By Lena Khan
More than 1400 years ago—before the significance of it was ever being debated in our community—the Prophet ? (peace be upon him) enjoyed and utilized the arts. For him, this was often in the realm of poetry. It was something he appreciated. He encouraged its purification. He understood its influence. And he used it. Many centuries later, although I am far from being like him in any way, in my capacity as a filmmaker also engaging in the arts: I am surely trying.
The Prophet and the Arts
It can be said that the Prophet ? enjoyed his share of the arts. When riding with the father of `Amr bin Sharid, it is reported that he asked `Amr, “Do you remember any poetry of Umayya bin Abi Salt?” `Amr replied in the affirmative, and the Prophet ? asked him to recite. “Go on,” the Prophet ? would say. By the end, `Amr had recited one hundred couplets to the Prophet’s blessed ears.
This appreciation of the arts of his time was not restricted to an isolated incident. On noted occasions, the Prophet ? prayed for talented poets. Though he was not a poet himself by any means, he recited the poetry of Ibn Rawaha at the Battle of Khandaq. At weddings and celebrations, he encouraged the use of permissible songs and poetry.
Most noteworthy of all, however, might be the fact that at least in poetry, the Prophet ? did not restrict himself to only that which came from Muslim poets, or was overtly about Islam. Instead, he mentioned in one version that Umayya ibn Salt was “almost a Muslim in poetry.” What mattered for the Prophet ?, it seems, is that what he listened to was good. Pure.
This means, of course, that the Prophet ? did not allow a blanket allowance of poetry. “Poetry is at the same status as ordinary speech,” he said. “The good of it (poetry) is like the good of speech, and the despised of it, is like what is despised speech,” (Bukhari). Rather than eschewing the arts in general, perhaps the Prophet ? encouraged us to purify them.
The Prophet’s ? involvement with poetry didn’t stop at mere appreciation. Rather, understanding its deep influence and importance to the people, he utilized them. At the time, enemies would fight each other not only in battle, but in poetry. To participate, the Prophet? appointed Hasan ibn Thabit to satirize the Quraysh, even setting up another minbar (pulpit) in his mosque to do so. “Lampoon them (through poetry) and Gabriel is with you,” he said (Bukhari). Hasan and several other companions thus used their poetry as forces of social impact for years on end.
New Media, Similar Ideas
What was poetry to 7th century Arabia, however, may possibly be the literature or cinema of today. Poetry, of course, was not a Muslim invention. Just as they did in the realms of dress, language and other aspects of culture, the first Muslims embraced the good of the culture and arts in which they were, and from them brought forth their own cultural identity. Why then, cannot the storytellers, artists, and filmmakers of today do the same?
For my part, I am trying. Currently, I am working on a full-length feature film, entitled The Tiger Hunter. Most find the script is funny and compelling…but for the purposes of this article, it is quite clean. Good. If Muslims can accept “the good” of poetry, I wondered, can we perhaps do the same for movies?
Clearly, it is not something only I wonder. As I write, a new generation of artists are pioneering a permissible (halal) medium in entertainment and arts, and a new cultural identity—striving to maintain their religion while also struggling to maintain their culture. Like the poetry that the Prophet ? sometimes appreciated, their art, books and films are not necessarily (or even usually) about Islam. Such is also the case with my film. But from what I’ve seen so far, they are good. And from what I see of the sunna (the tradition of the Prophet ?), and in creating our own cultural strength, this may be what truly matters.
As for my film, it goes a bit further, in that it features a subtle depiction of a Muslim character in a positive lead role. This wasn’t what inspired the film (like Islamic civilizations of old, I was simply trying to practice my art in a halal manner), but I do think it is significant. The more we support artists who are trying to pursue excellence with integrity and God-consciousness, the more we will see projects of value, stories with good morals, and yes—start to see ourselves represented on screen.
I aspire toward the Prophet’s use of the poetry of Hasan ibn Thabit as a force of social influence. In present times, films and TV shows like Seinfeld, The Cosby Show, even Harold and Kumar each contributed to normalizing the ethnic and faith groups that star in them. In contrast, Muslim depictions on screen are largely negative. True, one movie itself does not change the world, but one need only look at the trajectory of acceptability of the gay community in the past two decades to understand the impact of the media. Whether in movies like The Kids are All Right or shows like Will & Grace, Modern Family, or Glee, few can deny that positive depictions of gay characters in entertainment are an undeniable factor in their overwhelming change in public perception. Can we not also have positive representations of ourselves on the silver screen?
To ever succeed in this effort, however, we need to not only move forward in the arts, but also encourage a new standard of excellence. The Prophet ?, in his wisdom, did not merely employ Hassan because he was willing—but because he was talented, having already been known for his poetic skills. In the film industry, one need not only have artistic talent, but also a strong network and an astute understanding of the business and its economics. As we support our youth going into the arts, we must also make sure to encourage art that is good—in every sense of the world. Whether in selecting poets or generals, the Prophet ? chose those who were excellent. We must do the same for our artists.
With The Tiger Hunter, we have done our best to follow this example. We have gathered a strong team, one that includes a few of the most talented Muslims with a true shot at making it in this incredibly competitive industry (and some who already have). We also have six Muslim interns, and try to do our best towards sharing what we know with young filmmakers who come to us. In turn, we seek advice from those who have already “made it,” and are working toward launching a boutique production company in the coming years. In this way, we hope to strengthen both the standard and impact of our work, graduating from a community of kids with cameras (who are told they “should have been doctors”) to professionals with sustainable endeavors, in an industry our community is still learning to seriously deal with. In this way, our community can enter the mainstream film industry and allow our presence to truly make an impact.
My film is not the only one trying to make an impact, but it is one of them. Some have heard about it because we are currently running a Kickstarter (online crowd-sourcing/fundraising) campaign to help get some of its final funding. Making a film with the resources that allows it to be competitive, to be considered excellent, in the mainstream market is hard. As it is, our budget is already quite tight. While we have many investors filling in the rest of the budget, we turned to the community for the support we need to accomplish our goals. We still need much more to at least reach our goal (and we do hope others can visit the site below and join us in whatever capacity they can), but I hoped to explain the vision behind a new generation of artists we are now starting to notice.
As Imam Suhaib mentioned, “Art can do for the Ummah (community) what the minbar can’t.” It is a truth seen in the time of the Prophet ?, and speaks of a potential we now see. By having storytellers, characters, and values from our community in the arts—the possibilities of uplifting our image, and forming a true and organic cultural identity in our society, are similarly limitless. If only we can help make it happen.