Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Muslim-themed Movies

Whether it's through reading, listening or watching a movie, I think it's safe to say that everyone loves a good story. There's nothing like diving in head-first into the world of a good book, or being captivated by the rush of emotions a movie brings. That's because stories are a reflection of life. An interesting analogy which summed it up perfectly was: "stories are like human currency". You learn about peoples cultures, beliefs, and values through stories. You are introduced to new ideas and are able to relate to situations and look back on personal experiences through a good story. Even as a Muslim, a good story is what inspires, strengthens your faith and engages your mind, be it from the Qur'an or the Hadith.

As a lover of storytelling with a degree in creative writing, I spend a good chunk of my free time looking for movies that tell a good story. One of my favorite filmmakers Spike Lee spoke about the intention behind his movies, “I'm just trying to tell a good story and make thought-provoking, entertaining films. I just try and draw upon the great culture we have as a people, from music, novels, the streets.”

The medium of film is a powerful tool and whether you know it or not, a lot of our values, perceptions and ideals are shaped by films, directly or indirectly. Many different cultures have used film as a means of showing the positive side of their identity and educating the world about their culture. I can easily note African Americans, Jewish people, Latinos, Christians as those who have used film in this way. But what about Muslims?

You don't really see a lot of movies with a Muslim theme, that is, where there is a Muslim main character and the story deals with the struggles and challenges the Muslim character or characters have to endure. Movies which do contain Muslim characters or themes are usually negative and that needs to change. As more and more Muslims pursue a profession in the creative arts and the film world, the Muslim narrative can be shown to the masses rather than just the caricatures we see today. I myself hope to contribute by coming up with movie scripts with a Muslim theme which aims to enlighten the rest of the world on our struggles and what Islam really is about.

Of course, this is a challenge which will definitely take time. I can say that there at least has been some efforts made to have more Muslim themed movies, some produced by non-Muslims and some by Muslim filmmakers. Here I have compiled a list of "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" of Muslim themed movies.

The criteria I used to compile the list were rooted in the rule in which the movies must be an original full-length feature film with a Muslim dominant storyline or an original documentary that wasn't a full-blown education fest (which meant historical docs like Arabia or Inside Mecca and Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, though good documentaries, do not qualify). Also, like I mentioned above, the main character(s) needed to be Muslim or deal with an issue having to do with Islam/Muslims. The movie also had to put Islam and Muslims in a positive light for it to be deemed good. Initially I was going to make a top 5 list of the best Muslim-themed movies but unfortunately, I realized I didn't have much to work with. So without further ado, here is my list of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Muslim-themed movies.

The Good

The Message: Seriously, this movie is 30 years old and has yet to be topped as a prime, true-to-the-deen flick! This epic chronicles  the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and depicts the beginning of his receiving revelation to the struggles and triumphs he and his followers endured while spreading the message of Islam across Arabia. The movie is notable in it being an ultimate dawah learning tool to educate the mainstream about Islam's most prominent figure. Plus it was pretty neat how they worked their way around depicting the Prophet on-screen.

My Name Is Khan: Yes a bollywood movie has made the list, surprisingly. Like many new-age flicks with a Muslim theme, the film revolved around 9/11 and the impending backlash against Muslims that came with it. Shahrukh Khan depicts a Muslim man living in America with a disability (Aspergers Syndrome). After 9/11, he suffers marital issues and discrimination due to being Muslim and vows to meet president Barack Obama himself to declare that he is, "not a Terrorist". At times it's cheesy like all Bollywood-to-Hollywood crossover movies are but it sends a positive message about Islam through Khan's character.

Arranged: This neat little film I caught on Netflix isn't solely fixated on Islam but rather explores the concept of arranged marriages and religious modesty of two devout followers of Islam and Judaism. Facing similar struggles from their family pressuring them to get married, a Muslim and Jewish schoolteacher become friends and provide support for one another as they endure insensitivity in the workplace and arguments with their family on being in control of who they want to marry. The movie is excellent in its depiction of being true to ones faith and showing that Muslims and Jews have a lot of similarities which can bring them together and despite their differences, can get along just fine.

Bilal's Stand: This independent movie stood out to me because it took a peek into the lives of the Muslim African-American and the trials and tribulations that a typical black Muslim family has to deal with in the States: trying to stay within Islamic teachings in the face of hip-hop dominated culture, unwanted pregnancy, incarceration, generation gaps and the drama of trying to make it out of the "hood" and get into college. Not the best film with the Muslim stamp of approval but still a decent watch.

Malcolm X: I haven't viewed the entire movie but have seen bits and pieces (it's running time is 200 minutes. Nearly three and a half hours!) but the story of Malcolm X is a very powerful one. His rise to prominence  the impact he made on the civil rights movement, the eventual epiphany he experienced after attending Hajj and subsequent conversion to Orthodox Islam is something worthy to be seen and the duo of Spike Lee and the acting chops of Denzel Washington pull it off brilliantly.

Honorable Mention: Fordson, New Muslim Cool and Deen Tight (documentaries). 

The Bad

Moozlum: Now I applaud the efforts of filmmaker Qasim Basir of pulling out all the stops in getting funding for this movie and being able to snag an established cast and crew for the movie but what he really should've worked on was the screenplay. After seeing this movie, I don't feel comfortable suggesting a non-Muslim to watch it. All it would do is create confusion and give a kind of bleak perception of Islam in the eyes of the casual viewer. The stereotype Muslim daddy, the inconsistency in some of the Islamic aspects of the movie, the way it depicted a Madrasah (Quran study school) in the US. It was very melodramatic and was high on emotion and a lot of the movie felt forced and lacked authenticity. Overall it was a swing and a miss.

Infidel: Now mind you this is a funny movie. The premise is hilarious and ridiculous: a Muslim man discovers he is actually of Jewish descent. He wishes to see his father, who is a Rabbi but is not allowed to see him unless he adopts Jewish culture and characteristics. At the same time, he is under suspicion from the Muslim community, notably the Imam whom is pending approval of marrying off his daughter to the man's son. The film gets vulgar and just hysterical at times. All in all, religion in a nutshell is viewed as something not to be taken so seriously as demonstrated by the cartoony sort of way things are handled in the movie.

(Dis)Honorable Mention: I would put "Innocence of Muslims" in here but I haven't watched it and it wouldn't qualify because it's just a crappy movie in general, not only a crappy "Muslim" movie that doesn't even deem watchable to a high school video production class as a study on cinematic techniques.

The Ugly

Sabah: They should've just called this movie, "The Degradation of a Muslim Family". The movie is an absolutely abomination. I mean was there even a Muslim on the set when this movie was put into production? The title character, Sabah, is an "orthodox" Muslim woman who falls in love with a non-Muslim white dude. Her family of course disapproves. First off, I say "orthodox" because that was how the blurb for the movie put it. Everyone in the family dresses like street hookers, sit around smoking Hookah, and the women of the family follow up by belly dancing in front of the man of the house, their brother/husband/father. What kinda Muslim circus family is this? One outstanding scene that takes the cake, is one woman, Sabah's sister, is praying Salat, fully covered and hijab'd up and the second the prayer ends, she whips off her abaya and bam, she's in a silky red freak-um dress (scantily clad dress) and plops on the couch with the rest of her family to get her hookah toke on! This movie was just awful from top to bottom. Bad acting, bad storyline, it was just a complete disaster and didn't put Islam in a positive light at all.

Taqwacore- The Birth of Punk Islam: Punk Islam? Quite an anomaly if I say so myself. This documentary flanked by questionable Muslim convert author Michael Muhammad Knight, depicts a band (literally) of Muslim misfits who are pretty much rebelling against Islam and playing punk-rock music and attempting to create a sort of movement where the punk-rock lifestyle and Islam actually coexist. What it really is are a bunch of spoiled privileged brats with no real direction (which they admit) other than to purposefully "piss people off" and be attention-whores. There's plenty of cussing, drinking, drugs involved and those are the done by the Muslims in the band. The documentary falls in line with their objective,  a convoluted clustermess that just jumps all over the place. Just do yourself a favor,  save yourself the two hours and skip this abortion.


  1. there are actually good Muslim movies?

  2. Yeah, it surprised me too! Few and far between unfortunately.

  3. I loved 'Arranged', 'Malcom X' and "The Message". There are other movies out there that are good. Thanks for the recommendations! I also watched the Infidel...funny. Have you seen "Four Lions"? If so, what did you think of it? It had some funny parts in it, but I'm undecided if it was a good movie or just a so-so movie. Muslim hubby thought it was stupd.

  4. You should add Umar bin Khattab TV series on the Good list. Great story and cinematography. They were watchable in Youtube.

  5. @Linda, Four Lions? Haven't heard of it but will look into it. When I wrote this blog, I was considering the movies that received some mainstream attention or Hollywood churned it out.

    @Fatima: The Umar Series is a TV show, not a movie plus it wasn't American (aka Hollywood) made so I wouldn't really qualify it for the list. I have heard about it but haven't seen it. I'll look into this too. Thanks :)