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“Mish mumkin li wāhid amrīkī an ya’īsha bidūn al-aflām!”
The quotation above, transliterated from semi-colloquial Egyptian Arabic, reads “It’s impossible for an American to live without movies!” Offered by a professor at al-Azhar University in response to an American student’s question about the permissibility of watching movies; the statement was at once facetious and insightful. Although the professor was clearly poking fun at the American obsession with Hollywood, he was also offering a lesson in legal realism or fiqh al-wāqi’. In other words, he was saying, is there really any consequence to how I respond to this question; no matter what I say you’re going to watch movies!
And admittedly, we do. Perhaps they do so with their thumbs glued to the remote control in order to fast-forward thru scenes of gratuitous violence and nudity, but I know many committed, practicing Muslims that enjoy watching movies. And to the professor’s point, it’s remarkable to think that film has been spared popular religious condemnation to a much greater degree than the two forms of artistic expression it essentially combines and amplifies: photography and music. In fact, in circles where photography and music are viewed as religiously dubious, television and film are often given passes. This reminds me of my time as a student in Cairo. I was once watching a popular Arabic-speaking television program in which a mufti (a scholar who specializes in legal-responsa) would take calls from the audience. When a caller asked about hanging photography in her home, he responded emphatically, “This is not from Islam. The Prophet (upon him be peace) has informed us in authentic reports, ‘that the angels do not enter homes in which there are dogs or images.’” Picture-making, he elaborated, was an imitation of God’s creative act and finally he cautioned viewers, relying again on the āhādith of the Prophet (upon him be peace), that “those who make pictures will be humiliated on the Day of Judgment when assigned the task of giving life to that which they had created.”
It was very interesting. I had no reason to doubt the mufti’s sincerity, credentials, or legal acumen. However, I did find it an astonishing cultural phenomenon that the appropriately telegenic image of the mufti, accompanied by cheesy, synthesized intro music, on a set reminiscent of Meet the Press, being beamed onto the walls of homes throughout the region, wasn’t seen as religiously objectionable, while still-life photos were—in spite of their using the same digital imaging technology! Rather than a sign of willful duplicity or dissonance, I think this was attrition. The mufti had presumably accepted that TV was an indisputable part of life, “a tool,” as the discourse has dubbed it, to be used for good or evil. And yet, film is viewed differently. Whereas television programming and—to some extent—music are seen through a two-dimensional lens; as tools that either promote morality or immorality, film is viewed as a potential vehicle for illustrating different aspects of the human condition.
When we watch Spike Lee’s Malcolm X we watch the entire film. The first hour isn’t deemed a tool for endorsing womanizing, theft, and drug abuse and thus immoral. Rather the entire piece is appreciated as a story of redemption and ultimately martyrdom. The same may be said of Jordan Peele’s more recent Get Out. It contains language and depictions of sexuality and violence that are morally questionable, but the conversations about race and politics that were produced by the film were invaluable. “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock…” and “sunken place” are expressions that have entered a lexicon with which culturally literate Americans are expected to be familiar. It can hardly be debated, film is a part of our language and our lives.
I love attending the Friday Prayer (salāt al-jumu’ah). Whether the space is aesthetically pleasing or not, or the speaker is an effective preacher or not, there is simply something breathtaking about the integrity of worship in Islam. It’s awe-inspiring. The Prophet (upon him be peace) and his companions (may God be pleased with them) were alive over fourteen hundred years ago and I believe that if they walked into any mosque in the world for the Friday Prayer, they would immediately recognize it. Muslims have mostly resisted the trap of confusing the sacred and the profane that has ensnared Christian—especially Protestant—communities. No one ever thought to make Jumu’ah more attractive with a band or film shorts during the service and we should feel extremely grateful to our forbearers for maintaining distinct realms for the sacred and the profane.
However, this isn’t to say Islamic history contains no precedent of mixing the two. Quite the reverse, irrespective of the legal position one takes on them, Muslim cultures have produced rich traditions of sacred song and dance, architecture, art, fashion and costume, etc. The effective impact of our forbearers maintaining separate realms for the sacred and the profane has been our ability to observe these traditions and recognize that the mundane was being infused with the sacred and not the sacred being vulgarized (as would be the case if a band played at Jumu’ah).
In that spirit, I’d like to introduce Reel Talk. We’re talking movies and we’re talking dīn but hopefully not in a way that finds us reaching; trying to extract religious significance from the inane and banal – Think Imām al-Ghazālī meets Soul Plane. We hope to offer some religious insights and social commentary that can be underscored and illustrated by referencing scenes in popular film.
REEL Talk on Facebook Live!
We will be having follow-up Facebook Live sessions to discuss our Reel Talk articles and related themes. Stay tuned for details on our first Facebook Live session.