On the day that I write this, I received an email from a sister giving me advice (nasiha). I can (maybe) make documentaries, she told me—but certainly not fictional films. I should refrain from imitating the kuffar (disbelievers) in making movies. And for certain, I should be careful of engaging too much in the dangerous American culture. Lest I forget, our Prophet ﷺ told us, “Islam began strange, and it will become strange again…”
To be sincere, as a practicing (in sha’ Allah, God willing) Muslim in the film industry, I try my best to navigate my career while conforming to the principles and guidelines set down by my religion. Am I certain that I am making every correct decision in doing so? No, and I hope scholars will continue to guide me and start discussions to help others. Do I feel that Islam asks us to be foreigners, staying away from the arts, language and culture of the communities in which we reside? Absolutely not.
Instead of eschewing culture, Islam has always recognized the importance of it to the vibrancy and identity of the people. When the “sons of Arfida” (a reference to Ethiopians) beat drums and danced with spears in the Prophet’s mosque, Umar ibn al-Khattaab radi allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him) wanted to stop them. The Prophetﷺ stopped him instead, mentioning that the performers were the “Sons of Arfida”—that is, they were not of his people, his culture. “Play your games, sons of Arfida,” the Prophet ﷺ mentions in one narration, “so the Jews and Christians know there is latitude in our religion.”
Such was the sunna (tradition) of the Prophet ﷺ: accepting pre-Islamic Arab cultural norms, except that which violated the religion. Be it language, names, or practices, the Prophet ﷺ generally left the people to their culture. In recognition of this truth, the respected jurist Abu Yusuf “understood the recognition of good, local cultural norms as falling under the rubric of the sunna.”1
Most interesting, however, are the actions of Angel Jibril. In a famous tradition, Jibril comes to the Prophet ﷺ in the form of a man and questions him about his religion. Since angels can only act upon the orders of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He), one aspect is telling: Allah ordered Jibril to dress in the clothes of the people with whom he was speaking.2 The affirmation of the culture of a people, it seems, has strong precedence in our faith.
In accord with this attitude of the Prophet ﷺ and the religion, Islamic cultures of history followed suit. In China, instead of replacing the indigenous culture, Chinese Muslims created one of their own. The Chinese of centuries ago up until the modern artist Hajji Noor Deen cultivated Chinese calligraphy, and also (but not always) incorporated Arabic. When one looked upon a Chinese mosque, he or she might find the ideograms kai tian gu jiao: “the primordial religion from the world’s beginning.”3 Chinese Muslims, it seemed, consciously made their faith intelligible and organic to those around them. In these acts, Chinese Muslims affirmed that their faith was not foreign, but part and parcel of their indigenous culture.
In this way, the Prophetic and Islamic civilizations of old embraced the culture of the land in which they lived. This, however, was always done in accord with the divine Law. The Prophetﷺ purified cultural practices that went against the religion and its values. He left people and even converts to their own names, except when they had ill or blasphemous meanings. He encouraged poetry, but not all poetry. The Prophet, in his wisdom and guidance, did not come to erase culture. He took what was good of it, and created a new one. And thus the Muslim identity stayed strong for centuries.
Nowadays, however, our youth do not feel the same comfort. While Chinese Islam feels Chinese, and Indian Islam is distinctly Indian… American Islam is asked to be Arab (or maybe South Asian). As Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah writes in his article, “Islam and the Cultural Imperative,” “In history, Islam showed itself to be culturally friendly and, in that regard, has been likened to a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet, and life-giving but—having no color of their own—reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow.” If this analogy has any truth, American Islamic culture is in danger of being a murky and shallow pond, reflecting nothing, and providing no refreshing life force to those who drink of it.
Just as Islamic civilizations have done for centuries, it is incumbent upon Islam in America to create its own cultural authority—not through losing ourselves to the culture without regard for our religion, but by developing it from the culture. In this way, we—and especially our youth—will feel like we truly belong.
Islam has always been a practical religion, dealing with the realities of the world. We, too, must also deal with reality: we can either define and develop our own strengthened cultural authority, or we can lose ourselves and our youth to another. Culture allows us to define ourselves, and have strength in who we are. “Identities that are rooted in deep cultural contradictions,” writes Dr. Umar, “are easily thrown into states of confusion and doubt.”
We have then, a choice. Culture, especially the arts, will always be part of the human experience. Whether it is through Muslims who have made it into the mainstream—such as Yusuf Islam, Lupe Fiasco, Khaled Hosseini, G. Willow Wilson, Hakeem Olajuwon, or the Abdullah Brothers, or filmmakers and artists who are on their way to mainstream recognition—like I hope myself and others, in sha’ Allah, our youth are starting to have examples for how to embrace our indigenous culture and from it create our own.
Knowing many of these figures, I know that our work itself is a struggle. We strive to become excellent in our fields, while maintaining what we believe our religion asks of us. It is likely that some may disagree with our choices. Music, or no music? Is a bad word in a novel that more or less requires it worth the good that comes, or is it even allowed? The solution is not topush away culture and the arts, but to have the discussions that will guide us through them and emerge with a halal (permissible) alternative and guidelines in the arts and our cultural authority. This is what we find in the Prophetic example, as well as in Islamic civilizations for centuries.
Perhaps some may disagree with those figures most powerfully developing this cultural authority. If that is the case, we should understand that we are in a new era where we have Muslim artists who are not operating outside of Islam, but trying their best to apply it—practicing their craft without sacrificing Islamic principles as they understand them. Let us have the critical discussions to guide them all. As Oscar Wilde famously said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Our society, and youth, will continue to find identity and strength in cultural icons and artists. Do we worry about what figures, and what art, is currently defining them? Then let us support those who may give them a more acceptable alternative, and help create an Islamic and indigenous cultural redefinition that will strengthen us all.
Lena Khan is a writer and director, working on a full-length feature film, “The Tiger Hunter” and currently running an online crowd-sourcing campaign to help fund it. Information about her film, and how to support, can be found at http://kck.st/13tcFx8.