Syrian filmmaker Jackie Salloum's youtube video (above) apprises us of an uncomfortable fact: Hollywood has a Muslim/Arab problem. As former CBS News consultant and lecturer Jack Shaheen has pointed out both in his book Reel Bad Arabs, and the subsequent documentary it produced, of the more than 1,000 depictions of Arabs and Muslims in cinema since the earliest days of Hollywood, nearly all of them are stereotypical and/or negative.
Thankfully though, the tide is slowly changing. This is especially true when we take into consideration the recent rise of a number of Muslim/Arab filmmakers such as: Hesam Issawi, Marjane Satrapi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Asghar Farhadi and Hany Abu-Assad (among others). Indeed, ever since Syrian-born "auteur" Moustapha Akkad (who some cinephiles might recognize as producer of the Halloween franchise) financed and directed 1976's epic, The Message, the glass ceiling was effectively shattered, and so it was that a trickling of like-minded individuals from similar backgrounds began to find their voice in cinema.
Still, even though progress is being made, there remains a lot of work to be done in this regard. And so, to this end I thought I'd compile a list of 10 Muslim characters in cinema that I've always loved — precisely because they were portrayed in a positive light.
They're in no particular order; basically just a random prospectus of fictitious men and women from the Islamic tradition that I've always thought were pretty good cinematic representations — and who're also pretty fun to watch!
And so, without further ado:
10. Ahmed Ibn Fadlan — 'The 13th Warrior'
Initially, I wasn't too keen to see a Latinx actor play a medieval Arab poet-turned-warrior, but after watching this criminally overlooked action/adventure flick back in '99, I naturally warmed to the idea. Terrible Arabic enunciation aside, Banderas pulls it off admirably.
For those that haven't seen it, the film follows the exploits of an Iraqi sonneteer who is banished to the ends of the Earth after being stripped of his courtly position in Baghdad. Relegated to being an "ambassador," he comes into contact with a band of Norseman, and eventually finds himself embroiled in a bloody conflict with a group of humanoid cannibals that have been terrorizing a local village. Based on Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead — which was itself a retelling of the literary classic, Beowulf — The 13th Warrior is a must-see movie, despite the poor response it initially received from critics.
9. Abou Fatma — 'The Four Feathers'
One of the earliest appearances of model-turned-actor Djimon Hounsou, his role as ronin Muslim warrior Abou Fatma in Shekhar Kapur's 2002 action/drama, The Four Feathers stands out in my mind as being one of the first accurate portrayals of the Islamic ritual prayer that I've seen in film. (Seriously, way, way better than that weird prayer that Azheem does in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).
Another interesting aspect of Abou Fatma's character is that he starts off as an ominous, exotic presence that becomes increasingly normalized as the plot moves forward. In an unusual reversal of general Hollywood tropes, he actually saves the main character — a white, British Christian — several times. There's a lot of nuance here that gives this film an immense richness, making it very much worth seeing.
8. Omar Mukhtar — 'Lion Of The Desert'
A 1981 historical drama, Lion of the Desert tells the true-life story of Bedouin fighter Omar Mukhtar and his struggle to overthrow the Italian fascists that were occupying a pre-WWII Libya. Initially a mild-mannered Qu'ran teacher, he eventually (and singlehandedly) begins a war of resistance against the Italian Royal Army that he knows will not be won in his lifetime. Anthony Quinn's sympathetic portrayal of the meek revolutionary was described by NY Times film critic, Vincent Cabny, as "lofty and wise," and I couldn't agree more.
It's worth noting that actor Anthony Quinn had a significant relationship with Syrian filmmaker Moustapha Akkad (Lion of the Desert's director), and appeared in many of his previous and subsequent movies, including another significant entry on this list, 1976's The Message.
7. Salahuddin — 'Kingdom Of Heaven'
A lot could be said about Ghassan Massoud's portrayal of 10th century Sultan and military general, Salahuddin Al-Ayoubi, not the least of which is that he perfectly captured all of the complications of the man. A devout Muslim with an unscrupulous past, Salahuddin was a brave and committed warrior, a chivalrous knight, and most importantly of all, a wise and sagacious tactician. Massoud captures all of this and more in every scene that he's in.
While Salahuddin has a relatively minor role in Kingdom of Heaven (Orlando Bloom's character Balian is the main dramatis personae in this feature), nevertheless his presence looms, even when he's not onscreen.
6. Malcolm X — 'Malcolm X'
Denzel Washington's iconic performance as controversial civil rights leader, Malcolm X is a hallmark of modern cinema, and no list that covers Muslim portrayals in film would be complete without mentioning it.
Anyone who has read the actual autobiography upon which the film is based (as I have) would naturally conclude that such a rich life deserves a worthwhile cinematic adaptation. From country bumpkin to career criminal, from career criminal to Harlem gangster, from gangster to prisoner, from prisoner to cult member and civil rights icon, and ultimately, a final transformation to a devout Muslim that comes to believe in the equality of all human beings regardless of race, Malcolm X is the penultimate bildungsroman narrative about a man's capacity to change his mind. Missing out on this one is film-buff heresy!
5. Ahzeem — 'Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves'
I mean, seriously, who doesn't freaking love Ahzeem, amirite? Part comedic relief ("Did God paint me!?") part badass, Morgan Freeman shows us all what a good sidekick is made of in director Kevin Reynold's 1991 treatment of the seminal folk tale. Among the many moments in Prince of Thieves that demonstrate Ahzeem's general bad-assery is the undeniably awesome scene wherein he saves Robin Hood from imminent death by throwing a sword at that crotchety old witch.
So, I mean, he's got witch-killing going for him, which is nice.
4. The Sultan — 'Aladdin'
Critically lauded, beloved by audiences, and long considered one of Disney's finest achievements, 1992's Aladdin just wouldn't be what it is without the affable Sultan of Agrabah. I know it might seem more practical to choose the titular character over the secondary Sultan character, but the fact is I'm just not all that sure that Aladdin is practicing. I mean, he's a thief, after all.
The Sultan, by contrast, repeatedly exclaims "Praise Allah!" at every turn, and consistently concerns himself with the plight of others. The only reason Jafar's shady machinations even work in the film is because the good-hearted Sultan is just so annoyingly trusting of everyone! Always smiling, laughing, beaming with joy and getting lost in simple pleasures like flying carpets and animal trinkets, the Sultan is downright hard not to love.
3. Ibrahim Demirci — 'Monsieur Ibrahim'
Also known by its French title, Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran (Mister Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Qu'ran), this 2003 French-language drama is a tender story about the friendship that blossoms between a young Jewish Parisian and his local grocer, a Persian immigrant and Sufi Muslim.
Starring the one and only Omar Sharif, this excellent foreign entry is certainly moving, but also has light strokes of humor peppered throughout that lighten the tension. Starting off as a coming-of-age and ending up as a road-trip flick, the relationship between Momo (the main character, portrayed by actor Pierre Boulanger) and Mr. Ibrahim is a classic onion peel that won't let you down.
2. Nasira Khaldi — 'Arranged'
A 2007 indie film, Arranged tells the story of the unlikely friendship between a contemplative orthodox Jewish woman and a congenial Syrian Muslim gal. The general plot revolves around the two women as they attempt to navigate — and eventually find comfort in — the complex pathways of tradition. In taking this journey together, they form a lifelong bond that carries them through familial meddling, marriage, and finally, motherhood.
Morroccan-Latinx actress Francis Benhamou gives a unique, subtle performance as the amiable Nasira, i.e. the platonic soulmate of Zoe Lister Jones's character, Rochel Meshenberg (which, it should be noted, is a role that was named after the real-life inspiration for the film, meaning there is a real Rochel Meshenberg somewhere in the Bronx that actually became intimate friends with a Muslim woman, and ultimately inspired screenwriter Stefan Schaefer to pen the script).
1. Hamza Ibn Abdul-Muttalib — 'The Message'
Anthony Quinn strikes again! This time though, he's less of a meek revolutionary and more of a butt-kicking defender of ideas. For those unfamiliar with this particular movie, well, prepare to be shocked because despite how unlikely such a movie may seem, the fact is, in 1977 Syrian auteur Moustapha Akkad broke onto the scene and accomplished the impossible: He financed, produced, and released a swashbuckling Hollywood biopic about the Prophet Muhammad.
Even more surprising is that in this treatment of the aforementioned "Great Arabian" (as Orientalist Meredith Townsend referred to him), the eponymous character, Muhammad, is never shown on screen. In keeping with Islamic sensibilities, the Arab Messenger's presence is made known through a clever use of dialogue, camera movements, and an Academy Award-nominated musical score that queues the audience in as to when Muhammad is present.
Since the Prophet is never shown, the focus is often turned to his disciples, and the most prominent of these is Muhammad's gruff, fierce, lion-hunting uncle Hamza — who also happened to be one of the earliest converts. Quinn plays the ethical warrior-turned-martyr with the precision and admirable passion that his fans would naturally expect.
Receiving good reviews upon release — and still holding a certified "fresh" rating of 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — the charm of this film continues to stand the test of time.
Well, folks, that's my list and I hope you all enjoyed it. If you haven't seen some of these movies, feel free to check them out. They're totally worth a watch, if you can get your hands on them.