Movie Review: “Mooz-lum”

I saw the movie “Mooz-lum” last night at the AMC Lennox Theater in Columbus, Ohio.

In case you’re wondering, the title alludes to the tendency that many people have to mispronounce “Muslim.” A couple of centuries ago, a common term among Westerners for Muslims was “Mohammedans” (with various spellings), but this is considered archaic today. (An even earlier term, Mahometan, was in use as early as 1529.) When I was growing up (during the ’60s), Moslem was the more common spelling. Before I converted, I pronounced Muslim and Islam incorrectly and I probably still do from time to time. (It’s hard to break old habits.)

From what I’ve been able to tell, the correct pronunciation of Muslim is “Moos-lum (no ‘z’ sound) and Islam is pronounced “Iss-lam (like the English word ‘lamb’). Please correct me if I’m wrong (which I probably am).  The title was chosen to symbolize the fact that Islam is an often-misunderstood religion.

Now on to the movie:

Pulled between his strict Muslim upbringing by his father and the normal social life he’s never had, Tariq Mahdi enters college in a state of confusion. New relationships with Muslims and non-Muslims alike challenge his already shaken ideals, and the estrangement with his mother and sister troubles him. With the help of new friends, family and mentors, he begins to find himself and open up to an Islam he hasn’t been exposed to. But when the attacks of 9/11 happen without warning, he is forced to face his past and make the biggest decisions of his life.

That’s the official synopsis. But I would say that it’s about far more than that.

The main thing that struck me was how authentically the family was portrayed. These people are not caricatures; even the overly strict father is shown as fully human, with both good points and bad. He’s patriarchal and stubborn, but he truly loves his family. There is dissension between the mother and father about how their eldest child, their only son, should be raised. What might be an eye-opener to some viewers is how independent the mother is. She’s not oppressed in any sense of the word. (Even though she wears the headscarf/hijab!)

The actor who plays the main character as a teenager, Evan Ross, is the youngest child of the singer/actress Diana Ross. I didn’t know that when I was watching the movie, but it probably at least somewhat explains his talent. The father, played by Roger Guenveur Smith,  the mother, played by Nia Long, and the daughter, played by Kimberley Drummond  were all excellent, as was Professor Jamal, played by Dorian Missick. The only performance that was truly disappointing was Danny Glover’s. He acted as if he didn’t want to be there. (For more details about the cast, go to International Movie Database [IMDb].)

The opening of the film is beautiful. Shot in sepia with color tinting (I don’t know if there’s a technical term for that) to the accompaniment of Qur’anic recitation or prayer, it is simply haunting. The film moves back and forth between Tariq’s pre-teen years and the present, a ploy I didn’t catch onto at first. The weakest part of the film was the acting of the younger Tariq; although he did a decent job, he didn’t seem as natural as the other members of his family.

The “bad guys” in the movie aren’t all black or white (and I mean that figuratively as well as literally). They’re a little of both. Yes, 9/11 happens during the course of the film, which is somewhat of a cliché, but it serves a dramatic purpose. Some of the anti-Muslim actions seem contrived and overdone and some seem realistic and understandable. All in all, I think the movie did a good job of presenting the good and the bad, and the motivations behind both.

I would love to see more movies this well-rounded about Muslims and Islam. Maybe “Mooz-lum” is a start in that direction.

“Mooz-lum” won “Best Narrative Feature” at Urbanworld 2010 and was an official selection at both the Chicago International Film Festival and the Cairo International Film Festival this year.

Bill Maher: Misinformed Islamophobe

I know that Bill Maher can be crude and insensitive, but I admire the way he blends his brand of humor with skillful panel management on his new show “Real Time With Bill Maher.” He’s very good at giving each panel member his or her time to make a point and treats each guest with respect and civility. What I cannot stand about him, though, is his Islamophobia. It’s not just that he’s against religion in general; he is. But he makes no secret of the fact that he utterly hates Muslims and Islam.

What makes his Islamophobia even worse is that he doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about. Either that or he doesn’t care if he’s getting it wrong. On his last show (2/18/11) he was trying to make the point that all Muslim men mistreat women, but he kept referring to Arabs as the men he was talking about. If he’d done his homework, he’d know that only about 20% of all Muslims are Arabs.

I’m sure that if I pressed him on this point, he’d answer that all Muslim men want and try to control and even abuse women because their religion teaches them to. In his eyes, Islam is the real culprit. I think he’d also admit that all religions seek to control and abuse women to some extent but that Islam is the absolute worst.

What does he use to prove his point? In this last show he brought up the February 2009 incident where a Muslim man beheaded his wife six days after she filed for divorce. (The man was just found guilty of second-degree manslaughter.)  That’s not playing fair. There’s no evidence to suggest that the man used his religion to justify his actions. (His defense was that he was a battered spouse and that he acted in self-defense.) This was not an “honor killing,” which many people insist is a hallmark of Islam. It was the act of a sick person. I can’t count how many cases of domestic violence I’ve read about over the years where the man killed his wife or girlfriend because she left him, or was threatening to. In fact, there was a case just recently of a Swiss man who allegedly killed his twin girls and then himself because he was distraught over his separation from his wife. No one suggested that he did it because of his faith. But if he had been a Muslim, you can bet that his religion would have been blamed for his actions, especially by the likes of Bill Maher.

Bill Maher contended that Arab nations won’t ever be ready for democracy as long as they treat their women so abysmally. One of his guests, Tavis Smiley, countered by saying that if we were to judge nations by how they treat their women, the U.S. doesn’t exactly win any prizes. Maher was outraged that Smiley would even suggest that American women have it as bad as Muslim/Arab women. (If he hadn’t prefaced his comments by saying how dangerous Muslims are, you’d think he was just targeting Arabs.)

Smiley responded that any mistreatment of women is inexcusable, even the kind that is not obvious. Yes, we let women drive cars in America. No, we don’t punish women (or men) for infidelity (except perhaps in some divorce courts).  But as Smiley said, “The patriarchal system is live and well in America.” We might find some of the restrictions on women in other countries and cultures as incomprehensible, but that doesn’t mean that Americans are blameless in this area.

We have Christian women who never leave the house without their husbands’ permission. No one talks about them. We have women who are expected to have as many children as possible (see my post, “The QuiverFull Movement: Family Non-Planning“). We have plenty of domestic violence (including murder) and rape and incest. We have women being underpaid and rarely promoted. And no one can deny that we sexualize our females (even little girls) for the gratification of males.

I’ve met many Muslim women who have healthy, mutually respectful marriages and they’re not just the ones who were born in America. I know Muslim women (from Libya) who work, who are doctors and dentists and optometrists and scientists. They are funny and outspoken and politically aware. They have not settled for second best. And they definitely are not in fear for their lives.

It’s not all bad that Maher is so vocal about his Islamophobia. In tweets the day after the Feb. 18th show, many people commented on his  “hate-filled rant” and his bigotry about Muslims. Maybe if people see how unreasonable, even ridiculous, he is about Muslims, it will make them question their own preconceptions and prejudices about Islam. One can only hope.

Join the Discussion

I’ve been having a discussion on my other blog, Femagination, with one of my readers who refuses to believe that I can be a feminist and a Muslim. (See the post “Islam and Gender Roles” and the comments about it here.) He or she has raised many interesting questions, but has also been rather aggressive in his or her challenges to my reasoning.

Here are some examples:

You have to be obedient to your husband, he can hit you if you deserve it, you may not leave the house without his permission, and then only in a hijab, and he can have other wives. On top of that your beloved prophet killed the male relatives and kidnapped women and took a child bride amongst his many wives.

I’m just trying to understand how a feminist can buy into a religion that sanctions the near total or total control of a woman. And that is only the written law. The practice in many Muslim countries is much worse: honor killings, female genital mutilation, and the Dutch Muslim “smiley”, and the “cultural defense” to rape in Australia.

However, this person also wrote some things that I thought were worth exploring. For instance:

What most interests me is personal freedom, the right to bodily integrity, freedom of movement, of occupation, freedom to choose, the freedoms that we take for granted in the west, yet are restricted in sharia. Right now you have chosen Islam, but you are not living under sharia law. So you can pick and choose, as you please. But maybe you will feel differently when you are married to a Muslim man, subject to his wishes, and subject to a sharia legal system. Then your personal feelings about these and many other issues will simply be irrelevant.

I admit that I don’t know a lot about Shariah. Even so, I answered this way:

Did you know that Sharia is a reflection of God’s will for mankind, but that there is no universal agreement on exactly what the rules and laws of Sharia are? There is room for interpretation and innovation, particularly if you’re a Muslim of the Sunni tradition, which I am. I don’t believe in some of the adjudications that have been made in Sharia courts and would not live anywhere that practices things like stoning adulterers. But just the fact that these practices are not followed in every Muslim country should tell you that Sharia is not set in stone.

When the commenter accused me of not being willing to critically examine Islam, I wrote:

I am most definitely not closed to looking at Islam critically. I did the same with Christianity and when it failed to make sense to me, I left it. I still hold a lot of Christian-influenced views–Muslims believe that Jesus was one of the greater prophets after all–but I no longer feel that the Trinity is the best way to describe the nature of God. I wasn’t traumatized by things that happened to me in the Christian church—on the contrary, I believe that I found what I needed in the Christianity at that time in my life.

Please feel free to add to this discussion either here or on Femagination.

The Tough Love of Allah

Amy Chua* caused a sensation with her January 8th article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” What caused the stir? Her assertion that the Chinese way of raising children is better than the so-called Western way. Chua wrote:

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.

The sample she’s referring to is too small to be statistically significant, but her point is well taken. Western parents do tend to be more lenient and more concerned about damaging their children’s fragile egos. But what many (undoubtedly Western) parents objected to in Chua’s account of her child-raising techniques is how brutal they seem to be. But Chua defends her actions this way:

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

While I, too, think she goes overboard, I can see her point. She practices what used to be called “tough love” and it struck me that her way of dealing with her children is a lot like the way Allah deals with us. He does not coddle us, but requires us to strive to be the best we can be. In contrast, Christianity may seem more forgiving of our faults, but does it really do its adherents any favors?

It’s not that Christians don’t think that they have to be good people, but when you’re constantly told that you’re okay just as you are, what’s your incentive to improve? Muslims believe that Allah is more demanding than that.

Continue reading The Tough Love of Allah

This Feminist’s Look at Islamic Marriage

Maha Muslimah just wrote an excellent post on the distinction between the headscarf and being a hijabi. She explains that observing hijab means much more than wearing the headscarf (which is also known as a hijab). It refers to an entire way of life from dressing modestly to behaving like a slave of Allah. Notice I wrote “slave of Allah.” Contrary to common belief, the Muslim woman is not a slave to any man. Only Allah can, and should, be our Master.

That does not mean that Muslim women—and men—don’t have recommended roles in Islamic society, but I don’t believe that these are hard-and-fast rules. There can be many reasons why a Muslim woman works outside of the home, for instance, or contributes to the financial support of the family. (This is especially true in the economies of many countries where one person cannot make a living wage for an entire family.)

I got a comment the other day that Islam cannot be compatible with feminism because it requires the man to support his wife and family while the woman’s money is her own. Apparently the commenter feels that feminism should stand for absolute equality; in other words, that men and women should not only be exactly alike, but should share all burdens equally. (At least I think that’s what he meant.)

But the brand of feminism that Islam subscribes to, in my view at least, is that men and women are meant to have complementary roles, not competing ones. I like this view because I think it is divisive to insist that all things be split equally. For instance, if a couple insists on keeping their finances separate or making decisions independent of one another, how is their relationship any different than that of room-mates? They may be able to get along, but in the end I think they will have sacrificed intimacy for the sake of individuality.

The Islamic ideal for marriage is that each person gives up at least some of his or her personal concerns in order to create a new organism. Husbands and wives are meant to be shaped partly by their connection to their spouses. They are both meant to change to conform to the relationship. But nowhere, in the Qur’an, or the Sunnah, that I have been able to find, does it say that women are to be obliterated as persons and completely taken over by their husbands.

Feminists have long had the saying that “Marriage is one person, and that person is the husband.” I believe that the Muslim marriage would be best described by saying that “Marriage is an entity made up of two persons who have joined their lives together in order to glorify Allah.” Their mutual goal should be to help each other to submit in peace to Allah.

Marriage is like a microcosm of society. Neither men nor women should treat one another any worse than they would treat someone outside of the marriage. Too often, abuses take place within families that would never be tolerated in any other situation. Islamic marriages should show the world the very best of human behavior.

Response to “Bare Minimum Islam”

I got a lot of feedback from my last post, “Bare Minimum Islam.” I was nervous about putting it out there that I’m not as submitted as I’d like to be when it comes to obeying the Qur’an and the Sunnah. I was afraid that I’d get a lot of criticism for not being obedient. But all I got was support and thoughtful advice.

I did find some other advice that was helpful as well. It said that although we are not held accountable for ignorance, we must not practice willful ignorance. This is where a person purposefully avoids learning all he can about the Sunnah (or the Qur’an for that matter) and then when confronted with something that he is doing wrong, he shrugs and says, “I didn’t know any better.” The question is, what is he going to do now that he does know? Some people are so afraid of finding out that something they like doing is haram or something they don’t like doing is required, they in a sense put on spiritual blinders and refuse to learn anything.

“Sufficient as knowledge for a person is that he fears Allah, and sufficient as ignorance for a person is that he feels impressed with the knowledge he has.” – Masrooq (student of Ibn Masud)

This says to me that we should never be self-satisfied about our knowledge, but always be striving to learn more about our faith. But it also says that we shouldn’t let squabbles about what’s right and what’s wrong distract us from the most important thing: our relationship with Allah. If that is as it should be, then the rest will follow.