New Approaches to Islam in Film
- ISBN: 9781351189156
- Published By: Taylor & Francis Group
- Published: April 2021
New Approaches to Islam in Film offers an important contribution not only to the literature on Islam in film, but also to the study of representations of Islam and its various cultural constructions, including its associations with terrorism, depictions of Muhammad, and ethnic identity. The book also covers Islamic understandings of gender, sexuality, Sufism, citizenship, human rights, and more. In this way, it works to destabilize the Western imaginary of what constitutes “Islam” and “Muslims” by revealing the limited nature of much of what makes up talk about Islam in the West, both past and present.
The volume is comprised of fifteen chapters and five parts, sets its sights on, to quote editor Kristian Petersen from his introduction, “considering new sources, exploring new communities, probing new perspectives, charting new theoretical directions, and offering new ways of understanding conflict in cinema” (1). As Petersen also points out, these explorations are meant to depict ideas and images about Islam not commonly seen in the media, such as LGBTQ Muslims, and the growth of new Muslim communities in diaspora spaces. (Editor’s Note: At the time of this review, Petersen is a member of Reading Religion’s general editorial board.)
The first section, “New Sources,” explores issues such as race and torture, Muhammad in the eyes of Nikos Kazantzakis (best known for his book The Last Temptation of Christ), along with an insiders’ look at working in the Egyptian film industry as a Muslim. Part two, “New Communities,” features essays that deal with the dynamics of identity among Puerto Rican Muslims after 9/11, as well as pieces on the intersections of gender, race, and queerness in film. In part three, “New Perspectives,” topics such as Cecil B. DeMille 1935 film The Crusades, depictions of Sufism in post-9/11 films, and representations of Muhammad in The Message (1976), and Muhammad: The Messenger of God (2015) come into focus, while “New Directions,” part four, centers questions of feminist representation in films like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Sontia (2015), and the 2012 Saudi film Wadjda. In the final section, “New Understandings of Conflict,” we are treated to studies on the role of gender, masculinity, and social class in understanding terrorism in Egypt, shifting representations of cultural outsiders in Germany since the 1970s, and the role of Christian-Muslim relations in Lebanon, respectively.
One thing that stood out for me in these essays was a focus on depictions of Muhammad, which has been a hot-button topic in the West and especially Europe since the 2005 Danish cartoons controversy, and has not, in my estimation, produced nearly enough critical commentary and analysis. In tracing Kazantzakis’ idiosyncratic interpretation of Muhammad (as someone from Crete who saw himself somewhere in between Western and Eastern identity), which is influenced by Washington Irving’s book Life of Mahomet (1850), Panayiota Mini provides a glimpse at a little-known cultural production from an acclaimed writer that could have influenced contemporary representations of Islam—and perhaps still may one day. Bilal Yorulmaz’s chapter also explores depictions of Muhammad in The Message (1976) and Muhammad: The Messenger of God (2015), and situates these films in the long history of representations of the Prophet dating back to the 11th century, while highlighting changes sparked by more recent cultural and political events, like the publishing of the Danish cartoons. This type of genealogical work helps to contextualize the dialectic over depictions of Muhammad in both “Eastern” and “Western” spaces, while calling attention to the many cultural and political stakes that have informed more recent resistance to representing him on screen. While not providing any easy answers, one gets a better sense of what is at stake in these debates by reading these detailed essays.
Another topic that stood out for me was the treatment of queerness and gender in several of these pieces. For example, Aman Agah’s contribution points to TV shows like Master of None and The Big Sick as love stories featuring Muslim men who are paired with white women, which reinforces negative tropes about brown/Muslim women by implying that they are not desirable or worthy of companionship. Using queer theory to redefine Muslim sexuality in mainstream culture, Agah teases out the lines between denial of queerness within Muslim communities, as well as a common unwillingness to engage complexity in more liberal productions of “good Muslims” (e.g., as bland, law-abiding citizens). By contrast, Agah argues that in more recent depictions “the idea has shifted from trying to fight Islamophobia with kindness and model minority stories and instead” present “Muslims as funny, sexual, conflicted religiously and culturally, [and] as diverse as anyone else on screen” (78). Similarly, Megan Goodwin analyzes the American film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), told entirely in Farsi, as a narrative that resists invoking Muslim identity, while at the same time drawing on Islamic images (the main character, a vampire, wears a veil) and complicating Western notions of feminism and personal agency.
These examples offer a fascinating look into how alternative and non-Western films have worked to “queer” Hollywood representations of Muslim identities, while providing one of the most useful and accessible examples that I’m aware of to contrast with normative representations of Muslims/Islam, which tend to oversimplify and shy away from dealing with social complexity. This “queering” is also taken up in other essays in the volume, including Moradiyan-Rizi’s fascinating look at the Saudi film Wadjda (2012) and Ayse Akasoy’s analysis of Muslims in German cinema since the 1970s.
One thing that I would have liked to have seen in this fascinating volume is an afterword that places these filmic representations of Muslims/Islam into a broader genealogy, with specific attention to how current conventions and structural forces constrain our ability to engage with and analyze the rich variety of cultural productions that the authors in this text so nicely bring to our attention. Nonetheless, this project provides solid groundwork for bringing these alternative and non-Western narratives into sharper focus with relatable examples that are accessible to a broad audience that can be easily taken-up in the classroom and scholarship alike.
Matt Sheedy is visiting assistant professor in North American studies at the University of Bonn, Germany.Matt SheedyDate Of Review:April 29, 2022