This opinion piece is by Hussein Rashid, PhD, founder of islamicate, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy.
In his viral act on “Saturday Night Live,” comedian Aziz Ansari spoke to an ugly truth about how Americans think of Muslims. Ansari pointed out that when people watch movies or a TV show like “Homeland,” they often see a character who is Arabic and prays with “terrifying” music underneath.
“People are like, ‘Aah! What are they saying?’” Ansari said. “Just ‘God is good!’ Normal religion stuff! It’s okay! You want to end Islamophobia? Honestly, just change that music. Like, if the music was different — if it was just, like, [singing theme to ‘The Benny Hill Show’], people would be like, ‘Man, Islam is one whimsical religion, isn’t it?’”
Perhaps one of the most egregious abuses of Hollywood portrayal of Islam is its use of the azan, the call to prayer, as a soundtrack for violent acts. The call to prayer is a beautiful sound when it is performed well. Unfortunately, this part of Muslim beauty is used as the ambient sound for violence on TV, in movies and even on the radio.
Muslims find it painful to hear the sound they love tied to the violence they abhor. Non-Muslims find it basically impossible to approach what Muslims find beautiful if they hear it connected to what we all find ugly.
The azan is meant to remind the listener of God’s majesty. Revealed to prophet Muhammad, it puts the believer in a state of awe and humility. For every claim that we may understand God, we are reminded that God is greater than anything we may conceive. That moment of being lost in the transcendence of God, in the tradition of prophet Muhammad, is an ecstatic one. It is not about bells or dancing. It is about exercising the gifts God has created in us, the voice, to be reflective and pleased with God’s presence within us.
It is also a direct link to our history, and the promise of anti-racism in the Islamic ethos. The first person to have the official role to call people to prayer was Bilal ibn Rabah, who was given the position because of the beauty of his voice and the commitment to his faith. He was a black man, who was held as a slave by the non-Muslims of 7th century Arabia. As a punishment for converting to Islam, his owners did not feed him to the lions, but placed heavy stones on him to crush him to death. As he called out God’s name, and thought, “I can’t breathe,” prophet Muhammad bought his freedom, and elevated him to one of the most important roles in the community.
So Ansari’s point is important, because media, both entertainment and news, struggle to tell stories of Muslims outside of the national security lens. The stories they tell tend to generate fear, and they collapse everything Muslims do into that perspective.
Despite what Islamophobes say, Islam is a religion. It has a deep spiritual meaning to those who adhere to it, approximately a quarter of the world’s population. Because of the love and passion Muslims feel for their faith, they have created majestic pieces of art and serve as the cultural contributors whom we all recognize.
The Taj Mahal is a monument to love, loss and heartache, which are universal human emotions, and expressed with Muslim sensibilities. Rumi and Agha Shahid Ali are beautiful poets, among the thousands deeply immersed in Muslim cultures. Nobel Prize-winning novelists Naguib Mahfouz (a Muslim) and Toni Morrison (a non-Muslim) tell of the inner lives of Muslims with great sensitivity.
We recently mourned the passing of the great boxer Muhammad Ali and cherish the wisdom former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shares with us as a public intellectual. In the 2016 Olympics, we watched Ibtihaj Muhammad fence and Dalilah Muhammad win a gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles for the United States. Malcolm X was an important American Muslim theologian, and Rep. Keith Ellison swore on Thomas Jefferson’s Koran when he took office. Yasiin Bey, and Alsarah and the Nubatones are proud of their Muslim heritage when they make their music. Marvel Comics publishes “Ms. Marvel” with a female Muslim lead, a series written and edited by Muslims G. Willow Wilson and Sana Amanat.
We know of modern Muslim military heroes, like Bronze Star recipients Humayun Khan and Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. We can also look to historic figures, such as Nicholas Said, who fought in the Union Army. They sacrificed for this country because of their faith, not despite it.
As we see how these individuals live their faith, as athletes, writers, poets and thinkers, we do not often think of them as Muslim because we’re not used to hearing their stories as Muslim stories. That Muslims can be fully human, can feel and think in ways that resonate with other humans, is too foreign an idea for many of us.
Prophet Muhammad shared the teaching that “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” That Muslims love beauty is witnessed in the ways in which they contribute beauty to the world. Yet, if that beauty is not shown, it is hard for people to believe it exists.
Ansari’s point is true. We need to stop working to make Muslims scary. We already find it too easy to be afraid of different people. He wants us to focus on the normal. The normal is beautiful, and we should focus on the intentionally beautiful.
As consumers, we can choose to seek the beautiful, whether it is in poetry or music or a book. At the same time, media producers should stop tying beauty and violence together. Cover the violent — that’s news — and also show the beautiful, because it’s a human story we all need.
Hussein Rashid is an adjunct professor of religion at Barnard College.