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date: 05 December 2023

Muslim Cinema in North Americafree

Muslim Cinema in North Americafree

  • Irum ShiekhIrum ShiekhDepartment of Ethnic Studies, University of California, Riverside


In the early 21st century, a growing number of Muslim storytellers have written, directed, and produced feature films and television series about their respective communities in North America. Falling under the umbrella of Muslim Diasporic Cinema, these stories settle somewhere between the longing to flee from the essentialized binary identities of immigrant/native, religious/secular, etc., and the desire to claim the performance of a continuously shifting and politically charged Islamic identity. The crux of the Muslim Diasporic Cinema is this dialectical yearning to claim a Muslim identity unapologetically without defining its aspects.

The bulk of this work depicts the everyday lives of multigenerational Black Muslims and their conscious and unconscious relationships to the transatlantic slave trade. Additionally, these narratives revolve around the experiences and identities of immigrants, refugees, and exiles, and their children growing up in the West. Most of these stories feature themes of intergenerational conflicts, coming of age, and hybridity. Shattered memories and imaginings of a distant home, along with desires, conflicts, dreams, and quests, comprise many of these stories. Most of this fictionalized work is inspired by personal experiences and tells gripping and entertaining stories, some political, some humorous. They revolve around the memories of real or imagined forced displacement and its ongoing conflicts with the concepts of home and a desired sense of belonging. Politically subtle yet savvy, these stories normalize the everyday lives of Muslims. By doing so, they create an oppositional space and stand up to the tropes of the Hollywood industry that have dominated the silver screen for over a century. Instead of providing angelic characters that can do no wrong, these storytellers create complex and rounded characters full of contradictions. These artistic expressions reveal a world of possibilities, realized when marginalized communities pick up pens and cameras to shape their own narratives. The success of these visual stories is reshaping the contours of the Hollywood industry and inspiring emerging artists to claim a space within the increasingly diverse tapestry of North America.


  • Islamic Studies

In One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, a wise, witty, and brave woman named Scheherazade marries King Shahryar to save her father and other young women in her kingdom.1 Understanding that she may be killed in the morning, she develops an ingenious plan of survival. Every night she harnesses her imagination to tell the king a captivating story but stops just short of finishing it in the early hours of dawn. Each morning, the king decides to spare her life so that he can hear the end the following night. Scheherazade understands that her life depends on the continuity of the unfinished story, and she spins each story’s end into a new tale the next night. In the end, she survives, marries the king, and saves all the young women of her kingdom. One remembers Scheherazade as a feminist, a loving daughter and wife, a visionary, and much more. However, the superb craft of her storytelling kept the king wanting more. Without arms, ammunition, and soldiers, she uses the power of her imagination and the skill of storytelling to survive, resist, and save countless young women.

Muslim storytellers of the 21st century in the diaspora are in a similar yet different space from that of Scheherazade. As creative artists living in an Islamophobic world, they constantly struggle with how to pick up a pen or camera to dissipate the thick clouds of hatred and suspicion around them. How can they stay true to themselves and use film to resist a century of negative stereotypes through artistic expressions? In these times of crisis, for these storytellers, the creation of narratives are artistic expressions and acts of survival.

Jack Shaheen, a prominent film scholar, has written that “ever since the camera began to crank, the unkempt Arab without [Muslim] has appeared as an uncivilized character, the cultural Other, someone who appears and acts differently than the white Western protagonist, someone of a different race, class, gender or national origin.”2 After World War II, the “unkempt” Arab Muslim evolved into a brute as US geopolitical interests dug deeper into using culture and media to advance the United States’ imperial interests in the Middle East.3 Articulated through tropes of adventure, exploration, and rescue, these Hollywood images ultimately helped provide legitimacy and justification to military expansion and domination.4 The tragic attacks of September 11 and the elections of 2016 further agitated the simmering Islamophobic climate that has been in the making since the 1970s.5 The Hollywood industry produced other blockbuster thrillers that glorified violence at US soldiers’ hands, which were filled with adrenaline while targeting Muslim bodies at home and abroad.6

The stereotypical depictions of Muslims, however, did not remain unexamined. Since the mid-20th century, brilliant intellectuals, committed activists, and superb artists have critically analyzed Hollywood’s orientalist images of Muslims on the silver screen.7 This thoughtful analysis has argued that the West’s cinematic depiction of the East has revealed less about the characteristics of the East than about the subjectivity, consciousness, and culture of the West and, more specifically, the West’s attitudes.8 This monumental analysis combines sociopolitical and historical contexts with a theoretical framework to deconstruct these images’ politics.9 Taught through academic texts, activist circles, community workshops, and documentaries, this critical body of work has been challenging the Hollywood industry on various fronts.

Combined with this critical analysis, Muslim writers, producers, and directors have continued to march on a path filled with blunt stereotypes and ongoing legacies of orientalism. From Mustafa Akkad, the Syrian American director and producer of The Message (1977) to Nijla Mumin, the Black female director and producer of Jinn (2018), these filmmakers have kept their eyes on the prize. With limited resources and no friends in the industry, these artists have created fissures in the thick walls surrounding the fairyland of Hollywood, which has been built with layers of favoritism. The film industry’s overwhelming responses to these voices of change have ranged from a complete disregard to condescending smiles and to saying that “there’s nothing funny about your people.”10 However, the industry’s countless rejections and dismissals have not crushed the dreams of Muslim filmmakers. Specifically, after the tragic attacks of September 11, Muslim filmmakers used personal narratives to usher in a new body of fictional visual work that can be placed under the rubric of Muslim Diasporic Cinema.

Muslim Diasporic Cinema

Hamid Naficy, in his monumental work An Accented Cinema, states that Diasporic Cinema generally is written, produced, and directed by “postcolonial ethnic and identity filmmakers” who are “either immigrant[s] themselves or have been born in the West since the 1960s to nonwhite, non-Western, postcolonial émigrés.”11 Black Muslim filmmakers standing among non-Muslim African Americans, immigrant Muslims, and dominant-White American cultures, who are consciously or unconsciously haunted by the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade, ongoing legacies of slavery, and structural racism further complicate traditional definitions of diasporic, postcolonial, and ethnic filmmakers.12 Paul Gilroy argues that black diaspora is “formed through the African dispersion and the experience of slavery, and crossing national, cultural and racial divides,” and therefore “is a transnational and intercultural formation, and historical process of renewal, innovation, and change.”13 Resistance as a strategy has allowed them to survive these forced displacements, enslavement, colonization, and dispersions.

Diasporic Cinema, therefore, encapsulates diasporic identities as well as “political orientation and oppositional and cultural practices.”14 Naficy characterizes such work as “accented films,” as this work focuses on the ethnic and racial identity of diasporic filmmakers within the host country.15 Michael T. Martin and Marilyn Yaquinto suggest that by focusing on “the central drama in American culture,” these diasporic visual stories “explore the ambivalence and contingency of diasporic identities.”16 Politically charged, this Diasporic Cinema claims an oppositional stand to the “hegemonizing ideologies and cultural practices” of the US film industry. In these diasporic individuals’ search for unattainable authenticity, their identities are in constant motion: “As the factors of identity ([religion], ethnicity, gender, race, sexuality, and class) are complicated and revisioned by the experience of exile and diaspora, such cinema suggests a counterpoint to the deterritorializing and dislocating experience of global migrations, using journey narratives to interrogate the ‘homeless subject.’”17

The work of Martin, Naficy, and many other scholars suggests that Muslim Diasporic Cinema falls somewhere between the longing to flee from the essentialized binary identities of immigrant or native, religious or secular, etc., and the desire to claim the performance of a continual shifting and politically charged Islamic identity.18 The crux of the Muslim Diasporic Cinema is this dialectical yearning to claim a Muslim identity unapologetically without materially defining it. Walking on slippery slopes of being simultaneously outsiders and insiders, these diasporic filmmakers produce, write, and direct narratives that examine their religious, secular, and cultural identities. Their lives and experiences are constantly shifting and emerging. The hybridity of their experiences allows them to create narratives that examine contradictions of being diasporic and Muslim.

However, the Muslimness within Muslim Diasporic Cinema is not based on looks, bodies, or religiosity; it is closely linked to the diasporic identities’ political performance in motion. Through self-affirmation, they relate to the socially constructed “Blackness” and “self-identified racial identity” within Black diasporas.19 Challenging the essentialist and purist notions of identity, Stuart Hall has highlighted the concept of hybridity within the Black diaspora.20 Michelle Wright argues, “Blackness” within the black diaspora “cannot be located on the body because of the diversity of bodies that claim Blackness as an identity. Blackness, then, is largely a matter of perception—or, as performance studies theorist E. Patrick Johnson observes—made up of moments of performance in which performers understand their bodies as ‘Black.’”21 This performance and understanding of Blackness is “a political orientation and oppositional cultural practice,” similar to an affirmation of a racialized political, cultural, and religious Islamic identity.22 These visual narratives carry the pride, joy, pain, and burdens of being a Muslim in the diaspora.

Despite their insistence on claiming an Islamic identity, these filmmakers are not claiming to represent the entire Muslim community or to depict a universal and fixed interpretation of Islam. Instead, a storyteller provides a perspective that differs from that of others. Without insisting on the universal application of any traditional values, these Muslim artists reveal and perform the complexities of living in-between the contradictions of religion and modernity. Per Naficy, “identity is not a fixed essence but a process of becoming, even a performance of identity. Indeed, each accented film may be thought of as a performance of its author’s identity. Because they are highly fluid, exilic and diasporic identities raise critical questions about political agency and the ethics of identity politics.”23 These stories capture the intimate familiarity of growing up Muslim. They are immersed with the utterances of alhamdulillah (thank God) and mashallah (God willing) and with breathing a space filled with the fragrances of shisha, biryani, and Turkish coffee. This self-affirmation of Islam as a racialized identity is a marker of Muslim Diasporic Cinema.

With this insistence to claim an Islamic identity unapologetically, the Muslim Diasporic Cinema parallels the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s.24 “No longer burdened by the approval-seeking sackcloth of positive imagery, or the relative obscurity of marginal production,” New Queer Cinema demonstrated that it “could be both radical and popular, stylish and economically viable.”25 Queer films produced in the 1990s such as Tongues Untied (1990), Paris Is Burning (1990), My Own Private Idaho (1991), and The Living End (1992) “had few aesthetic or narrative strategies in common” except, as Ruby Rich has pointed out, that they shared an attitude that can be characterized as “an attitude of defiance.”26 Just as the protagonists of New Queer Cinema were “proudly assertive,” Muslim filmmakers boldly assert their Muslim identities in front [of] and behind the camera.27 Going beyond the concepts of “positive images,” Muslim filmmakers boldly proclaim themselves with their good and bad qualities, revealing what it means to be human with all of its complexities. Instead of shying away from their Islamic identity, these artists not only assert their Muslim identities, but they also use them as a political platform. Their identities reveal the nuances of juggling being Blacks, women, Americans, immigrants, queers, and more. Pain and beauty lie in the act of creating constantly shifting identities. In Muslim Diasporic Cinema, artists are in a dual process of creation and assertion. Their narratives claim that they are not just Muslims but that they are Muslims and third-generation comedians, or Muslims and Black and queer, or Muslims and artists and activists. This aptitude for embracing multiple identities is a pillar of Muslim Diasporic Cinema.

For many Muslim filmmakers, filmmaking is an act of resistance. Ongoing misrepresentations, distortions, and dehumanizing images were the primary reasons that inspired them to pick up a camera. They shine a light on a spot that had remained outside the frame. For many, their voices were unheard and their images unseen. Most of them grew up in an environment directly or indirectly affected by the September 11 attacks, and they were blamed for the actions of a few. With a fire in their hearts, they felt an urge to twist the frame and change the angle of the light by telling visual stories. For example, Mumin, the writer and director of Jinn, tells the story of “a black girl who dances, kisses, and reads the Qurʾan.” Therefore, the film is a way of fighting the erasure of what Mumin loves. Unable to see herself and her community on the silver screen, Mumin writes that “as a Black Muslim woman, filmmaking is my resistance.”28 Since Islamic identity takes a stand against prevailing Islamophobia, its affirmation is a site for performing and politically resisting.

However, this resistance does not follow Third Cinema’s contours of the 1960s, which was revolutionary, bold, and assertive in its style, language, and contents. It aimed to disrupt form, content, and the system.29 Instead, the politics in Muslim Diasporic Cinema is subtle but savvy. These stories focus on normalizing the everyday lives of Muslims, historically seen as the Other. Most of their messages remain under the radar and feature the politics of everyday people. More specifically, the political messages of these films are traceable through the humor found in the ordinary lives of Muslims living in the diasporas. Unlike films about religious, historical, and political leaders, including the Prophet Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali, these visual narratives revolve around everyday people’s lives and experiences. Just as Rich suggests New Queer Cinema “reinterpreted the link between the personal and the political envisioned by feminism,” Muslim Diasporic Cinema uses personal narratives to claim its resistance.30 These filmmakers continually remind the audience that their work stems from what happens to them, people they know, dialogues they hear, and places where they live and work. Whether it is Jinn, written and directed by Mumin, or The Big Sick (2018), written by Kumail Nanjiani, all of this work speaks to Muslim filmmakers’ personal experiences in a variety of ways.31 The audience gets a glimpse into everyday Muslims’ personal lives, which is unknown to most non-Muslims. For example, through Jinn, viewers see a multifaceted narrative of contemporary Black Muslims who live in upscale homes, have respectable jobs, attend mosques and pray, have sexual relationships, and love their families. These activities are usually not seen and depicted on film, especially by characters in Black communities. Creative control over their narratives allows these artists to carve out spaces that have remained hidden.

By using personal narratives, Muslim storytellers take a political stand to reveal their fleeting identities, which range from religious to spiritual, cultural, and secular. Here, the claim to political identity requires that “the author is [not] dead.”32 These creative artists are not only writing, directing, and producing, but they are also embodying those visions. These visual stories are extensions of some pieces of the artists—part of the performance. Just as Naficy notes,

Although many of their films are authorial and autobiographical, I problematize both authorship and autobiography by positing that the filmmakers’ relationship to their films and the authoring agency within them is not solely one of parentage but also one of performance. However, by putting the author back into authorship, I counter a prevalent postmodernist tendency, which either celebrates the death of the author or multiplies the authoring effect to the point of de-authoring the text. Accented filmmakers are not just textual structures or fictions within their films; they also are empirical subjects, situated in the interstices of cultures and film practices, who exist outside and prior to their films.33

Most of the Diasporic Muslim Cinema is financed outside the major-studio system. Unable to provide simple and clear narratives that are the bread and better of Hollywood’s blockbuster hits that feature special effects and glamour, marginalized filmmakers seek better control of their message, form, and contents without thinking about winning over the audience and profitmaking. Fortunately, since the beginning of the 21st century, grassroots organizations, including the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and Arab American Film, are trusting these storytellers’ visions and providing them with financial and mentoring opportunities. With additional opportunities springing up everywhere, the sky is the limit.

The Journey of Muslim Diasporic Cinema

Most filmmakers of Muslim background entered the industry after the 1960s because of the complex sociopolitical history of decolonization, immigration laws, wars, occupation, displacement, conversations, and digital technology changes.34 Among these is Moustapha Akkad, a young Syrian who came to the United States to pursue his love for film with two hundred dollars and a copy of the Qurʾan in his packet.35 His first major feature film, The Message (1976), provided historical background about the Prophet Muhammad’s life and his message for the world. His next major feature film, Lion of the Desert (1980), depicted the story of Omar Mukhtar, a Muslim freedom fighter who fought Italy’s colonization of Libya before World War II. For Akkad, the purpose of his work is to “introduce the Western audience to his faith, to dispel their apprehensions and misconceptions.”36 Despite his passion for educating the Western world about Islam’s beauty, his religious-themed films remained less popular. Akkad made his fame in Hollywood by producing eight movies in the Halloween franchise. A few other successful Muslim filmmakers, including Dodi al-Fayed, produced films without any reference to Islam or Muslims; these films include Hook (1999), The Scarlet Letter (1995), and Chariots of Fire (1981). Hollywood was not ready for Muslim narratives.

Kamran Pasha, a lawyer turned Hollywood screenwriter, immigrated at the age of three from Pakistan. Passionate about writing, he sold one of his science-fiction screenplays and landed in Los Angeles before September 11. In 2005, he received an opportunity to write for an episode of Sleeper Cell, for which he successfully developed a positive character of a Muslim FBI agent fighting Islamic terrorists. Pasha enjoys writing screenplays about the golden age of the Islamic Empire, specifically featuring the Taj Mahal, Saladin, and Fatma Shajarat al-Durr. For him, such narratives are significant, since they can flip Hollywood’s agenda about Islam and Muslims. Despite his “God-given gift to write,” Pasha believes that the industry underappreciates his work, since they see him as an “incredible threat to the [Hollywood] narrative of Islam.” Despite all the challenges, he wants to make a change by staying within the Hollywood system.37

While small changes are occurring within the industry, a bigger storm is brewing outside Hollywood through independent films written, directed, and produced by Muslim filmmakers about their respective communities. Specifically, after September 11, several standup comedians, spoken-word artists, and writers, directors, and producers felt that their personal jihad was to combat the thick smoke surrounding them. At the forefront were the standup comedians. With bruised hearts, they swallowed their pride and tears and “outed” themselves as Muslims. Just as early US standup comedy rose out of the Civil Rights era and minorities’ quest for recognition in America, self-identified Muslim comedians stood at the forefront, embraced their Muslim identity, and incorporated their lives into their comedy.38 These standup comedians included Ahmed Ahmed, Dean Obeidallah, Maysoon Zayid, Maz Jobrani, and Aaron Kader. They traveled the United States and the Middle East with their comedy tour, Axis of Evil. The tour was a local and global success. Both Muslims and non-Muslims laughed with the comedians about the absurdities of airport security rules, racial profiling, government surveillance, and much more. As Ahmed Ahmed explains, “We can’t define who we are on a serious note because nobody will listen. The only way to do it is to be funny about it.”39

Out of the standup comedy scene, several filmmakers emerged, including Nanjiani. He incorporates humor and personal narrative in The Big Sick, which he wrote and produced with his wife, Emily Gordon. The plot revolves around his early courtship of and falling in love with Emily during her illness. Through this fictionalized personal narrative, Nanjiani humorously juggles his Pakistani family’s cultural expectations with Emily’s family’s fears about Muslims after September 11. The film was nominated for Oscars in 2018 and expanded Nanjiani’s career in Hollywood. In one of his television interviews, he states that he wanted to show that “Muslims are having fun.”40

On a parallel track, Sayed Badreya, Mumin, Qasim Basir, and Lena Khan are among many young self-identified Muslims who combine identity politics with personal narratives. They address Islamophobia, racism, gender, and sexuality. In many of their films, the characters are not from the Middle East or outside the United States, but they are from the belly of the beast. Born and raised in the United States, they are familiar with the ins and outs of what it means to be American, Black, queer, an immigrant, an educator, and Muslim simultaneously. Unlike previous filmmakers’ work, which tried to educate the North American audience, these young filmmakers of the 21st century boldly claim a space with their personal stories about what it means to grow up in a community that is constantly asking, “Where are you from really?”

Although the journey of Muslim storytellers to become agents of their narratives has been arduous, since the early 21st century, the situation has been gradually improving. Several filmmakers who previously worked on Modern Family and Outscored are creating content focusing on self-identified Muslims’ lives. With more audiences having a pull for diverse US Muslim stories, more writers and directors of these communities are embracing the moment. Many media outlets have recognized the success of the Muslim storytellers.41 In her article for National Public Radio, Leila Fadel states that “Muslims are having a Hollywood moment.”42 Several other media articles suggest that Muslims’ creative work has gained ground among the general public, which is hungry for more relatable stories. The growing Muslim audience in the diaspora, starving to see their images on the silver screen, is consuming these fictionalized personal stories.

Organizing and activism in local communities have helped these filmmakers showcase and distribute their work. Waleed Mahdi writes, “The growth of Arab and Arab American independent film festivals, particularly in the United States, has provided Arab American filmmakers with a valuable alternative to mainstream filmmaking.”43 The Hollywood Bureau of the MPAC is another organization that advises mainstream producers, directors, and writers to improve depictions of Muslims. This team of consultants also works toward creating more “opportunities for Muslim storytellers to tell their own stories” through networking and mentorship programs. Their larger purpose is to change “the narrative of Islam and Muslims in the entertainment industry so that audiences see Muslims as vital contributors to creating social and cultural change in America and around the world.”44 Because of such organizations, along with the early 21st century’s powerful call for more diverse voices written and embodied by communities of color, Muslim filmmakers have opportunities to widen the doors of entry. The democratization of digital media further provides opportunities to Muslim storytellers. Various streaming platforms, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and others, have created more diverse perspectives and talent opportunities. As a result, the talent and the audience are able to develop and watch films and television shows that push to new limits.

After noticing these diverse stories’ profitability, Hollywood moguls have slightly opened the bolted doors of entry that have been locked since at least the twentieth century.45 These tiny cracks in the doors’ thresholds are exciting for both the filmmakers and the Muslim communities living in diasporas. Vibrant and optimistic Muslim storytellers, holding their digital technology in their hands, are marching with their eyes on the prize. Before the early 21st century, the call to promote diversity in front of and behind the camera generally fell on deaf ears. In public, Hollywood moguls made promises that fell short in implementation. For example, Muslim artists tried to work with ABC, the US television company, to air an adaptation of Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America.46 The show never went into production.47 In 2008, Fox Broadcasting Company bought the rights to Little Mosque on the Prairie, a popular television sitcom created by Zarqa Nawaz about a Canadian Muslim community. Fox never produced it “despite the series’ international syndication in sixty-eight countries.”48 These setbacks further fired up Muslim filmmakers about gaining better creative control over their message. With the ability to crowdfund their projects, they saw light at the end of the tunnel. There was no turning back.

Despite Muslim storytellers’ success in shifting their narratives, little scholarly effort has been made to examine Muslim creative work’s significance in reclaiming their stories and histories. Since the early 2010s, a limited number of scholars, including Hussein Rashid, Nabil Echchaibi, and Mahdi, have published work on Muslim filmmakers and media.49 These and a few other scholars have examined the significance of the emerging work of Muslims and Arabs in changing the written and visual landscape through blogs and other written media; these scholars have also examined the changes effected by documentary filmmakers and production companies and by fictional filmmaking.50 Mahdi’s work “examines the post-9/11 rise of a new generation of Arab American filmmakers who are invested in self-narratives of Arab American cultural citizenship.”51 He acknowledges the value of Arab and Muslim filmmaking and how it “contributes to a burgeoning Arab American filmic trend rooted in an emerging urgency to self-narrate contemporary issues in the Arab American community, particularly in relation to their post-9/11 struggles and aspirations.” He has chronicled three Arab American films to examine the role of “Arab American cultural citizenship in film” through showcasing three films: The Citizen (2012), Amreeka (2009), and American East (2007).52

Moving away from the concept of “American cultural citizenship,” this article uses three visual narratives to focus on the inner conflicts of diasporic Muslim communities. Through this inward focus, artists are allowed to pay close attention to Muslims’ intimate lives and their relationships with family and community members who are living in diasporas. This inward focus also allows the filmmakers to go beyond the binary relationships of “us” versus “them.” Building on the strategy of “I” and “us,” the audience becomes more familiar with the inner conflicts of Muslim cultures and societies that are outside the mainstream culture’s purview.

Although personal experiences inspire the three case studies discussed in this article, they are fictionalized in order to tell political, humorous, and entertaining stories. By using the artistic permission of fiction, filmmakers use their power of imagination to envision a space that they want to create. In this fictionalized personal narrative, they are liberated from their current locations. They make a world of possibilities unbounded by the limitations imposed on their thoughts and bodies. They can capture the impossible, the desires, and the longings that may not be possible in real life. This imaginary space is an oppositional site in which Muslim filmmakers use personal experiences to reveal the experiences of living in a hybrid space that is constantly shifting between home and abroad.


This article combines personal interviews with textual analyses in order to examine three films that are written, directed, and produced by diasporic filmmakers. The subjects are their Muslim communities in North America: Mooz-Lum illustrates the diverse lives of contemporary Black Muslims and their diasporic lives at the intersection of race and religion, Signature Move features strong female protagonists who express diasporic queerness and who come form communities of color with diasporic queerness, and Ramy claims an oppositional space by using humor to focus on the everyday lives of young Brown men growing up in Jersey City, New Jersey.53

I writing this article, I conducted personal interviews with Basir, the writer and director of Mooz-Lum, and Fawzia Mirza, the writer, producer, and star of Signature Move. I read and watched countless interviews available on YouTube and in newspaper articles with Ramy Youssef, the creator, writer, and star of Ramy. These interviews allowed me to listen to the voices behind the camera and to document the inspirations, motivations, and visions of these filmmakers.

Finally, I locate myself as a Muslim documentary filmmaker in analyzing the fictional work at hand. Having produced several documentaries, I am familiar with filmmaking technology and storytelling techniques. As an immigrant with limited connection to Hollywood, I am intimately familiar with the cloud of favoritism that surrounds the filmmaking industry. This background allows me to recognize Muslim filmmakers’ sense of determination. They trusted their artistic inspirations and did not take no for an answer. Through these self-narrated visual stories, the audience glimpses the lives, dreams, challenges, joys, and struggles of diasporic Muslim communities.

Mooz-Lum: A Case Study of Black Muslim Diasporic Narratives

Black Muslims “account for a fifth of all US Muslims”; however, they continue to experience multiple layers of marginalization.54 The overwhelming majority of Western media focus on Arab Muslims as an emblem of Muslimness. This orientalist gaze silences the presence of the Black Muslim diaspora. Unfortunately, this invisibility does not end here. The mainstream Muslim communities within North America also continue with this tradition of suppression. Aminah Beverly McCloud and Jamila Kareem are among many scholars revealing racism and colorism within immigrant Muslim communities.55 Moreover, many of the traditional African American academic disciplines do not include Islam in their analysis of the Black diaspora, further obscuring their presence.

Because of this multilayered invisibility, Black Muslims’ narratives, especially the stories of contemporary Black Muslims’ everyday lives, are seldom seen on the silver screen. This invisibility applies to both multigenerational Blacks with legacies of slavery who converted to Islam at the turn of the 20th century and immigrants and refugees from Africa. The absence of these images has created an erasure of their histories. Basir, director, and producer of Mooz-Lum, remembers that in his film’s initial production and distribution, Hollywood executives could not recognize his experience since they had not seen or heard contemporary Black Muslims.56 However, the absence of Black Muslims in mainstream cinema is not an exception. Judith Weisenfeld’s monumental work, Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, documents that the Hollywood industry historically has participated in constructing caricatures of African American religions, furthering the racialization project.57

In his article “African American Muslims in Film,” Bill Chambers lists a handful of films produced since the mid-20th century: Hate That Hate Produced (1959), Roots (1977), Malcolm X (1992), and Ali (2001).58 None of these films is written, directed, and produced by Black Muslims. However, they are significant because they depict Black Muslims. For example, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, produced in 1992, is a classic for its ability to document Malcolm X’s life and his transformation from a young Black man from a working-class neighborhood into a charismatic political leader who was also a Muslim.59 Basir watched the film in his youth. Afterward, he became so inspired that he tried to stand straight and act like a leader like Malcolm X.60 Mumin, a Black female Muslim filmmaker, traced Malcolm X’s influence in her career and called it her favorite film that features a “beautiful representation of Black Muslims.”61 Both Mumin and Basir are not alone in realizing the film’s significance; it has been hailed by many as a window into how the Nation of Islam resisted systematic racism in the 20th century. However, Chambers is critical of a secular Malcolm X. He states

The film includes the first positive portrayal of an African American Muslim leader in popular film, but it still is an example of the trend to deny African American Muslims their identity as a religious people. The movie reinforces the image of Malcolm X that remains to this day, i.e., [a] fiery Black Nationalist leader who broke away from a Black Supremacist group and finally embraced a more acceptable and inclusive worldview somehow related to global Islam.62

Roots, a television miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book by the same name, is another dramatic story; this story features Kunta Kinte, a brave young man who is kidnapped from Gambia and enslaved in North America.63 However, Chambers argues that the miniseries ignored Islam as an integral part of Kunta Kinte’s identity.64

Black Muslims’ contributions in the making of the United States have yet to be better documented and taught through texts, documentaries, and fictional stories. Prince among Slaves is a PBS docudrama based on the life of prince Abdul-Rahman from Futa Jallon, West Africa.65 This documentary and other texts and photo exhibits have documented many Muslims’ experiences of being kidnapped and enslaved during the transatlantic slave trade.66

In the early 21st century, young Black Muslim filmmakers have taken advantage of digital technology and crowdfunding as these filmmakers embrace and celebrate their stories. Aminah Bakeer Abdul-Jabaar, Basir, and Mumin are among many who comprise Black Muslim filmmakers using their narratives to resist the ongoing silencing of their histories. Much of this work is independent, an oppositional space that provides them with an opportunity to articulate their vision. In these narratives, Black Muslim filmmakers further widen these hybrid identities. They use the lens of religion to examine diasporic identities in motion and to address the legacies of slavery and racism that continue to haunt and complicate traditional definitions of diasporic, postcolonial, and ethnic filmmakers.67

Written and directed by Basir, Mooz-Lum is a personal narrative of a young Black Muslim who grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Basir learned about filmmaking in high school but did not know at that time that he could make films. Growing up, he did not see anyone making a living by filmmaking; neither did he see himself on the silver screen. However, after he came out of a near-death experience from an auto accident in his twenties, filmmaking became therapy for him.68 Weeks and months of solitary healing led him to pick up the camera and to claim his presence, since everybody has a story to tell.69

Basir recalls that he and his family did not fit in with the non-Muslim Black community around them as he was growing up. As Muslims, Basir’s family had different clothing, holidays, rituals, and food practices, such as no alcohol and pork. This always made them stand out even within the Black neighborhood. However, mainstream immigrant Muslims also did not fully accept them. A young immigrant Arab child called him “a second-class Muslim” after reading Basir’s first name, “Muhammad,” listed on his identification card. Basir stated that such name-calling was common in the immigrant Muslim community.

Mooz-Lum is a coming-of-age story that gives voice to the diasporic experiences of Black Muslims. It depicts Tahir Mahdi’s life, revealing the alienation that many young Black Muslim males face. The title of the film, Mooz-Lum, is a mispronunciation of the word “Muslim.” It captures the essence of the misunderstanding that surrounded him growing up: whether he was living in a house with a protective and disciplinary father or attending grade-level school or, later, college, he is experiencing institutional racism. He joins an Islamic school to learn the “authentic” version of Islam from immigrant Muslims. Unable to be accepted into any of these diverse worlds, Tariq embodies living in multiple diasporas and struggling with Muslim identity. The film recognizes storytelling as a form of resistance in a world that can accept neither his Muslimness nor his Blackness.

Tariq’s father, Hassan, is an overprotective father filled with the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. He wants Tariq to be a strong Muslim man; however, he is a cold disciplinarian and ritualistic in his approach. He forces Tariq to wear a kufi (Muslim hat) to school and later sends him to an Islamic boarding school to instill in Tariq a love for Islam and the Qurʾan. Unfortunately for Tariq, his disciplinary father and parents’ divorce exacerbates his alienation and converts his house into a diasporic space. Unable to communicate openly and to share his experiences with his father, Tariq feels alienated even at home.

The public school and the classroom are not spaces where Tariq can enjoy and respect his Muslim heritage. Teachers mispronounce his name, and his classmates laugh at his “Mooz-lum” name. Other children in the class, including a Black child, call him “salami bacon,” an offensive reference to him as a Muslim that alludes to both pork and the greeting salaam alaikum. He removes his kufi as soon as he enters the school, since he just wants to fit in.

The Islamic boarding school, administrated by immigrant Muslims, is another diasporic space for Tariq. Unfortunately, a strict disciplinarian teacher, Daud, beats him violently. The violence leaves scars on his young body and mind. The absence of his mother and sister at home and a lack of open communication between father and son do not allow Tariq to receive help for his physical and emotional abuse.

Unable to be accepted within his home, public school, and the Islamic boarding school, Tariq turns away from Islam temporarily. Going away to college is an escape and an opportunity to shape his own identity. As Tariq drives his car away from home, he enters into an open space in which he can escape his disciplinary father, nagging classmates, and abusive teacher. No longer a victim, he asserts and claims a space for himself. He snatches the kufi from his head and throws it on the ground. Later, he enters college and asks others to call him “T.” at college, he embraces his Black American identity.

The centering of race in Black diaspora highlights Tariq’s racialized identity as linked to his Blackness and the way that outsiders see him. The film gives voice to the complex and nuanced identities of a Black Muslim, seldom discussed in the cinemas of both mainstream Black and Muslim diasporas. Mooz-Lum depicts the centrality of race within Black diasporic communities and its intersections with religion. This personal narrative reveals that race is one of the determining variables that haunts Tariq. Outsiders see his skin color first; it is the primary signifier in his day-to-day activities. Tariq tries to fit in with the African American students based on his socially constructed Blackness; however, being unable to articulate his Islamic identity further leaves him unsettled. His Black Muslim consciousness remains repressed. The color of his skin has become a signifier that overshadows the multiplicity and hybridity of his identities.

Mooz-Lum, however, is a story of resistance. The attacks of September 11 and the subsequent hate crimes toward Muslims force Tariq to affirm his Muslimness—a political act of resistance. When an angry mob, ready to avenge the September 11 attacks, chants “that the Muslims are going to pay,” Tariq stands up to defend his sister, Taqua, and her friend Ayanna, who practice hijab, a religious and sociocultural Islamic tradition generally stigmatized and looked down upon in mainstream western culture. His love for his sister and the underdog, the basic Islamic teaching principles, allow him to face the angry mob. At that watershed moment, Tariq embraces his Muslim identity. This Islamic identity fuses a spirit of resistance—namely, Tariq’s political stand against the Islamophobic world around him. This Muslim diasporic identity incorporates scattered fragments of his Black, American, African, and Middle Eastern parts. The film symbolizes this convergence through Baaba Maal’s song “Dunya Salam,” which Tariq listens to in the United States.70 The music is not in Arabic but in Pulaar, an African language that incorporates Arabic words and praises to Allah and the Prophet Muhammad. The song reveals the spirit of resistance that continues through arts, music, and storytelling. Basir states, “Our culture and religion were beaten out of us, but somehow we survived. When I hear that song, I remember my heritage and my religion,” which exist somewhere between the continents of the Americas, Africa, and Arabia.71 His Black American Muslim identity is of convergence and the renewal of all of those places and more. The film claims and celebrates Muslims’ lives and experiences, which are as American as they are African. The film also illustrates Tariq’s transformation from a Black Muslim to a Black American Muslim living with multiplicities. By embracing his Islamic identity, Tariq also embraces his African and American identity.

Mooz-Lum is significant in illustrating multilayered conflicts of reconciling hybrid identities living in between continually shifting spaces. They are erroneously bifurcated into simplified categories of home and diaspora. By focusing on young Black American Muslims’ diasporic experiences, the film challenges the traditional meaning of displacements, home, and belongings. The film reveals that full acceptance may not be possible for a hybrid identity that encompasses multiplicities.

Tariq grows up in an urban US Black Muslim household. Tariq’s diasporic identity is not linked to where he was born; instead, it is associated with the ongoing legacies of slavery, structural racism, and his traumatic experiences at his parents’ home, public school, and private Islamic school. In his case, a physical space called “home” does not exist. Tariq’s hybrid identity is constantly being battered at the margins. He must create his home from the edges of his multiple, overlapping identities, which include self, family, friends, and community.

More complex narratives are needed that can highlight the issues of color and race that plague society and the issue of discrimination against Blacks and dark-skinned communities. Scholars such as McCloud, Kareem, and Edward Curtis have been documenting and examining racism within the Muslim ummah (community); however, until the early 21st century, these issues have remained less discussed on the screen. For example, Mooz-Lum does not directly address issues of racism within the ummah. In the film, Tariq’s roommate, a second-generation child of an immigrant family, is an observant Muslim with compassion and love. Other than the disciplinary teacher in his Islamic school, the immigrant community is inviting and accepting. Airing dirty laundry in this Islamophobic climate could be challenging. Basir has indicated that he was not ready to tackle this issue in his first feature, but his future work will consist of such conflicts.72 He is also interested in branching out from independent filmmaking to the studio system. It provides him with more opportunities for production and distribution without sacrificing his message.73

Signature Move: A Case Study of Diasporic Queerness

Signature Move is a classic example of an independent film written by a postcolonial ethnic filmmaker. Mirza, a Canadian American Pakistani, celebrates diasporic queerness, focusing on strong women of color. The film challenges the heteronormative narratives of Americans and Muslims using a personal story to claim an oppositional space. By doing so, it weaves together a tale of a young woman living at the intersections of being a queer American wrestler and a daughter of an immigrant Pakistani Muslim family. Instead of suggesting the impossibilities of living with multiplicities, the film normalizes hybridity. It also opens many more possibilities for Muslim sexual identities to perform and operate without sacrificing family and cultural ties, the backbone of diasporic identities.

Mirza started her film career as an actress; however, she soon found acting limiting. She stated, no one else could write a character who was a queer, Muslim, South Asian woman. Frustrated by the visionary limitations of the filmmakers around her, Mirza wrote a compelling narrative that included all of her. For Mirza, writing the film validated her multihyphenated identity.

Growing up in Canada and the United States, Mirza hardly saw herself on the screen. In an interview, she has stated that there is power and beauty in seeing one’s self on the screen. It allows the viewer to “reflect upon our own experience and our truth.”74 Motivated by the desire to create such images for other young queer women of color, she used writing and film. Art emboldened her. By publicly sharing her life, she allowed herself to be heard: “I said, it is out there. Someone is going to see it. It is there that emboldens me to say that it is okay to be who you are and okay to be queer, Muslim, and brown all at the same time. It is possible, and it is beautiful. The art is living, the art allowed me to live, and my living allowed me to make art. There is a bit of a cycle here.”75 Signature Move’s female protagonist, Zaynab, is a young community lawyer with a heart. Immersed with helping the local community, Zaynab works at Diwan Street in Chicago. She speaks Urdu with her clients, hangs out at a bar, and falls in love with Alma, a queer Mexican American woman and the bookstore is local.

Before Signature Move, a limited number of films written, directed, produced, and embodied by Muslim storytellers claimed and celebrated their queer relationships in the diaspora. Examples include Touch of Pink and Appropriate Behavior.76 However, in these and other fictional stories, the narratives contrast two types of families, one Muslim and homophonic and the other White and not. In Touch of Pink, young Alim, an Indo-Canadian Muslim man, moves to London to claim his queer relationship with his British boyfriend, Giles. Running away from his critical mother, Nuru, who is obsessed with the perfect public persona of a Muslim family, Alim becomes an exception in the sea of homophobic Muslims. Contrastingly, Giles’s parents have no objection to Giles’s gay love. In Appropriate Behavior, Shirin, a young Iranian American bisexual woman, faces a dilemma in claiming her bisexuality. Her sexual partners throughout the film do not have the term family obligations to family and cultural hesitations. In other words, queer Muslims in these films are the exception rather than the norm. Without any space in which to navigate their queer identities, these Muslims are escaping from their traditional, suffocating families. White American families, however, seldom have reservations about queer relationships. Such binary depictions continue to center Whiteness and its ongoing imperial and savior attitudes and to contrast them against traditional, authoritative Islamic culture. Signature Move bypasses many of these outdated imperial depictions by focusing on queer love between two communities of color.

Signature Move claims queerness within Muslim and Latinx cultures. Both Mexican and Pakistani families have various degrees of hesitations toward queer love. Alma is passionate and open in her display of queer love. She believes in being transparent with her partner in public and private. She also has a close and honest relationship with her mother, Rosa, and can share her love life with her mother. Alma’s mother accepts her daughter’s queer identity. They have a playful relationship; however, Rosa occasionally longs for her daughter to be with a Mexican man and frowns on her one-night stands. Zaynab’s relationship with her own mother is built on the concept of respect. Both rarely openly declare their love for each other, but they both know it’s there and it’s deep. Queer love is not discussed in the house, but it is also not denounced. Zaynab’s mother, Parveen, cannot imagine anything beyond a traditional marriage for her daughter at a surface level. She wants Zaynab to grow her hair and to look more feminine. She also sits in her living room and uses binoculars to look for a husband for Zaynab.

Parveen embodies a Pakistani and Muslim identity that is traditional and flexible, compassionate and loving. In some ways, Parveen is the most evolved character in the film. While the audience may see her as a widow living in her late husband’s memories and consuming Pakistani Urdu dramas, she is also grounded with contentment. She states, “I have everything around me that I need.” Her only desire and goal in life is to fulfill her responsibility of having Zaynab marry. She may be surprised at the public display of gay love that she finds through her binoculars; however, there is an acceptance of queer love and even. After Alma visits Parveen in the apartment with Zaynab, she quickly understands her daughter’s love and respects her choices of being a lesbian and a wrestler. To accommodate her daughter’s love, Parveen decides to attend Zaynab’s wrestling competition. Here, she meets Alma and Rosa and sits down with them to enjoy the match. Parveen’s trip to the match symbolizes her transformation, which is led by compassion and love for her daughter. She moves out of the comfort of home and walks on a less-traveled path. The audience is left with the thought that the coexistence of Islam, Pakistani, Mexicanness, and Americaness is possible.

In Signature Move, the primary conflict revolves around the struggle of coming out within communities of color in the 21st century. Instead of suggesting a “universal” way to claim a queer identity, the film suggests that queer love does not live in isolation. Cultural ties, family obligations, and mother–daughter love are as precious as queer love. Signature Move is also a diasporic film that reveals the relationship between a mother and daughter who are cohabitating in a Pakistani, Muslim, American, and queer space. Zaynab embodies the free, individualistic life of an American queer. Zaynab may be uncomfortable hiding her lifestyle choice, being a queer wrestler; however, she is closely tied to her Pakistani and cultural Muslim heritage. She is comfortable being a caretaker of her mother and wants to cook dinner for her and bring pawn (an appetizer) and Pakistani mangoes. It is unfathomable to Zaynab to consider placing her mother in a nursing home or to ask her mother to leave, although Zaynab cannot live her preferred lifestyle openly at home. The film’s conclusion reveals Zaynab’s love and respect for her mother as Zaynab walks home with Parveen after Zaynab’s wrestling competition. Zaynab holds her arm around her mother, who is dressed in traditional Pakistani clothing. Zaynab’s love for her mother is as important as her love for Alma.

Along with being an example of the Diasporic Cinema, Signature Move is also an example of the 1990s New Queer Cinema. Film theorist Rich characterized new queer Cinema as depicting and revealing unapologetically flawed queer characters.77 “No longer burdened by the approval-seeking sackcloth of positive imagery,” Michele Aaron writes, “their protagonists were probably assertive” and “best described as [defiant]. This defiance can be thought of as operating on several levels, all of which serve to illuminate the characteristics of” New Queer Cinema.78 Signature Move combines many New Queer Cinema features, including Urdu and Spanish languages, music, food, and cultural productions of Pakistani dramas and Mexican telenovelas. Zaynab is as American as she is Pakistani; she communicates with her clients in Urdu and visits Pakistani wedding stores. She performs in the wrestling ring, where she can channel her queerness and Pakistaniness using Bhangra music.

By using her personal story of falling in love with a Mexican woman, Mirza unapologetically claims a queer space within the Muslim community. According to Mirza, throughout her life, the mainstream Muslim community told her that her queer identity does not represent them. In response to these circumstances, Mirza says that “my being queer does not invalidate my Muslim experience. It just makes it specific. I find the personal very empowering because of my queer identity.”79 In Mirza’s film, Zaynab is not seeking approval but claims her queerness.

Signature Move is also an example of a feminist film that focuses on the lives of several strong women of color. Zaynab, a professional lawyer, falls in love with Alma, a bookstore owner whose mother, Rosa, was a wrestler in Rosa's youth. Along with being a strong wrestler, Rosa is a loving mother with a warm and open relationship with her daughter. Parveen, Zaynab’s mother, is a traditional housewife who is not afraid to walk at night to support her daughter’s passion for wrestling and queer love. Zaynab’s wrestling coach is another strong female who is not scared to advise others on coaching and life. Just as queerness is not an exception in Signature Move, strong females are not exceptions. They run the narrative in front of and behind the camera. Reversing Hollywood blockbuster movies’ sexism, the filmmaker presents no men in memorable roles: the brothers of Alma and a few extras are the only glimpses of males in the film. Unapologetically feminist, the film creates a space in which women perform and shine in both public and private areas. Written, directed, and embodied by females, the film deconstructs the traditional male-dominated storytelling method and opens many possibilities for new visions.

Ramy: A Case Study of Everyday Brown Men

Ramy, a miniseries on Hulu—a streaming platform for alternative and independent filmmaking—depicts the coming-of-age story of a twenty-something Arab American, Ramy Hassan, who is raised in Jersey City. His Egyptian father, Farouk Hassan, moves to the United States “to chase a dream that does not exist.” In the United States, he meets his Palestinian wife, Maysa, at a university. Together, they raise Ramy and his sister, Dena, in a traditional Arab and Muslim home—a diasporic space where they binge-watch Arabic television dramas, smoke shisha, and celebrate Ramadan. The miniseries’ overall plot is loosely inspired by Youssef’s personal life and experiences, which are fictionalized for entertainment. Following a sitcom format in twenty episodes, the show addresses themes of family, friendship, faith, mosques, Islamophobia, gender, intergenerational conflicts, alienation, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, greed, and much more. Although a few of the episodes do not include Youssef, he is the center of the story. We learn about him and his life as he lives with the contradictions of being a Muslim and an American.

Hulu aired the first season of Ramy in 2019 and the second season in 2020. Ramy’s success has exceeded the alternative indie film community. After receiving a Golden Globe Award for best actor in a comedy series in January 2020, Ramy has been watched, loved, and discussed both by the mainstream and Muslim audiences. The New York Times characterized Ramy as revolutionary.80 Aymann Ismail, a young Egyptian American Muslim writer for Slate, marks it as “boundary-shattering.”81 He states that Ramy’s “real power is showing how messy and complicated Muslims can be to people outside the faith. But I think American Muslims have the most to learn from it.”82

Despite the Atlantic’s criticism of its depictions of female characters, much of the American Muslim community has been excited about Ramy.83 As soon as it aired on Hulu, it spread like wildfire. Especially young American Muslim viewers, starving for the representations of their everyday lives, related to it. The show allowed them to see themselves on the screen—people struggling to place their feet on two paths, one leading to a mosque and the other leading to a nightclub. Moreover, it is well written and witty with good humor and acting; the storytelling techniques do not disappoint millennials. This is a sharp, well-edited, adult miniseries.

Before Ramy, Muslim storytellers had written, directed, and produced sitcoms that depicted Muslim diasporas in shows such as Little Mosque on the Prairie and Halal in the Family.84 Nawaz, a Canadian Muslim, was a pioneer in depicting the Muslim community’s everyday life in her sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie. The setting is Saskatchewan, Canada. The show uses humor to reveal the lives of a mosque-going Muslim population comprising business owners, doctors, government employees, and imams. Watched worldwide, it was a successful sitcom that ran for six seasons with ninety episodes. Halal in the Family exemplifies a US web series about the daily lives of a suburban Muslim family. Asif Mandvi, the writer and director, describes his character in the New Yorker: “The whole joke is that [Mandvi] so is wanting to not be seen as Muslim, because he wants to be accepted, and he wants to be seen as just a regular American, that in his regular Americanness he ends up being more much racist toward Muslims. And in doing that, you get to highlight the absurdity of racism and Islamophobia.”85 As pioneers, both sitcoms highlighted the funny and humane aspects of diverse Muslim communities thriving in North America. Well received by the larger audience, it also signaled to Hollywood studios that there is a demand for a Muslim sitcom. Diverse audiences will watch them.

Master of None is the next step in the Muslim sitcom genre, as it features improved production quality and witty skits.86 The sitcom was commercially successful on Netflix, earning two Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe Award. Aziz Ansari, a standup comedian, turned actor, writer, director, and producer, played a young secular Muslim man living in New York, dating primarily White women. There was hardly any conversation about Islam or the protagonist’s conflict with his Islamic identity. In a world full of misunderstanding around Islam, the audience was hungry for more funny skits performed by “authentic” practicing Muslims.

Ramy is different in some ways. It does not depict a secular Muslim man’s life, but it does reveal Ramy’s conflicts with being a Muslim and American. He is trying to walk on the righteous path of being close to Allah but always falls prey to worldly desires. The overwhelming majority of Muslims could relate to that character, wanting to live a pious Muslim life but falling short. In the end, he is a confused Muslim, wishing to walk on two diverging paths. In an interview for the Los Angeles Times, Youssef states,

The stories I always see about a first-generation kid trying to erase where they came from, or trying to just be white, I would watch those shows or movies and I was like, “I don’t get this,” This isn’t how I feel. I really respect this culture and this faith, but I’m not perfect, and I’m struggling. I’ve drawn my lines, and, yeah, I cross them. The best jokes and stories come from that conflict and guilt, and I’ve never seen that talked about on TV.87

Ramy depicts the experiences and perspectives of second- and third-generation Muslims brought up in the United States. Primarily consisting of Arabs, Iranians, and South Asians, these ethnic groups have become the emblem of Muslimness. Most of them were born and raised in the United States as the children of professional immigrants who moved to the United States after the immigration laws changed in 1965. Many of them are juggling living in multiple worlds, speaking numerous languages, and carrying the traditions of a “homeland” that they have never seen. They are living in a world that hardly cares about their practices, rituals, and values. Carrying the political identity of being a Muslim, they are misunderstood and face discrimination for their looks, names, and cultural and religious practices. Running on the track of hypervisibility, in opposition to the experience of invisible Black Muslims, they are continually juggling the identities that Hollywood has assigned to them: bad Muslims, who are committing violence, or good Muslims, who are helping the US government in abating terrorism. Hollywood tropes that Islam inherently is oppressive toward women further create the binary of the barbaric Muslim male versus the poor Muslim woman who needs to be rescued.

Yousef, a second-generation Muslim American educated at Western universities, and many other filmmakers have read and discussed theories of orientalism, representations, race, gender, and sexuality. Therefore, they are familiar with the concepts of the Western and male gaze. Having been frustrated for years with Hollywood’s depictions of Islamic terrorism and female oppression, they have taken their narratives into their own hands.

Youssef, a standup comedian, has integrated conversations about his Islamic rituals into his comedy routines before making a pitch for a show on Hulu. From the beginning, he found that his audiences in the comedy clubs were eager to learn about the firsthand experience of twenty-something Muslim Americans living in-between spaces that are neither Muslim nor American.88 Youssef decided to run with this idea for the show.

On the surface, Ramy is entertaining for providing a glimpse into the lives of young Muslim males—namely, Ramy, Muhammad, and Ahmed—who are hanging out at cafes, mosques, and nightclubs while carrying the conflict of having to fulfill their family, community, and religious obligations. However, the show is political for the same reasons. The audience is embroiled in the daily lives of these young Brown males, who previously had been seen as dangerous terrorists for decades. Watching a Muslim living an everyday life of having dinner with family, praying in a mosque, falling in love, and having premarital sex brings some people to the question “Can a Muslim do that?” It is a revelation for the American audience. Before Ramy, a confused Muslim narrative trying to do wudu, the washing ritual before prayers, “between the toes” on the silver screen hardly existed. He was either too busy praying or avoiding prayer. Ramy does an excellent job of depicting that in-between space.

Ramy is also not the only one living with contradictions, and therefore he is not an exception. The inclusion of Ramy’s Brown friends, Mo, the manager of a local cafe, and Ahmed, a doctor in a local hospital, further normalizes the peculiarities of young Brown Muslims attending strip clubs and then going for a virtual hajj. In one of the episodes, they visit a casino. Ahmed loves to gamble, but gambling is sinful in Islam. So he asks another person to push the button of a slot machine and watches him win. Muhammad attends a strip club, and later he hears a virtual hajj in order to clean his sins. Without suggesting the right way to be a Muslim, the series depicts several young Muslims indulging in temptations and living in in-between spaces of desires and sins. Going beyond the concepts of “positive images,” Ramy and his friends boldly assert themselves with their good and evil behaviors, revealing what it means to be a Muslim with all of its complexities.

Ramy is also political for avoiding a discussion about the topic of terrorism. Like most of the other diasporic films written and directed by Muslims, Ramy does not revolve around terrorism and its aftermath. Instead, it reveals the effects of September 11 on the lives of Muslims with humor. In one episode, we learn about the experiences of young Ramy being bullied by his peers in his middle school in Jersey City after the attacks. On September 11, 2001, young Ramy is struggling with puberty but he boasts about masturbating several times. After the attacks, when his peers call him a “terrorist,” the audience knows that Ramy cannot fit under that label. The earlier episodes have already established a relationship between Ramy and the audience. We know him because the young Ramy has been doing what ordinary people do in their lives—living with his immigrant family, eating breakfast in the morning, walking with friends to a public school, and trying to masturbate with a magazine. The audience can feel young Ramy’s pain and connect with him, and this bonding is a triumph for the show. The writing beautifully incorporates humor to negate the hegemonic discourse of terrorism that has been surrounding Islam and Muslims. By diversifying everyday Muslims’ experiences on the on screen, it dismantles Hollywood representations of bad Muslims who are committing violence or good Muslims who are helping the US government abate terrorism.89

Television series, films, literature, and historical texts provide mirrors to a time and space. The popularity of a book, film, or television show reveals the acceptability of norms and values at a specific time. Humor, a survival tool for marginalized groups, is an acceptable channel, especially for Muslim males, for connecting with an American audience. The success of Ramy illustrates that this is what most of the audience wants from their Muslim characters—someone funny and normal—not action heroes who use their knowledge and intelligence to save the day. Everyday depictions of Muslims falling in love, cooking, praying, drinking, playing hockey with friends, running a cafe, going to a nightclub, wrestling, and dancing have become engaging stories for American audiences in the 21st century. That which is taken for granted in everyday lives and that creates a human experience is considered political for Muslims. In other words, being a human being has become political for Muslims. The barometer of being a Muslim has sunk to extreme lows.

Is comedy a rite of passage for creating a space from which more diverse Muslim roles can emerge in the future? On the surface, Ramy keeps American viewers in their comfortable chairs and makes them laugh; however, cultural expressions can change that landscape. In early 2020, at the Golden Globe Award ceremony, Youssef accepted the award for best actor for his comedy show and ended the speech with Allah Akbar (God is great). Ismail writing for Slate characterizes Youssef’s expression as follows: “Wearing his fancy maroon suit and ivory white kicks, Youssef strutted up the stage, hugged Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, and then said what I'd already been chanting for him at home: ‘Allahu Akbar. Thank you, God.’ He said it gently and redundantly—praising God in first English, then Arabic, so as not to cause alarm at the Beverly Hilton Ballroom—but that made a world of difference for us Muslim fans watching from home.”90 For him to claim proudly an everyday Arabic and Islamic expression in his acceptance speech on a stage that millions of people watch is an act of resistance. It is a step toward normalizing Islamic expressions and institutions. Just as the Western audience does not associate religious extremism with church bells, a call for prayer needs to be connected with an everyday religious ritual among Muslims. With normalizing expressions such as Allah Akbar, Ramy has the potential to revolutionize the Hollywood landscape and comes close to the New York Times definition of “revolutionary.”91


This article examines Muslim filmmakers’ contributions in using artistic expressions to articulate multiple identities, experiences, histories, and day-to-day perspectives of their communities. This documentation acknowledges these storytellers’ role in carving out a spot for Muslim storytellers to claim a space within the fabric of North America.

These artistic expressions reveal a world of possibilities that open up when marginalized communities pick up pens and cameras to shape their narratives. The stories examined in this article indicate that Muslims are complex human beings living with trepidation and contradictions. Muslim storytellers are not trying to depict authentic, positive, or perfect characters. Instead, these complex and round characters are going through transformations as they evolve and navigate their path. They are trying to make a living while struggling to maintain their understanding of the “straight path.” For example, in Mooz-Lum, the audience can relate to Tariq’s struggles as he tries to fit in at college; he asks his friends to call him T. In Signature Move, Zaynab is unable to communicate with her mother about her queer identity openly. However, the film celebrates respect and acceptance of queer sexuality on its terms, which are not solely American, Pakistani, or Mexican. In Ramy, Ramy and his friends are trying to walk on a “straight path,” but they are constantly giving in to their temptations.

The commercial success of these narratives reveals a market for diverse life stories; the audience will watch them in theaters and streaming outlets. This success sends a signal to the Hollywood industry that there is a space for Muslim narratives; they are profitable, and investors should invest in them. The Hollywood industry is responding. For example, Disney Plus is producing a television series based on the comic book Ms. Marvel, a science-fiction adventure series that features Kamala Khan’s life. This superheroine grows up in Jersey City with her Pakistani immigrant family. Written, directed, and produced by several Muslim artists, including Bisha Ali, Adil El Arbi, and Bilall Fallah, the film features young Iman Vellani, a young Canadian Pakistani Muslim heroine. The premiere date for the series is 2021. It features the first Muslim character to star in a Marvel series. Disney Plus is not the end for this Muslim superheroine. Marvel Studios has planned for Vellani to star in the film Captain Marvel 2.

Following Nanjiani’s The Big Sick’s massive success, his acting career has expanded in Hollywood. After starring in several action films, he has been featured in the Marvel film The Eternals. Rizwan Ahmed, a British Pakistani Muslim actor, writer, activist, and rapper, has also made waves for being nominated as the best actor for his lead role in The Sound of Metal. Rizwan Ahmed follows in the footsteps of Mahershala Ali, who won awards for best supporting actor in 2017 and 2019. These actors’ success in nonterrorist roles is opening doors for additional Muslim artists to find a space within Hollywood that was unavailable as late as the early 21st century.

Outside of Hollywood, these stories’ success has been instrumental in inspiring a new generation of storytellers. They are stepping into a place that before the early 21st century was guarded by layers of nepotism and elitism. Innovative and creative work is emerging through grassroots organizing. Break the Room, a collaborative space in California, bypasses the established industry and reimagines a writers’ room by bringing together emerging writers of affected communities. One of its recent projects, East of La Brea, is a six-episode digital comedy featuring the narrative of Black and Bangladeshi Muslim women of working-class neighborhoods of Los Angeles.92 Breaking Fast (2020), directed and produced by Mike Mosallam, a Muslim filmmaker, is another feature, which is about celebrating the multiplicity of Ramadan.

Muslim Women in Film and Television is another exciting social networking support group inspired by Black Women in Hollywood. It emerged in the early 2020s to promote capacity building among Muslim women and to break the dominance of Brown male Muslim storytellers.

More exciting work and emerging opportunities have also become available through mentorship for young writers, directors, producers, and actors. With more options, more diversity of expressions in race, gender, sexuality, class, and opinions will become part of Hollywood. With this multiplicity of views and characters, there is not just one voice to represent Islam and Muslims. A cacophony of expressions is changing the landscape. However, as young filmmakers tell their stories, it is critical to recognize which narratives are still out on the margins. How can more diverse voices be invited to be part of this growing storytelling Muslim wave? How can communities still left behind be reached?

Most filmmakers are second-generation Americans who tell stories that speak to their experiences of living between two worlds. These are important stories that need to be told. Unfortunately, the voices of many marginalized groups are still unheard. Within the Muslim diasporic communities, there are multitudes of complicated expressions, specifically about the issues of race and color. As a result, narratives of Black Muslims and persons with dark complexions, including South Asians and Arabs, are still at the margins. Some activist filmmakers are taking steps. For example, the second season of Ramy features Black Muslims without any discussion of race and color. East of La Brea starts a conversation about race and color, but more work needs to be done. Women are making strides, but the fantasies of Brown Muslim males continue to dominate the screen. The mainstream Muslim community continues to shy away from accepting queer expressions. Prisoners and individuals with mental-health issues are still waiting for their stories to be heard. How can gifted Muslim writers, directors, and producers continue to bring perspectives of the refugees, sex workers, undocumented youth, taxi drivers, and laborers to the silver screen, thus widening the circle of storytellers so that more diverse voices can be heard and seen?

Since Muslim Diasporic Cinema is still emerging, it is unfathomable what the future entails. Hopefully, more diverse voices will come to the front. However, there is a fear that Muslim filmmakers’ work will become mainstream and lose its edgy politics. Will it follow Hollywood’s action-packed-drama mainstream and showcase a Muslim male body filled with adrenaline that targets “bad” American bodies, as in American Sniper? Will it become virtual equality, as Rich says—meaning, acceptance on the screen but not in the real world? Will Muslim Diasporic Cinema take on bourgeois aesthetics and become an art-house film—without affirming any political identity? Even with all these unknowns, the future looks a bit more colorful than it did at the start of the 21st century. Hopefully, the horizon will continue to be brightened by expanding the rainbow.

Further Reading

  • Alsultany, Evelyn, and Ellah Shohat. Between the Middle East and the Americas: The Cultural Politics of Diaspora. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.
  • Dabashi, Hamid. Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema. London: Verso, 2006.
  • Desai, Jigna. Beyond Bollywood: The Cultural Politics of South Asian Diasporic Film. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Echchaibi, Nabil. “American Muslims and the Media.” In The Cambridge Companion to American Islam. Edited by Omid Safi and Juliane Hammer, 119–139. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Foster, Gwendolyn. Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.
  • Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.
  • Hassan, Wail. Immigrant Narratives: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Higbee, Will. Post-Beur Cinema: North African Emigré and Maghrebi-French Filmmaking in France since 2000. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013.
  • Hussain, Amir. “‘(Re)presenting: Muslims on North American Television.’” In The Bloomsbury Reader on Islam in the West. Edited by Edward E. Curtis IV, 251–259. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
  • Karim, Jamillah. American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class, and Gender within the Ummah. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
  • Kim, Jinah. Postcolonial Grief: The Afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019.
  • Mahdi, Waleed. Arab Americans in Film, from Hollywood and Egyptian Stereotypes to Self-Representation. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2020.
  • Martin, Michel. Cinemas of the Black Diaspora: Diversity, Dependence, and Oppositionality. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998.
  • Martin, Michael, and Marilyn Yaquinto. “Framing Diaspora in Diasporic Cinema: Concepts and Thematic Concerns.” Black Camera 22, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2007): 22.
  • Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Naficy, Hamid, and Gabriel Teshome. Otherness and the Media: The Ethnography of the Imagined and the Imaged. London and New York: Routledge, 2018.
  • Najjar, Michael. Arab American Drama, Film and Performance: A Critical Study, 1908 to the Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015.
  • Omidvar, Iraj, and Anne Richards. Muslims and American Popular Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2014.
  • Prabhu, Anjali. Contemporary Cinema of Africa and the Diaspora. Corby, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Rashid, Hussein. “Muslims in Film and Muslim Filmmaking in the United States.” In The Oxford Handbook of American Islam. Edited by Jane Smith and Yvonne Haddad, 459–473. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Ricci, Daniela, Melissa Thackway, and Alexie Tcheuyap. African Diasporic Cinema: Aesthetics of Reconstruction. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2020.
  • Rich, Ruby. New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.
  • Shohat, Ella. Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.
  • Wright, Michelle. Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.