect Dara with Guru Nanak’s thought. The prosecutor says: “The same Guru Nanak who insulted all scholars of Islam? The Guru Nanak who especially targeted the true guardians of the state, the Qazis. I would like the court, oh honorable Qazi, to note what Guru Nanak said about Qazis: ‘The Qazis who sit in the courts to minister justice rosary in and the name of God on their lips commit injustice if their palm is not hand greased.”

In Nadeem’s play, the prosecutor questions Dara about his book “The Mingling of Two Oceans.” In defense of his writings and views on other religions, Dara quotes the figure that God sent 124,000 messengers before Muhammad. Prior to quoting this figure, the prosecutor asks Dara if the quote “Paradise is where there is no mullah” is his own words, followed by the accusation that he agrees with Guru Nanak’s sentiment about Qazis. The prosecutor states: “Don’t get clever with me, Prince. You agree with Nanak, the Sikh teacher, who said, ‘The Qazis’—forgive me, your honour, this is not my sentiment, ‘who sit in court and minister justice, commit injustice if their palms are not greased’?”

4. In Ahmed’s play, Dara, after being questioned by the prosecutor, is asked by the prosecuting attorney to present his ring to the Qazi so he can show the court what is written on the inside of it- Allah and Prabhu (God in Arabic and Sanskrit). The prosecutor asks Dara to define Prabhu, and Dara says it means “Master” in the Hindu tradition, after which the prosecutor accuses Dara of equating Prabhu with Allah. The prosecutor says, “He is admitting to having wandered from the straight path of Islam.”

In Nadeem’s play, the prosecutor asks Dara Shikoh to present his ring to the Qazi to he show the court what is written on the inside of it- Allah and Prabhu, “God…in Arabic and Sanskrit.” The prosecutor then accuses Dara Shikoh of equating Prabhu or “master” from the Hindu tradition with Allah and is guilty of apostasy. He then states, “Prince Dara, it is unpalatably clear from these proceedings, exactly as I predicted, that you strayed, long, long ago, from the pure path of Islam.”

5. In Ahmed’s play, Act 2, Scene 1 has a private conversation between Aurangzeb and two of his sisters, with Jahanara begging for Dara’s life and Roshanara justifying Aurangzeb’s actions and attempting to cheer him up. This private conversation is the product of the author’s imagination. I thought because Aurangzeb spent so much time studying Islam he could have quoted the Prophet   and in the dialogue with his sister Roshanara I have him saying as an explanation of his actions, “Never. I will never abandon my duty to Islam. I will always quote the holy Prophet, who when he was pressurized to give up Islam, said, ‘I will never do so, even if you place the sun in the palm of one hand, and the moon in the other.’”

In Nadeem’s play, Act 4, Scene 6 is a conversation between Aurangzeb and Roshanara in which Roshanara speaks to him trying to cheer him up, with Itbar, the imperial eunuch, then arriving with a letter from Shah Jahan asking him to spare Dara’s life. Earlier in the play, in Act 3, Scene 2, Nadeem’s Dara attributes the following   words to Aurangzeb,  though they were put in his mouth by me, when he says to Roshanara in an explanation of his actions towards Dara, “Put the sun and the moon in the palms of my hands, I will not bend from duty.”

6. In Ahmed’s play, Act 2, Scene 2 is a conversation between Dara and his son Sipihr in their prison cell with the scene ending with the guard announcing the details of his execution and the fate of his son. Historically, Dara was never placed in a cell with his son prior to his execution.

In Nadeem’s play, Act 4, Scene 7 finds Dara in a cell with his son Sipihr in which Itbar comes to speak to the guard about Dara’s execution.

7. In Ahmed’s play, the final scene finds Aurangzeb in 1681, 22 years after Dara’s execution, in which he is speaking with his dying sister who asks that he take care of all of his subjects and speaks of Dara. Aurangzeb discusses the problems of holding such a large empire. In the final lines of the play, Aurangzeb states to his dying sister, “I know you will intercede for me with Dara.”

In Nadeem’s play, the final scene finds Aurangzeb in 1707 talking to two of his sons, Kam and Azam, with Hira Bai, a Hindu dancing girl, and the Faqir also present.  Before Azam leaves the son, he orders his sons not to fight and warns them to rule delicately. He mentions to Kam the problems of ruling such a large empire. In the final lines of the play, he asks Hira Bai, “Would you do something for me, Hira Bai? Would you? Speak to Dara for me. I want to ask him. I want to ask him if he will intercede for me with Allah.”

Historical events are common property and available for any writer to use. The historical fiction of Ahmed’s The Trial of Dara Shikoh and its sequence of events, however, which are also used in the Nadeem’s play Dara, reflect, the imagination of the author Akbar Ahmed. Shahid Nadeem’s Dara has been getting excellent reviews after its performance in London and the trial scene in particular has been singled out as the centerpiece of the play. A critic for the Daily Telegraph in London called it a “masterpiece.” His review stated, “The courtroom dialogue is as riveting, tense and chilling as any trial dramatization I’ve ever seen; rivaling the scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird and reminding me of the sinister bias and evil of contemporary Sharia sham trials in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia.” (Peter Tatchell, “Dara: Fighting Islamism with art & culture”, Peter Tatchell Foundation, March 9, 2015.) It appears neither the reviewers nor the National Theater in London   researched to check if Dara was indeed an original work.

Like the Telegraph reviewer Professor Tamara Sonn, the noted scholar of the history of Islam now at Georgetown University, writing years earlier, liked the court scene: “As gripping as the trial of Socrates, ‘The Trial of Dara Shikoh’ documents the final days of the wise and virtuous Mughal prince, son of Shah Jehan and his wife Mumtaz (for whom the Taj Mahal was built). Like the trial of Socrates, ‘The Trial of Dara Shikoh’ allows the audience to experience both the logic of the accusers and the piety of the accused, bringing into sharp focus the tragedy that results when right and reason, compassion and judgment collide. Although it depicts actual events that occurred in the 17th century, ‘The Trial of Dara Shikoh’ could well be set in the 21st century, so deftly does it portray the inner conflicts that grip the Muslim world today.” (Akbar Ahmed, The Trial of Dara Shikoh, “Comments on The Trial of Dara Shikoh”, PL Publications, 2007)


Professor Stanley Wolpert, a prominent historian of South Asia, noted several years before the Telegraph writer the relevance of Ahmed’s Dara to the world today: “Professor Akbar Ahmed’s brilliant new play, ‘The Trial of Dara Shikoh,’ is not only a fascinating Drama, but a most important, highly instructive study of the major forces within Islam that continue to reflect the fatal struggle between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb that grip our modern world and may help to decide our global future.”


Akbar Ahmed’s play The Trial of Dara Shikoh was originally registered (2007) three years before Shahid Nadeem’s Dara which concerns the same subject matter(2010). It could not be sheer coincidence that the central trial scene in both plays and a number of scenes that follow are so similar in both structure and dialogue. This has compromised the integrity of Nadeem’s Dara, as it has not acknowledged where the scenes and dialogue outlined above originated. The record needs to be corrected. As a first step, we hope Shahid Nadeem will have the professional courtesy to acknowledge the inspiration for his play from Akbar Ahmed’s play The Trial of Dara Shikoh in future works and performances.


Akbar Ahmed,Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University,Washington DC, is the Playwright of “The Trial of Dara Shikoh” and Manjula Kumar,Director,Smithsonian Institute, is the Producer and Director.


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