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Messiah, A Fitnaflix Production

Dr Idris ElBakri

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Netflix released Season 1 of a new thriller series called “Messiah”. The series imagines the emergence of a character claiming to be sent by God, the Messiah, or Al-masih (messiah in Arabic) as he is referred to in the television series. 

This so-called Al-masih first emerges in Damascus at a time when ISIS is about to storm the city. He then appears in Palestine, Jordan and ultimately America. Along the way, he performs miracles and dumbfounds the Israeli and American intelligence officers charged with tracking him and figuring out who is enabling him. The season ends with a suggestion that he is truly a divine man, with the ultimate miracle of reviving the dead.

The entertainment value here is quite limited. Some stretches of the series are just flat or straight out boring, and the acting is not all that great. However, the series does create an opportunity for discussion about Muslim eschatology (the knowledge of the end of times), response to fitnah (faith testing tribulations) and Muslims portrayal in and consumption of entertainment media. 

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The series shows some sophistication in the portrayal of Muslim characters relative to what people have been accustomed to with Hollywood. Characters that are situated in the Middle East are performed by actors from that region who speak authentic regional Arabic (including Levantine and North African dialects). The scenes appear authentic. While this is progress, it is limited, and the series falls into oversimplification and caters to typical stereotypes. While several Muslim characters draw the viewers’ empathy, they are not used to provide context or nuance for issues that the series touches on: ISIS, refugees, the Israeli occupation and suicide bombings. The two American Muslim characters are never really developed. In fact, all Muslim characters tend to be “flat” and one dimensional. This is in contrast, for example, to American and Israeli characters which appear multi-dimensional and complex, often dealing with personal challenges that a Western audience is likely to identify with (caring for an aging parent, mourning the loss of a spouse, balancing career and life, dealing with family separation, abortion, etc.). While Muslim characters are shown as hapless refugees, terrorists, religious followers, political activists, a university professor and student, their stories are never developed.

The show repeatedly refers to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. There is also consistent normalization of Israeli occupation and glorification of the occupying forces.  

Islamic eschatology 

Orthodox Muslims affirm a belief in “the signs of the End of Times, including the appearance of the Antichrist, and the Descent of Jesus 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) the son of Mary 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), from the celestial realm. We also believe in the sun’s rising from the west and the appearance of the “Beast of the Earth from its appointed place” [1]. Dr. Omar Al-Ashqar gives a detailed review of the authentic narrations regarding the signs of the end of times in his book Al-Qiyamah Al-Sughra [2]. When it comes to actual figures who will emerge in the end of times, Sunni scholars generally affirm the following:

  • Imam Mahdi, who is a just ruler who will share the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) name. 
  • The False Messiah (Antichrist), or Al-Masjih Al-Dajjal, who will be the greatest fitna to ever to afflict this Ummah. 
  • The True Messiah, Isa ibn Maryam, who returns in the end of days, kills the Antichrist and rules for 40 years and establishes justice and prosperity – close to the time of the day of judgement. 

The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) warned that the fitna of Al-Dajjal will be the most severe ever. In a hadith narrated by Ibn Majah and others, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is reported to have said, “Oh people, there has not been a fitna on the face of the earth, since God dispersed the progeny of Adam, greater than the fitna of Al-Dajjal. Every prophet of God warned his people from Al-Dajjal. I am the last prophet. You are the last Ummah. He will appear amongst you no doubt!”

Al-Dajjal comes after a period of famine and drought. He will be one-eyed and will claim to be God. Believers will recognized a mark or word of disbelief on his forehead. He will perform many miracles. He will endow those who follow him with material prosperity and luxury, and those who deny him will be inflicted with deprivation and suffering. He will travel at high speeds, and  roam the whole world, except Makkah and Madinah, which he will not be able to enter. He will create a heaven and hell, command rain, the earth, animals, and resurrect the dead – all supernatural occurrences that he has been afforded as a trial and test for others. The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) went as far as encouraging us to flee from confronting him, because it will be a test of faith like no other.

Reflections on the series and lessons to be learned

The Prophets and the righteous are not tricksters and riddlers.

The Netflix series portrays the character ‘al-masih’ as someone who speaks cryptically; it is never clear what he is teaching and why. He leads his followers on long physical journeys without telling them where they are going or why. He speaks in riddles and tortures his followers with mental gymnastics and rhetorical questions.

On the other hand, a true prophet of God offers real guidance and brings clear teachings and instructions – the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) spoke clearly to his followers, he taught them how to worship Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) alone, to be just, to uphold the ties of kinship, to look after one’s neighbour, and so on. He did not abandon them in a state of confusion to fend for themselves. Moreover, “al-masih” deceives his followers by concealing his true name (“Payam Golshiri”) and background – something a righteous person would never do, let alone a prophet.

What Netflix got right and what it got wrong

The Al-masih character initially emerges in Damascus (and the Islamic tradition mentions Isa ibn Mariam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will descend in Damascus). However, the character is eventually revealed to hail from Iran. A number of ahadith refer to Al-Dajjal first appearing in Khurasan, which is part of modern-day Iran. He poses as a righteous person, but it is revealed that he doesn’t pray at all. He quotes religious scripture, but only to service his cryptic speeches. That Al-Dajjal would pose as a religious person would not surprise Muslims, since some hadith mention he will emerge from the remnants of the Khawarij, a heterodox group known for overzealousness and fanaticism [3]. Al-Dajjal travels the world at fast speeds, disappearing from one land and appearing in another, just as the character in the series does. 

messiah

photo credit: IMDb

However, numerous features of Dajjal would make his identity obvious to believers, not the least of which is that the word ‘disbeliever’ will be written – whether literally or metaphorically (scholars differ) – on his forehead in such a manner which even those unlettered would be able to read. Physically, Dajjal is a short man, with a deformity of his legs, and one of his eyes is likened to a “floating grape”, sightless, and “green like glass”. The Prophet is said to have focused on these physical features because they are so manifest and eliminate any confusion.

Al-Dajjal’s time overlaps with that of two other eschatological figures – Imam Mahdi and Esa ibn Maryam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him). Imam Mahdi is prophesized to fill the world with justice and rule for seven years, after which Dajjal will emerge. While the Muslims following al-Mahdi are taking shelter in Damascus, Prophet Esa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will descend and eventually slay the Dajjal. Therefore, according to the Islamic eschatological tradition, things will get better before they get worse before they get better again – Imam Mahdi precedes Dajjal and Dajjal precedes Prophet Esa [2].

Safeguarding against tribulations

The best safeguard is to have sound knowledge of theology and law, and to have our iman rooted in revelation and reason. For example, the most basic understanding of Islamic theology would lead us to reject any man who claims to be God, as Al-Dajjal will claim. With basic Islamic knowledge and reasoning, we would know that Allah does not manifest in human-like form, much less one that is deformed, as Allah is the all Powerful and Perfect. Could it be that at the end of times even such essential Islamic knowledge is lacking? 

walking on water

Al-Dajjal deceives people by his miracles and supernatural abilities. Our iman should not be swayed by supernatural events and miracles. We should measure people and ideas according to their standing with the Shari’ah. We must keep our heads level and not be manipulated because we cannot explain an occurrence. 

Al-Dajjal also lures people by his miracles and by his ability to give them material prosperity, comfort and luxury. We must tie our happiness and sense of satisfaction to eternal spiritual truths, not to the comforts of this life, and be willing to give up what we have for what we believe. We should live simply and not follow into the path of excessive consumerism and materialism.  

Another important consideration is not to base our connection to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) on another human being (except the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Scholars, celebrity preachers, imams and teachers are all prone to error and sin. We must use the Shariah and the Prophet Muhamamd’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) character and teaching as the filter by which we evaluate them, not the other way around. Despite his obvious deformities, the Antichrist will be a mesmerizing blinding celebrity, but whose falsehood will be uncovered by believers who make judgements based on loyalty to principle, not personality. 

Is it time to live on a remote mountain?

The clearest indication of the nearness of the Day of Judgement is the prophethood of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). The Prophet likened the difference between his time and the Day of Judgement as the difference in length between the index and middle fingers. However, before we sell everything and move to a remote mountain, let’s exercise care in projecting Islamic eschatology on the political events of our times. The reality is that no one knows when these things will happen. Explaining the current phase in our history away by end of times theories or conspiracy theories, are simpleton intellectual copouts that lead our Ummah away from actively working towards its destiny. Anyone who has claimed that this event (remember Y2K) or that event is a major sign of the Day of Judgement has been wrong, so far. There were scholarly guesses in the early centuries of Muslims that expected the Hour 500 years after the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) death. Yet, here we are. No one knows.

The best you can do is stay calm and make salat!

Muslims and the entertainment media

This increased sophistication and the apparent familiarity with Islamic sources exhibited by Messiah producers should lead us to value the importance of producing accurate, authentic and polished material and content about Islam and Muslims and our community’s role as a source of information. 

It is also important for Muslims to produce works for the mass media and entertainment industries. This is no longer the era of the sole MSA Da’wah table. Sophisticated, entertaining and authentic media production is an imperative for modern Muslims.  When we don’t tell the story, someone else will. 

Make it a Netflix Night?

We may refer to it as Fitnaflix, but let’s all admit that we cannot avoid television and the entertainment industry, for better or for worse. We can however moderate, guide and channel its use. Start breaking the isolation in which many of our children and young adults consume media. Families should watch TV together and use it as an opportunity to model how we select appropriate material and to create teaching and discussion moments. Parents should know what is influencing their kids even if they don’t like it. 

Some parts of the series Messiah, despite its flaws (and an explicit sexual scene in episode 9, not to mention profanity), could be used as a teaching moment about trials and tribulations, the end of times and the importance of Muslims engaging in the entertainment industry in a principled and professional manner. 

Ed’s note: Much of the series’ content is R-rated. Besides depictions of terrorism and other mayhem, sexual activity and brief rear nudity are shown. Mature themes include abortion, adultery, infertility and alcoholism.

Works Cited

[1]  T. C. o. I. Al-Tahawi, Hamza Yusuf (trans), Zaytuna Institute, 2007. 
[2]  O. Al-Ashqar, Al-Qiyamah Al-Sughra, Dar Al-Nafa’is, 1991. 
[3]  [Online]. Available: https://abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2014/06/23/dajjal-emerges-khawarij/.

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Canadian-Palestinian Dr Idris Elbakri is a medical physicist who lives in Winnipeg. He is the President of the Manitoba Islamic Association. He is a father of four and a leader in the Muslim community in Canada.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Mohammad Afzal Shah

    February 20, 2020 at 7:39 PM

    You have written very well

  2. Avatar

    Mahmoud Muhieddine

    February 27, 2020 at 12:45 PM

    Salam u alaikum,

    I appreciate much of the knowledge and wisdom you supplied us with. Yet I didn’t see a clear warning and encouragement not to watch such filth. You should have also mentioned that the actor’s real name is Mahdi. I personally don’t believe that’s a coincidence. We should encourage the youth to completely avoid such blasphemous material.

    Also your statement..

    Another important consideration is not to base our connection to Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) on another human being (except the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Scholars, celebrity preachers, imams and teachers are all prone to error and sin. We must use the Shariah and the Prophet Muhamamd’s ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) character and teaching as the filter by which we evaluate them, not the other way around.

    This statement needs clarification. In the modern age of Muslims following erroneous Wahabi/neo-salafi doctrines disrespecting and nullifying the knowledge ard efforts of the rightly guided Scholars; how can we not have some basis in our connection with Allah through the knowledge and guidance that scholars have provided us. How do we use the Shariah and the Prophet Muhammad’s character without learning them from the scholars. There is NO true understanding in Islamic knowledge without Scholars.

    But JazakumuLahu Khair for your effort and nice article!

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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

Eggplant

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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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