Reframing the study of Muslims and Islam in film

Kristian Petersen

The academic study of Muslims and Islam in film has developed into a rich interdisciplinary subfield. New Approaches to Islam in Film builds on this critical scholarship by offering several chapters that add innovative perspectives on the subject. Our coverage includes the exploration of regional cinemas, detailed analysis of auteurs or individual films, comparison across global cinema, and new explorations that have not yet entered the conversation. The interdisciplinary collection provides an examination of the multiple roles Islam plays in film and the various ways Muslims are depicted. Across the chapters, key intersecting themes arise that push the limits of how we currently approach issues of Muslims in cinema and ventures to lead us in new directions for future scholarship. Due to the wide array of contexts through which scholars explore this subject, there is no singular point of departure or distinct intellectual path that focuses on the study of Muslims and Islam in film. The epistemological architecture behind this research comes from a variety of disciplinary domains and is constructed by the particular idiosyncratic assumptions and objectives of those fields. Giving central attention to the ways religious norms, practices, or ideologies structure and define filmmaking and spectatorship occurs at varying degrees by authors, even when analysis concentrates on the depiction of Muslim subjects or in cases where filmmakers are producing cinema in Muslim social contexts. In fact, very few authors prioritize the category “Islam” as an analytical framework for the study as a whole.1 All these approaches, coming from Media Studies, Political Science, or Religious Studies, bring their methodological expertise to the subject, which helps yield diverse and well-rounded perspectives. This matrix of scholarship has provided a durable framework that can now be expanded on through both renovation of initial methodological structures and sources and exploring new visual geographies, transnational circuits, and approaches. Our volume reframes the presiding conventions of this scholarship in five novel analytical trajectories: considering new sources, exploring new communities, probing new perspectives, charting new theoretical directions, and offering new ways of understanding conflict in cinema.

New sources

Film scholarship frequently employs cinema as a “text” to be read. The extensive film archive provides readers with numerous overlooked examples to examine where Islam plays an integral part in shaping the narrative of the story. However, other types of sources, such as screenplays or film sets, can further enhance the study of film sphere. Several authors in this volume explore novel sources to see how Muslims figure into cinema, film narratives, and production.

Mika’il A. Petin explores a significant but unstudied American film, Five Fingers (Laurence Malkin, 2006), which conforms to many Hollywood stereotypes about Muslims but simultaneously subverts some of them through issues of race. The film takes place in the context of the “War on Terror” and utilizes many of the established tropes about far-off Muslim lands and exotic people. However, the heart of the narrative alters the expected racial configuration of “terrorist” and “counter-terrorist,” moving from the recurrent racialized Arab Muslim and white protagonist to a white Dutch insurgent being interrogated by a Black Muslim. Black Muslims in America were portrayed as the original extremist community, especially through mainstream programs such as The Hate That Hate Produced (Mike Wallace and Louis Lomax, 1959), which frightened white American viewers as they were introduced to Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.2 Black Muslims were gradually displaced by “Brown” Muslims, racialized Arab, Persian, and South Asian communities, as those who should be distrusted in the American social imaginary? Petin explores how this exchange is made possible through the inversion of terrorist and interrogator in Five Fingers, which utilized the threat of Black Muslims as a form of justification for U.S. unlawful detention and torture.

Another novel source for thinking about the history of Muslims in film is the 1932 screenplay of Nikos Kazantzakis’ never-produced picture Mohammed. Panayiota Mini introduces readers to the famous Greek novelist who is well known to moviegoers because of adaptations of his 1946 Zorba the Greek (directed by Michael Cacoyannis in 1964) and the 1955 The Last Temptation of Christ (directed by Martin Scorsese in 1988). Mini demonstrates the cultural reservoirs Kazantzakis draws from when constructing his screenplay using a genealogical approach to plot the aesthetic, intellectual, and narrative components of Mohammed. In the film, Muhammad would be framed within the great hero tradition, embodying a divine intuition, and shown to ardently fight for his beliefs and on behalf of his community of believers. Kazantzakis’ narrative and visuals were influenced by folks such as Thomas Carlyle and Henry Bergson, as well as French Impressionists. The case study is a unique example for thinking about non-Muslim depictions of Muhammad that fall outside of polemical indignation over the permissibility of picturing the Prophet.4 It shows how one’s social position greatly shapes how Muhammad is to be understood, and how his subjectivity speaks differently to particular times, places, or audiences.

Finally, we move from on screen to on the ground to see how Islam informs the filmmaking process. Chihab El Khachab provides a rich ethnographic account of Muslim technical workers on the sets of the Egyptian film industry to consider how religion affects the practical creation of film, the industrial cycle of releases, and the possible social limits for film practitioners.5 Egypt has the most commercially successful Arabic-language cinema in the world and its transnational circulation makes Egyptian cinema consequential globally.6 El Khachab shows how Islamic holidays that are part of the Egyptian public sphere organize when scripts must be completed, the speed at which scenes need to be filmed, and when movies hit screens for audiences. He also explores the ethical grounding for personal engagement that many workers navigate when they find themselves in social dilemmas. For many Egyptians, the production and consumption of film are antithetical to religious sensibilities and public norms. Some film workers find their economic livelihood at odds with their own understanding of what may be good and permissible behavior.7 In the end. El Khachab shows that for workers in the Egyptian film industry being Muslim has a wide spectrum of meanings, each with their own attending personal convictions, social norms, and limits.

New communities

Another turn the volume takes is to introduce cinema that depicts Muslim populations that are often not seen in media. The diversity of the global ummah makes for unlimited possibilities when telling the stories of the community. These chapters explore groups that for many public audiences are unexpected members of the tradition. This type of work helps extend the boundaries of what we mean when approaching Islam in film.

A growing population of U.S. Muslims are Latino. While this population is still small compared to other racial groups, they are beginning to get some representation in film.8 More particularly, reframed outside of the context of previous depictions in prison, Latino Muslims are featured in documentary films about the daily life of Muslims in America. In New Muslim Cool (Jennifer Maytorena Taylor, 2009) and A Son’s Sacrifice (Yoni Brook, 2007), viewers get a glimpse of everyday life for both second-generation and convert Muslims. Yamil Avivi places these narratives within the contexts of racial stereotypes, familial obligations and expectations, heritage language learning, and the quotidian effects of the “War on Terror.” He shows how notions of Latino masculinity in these examples are tied to motherhood as a cultural force shaping children’s lives, since both subject’s mothers are Puerto Rican and Christian. The ostensible tension between their Muslim identity and their familial heritage is played out through discussion of authenticity and belonging. Avivi skillfully reveals how the “true life” presented through documentary realism is also structured in particular ways, which highlights some aspects of Latino Muslims identity but obscures other important aspects. While incomplete in presenting the expanse of Latino Muslim life, the films disturb static notions of Muslim identity as being rooted in particular racial and ethnic groups.

Another understudied population in the study of Islam in film is LGBTQ Muslims.9 We should not say that the dearth of scholarship is due to the relative absence of feature films focused on the lives of Queer Muslims, of which we can consider Circumstance (Maryam Keshavarz, 2011), L’Armee du Salut (Salvation Army, Abdellah Tai'a, 2013), Naz & Maa-lik (Jay Dockendorf, 2015), Signature Move (Jennifer Reeder, 2017), The Wedding (Sam Abbas, 2018), or Breaking Fast (Mike Mosallam, 2020). Aman Agah explores the depictions of Muslim sexuality through films that critique and question heteronormativity within Muslim cultures, specifically Touch of Pink (Ian Iqbal Rashid, 2004) and Shades of Ray (Jaffar Mahmood, 2008). They show how Muslim masculinity disturbs social expectations in the white-dominant spaces of Europe and North America. This disruption is further amplified through the queering of the cinematic structures of the romantic comedy genre. Agah’s theory of performative queerness to counter-dominant social norms and genre expectations establishes an interpretive juncture useful for future analysis of LGBTQ Muslims in film.

New perspectives

Other chapters in the volume take new perspectives on subjects that are seemingly familiar within the study of Islam in film, but these authors mark out exciting unexplored terrains. Returning to subjects of central importance, these chapters provide new ways of thinking about the mythic power of events, the social and political utility of tradition, and the deployment of visuality in biographical depictions.

David Blanke turns to Cecil B. DeMille, a longtime favorite in Cinema Studies,10 to investigate how Muslims are portrayed in his 1935 film The Crusades, which one would assume would align with the tropes of its day.11 While orientalist in many of its visual depictions and framed within the context of martial conflict between Christians and Muslims, DeMille infused his picture with an ecumenical spirit. For the director, the beneficent kernel of Islam is staged through the personality of Saladin, who embodies a common spiritual quest despite his historical dispute with European Christians. The chapter marks how the subjects’ motives, dialogue, and symbolism are ambiguous and do not allow the audience to come to a clear resolution about how they should feel about each side of the conflict. Blanke also places the film within the personal factors shaping DeMille’s life and universalist attitude toward religions, as well as the economic and foreign policy goals of the United States following the Second World War. Blanke persuades readers to look past apparent deficits that are easily noted in order to rethink the filmic archive in nuanced ways.

Emily Jane O’Dell focuses on Sufism not as a neatly defined social or intellectual entity but rather as a cultural repertoire of practices, dispositions, symbols, and spiritual results. She explores a wide range of global cinema that uses Sufism as a floating signifier to organize social, political, or religious meanings. Films from Africa, Eurasia, and Southeast Asia often use the potentiality of Sufi practices or principles to disrupt dominant social norms, whether confronting ableism, patriarchy, classism, or other social marginalization. O’Dell argues that Sufi aesthetics and narratives enable communities to form around shared organizing ideals that are denied in broader publics. Some of the filmmakers use Sufism as means to counter the stereotypical essentialization of Islam as inherently violent in EuroAmerican contexts. It is also imagined in ways that interrupt nationalist and imperialist constructions of the role of Islam for modern Muslim subjects. O’Dell’s creative conceptualization of Sufism as a symbolic device serving filmmakers can be applied in future thematic contexts with similar success.

The final chapter in this section addresses the subject of biographical cinema that depicts Muhammad.12 Instead of placing these films within the context of iconoclasm and modern-day polemics, Bilal Yorulmaz traces the long heritage of prophetic portraiture and visualization to help us understand contemporary filmmaking techniques as a continuation of this artistic tradition.1 ’ Medieval Islamic art generates an established interpretive matrix that enables us to draw new conclusions about how Muhammad can be depicted in film. After cataloging the various methods that artists historically used to capture the personality and perfection of Muhammad, Yorulmaz demonstrates how the two most famous biopics, Moustapha Akkad’s The Message (1976) and Majid Majidi’s Muhammad: The Messenger of God (2015), replicate these strategies on screen. This innovative approach opens up a new horizon when thinking about cinematic technique and the depiction of Muslims in film.

New directions

Some of our authors have sowed fertile new interpretive ground that will provide future scholars with hearty intellectual nourishment. These chapters offer rich analysis with theoretical sophistication and methodological skill. Collectively, they bring together various strands from feminist scholarship, transnational theory, political theology, and film studies to map out new directions for thinking about the relationships between cinema and Muslims, both on the screen and in the social world.

Our first chapter taking us in new directions explores a number of apparent and hidden contradictions. Megan Goodwin provides a penetrating analysis of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014), the first “Iranian Vampire Western.” The film crosses space by displacing its location, neither Tehran or L.A. nor anywhere in between. It provides an active feminism while rejecting the Western framework for feminist struggles and centers around a Muslim protagonist who does not personally account for any religion. Goodwin uses the film to consider the constructed graphic image of Muslim women in American imagination, which designates her as weak and lacking agency. While historically Muslims have been formulated as monstrous in popular culture, Amirpour employs a visual Muslim monster as a means for demolishing patriarchy and misogyny. Goodwin provides a blueprint for deconstructing a broader social context from the details of cinematic representation.

Najmeh Moradiyan-Rizi also equips readers with a new orientation when thinking about even well-trodden territories. Her terrain is postrevolutionary Iranian cinema, which has a robust body of scholarship already,14 specifically films focused on Afghan refugees and migrants. Even this seemingly narrow subject has been the focus of a great number of films, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist (1987), Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997), or Majid Majidi’s Baran (2001). Moradiyan-Rizi introduces the reader to the well-known documentary film Sonita (Rokh-sareh Ghaem-Maghami, 2015), which follows the story of a teenage girl who rejects her parents’ arranged marriage for her and channels her angst through music. She employs a transnational feminist approach to help the reader grasp how Sonita disturbs rigid notions of Iranian national identity and breaks gendered social expectations. The documentary reveals the power of female alliances and how gender politics structures one’s subjectivity much more than geography. Moradiyan-Rizi provides sharp analytical tools to understand how identity is forged due to displacement and mobility while crossing the circulation of global popular media.

Finally, Milja Radovic provides readers with new vocabulary for talking about the transformative power of film for communicating new forms of political practice and mediating self-representation.15 We are encouraged to consider film as a scene of “rupture,” through which filmmakers produce a creative expression of novel politics. This aesthetic and narrative rupture interrupts existing social norms and invites the audience to replicate the film’s principles in their own local context. The open-ended nature of this filmmaking furnishes viewers with the opportunity to become activist citizens because the creators claim rights for underserved communities that require advocacy. The potentiality of such a cinematic practice has enormous possibility in reshaping cultural traditions. Radovic explores this argument with special attention on the intersection of gender and religious practice as they inform the rights of citizens, shape legal patterns, and answer public demands.

New understandings of conflict

The final section of the volume takes up the theme of conflict, cultural and religious, violent and dialogical, as a way of rethinking the role of Muslims in the cinematic arts. Frequently, Muslims in film are depicted as inherently savage and excessively brutal, characteristics that are implicitly or explicitly

Reframing the study of Muslims in film 7 tied to narrow, and often incomplete, understandings of Islamic theology. These authors challenge these restricted depictions to examine sites of conflict as a productive force that unsettles spectator assumptions rooted in clichés and forces them to contend with the origins of social friction. Through an analysis of specific zones of dispute within national, social, and political conditions, we can come to new conclusions about how genre, narrative, or imagery shape understandings of conflict.

The first chapter tackles this subject through one of its most extreme forms - violent terrorism. Clarissa Burt locates her analysis in the social world of Egypt and the range of interpretations of Islam found in the country that are conveyed in several films. The features examined outline the conditions that make violence appealing, how it is perpetrated, and its consequences in local communities. Burt demonstrates how filmmakers use comedy, drama, and tragedy to reveal contrary positions about the utility and power of violence to effect social change. She shows that the Egyptian struggle with violence is rooted in opportunities for youth, gendered social expectations, sexual norms, stifled economic success, and governmental inadequacy in advancing the quality of life in Egypt. Burt helps readers understand how cinematic depictions of terrorist violence reveal new ways of thinking about Muslim identity, piety, and theological values.

Another approach is to think about the potential of cultural conflict in film. Anna Ayse Akasoy offers a profile of the long history of Turks in German cinematic arts in order to examine the transforming image on screen and their position in the national body. Early films largely portrayed Turks as part of a mass of labor migrants, omitting explicit or implicit questions of Islam, but relied on stereotypical tropes about the religion in their depiction, such as the victimization of women. Productions also were unable to introduce communities with much nuance, conflating Kurdish and Turkish communities with little understanding or care to their political and cultural divergence. More recent features set up polemical encounters between Turkish Muslim and German nationals that push racialized representations where minority life is structured by organized crime, drug trafficking, and violence. The cinematic transformation from Turkish immigrants to Muslim German identities has regularly been couched in an assumed inherent division between them and local Germans. Akasoy’s approach helps problema-tize analysis that blurs the lines between culture, ethnicity, and religion by arguing that we should approach each of these categories as heterogeneous and nuanced rather than conflating these designations. It is only recently that it seems filmmakers are imagining how Islam might shape the practical or ethical choices of social actors beyond criminality and violence in the Germans’ cinematic arts.

The final chapter looks at religious difference as another site of potential conflict. Sérgio Dias Branco addresses this possibility in Lebanese film that focuses on the relationship between Muslim and Christian communities, especially those set during the civil war (1975-1990). Instead of inevitable tension between traditions he shows how cinema can make a path for dialogical and productive engagement across religions. In several films, war structures material social pluralism and coexistence between religious communities because personal exchange and the possibility of communication between individuals are amplified in unique ways. Through cinema issues of sectarian violence within these diverse communities can be resolved with imaginative solutions. Branco reveals how filmmakers dissolve rigid understandings of the so-called religious strife in order point to the social realities of hardship and suffering caused by political resolutions and partisan demands. These pictures show an alternative formula to building peace where Muslim and Christian actors operate side by side in order to alleviate the consequences of difficult circumstances.

Collectively, the contributions in this volume attempt to advance new approaches to Islam in film that may support further scholarship. The authors reframe our subject by introducing creative materials, presenting under examined groups, recontextualizing previous subjects, pushing new theoretical positions, and promoting original analytical formulations of conflict. Our efforts can be built upon in future work through a robust consideration of both national cinemas from Muslim-majority social contexts and minority film cultures working against dominant portrayals of Muslims. The volume’s organizing themes can be expanded in new cinematic geographies to continue to build the study of Muslims and Islam in film into vibrant future directions.


  • 1 Some notable exceptions include Eylem Atakav, “Women, Islam, and Cinema-Gender Politics and Representation in Middle Eastern Films and Beyond,” in The Routledge Companion to Cinema & Gender, eds. Kristin Leñé Hole, Dijana Jelaca, E. Ann Kaplan, and Patrice Petro (New York: Routledge, 2016), 227-236; Cherif Correa, “Representations of Islam and the Question of Identity in Ousmane Sembene’s Ceddo,” in Ousmane Sembene and the Politics of Culture, eds. Lifongo Vetinde and Amadou T Fofana (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014), 33-47; Gönül Dönmez-Colin, Women, Islam and Cinema (London: Reaktion Books, 2004); Amir Hussain, “Islam,” in The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film, ed. John Lyden (London: Routledge, 2009), 131-140; Alicia Izharud-din, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); Nacim Pak-Shiraz, Shi’i Islam in Iranian Cinema: Religion and Spirituality in Film (London: LB. Tauris, 2011); and Bilal Yorulmaz and William L. Blizek, “Islam in Turkish Cinema,” Journal of Religion & Film 18, no. 2 (2014).
  • 2 For media portrayals of Black Muslims in the US, see Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe-Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
  • 3 For an analysis of the intersection of US culture, xenophobia, and the racializa-tion of diaspora communities, see Kumarini Silva, Brown Threat: Identification in the Security State (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
  • 4 A great deal of scholarship has been produced on images of Muhammad, both historical and contemporary. Most relevant for readers interested in the relationship between Islam and film could be Ahmed Al-Rawi, Islam on YouTube:

Online Debates, Protests, and Extremism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

For Chihab El Khachab’s broader study and ethnography, see Making Film in Egypt: How Labor, Technology, and Mediation Shape the Industry (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2021).

Some key texts are Malek Khouri, The Arab National Project in Youssef Cha-hine’s Cinema (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010); Viola Shafik, Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2017); Viola Shafik, Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class, and Nation (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2007); and Magdy Mounir El-Shammaa, The National Imaginarium: A History of Egyptian Filmmaking (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2021).

The counterpart of this moral dilemma, the question of “is film spectatorship respectable,” can be seen elsewhere. For example, see Laura Fair, Reel Pleasures: Cinema Audiences and Entrepreneurs in Twentieth-Century Urban Tanzania (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2018); and Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

Harold Morales, Latino and Muslim in America: Race, Religion, and the Making of a New Minority (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

One excellent exception is Alberto Fernandez Carbajal, Queer Muslim Diasporas in Contemporary Literature and Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019).

There is a great deal of scholarship on Cecil B. DeMille but very little considers depictions of Muslims in his religious films. See for example Robert S. Birchard, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004); David Blanke, Cecil B. DeMille, Classical Hollywood, and Modern American Mass Culture: 1910-1960 (New Work: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); and John Kobal, The Lost World of DeMille (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2019).

For a broader investigation of the Crusades in film, see Nickolas Haydock, Hollywood in the Holy Land: Essays on Film Depictions of the Crusades and Christian-Muslim Clashes (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2009). Earlier analysis includes Freek Bakkera, “The Image of Muhammad in ‘The Message’, the First and Only Feature Film About the Prophet of Islam,” Islam and Christian - Muslim Relations 17, no. 1 (2006): 77-92; and Andrea L. Stanton, “ ‘The Message’: From Radical Terror to ‘Old But Good’,” in Muslims and American Popular Culture, Vol. 1, eds. Anne Richards and Iraj Omidvar (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger), 129-146.

For a comprehensive introduction to images of Muhammad in Islamic visual culture, see Christiane Gruber, The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Texts and Images (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2019). Key works relevant for this volume’s readers include Blake Atwood, Reform Cinema in Iran: Film and Political Change in the Islamic Republic (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); Negar Mottahedeh, Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); and Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 4: The Globalizing Era, 1984-2010 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).

For a broader framework on this subject, see Milja Radovic, Film, Religion and Activist Citizens: An Ontology of Transformative Acts (New York: Routledge, 2017).

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