When I was in high school and still trying to decide how I would use my writing professionally, I imagined I could be a scriptwriter for movies. I felt that the “big screen” was an excellent means to bridge the gaps of misunderstanding between Muslims and those who knew so little about Islam. I also felt it could help dispel myths about what it really meant to be Muslim, as the field of entertainment offered a relaxed, unobtrusive form of learning and, ultimately, da’wah.
Spike Lee’s 1992 movie Malcolm X that starred Denzel Washington and Angela Basset did an excellent job of sparking interest in the hitherto enigmatic world of the Nation of Islam. However, as many Muslim viewers expressed, the movie did very little in educating viewers on the essence of the “orthodox Islam” that, in the end, defined the very life of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz).
Even as a teen, I knew that Malcolm’s story deserved more—that the message of Islam deserved more. But I also understood that Spike Lee did the best he could do. I felt that a Muslim director, producer, or scriptwriter could do more. And I imagined that, one day, that person could be me.
But this youthful inspiration fizzled out soon after its inception. Hollywood isn’t interested in the message of Islam, no matter how it’s packaged. This epiphany extinguished in my heart any remaining spark for using the “big screen” as a writer.
In 2002, just months after If I Should Speak was released, I received a call from a scriptwriter—a Hollywood scriptwriter—interested in turning the novel into a major motion picture. He had an impressive résumé, but before he even finished talking, I already knew what my answer would be: No.
I shared with him my laundry list of reasons I couldn’t—wouldn’t—agree to it: I wanted the Islamic message of the book preserved. Hollywood wouldn’t respect that (at least I didn’t trust them to). How could I maintain some sort of control of what was being put on screen?
For every question, he had an answer. But I wasn’t convinced. The anti-Islam climate in American society was just too thick to see through. I couldn’t imagine why my book, of all things, would inspire a “saintly” exception in Hollywood—a field dominated by licentious sex, senseless violence, and unapologetic Islamophobia (none of which my book offered).
This “no” would be the first in a line of repeated “big screen” refusals. Each time I refused a different scriptwriter, director, or filmmaker, I couldn’t help wondering why there was interest in the first place…
How could you agree to a movie, of all things? This is what many Muslims have been asking since I announced the plan to put my books on the big screen. You’re a daa’eyah—a caller to Islam. People expect more of you. Muslim youth look up to you. If you do this, it’s opening the door to all sorts of evil. And anyway, it’s ḥarām [forbidden]…
I can’t say that these concerns surprise or even disturb me. These very thoughts kept me saying “no” to the film industry for nearly ten years.
But what made you change your mind? The answer is simply this:
When a Muslim producer finally got a hold of me (I’d developed a habit of avoiding anyone in the film industry) I decided to do something I hadn’t done for any previous inquires: listen. After I listened—with my heart instead of my ears—I did something else I hadn’t done when I first refused that film offer: I prayed on it.
As I pondered the producer’s thorough and patient answers to every concern and objection I raised, I realized that there was only one thing holding me back from trusting that this project could be done.
Yes, part of this fear emanated from my īmān, my faith in Allāh. I didn’t want to do anything that could earn my Lord’s displeasure. “But Islam doesn’t have to be sacrificed,” the producer told me.
Days later, I sat reflecting on the support I’d received from du’aat and students of knowledge I’d consulted for advice, and I realized something. I was doing what every Muslim hated being victim of: making assumptions…
No, I have no illusions about what making a movie means. I realize that the film industry is a slippery slope for Muslims. But I also realize that—excepting memorizing Qur’an and becoming an ascetic with no responsibility to make a living—almost every field is “slippery” in the modern world, especially for Muslims living in the West.
Journalism, psychology, medicine, and even corporate America put Muslims in uncomfortable predicaments daily. Even seemingly simple matters like buying a home, enrolling in school, or going on a job interview become mind-splitting quandaries for the practicing Muslim.
It’s just that the field of filmmaking is thought to be all “fun and games” where these struggles are involved, and perhaps for some actors and producers, it is. But for the practicing Muslim in the movie industry, fun and games don’t even enter into the equation. The experience is anything but.
Nevertheless, I do understand the Muslim phobia of filmmaking. I was once struggling with it myself. In fact, I was struggling with nearly everything that my overactive brain could label “doubtful”—because that’s the effect that studying Islam from books and classes had on me. While the lessons about foundational and clear matters remain immeasurably beneficial to my īmān till today, I am still recovering from the guilt trips and spiritual abuse that defined many Muslims communities I interacted with in America and abroad. It seemed like the only thing many practicing Muslims were comfortable with was assuming the role of victim or advisor, and they saw each as a reflection of pious religious obligation:
Regarding films and entertainment, Muslims were victims when we talked about our lack of positive representation in the media or our lack of positive entertainment options. Then when a Muslim made an effort to fill this void, we suddenly turned into the advisor who was obligated to point out everything they were doing wrong—while withdrawing our support at the same time. And naturally, we saw no problem offering full support for media and films that involved no Muslim content whatsoever.
I simply couldn’t do this any longer. It felt wrong, and counterproductive. Where’s the middle ground? I wondered. Isn’t it possible to offer helpful feedback and support our Muslim brothers at the same time? Or do we really imagine that “fearing Allah” means only pointing out the faults of our brothers and sisters from the sidelines?
Yes, I know that somewhere on this slippery slope, I’ll likely make a mistake, bump my head, and perhaps look back and see what I could have done differently. And I know that feedback from my Muslim brothers and sisters can help me along the way.
But, the truth is, this reality is the slippery slope of life itself. So for now, I’m beyond making negative assumptions, thinking, How could you? A movie! And I’m saying, How could you not? It’s a movie! Let’s see how we can do this right.
Original version published via muslimmatters.org
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