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the tiger hunter, lena khanBy Lena Khan

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

  1. Abd-Allah, Umar Faruq. “Islam and the Cultural Imperative.” 4 []
  2. Lecture: Imam Suhaib Webb, Alim Winter Conference. 1/19/12. Paraphrasing is my own, and may fall victim to my errors of interpretation []
  3. Abd-Allah 8. []

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  • “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).” SO TRUE!!! Islam requires that we use our minds and think critically about our environments and how to maneuver through them in an acceptable way. All too often, Muslims forget to use their God-given minds and instead scream “haram” about everything! Great post! Timely reminders 🙂

  • incredible post! very needed discourse for our community. can’t wait to see your film, inshaAllah!

  • Excellent article and points very well articulate.
    Wholeheartedly agree that Islam does not countenance the destruction of culture or ethnic identity, but only seeks to reform them to eschew that which is outside the moral/ethical boundaries of our faith.

    On a personal note, thank you as well for mentioning Khaled Hosseini in a positive light. As an Afghan, I’ve observed that our community is often confronted with hostile reactions from non-Afghan Muslims if we are critical of the Taliban…as if support of the Taliban political movement is the 6th pillar of Islam or something.

    As if our religion imposes ideological political or interpretive conformity and you are some kind of “traitor” to the ummah if you don’t agree…

  • Thank you so much! As we aren’t getting as much support as need to pull this off, I’m obliged to ask – if you are able, please visit our campaign site and pledge a small bit if you can. Jazakum Allahu khayran and I hope we can all begin to discuss such topics!

  • My two cents: This mindset of fear and passivity is related to the trajectory of “Islamic” cultures parallel to the decline of the caliphates and subsequent colonialisation.

    The need to control the population leads to dumbing down and discouragement of independent and democratic sharing/development of knowledge. Dumbing down leads to increased necessity to blindly following. Blindly following leads people to more easily follow wrong examples just because the examples are visible, because their critical thinking and baseline knowledge is absent to enable them to independently make a judgment call *not* to follow something. The fear of accidentally following wrong examples creates the need to restrict culturally visible examples to only the most blameless examples. Restriction of examples to this narrow range leads to intolerance of mistakes and new ideas. Intolerance of mistakes leads to ossification and lack of renewal because as time goes on and conditions change, the culture prevents its people from exploring ways of adapting fundamental principles to new realities.

  • This is extremely well written, a joy to read and indeed a light of wisdom shone on this issue. With your permission, may I reblog it at ? I recognize your name as the director of two incredibly powerful music videos that I am sure have many many others including myself immense good. May Allah bless you and increase you, guide and elevate you

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  • One of the best articles I have read in a long time. This discussion must be had if Islam is to mainstreamed into American society. Our youth is the future of our deen and they should not feel constrained in their choice of careers because of a lack of understanding. I look forward to hearing more from you. Masha Allah.

  • Lena, could you please relook at one of the stand out sentences in your article-ie the sentence ‘Music or no music?’I realise you are using this as an example of what one may call a conflict in Islam.You will no doubt know through your media connections of recents events in Northern Mali, that the inhabitants of Timbuktu during the time of the ‘Islamist’ take over there recently were not allowed to play a note upon their instruments,yet when one listens to the Qur’an in its Arabic original it sounds to my ear decidedly musical,alomost ‘sung’one could say,though I claim only very limited arabic speech myself and that basically from what I have learned in reading translations of the holy book & also these Suhaib.web pages.I presume you may be making the case for music as in the article you do for poetry.that there is likely to be the worthy and the unworthy.When I think of the blessings of Allah
    (subhanahu wa ta’ala)the song of the blackbird here in Northern England comes easily to mind and who can say that Our Lord has not commanded it to sing thus and tell us of the seasons or even the hour of day.Also in Timbuktu it was reported that certain precious islamic manuscripts were set on fire by departing ‘islamists’as a villification to the inhabitants-the scholars protested and efforts were made to preserve the majority in domestic hiding places & elsewhere. being my main source of infomation in respect of this. Ali Farka Toure for example,the people did not wish his music to be silenced because they felt his instrumental modesty&skill has long since put them on the world map as giving value to their country and their heritage.We know the nearby desert landscape can be a desolute place where the heart needs to beat as well as say its prayers,salah.Elsewhere when we listen to the sound of a river over stones, or a wave upon the shore what does this mean to us?I may not be so good at it, but I think it means that,like yourself in your article and your field we have to be brave,brave enough to think modern 21st Century Islam will welcome our efforts to find the true path,the path of those upon whom His favour rests,not the path of those astray whom earn only wrath. Ameen. Brian Cokayne, Stockport, It is hoped that the writer,Lena,whom we thank, will follow her article up with further responses for those of us on the margins-responses as she has thoughtfully done so far.It precludes isolation and helps us see ourselves in a wider Prophet led context.

  • If we as Muslims do not empower ourselves to tell our own stories in film then we will be forever victimized by others who continue to denigrate and stereotype us with their misperceived images of us.

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