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Why I Walked Out Of The Film, Bilal

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By Umm Muhammad

As a mother of a preteen, who gets easily hooked on cartoon characters and conventional superheroes, I not only wanted, I needed the movie, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, to work. I desperately wanted the hero in the film to replace his constant chattering about Superman, Dragon Ball Z, and Ninjago. I was looking forward to the lively discussions that this highly anticipated, animated masterpiece would spark. It would be magical. My son, who has been fixated on Captain Underpants and Lego characters in recent weeks, would finally have something more positive to obsess about.

Before you digress to judging my parenting, rather than understand my review, I want to offer some points for clarity:

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No, we don’t allow TV at home. Whatever my children watch is limited and monitored.

No, my son does not play videogames.

No, my son does not own a smartphone, or any phone for that matter. Neither does he have a tablet nor any type of computer. His computer use is for school assignments only, with parental controls in place.

No, he does not spend days and nights at strangers’ houses or unsupervised where he has access to these things. Mostly, he has learned about mainstream cartoon characters at Islamic school.

We consider ourselves a moderately religious Muslim family; we believe in the Oneness of Almighty God, we pray, we fast Ramadan and some extra, we give in charity, and insha’Allah we will go for Hajj when we can afford it. When I say moderate, I mean we try our best, but we don’t consider ourselves perfect and acknowledge that there is always room for improvement.

Now, with all this in mind, let’s get back to the movie, Bilal: A New Breed of Hero. It filled me with excitement to think about watching it with my family. As soon as I saw the trailer, some time ago, it sparked my interest. I was only slightly skeptical about what I felt may have been the deliberate whitewashing of Bilal ibn Rabah, with his character’s soft, flowing cornrows of hair, light complexion, and honey brown eyes, he didn’t seem to be what I had envisioned Bilal to be; but admittedly, I don’t know how dark or light-skinned he really was. I only assumed because of previous portrayals of Bilal in films I had seen and ahadith that I had read.

I knew that there would be fictional elements in the film. This movie was made for a larger audience and with a more generally acceptable theme of racial equality, a lesson we all need now during these controversial times. However, I did not expect it to be completely disconnected from Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as it would be impossible to highlight the historical value and status of Bilal ibn Rabah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) without speaking about the very person who helped raise him to that rank.

Before purchasing our tickets, we read other reviews which provided some insight and fair warnings about the absence of the Prophet in the movie, and the benefit of teaching our children about the real history prior to viewing the film. I also knew that the film was rated PG-13, and I honestly thought that it was just due to the battle scenes, which were nothing new to us, after having already learned about and seen countless portrayals of famous battles between the Muslims and their opponents. Regardless of all of this, we were still amped to watch the movie because, whether Bilal stayed true to historical facts or not, it was still about Bilal, an unconventional Muslim hero of color.

After hurrying to buy our popcorn, pretzels, candy and drinks, we rushed to grab our seats, expecting a full house, but luckily, there were only a handful of people in the theater room for the 2pm showing. The kids knew that they may see things in the movie that differed from what they saw in the cartoon, Muhammad: The Last Prophet (Badr International, 2002), the movie, The Message (Akkad, 1976), and others. They were just happy to be at the movie theater and ready to see the famous Bilal from a whole new perspective. After enduring some grueling previews of mostly British family films, with some odd comedy which seemed inappropriate for children, it finally began.

My excitement turned into anxiety with the first scene. Huge, dark, red-eyed horses glared through a black night galloping wildly and viciously towards some unknown target. Their riders, ominous figures, clad in heavy armor seemed to have ill-intentions. It was an opening that I had not expected. I became uneasy and glanced at my children. They seemed fine so far. Then suddenly we got a glimpse at a young Bilal, pretending to be a brave warrior on a wooden horse. He and his sister play happily and their mother steps in when they get into a squabble. “Masha’Allah, just like my kids,” I thought, and I shot another glance at them, smiling. But then the shadowy horses took over the screen again, and the bright day became gloomy. Bilal’s mother instinctively runs and hides her children and then, we are given the impression, through sounds of her shrieking and the children’s looks of horror, that she is violently killed. Bilal struggles and breaks free from his hiding place, only to be snatched by the irate soldiers.

After this disturbing scene, we find ourselves in Makkah, getting a glimpse of the Arabian city in pre-Islamic times. We come to understand that this is a new home to a slightly older Bilal and his sister, where they are now living as slaves. The depiction of Makkah is darker than in other films, with demonic looking characters, and one of the things I found most thought-provoking was that some of the characters use wooden tribal masks, which resemble those used in African religious ceremonies. These masks are often used to represent spirits and demons, and to my knowledge, they were not part of Arabian culture. One character, apparently some type of soothsayer, is shown using one of these costumes with an evil-looking wooden mask and matching sharp nails, surrounded by the people in the marketplace urging them to give their money to the idols. His mysterious nature and eerie voice made me feel uneasy, and both my husband and I were convinced it was a representation of none other than Satan, himself. That was a turn-off.

Nevertheless, we endured, watching as they zoomed in on the Kaabah and its surroundings. Not surprisingly, it was encircled by the familiar idols we have all learned were revered during that time, but one stood out. It was a peculiar sight, for it stood not around or near the Kaabah, but on top of it. It was the most offensive thing that I saw during this whole experience. A statue of a bearded man, of muscular build, with the horns of a ram twisted around the sides of his head, sitting menacingly on top of the Kaabah, overlooking the city. The statue is very similar to what is known as Baphomet, a deity that the Knights Templars, better known as the Crusaders, were accused of worshipping in the 14th Century. It was, to us, a blatant and very deliberate Satanic symbol on what is the holiest place on Earth, the House of Allah. It is an utterly disrespectful image that I would not expect to see from an enemy of Islam, much less in a film produced by Muslims. As distasteful as it was, I continued to watch, hoping for something better to come, so as to outweigh the bad.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came when we were introduced to the character of a young Safwan ibn Umayyah, the son of one of the staunchest opponents of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and cruel slave master to Bilal ibn Rabah. Although he is a youngster, his appearance is sinister, and his personality is sadistic. His skin is pale and grayish and his eyes, black and full of malice. I found this to be offensive to the legacy of Safwan raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), who becomes a Muslim after the conquest of Mecca, and later lives on to wholeheartedly support Islam. Depicting him in his earlier years as a repulsive sociopath as this film does is detrimental to his reputation and character as a defender of the faith and an insult to any Muslim who respects the companions and their contributions to Islam. This is why scholars have warned against depictions of the companions, but unfortunately, we stubbornly continue seeking this type of halal “edutainment.”

When the young, gothic-looking Safwan and some of his friends, one of which is also wearing one of the mysterious wooden tribal masks, begin attacking Bilal’s sister for no apparent reason, Bilal steps in to help. A fight ensues and news of this reaches Umayyah, the father, who decides to punish both his son and Bilal. His words are severe and abusive to both children, which I also found very distressing and unsuitable. However, it was the physical punishment that finally led me to lean over to my husband and ask him if we could leave. The character of Umayyah throws Bilal to the ground in a manner so vicious and unexpected, that I had to look away.

I had hoped that the violence in the beginning minutes of the film would be the worst of it until they showed the torture of Bilal, something we were more familiar with, but unfortunately, it was only the beginning of the disturbing imagery that we would be subjected to. I find that 3D computer animated characters are so humanlike that our response to them is different than if they were a more traditional cartoon. It was almost as if I was seeing a real adult male brutally beating a young child, without being able to react. I feel like someone who has suffered through physical or verbal abuse or any childhood trauma may be sensitive to some of the content in this film.

When I whispered to my husband, “Should we go?” He immediately said, “Yes,” as if he had been hoping I would ask for some time. I looked over at the kids, and they looked pained and confused. This is what I had feared; they saw too much already. It was time to go. I quickly grabbed our belongings and told them to step outside. They followed us out of the theater, and when they asked us why we were leaving, we explained that the movie was too violent and it was not a good depiction of the companions. They didn’t complain.

I immediately wanted to warn others on Islamic forums not to make the same mistake I had, but I was met with resistance from families that have sat through the whole film and enjoyed it. As with all things in life, people have their own opinions and reasoning. However, all I can say is walking out of the movie was my own personal, quiet protest. I felt a sense of pride when my family and I stood together, mid-film, and walked away while others sat bewildered. Despite spending our money on tickets and popcorn, despite taking time out of our Saturday and driving all the way to the theater, and despite what anyone says about how great it may be to them, we could not sit through a movie that, just within its first 15-20 minutes, insulted the legacy of the companions and our beloved holy site, thus disrespecting Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, and Islam, itself.

And as the legacy of Bilal ibn Rabah’s life teaches us to never back down and to be proud of who we are, thus we celebrate our hero and stand to protect his honor.

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41 Comments

41 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Muhammad

    February 5, 2018 at 4:37 PM

    While I did not like the Bilal movie entirety either (I do overall think it’s a better movie for our kids to be watching then most movies out there now a days), I honestly can’t believe your gripe is with the violence of pre-Islamic Arabia. If anything, that was the most accurate part of the movie. We cannot sugar coat our history and claim that the same people who shoved a spear through the private area of Summayah (R), threw camel insides on the Prophet (SAW), and boycotted their own cousins to the point of starvation would not shove a child slave to the ground and beat him up. That is how it was for the companions of the Prophet (SAW), especially for the ones in the lower class standings. The times we’re times of war, with brother torturing and killing brother (Musab (R) was chained down in his own house by his own mother!). I think it only adds to our respect and admiration of the companions to see what they went through and how far they went for the sake of Allah (SWT), and that’s what we should be teaching our kids.

    And Allah (SWT) knows best

  2. Avatar

    Hina

    February 5, 2018 at 8:52 PM

    What bothered me the most was the essence of Tawheed was almost completely missing from the movie. If I recall correctly there were o Lya one or two scenes that talk about the oneness of Allah SWT. It’s obvious that this film was made to a secular audience.
    Sister, had you stayed and seen the entire movie you would have seen how they show the softness , mercy and change in Safwan bin Ummayah’s personality – it was one of the most touching and emotional scenes

  3. Avatar

    Ilikedthemovie

    February 5, 2018 at 9:36 PM

    Really? The movie was not intended for young children, hence the rating.

    The kaba was adorned with/surrounded by idols in pre-Islamic Arabia. Why would a depiction of something historical offend the author? Once Mecca was under Muslim rule, the kaba was shown as cleared of all such idols. As for, horns of rams vs. whatever idol the author would rather fancy–really? Let’s give some creative license. The shape and look of the idols aren’t central to the movie.

    She and her husband are not “moderate,” they sound rigid. I wish they’d loosen up for their kids’ sake.

    Only valid point: what’s up with the light brown skin of Bilal?

  4. Avatar

    مسعود یونس

    February 5, 2018 at 11:01 PM

    Why I Stayed and Actually Enjoyed the Movie with My Family

    I do not recall when was the last time my kids had watch an animated movie with this interest. All the stories we have been telling them, the narrative of Islamic history that they heard and watched in the Omer Series, played out in front of them yet again.

    My 10 year and 7 year old actually would like to share this movie with their friends as they found it inspiring. Yes, INSPIRING.

    The movie has a story that is very close to actual events, though sometimes dramatized extensively, still not come across as way too off from any actual narrative. For kids growing up in the west, this is one of the best video in their video library.

    The movie will connect will audience of all kinds. After all it is an animated movie and targeted towards broader population so the religious narrative is in the backdrop but still leaves a powerful impact as the story telling is all about the “impact” of the deen on Bilal and other muslims. It had that impact on my family.

    I chose to stay in the movie and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I recommend others also take their families out and enjoy this masterpiece and show SUPPORT. We need more of these narratives and cannot afford to stereotype these efforts with dramatic article headlines like. Our kids need better stories to see and hear that Captain Underpants.

    BILAL: A NEW BREED OF HERO is the fresh air that our kids need today. Don;t demonize it. Appreciate it and provide constructive feedback so more of our brothers and sisters can take similar initiatives and help educate and inspire the next generation of ummah through creative story telling of stories that are still told in a very traditional manner.

  5. Avatar

    Gina Thunder

    February 6, 2018 at 11:38 AM

    Wait, Sister. I don’t understand. Why would you say “until they showed the torture of Bilal, something we were more familiar with”? You knew he was tortured, but it was so humanlike you connected with the pain of Bilal and that was too much for you and your children were distressed. That’s the point isn’t it? Aren’t we to connect with one another, to have empathy? Through that connection we make the case for justice, peace, solidarity and inalienable freedoms. That was a teachable moment.

    Why would you want the movie to leave out the idols, the beatings and Safwan’s hard heart? You mentioned white-washing of Bilal’s skin color, but what seems to offend you more is the creators didn’t “Walt Disney-ify” it. I’m Christian and even I know that lieing about historical truths is not haram. Safwan was evil, but look what God did for him to soften his heart and turned his face to worship Allah. That’s a teachable moment. Look at how the people and city were uplifted after they bent their knees not to idols but to God. Teachable moments.

    I’m looking forward to taking my family to see this movie. We’ve been connecting with another family who is Muslim to find additional resources to learn about Bilal. Every movie where people of color are the heroes and victors like Bilal and Marvel’s Black Panther we are grabbing on to them with dear life. There is no where else our children can go to see such diversity, courage and strength. I’m about sick of Doc McStuffins, Avatar the Last Airbender cartoon and Bino & Fino (the only cartoons my children are allowed to watch).

    Peace be unto you my dear Sister. Please forgive me if I said anything that was offensive to you or any other reader.

    • Avatar

      Rehana

      April 4, 2018 at 3:07 AM

      Sister if you wanted to shield your children from the brutality sahabas (companions) had to endure to lay the foundation of Islam then you should have taken them to a Walt dine movie. Don’t even bother reading to them the sirah because guess what, its the same brutality, hardship and suffering. The Kabah had 300 idols in it in the time of the prophet, and he (S.A.W) and his companions cleansed it from them on the day of fath makkah (when they conquered Makkah). As to the reason why Bilal was depicted lighter is because the muslim world is so racist that they would not be able to empathize with the character if he was any darker. sad but true. If he was depicted as a “black” person they would have said something along the lines of “oh its ok, those people are used to such a hard life”. so they made him lighter and luckily the effect has stuck. Next time check the PG rating and the advice at the start of the film and FOLLOW it instead of craping all over hard work of brilliant people to get people to read your post. If we put as much effort in supporting each other as we do in putting each other down to make ourselves look good as you and those with you then maybe our children could look up to us, the parents, for inspiration not a quick fix movie. May ALLAH guide us and you.

  6. Avatar

    Shafkat

    February 6, 2018 at 8:52 PM

    The movie was great.

  7. Avatar

    Siraj

    February 6, 2018 at 11:19 PM

    Sister, couldn’t you have watched the movie first before taking your kids?

  8. Avatar

    Sarah

    February 7, 2018 at 12:23 PM

    I don’t get why people are so upset about this movie. So what if he was white washed? So what if there was no message of Tawhid. This movie wasn’t made just for Muslims. The fact that a movie about Bilal came out and is playing in theaters all across America is a big deal. It takes baby steps to get the message of Islam across in the media. A message that isn’t just about terrorism. We should support the people who made this movie and show our kids that yes, they belong and can have relatable characters in the media. I wish I had movies like this and hijab wearing advertisements and barbie dolls when I was growing up. Our kids are lucky that even with all the hate, there is still the celebration of diversity that we lacked growing up in America.

  9. Avatar

    Yusuf Smith

    February 7, 2018 at 12:39 PM

    As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    I always thought it was haraam to depict or play-act the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) or the Sahaba. It’s not part of any Muslim tradition (it’s a strong tradition in Christianity) and none of us is worthy to be seen as one of them. Worse, this uses computerised images, and drawing images of humans or animals is haraam, yet Muslims think they are serving the Ummah by doing these things.

    I’ve seen The Message on video many years ago, and that film also cast as the villain Abu Sufyaan (radhi Allahu ‘anhu) who also later became Muslim and was a Sahabi. And although it did not depict the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) or the ‘inner’ Sahaba, it made the mistake of assuming that the people depicted, including Bilal (radhi Allahu ‘anhu), were also-rans which they certainly were not.

  10. Avatar

    Nadia

    February 8, 2018 at 6:01 AM

    Assalaamu’alaikum warahmatullah wabarakatuh.

    First of all I would like to congratulate you for setting up those rules for your children. Indeed, we live in a dangerous era that such restrictions are necessary to ensure the safety of our children, particularly their deen. Seriously I would rather have my kids lead a “miserable” life in this temporary world we live in, but they are steadfast upon the deen and uphold the Tawheed. I’m glad you and your family walked out from the film. The best source for us muslims to learn about our beloved Prophet sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam and his companions radhiyallaahu ‘anhum is by studying the authentic hadeeths and seerah. The film only focuses on the slavery. Nothing about Islam in it, let alone Tawheed as the foundation of Islam. The film was made by a secular for secular audience. Allaahu yubaarik feeki.

    Wassalaamu’alaikum warahmatullah wabarakatuh.

  11. Avatar

    Rizwan

    February 8, 2018 at 10:37 AM

    I wouldn’t lean on feature movies to learn about Islam, let alone try to teach kids about Islam as their young minds are very impressionable. From the trailer, it’s clear that it’s a movie for older teens and adults and only for entertainment purposes. Thanks

    • Avatar

      Usman

      February 9, 2018 at 7:08 PM

      Thoughtful comment. Agreed 100%

  12. Avatar

    Katie Capone

    February 9, 2018 at 11:40 AM

    The truth will always survive. And you don’t want that, do you? No human being that has ever been born is perfect. Perfection is god God GOD Allah whatever. Never shield your children from the truth. It weakens them. Let them see what the truth is and let them think on their own. Stop manipulating your children into believing some man-made testament about the glory of god. His glory is all around us. Use the truth to educate. Do not shield the young from the world they are our future.

  13. Avatar

    just think

    February 15, 2018 at 8:13 PM

    when major american theaters allowed this movie then you should be alarmed and know there is something wrong.

  14. Avatar

    Monique Hassan

    February 19, 2018 at 2:10 PM

    Assalamu alaikum.

    The violence that happened was real, he amongst others were tortured and killed.

    I don’t hide this reality from my kid, they need to know what the sahaba endured, what the Prophet (saws) endured.

    I respectfully disagree, if they understand how violently they were treated they will have greater respect for their ability to stand firm in their faith and the fact he yelled out “ONE GOD” while being tortured as an adult.

    I would let kids watch the Omar series that shows this torture more life like. That is the reality and that harsh reality needs to be honored and understood, not sugarcoated.

    Just my humble opinion.

  15. Avatar

    Monique Hassan

    February 19, 2018 at 2:14 PM

    astagfurallah.

    How dare anyone say that to a Mother in Islam?!

    “The Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hand the people are safe” You don’t know her situation and family, even I don’t agree with her post at all, but she is a believer, she is your sister!

  16. Avatar

    Arif

    February 20, 2018 at 11:49 AM

    Being brutally honest, this is the worst review one can read trying to get a sense of the pros and cons of this movie. I came here to see if there were some honest critique. After reading this, all I got was a personal insensitive reaction to a cartoon. And the fact that the reviewer did not even watch the entire film to come and comment on it. This is one of the worst reviews I have ever read.

  17. Avatar

    razzaq hamdani CEO

    March 25, 2018 at 12:12 AM

    Islam described great reward to free a slave , it was not possible in early islam to abandon slavery. but rewards and virtues are described if you free a slave.

  18. Avatar

    jo

    April 22, 2018 at 1:10 AM

    The film is just awesome. A piece of art on every level.
    p.s. If you walked out, then how come you give yourself the leave to write a “thoughtful” critique about it?!!

  19. Avatar

    What is wrong with you

    May 10, 2018 at 12:58 PM

    I’m sorry but how do you not let your children watch TV or play video games? Are they just boring husks of people!

  20. Avatar

    Bilal

    July 6, 2018 at 12:18 AM

    Salaam. I respectfully disagree with you. The movie was excellent and it’s hard to take the wickedness out of slavery and idolatry. And I feel like the movie did a good job in depicting those things. As for the statue, yes the arabs worshipped those, even the horned guy on top and even worse than that. It wasn’t until Imam Ali (Pbuh) climbed onto the roof of the Kabaa and destroyed them. As for safwan, he wasn’t the holiest guy on earth, and he did do some pretty bad things. Some may argue that the only reason he joined the Prophet (Pbuh) is because he had no other choice.

    • Avatar

      Zayna

      October 16, 2019 at 1:40 PM

      Assalaamu alaikum akhi, the correct terminology to refer to Ali ibn Abi Talib is Radhiallahu anhu, not Peace be upon him.

      Also please refrain from making such silly assumptions about Safwan radhiallahu anhu and his intentions at his conversion to Islam. Barakallhu feek :)

  21. Avatar

    Mahfuz

    July 9, 2018 at 10:59 AM

    This is based on true events, and before Islam Arabia was a violent place. I have watched the whole movie and I thought it was great. I really loved it. Surely it couldn’t bring every aspect of his life in 1 hr 40 minutes but nonetheless it was a great one. Way better than most animated movies I see which makes no sense at all…. Very well done

  22. Avatar

    Ammar

    July 11, 2018 at 5:22 PM

    Thank you for posting this sister.
    I think the movie was alright but as others have said you missed the rating PG-13; children should not watch it without parents which for us muslims mean children should not see this at all until they reach the age of teens atleast.
    Other than that I think you made great points.
    For those that are criticising her that she should not be reviewing because she did not watch the whole movie are missing the fact that she is not a professional critic.
    More importantly, it’s even in the title…”Why I walked out of the Film”
    It assumes that she walked out of it in middle.

  23. Avatar

    Mohammed

    July 12, 2018 at 7:08 PM

    It’s actually well done.
    The direction this film takes and it’s intent is definitely in the right place.
    While the film makes no explicit reference to Islam and Muhammad (pbuh), key word being explicit. It still contains enough of the core message of Islam and is still interesting and inspiring enough to non-Muslim audiences. Yes the Prophet (pbuh) part in the story was kinda not there or severely downplayed which is unfortunate but the non explicit mentioning of Islam will also aid non-Muslims is realising what Islam really is without first judging it on their preconceived notion of what Islam is. Thus will help people learn about the true Islam.

  24. Avatar

    Dewi

    July 13, 2018 at 1:28 AM

    I think its a good movie, if you watched it till the end. How people and mecca changed after moeslem wins, its so different with the begining of this movie. Its way better??

  25. Avatar

    Linda Smith

    July 17, 2018 at 10:41 AM

    What amazes me the most is the fact that people actually believe that “they” are all good. My belief is better for the world and we look for love and peace. Muslims matter is no different than christians matter. It is a religion. It is a belief. When you are born you are born as a human being. Anything added is what you as a human being has added. What the Creator of the ENTIRE UNIVERSE has created is male and female. When you force your belief and your culture on someone else, IT IS EVIL. It was evil of Bilal and his sisters to be taken unto slavery by the good ole muslims. Open your eyes. Perhaps this story was told from the eyes of an African. And by the way, learn your history about the “middle east”. You will be surprised to learn that your presence wasn’t always there. Evil flows down and that evil interrupted culture that was already there. If you think about it, both religions flowed down into other cultures.

  26. Avatar

    Maleka

    August 7, 2018 at 2:38 PM

    I feel so bad that you have posted this article on a website that is well known and so many people can actually read it. There is so much wrong in this article. Nowhere in the movie, they have mentioned that this is the Kaaba, or this is any specific prophet. They did not even use the names of any religion. It is free from any insults or hidden meanings towards Islam. Most of your article is based on what “you thought” of the movie. The movie shows how and what people went through those times. Makkah was once a place where idols were worshipped. Before Islam that is how slaves were treated, that is what they have shown in the movie. For me, whenever I listen to the stories of Islam, I always think how I wish I was able to see it in real life, how I wish I could see it as a movie and this movie has done justice to that wish of mine. I could literally feel the pain and hardships that people went through for our deen. And there is another message in the movie for a greater audience (message of equality and message about racism). If someone did something good out there (keeping it safe, not using any names or relating it in anyway to our deen directly), praise it so that people can get o see more of our stories instead of putting it down.

  27. Avatar

    Mehmet Kaan Ulker

    September 1, 2018 at 7:09 AM

    I find this article null & void.

  28. Avatar

    saqib

    October 27, 2018 at 12:01 PM

    I agree you um muhammad thanx for giving time to represent your feeling to others on this movie.
    I was on starting when I felt they want to drive our thoughts to somewhere other side from Islam’s core values.
    when a “wiseman” come to bilal in front of holy Kaba and told him that “this holy place were built to live all humans together with peace here”.
    Yes, we should live together with peace but all human cannot live in makkah but muslims, because Allah ordered( al tobah) the Prophet MUHAMMAD peace be upon Him
    to restrict nonmuslims in makkah.
    And that statue placed on the top of the holy kaba is very offensive.
    I recommend to not let your children to see this kind of things so that thier faith would not ridden by nonsense people.

  29. Avatar

    Yahya

    November 16, 2018 at 3:12 PM

    I would like to start by saying that I watched the entire movie. Was it worth the time and hype? I would have to say no. It has some interesting points to be taken as a fictitious story based loosely on the life of Bilal.
    To begin with, there is factual inaccuracies. Bilal was not born in africa, he was born in mecca to slaves that were brought over (his parents) after the attempt by invaders to destroy the kaaba, and was born a slave already.
    There is no mention of a sister as far as I have looked into the life of Bilal. However he was considered one of the best slaves, and given the keys to the idol alter. He was caught by ummayah practicing islam and was indeed dragged through the streets, and tied down with a heavy stone on him.
    It was the prophet, who when he heard about Bilal’s torture sent Abu Bakr to negotiate for his release which by some sources was 3 slaves in return for Bilal (A pagan family).
    It was islam that preached equality, tolerance, justice, and fairness which was completely missing from the film. So is the fact that Bilal was the first caller to prayer due to the prophets appreciation of Bilal’s position as a former slave in promoting equality among islam’s people and his voice.
    Sufyan was a trader by nature and not a bad man. Look up his history before and after his conversion. Mecca was never burned to the ground like the movie, the followers of islam had their property burned, and they were exiled to medina.
    Perhaps the biggest disrespect in the show was showing the prophets nephew, Ali’s face. He is revered in Islam and his face is never shown.
    To a muslim believer this movie is sacrilege, and I’m surprised muslims defend it. As a fictitious movie sure it was nice, as a story of Bilal it was an affront to my faith.

  30. Avatar

    Ibrahim Ahmed

    November 20, 2018 at 4:11 AM

    Very well written article and excellent points. I was hyped for this so much and having just watched it, I could say the last third I felt disconnected and started looking at my phone. Very shocked at the blatant satanic symbolism and portrayal of the baphomet. I was left wondering throughout the whole movie how historically accurate this actually was. If its a means to propagate the values of Islam to a secular audience, then don’t defeat the purpose by censoring it. So awkward. Very violent, so no way my little nephews would be able to watch without getting afraid.

  31. Avatar

    DolceVita

    January 4, 2019 at 1:51 PM

    I don’t know what to say. All the historic accounts in the movie were fairly accurate. Why did u not stay until the end of the movie, it showed Safwan’s conversion to Islam and Bilal giving the Adhan for the first time. You are ok with ur kids watching all that violence with superman, batman, and all those other super heroes but u pull your kids out of the theater when it shows people fighting for equality and freedom. I seriously do not understand ur logic. It’s because of people like u, the movie went out of theater early when I was trying hard to find time to watch it in theaters with my kids. I had to wait till I could watch it on Amazon prime. How can u judge a movie when u haven’t watched the entire thing. It’s like judging a person without listening to the whole truth. Was extremely disappointed with ur review.

  32. Avatar

    Abdallah

    January 18, 2019 at 2:00 PM

    It seems that the people who made this movie where trying hard to appeal to western audience so they sacrificed the historical accuracy

  33. Avatar

    Logic works

    May 24, 2019 at 2:23 PM

    I don’t understand the point of this article or your style of parenting
    1. The movie is PG – 13, meaning, don’t bring your KIDS
    2. It’s extremely hard to sugar coat slavery and idolatry, you were offended that the kaba was adorned with idols? Are you offended by every history book you come across? These are facts, the kaba WAS adorned with idols. Why are you offended by facts
    3. Why leave a review on a movie you didn’t even watch?
    4. you stated you were already aware of violence about Bilals story but then were offended and offput when you saw the violence, but you expected it?! You sound dense and hypocritical.

    Also, please get a grip and have some real fun with your family and loosen up on your kids before they grow up feeling suffocated by their own mom

  34. Avatar

    Hinton

    January 14, 2020 at 8:29 PM

    I just what to say that, I am glad this film was made. I had no clue about these individuals in history or their religious connection to Islam. I decided to play this movie for my two boys (8 and 4) and they REALLY liked it. Even my 8 year old was upset at how the characters were being treated and was asking me so many questions about slavery. We are not a religious family, but have a christian background. I hope to see more films (animated or with actors) about Islam history and even other religions. We really enjoyed it.

  35. Avatar

    Hafith Mustafa Saeed

    April 1, 2020 at 12:48 AM

    Allah u guys all sound very much more than moderate. Rather than not giving ur children any freedom, give them freedoms with explaining right and wrong. As a child in 21st century America, most of my friends who’s parents did this became rebellious and I even know some who are closeted ex-Muslims. And the part about the Bilal movie not relating to Islam at all, it was partially related to
    Islam but I believe the main reason they chose not to fully show it as an Islamic movie was because they want to slowly show the world Muslims aren’t terrorists rather than shoving in their faces because then people might say, “Oh they are just trying to make us believe they are good”. By showing it slowly, they are showing that we are peaceful people and maybe with the hidaayah and guidance of Allah, they will embrace Islam one day, you never know. Jazakallah Khair for listening. I was blessed to have a solid good Islamic foundation and have completed hifth with Shaikh Ismail Al-Qadi. With my little knowledge this is what I have reasoned. Please feel free to Forgive and correct me on any shortcomings I may have had. One again جزاك الله

  36. Avatar

    Hunzla Naveed

    May 24, 2020 at 12:45 PM

    This is the history of Islam and the violence shown in this movie is the appreciation of the miseries and suffering of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, we don’t just label our kids as muslims and prevent them from learning the essence and what it takes to be a true believer and keep them in the comfort of kids zone.

  37. Avatar

    Briana

    August 10, 2020 at 11:31 AM

    I am a Catholic, just in case that matters. I watched the Arabic version of Bilal with English subtitles and it had slightly more obvious references to the Prophet than the Western version did: like when Bilal climbs the Kabba and put his fingers in his ears to start the call to prayer—the Western version does a full-stop right there. But the Arabic version cuts to the call to prayer and beyond (sorry, I’m not sure if he is singing Quranic verses, but maybe he is?), so I prefer the Arabic version. I was a little disappointed that they did not make the Islamic aspect more prominent, especially when we have such movies as The Prince of Egypt. But as was already stated, this was a secular movie and probably wanted to be more accepted in a Western audience where people, sadly, are still uncomfortable with Islam because they choose to be ignorant.

    What this movie made me do was immediately contact three of my Egyptian friends and ask them to watch it and let me know what they think. Two of them had time to watch and they both liked it generally and appreciated that the filmmaker made it clear it’s an adaptation, not an exact copy. And they then told me the more accurate version. So for me, it inspired me to learn more, and also now I want to name someone Ghufaira because that’s the most beautiful name I’ve ever heard. Maybe my next cat, because I’m not having any kids.

    I don’t really see how the creepy pagan dude was Satan. More like a personification of corruption and decadence, but I guess that’s in the realm of Satan. I actually saw it more like how when Moses & Hod get angry that the newly freed Jews from Egypt are partying around an idol. It’s not godly, but it’s also not Satanic. Or how the Romans in Jerusalem and environs are not good to be able around because they are pagan.

    I thought Bilal and Ghufaira are actually darker than everyone else in the film, which makes sense because they were mixed race, right? The villains all were white, however. And Safwan does change in the end. It doesn’t show him converting, but it shows that he was not actually an evil monster. Or rather stopped being an evil monster.

    The animation was the most amazing to me. It is so innovative, like Into the Spiderverse. The attention to detail was stunning and the creepy dude was successfully creepy haha! He made me uncomfortable, but that’s the point. Did you at least get to the part where Bilal sings? I have watched this movie like 4 times and I replay that scene over and over for the song. Lastly, and apologies if this is sacrilegious, but they made Hamza look super fine. He was so cool. I was sad when he died.

    I think, given the state of the Western world, this movie is a huge success for the Arab and Muslim worlds. In the US we are so behind that we only just recently had a cartoon about Mexican culture (Coco).

    Well, that’s my two cents, not that anyone asked lol. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your interesting perspective.

  38. Avatar

    Sakina

    August 24, 2020 at 9:38 PM

    They show Imam Ali’s face in this too. My heart hurts, I literally just bought the movie online after looking at the reviews now I don’t know what to do.

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#Culture

Day of the Dogs, Part 7: The Underground Dream

Behind them, the city was burning. Omar and a thousand others descended into the cave, led by the red-robed Saviors.

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Caves of Borneo

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

This is chapter 6 in a multi-chapter novella.  Chapters:  Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6

“Not without you,” – Omar

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Omar’s mother flipped when she saw the bruising on his face – how could she not, when the whole right side of his face was the color of an eggplant – and demanded to know who had attacked him, but he merely told her he’d slipped and fallen in a pothole, which was true as far as it went. No point in freaking her out further with the details. Though Omar didn’t see why she should care. Nemesio had beaten him for years and she hadn’t stopped it. Why should it matter now? It smacked of hypocrisy.

He was not the type to give up on anything, so the next morning he ate the breakfast his mother prepared – scrambled eggs, corn tortillas with white cheese, and coffee – and set out again for Hani’s house. This time he made it without incident, although he was exhausted by the time he got there, and his shirt and hair were damp with sweat.

Hani lived in an orange-colored home with peeling paint and a high metal fence surrounding a tiny front yard. Curiously, there was a moving van parked in front of the house, and a stack of boxes on the front patio.

Hani’s mother, a thin Arab woman with a long face just like her son’s, answered the door.

“Omar!” she said warmly. “It’s been too long.” Then her eyes took in the scars on his face, his half-ruined ear, and the massive purple bruise on his face, and her smile faded. “What happened?” She pointed to her own cheek. “Is that bruising from the… the incident?”

“No. I fell down yesterday. But I’m fine.”

“I see. Be careful.” She seemed at a loss for a moment, then she said, “I saw you on television. Congratulations for the award.”

“Are you guys moving?”

Her smile faded. “Yes. We are moving to Bogotá. For Hani’s father’s work, you understand. I know Hani will miss you.”

“Oh.” Omar was taken aback. He and Hani had known each other since they were little. Now he was moving without warning? Omar doubled up his hands on the cane, resting more weight on it. “When are you leaving?”

“In a few days. Hani is not here. He went with his father to buy boxes.”

“Oh.” Knowing he must sound like a simpleton. “Should I come back later?”

Hani’s mother hesitated, emotions playing on her face like the shadows of rain clouds. “Maybe not. He will be very busy.”

Omar did not understand. He wanted to ask if she could give him a ride home, but was too embarrassed. He walked slowly home and collapsed into bed for a long afternoon nap.

Underground

Caves of Borneo Behind them, the city was burning. Not from bombs, but from the hands of citizens against citizens. But the bombs would fall soon, they were told, so they were led into the cave and down into the depths of the mountain’s roots, a thousand of them shuffling toe to heel in the shifting darkness, lit by the pale illumination of the hand-powered flashlights carried by the red-robed Saviors.

Omar craned his head at the barely seen walls and ceilings of the caverns they passed through. The cave was frigid and damp, and he could not imagine this as his new home.

They would be safe here, they were told, and would be fed. But they must work. Life would be hard. Such was the price of survival.

And oh, they did work. Not at farming, technology, communications, or tending to the sick. No, they worked at one thing: mining for gold. Omar was a digger, excavating shafts and spiral tunnels. Others were muckers, removing blasted materials, or mixers, using cyanide to break down the ore. Some died from the poisonous fumes. Others were killed by cave-ins, vanished into unseen pits or crevices, or died of malnutrition or exhaustion. The “food,” if it could be called that, consisted of freeze dried meals, holding as much moisture and flavor as cave dust.

A few objected to the unceasing work and terrible food. One in particular, a young man named Javier, stirred up a fuss. One day the Saviors seized him. They held a public trial, declared Javier a traitor, and dropped him into a bottomless crevice that everyone called the Pit. After that no one complained.

Omar saw Samia from time to time. She was lucky enough to be a dowser – one of the gifted few who had the ability to find veins of gold. The only tool she used was a small candle floating in a bowl of water, which she carried with her. Somehow it worked. She was better fed than the others but still thin, all her baby fat gone, and her skin had a grayish tint that worried Omar.

One of Omar’s co-laborers, a former Ngäbe-Buglé leader by the name of Toribio, had broken a rib when a supporting beam snapped. Omar covered for him, working twice as hard, doing Toribio’s work as well as his own. In return, Toribio gave Omar an entire loaf of flatbread. Real bread! Omar could not imagine where it had come from, and Toribio would not say.

That night, Omar slinked stealthily into the women’s sleeping area, where he found Samia jammed into a too-small sleeping hole. He woke her with a hand over her mouth, and gave her the bread. Her eyes widened and she nodded, and Omar departed as silently as he had come.

Toribio’s broken rib must have punctured his lung, because his condition grew worse, until one morning he would not wake. He was barely breathing, and his skin was ashen. Omar knew what would happen. The Saviors would throw the wounded man into the pit. His eyes flicked to Toribio’s boots. Toribio was small, about the same size as Samia. He would not need the boots where he was going. Omar unlaced them and pulled them off, feeling like a criminal.

That night, he slipped into the women’s area and gave Samia the boots. But one of the women must have seen him and reported him, because the next morning the Saviors yanked him out of the work line and beat him with a stave, until he was bruised and bleeding everywhere.

Omar knew that something was not right. If the Saviors cared about saving anyone, they would not treat people so cruelly. Also, the Saviors claimed that they met with other survivor clans and traded the mined gold for supplies. But if that were true, then why were they eating dreck and wearing rags? Why did they sleep in tiny rock chambers that they dug out themselves with hand tools?

Above ground, they were told, the world was a ruin. The cities were destroyed, the forests burned, the air poisoned. Only in these depths was there any hope of survival. But Omar wondered… The Saviors were robust, not starving like everyone else. And what would a ruined world need with gold?

Late one night, Omar followed one of the Saviors. If he were caught he’d be publicly beaten, and might not survive. He followed at the edge of the man’s light as the red-robed overseer sneaked up a narrow tunnel that led to a locked door. Omar memorized the route, knowing that if he came this way alone he would do it in darkness. The man unlocked the door and slipped through. Omar could not follow.

The next day, as he was carrying a wheelbarrow full of unprocessed ore, he bumped into that same Savior. The ore tumbled out. The man shouted in rage and beat Omar with a stick, splitting his cheek and bruising his ribs. But Omar had what he wanted: he’d slipped the key out of the man’s pocket in the chaos.

Late that night he crept out of his sleeping chamber and traveled up the long corridor in pitch darkness, walking with his eyes closed, relying on memory. He reached the door, unlocked it, and found no more than a continuation of the tunnel. But… wasn’t there a whisper of a breeze? He continued. Was the tunnel rising? And the air… it was fresher. Now he saw light ahead, not bright but a lighter shade of darkness than the inky depths below.

The tunnel emerged into the vast openness of the surface world. It was night, and the stars shone blindingly in the sprawling firmament. Had the sky always been so vast? Omar could not remember. The air was rich with the scents of leaves and soil. A night bird called, and it was the sweetest thing Omar had ever heard. He felt something on his face, wiped it away, and realized he was weeping.

The area was forested, except for a paved road that disappeared into the trees, and a squat stone building with firelight flickering through the windows. Omar heard laughter. He eased forward and peered through a window. Inside was a beautiful dining room with a wide wooden table, colorful fabrics hanging on the walls, and logs burning in a fireplace. At the table sat eight Saviors. Omar recognized their faces, though they looked different without their red robes, which hung on hooks along one wall.

They were feasting on dishes that Omar remembered as if through a dream: whole roasted chickens, platters of fish stewed with vegetables, fresh salads, fried plantains, and sliced mangoes and pineapples. Omar’s mouth was instantly full of saliva. But he must return before someone spotted him. The Saviors would kill him if they caught him. He stopped only long enough to pick up a freshly fallen leaf and thrust it into his pocket.

Back in his sleeping chamber, his mind raced. The people would not believe him. Their obedience of the Saviors was absolute. Every day they were told that they would be dead without the overseers’ vision and guidance, that the surface world was a wasteland, and that only through labor could they be saved. If the people reported him to the Saviors, he would be cast into the Pit.

He could simply leave. The key was burning a hole in his pocket, demanding to be used. There was no need to remain in this tomb of horrors. But… he could not leave without Samia. The two of them hardly spoke. But they were connected in a way he could not explain.

The next night he returned to Samia’s sleeping chamber, knowing someone might see him and report him. It was a risk he must take. In whispers, he told Samia what he had discovered.

She was skeptical. “The surface world is a wasteland, Omar. You were only dreaming. Go away before you get us both in trouble.”

He showed her the leaf. Her eyes widened. She felt it tenderly, smelled it, even bit a piece off and chewed it. She began to weep silently. Finally she thrust the leaf back at him, her hand shaking. “I can’t. I’m afraid. I don’t want to go in the Pit. It terrifies me. I can’t, Omar, I can’t. You go. At least one of us will be free of this nightmare. You leave.”

He silenced her with a finger on her lips. “Not without you,” he said softly. Then he departed as silently as he’d come. What could he do? Her fear was more real to her than his promise of freedom.

He hid the key beneath a stone in a disused mining tunnel, and went back to work. He would not abandon Samia. If she wanted to stay and be worked to death in this abyss, then he would do the same.

* * *

He woke with his hands clenched into fists. His heart felt like a withered leaf. Why was Samia so stubborn? Then relief washed over him as he realized it was only a dream. He was not a beaten-down, kidnapped laborer in an underground tomb.

How strange that Samia should appear in his dream. That had never happened before. The eerie thing was that even awake, he could not shake a sense of responsibility and guilt, as if he had truly abandoned some version of her, some alternate personality that existed in that mine, sleeping in a hole in the wall and slowly dying.

Snow in Fiji

After that movie night at his house, Omar had hoped that maybe he’d have actual friends at school. He’d be one of the “in crowd”. Especially now that Tameem and Basem were gone. But with Hani gone as well, Omar was the only boy left in his grade. There was no “crowd” left to be a part of.

Fiji snow globe Sure, the Muhammad sisters were cheery and kind. They brought him little gifts, like homemade cookies, and a snowglobe from Fiji, which was funny, since Omar was sure it had not snowed in Fiji in about five hundred million years. Nabila brought him sports jerseys, a Buffalo Bills baseball cap, and once even a cool pair of navy wraparound shades – all more sponsor swag.

But Halima was remote, finding excuses to avoid him. That stung. Not that he imagined she’d become his girlfriend. He knew that was not allowed in Islam. But when she smiled at him and made witty banter in her Colombian slang, he felt like he was drifting in a rowboat on a clear summer lake, and never wanted the moment to end.

The one time he gathered up the courage to ask Halima why she was so distant, she only smiled ruefully and said, “You’re out of my league, hermano.” Then she walked away. Omar assumed she was being sarcastic, and was actually telling him that she was out of his league. And of course she was right. Chastened, he left her in peace.

As for him and Samia, they mostly went back to ignoring each other. Omar appreciated the way she’d stayed by his side in the hospital, and her words of wisdom. But the two of them had never really been friends, unless you counted the way they’d pranked each other relentlessly when they were little. Samia was too much of a know-it-all for Omar’s taste.

Still, a string of odd incidents made him wonder. Once at lunchtime, a bottle of Pepsi that had been in his lunch bag exploded as he opened it, fountaining all over his face and shirt. Some kids laughed, while others were horrified, hurrying with napkins to help him clean up. What made Omar suspicious was that Samia, who sat at another table with her back to him, did not even turn to look.

Another time, when they sat for keyboarding class, Omar’s computer mouse would not work, no matter how much he jiggled it, unplugged it, and re-plugged it. Finally he turned it over, and saw that someone had stuck a post-it note over the optical sensor. Written on the note was, “HA HA HA.” Omar’s eyes shot to Samia. A Spanish speaker would have written, “JA JA JA.” Using the “h” gave the person away as a native English speaker. But Samia’s eyes were resolutely fixed on her computer screen.

Omar confronted Samia, who only rolled her eyelids and said, “Come on, Omar. That’s kid stuff.”

The Next Person Goes in the Garbage Can

In the middle of that eleventh grade year, a new boy named Fuad arrived to join Omar’s class. Omar was pleased to have another boy to keep him company, but Fuad was an odd duck. The Indian boy spoke in a heavy accent that Omar could barely understand, his eyeglasses were so thick you could see nothing but a blur behind them, and a mass of black hair always hung down over his eyes. He was physically awkward, and would sometimes rush out to the bathroom without even asking the teacher. A strange boy, altogether.

Lightning-scarred oak treeShortly after Fuad arrived, Omar overheard a few 12th graders making fun of him. They were both new kids whose parents had just moved to Panama. Mahboob, the leader, was a heavyset, full-cheeked Pakistani youth who looked more like a brown refrigerator than a high school student. He was known for being physically rough in football games. His sidekick, Asad, had a thin face that looked like a pressed Cuban sandwich, and a mass of curly hair much like Omar’s own.

Omar was sitting with his back against a tree in his usual spot on the yard, while the older boys sat at one of the nearby picnic tables. As Fuad walked past, Mahboob called out to him:

“Hey mophead! You’re so skinny, if we need to clean the floor we could hold you like a mop and use your hair.”

Mahboob grinned at his own joke, and Asad let out a high pitched, giggling laugh.

Fuad turned and said politely, “I beg your pardon? You are saying what about my hair?”

But Omar was already on his feet, striding quickly toward the boys, not even using his cane. He stopped in front of Mahboob and glared at the large youth. The hulking 12th grader could probably have picked up Omar and used him as a conga drum, and for a moment Mahboob looked as if he might be about to say something, but in the end he averted his gaze.

Omar had experienced this with all the kids since the dog attack. They held him in awe, or at the very least respected him. Though these two had not been hear last year, they must have heard about it.

Omar touched an index finger to his lips then pointed sharply with it – an Arab gesture he’d picked up during his years at IIAP. “Wallahi,” he growled, “the next person who bullies Fuad is going in the trash can. Try and see, if you don’t believe me.” He stared at each boy in turn, then walked away.

It wasn’t that he had any great fondness for Fuad. He barely knew him. But he’d been the victim of bullying for years while others stood by, and there was no way on Allah’s sweet earth that Omar was going to become one of those silent bystanders, letting apathy make him complicit in cruelty.

Apparently the bullies didn’t believe him.

The next day, after school dismissal, the Muhammad sisters’ mother, Sister Farida, had offered Omar a ride home. He was about to climb into their SUV when he realized he’d forgotten his homework folder in his desk. The 9th to 12th grade classrooms were located in an outbuilding behind the main building, flanking the basketball court. He went out there, retrieved the folder, and had just exited the classroom when he saw a drama developing between Fuad and the two older boys.

Fuad was apparently retrieving books from his locker. As he did, Mahboob and Asad stood behind him, blocking his way. The yard was mostly empty at that point, with only a few younger kids milling about, and no teachers. No one seemed to have noticed what was happening.

As he watched, Fuad said something to the boys and tried to walk away, but Mahboob stuck out a foot and tripped him. Fuad fell heavily on his face. His glasses skittered away, and his backpack opened, the books tumbling out.

The boys laughed. Omar saw Fuad put a hand to his mouth. It came away bloody.

Omar’s vision turned as red as a forest fire. His hands tightened into fists as he strode toward the bullies, not even hearing the clatter of his cane as it fell to the ground.

The look on his face must have been unmistakeable, because when Mahboob saw him coming he raised his hands in fists. His stance was terrible, however. He held his fists along the sides of his ears, as if he were one of the pre-Islamic Arabs trying not to hear the Quran. It was obvious he had no training.

Where the head goes, the body follows – one of the martial arts principles that Sensei Alan had drilled into him over the years. Omar could not lift Mahboob, but he could control the bigger boy’s head. Slapping Mahboob’s hands out of the way, he seized the boy’s hair in one hand and his throat in the other. Giving the twelfth grader no time to react, he used Mahboob’s head to drag him toward the trash can. Mahboob shouted, as did the others, but Omar paid no mind. With a heave, he chucked Mahboob headfirst into the trash barrel, which was brimming with the day’s food leftovers and chewed gum balls. The can could not hold him, and tipped over, dumping the trash onto Mahboob’s head.

Asad jabbed a finger at Omar. “You can’t do that!”

Omar seized the finger and bent it backwards, forcing Asad down to the ground, until he was lying on his stomach. Omar stepped on his neck. Mahboob was up by then, wet, sticky garbage clinging to his shirt and hair. His face was purple with rage and embarrassment. He and the other two boys glared at Omar. Comically, Mahboob took off his sandal and lifted it as if to slap Omar with it. Thank goodness he has no confidence, Omar thought. Or he would just pick me up and slam me.

“I can do this all day,” Omar said calmly. The red fog was gone. He knew what he had done, and didn’t care. Boys like this were wild dogs. His days of backing down to dogs were over. “So far it’s garbage and a bent finger. You want to move up to broken bones?” He turned a fierce stare onto Mahboob. Under the weight of his glare, the hefty boy dropped the sandal and slipped his foot back into it.

Asad screamed and thrashed beneath his foot. Omar removed his foot and stepped back.

“You know about those dogs that attacked me?”

“Yeah, we know!” Asad shouted as he rose to his feet. Tears filled his eyes. “So what?”

“You know what happened to them?”

“No.”

“They’re dead. If you bully Fuad again, I’ll come after you. You outnumber me, but I don’t stop. You’ll have to kill me, or I will kill you.”

Mahboob pointed a shaking finger at Omar, then – apparently remembering what had happened to Hamada – retracted it quickly. “You’re crazy!” he shouted. He turned away, and Asad followed. Mahboob kicked the basketball pole, then cried out in pain and limped on, pulling garbage out of his hair.

Someone touched his shoulder and Omar was surprised to find Fuad standing beside him. The boy had recovered his belongings. His lower lip was split, and he’d apparently wiped the blood away with his white school shirt. The bloodstains looked ghastly.

“You did not have to do that,” Fuad said. “But I thank you nonetheless.”

Omar suppressed a grin at Fuad’s oddly proper English. “It’s nothing.”

The main building’s back door opened, and Nabila stuck her head out. “Omar! We’re waiting for you.”

Omar slapped his forehead. He’d forgotten. Nodding goodbye to Fuad, he retrieved his cane and hustled out to the parking lot. As he settled himself in the van, Nadia said, “What took you so long? I’m writing a book called Rip Van Omar.”

“Oh.” Omar wiped sweat from his forehead. “I got caught in a parade.”

Neither a Miracle Nor a Brute

Omar was worried about the repercussions of the fight. He could be permanently expelled. Nothing happened, however. The other boys apparently did not report the incident. Still, word must have gotten out, because no one so much as spoke a slantwise word to Fuad after that.

Omar also noticed that the deference the other kids afforded him seemed to increase, to the point where he got more respect than the principal. Younger kids came running to him instead of a teacher when someone pushed them around. Some kids brought him fruit or chips. When he made his way down a crowded hallway it cleared in front of him.

Omar and Fuad began eating lunch together. Once Omar got used to the thick accent, he found Fuad to be smart and funny, though his sense of humor – all math and physics jokes – took some getting used to. (Two atoms are walking down the street. One says, “I think I lost an electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?” The first one says, “Yes, I’m positive.”)

One weekend Fuad invited Omar to come to his house to play cards and have dinner. Omar didn’t know any card games, but he accepted. Aside from Fuad and his parents, there was a younger brother with equally thick hair and glasses – Omar had seen him at school, he was a fourth grader – and a little girl named Anika who continually charged around the apartment waving a toy lightsaber.

Indian rice and cauliflower dish When dinner was served, Omar started in on a dish of rice, stewed beef and cauliflower. He took two bites before his mouth began to burn. He gulped down water, but that only made it worse. His eyes began to water, and he was sure his face was cherry red.

Fuad’s mother was apologetic. In spite of Omar’s protests, she went into the kitchen and, ten minutes later, returned with a dish of rice and cauliflower sans spice. For the rest of the evening, nearly everyone teased him about his “tender tongue.” After dinner, Fuad taught him a game called hearts, then the entire family sat to play.

In the middle of the game, Fuad suddenly leaped up and rushed off to the bathroom. Omar laughed. “He does that at school too! Like it’s always an emergency.”

Fuad’s father, a gentle man with a thick moustache, touched Omar’s arm. “He has epilepsy. The medication stops the grand mal seizures, but he still gets petit mal attacks. He can feel them coming, so he runs away to hide. He’s very embarrassed by it.”

Omar was mortified. Fuad’s father must have seen that, because he touched Omar’s arm again. “You did not know. Fuad told us what you did for him. We are grateful.”

Omar visited Fuad many times after that. It was always the same: Fuad’s mom would make one meal for the family, and a separate meal for Omar. Then the family would either play cards, watch a movie or all go for a walk together.

Omar enjoyed these visits, but at the same time he felt like he did not belong. These people were part of something Omar had rarely seen: a happy family. The only other one he’d seen, in fact, was Tio Niko and Tia Teresa’s family. They at least were relatives, and were Panamanians, with all the familiarity, loudness and general nuttiness that implied. But Fuad’s family were polite and soft-spoken – even Anika, the sword wielder, who would charge around waving her lightsaber then lightly tap Omar on the shoulder and say, “Touché, dear sir.”

They were gentle, normal people. Omar had a feeling none had ever committed a violent act, or been a victim of one. Whereas his own life had been immersed in violence for years. His father’s murder. Nemesio beating him. Sparring in karate class. The dog attack. The mugging. He couldn’t escape it. When he sat with Fuad’s family he felt like a fraud. His voice was too loud, his hands too rough, his scars too visible. He was a brute, and he did not belong.

At times, during these visits, Omar felt almost overwhelmed by these feelings. When that happened, he often remembered Samia saying, “Tu, hermano. Eres el milagro.” You, brother. You are the miracle. Sometimes the memory of these words would bring tears to his eyes, and he would excuse himself and go to the bathroom to wash his face. As strange as this was to admit, a part of him felt like if anyone truly understood him, it was Samia. He didn’t think he was truly a miracle, as she claimed. But maybe he was not a brute either. Maybe he was something in the middle. Maybe he was just human.

A Lifeline in a Choppy Sea

Aside from the persistent, low-level pain from his injuries – particularly in his left leg, which had actually been broken by the dogs’ teeth – he felt better this year than at any time since his father’s death. Still, there were times when he was dizzied by all the changes, and fell into sadness. Part of him missed having Hani around, exchanging banter with Halima, and practicing karate.

And as crazy as it was, he almost – almost – felt like he missed the abuse and bullying he’d been subjected to. He felt baffled and angry at himself for feeling this way, and cursed himself for being an idiot. What was wrong with him? But the thing was, as terrible as the last four years had been, the viciousness had given his life purpose. Every day he’d awakened and known that the day would be a battle, and he could rely on no one but himself to survive it. Whether it meant keeping his head down and hiding, or turning himself into a stone, so that nothing affected him, his mission was to get through the day without letting it break him. He even missed having to run away to Tia Teresa and Tio Niko’s house when the abuse became intolerable. The constant struggle had defined him.

Now, he felt directionless. There were his studies, sure. And he helped his mom with Puro Panameño after school, boxing products and printing shipping labels. But what was he really doing? Where was he going? He’d never had the luxury of being able to think about these things before.

He’d always been attentive to his salat, but not rigorously so, and had often missed prayers. Now, though, he found himself turning to the salat as if to a lifeline thrown to an overboard sailor in a choppy sea. It wasn’t a conscious choice. The salat reminded him of his days as a small child, when his father had taught him what to say and how to move. It was a respite from confusion. A few still, calm moments in which he knew once again who he was:  not an abused boy entering each new day like a soldier at war, but a servant of Allah, a worshiper, and a member of a nation of 1.5 billion souls. If he had a mission and a purpose, then it must be tied to that, because in the end, nothing else was real.

Love Letter

The year went by, and the next. Every two or three months there would be a new prank. He did not feel bullied by them, though. They were a mystery to be solved. But in two years he never discovered the perpetrator.

He graduated high school with high honors. The scars on his face were much less noticeable, though his ear would always be disfigured. He’d pushed himself with physical therapy and had resumed karate class, though he had to make adjustments. He could not kick with his left leg, for example, and found himself relying more on hand techniques. Sparring was out of the question. He no longer needed a cane, but still walked with a limp.

His mother’s company, Puro Panameño, now had a small warehouse space on the Transistmica, and two full-time employees. Omar worked there part time, taking customer service calls. The customers were almost all women, and the regulars got to know him by name. Some had seen him on TV. They’d ask about his life, and flirt with him in the harmless way many Panamanian women did.

Pink envelope On the last day of school, Halima gave him a small golden envelope, telling him to open it at home. Later, sitting on the edge of his bed, he opened it to find an ornately folded letter. When he unfolded it, a pressed rose fell out. He picked it up, set it on the bed and began to read the  handwritten letter:

I’m sorry that I have not been friendly the last few years. After the Day of the Dogs, I found myself thinking of you all the time, and I had to admit to myself that I loved you. I have never known anyone so strong, brave and smart like you. And not only because of what you did that day. Even before that, I knew your life wasn’t easy, and I admired the way you never let anyone stop you from advancing.

I never told you this because there’s no point. I know you would not want to do anything haram, and I feel the same. Now my father is sending me to Universidad Nacional de Colombia, his alma mater. I will live with my aunt. So I will never see you again. Besides, I’m not good enough for you. I never was. Take care of yourself. I will always remember you.

Your dear friend,
Halima

Omar was stunned. Never in his wildest imaginings would he have thought Halima had such feelings for him. And what did she mean that she was not good enough for him? He wanted to rush to her house and say, “No, don’t leave, you are good enough for me. I love you too!” But did he actually love her? He wasn’t sure he knew what love was.

Sure, there was the Hollywood version where two people were caught up in a wonderful, heated passion. Those romances always ended in disaster, at least in the movies. One of them killed the other, or one was a con artist, or an undercover cop. Then there was the version where the straight-laced, boring man fell in love with the mad, hot, out-of-control woman. That didn’t seem to apply. Oh yeah, and the one where one of the pair was not who they were portraying to be. The prince who pretended to be a commoner, or the college professor who was mistaken for a spy. Omar didn’t see how any of those related to his situation.

He liked Halima for sure, but love? He guessed not. Plus, she was leaving, and it was probably true that they’d never see each other again. Shaking his head, he let out a perplexed sigh. Life was confusing. At times like this he wished his father was alive.

He slid the letter and rose back into the envelope, stuck it in the bottom of a shoebox that contained miscellaneous old letters and postcards, and did his best to forget it.

Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 8:  Rich and Poor

Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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Podcast: The Fiqh of FIFA | Mufti Hussain Kamani

Zeba Khan

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It’s estimated that 3 billion people play some sort of video game, whether on a computer, console, or smart phone.  For the millions of Muslims included in this number, what’s the halal and haram of this? Is gaming a good thing? When is gaming a bad thing?

“I know a lot of kids in our community who play Minecraft to develop skills. I respect that because it’s now a tool being used for their education.” -Mufti Hussain Kamani

In this podcast, Zeba Khan talks to Mufti Hussain Kamani, a hafiz, scholar, and -surprise!- gamer, about the Islamic perspective on gaming, entertainment, and the fiqh of FIFA loot boxes.

“Do loot boxes and their contents carry any value or not? Is there a monetary value to that Messi card? If it’s all ones and zeros then you can’t technically classify that as gambling, but I believe that’s too simplistic. We live in a world of cryptocurrency. There are things that carry value beyond physical objects.” – Mufti Hussain Kamani

Is gaming halal? Are lootboxes haram? Does Mufti Hussain Kamani play FIFA, and can I join his league? Click To Tweet
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Then and Now: Rereading Mohja Kahf’s “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf”

Zainab (AnonyMouse)

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In 2007, at the brash, naive, and frankly moronic age of 16, I penned a scathing review of Mohja Kahf’s novel “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf” for this very website, MuslimMatters.org. Thirteen years later, I read it again – only to find myself deeply, utterly in love with this book.

Khadra Shamy is the American daughter of Syrian immigrants, Wajdy and Ebtahaj, who dreamt of little more than dedicating themselves to the Da’wah in their tiny Muslim community in Indiana. Khadra grows up immersed in the culture of conservative da’wah: of the Deen being black and white, of certain rules followed scrupulously, of culture frowned upon in exchange for the purity of Islam. As she moves from a 10 year old child overwhelmed with guilt for accidentally eating gelatin-containing candy corn, to a black-clad, angry teenager who reads Qutb and supports the Iranian Revolution, to a college student who dutifully marries young, Khadra finds the foundations of her worldview slowly cracking. 

Going for Hajj was not spiritually revolutionary, but a dark glimpse of what Arab youth get up to in the heartland of Islam; after devoting herself to tajweed and hifdh, Khadra is told that she must stop reciting Qur’an in mixed gatherings and that Qur’an competitions are only open to men. Her ideal Islamic marriage begins to crumble when her husband evokes the Qawwam card to prohibit her from riding her bike in public – and when she gets pregnant, only to decide on an abortion, and then a divorce, Khadra creates a schism between herself, her community, and all that she has known. In the years that follow, Khadra breaks down and recreates her identity as a Muslim and her beliefs about Islam. 

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In many ways, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is both a love letter and a breakup note to conservative Muslims. Kahf’s book traces, with intimate authenticity, what it is to be a Western-raised child of parents immersed in the Da’wah; our quirks and eccentricities and ties to a back home culture that we don’t always understand; our hidden hypocrisies and our secret shames. She breathes into words the tenderness of our bonds of faith, the flames of our religious passion, the complexities of our relationships. She knows who we are, how we are, and she speaks to us in our own words. Perhaps ahead of her time, she gently forces Muslim readers to confront the issues of intra-Muslim racism, of the history of Blackamerican Muslims, of the naive arrogance of immigrant Muslims, of the almost insurmountable distance between the theory of Islam for Muslim women, and the reality of what Muslim women experience.

Of course, it comes with a price. Kahf ends her novel by having Khadra follow the by-now-predictable trajectory that we have seen from many Muslims of a progressive bent: Sufism is the only acceptable fluffy-enough type of Islam; all paths, even outside of Islam, lead to God; conservative Muslims are embarrassing, suffocating, and are holding their communities back from true spiritual enlightenment. To be fair, Kahf doesn’t hold back from pointing out the hypocrisies of secular liberal types either, and she is far softer and more tender in her portrayals of conservatives as well. 

It is worth taking a closer look at how Kahf chose to take Khadra down the path of progressiveness. Khadra’s story is a mirror of so many true stories, of children from religious families whose resentment over their experiences pushed them to choose an easier way, one less rooted in following Shari’ah and more a vague idea of spirituality. This narrative portrays turning progressive as the only logical conclusion to such experiences, which is in itself deeply problematic. In truth, there are many Muslims – born Muslims and converts alike – who have suffered far worse than merely restrictive upbringings, or unhappy marriages, and who have chosen instead to commit themselves even more determinedly to orthodoxy. Spirituality is not the sole domain of Sufis or liberals; it is part and parcel of Islam itself, even in its most conservative form. To imply otherwise is a dishonesty that is found all too often amongst those who have their own biases and agendas against any form of Islam that does not feel flexible enough for their own tastes.

As a particularly ridiculous 16-year-old Salafi, I was too consumed in my outrage at Khadra leaving the aqeedah of Ahlus Sunnah wa’l Jamaa’ah, and too busy agreeing with her ex-husband on the inappropriateness of Muslim women riding bikes in public, to understand or appreciate this deeply emotional journey. Fast forward 13 years, and 29-year-old me identifies far more with Khadra than my past self could ever have imagined. Little had I known, that first time, that I too would experience what Khadra and so many other Muslim women have: the painfully cliche toxic marriage to controlling Muslim men who use Islam to suffocate our souls and our spirits. (But really, 16yo Zainab??? You legit thought that Khadra’s husband was justified in stopping her from riding her bike??? You almost deserved going through practically the same thing, you idiot.)

Rereading The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf as an adult, having lived through my own traumas and growth, through spiritual crisis and rediscovery, was a very different experience. My own upbringing was very similar to Khadra’s: in a religious da’wah bubble, surrounded by an insistence on Islamic ideals, blithely ignoring Muslim realities (and occasionally denying them outright). The self righteous ignorance in my 2007 review has me dying a thousand deaths of mortification, and I am all too aware of just how much like teenaged Khadra I was back then. Thirteen years later, my cynicism knows no bounds, my bitterness sours all idealism, and I feel a deep urge to slap my past self upside the head. There’s some Divine irony in all of this, I suppose; certainly, it is cause for reflection on the value of personal growth and maturity, of how the years and one’s experiences can turn one into the very person they once derided. I relate far more to Khadra today than my teenaged self could ever have imagined, and in many ways, I only wish that I could have retained the blithe innocence (if not the ignorance) that I once had in abundance. Following Khadra on her journey was to retrace my own steps, to remember precisely how and when I, too, made the choice to become someone new.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is an iconic piece of work. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; utterly tender and yet unflinching from pain; brutally honest, authentic, and unapologetically Muslim.Click To Tweet

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is an iconic piece of work. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking; utterly tender and yet unflinching from pain; brutally honest, authentic, and unapologetically Muslim. Kahf does not waste time explaining things to a non-Muslim audience, nor does she hold back from dishing out hard truths to Muslim readers. She knows us, inside and out, and it is this startling familiarity that pulls one in and doesn’t let go until we find ourselves shocked that we’ve reached the end of the book. In the era of #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Mohja Kahf was undoubtedly a pioneer in the field of diverse fiction.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is a damned good book – one that will have you blinking away furious tears and lay awake at night, feeling your heart ache with unforgotten, unseen bruises.

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